My earlier post, Losing My Religion, was a brief narrative of how I become an atheist. This post is about how I found common ground with believers although the process took many years.
A student of mine who reads my blog suggested this series called God Friended Me on Prime Video. The series is about a proclaimed atheist, Miles Finer, who runs a podcast called the Millennial Prophet. The two things that bring tension into the story are that Miles’ father is a dedicated and well-known Reverend at a local church and the fact that Miles is “friended” on social media by a “God” account who then sends friend suggestions of people who need help.
Miles struggles initially to find common ground with his father and his beliefs, especially because Miles’s mother died when he was 8 years old. His mother was struggling with cancer but recovered fully miraculously. But on the way back from the hospital after being discharged, she loses her life in an unfortunate car accident. Miles’ father loses himself in faith and religion to cope up with this loss. On the other hand, Miles runs away from religion. He says that the night when his mother was killed was the first time he didn’t say his bedtime prayers and that he found the next morning that it didn’t make any difference. This leads to Miles getting estranged from his father for the next 2 decades of his life. Only once Miles starts helping people, he comes to the realization that irrespective of differences between his beliefs and that of his father’s, they are both helping people and that’s far more important and sufficient common ground for them to bond with each other. They start talking, sharing and renew their father and son relationship.
My similarly antagonistic but a far less dramatic journey
Thankfully, neither was my journey towards atheism so dramatic nor was my journey in finding common ground so remarkable. As I started moving towards atheism strongly, I was understandably vociferous and rebellious considering that I was in my teens. At that point, I would strongly argue with anyone and everyone who held religious beliefs, with rituals being my favorite punching bag. I remember arguing with cousins, my relatives and especially with my parents about belief issues – about how god doesn’t exist, and how meaningless rituals are – whether the daily pooja, or the mumbo-jumbo that priests spout during various religious functions, “havans”, at temples and at weddings.
I just couldn’t see how people couldn’t see the simple truth of the lack of existence of god. As Richard Dawkins says, we are all atheists – only the degree differs; while only some of us are atheists to all religions, everyone else is still an atheist to all religions but their own. If you are the more evolved kind, you might say that all religions preach the same principles, which though partly true isn’t necessarily the case, especially when you take into account what exactly the scriptures say and the actual practices of that religious sect. In any case, my point is about how most religions claim to be the only true path to God, salvation, nirvana, moksh and so on (Hinduism is in that way more liberals, with “Naastiks” or atheists also recognized as Hindus who don’t believe in God).
The logical arguments against religion
How could they all these religions be true if each of them claims to be the only path to heaven? Despite a fecund imagination, I find it impossible that heaven is the place which houses gods from all the 100+ religions across the world if you include the native / pagan religious systems. Are the gods of all these religions in the same heaven? If so, do they get along? If they are in different heavens, then where are these heavens? In fact, where are heaven and hell in the first place? Are they in a different physical dimension? Invisible to us? Too many unanswered questions.
Let’s scrutinize the various “omni” capabilities of the gods – omnipotence, omniscient, omnipresent: the qualities of having unlimited power, knowing everything, being present everywhere respectively1. Even if you believed that Gods have these powers, no one reasonable will claim that the “gods” are interested in the complete wellbeing of human beings. The various evils on the world, crimes, poverty, exploitation deny the fact that the Gods are interested in keeping their subjects safe or happy. A common newspaper item around the summers in India are cars and buses falling having serious accidents killing everyone aboard, including the elderly and children. The unsaid irony in these news items is that they are returning from a “char dham yatra”, a holy trip of the the 4 holiest places for Hinduism. How does anyone explain the cruelty of people being killed in an accident when returning from a religious trip, including children?
Hinduism might talk about sins from the past lives as an explanation here, because no one can talk about the present sins of a 6 month old, right? Christianity mentions human free will as the cause of all the problems that we have. Of course free will still doesn’t explain why the gods failed to protect a 6 month old infant from accidental death or worse in some cases. If past sins are the only explanation, then the gods seem to be rather vindictive and they don’t seem to believe in giving second chances. Why allow a child to be born and then killing him/her off in 6 months if there was no intention of giving the poor kid a chance to do better in this new life? Or did the gods judge him based on the his/her life of 6 months? Something like “this fellow has been making too many cruel gestures with his eyes and hands – s/he doesn’t deserve to live any more in this life”. That sounds rather ridiculous (because it’s meant to be).
