VERVE Magazine/First Quarter 2002

Unbelief In The Times Of Fanaticism

As terrorism stalks the streets cloaked in religious sentiment, SHEILA KUMAR finds comfort in her unbelief

                                                       PHOTOS: SHEILA KUMAR

This is not an easy piece to write; it never is easy, coming out of the closet.

However, September 11 happened to NYC and  the ripples were felt all over the world. After that came the reprisal. They call it the clash of civilisations, a war against terrorism. As I watch the endless televised replays of the ruins of Afghanistan being mercilessly pounded into finer rubble by the globe's only superpower, I can only cogitate on the innate truth of the saying that religion is the most divisive force known to man.

I can afford to take the high moral ground here, simply because I do not believe --- in a higher being, that is. It has been so many years now since I stopped believing in God, that at times I tend to forget that I am part of  an infinitesimal minority which was and is still considered heretical by the majority. They burned heretics  in the days of yore; today, an atheist has learned to largely keep silent about his or her unbelief.

Coming as I do from a deeply religious family where yagnas and daylong pujas are quite the norm, it wasn't easy to turn unbeliever. Looking back in wry remembrance, I think I did it all wrong. With all the impassioned belligerence of a teenager, I planted the flag of avowed atheism into the bosom of my family, that is on enemy soil, refusing to attend the pujas or go to temples. I wore my unbelief like  a strident banner. The reaction was swift, varying from angry outbursts, half-hearted attempts to understand my state of mind (except, they called it temporary insanity!) to threats and suchlike. I was even taken to meet  a family friend (and philosopher) the extremely articulate Swami Chinmayananda. But all to no avail. Matters settled into a state of sullen watchfulness, a waiting and hoping for the madness to ebb and recede.

It was,  of course, not madness and it never did  go away. Why did I turn my coat, as it were? I cannot say I was influenced by anything I read, and  in those days, I devoured the written word with promiscuous greed. Yes, I read Ayn Rand like every other teenager I knew. But displaying what I think was a maturity beyond my years, I remember reading the Bhagvad Geeta and the Bible (both the Testaments) from cover to cover. I also particularly remember being much moved by a play called Inherit The Wind, which dealt evocatively with the issues of religion and atheism.

What finally tipped the scales was the slow realisation that for a while, my only relationship with my so-called  maker had been one of deal-making. Trading. As in, ``God, please let me pass this Math exam and I will visit you in Tirupati.'' Or, ``Please let me become the editor of the campus rag and I will sing your praises in Guruvayoor.`` I chanted all the Sanskrit shlokas that my grandmother made us kids recite every sundown when we were at her house in Palghat; I recited them sans effort and sans understanding. Trips to the many temples bored the life out of me. Religion, the way I saw it, (and the way I see it now), seemed nothing but a thin mask wrapping up the moral codes that a civilised society deems so necessary.

Over the years, the antipathy, the  intensity has lost its edge. I still do not believe but now it is my private credo, if you'll pardon the play on the word.I readily accompany my mother to temples. In fact, I quite enjoy going to temples in my native Kerala and have written  several pilgrimage tourism articles with much enthusiasm. When the collection box comes around, I give. When people, their faces lit with the incandescence of belief,  talk to me of `inexplicable miracles,` of how their faith has seen them through tough times, I do not try to disabuse them of their convictions.

People do not realise that giving up one's belief is difficult. Religion, spirituality, the ability to surrender oneself to a divine faith is, I think, easier than not having any kind of outside prop. Let me rephrase that: having someone to lean on is easier that facing adversity all alone. It must be so comforting to know that one's life is pre-ordained, that what is happening is willed by a superior power. We who do not believe, cannot afford the luxury of such beliefs. We know that we bear sole responsibility for the way our lives will be shaped in the future. We stand on a lonely shore. Agreed, we have resolved to stand alone on that shore but it still is lonely for all that.

Since my unbelief makes all but the closest of my friends uncomfortable, I do not rise to the endless and all too obvious bits of bait disguised as discussion, argument and debate which are thrown my way. To many people, atheism acts like a red rag, they are threatened by it. Many times, I have to bite hard on the bullet; I am all too tempted to point out to them that my lack of belief is as hard won  as their faith. That I did not wake up one fine day and decide I wasn't going to believe in God any longer. That it is my choice, and I am not influenced by any author, philosopher, rationalist. That having come to unbelief via the hard path, I am not likely to switch sides now.

At times like these, I would like to point out that religion really is a divisive force. It pits Hindu against Christian; Christian against Muslim and Muslim against Sikh. It is intra-divisive, too, pitting Shias against Sunnis, Shaivites against Vaishnavites, Catholics against Protestants. Holy books are interpreted to suit short-term and subversive needs. People are attacked, killed places of belief are desecrated. Back in the old days when holy warriors took to the streets, swords flashing, they called it the Crusades. Now, it is jihad. The names change but the violence remains, obscuring the real demons hiding in the fog ---poverty, illiteracy, fanaticism.

I am at peace with my unbelief and I respect others` right to believe. I only wish they would, in turn, respect my right to my unbelief.

All these years later, I have changed only the word `non-belief ` to `unbelief. The latter word represents my state of mind more strongly. 

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