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The 'Bhoomi Pujan' at Ayodhya (Photo: PTI)
The 'Bhoomi Pujan' at Ayodhya (Photo: PTI)

Opinion | The clarity with which atheists should view believers

Self-declared rationalists ought to ask themselves, ‘Am I a believer too, and if so, who is my Ram?’

Almost every atheist has said this at least once, “But I believe in a force." Some of them have since downgraded truth as far less exciting—that life and the universe have no point, no meaning. Some atheists feel, even when they have not ingested any substance, that living things are “interconnected". Others say something in the base of your spine can “awaken". What is common to the whole spectrum of atheists is that they tend to look down upon believers in God. They deny the magic of divinity.

Last week, when ground was broken for a shrine to Ram in Ayodhya, people who consider themselves rationalists once again condemned believers as delusional and irrational. But this is a useless way to see most of humanity. How then must they perceive believers?

There are rational explanations for God. As an ancient fable that has been taken too seriously, as a contagious delusion from a long time ago, as a misunderstanding of dramatic natural phenomena. All these miss the most important attribute of God—success. God has endured. Across the millennia, innumerable gods have vanished, but the ones that survived are only evolutions of older gods. Dismissing a force so ancient, one that has endured, is an expensive mistake that India’s modern intellectuals committed after Independence.

They were deluded by an impractical modern political idea—secularism. Imagine someone trying to sell a subscription to an orphanage; that is what secularism is from a cultural point of view. The dismissal of Hindu discontent in the name of modernity resulted in the political annihilation of those associated with that insult, and the present miseries of Muslims.

There is something sad about the consecration of a Hindu temple on a site where a mosque stood for centuries and was then demolished by a mob. The Supreme Court of India was supposed to be a creation of modernity and rationality but, in the end, one of its most influential verdicts, granting the disputed site in Ayodhya to Hindus, seemed like an emotional act. And there is a message that the temple’s construction may send: modernity, too, is a fable like religion, and the overestimation of modernity will always be punished by the past.

The more we insult the past in the name of the future, the more territory the present will have to concede to the past. The future is merely a hope of a better age and better humans; the past, on the other hand, is a vast body of evidence of what humans really are, and what truly matters to us. That, in my view, is what God is. An insight from history into human nature.

The sound of prayers and even the physical actions of rituals are from a very ancient time, when the present gods were other gods and present faiths existed in other forms. This is a matter of pure heritage. How then can modern folk, who so claim to love heritage, lament God? The true heritage of a place is rarely what global intellectuals nag us about. The real culture of a place is what does not require nagging and lament—like local food, music, practical garments, rituals and God.

Those who are hurt by a scratch on an ancient monument are often the type who constantly disfigure ancient myths. For instance, the almost annual feminist rewriting of Sita as a more independent woman. Sita shows us the preoccupations of another time, just as Agatha Christie’s depictions of Africans were a reflection of her times. Should heritage only be what is good about our ancestors that modern atheists approve of? From a literary point of view, it is pointless to convert a figure like Sita into an unremarkable fictitious modern person.

In this light, believers are our true conservationists. They resist the sanctimonious marauders who try to demolish their faith in order to build a shrine to modernity.

From the antiquity of God, we know the central principles of human story-telling that will endure. That if you want to tell a great story, there can be conflicts and grey characters, but in the end, good has to triumph.

The fact that humans tend to believe in the paranormal should ideally make the so-called rationalist ask, “Am I a believer too, and if so, who is my Ram?"

There have always been two kinds of believers. Those who believe in God, and atheists. Some of the most influential scientists of Western civilization were great believers in God, like Isaac Newton, or strongly suspected there was some kind of God, like Charles Darwin. And there were many scientists who said there was no God but were deeply influenced by the magic realism of divine fables. It is not a coincidence that the Big Bang theory can be summarized by one the most famous opening lines of a story ever: “In the beginning was the word…"

The origin of scientific inquiry lies either in religion or in a revolt against it. In fact, science itself has become religion. It has all the crucial attributes—an abstraction explains a mystery, a handful of people fully understand the medium in which the explanation is delivered, they evangelize, people believe, and the infidels are ostracized. Can’t we see this quality in theories of the Big Bang, quantum mechanics and climate change?

Despite our claims of “logical thinking", we have not arrived at our present beliefs after a process of deep honest debate in our heads. We believe first, and then find evidence. We are all believers. Clarity is simply knowing who is our Ram.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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