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
One of my pet questions is who does the recordkeeping of the lives of each of the 7 billion people today (and billions who have died over the thousands of years that humanity has existed)? How are these records kept? On paper or electronically, or in someone’s head, or in the cloud (pun intended), on in a form that we can’t imagine being 3 dimensional beings of limited mental capacity? Is every moment of our life recorded, each movement, each word, each thought? I can’t imagine how much storage space that would require (an especially poignant and personal struggle after having to spend two plus hours in cleaning up my phone of videos, photos and cache to free up storage despite having 64 GB space and the cloud to backup my data)!
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is known as the Sagan standard for any claim that hasn’t been proved conclusively. That gravity acts of all objects is a given. There’s conclusive evidence for it as is the case for evolution all it’s not as visible as for gravity because the difference in the nature of the two disciplines of physics and biology. When someone makes a claim about having seen aliens or UFOs, while the more gullible make accept it, but we are generally skeptical about such claims and we demand evidence that goes beyond ordinary observations or some grainy pictures. Support for such a claim must therefore come from newly observed evidence, or a new recognition of existing evidence, which is extraordinary. Even the “extraordinary” claim of existence of water and microbes on Mars is debated hugely by the scientific community because the evidence isn’t yet solid enough (or extraordinary enough). Yet, the same standard isn’t applied to the existence of God. We accept mythological stories, religious texts written, modified and propagated by humans, and some “miraculous” experiences (very often personal and rarely repeatable) as the proof of the existence of god. In fact, you are asked to believe, to have faith in god and while faith can mean other things, here faith means you need to believe in this despite there not being sufficient evidence to prove this claim.
However, even such strong logical arguments for the lack of existence of god gets rebutted cleverly. Believers ask non-believers for proof for the lack of existence of God. This is sort of a stalemate because to prove the absence of something is impossible as no reasonable physicist and astronomer can claim to have understood and explored everything about the universe. It’s difficult to counter the argument that “god doesn’t exist” because the universe is huge and may even exist in dimensions that we can’t perceive. The classic SciFi story, Flatland (a 19th century book by Edwin Abbott), postulates a place where the beings exist only in 2 dimensions, who wouldn’t be able to perceive 3 dimensional beings like us (even though the 3 dimensional beings will be able to perceive the lesser dimensional beings). The stalemate of this sort leads many whose belief is shaken to remain an agnostic rather than move to atheism completely.
The gun to your head test
I however have no doubts about this conundrum. The way I answer it is what I call the “gun to your head” test. If someone were to put a gun to my head and ask me to pick a side rather than ambiguate about the existence of god, my answer under stress would be to pick the non-believer’s side. What’s my conclusive reasoning? The fact that no matter what powers we might ascribe to the gods, there’s no real evidence of the gods’ interference in human matters, especially for the better. Quoting some small miracles such as someone getting cured due to prayers are just not sufficient counters to the scale of misery that we see otherwise. These so-called miracles are probably phenomena that we don’t fully understand. Science always has had, and still has a long way to go before it fully understands many “mysterious” phenomena. Science doesn’t even understand everything about the human body (for e.g. the exact cause of all types of cancer and how to eradicate it), forget understanding all the mysteries of the big wide universe, the scale of which is incomprehensible for humanity.
Towards the common ground
Having put across my weltanschauung on the existence of god, which also leads to sequitur that religion is an untruth, let me now mention how I found common ground. Over a period of time I realized the futility of trying to convince someone else that I was right about this. What I realized was that just like religion shouldn’t be forced down anyone’s throat, nor should atheist “beliefs” be forced upon anyone. Atheism is in fact more difficult to force upon someone. Coming to the conclusion that there’s no god, and therefore no religion requires significant amount of independent thinking and self-realization, especially when religion is pervasive. That conclusion can only be reached through critical thought and self-belief, it has to come from within. The realization that truth is not a function of the number of people saying it requires courage and can’t be imposed.
