Public Burdens of Religion and the Lightness of Atheism : Sanjay Kumar

Guest Post by Sanjay Kumar

Death evokes strongest of human emotions. However, exploring and finding reasons behind a death is also part of our humanity. Legal codes in all countries demand criminal investigations of deaths due to the so called ‘unnatural’ causes. Medical sciences have advanced largely due to explorations of the other, ‘natural’ causes of death. Deaths due to completely avoidable reasons fall in a category of their own. How a society deals with such deaths is a good indicator of how it treats its living.

One hundred and eight people died in an explosion during a fire cracker festival in a temple in Kollam, Kerala on 10th April. According to reports, the district administration had not given permission for the event, citing hazards of firing crackers close to a densely populated area, and the fact that the fire cracking festivities were actually in the form of a competition. Yet, pressure from the powerful temple trust meant that the programme was held amid full police presence. The accident happened in one of the better governed states of India, which also boasts of a vigilant citizenry. Hence, it was not surprising that large number of private medical practitioners lined up at the government run Thirunavanthapuram Medical College Hospital to provide crucial medical aid to hundreds of the injured in Kollam accident. The number of dead would  have been much higher in any other part of the country. Police in Kerala is likely to file charges against temple trust office bearers and persons handling fire crackers. However, serious charges are unlikely to stand in a court of law. Unlike the people who died in the recent Kolkata flyover collapse, the crowd that came to watch the fire cracker programme in the middle of the night was there not during a normal day’s activities, but was a willful and an illegal gathering. The dead, in a way, were complicit in their own death. Nor can watching a fire cracker display be argued to be an essential part of any citizen’s fundamental right to religious freedom. In all likelihood the deaths of Kollam will end up declared ‘an act of  God’, beyond any human culpability.

The fire cracker festival of Kollam was an extrusion of religion into the public life of the community. It clearly was a threat to those living in houses near the temple. Popular religion in India is the holiest of the cows, beyond civic regulations and laws. Two months ago the flood plane of river Yamuna in the national capital was ravaged by the ‘World Cultural Festival’ organised by a ‘spiritual’ sect. It boasted of a seven acre, forty foot high stage, declared to be the largest ever in the world. The city was pasted with hoardings of the guru heading the sect with photographs of his much younger days. It seemed that getting into the Guinness Book of Records was one of the important motivations of the organisors. Declarations of 35 lakh devotees (in parallel with thirty five years of the founding of the sect) coming for the event, the largest stage, largest number of artists at one place, etc. were widely disseminated in the media.  Despite clear regulations that the Yamuna flood plane being an ecologically sensitive area can not be used for any such activity, guru’s followers managed to get all administrative clearances in record time. Even the Army of the republic got roped in to build a pontoon bridge over the river. When the matter came up in the National Green Tribunal, all government departments in the dock passed the buck around. The affair would have been hilarious, but for utter bureaucratic irresponsibility.  Even though all regulations were flouted, the tribunal allowed the event to go ahead with a fine of Rs 5 crore, while an expert committee constituted by the board earlier had estimated the cost of undoing the damage to the Yamuna plane to be Rs 100 crores. The culutral jamboree was graced by the Prime Minister of the nation, who admonished environmentalists for trying to give a bad name to such a noble work.

The fire cracker festival at Kollam, and the destruction of Yamuna flood plane in Delhi, are mere instances of an over the top public religiosity that actually enjoys its own gargantuan pretensions. Spectacle and self promotion are its key themes. Over sized statues of deities, often with little aesthetic value and without municipal clearances jut in at busy crossings, and stand over public parks. Ashrams thrive upon illegally occupied public land. Every guru, swami, baba, maa, maataa, or bapu indulges in self promotion which would  be considered obscene if done by ordinary people. The self attested spirituality breeds loud arrogance. And all this happens in the name of religious grace and spirituality.

