All’s well with the red pill

Am I happier as an atheist?

A recent conversation made me wonder. If I could go back, would I re-take the red pill? It’s a loaded question—it assumes that my happiness is measurable and that I used to believe. Let’s grant those assumptions. While I don’t remember when I turned towards atheism, or at least skepticism, I’m sure I had faith sometime. I hated religious rituals, but I did talk to god as a child—I don’t know why I spoke to god in English and not Tamil or Hindi—and made deals where my end of the bargain was to give up meat or watch less TV—If god kept records, I had a crappy credit score. I was sure that giving up pleasure was a way of pleasing god. I also remember refraining from some things for fear of divine punishment. So, call it nebulous if you want, I believed.

"You take the blue pill – the story ends,...

If you haven’t watched the Matrix, please do. Seriously, everything else can wait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, my room doubled as the prayer room, an antithesis if there ever was one, and had pictures of many Hindu gods. I remember sitting cross-legged before them to pray. But I didn’t feel like the people in those pictures were there for me despite the super-anthropomorphism characteristic to Hindu deities. I would rather defer to abstract divinity than the mythological characters and their entertaining stories. Even when I did believe, I never crystallized in my mind a deity who protected me and cared for my betterment. Perhaps my self-esteem was so low that I was wary of the wrath of god more than I anticipated his bounty, or I naturally feared bad things more than I looked forward to good ones. Either way, the simplistic connection of unhappiness after an external driving force or safety net disappears didn’t apply to me. It probably applies to fewer people than we imagine, and a tinier fraction of them are permanently scared after leaving religion.

Becoming more or less happy after rejecting god might be just a coincidence. People who reject god after deep thought and analysis might turn that microscope inwards and, depending on how their life is going, experience mood changes. If we analyze the question temporally—am I happier now, and is being an atheist simply a coincidence?—I don’t know. It’s possible that my twenties have brought an introspection that is correlated with depression or mental malaise, and that the same introspection couldn’t let me remain an honest believer. I have no way to rule it out or even apply a realistic probability to it.

Why I am an atheist is answered by science. God as a hypothesis is untenable. But while that explains why I don’t believe, it leaves room for future belief—as all evaluations of scientific hypotheses do—and of my liking and respecting god if his existence is proven.

If god wasn’t a totalitarian megalomaniac, I might ignore the scientific evidence in my eagerness to praise and propitiate him. If god didn’t create so much pain, I fear I wouldn’t care that his existence is unlikely, because I’d be lost in all the beauty and the pleasure in the world. In truth, I sometimes wish god was real, so I can have an object for my contempt—because it is unsatisfying to hate abstract concepts like poverty, wretchedness, malice, and—ironic as it is—hatred.

But that doesn’t answer my original question—am I happier as an atheist? I think I am, in a Eudaimonic sense, because accepting that a lot of the world’s injustices are random is the first step to making one’s peace with them.

I’m not shaving until you accept that we came from monkeys

The opposite is true to a lot of people; many feel lonely and abandoned when their brains reject the god hypothesis. Happiness is irrelevant to truth, but not to the discovery of truth. We sometimes choose not to investigate matters where one of the answers might destroy the axioms upon which our lives are balanced. But if truths make you happy as absolutes, because you discovered or learned them, and not only when they confirmed your suspicions or disproved your theories, losing faith is a step out of the blues. It helps to realize that your successes and failings are a product of chance and effort and not divine planning.

As an atheist, am I no longer afraid of death? I fear dying—I don’t want to experience cancer or being crushed under a car or fading away as someone dials up my morphine—but the idea of not existing some day doesn’t steal much of my sleep. I’ve done it before. For most of time, I haven’t existed. In fact, my existence is but an aberration in the time continuum, which has done fine without me.

I won’t miss me when I’m gone.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Unbridled blasphemy

Unbridled blasphemy

As I was gumming down a bowl of soup that some diet-friendly misanthropic nihilist might have invented, I noticed a banner which read, “Maybe God is the answer?” That was the message verbatim.