More importantly I realized that fighting about beliefs, even verbally is unproductive – from a relationship viewpoint and from a “getting the really important things for us done” viewpoint. Fights over belief systems at a personal level can be problematic, but they can be catastrophic at a global scale. The war between Catholics and Protestants over centuries in the past is a quintessential example. The classic English text, Gulliver Travels by Jonathan Swift, mentions the two kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu fighting an unending bloody war over which end an egg should be broken from (big end vs the small end).
While Swift’s 18th century book was a satire on the fight between England and France over the different belief systems of Protestants and Catholics, even today, you can think of many such fights centered around beliefs no matter which part of the world you can come from, for e.g. the Sunni-Shia conflicts, or the caste-based conflicts within Hindus. The many wars between religions over history and ongoing ones are further evidence of fights over “beliefs”. Having said that, while some of these battles might may actually start from differing beliefs, but they’re always about power, control and money. Those with vested interests would rather fight bloody wars despite dire consequences on the masses rather than giving up or diluting their privileges. Religious belief systems provide those in power the perfect excuse to carry on these fights – divine edicts in the form of religious texts, or proclamations, or just the authority that emanates from their position. It’s just foolhardy to question god’s word or even the “words” of their mouthpieces (known differently across religions). Those who have been foolhardy enough to question have had the wrath of “god” falling upon them and have been burnt both literally and figuratively.
Even at a personal level, I realized the inefficacy of fighting over belief systems. I realized that it’s far more sensible to find common ground and then use that to have respectful conversations about belief systems. In a world full of silly but debilitating fights over opposing belief systems, especially religious ones, there’s no point in adding one more “non-state actor”. So what’s the common ground then?
The common ground of values
Humanity is the common ground, in terms of what we need and expect as humans from each other, in terms of universal values of peace, non-violence, love, respect, justice, integrity, truth, empathy, kindness and some others like these. No matter what your religious beliefs are, these values are accepted widely although many (believers and non-believers) may just pay lip service to them. When these humanist values conflict with their religious beliefs, religious beliefs often wins: think respect and love vs. “religious beliefs” in love jihad cases in India. In any case, with people I know with and interact with, friends, family and colleagues, these values are accepted and practised quite often making these values the common ground rather than disputing our belief systems, because that will remain.
Atheists can’t just depend on hope and probability to make their lives better or of the lives of people around them. They have to make things happen. Believers too just can’t depend on faith and prayers to make good things happen. If good things were to happen to people without them or anyone else doing anything, the world would be a far more happier place for its 7 billion residents. But we know prosperity and safety doesn’t come without human effort.
So for our betterment, action has to be taken by us. And if the basis of these actions are universal values then a common ground of what humans should do emerges. This is in fact what humanists stand for. The American Humanist Association defines Humanism as a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good. Humanist movements still too nascent to have grown too big, especially as there’s significant pushback in politically unstable times. But I don’t have a doubt that Humanist movements will grow bigger as more people start seeing belief systems differently and critically – not sure when it will happen.
Choosing values over religious differences
At a personal level, despite having had many arguments with my parents over religious beliefs, I realized over a period of time that my parents have been my role models for some of the universal values mentioned above. I have learnt honesty and integrity from them not because they preached about it, but because I saw them being practised over 20 years. I learnt respect from them because I saw them showing respect to everyone including our helpers and the less privileged, and even respect for my atheist beliefs despite the fact that they are firmly religious. Further, I didn’t see them discriminating against people based on the kind of food they ate (my parents are pure vegetarians) or other cultural or religious differences. They are still ritualistic and my mom especially tries to get me to perform some rituals, but we get along well. I realized that I don’t have carry my beliefs on my sleeves or argue with them. So I mostly spend Diwali with them, and when they (along with my wife and kids) are busy doing the big Diwali Pooja, I take pictures and read books on the sidelines (and try not to help as much as possible – not because of difference in belief systems, but because I am just plain lazy).
