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

The French Burqa Ban – My take

“I was a fan of Nicholas Sarkozy, but what he’s pushing for now is reprehensible,” said a friend – a Muslim who chooses to wear the head scarf. We tend to banter on religion, and for a religious person, she’s a good sport. My jibes and taunts are often well received, and now and then, when one remark steps innocently over the line, I am gently but curtly reminded of the distance we should maintain for an argument not to turn personal.

The French ban on the veil is famous, and has polarized the public. Let us exclude the opinions of devout Muslims from this analysis, for they can hardly be expected to be disinterested in this issue.

I myself find the burqa to be an abomination: a image of imprisonment that we should have evolved out of by now. Political correctness aside, Islam and women’s rights have always seemed like oil and water to me, but that’s a topic that requires a blog of its own.

Today, the issue is of liberty. People often view the Western (developed) world as a land of plenty, where the basic conditions are good enough, and hence our laws can favor the rights of the individual over the rights of the population as a whole. The idea of a government telling us what not to do is an indirect way for everyone else to control us – for a majority to determine what is good or necessary.

There are many reasonable arguments for this ban. Most people connect the overt religiosity of many Muslims to a refusal to assimilation. Wherever they go, they are Muslims first. Hence the wearing of the burqa is regarded as a slippery slope to madrassas proliferating and even to imposing Sharia law among the Muslim diaspora. Our bogeyman is the honor rape/murder that is a product of a conveniently literal interpretation of the Qur’an. There is no proof linking madrassas directly with terrorism. They do produce fundamentalists, but no one has proof of them breeding terrorists. Hence, I am not thoroughly convinced that the slope between legalizing the burqa and the festering of terrorism is slippery enough to ban such an important civil liberty. Frisk them as much as you want at airports, and select them for additional screening, but such a huge step is not warranted now.

Imagine a woman who wears salwar-kameez exclusively, and is forced by law to wear skirts. She would view this as violating her modesty. She would either wear the skirt grudgingly, or leave the country that legislates her wardrobe, or, worst of all, never leave the house; a giant leap in the backward direction. A woman who’s used to wearing the burqa all her adult life (regardless of whether she was brainwashed into doing so), would be even more skittish about showing her body to other men. Of course, there are various groups arguing that any woman who’s wearing a burqa is doing so out of compulsion or out of some kind of Stockholm-syndrome to a victimizing religion. Based on whatever I have read on this subject, and the arguments of Muslim women who’ve chosen to wear the burqa, I would agree. This doesn’t seem like complete free will.

However mean this might sound, emancipating Muslim women is not my problem, and I certainly don’t want the government to spend taxpayer money on researching which woman is acting out of her free will and which one has been brainwashed. Let the privately funded NGO’s do all that. I would even volunteer my services.

Forcing a Muslim woman to shed her religious attire is violating her free expression and the freedom of religion. Readers of this blog know what I think about religion. Freedom of expression, no matter what the expression, is sacrosanct to me, and curbing it using the might of the law needs more justification. The ban on the veil is unconstitutional, and does not behoove a free country.

I apologize for the offense any woman has felt while reading this post.

P.S: This topic was on my mind for a long time, but I decided to write a post on it only after reading this fine post by Greatbong. His arguments are different from mine, but we both seem to agree that the ban violates freedom.

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.

Whodda thunk it!

Let me clarify my position on the God issue. I am an agnostic leaning towards atheism. My childhood has been plagued with screaming fits quite akin to the child in Omen, as my parents asked me to accompany them to the temple. I went through the poonal procedure as a good tam bram, all the while lamenting that there would have been a much better use for the money than spending it on a back-scratcher. (That joke is lost on non brams, so please find the nearest bram and watch them laugh in agreement.)

So when we had sarvajanik festivals, I often complained of the noise pollution, and of the secret vote which clearly granted the responsibility of leading the aarti to the person first to get kicked out of Indian Idol auditions. I hated waking up early for the worships, and reviled being made to sit amidst the purposeful pollution that is so unique to Hindus. I went through childhood and young adulthood hating festivals and anything associated with worship. I know most of you devout ones despise me now, and that I am going to lose a significant portion of the small audience this blog has generated, but I need to get this off my chest. So, before swearing me off as a non-believing infidel, read on.

I have spent a year in the big apple now, where there are enough Indians, but there is no forced festival socializing. I accepted that warmly. As I was going through my roommate’s iPod Touch (let the drooling begin) and listening to my new Bose headphones (let the drooling continue), I noticed the Ganesh-aarti on his playlist. The memories flowed as I played it. I played it again. Maybe it was just the sound quality, but I could not get enough of it. I could remember the Ganesh idol in our locality, and the loud songs of worship that blared over the sound system.

I did not believe it possible, but that song is on my playlist now. No, I have not been converted in any way, so all you believers, do not thrust your imaginary friends down my throat. I will say though, that I appreciated the song on a pure artistic level. There is something in the festivals for the non-believers too. That is what makes them so deep and mysterious.

I was told not so long ago, by a person I regard as brilliant, that atheism is a part of Hinduism. I did not see the sense of it on a religious level. I can somehow understand it now on a spiritual level.

So, to the surprise of the people who know me, and to some chagrin of fellow agnostics, Sukhkarta Dukhharta varta vighnachi…