I’ve often been told by friends or family that the way in which I decide to express my dissent about religion, affecting society is quite detrimental. There is much profanity, there is much name-calling and accusations and unpleasant things that I bring up which portrays every religious individual, including the moderate who hardly practice any of the rituals, in bad light. While everything I have been told about my approach may be valid, I also find it unfair that as an non-religious individual I get to be critiqued so much whereas the same does not necessarily apply to the religious, regardless of what faction of religious an entity one is, be it an everyday right winger, a moderate, an agnostic or a conservative.
I’m going to try and explain myself in simple words, in order to justify what I do and why I believe I need to do it. Before we even get started, there are some nonsensical absolutes that we need to get rid of from the platform of discussion in order for this article to make sense.
1. Not every religious person is a fool and/or a devious person.
2. Not every atheist/agnostic individual is an angel, either.
3. The manuals of religious practices or say the scriptures do lay down some rules which are standard guidelines for morality. (Although they may not necessarily be objective all of the time)
Having established this as a baseline assumption, let’s investigate why atheists are for most parts looked at as, angry and unpleasant people when it comes to religious ideologies in society.
1. Religion as an idea is an absolute. It claims infallibility. There is a problem with any idea, be it political or otherwise claiming infallibility. Extra-Ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence.
2. Criticism of religion is criminalized in most countries across the world. Blasphemy laws exist in a lot of developing nations, including our own, India.
3. Modern ideas/movements like race equality, feminism, LGBT rights are all incompatible with almost every other theistic doctrine out there in the world, with rare exceptions, every now and then.
Essentially, you have a system which assumes the framework for morality to be proprietary to its presence and influence. However when you investigate the details of it, it does not hold up to its claims of superiority. When this is questioned or critiqued, the ideology shields itself by claiming persecution of that idea is a persecution, in total, which it clearly is not.
Let me elaborate with an example from the late George Carlin…
1. Contraception and birth control are illegal since god made sex for creating new life. It is not for us to stop creating new life and use it for pleasure alone, which is evil.
2. Naturally speaking, by this very same logic queers should be allowed to participate in sexual activity because they are the only section of people who cannot have an abortion (excluding lesbians for the moment, who may use artificial insemination) but they are not because sex with the same gender is illegal so their lifestyle is illegal as well. The strongest lobby who can never have an abortion, even if they wanted to do not seem to be natural allies to the idea of pro-life proponents.
In the above example, by definition you can see how a particular set of individuals who naturally fit into the requirements of a religious ideology, are still discriminated because another idea contradicts it. Yet when we question this using this very same logic, everyone is up in arms about how tradition and culture should not be changed or questioned.
Again, the argument from culture is another distraction. More often, specifically when it comes to Hinduism I hear this all of the time.
“In India, religion and culture is intertwined. More often it is a cultural thing and not necessarily a religious thing, so you cannot accuse religion for everything since it’s a cultural thing. Culture should be preserved and cannot be discriminated against since it defines us as the unique individuals we are and forms our identity”
The only part I agree with in this whole premise is the “culture defines us as the unique individuals we are and forms our identity” part, to a large extent. However, just because it is cultural a practice, it does not mean that practices should be held with utmost respect. A classic example is the celebration of the “Raksha Bandhan” in India. Many of my friends called me out for branding Raksha Bandhan as mostly a Hindu religious festival and advised me that it was more of a Cultural thing since most people in India celebrate it. Considering the holy thread has a significance in the Hindu religion and it re-instates the brother/sisterly bond which also emphasizes on women being weak and needing protection, which is also in line with the Hindu dharma, I refused to accept it being any sort of a secular ritual that was purely cultural in nature. Discounting all the evidence in Hindu religious history (mythology) that shows otherwise and blatantly accept Raksha Bandhan having nothing to do with Hinduism, even then such a practice of “protecting women” cannot be justified since it has its roots firmly engrained in patriarchy.
Many of my friends also advised me that people do not dig so deep into Raksha Bandhan the way I do and just do what they do to have fun. Agreed but then that gives it no privilege from being critiqued. Ideas are at the core of our civilization. Ideas have shaped our race (biological race = homo sapiens) from day one. It’s an obvious fact that all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are worthy of consideration and many are worthy or practice and some have no place in our society. Ideas like the supremacy of the Germans or the inferiority of the Jews or the Dalits or African people are all now without contest, considered garbage. Should I have been living in the 18th century, the very idea of expressing myself, against religion would have been enough grounds to kill me and my entire kith and kin as we may know it. History is well documented in this regard and we all know what happened to Galileo for merely stating the obvious.
