Freethought Activism

Freethought, Cross-examined

Coauthored with Satish Chandra

Many a time when freethinkers engage religious believers in a discussion, it quickly degenerates without achieving much in the way of a dialogue. So here is an exercise where we try to simulate a dialogue. Arvind role-plays as a believer and Satish as himself (freethinker). The arguments are limited to around 100 words so that only the best ones can be presented. Also this way, the believers’ usual plaint of not receiving ‘equal time’ or a ‘proper hearing’ in freethought debates is dealt with. We think that exercises like this serve to self-examine our (freethinkers’) beliefs and also as a resource of common arguments made by believers.

So, here it goes:

Religious Believer: In every human endeavour, there are more consumers than critics. Skeptics have their place in the religious sphere, but their numbers shouldn’t exceed that of the faithful, for the same reason that there should be more casual movie-goers than professional movie-reviewers. When some suspension of disbelief and placement of trust in the narrator is routinely considered worthwhile for the sake of entertainment, why shouldn’t this be invested in religion which promises so much more than mere entertainment?

Freethinker: Your argument assumes that a professional movie reviewer reviews movies only with the intent of finding faults in them and not enjoying them and hence if the majority are professional movie reviewers, then there will be very few left to enjoy the movie. But movie reviewers like Ebert are movie lovers first and then critics. They enjoy movies in a way that casual movie goers do not. So I find the movie reviewer analogy untenable. In fact, using it, it can be implied that skeptics actually have a good time with life. Also, suspending disbelief and placing trust in the narrator come at a cost and the cost in the case of a movie is the time it takes to see the movie and the chance that the movie will suck. So if the same analogy is to be applied to religion, the cost of the investment in it should be considered.

Religious Believer: How can a skeptic, claiming to understand the drama of life way better than the average believer does, ignore an obvious feature in the human condition that people do not seek correct explanations as often as they seek colourful explanations or consoling explanations? Aren’t splashing colour and seeking consolation as integral to the human condition as having to correct each others’ misconceptions once in a while? Would anyone wish to live always in a critical unadorned world bleached of all colour, simply because someone prefers sanity over psychedelics and insists that this is the only legitimate preference?

Freethinker: Skeptics do recognize that a majority of people prefer colorful or consoling explanations. A point to note is that a skeptic can have just as fulfilling lives as the religious, if not more, with their beliefs. However, the religious do not recognize that there are other people with different worldviews, and that they should be given space to lead happy lives. Any argument for tolerance is met with arguments from religion, based on some implicit, unagreed upon standards. Such arguments often spill into politics and policy which affect skeptics as well. Hence the vocal criticism of religious beliefs from a skeptic which can be mistaken as demands for intolerance of religious beliefs.

Religious Believer: Skeptics, despite their professed incredulity, are not immune to hoping against hope when prospects are bleak, and articulating their hopes in a narrative indifferent to science. Notice how even Dawkins resorted to a language of ‘mind over matter’ and ‘triumph of the spirit’ while describing Hitchens’ illness. “Though his body had clearly been diminished by the brutality of cancer, his mind and spirit had not.” You are free to take the reductionist route to answer certain questions, but aren’t there other questions where you too have to resort to using language in a way that is typical of the faithful?

Freethinker: The words of Dawkins are being taken out of context. If you ask him what he means by “mind”, he will say “Oh, the grey goo in our skulls” and not something immaterial. Same goes for spirit – it does not mean something beyond matter. So, Dawkins’ words should be understood as “Though the rest of Hitchens’ body has diminished in capacity, his brain is still as active as ever”. The words don’t imply that he is hoping beyond what is allowed by nature. Your argument is just over definitions, which can dissolved by substituting words with their expanded meaning.

Religious Believer: The fact that something means different things to different people, does not mean that it is meaningless! Consider the function served by prayer which skeptics are dismissive of. Doesn’t prayer serve the important function of creating a contemplative pause, either solitary or collective, and imbuing a given situation with a seriousness and solemnity that both solidifies earnestness and invites inspiration? In this sense, isn’t prayer its own purpose, even leaving aside the question of whether there is a Someone to whom it is being addressed?

