The Indian Atheist’s Problem

The thing that has been on my mind for the last week has been the matter of being an atheist in modern India. I have been, for the last week, putting up videos on my social media about atheism materialism, some amount of skeptic inquiry, some philosophy. I am also the person who, about a year ago, wrote an article called “Atheism is a Hindu privilege”. I am someone who lacks belief in God. This puts me in a curious position because when someone talks about religion in India, what they are for the most part talking about is Hinduism because it’s the majority religion.

Hinduism is a diverse religion, and there are many schools of thought within the religion. There are Hindus who say that Hinduism even encompasses atheism. The thing that I wanted to talk about is that a lot of Indian atheists, the material they use, the things that they say about religion, they have borrowed directly from the West. In the West, around the year 2008 or 2010, there was a revival of the atheist movement led primarily by books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

They are called the three horsemen of new atheism and together, they did a fairly good job of bringing the death knell for religion in the West. Now that’s not to say that religion is dead in the west. It’s still going pretty strong. But what has also happened is that the number of secular movements, the number of irreligious movements and the number of atheist organizations has risen there and they have presented a viable alternative to the religious narrative, to the social structures that have religion as their background or as their foundation. And of course, something as powerful as that had to have some kind of an impact over here in this part of the world.

Atheism, primarily in India is more than just atheism. The word “atheism” means not believing in God or lacking belief in gods. Different people have different ways of exercising their atheism. In India, where the primary flavor of religion is a religion like Hinduism, which does not really frown upon not believing in God, atheism becomes a little more complicated. Because there are Hindus who are very fundamentalist with respect to their religion, but who will have absolutely no problem with you when you say that you are an atheist.

In Abrahamic religions, where atheism is frowned upon very much, because belief in God is a fundamental principle of the religion, things are different. What happened is that in India, many upper caste Hindu young people got into atheism thanks to the works of writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris and they started using those same arguments in India.

The only thing this served to do for the most part is that upper caste Hindus started to say that “all this religion shit is not something we bother with and look at all these arguments that I’m presenting with respect to denying god in India.

So atheistic opposition to these religions (Christianity and Islam) sometimes gets hijacked by upper caste privileged Hindus with the intention of just adding to the discrimination that people from these religions already face because they are not Hindu, because they’re followers of non-Hindu religions.

So the problem for someone like me is that when I go about doing my work of opposing bigotry or questioning privilege on social media, I am essentially talking against Hindu dominance of Indian culture. I’m standing up for the rights of people who belong to religious minorities. These are people who are often refused a space at the cultural table. And part of the job of anyone who stands up for social justice or for civil rights in India is to stand for the rights of minorities. And in this case, minorities happen to be Muslims and Christians (and some other religions also, but primarily Muslims and Christians, because these other religions that the Hindu fundamentalist hates most).

So on the one hand, I’m an atheist and the material that I have comes from the West and it is designed to attack Islam and Christianity. On the other hand, I am someone who believes that civil rights are a matter of importance. And we are living in a time when that is the rapid disintegration of the institutions and systems that were designed to protect the rights of minorities. We have atheists who are advocates for social justice, who are standing by people who follow Christianity and Islam. This complicates things for the Indian atheists. And the question is, is it possible to be an Indian atheist while opposing the fundamental tenets of religions that Hindu fundamentalists also attack?

If you were expecting at this point that I will have an answer to this question, you are sadly mistaken because my feelings are complicated. Because what ends up happening is that one has to, as an atheist, find some kind of a balance in their approach to social life. If I am talking about atheism and social media, I have to be doubly sure that I pointed my criticism towards the fundamental principles of religion, as opposed to the practitioners of that religion, because the practitioners of that religion are also victims of social injustice. And I also have to expand the focus of my criticism of religion to include superstitious practices from Hinduism and from so-called dharmic traditions.

Because to not do so will be to make the mistake of taking something Western whole and transposing it directly upon the Indian context. And that is not useful. In fact, it may even be positively detrimental to the social health of a country like India.

