Those in hurry can skip the short background for this post that follows in the black block as understanding the rest of the post is not dependent on that. And those in real hurry can anyway skip the whole post as this is going to be really, really long one.
When I had begun blogging actively just short of two years back, atheism had occupied so much of my mental space that I had thought most of my blog posts would be about what I perceived to be the evils of faith and organized religion. It is for this reason I had prominently mentioned the fact of myself being an atheist in my Blogger profile (and the same description finds place in ‘Me’ section of this blog). I want the theistic readers of my blog to be aware that I might blog about religion & God, and thus, lot of what I write might prove offensive to them unless and until they actively overlook such posts or the arguments made therein. However, it so happened that I did blog about atheism, religion and (blind) faith, albeit not with the frequency I had anticipated I would, nor with the anger and irritation that I harbor against the last phenomenon [though, certain readers might disagree ]. Curiously, one of the first posts I would have published would be the one I am publishing now. When I look back at my thought processes, I feel the most life-defining moments were those that gradually and sequentially led me to turn an atheist from a God-loving and not as much -fearing theist. Except for those few who had never been theist or those in whose life religion and faith had played very little role, I think all others have had to confront a few pertinent questions – “Is there a God? What is that God like? What all does this God do or not do so as to influence my life? What all did this God do or not do? What all can this God do or not do?” And most importantly, “why?” I also believe, each and every person also sought answers to these questions. Though, the perspectives from which these questions would be viewed and relative importance given to ones own ability to reason, other sources consulted and the degree to which they were relied upon – would have all differed in case of each person. No wonder, almost everyone has a ‘customized’, ‘personalized’ God. Even the atheists and the atheistic agnostics, I have noticed, offer differing reasons for not believing that God exists or alternatively that there is no way to determine the truth! The reason it took me so long to come up with this post is difficult to explain. As I said, the above questions and how I answered them at various points in time are a reflection of what I fundamentally had been then. How I answer the above questions define me most definitively what I am now. Seen in isolation, the above (and a few related) questions could be posed as a part of any survey or any opinion poll and they would seem trivial, but my approach in attempting to answer them stood for various things, not in the least, my ability to introspect, to be able to be honest about myself to myself, to emerge out of long-standing biases, the ability of distinguishing between an idea’s popular acceptance and its veracity, etc. Also, because ‘God’ is such a powerful all-encompassing concept that the answers to the above questions not only impacted what I thought about the ‘God’, but also about myself, the ‘significance’ of my existence, and in fact, the ‘significance’ of everything I thought to exist/happen or might come to think to exist/happen. So, this post was bound to be long [of course, a few of my readers who have known me would complain that I just keep on finding excuses for writing long blog posts! ], and so my inertia in writing it was proportionately greater. This blog entry would contain very vague remembrances as they pertain to times long past.
I do not remember how and when exactly I had come across the idea of God for the first time. Perhaps, the first time I had heard about God was in my ‘nursery school’, wherein the teachers would tell the kids to stop fighting as otherwise God would get angry; I was 3 to 4 years old at that time. Back at home, I would be told on doing certain things in Gujarati – “paap laag se” or in Hindi, “paap lage ga” (loosely put, “you will get curses”). These acts would include things like wasting food, hurting stray animals, speaking a lie to the parents, hitting adults or something that might amount to disrespect to the God like entering a temple with shoes on. On the other hand, I also used to hear things like it was good to help others, not to enter fights with other children, forgive and ignore if others would hit/verbally abuse me as that would impress the God. I had also noticed that people started behaving very differently every time they would be in a temple. People would tend to observe silence, would lower their heads before the idol. On more than one occasions I had asked as to why we had to pray and lower our heads before a statue. I was told that by doing so, God is pleased, our wishes would be granted and if we would have committed any sins in the past, they would be forgiven.
There were many instances of how others behaved and additionally, based on what I was told, I concluded that God could see everything that we do and could hear everything that we speak. Likewise, I also concluded that God kept an account of our acts and points would be added each time we did something ‘good’ and points would be subtracted each time we did something ‘bad’. I must have been around 5 to 6 years by the time I drew the above conclusions.