Freethinker: People find meaning in all sorts of things and a skeptic will not deny that. Prayer has the same meaning whether it is directed towards traditional god-entities or towards Batman. However, I don’t see any religious person acknowledge that a Batman worshipper deserves the same respect as they do. What I do see is, religious people claiming special privileges for their way of praying whilst ignoring other forms of prayer. Just because something is not called prayer, it doesn’t make it any less meaningful than things called as prayer.

Religious Believer: When freethinkers acknowledge that meaning can be found in prayer by some and that they are free to do so, why so many objections to the ceremonial and symbolic uses of prayer in schools and in the workplace? And why this constant lament about having to put up with policy made by a religious majority? Doesn’t the ‘secular state’ in India, or the Church-State separation in America give freethinkers all the freedom they need, often even more freedom to be themselves than is available to the faithful?

Freethinker: Not everything that a person is free to do is allowed in schools and workplaces. For example, playing a boom box is not allowed. The reason is, they are shared spaces and other people’s preferences should be respected. But when it comes to religious matters, such preferences are completely ignored. Even if there are laws on paper, you can’t get a temple to shut down their loud speakers. You also can’t have freedom of speech because religious people find it offensive, but it is a given that skeptics are expected to not be offended by religious stuff.

Religious Believer: Immersion in a cultural context which involves a cherishing of ancient lore and yes, festivities centred on shrines, is not something that many practicing scientists oppose with the same vehemence as so-called freethinkers. One of India’s well-loved technocrats Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam continues to cherish his faith-filled childhood influences in the temple town of Rameswaram. The physicist Richard Feynman had a passion for studying Mayan hieroglyphs. Why do so many freethinkers have this allergic reaction towards anything that harks back to classical accomplishments, including attempts like reviving Sanskrit that may have a nation-building function?

Freethinker: Of course, people are free to cherish whatever they want to. But they shouldn’t tread on other people’s lives on the pretext of cherishing. An aside: Feynman is a freethinker. Again, people are free to revive historical achievements. But when that involves unsubstantiated claims like “Sanskrit is the best language to program computers”, expect a freethinker to call it out. Such exercises aren’t nation building, but are plain jingoistic which more often than not leads to intolerance of anyone who don’t agree with them, and to calls for barbaric measures to deal with “insubordination”.

Religious Believer: If this was just about having the space to do science or to pursue unorthodox aesthetic preferences, then this might have been settled long ago. However, far from stopping there, so many voluble freethinkers, under the noble pretext of promoting human rights, are fighting for creating such a permissive society that would grievously weaken the institution of the family and for creating a radically pacifist state that forswears capital punishment, which can even have national security implications. Perhaps a stringent moral code maybe incompatible with so-called freethought, but how can you claim the right to make relativism and licentiousness the norm?

Freethinker: The issue is about having space for everyone where they can find meaning for their life. It is also about having moral systems which are based on facts and not fantasy. Any moral code which depends on false claims like “Women need to wear the mangalasutra, else it be amangalam for the family” should be outright rejected. A freethinker’s morality will strive to be based on facts and reasoned agreement and regulated through legal and political systems. There is good evidence (in some western countries) that such moral systems don’t lead to apocalyptic scenarios as concocted by the religious.

Religious Believer: You forget that in India, a mangalasutra-wearing woman can drive to work and a couple can choose to have a civil marriage at a registrar’s office even if there’s temple music blaring in the background. You whine as if this is a theocracy like Saudi Arabia where a woman cannot drive or where civil marriages are not recognized. Living as you do in the democracies of India, Europe or the USA, don’t you think you sound like rebels without a cause, excessively fond of your own voice and belabouring points that have already been well-made and established in our societies?