Now, of course in Hinduism, there are many practices that deserve criticism. The religion has plenty of superstitions. There is the doctrine of Karma, which eventually always ends up reinforcing the idea of caste-based discrimination. There is belief in the afterlife.

There are even Hindus who don’t call themselves religious. They’ll probably even call themselves atheists and say that they don’t believe in God. But they will believe in things like “there is something above us, there is something greater than us, there is something larger than us”. And these things create an alternative version of Hinduism, which is probably best described as “spirituality”.

I am not saying that Hindus are the only ones who practice this variety of “spirituality”. In large numbers, there are people all over the world who are unwilling to call themselves religious, but they still call themselves spiritual. And there is hardly any difference in these two things as far as reliance upon supernatural explanations is concerned. People will still believe in something called soul. People will still believe in some variety of karma. People will still believe – if not a directly personal God who has an intelligence and intention – then in some kind of deistic equivalent.

So it’s not as if there is a dearth of topics that the Indian atheist can talk about or address in his criticism of religion in India. But I think this criticism is more necessary than the Western variety of atheism, where the only thing we talk about is a monotheistic God and the argument that Christian or Islamic apologists present in favor of this God.

The Indian atheist’s criticism has to be more wide-spanning and it has to necessarily include criticism of superstition in general and Indian superstitions in specific. And the problem one runs into – the second problem that one runs into – when doing this is criticism from minority communities who say that by criticizing our religion, you are joining forces with the people who already criticized us for our religion.

I will sometimes have a conversation with a Muslim person on social media and we will talk about God and the arguments that they believe are proof of God. And I will find it I’ll find at least half a dozen happy Hindu fundamentalists clapping about it.

And that makes me feel like shit because I don’t want Hindu fundamentalists to find fuel in the arguments that I am presenting against the religious beliefs of a Muslim person. I don’t want my words to be taken and used against Muslims by Hindu fundamentalists.

There is also no dearth of Hindu fundamentalists who will look at your work on social media as an atheist and say things like if you’re an atheist, why are you supporting Muslims?

Well, the simple answer to that question is that Muslims are human beings just as you are and I am. And they deserve equality and they do not deserve violence. That is why I stand by Muslims. The reason I will stand by the rights of a Muslim person or for a person from any religious minority, which has been persecuted by the majority is not because of their religion. It has to do with the fact that they’re human beings.

Even in the west, a lot of people who are happy to criticize Christianity, because that is the majority religion, will hold back when criticizing something like Hinduism, because Hinduism is a minority religion there, and they don’t want to encourage further discrimination against people from minority community.

If you look at the history of criticism of religion, you will find that a lot of people who spoke against Christianity used arguments from the East to bolster their case. They said things like, “Our religion is too focused on guilt and original sin. Look at these religions from the East where joy is the fundamental value.”

And while it may have worked for them, in India that “joy” is often a thing that only ends up feeding ideas of toxic positivity, where people say, “Why focus on the negative? Why focus on all that? Why focus on all this negative thinking? Just be “joyful”. And when they say this, inevitably what they are doing is that they are saying things like “I’m not political” and they are supremely blind to their own privilege.

They’re saying things like, let us not get political when they and their lives are not at all affected. By them not being political. There are other people in the world in their own country whose lives are directly affected by political views, political changes and political upheavals in Indian society.

Their lives are not affected. So they are in a position to close their eyes to all of this and say things like, “Let us just talk about positive things. Let us just do nice things. Let us not focus on this. Let us not focus on the negative.”

Many people in the West in earlier times used to make against Christianity saying that Christianity was too focused on the negative. But in the Indian context, this very same argument becomes something that enables more people from privileged backgrounds to remain blind to their privilege.

And that’s primarily what has been on my mind for this entire week – a way to balance things out, some ways to not compromise on rational thinking without also feeding the Hindu majoritarian wave that is sweeping the country. I hope I will be able to find a balance of some sort while doing this. But if you are an atheist and you have complicated feelings like this, about this matter also, please let me know.

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