Common ground at the workplace and in education
While in many professions, your religion or your religious views don’t really matter, but being an educationist, this aspect also become important. Despite initial misgivings, I was able to find common ground in this area of my life as well. The school that I co-founded has been established as a secular one, based on values rather than faith, of which fairness and respect are the two relevant values for this post. To be fair to everyone, we can’t force any specific religious education or rituals on the students. And to respect means not forcing anyone to believe or say something that they don’t believe in, and at the same time allowing to practice their faith as long as it doesn’t conflict with their learning or work. Therefore, neither is the school affiliated with any religion nor is does it expect staff or students to undertake any religious activity.
Over the years, many parents and staff members have spoken to me about the lack of religious education and especially prayers considering that’s a staple morning affair at many schools. What I tell them is that religion is a personal affair and parents are welcome to teach their children about their religion at home but we don’t see the necessity of doing so at school. When parents say that religious education is necessary for the development of morality, I tell them that developing the right morals doesn’t depend on religion. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that morality developed in homo sapiens as they realized that cooperating with each other to achieve common goals helps everyone. And to be able get cooperation on an ongoing basis from your tribe requires the practice of both empathy, fairness and other universal values. Even if you don’t agree with that, you can’t deny the fact that neither are all believers moral and nor are atheists in general “evil” – which means that religious education is clearly not the sure or the only way to teach morals and ethics to youngsters. The development of morality depends on the values that we role model and that we encourage in the students not because they are divine edicts, but because they are necessary for us to live harmoniously, peacefully and synergistically in society.
Parents counter by saying that we understand why we need to be secular – so why can’t we have all-religion prayers (sarv dharm prathana) as part of students daily routine – the main idea of which is understand our place in the world and to be grateful. Both of these things can be achieved through activities, discussion and reflection; for e.g. our students often undertake random acts of kindness, and some have also done 21 days of gratitude challenge, whereby everyday they have to do one thing that shows their gratitude to someone. Forcing impressionable youngsters to say prayers would still mean promoting religion as an uncontested concept even if it’s not a specific religion.
At the same time, secular education doesn’t mean that the students don’t learn about religion. They do. The early years students have a year long unit on celebrations, including the major religious ones in India. Grade 4 students have a unit on beliefs and values where they understand a range of belief systems and Grade 7/8 has unit that goes deep into the tenets and origins of the major world religions. I am a regular guest at panel discussions for these two units whereby I sit with people with different beliefs and we talk to students our varying beliefs and values. I talk about atheism as another way of living, in small to big ways, religion has a big role in their lives. I don’t try to force my views on them, and even though I believe that religion in general does far more harm than good, I wouldn’t want the students to accept my claims blindly. I would like them to think about it themselves as they grow up and make their own choices, the same principle that I use with my children. With my children, their grandparents are free to show them the ropes of religion but I neither want to force them away from religion nor do I force my beliefs on them. The one thing that my children and the students of our school have, that I didn’t have growing up was a trusted adult who’s telling them that it’s okay to think differently and it’s still possible to co-exist peacefully in society with the those believe differently. Furthermore, the conclusion that every panel comes to that while even if the panelists disagree on some beliefs, but all of us agree that if use the universal values to interact with each other, then the differences in our belief systems don’t really matter.
Let me share an example of co-existing despite differences. Being relatively new to Jain community before I came to Surat, I found their “idiosyncrasies” rather irrational, especially their eating habits. I have teased 2-3 Jain close friends and colleagues as to why they don’t eat roots (because it harms microorganisms) but they can eat bread and curd (both of which are also rich in microorganisms). I also argued against some teachers who wanted a leave for Karwa-Chauth, a ritual that’s rooted in patriarchy. However, over a period of time I have stopped arguing although we have remained firm on our belief systems. Staff members can practice their religion as long as it doesn’t affect their work. There’s no leave for Karwa-Chauth. For e.g. during Ramzan, some of them wanted to pray and needed some time and space for it. We figured out that they can use any empty classroom that suits their needs during the lunch break when they were anyway not eating. In fact, I would go as far as saying that because we are secular, the school offers a far more respectful work environment. The range of people from different religions working with us is perhaps testimony to that.
Is everything hunky-dory then?
