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Opinion | How should atheists view religion?

Atheists understand belief more deeply than they imagine. We are all believers in unprovable ideas; just that in some of us the idea is god

Devotees say it is not the female believers in god who wish to risk supernatural anger and enter the shrine, it is the atheists. Photo: AFP
Devotees say it is not the female believers in god who wish to risk supernatural anger and enter the shrine, it is the atheists. Photo: AFP

It is still harder for young women to enter an ancient shrine on Sabarimala than to enter any liquor shop in Kerala. Mobs of devotees and political thugs have been driving away women who tried to enter the temple. Atheists are, once again, disgusted by believers. But this disgust is, once again, a useless way of perceiving believers, who form most of the world. What if there is a better way for atheists to view believers?

Actually, believers in god understand atheism more deeply than they imagine. As the biologist Richard Dawkins paraphrased an old piece of wisdom, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Atheists, too, understand belief more deeply than they imagine. We are all believers in unprovable ideas; just that in some of us the idea is god.

Even so isn’t it true that in a civilized world, belief in the fable of god should be subordinate to belief in the fable of law? There can only be one alpha on the street. Otherwise our protection money, also known as taxes, is a total waste. But then atheists should accept that the colonization of religion by democracy can never be a smooth transition.

In 1991, after an aggrieved man complained to the Kerala high court that fertile women were desecrating the shrine by their occasional presence, the court observed that the shrine had a right to bar such women. The court directed the Kerala government to send police force to enforce the ban. A few days ago when the Supreme Court declared that all women had a right to enter the temple, it directed the government to send police force to enforce the right. From the point of view of Ayyappan’s devotees, human law is fickle and transient, while tradition is stable and enduring.

So what? Don’t modern Indian women, including atheists, have a right to enter a temple in year 2018 even if it is not out of devotion and only to prove a point? As a non-believer it is extremely easy for me to answer this question, the reason why I would argue that my ideal state should be that of possessing no strong opinions. It is a difficult but worthy state to aspire for in this age of opinions.

In fact, modern atheism should not only be about disbelief but also dry neutrality in some aspects of religious behaviour. That could be an intellectually rich state, as evident when we interpret modern atheism as something beyond god—as fierce scepticism about all matters of faith, which includes anthropogenic climate change, the big bang theory, multi-dimensions, gravitational waves, the physicality of consciousness and the future singularity of machines. You may think that all these have strong or at least substantial scientific basis. That is not true; they are all beliefs which have highly respectable mainstream scientific explanations, and that is the new theology of our times. Scientists are the most influential theologians of our times. But when you retain your neutral mind and dig deeper into the theologies, you meet the equally respectable heretics who rubbish the mainstream’s beliefs. But atheists do believe in some of these modern religions, and if they believe in anything at all, then they must accept that the problem is not god but the very human desperation to believe in something, anything.

There is also the matter of stake. Devotees of Ayyappan point out that it is not the female believers in god who wish to risk supernatural anger and enter the shrine; it is the atheists. So the devotees ask the important question—if atheists have no stake in religion, why can’t they lay off religious matters, especially in issues that are not murderous but only unfair?

So, should atheists abandon the high moral pedestal when they are not going to face the consequences of disrupting faith? This is not very different from asking some obvious, though under-asked questions—Is it moral for non-resident Indians, or “Armani Kashmiris" in New York and Dubai, and expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils to encourage religious fundamentalism or terrorism in their homelands from a safe distance when they will not face the consequences of their actions? Is it moral for the global liberal elite to support Palestine when they are not going to be living beside a place that has democratically elected a terrorist organization called Hamas? And how intelligent can it be for the global conservatives to support Israel when their own liberties are safe from the Israelis? To be precise, what exactly is the value of having sanctimonious views that we will not pay a price for?

But then, atheists will point out, there are benefits in not having a stake as long as we have a moral compass. For instance, in the past, people whose careers did not depend on the electorate, like judges, have made bold and ethical decisions that have benefited millions.

And, it is easier to fight for the human rights of criminals when we are not among their victims. Atheism itself has used its low-stakes level headedness to reform society. People who do not believe in god are, naturally, not afraid of him and so they are able to challenge the worst aspects of faith. Even the fight against the prohibition of women in Sabarimala has a clear benefit. If Ayyappan has been made to accept all women, it is going to be very difficult for mere men to discriminate against women. I can tell you the Supreme Court has delighted little girls, including the ones who will never trek up the hill. Even so, the most enduring changes in a society come not when heretics declare war, but when the old die and a new generation of believers reform their own faith. As the economist Paul Samuelson said, paraphrasing the scientist Max Planck—“we progress funeral by funeral".

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

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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