Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This piece of mine was published this Sunday (June 15) in Mail Today.
Even an atheist is tempted to believe sometimes. My mother died about three weeks ago, losing a long battle to cancer, and I found myself faced with false consolations. Ma had been a believer, and the others in my family also tend that way. They could console themselves with the thought that there might be an afterlife, that perhaps she was now in “a better place.” Friends who came to see us told us that they were praying for her soul, and that God had been merciful to her, and that it could have been worse. All this was useful for others – but not believing in God or souls, I had to deal with death as death.
I’ll come to terms with my mother’s death – with some sorrow, one moves on. But I think about my own, and that is harder. If I cast aside the existence of a higher being, I have to accept my own insignificance in the world, and that when I die, that will be that: no soul, no heaven or rebirth, no greater purpose to my mundane life. At low moments, it makes everything seem pointless.
And yet, being an atheist is not a choice I have made, choosing one belief system over another. This is because atheism is not about belief at all: it is about the absence of belief.
Some people think that atheism means believing that there is no God. This is a flawed perception. The primary meaning of atheism that most dictionaries will give you, though there are secondary meanings that have evolved from bad usage, is of “disbelief” in God or a deity. That means that atheists are not people who believe that there is no God, but people who do not believe that there is God. The difference is huge.
The conviction that there is no God is irrational because one cannot prove a negative. (How do you prove that something does not exist?) However, it is entirely rational to not believe in something whose existence has not been demonstrated. I don’t believe in dragons or fairies because no one has yet proved to me that they exist. Ditto God. I am not asserting that God does not exist, but simply saying that I don’t believe in the existence of God because I see no evidence of Him (or Her, or It). This is not a dogmatic position: if you can prove to me tomorrow that God or dragons exist, I will start to believe in them. Until then, I remain in disbelief. That’s atheism.
People often speak of atheism as if it is a movement or an organised belief system – or even a religion of sorts. That is not true. The Economist published a letter from Chad English of Ottawa a few months ago that summed it up well: “Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby. When you understand why there are no ‘aphilatelist’ conventions, you will understand why atheists don’t congregate.”
It is a common mistake to view belief in God as running along a continuum in which we have theists (who believe), agnostics (who are undecided) and atheists (who don’t believe). This is based on a misunderstanding of agnosticism, which doesn’t deal with belief at all, but with knowledge. The word ‘agnostic’ is a combination of the Greek α (without) and gnōsis (knowledge), and refers to a person who believes that the truth about something, in this case the existence of God, is unknowable. It has nothing to do with believing or not believing.
Indeed, it is possible to combine agnosticism with either theism or atheism. A believer may choose to believe in God while accepting that some things are fundamentally unknowable. An atheist may agree with that view. I see myself as both an atheist and an agnostic: an atheist because I do not believe in God, as His/Her/Its existence has not been proved; an agnostic because I believe that on this matter, we may never know the truth for sure.
For that reason, I am not militant about my atheism. What other people choose to believe in is none of my business, and I respect their right to their beliefs. But the right to religion does not imply the right to force it on others. I object when people try to coerce others into conforming with their beliefs, believing that their religion gives them the license to infringe on the rights of others. Religion in the private domain and in community settings can be useful, and a force for good, but too often in recent times, it has been used to justify the worst excesses: genocides, riots, terrorism, and all kinds of coercion. We have seen deplorable instances of this from every major religion in the last 100 years (including communism, which relies as much on faith as any God-based belief system).
Thus, it is not religion per se that is a problem, but our attitudes towards it. The right to religion is a human right that should be contingent, like all other rights, on respecting the corresponding rights of others. But many ‘religious’ people have the arrogance to believe that they, the enlightened, are due special privileges that would otherwise be unjustifiable; and many ‘secular’ people are inexplicably keen to pander to them. This endangers the basis of a free society, where artists have been terrorized into thinking twice before drawing a cartoon of another man’s god or painting another man’s goddess, not by the alleged power of those gods and goddesses, but by the primitive fury of their followers.
I may not believe in God, but I have no doubt that belief in God serves a purpose for many people. In primitive times, before we understood what the sun was or why there were eclipses and storms, the world must have appeared a terrifying, bewildering place. Religion offered an explanation for everything, and made us believe that we weren’t as small and insignificant as, well, as we are. Besides rendering the world explicable, it made mortality bearable. When someone close to us died, we could tell ourselves that they were in a better place.
As science has gradually filled up the gaps in our knowledge, the God of the Gaps has shrunk, almost becoming redundant. And while the consolations of belief are useful, I would rather reject those false certainties and look for consolation in smaller, surer things. As Austin Cline once wrote: “A person who truly enjoys and appreciates their life will take pleasure in it and enjoy it regardless of whether any sort of afterlife exists. They might believe in an afterlife and even in some sort of wonderful heaven, but they won’t depend upon the existence of such a heaven in order for their lives to have meaning or purpose.”
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I’ve written on this subject a fair bit on my blog; a few posts: 1, 2, 3, 4. If you want to read more about atheism, I can’t think of a better site than About.com’s section on atheism, written by Austin Cline. The left sidebar there has some links to some fine pieces by Cline.
And for more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.
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