Having found these common grounds, does it mean that I have reconciled with all things religious? Not really. There’s a lot about religion that still doesn’t sit well with me. Religion, especially organized religion, is a big drain on time, money and effort for billions without giving them the “returns” that they desire or need. But that I can’t argue against fundamentally. I spend a lot of time, money and effort on playing Ultimate Frisbee. Who I am to judge which of these pursuits is a better one? Fair enough. Not really. Things stand different for those who have been conditioned to believe from their birth not having been exposed to other forms of belief systems or encouraged to think critically. The reader of this post is unlikely to have the same understanding about religion as the masses do. As discussed in my earlier post, The Intellectual’s Folly, the religion of the the intellectuals is quite different from the religion of the masses. The intellectual’s religion is far more spiritual and is concerned with the big questions of life. However, religion for the masses can be all pervasive, a force that you can’t say no to, that dictates many practical aspects of their lives – whether it’s because of the brainwashing from birth or because of the coercion of the local, national and in some global religious authorities.
For the masses while religion seems like the succour to their problems, but in reality it’s the cause of a lot of their problems which may include spending on money, time and efforts on rituals, being told of things that they can’t do socially or even professionally, or worse being manipulated to fight against those from other religions. In addition, there are some practices such as female genital mutilation, tantric jhaad phoonk (exorcism) which includes chaining and hitting of women to get rid of bad spirits, that need to be abolished. Sometimes these practices are cultural practices under the guise of religion, as is commonly said about caste structure in Hinduism or the practice of asking for dowry from the bride’s parents. Nonetheless, some of these harmful practices are validated and even propagated by religious authorities in explicit or implicit ways.
Over history and even today, both the “Church” (term for all religious people and organizations) or the “State” (term for all political people and organizations) have had mostly deleterious effects on humanity and human progression. The middle ages were dark because religious leaders didn’t allow light in cahoots with the monarchs. Religion is a leading cause for conflicts even today – whether it’s India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, the Syrian Civil War or the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Religious beliefs and economic prosperity
As you can see in the graph below, there’s a strong correlation between Per Capita Income (PCI) and religious belief. Countries such as Norway, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Britain, South Korea with high PCIs are places where less than 25% people are religious2. There are two major exceptions – the US which despite a high PCI shows about 50% religiosity, and China which even with a low PCI shows very low religiosity (less than 10%). But both these countries are exceptions to the rule due to historical, political and cultural reasons.
Of course, correlation is not causation. So religiosity can’t be assumed as the reason for their low PCIs, although it may be a contributing factor (with the country’s politics, economics, education the more important reasons). But what this data shows for sure is that as nations grow rich, their people tend to get less religious. This points to the claim that the poor are religious because they don’t see any other option options to meet their lights, any other way to find the proverbial light for themselves. For the masses, religion and religious practice is not a choice, or a way of living that they like, but something that they believe they must have to do otherwise bad things will happen to them, which is quite ironic given their underprivileged status. When superstitions, blind faith and religious authorities force them to undertake tasks, spend money or their time on rather “fruitless” tasks, then it remains an issue. The right kind of critical-thinking and exposure based education can be an antidote that helps everyone see things differently (not unlike what I mentioned earlier). The silver lining to this “dark” cloud is that based on this trend of religiosity decreasing with increasing prosperity, the future should see much lesser “evil” influence of religion over as the countries get richer (unless catastrophe strikes and we end with a dystopia instead of reaching towards an utopia).
The common ground of compromises: live and let live
Having addressed the bigger issues with religion, let me get back to the common ground. All of us get defensive, angry, upset, or even narrow-minded at times with differences in beliefs, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t find common ground with each other. If you had asked me when I was 20 if I would have a pooja ghar in my home, I would have said you were crazy. And yet I have had a pooja ghar in home for years now – because my parents use it when they visit and lately my wife as well, who has taken an interest in understanding the value of pooja from the lens of Vedanta. As long as I am not forced to participate in these rituals, I don’t mind. Don’t force your beliefs and your rituals down my throat and I won’t do the same to you. I won’t force you to give up your religion or your beliefs or your rituals. My belief system doesn’t get shaken or my ego doesn’t get hurt if someone asks me what a pooja ghar is doing in the home of a proclaimed atheist. I believe I have been able to change from being more militant about my atheistic beliefs to the more re-conciliatory version whereby I can co-exist and thrive with those with different belief systems without having to give up my beliefs in personal or professional life.