Freethinker: That’s like saying since there are kids dying of starvation, kids suffering from malnutrition is not a problem at all. Even if women drive to work, Indian roads aren’t safe for walking for women during late night hours. During day time they still have to deal with catcalls and groping from smart hero guys. For married women, things like working or driving are seen as gifts given by the in-laws and not as women exercising their freedom. Asking men to share in household work is frowned upon and the mere utterance of such ideas ignites gigantic egos in “moral” society.

Religious Believer: Isn’t taming such beastly instincts in men, a civilizing function of Religion? And isn’t civilization a vulnerable incremental process which we cannot afford to casually overhaul in the name of choosing Reason over Tradition? Even your Flying Spaghetti Monster that you mock our beliefs with, needed to first be memed in your counter-culture, before becoming a recognizable argument. When there is so much overhead in creating the cultural currency that becomes the basis of shared meaning, why can’t we just keep the hard-earned cultural currency of our religions, relying on the wisdom of our people to tell apart the gold from the counterfeits?

Freethinker: A question from colonial era – Isn’t asking the British to vacate India and leave the governance to Indians too much of an overhead? After all they have given us roads, railways and an administrative and legal framework. Why can’t we just accept their rule, and work with them to iron out a few minor irritancies?

A question from caste apologist – Varna dharma is a result of thousands of years of experimentation which lead to an efficient society. Sure there are aspects of it for misery porn aficionados to lust after, but doesn’t Karma dictate that such deprivation is fully justified?

Religious Believer: Do you have any progress to report in your fantasy of building a reason-based society, except symbolic ones in the rarefied, elitist Internet and academia? One of your ‘successes’ maybe replacing ‘BC’ and “AD’ with the more secular-sounding ‘BCE’ and ‘CE’, but can’t you see that even after this cosmetic change, the pivot and zero point is still Christ’s advent? What ‘reason-based alternative’ can you hope to offer a soldier in the border battlefront whose spirit is lifted by battle-cries invoking those whom his people worship, or a physician who may have no crutch to offer a sinking patient but faith?

Freethinker: Secular governments and legal systems are a testament to reason based efforts. Unlike worthless chants of “anyone can hop Varnas“, a secular system like in Finland provides a true platform of equality. That we have only one life to live, should be motivation enough for a soldier to fight for themselves and the people they love. Learning to form beliefs based on evidence will make it easier for physicians to tell patients their health status. Even if that is not possible, a freethinker is still quite capable of showing compassion and doing what is needed to comfort the patient.

Religious Believer: If your conception of progress is in the context of secular society, do you envision something like Turkish or French secularism with a headscarf ban or the more accommodative Unity-In-Diversity model of Indian secularism? Isn’t the Indian model more realistic and isn’t it better furthered by harmony among faiths, rather than shunning of faith itself? When it is interfaith dialogue, where it is participants’ faiths that provide both the content and context of the dialogue, which will bring us closer to harmony, what contribution can you, who consider faith dispensable, ever hope to make in building a more peaceful society?

Freethinker: I don’t endorse the headscarf ban neither do I think Indian secularism is really secular. Religious thinking still dominates our governance and public discourse. Apart from being a tool to bring harmony, it has played well into hands of bigots and fear-mongers. What a freethinker can contribute to peace is an emphasis on facts about the world, cognitive biases and moral reasoning which takes into account such biases, and a firm commitment to compassion which arises from a realization that we are fully caused beings.

Religious Believer: There are some areas where I understand where you come from, but also some where you are bewildering and belligerent. The only unifying idea in your group seems to be spite-filled atheism which you try cloaking beneath benign-sounding terms like freethought and humanism. On my side we do have life-affirming beliefs to defend, and defend we will, come what may. I believe in preserving the best in our heritage, in upholding the institution of the family and the nation and in honouring the sanctity of Life, imbuing it with the sacredness that emerges from its very Source, to which we must remain free to celebrate our connection with, by means of worship if we wish.