It can be argued that it is not correct to single out public religiosity for violating norms and regulations when so much of the other social life of Indians is mired in such violations. If the NDA government of Mr Vajpayee allowed the large Akshardham temple in the capital to be built on the endangered flood plain of Yamuna, the Congress government ten years later did the same with regard to the Common Wealth Games Village. For an Akshardham temple getting out of regulation permission, there is the swanky Sainik Farms neighbourhood in South Delhi built completely illegally, where some of the richest in the city live. Further, when so many of Indians voluntarily come to pray at and gather for religious functions, the religion in India is surely providing an important public service, even if some sects or places of worship violate regulations and norms.

Such empirical arguments miss an important point of  distinction. Religion occupies a special place in society. Religion is social worlds’ ‘spiritualistic point d’onneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification …. (its) spiritual aroma’ (emphases in the original). These are not the words of an enthusiastic believer, but atheist young Marx in 1844. While the violations of norms and regulations by secular activities can be challenged within secular institutional structures and are seen as corruption, religious activities are able to garner extra legal privileges because of the claim that religion lies at the base of private and public morality. If secular activities are seen as mundane, even banal, then an aura of goodness surrounds religion.

Religion in a Secular World

Yet the point is that today’s social world also has significant domains in which religion is irrelevant. These are domains of secularity which create their own, sui generis moral valuations, codes of conduct, and purposes. Religion can not escape secular criticism because  social world today is largely secular. All ideas of modern democratic polity like, equality, freedom, fundamental rights, rule of law, etc do not derive their validity from any religious belief. Authors of the American Declaration of Independence may have claimed ‘that all men are created equal’, and ‘that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ Nobody today bothers whether their claim about a Creator God was correct or misplaced. For the evolution of democracy it was the belief of flesh and blood humans about themselves that they are equal, and that they have certain in-alienable rights, which turned out to be of paramount significance. All modern political constitutions establish their source as the will and wisdom of the people, without any recourse to a divine source or agency. The constituent assembly of India did consider a proposal to start the Preamble with ‘In the name of God’. However, even in a thoroughly religious India, the proposal was defeated. In other areas of social life too humanist and naturalist perspectives have become dominant.  A divine inspiration is no longer sought behind works of art and culture. Economy is understood as emerging from the needs and greed of humans only. Public office holders can take oath on whatsoever they consider as the basis of their morality, any god if they so wish, or just their own conscience, if they do not believe in any supernatural power. However, only they as individuals are responsible for their actions. They can not pass on the responsibility of their actions onto their god(s). Similarly, no supernatural cause is justifiable under any modern criminal justice system.

The metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological basis of secular life is atheism, i.e. none of the foundational beliefs of  modern secularism give any quarter to any transcendental being. The ‘death of God’ has not ushered in the age of immorality, as Neitzsche and Dostoevesky feared. Nor has the ‘enchantment’ of religion proved to be enough of an adhesive to prevent humans from making more and more domains of their lives secular. However, it is also a fact that humans appear shame faced in owning up to the atheistic underpinnings of their secular life. The reluctance to accept atheism is not due to ignorance, or even due to the dead weight of tradition, as some of the liberal New Atheists would like to believe.

‘Religion is the heart of a heartless world, … The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions’. This again is the young atheist Marx, arguing not against religion, but against conditions which produce and require religious illusions. The primary condition which creates the need for religion in modern societies is alienation. Where as public institutions like the market, state, health and education services, public culture and politics, have been secularised, the rule of private property under capitalism, and the form of state power as a class rule (of 1% over 99%, as Occupy Movement activists christened it) means that instead of participating in these public institutions as their collective creators and sustainers, people as individuals find themselves at the mercy of these very institutions wielding social power beyond their comprehension. The recent neo-liberal turn of the political economy has degraded the public nature of these institutions further by forcing them into a market mould, which is leading to greater alienation, and a greater need for religion. The liberal secularism tries to overcome this contradiction between a secular public life, and an alienated private life in capitalist societies through the fiction of religion as a private matter, enjoying protection as a fundamental rights. The lie of this ideological move is nailed every time an American president ends his speech addressed to his compatriots with ‘God Bless You’. It is foolish to imagine that religious beliefs which enjoy powerful hold on the emotions, imaginations, and the moral sense of so many humans can be safely fire walled within their private lives, and that unscrupulous politicians, peddlers of ‘spiritualism’, advertisers, or the ordinary believers themselves, would not like to use them for public gain.

