Atheists got so much latitude in our  cultural set-up in ancient times, so why on earth is there a dearth of non-believers in ‘modern’ India, asks Sumit Paul

When one person is delusional, it’s called insanity. When many people are delusional, they call it religion.
--Anon

The Pew Research Center’s latest survey shows India as an overwhelmingly, nay staggeringly, religious country, having 97 per cent Indians believing in religion and god/s. While it could be a sign of triumph for religious and spiritually-tilted Indians, those who don’t believe in god and any supernatural powers have absolutely no stake in it.

In other words, the atheists, agnostics (dwimanvadi in Sanskrit) and skeptics (sanshyatma) are ‘theological heathens and spiritual Gentiles’ (to quote Dr Bimal Krishna Matilal’s phrase) in an increasingly religious country like India. This is all the more strange, nay ironic, when you look at the philosophical trends prevalent in ancient India.

Atheism in India, Grece

It’s interesting to observe that only in India, and to some extent, in ancient Greece, atheism was a philosophical and acceptable way of thinking even centuries ago. Jainism, Buddhism, Lokayat, Charvaka, Samkhya and a few other sub-cultic philosophical schools of ancient India, never believed in god, soul, afterlife, reincarnation, karma and transcendence of self.

Nowhere in any philosophical system do you find a non-religio-cultural person as a Hindu-atheist (though the very concept is quite perplexing) juxtaposed with a complete atheist and also with a believer! But this was perfectly in sync with the philosophical and metaphysical mindset of ancient India. In short, our ancestors were on board with atheism or atheistic outlook.

So, when atheists got so much latitude in our socio-philosophical as well as cultural set-up, why on earth are there so few non-believers in ‘modern’ India? In fact, in western countries, especially in Scandinavian countries, people are turning to atheism and leaving their religion (predominantly Christianity).

Unparalleled religiosity

But, here in India, religion is getting increasingly sclerotic and the muddled, as well as addled concept of god and holy books is being drilled into the impressionable minds. This results in the creation of a collectively believing unit at an enormous scale. The en masse religiosity and fear of unknown, coupled with extreme irrationality and scriptural submission, have made general Indians fearfully religious.

At the same time, today’s India looks down upon atheism as an aberration of mind and an anomaly of thinking. The Fallacy of Duration, The Fallacy of Time, The Fallacy of (Religious) Acceptance and The Fallacy of Divine Invincibility have made most of the Indians unquestioningly servile and fearful of an imaginary god who dictates terms and punishes those who go astray.

Fear of divinity

Yuval Noah Harari stated very recently that until humans remove the unfounded fear of a fictional divine entity and the interference of religions from their lives and turn atheists, the world will continue to smoulder in a religious cauldron. Religiously encumbered Indians cannot think beyond god, religion and prayer, not knowing that all these things only have a placebo effect on a perpetually weak, sick and unevolved human brain.

The familial indoctrination, forced organisational religious submission like silly assembly prayers in almost all schools, temples and shrines in academic institutes and hospitals, routine leave to employees to perform religious duties are prevalent in India. The overdose of spirituality on TV, newspapers and everyday life with a spate of ‘enlightened’ spiritual masters have further pushed us into the conduit of god and religion. No official document or admission to any institute in India is possible without mentioning one’s religion, that too, with denominations.

So, in such religious fervour and widespread fanaticism, how can an atheist be noticed? Moreover, the so-called atheists in India are quite confused. They’re just schoolkid atheists, donning the mantle of atheism as if wearing a trendy T-shirt. An atheist is not just a non-believer. He or she is a votary of reason. If one’s a non-believer or an atheist, one has to have no faith in esoteric mumbo-jumbo like angel-readings and therapy, tarot cards, astrology, numerology and all that jazz.

Another '-ism'

Most Indians lack scientific temperament and are innately fearful of god and their ancestral religious traditions. Moreover, in these political times and climes, to be an atheist in India is glaringly incongruous. Even those who call themselves atheists have certain ideological and occult idiosyncrasies. After all, even atheism is also an ism or a doctrine. These soi-disant atheists are followers of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris’s brand of militant atheism, which is again a brand, rather a pigeon-hole.

The world, especially India, needs apatheists (those who’ve gone beyond theism and atheism). We’ve had enough of god and religion and their shenanigans. It’s time to be free of all eschatological and theological manacles to call oneself a true-blue free human sans any dogmas, faith and an otiose spiritual power, hovering over us and watching like a sadist.

The writer is a regular contributor to world’s premier publications and portals in several languages

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