Freethinker: There are atheists who are hateful. No group can be completely homogeneous or with black and white characteristics. But the freethought community is self regulating in that regard. Hateful rhetoric will be called out when it is seen. Now the real contention is what beliefs to defend. For example, the institution of family in India is riddled with so many flaws that it is very stifling and miserable for many individuals. But that gets swept under the rug with beatific smiles of “India has such a low divorce rate!”. I’m afraid such beliefs with serious flaws are a lot more common in religious communities than in the freethought community. Coming to our relationship to the “Source”, science does a better job of uniting us with it.

These debates, be it in real-life or their simulated versions, cannot realistically be settled once and for all in a single instalment. This is but part of a series of attempts to overcome the communication challenges and culture clashes in such exchanges, while maintaining both convictions and a measure of civility, in the argument that continues…

About the author

Arvind Iyer


  • Beautiful piece of dialogue. Arvind Iyer makes a very compelling case and it has a subtle yet rational way of looking at religion. Satish cuts him off he gets too cozy with analogies and ideas.

    I know friends who take certain stands (like the prayer one being personal amongst others) and get offended while it is pointed out that one can pray also to random ones like Batman. Sadly many state their personal views and then say ‘I do not see a reason to be rational most of the time. I am irrational, and I do not like talking about it. So there!’. And then I have to say ‘ I feel cheated that I heard all your arguments and claims and I was not allowed to state mine :(‘ This loaded style works on some of them, they at least listen to my perspective. It is sad that otherwise rational beings can be very defensive when it comes to matters pertaining to one’s belief.

    • It’s true that no single approach suits all situations in such exchanges. Are there any particular success stories of the ‘loaded approach'(which of course is one approach among many) you would like to share? Don’t you think that seemingly’cozy’ analogies like Russell’s teapot or Sagan’s ‘dragon in the garage‘ or Sam Harris’ ‘diamond in the backyard‘ have helped a great deal in providing consciousness-raising efforts with suitable wherewithal in terms of recognizable motifs?

      • Hi Arvind,

        I did not see the reply. Sorry.

        I extensively use the Russell’s teapot and Sagan’s dragon. It works on a few of those who are sitting on the fence. However to most people I face, these points look like an argumentative devices. They would say to me: ‘you just bring up unnecessary things and say they are wrong’. Perhaps they believe my arguments are strawmen.

        To people I know well, I have a powerful loaded strategy and I have advocated it to my friends. It seems to have a high success rate:
        Step 1) Attack their ideas and ridicule them heavily.

        Step 2) By the time it reaches an emotional breakpoint, stop the argument and be excessively kind and sweet. Tell them you love them (to my parents I do this :P) and to others tell them that their opinions matter a lot to me. Hug them if possible.

        Step 3) Now carefully explain your stand to them and gently repeat the wrong ideas. All along telling them that you know they are good people at heart and if only they would listen to you they would appreciate your view too.

        Step 4) At this point they would be vulnerable and a little open in listening to you. Be nice and rationally entertain their queries.

        And do this sporadically and repeatedly. People take time to appreciate conditioned ideas. It has worked on relatives and close friends. I convinced my parents that I am an agnostic-atheist in this manner. I also have frequently employed this strategy to condemn ‘arranged-marriage’. They have tough time accepting this.

        • Hug them if possible.

          🙂 Indeed, these exchanges work so much better in their live face-to-face variants. Besides, an oxytocin onslaught can have very salutary effects.

          I too have seen the ‘tough love’ strategy you recommend (toughness first, love later) to work wonders in certain circles. In some other circles, switching up the order, i.e. the ‘lathering before the razor’ strategy also seems to work too. (eg. Question to a devout Carnatic musician : “The accomplishments of your school of music in the aesthetic realm are impressive and undeniable…but why of late has musicianship become almost dynastic and operating within the confines of elitist exclusivity?”)Some other variants of the loaded approach are discussed here.

          PS: If you would like to share your experience as a freethought advocate in family circles, both the success stories and sticking points, with a larger audience, do write via the contact form (‘Contact us’ link above).

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