Now, most of my regular readers know my cynicism about religion and might consider it hypocrisy that I joined a catholic university, but let’s move past that for now. Please note that this is not a slight on Christianity but on religion in general. In fact, my kind of atheism is strangely ecumenical as it unites all religions while calling them crazy. What hurts me deeply is the marketing of religion that is done today. Many a graduate student can testify to being accosted by a missionary with the dangling carrot of free tuition in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. “God wants you to give till it hurts” is one of the many lines smoothly delivered by buff evangelists as they continue to mercilessly fleece poor innocent people.

Another cheap shot especially practiced by religion is that it attacks people when they are the weakest. Terminally ill patients are often known to have complete conversions during their last hours. While the religiously fanatical lobby notches this in their victory column, it can also be explained as a form of mental anesthesia that people crave when their fear, desperation or pain gets too much to handle.

The Hindu, Muslim and other religions are not far behind in their hypocrisies and their endorsement (and sometimes instigation) of atrocities. They too captivate people when they are most mentally feeble.

Richard Dawkins, the geneticist & acclaimed atheist, says that religion is the best product to sell because neither its virtues nor its promises are vulnerable to scientific testing. This is a product whose qualities you cannot experience until you die. The funniest part is that the people who tell you what happens after death lack serious resume points in the experience category themselves. If, in a scientific discussion, someone throws conjecture after conjecture at you without a shred of data to back them up, you would show that person the door. Yet, we grant religion a free pass and complete immunity from all logical accusations.

Sam Harris says that most people who follow one religion are atheists with respect to others. They believe in no god but their own god. Atheists, Harris says, simply go one god further. Bill Maher notes the pejorative connotation of the word atheist in modern times, and prefers the word rationalist. A rationalist is simply a person who does not conform to an ideology in principle but questions everything and is a natural skeptic. You need to convince such people, and not preach to them or command them.

I have met many people who argue that as I cannot disprove the existence of god, there has to be a god. To this, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed a theory that there is a small teapot orbiting the sun and that its orbit lies between that of Mars & Earth such that it is too tiny to be seen by the most powerful telescope. As we cannot disprove the existence of said teapot, it must exist, and we are free to worship it. This kind of juvenile logic would be rejected by most children if said in the context of the teapot, and rightly so, for it is impossible to prove a negative, and hence the burden of proof should be shouldered by the people who claim the existence of any object.

The least these religious people could admit is that they don’t know. I would still respect that. It is their unwavering certainty in the face of many a contradictory proof that baffles me the most.

A friend of mine once gave me a patronizing smile during one such argument and said, “We must not critique these stories & fables in religious texts, but merely take the good out of them.” Is that not a critique in itself? Does it not take critical thinking to separate the grain from the chaff? And who is to decide which is which? Are we free to choose?

I consider it an offense to be told to suspend my critical thinking for any reason whatsoever. Richard Dawkins opines that we can lead perfectly moral and decent lives without being taught so by religious scripture. Having considered that, let us weigh the damage wrought by religion against the little (not unique) good it does. It pains me to visit ground zero in NYC. That horror would not have happened if there was no religion. If there was no promise of an afterlife, no one could have convinced young men to throw their lives away and take many others with them. There would have been no Holocaust. Closer to home, we Indians have seen enough brutalities committed in communal riots to know what I’m talking about.

If you woke up one day and saw that Princess Diana was speaking to you, you would suspect that you were hallucinating. Substitute that with the voice of god (which, by the way, you have no way of identifying) and you might just be called a prophet or a messiah.

I am very cynical & venomous on this subject simply because of the time, money, energy and other resources I see being wasted on this selfish mental anesthetic. Let’s face it. We humans fear the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown. So no matter how incredible the explanations offered to us are, we swallow them down just like I swallowed that soup-we have a void to fill, and when we are really desperate, anything goes.