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

For tam bram eyes only

This post is merely my presentation of an article in The Times of India, 25th Aug 2001 by Vandana Parthasarthy. My comments are included in blue.

It is dedicated to blue-blooded tam-brahms everywhere!

“You graduated in literature, right?” asked my young cousin. “No, in economics.” I hastily clarified. “Economics honours,” I added for good measure. The question coming from anyone else would have been innocuous, but from my cousin who was a third year engineering student, it was almost offending. As a card carrying member of the tamilian brahmin community, or tam brams, as the endearment goes, i knew that in his world—and that included his parents, relatives, colony friends, project group, dorm mates—someone who graduated in literature obviously did so because he or she had a learning disability. the poor thing was a freak who couldn’t get admission into an engineering college or even a pitiful, but definitely more acceptable, science course. Or worse, such a specimen was a wasted wanton whose desire to do b.a. was an irresponsible, rebellious act, almost akin to joining a neo-nazi like cult group and living on the edge of civilised society.

This is so true. I couldn’t even imagine telling my parents that I wanted to write or study literature. In fact, economics – with its potential for income these days – might not be such a bad confession.

In any such conversation with a bonafide tam bram, I find myself fervently hoping, that despite falling under the horrifying category of b.a economics, with its connotations of statistics and analysis of numbers and trends, would redeem me a little in their maths-science obsessed eyes.

For a middle class tam bram family (and that means the whole lot of them for all tam brams qualify as middle class if you take outlook and behaviour as parameters), mathematics and science are not merely subjects in the school curriculum. they are a religion. and the dharma of every tam bram student is to master them and pave his way to the heavenly portal of an IIT, or at least to the ordinary portal of a local engineering college, which the family will eventually reconcile to, in the absence of the ‘real thing’.

I was steered to Science by my mother – acting no doubt in my best interest – who told me that she observed in me an inclination towards the sciences. That’s when I learned that I had an inclination towards the sciences.

The first time i seriously understood this was when I was in primary school and on one sunny day was gleefully reading out my final exam results to grandpa who was sitting on the porch and frowning in attention. “English: 90 percent, Hindi: 85 percent, social studies: 87 percent…” i prattled on. “How much in maths?” interrupted grandpa. “Maths: 97 percent,” I said grinning widely. “What happened to the remaining marks?” was his unexpected reaction. After which he asked me to fetch the question paper, spent the next two hours going through each problem and figured out where i could have lost the precious three marks. “Nothing less than a centum in maths next time.” he said finally.

‘Centum’ is a word unique to the tam bram world, that a child grows up listening to. It is a figure that even if sometimes elusive, is never lost sight of throughout the academic career. centum, maths, science, brilliant tutorials, engineering, iit, b.tech, computer science, usa, financial aid, I-20, student visa, MS, San Jose, California, Oracle, Microsoft, Intel. These words and names are like carefully arranged furniture in the mental landscape of a tam bram boy—and increasingly girl— below the age of 25. Care is taken not to clutter it with anything related to useless stuff like literature, history or art. Show me a tam bram boy who wants to be a fashion designer, vj, historian or air force pilot and I’ll show you something wrong in his blood line. For all such are heathen, a blemish on the fair face of the community. Till about 15 years ago, the only heathens were girls who did not sing.

Thankfully, nobody in my house said ‘centum’, but I was considered a reprobate for making silly mistakes in mathematics. Carrying a 15 from one page and turning it into 51 in the next was my family’s equivalent of sublime evil. And I can’t remember the anger when I once proved, after a lengthy trigonometric exercise spanning four pages, that LHS = LHS.

Formidable maamis from the neighborhood would drop in for a casual afternoon gossip session with grandmom and on espying any hapless young girls in the vicinity, would pounce on them with the dreaded entreaty, “oru paatu paadein.” (sing a song). A simple three word sentence, you would think, but in maamiland it is a deceptively camouflaged barometer of the girl’s cultural grooming and readiness for tam bram society (read marriage market) and her mother’s efforts in making her a fine tamilian lady. a tam bram girl’s singing talents always have to be on standby, as they could be called upon by anyone no matter what the time of day, nature of the occasion or profile of the audience, by simply uttering the three powerful words, “oru paatu paadein,” and woe betide the girl who in shameful ignorance, takes the words at face value, like I once did in the naivete of extreme youth. When the words were uttered by a visiting neighbour, I readily accepted and joyously broke into a popular Hindi film ditty. I had finished the second paragraph when i stopped to check audience response. My mother had a strained, embarrassed smile on her face, grandmom was scowling hard, an aunt hurriedly excused herself and went inside and the venerable neighbour looked so disturbed, I thought she was on the verge of a heart attack. “Well…That was nice, but don’t you sing any varnams or keerthanais?” she finally asked, after an awkward silence.

My mother hurriedly explained how in the culturally bereft north we were unable to locate a carnatic music teacher nearby…but hopefully by this summer she would manage to do something about it. that’s when I realised that the only music that was expected to pour out of your mellifluous throat where classical carnatic songs. If you didn’t know any, you simply shut up and ducked out of sight of visiting maamis. And if like me, you are a non-engineer-non-carnatic-trained loser of a tam bram, you should be drowning yourself in a drum full of idli batter for having wasted this lifetime. And all the best for the next one.

Thankfully, male children are spared the torture of forced Carnatic music, although we are expected to study and get a stable job, so that a sweet Tambram girl forced to learn Carnatic music would want to marry us.