The world would be a much nicer place if we could just live and let live as far as religious beliefs are concerned. Practicing this seems difficult given where the world stands today but can very much be imagined and is very much visible in large parts of the world. Living and letting live means not claiming that religious books are the source of all moral wisdom cause rationalists would rather reason out issues themselves, and believers may want to follow their religious texts. Parents shouldn’t have to force their children to believe in a certain religion. Neither should neighbours force their excitement about religious rituals and practices on those who don’t want to, nor should their happiness depend on what others don’t believe. The state shouldn’t support any religion explicitly or implicitly.
Not without challenges this live and let live – but possible
Of course, that living and letting live presents a big challenge to those in power and control – whether at a personal or a bigger scale and therefore there will be much resistance. Acknowledging that people have a right to eat, live and pray differently means letting go of the communal vote banks. And for those in power, this principle also presents some genuine challenges – especially legal ones. Take the examples of controversial issues of euthanasia, LGBT and abortion rights. Worldwide the movement is in direction of allowing for more personal liberty in each of these cases but there still remain a big set of people who still oppose it on the basis of religious grounds alone (there are others who oppose it for ethical reasons or due to possibilities of misuse).
Let’s be clear that if those in power put their foot down and push through legislation that favours personal choice and liberty, those laws would go through. Something similar happened in India with the Supreme Court recognizing LGBT rights, although in this case the movers were human right activists and the SC itself rather than government. The government just chose not to oppose the law which itself was a big step for a government that’s otherwise pro-religion. And remember all these issues would stand up to the live and let live principle. Someone’s LGBT rights doesn’t impinge upon others. It’s not as if hitting other people is being legalized. The same applies for euthanasia and abortion, although there are clearly potential of misuse with those two. However, that in itself doesn’t make pro-liberty laws bad – implementation and misuse is a concern with any law. If it weren’t then despite the law banning prenatal determination of gender there are enough parents and doctors who get it done. The proof lies in the poor ratio of girls as compared to boys across most Indian states. However, those in power in most cases have the perverse incentive of stoking parochial fears to maintain or gain vote banks. Having said, slavery was considered both normal and irreplaceable in the US in the 19th century. Similarly for LGBT rights in India. However, both democracies enacted pro-choice humanist laws despite all the opposition. So while legal issues in living and letting live will remain a political challenge worldwide but there’s much to hope for.
At a personal level, the challenges of living and letting live are different. It’s relatively easier to say live and let live when it doesn’t affect you. But when you find out a gay person close to you then it’s far more difficult to accept. I would have to say such a scenario scares me a little today as well – I know I would accept and adapt to such a situation eventually but I can’t say that I would welcome it with open arms. Therefore I can understand that it would be similarly or perhaps more difficult for a pure vegetarian family to accept their son eating non-veg food, or if their daughter wants to marry outside the caste, community or religion! Having acknowledged that personal acceptance of differences can even be “heartbreaking”, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. Worldwide we have adapted to change. As I argued elaborately in an earlier post, culture is a dynamic animal, which no one can tame. It will change no matter what you do. Therefore, if we accept that then living and let live becomes much more easier.
It’s undebatable that humanity needs more humanism in the form of love, peace, tolerance and faith in goodness of people. History is witness that humanism has prevailed even when it’s been up against seemingly unending misery rendered by religious conflicts. I have no doubts that we will see universal values of humanism will go from strength to strength and they will prevail widely sooner or later. What each of us can do is to look for the common ground of humanism instead of worrying or bickering about belief systems and fight those who would impose their belief and practices over others. Before you leave, think of one way in which you could make the life of someone else around you by practising live and let live. Live long and prosper3!
1. If you want to dig in to your religious belief systems, you should fill up this introspective form, which I have used in a Critical Thinking workshop to get the participants to question deeply.
3. Chosen deliberately, the phrase “live long and prosper” is well known to SciFi fans across the world as the Vulcan parting greeting from the series Star Trek. SciFi fans are more likely to be irreligious than others and yet this greeting is an adaptation of a traditional Jewish blessing! Live long and prosper indeed.