What religion are you, I was once asked at a dinner table.
I am an atheist, I said. The conversation stopped. After the pause, someone asked me whether I am a militant and whether I go around challenging and changing other people's beliefs. I do not do this, and hence, he said, I should say I am agnostic, rather than an atheist.
I have, ever since, pondered over the distinction.
It was very different even a few years ago.
I was brought up a Hindu. I started the usual - caste conscious, full of superstition about auspicious days (I still sometimes feel good about starting things on Tuesdays), and believed that the goddess in the family temple can grant me a thing or two. I also believed in astrology, and had a detailed chart telling me what will happen in my life, as did everyone else I knew.
I am not sure if there was a precise moment Scepticism caught up with me. But I remember some awkward moments.
There was someone very elderly and respected in our family who was not a Brahmin. And, I, this was when I was 10/12 year old, would not touch her feet because I learned that you do not touch the feet of non-Brahmins. But then, everyone in my family did, and my mother would ask me to do this (she did not know what I was thinking). Eventually, I realised how foolish my prejudice was, but that was after a few awkward moments.
The astrological faith persisted longer. I wanted to emigrate, and I did ask a friendly astrologer once when I would be able to do so. To my surprise, he said I would never leave India. He was quite famous, and this was a setback for me t that point. Much later, I did emigrate, but by then, my faith in astrology had dwindled.
I think two things happened to me in college.
First, I grew this belief in 'personal religion'. I started believing that institutional religion is evil, but I can continue to have my faith privately.
Second, I started seeing rituals as culture. So, I would continue to participate in festivals, projecting them as a part of my cultural identity, though I did not see the point of faith in institutional religion.
Eventually, this personal religion thing became untenable.
Part of it was the idea of praying, a private sort of conversation with God. This I did, hoping that the God will perform miracles if I prayed enough. These were about things I wanted - to see the world, for example.
I remember praying most sincerely when my grandfather, in whose company I grew up, was in his deathbed. The God did not listen to my prayers. I did it again, as sincerely, when I learned my mother was taken ill, by an early morning phone call from home. Again, when my brother collapsed and died. It seemed like I was making requests that my personal God was unwilling or unable to comply with.
I blamed God, and then I blamed myself for being so demanding. I thought being able to pray was good, even if it came to nothing. I hoped to meet all these people I dearly loved some point in my afterlife.
By then, I came across Pascal's wager: That you are better off believing because if God exists, you are better off; and if He did not, it did not matter. That sounded terribly opportunistic to me, even worse than my trading prayers for self-advantage.
Around the same time, I learned about Spinoza's God too, the God as a law-giver, one that does not perform miracles and only expressed in the nature and its laws. This is a God I felt comfortable with, and could reconcile my petty disappointments.
However, then I came across Darwin.
I guess this was my precise point of departure, only a few years ago.
My views strangely reconciled the idea of evolution with existence of God. Remember, I was a Hindu, and my avatars came through the ages following some sort of evolutionary chronology, first as a fish, then as a tortoise, then as a bore, then as a half-human, then as a Pygmy, etc.
But Darwin was different. It was not just about chronology, but the whole mechanism of chance and selection, all those ideas of deep time and nature at work. This was irreconcilable with God and creation.
As a child, I would often look up to the Sky with a desire to something unexpected. Except for meteors, nothing exceptional ever happened. But gazing into the sky always gave me a sense of wonder, something I deeply enjoyed and something that made me feel belong to the world. Darwin made me feel the same way, even as he robbed Man from any special place in the universe. It was a sense of humility as I stopped projecting my person and my intentions onto the universe, and instead, start feeling how the universe made me. After Darwin, Man was not a special creature built in God's image, but it is a wonderful rational being which is capable of discovering the truth of its own connection to the world and of serving it.
The idea of Religion as a culture, at the same time, was more sticky, but in the end, problematic.
I did enjoy attending the festivals and meeting other people. But, those festivals were too exclusive, too limited, to people of a certain kind. I came to realise that there is more to culture than just sticking to religious festivals. I lived in Bangladesh for a while, which has the same culture as my native Kolkata - the same food, music, literature - and it was better to connect with people on those, for a meal, for a song or for a book, rather than for a religious festival.
So, in the end, I had two problems with religion.
One, religion was a way to avoid our here-and-now responsibilities towards ourselves, others and our world. Hindus had an afterlife, others had confessions and there was always prayers.
Two, it was based on an us-and-them logic, one more way to delineate and divide our world. We had enough divisions already to be able to afford a metaphysical one.
Being agnostic will make me neutral of various varieties of God, but be cool with the idea of religion. It is somewhat close to my private religion idea. But I have left that house some time ago.
Atheist is a label usually associated with disrespect and disdain for others, treating people of religion as fools. But, my lack of religion gives me the opposite - a wonder at the immense abilities of human beings. Rather than God making us in his image, we made God in ours. We are capable of all the goodness that we give God, and I feel this needs to be celebrated.
In that sense, the Atheists' disregard for others' views may not be consistent with the ideal of goodness and acceptance that we want to ascribe to a loving God. In fact, atheists suffer from a sort of Jacobin search for perfection that caused so many woes from French Revolution onwards.
I would rather be, as they would call me in India, a Hindu atheist, someone who does not believe in God but believe in the variety of human beings, and treasure our ability to live with all these different ideas and contradictions as one big trait of humanness.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
There is no other city like Kolkata for me: It is Home. The only city where I don't have to find a reason to go to, or to love. It is one city hardwired into my identity, and despite being away for a decade, that refuses to go away. People stay away from their homeland for a variety of reasons. But, as I have come to feel, no one can be completely happy to be away. One may find fame or fortune, love and learning, in another land, but they always live an incomplete life. They bring home broken bits of their homeland into their awkward daily existence, a cushion somewhere, a broken conversation in mother tongue some other time, always rediscovering the land they left behind for that brief moment of wanting to be themselves. The cruelest punishment, therefore, for a man who lives abroad is when his love for his land is denied. It is indeed often denied, because the pursuit of work, knowledge or love seemed to have gotten priority over the attraction of the land. This is particularly
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
It's not often that I get to do things I like, but, as it happens, the lockdown came with a little gift. I was asked to develop, by an Indian entrepreneur with a strong commitment to education, a framework for a Liberal Education for one of his schools. And, as a part of this exercise, I was asked to develop a critique of Indian Education, if only to set the context of the proposal I am to make. I claim to have some unusual - therefore unique - qualification to do this job. I am, after all, an outsider in all senses. I have lived outside India for a long time, but never went too far away, making it my field of work for most of the period. I have also been outside the academe but never too far away: Just outside the bureaucracy but intimately into the conversations. I worked in the 'disruptive' end of education without the intention to disrupt and in For-profit without the desire for profit. Along the way, the only thing I consistently did is study educatio
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
In our age, the only way to be politically correct is to be democratic. This is a post-70s affair - those days, still, some people had alternative ideologies in mind. Those alternate ideas are dead and gone, long discredited, and it seems that we have only one system which can make people happy, free and live longer. So, we have this huge export industry of democracy, and democracy's warriors, which the American security establishment has lately become. The democracy's businessmen, the bond traders, the media barons and the Hollywood types, are feted everywhere. The consensus is deafening and dumbing. It is indeed awkward to ask now - whether democracy is the right system for every society. It indeed should be. Collective wisdom is better than individual autocracy. In societies where democratic elections have been few and far between, the popular vote has demonstrated the extra-ordinary political savvy of the usually disinterested masses. Democracy has proved to be an excell
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.