The second reason for apathy towards atheism is its conventional understanding, which focusses on its negation of theism, rather than as a positive constitutive force for the creation of a meaningful and fulfilling world view. During the period when the belief in god(s), deities, demons and ghosts, was an overwhelming feature of human life, any thoughtful and rational engagement with this world required a clear and categorical position on these beliefs. Hence, in the ancient Indian philosophy, six out of eight systems gave arguments against theism. However, the elaboration of an alternate world view remained an unmet challenge because humans knew so little about nature, including their own selves. Even radical challenges to existing religiosity, for instance by the medieval Indian saint Kabir, took a religious form. Nevertheless, despite an overwhelming presence of religion there were a few remarkable humans like Gautam Buddha, who did expound and elaborate a way of life without any transcendental scaffolding. For the first time in human history, Buddha’s ‘teachings’ presented a consistent set of guidelines for the internal life of humans that did not rely upon rituals or prayers aiming to propitiate non-human imagined entities, due to fear of their punishment, or guilt.

Atheism in a Secular World

Now, when so much of the human world; the world of knowledge, technology, public policy, morality, economy, art and politics is fashioned on the basis of rules and principles figured out by humans themselves, the main point of atheism is not any set of explicit arguments against theism.  Its principal job now is to deepen and expand the domain of human secular practices by elaborating their underlying principles and consequences. An important part of this job in a country like India is confronting  contradictions between secular practices and the immense baggage of non-secular beliefs, like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief doing a special pooja with a replica of India’s spaceship to Mars at the Tirupati temple during its launch. The untenability of beliefs in transcendental entities having power over human affairs will be a consequence of atheistic critiques of such contradictions, rather than their starting point.

According to an ISRO scientist, presenting a replica of spaceship to Mars to the Tirupati deity helped scientists deal with the pre-launch stress. Scientists at ISRO are evidently capable of making sufficiently complex machines, a significant human achievement (not a divine gift) indeed. Every launch failure is examined in detail to pin point its causes, which also is an exercise in human ingenuity. Most of them are very likely to believe that any failure of the machine has definite material causes. Even when an accident is proved to be due to a particular coincidence of a number of different causes (as for instance the combination of a faulty part and bad weather) they are likely to agree that the probability of precisely such a coincidence can be reduced by following proper  procedures, rather than praying to a divine. Nevertheless, ISRO scientists who are so capable otherwise, somehow find themselves incapable to confront the possibility of a failure without seeking divine help. Engagement with the divine comes in not as an explanation of a material failure, but as an exercise to deal with their anxiety about a possible failure.  One can list a number of anxieties and vacuities of everyday life regarding which religion provides not only alternative framing, but also value laden justifications. Drug abuse and alcoholism are also related to anxieties, but seeking divine help is treated in a different category. One may not agree with young Marx in characterising the illusions of the divine as an opium, but that characterisation does open up a window to a very fruitful analysis. In Marx’s time, opium was also used as a pain reliever, and the textual context of his famous quote makes it clear that he meant opium as an analgesic. Humans can surely live without the use of opium. Even when humans can not sustain pain, non-addictive pain relievers can be used. Can they live without turning to the divine in  engaging with the uncertainties of their own lives? Is it the case, as Voltaire claimed that, ‘if God did not exist it will be necessary to invent him’? Is there then any hope for atheism?

In one of his popular shers Assadullah Khan Ghalib, unarguably one of the greatest of Indian poets, says ‘Humko maloom hai jannat kee hakeekat lekin, dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghalib yeh khyaal achha hai’ (I know the reality of Heaven. But how pleasing is its idea to the heart!). It is a mark of Ghalib’s irreverence that he plucks out the idea of heaven from the duality of heaven-hell. Else, the solace, hope and ‘pleasures’ of religion come entwined with fear, hatred and guilt. Going ahead, what is the meaning of Ghalib knowing the reality of heaven? Ghalib was not an atheist, but he shared their realist epistemology and recognised the distinction between what is known to be real, and the ideas and images created by human mind, even if they happen to have real consequences. The secular atheistic critique of religion is this. While the benefits and costs of religious beliefs are illusory, and some of them may have real consequences for individual believers, such beliefs have little public benefits, and their costs in public, the ravaged flood plain of Yamuna, or the dead of Kollam, are often real. The ISRO chief should better use the time and resources at his disposal for better management of prevention of accidents, rather than praying for an illusory help.