Holding the idea that the opponents of a system that lacks credibility, in backing up their claims with evidence, should somehow not be vociferous in their critique of the former is nothing but plain discrimination or to put it politely, deploying double standards. It is the same thought process that also critiques the feminist movement for being vociferous about the systematic discrimination of women in society, mostly aided and justified by well-founded religious superstitions. It is also the same double standard that criticizes gays, lesbians, transgender, transvestites and other sexual minorities for expressing themselves sexually in public space. I had an Indian friend once tell me, while we sat at Starbucks in a mall around Yishun, Singapore about how bankrupt Singapore was of morality and how he could do nothing a few days ago in McDonalds while he was with his son for breakfast and two girls were kissing and making out and nobody cared. He was disappointed that had it been India, those girls would have been taught a lesson.
I wondered why this individual travelled all the way, to a more secular country than India and complained about the rights other people had that he did not want for them in the first place, which he could have enjoyed right here living in India of course for a far lesser pay with an inferior quality of life. I often quote this incident because this friend is not an evil person or devious of intent. Neither does he want to willingly discriminate anybody like most people do. However, his religious framework tells him that people of a different sexual orientation are detrimental to society. Without ever questioning why it is so, he decided that for two women to kiss in public and make out was unacceptable. His complaint about the whole situation is an unconscious manifestation of homophobia which is generated and justified by a religious doctrine that claims infallibility and says it cannot be contested since it knows everything.
The same could be the situation when recollecting an incident while I was in 5th grade. I used to walk every day to attend Hindi classes and passed by Bunder Garden 1st street to avoid dogs on the 2nd street that get paranoid of people who walk weirdly, end up chasing them. One fine day, as I walked by, I saw a newlywed couple, get out of a car and their relatives welcomed them into the house. I have had this fascination for cars that have roses decorated on them with the “newly married” tag for a long time since my childhood. As I stood and stared at the car and the beautiful decoration of red roses on the white ambassador, I did not realize that the newlywed couple was directly walking towards me, passing by to get into their home.
People had apparently yelled out at me to get out of the way but I was completely immersed in my admiration of the beautifully decorated car. Suddenly all I knew was a “clang” sort of a sound that rang in my head and I was on the floor, books strewn all over the road in sludge of mud and sewer water and drenched in scum of the road. While I picked myself up, I realized a small pebble was missile-ed at my forehead and I was bleeding a bit. While a few people angrily yelled at the people in the house for acting like fools, I was advised as to why I was being so careless and thoughtless about standing in the way of a newlywed couple, when it is a known fact that disabled people or widows are a bad omen when kicking off good things. I accepted the explanation with no contests until later in my early 20’s, recollecting incidents like these led me to question the validity of morality based of a religious framework, specifically when people were not so comfortable to have one my aunts play a key role in weddings, family events because she was a widow.
When such situations are dealt out in front of you, the only option you as an individual are left to pursue is to resist and revolt. Revolutions happened in history mostly because civil discourse as an option is not offered to individuals contesting an idea or a condition. A classic example is the riots in China and how the army of the PRC suppresses it every other time, yet every other time riots do recur. It is again the same with our own Maoist insurgency issues. Protests, rebuttals and activism against an ideology cannot be attributed to discrimination. For one to claim discrimination and hurt sentiments, such sentiments or ideas should be fair and not be discriminative themselves against a set of individuals, which is being contested by the former.
The premise that moderates who are not vociferously in support of the fundamentalists neither opposing the detrimental ideas of discriminating people using a religious framework, should somehow be shielded from criticism is invalid. Science has taught us a thing or two about survival strategy. One of the lessons it teaches us is that of “Herd Immunity“. When enough number of people in a herd, are protected from a particular disease, it is not possible for the outbreak of that disease to infect the members of that herd in a large scale and thereby bring massive damage. Likewise, despite the fact that the faction of religious nuts are a very small in number (arguably) in most places around the world, their aggressive campaign and enforcement of their views and ideas is never contested by the majority of the moderates who want to live their everyday life and move on and couldn’t care more about what scripture says. Though directly not contributing to the violation of human rights, indirectly, moderates support the survival of extremists on a daily basis by way of inaction. There are more feminists holding displays and yelling on the streets today and there are more atheists suing religious organizations for unnecessarily infiltrating and distracting the society with bad ideas. There are more human rights activists today speaking out, despite the ramifications it has. There are more vegetarians and vegans who contest the validity of our meat consumption. There are more people questioning the illegal status of several recreational drugs like cannabis when there is evidence of no major harm and benefits of its usage.
Technology has helped us communicate faster and in a more reliable manner. Documentation has become easier. Mass communication has become easier and media has gone social. The number of PC users hitting Twitter and Facebook to get updates on current happenings has gone up compared to the same individuals who would have turned on their television set and would have taken for granted what news channels would have told them, about a decade ago. It is highly unlikely that feminists, human rights activists and secular humanists (a collective reference to a community that includes atheists, agnostics, skeptics etc.) are going to shut up or tone down.
Should you really need to stop them from expressing their ideas and undermining your religious agenda, it might as well be more effective to argue and justify why specific ideas like religion or cultural ideas, despite their credibility and reputation, being questionable are exempt from critique.
In the words of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte, “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people!“