It is only for the better that many public practices have been freed from illusions of religion. Imagine the state of ISRO if scientists there actually believed in divine intervention during the launch of a spacecraft and acted accordingly. Or, imagine living under a criminal justice system that relied on clues from the divine, is operated by a clique whose members claim a special understanding of these clues, and who routinely ordered ‘trial by fire’, and compare it to a system designed to rely on evidence, whose proceedings are public, reasons transparent, and functionaries selected through an open system. Or, imagine living in a society that is satisfied with treating deaths due to avoidable causes as ‘acts of the divine’, rather than taking concrete measures to prevent these causes.

The last of the above is also an indicator of how a society values its living. At stake is the basic conception of human beings. When humans elevate images created by them onto a transcendent pedestal, and make themselves subservient to their own creation, they limit themselves to a prison  of their own making. The divine is the ultimate symbol of human narcissism. Any imprisonment, even ones cushioned by the ‘Love of God’, Parmanand (ultimate bliss), ‘Self Knowledge’, etc., is bondage. Atheism breaks all such spells. It begins from the state humans find themselves in the world. Without any Creator, Guide, or divine scaffolding, it ushers them into this world with the dictum to rely solely on their own abilities. The basic assumption is that with their senses, their cognitive abilities to reason, abstract and self reflect, and their emotional resources to laugh, cry, wonder, and empathise, humans can not only make sense of the world around them, but they also have the potential to make ever new connections with this world. By freeing humans from attachment to any illusory Ultimate, Final or Absolute being, atheism makes them aware of their finitude. However, the recognition this necessity is also the ground for real freedom. In return, the atheistic conception gives humans the freedom to build their own relationships with the world. By making humans take care of their own weight in the world, it also helps them fly on their own. That is the lightness of an atheistic being.

Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi

2 thoughts on “Public Burdens of Religion and the Lightness of Atheism : Sanjay Kumar

  1. Atheism is a failed theory exactly like theism. Both theory are useless for nothing. The Truth lies in dialectics, not in theism or atheism. Off course, there is nothing to worry because this year the death global banking system will give reply everything where only the Truth will shine like a radiant Sun because only the death of money could become the beginning of character. Long live Truth!

  2. shaturya

    The religion as in west or middle east is a what might be called ‘social religions’ . It is social in the sense that they ‘prescribe’ for society what to do or not do , rewards and punishment if they follow or not follow the prescriptions, rewards and punishment here and hereafter. In the process of ‘hereafter’, a concept of God as a kind of Sultan of sky was invented.

    This concept of religion arose out of human need of order and acute psychological need of meeting various physical and psychological needs .

    It is this concept of religion Marx was talking about.

    However, Indian religions are remarkable in their difference with the above religions. They were individualistic . Here also the religion was developed to overcome negativity of life, but was designed for the individual. The concept of God was not Sultan of sky kind ( though , for political reasons , the concept of ‘our God ‘ was later popularised ! ). God was just an object for bhakti which was , along with karma and gyan was considered a way to attain salvation ( which essentially is leading a continuously joyful life). This object could be anyone or anything or even nothing.

    The concept of God as a controller of events or as final arbiter was never there in Indian religions. Temples were political statement of power of kings and equating king , the arbiter with the all pervasive God the arbiter was a clever way of kings to maintain their authority.These are later day additions .

    Indian religions do not see any contradictions with atheism. If someone is devoted to his karma ( let’s say a professor can immerse herself joyfully in academic pursuit , academic pursuit becomes God for her. She doesn’t need any God). There are several ways of leading a blissful and meaningful life without invoking God the arbiter.

    Karl marx didn’t know Indian concept of religion, obviously.

    However, the present day Hindu religion ( or whatever is being dished out on TVs as Hindu religion ) is just another version of other ecclesiastical religions designed for political identity .

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