So, I used to scrutinize my thoughts most meticulously and each time I would get angry and develop an urge to hurt someone or shout at them, I used to put a check on such thoughts. I used to put forth my best behavior – wanting to not hurt anyone. I also subconsciously used to feel an urge to see everyone as much happy around as possible. All this because I used to think that the best thing that can please the God was to make others around happy and to help them, and the worst things one could do to displease God were to hurt/harm others or do some ‘bad’ things like lying. But what was the incentive for me to try to please the God and not pain him by my doing ‘bad’ things? I had not yet been introduced to the concept of heaven and hell, that ‘good’ souls got to enter ‘heaven’ and ‘bad’ souls entered ‘hell’. As I look back, I think the incentive for me was to be appreciated. As a student (and as a child) I was very reticent, I used to write very slowly and I was also perceived to be a slow learner. I used to copy down with great reluctance what the teacher would write on the black board. All this used to make the teachers quite angry. Also, my exam scores had started deteriorating. My parents used to forcefully get me to complete my home assignments. In all the parents-teacher meets till I turned 10, my teachers used to say just one thing – “your son keeps very quiet and is disciplined; he speaks very little and does not make any noise”. Teachers used to mean that as a praise and I used to get quite satisfied by that but parents were worried that I did not do well academically. I was scolded, on many, many occasions was beaten up also (by parents, not teachers) for not completing the ‘classwork’, was made to go to other class mates’ houses to get their notebooks so that my parents could make me complete the classwork under their supervision. I used to hardly play games with other children till I turned eight. I used to see other parents dote on their children, praise them, take their children’s side (though not always) if they would quarrel with other children. However, my interactions with my parents were largely restricted to being scolded or beaten up for not being a ‘good’ student. Also on turning nine, when I had really taken a liking to cricket, in particular, bowling, and so for not completing my class work, the penalty was to be not allowed to go out of the house to play cricket. I of course used to feel very angry and helpless. One question had always troubled me – “why do my parents not love me the way others’ parents do?”. [While writing in all this, I am not trying to be sensationalist and it is for this reason I could relate so well to the Hindi movie - Taare Zameen Par (click). And it is for reasons such as these, this might be one of the most emotionally intense, personal blog posts I am writing].
As I grew older, I started developing a certain kind of smugness (which I do not show to others, but has still continued to be with me, albeit with much lesser strength of conviction). I must have been around 8 to 9 when I started feeling I was somehow wiser and more moral than people around and that unlike others I had never done things that would displease the God. In fact, I was confident that God must have been proud of me and I was the perfect human there could be. It was at this stage that as part of my conversations with my older cousins I was introduced to the ideas regarding the ‘soul’. There was some program telecast on Zee TV in the mornings, in which a lady with serene face and in a serene voice used to explain how the World ‘operated’. One of the important analogies I remember was her equating the body with a vehicle, the various organs in it with its engine and the ‘soul’ as the driver. Considering I used to be in awe of grownups and that she had appeared so confident in what she said, it was very tempting to believe her, which I did. Also, because it was so difficult to visualize (still is!) that our consciousness just vanishes when we die, this explanation had been very tempting. At the same time a year or later, I had started watching Zee Horror Show (click) – again along with my older cousin. I was told that if a person dies with unfulfilled wishes or his/her body is not cremated properly, the soul that escapes out of the body becomes a pretaatama (loosely translated, ‘evil soul’) and that it haunts people. My cousin used to tell me of elaborate tactics on how to evade such ghosts. E.g., one thing I remember his telling me was how in the dark we must talk in a code language, because the ghosts would start doing what we ask each other to do. For instance, one must not say “come”, but instead say, “move”. Because if we say “come”, the ghost would ‘come’ with us, but if we say “move”, the ghost would be confused as to where to move. Yes, I used to believe him. I do not know if my cousin was playing tricks with me or he genuinely used to believe such things (he is almost 3 years older than me). But I suspect it to be former.
Thus, for next 3 to 4 years (till I turned 12), my mind used to be preoccupied with ideas of ghosts and how they might kill me in most cruel fashion possible. This fear had made me further dependent on the God. In my mind I used to play scenes wherein some ghost would be on the verge of killing me and the God would do terrible things to ‘it’.
I had also started ‘conversing’ with the God a few years back then. My ‘relationship’ with God had evolved under a cloud of intense loneliness. There was only God who I could talk to, to share all the pain I used to feel, to dissipate all the anger, and most important, do it without showing all this to others and without acting under the influence of these intense emotions. Despite my smugness about being ‘generally’ good, I could never talk of my distress to others. That was perhaps because, where I used to live, nobody would have thought my parents to be wrong in how they had been treating me. Also, I never felt comfortable enough with any teacher to be talking of such things. I had no close friend to speak of. Whichever class mates/friends I used to speak to or play cricket with were not very close. I was worried that if I would speak of these things my parents’ impression would be spoiled and also used to feel insecure of revealing a ‘secret’ that my parents did not love me, which in turn would reveal how I was worthless as a person – a realization I must have greatly feared subconsciously. It is not that I did not try to copy down what would be written on the board, but I used to write slowly, and by the time I would reach the bottom of the board, the teacher would have already erased her (most were indeed female teachers) writing. And once I would miss some text and lag behind there would be no way to catch up. Then, most of my thoughts would be preoccupied with the imminent ordeal at the home. Needless to say, my relations with parents were so strained that I could never communicate with them my fears about ghosts or even other ideas about the God, soul, etc.
Here I need to add that in class 5 I had got a wonderful science teacher, who had made me confident of myself. It was owing to her that I had started taking lot of interest in science, in particular, and in other subjects also. I had started asking many doubts in the class and would also answer many questions asked by the teachers. My scores had improved significantly and I emerged as one of the toppers by class 6. Alas, the teacher had been hired on an ad hoc basis and had stopped teaching mid-way in class 5 and anyway, teachers for ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ classes were different. And yes, my story in this matter has been every bit as filmy as it sounds.
Just before the aforementioned turnaround had happened, I used to complain to the God as to why my parents used to ill-treat me so much and not love me. I used to be filled with anger towards them. But somehow despite my intense desire to do so, I never ‘asked’ the God to hurt them in any way. This was because in Indian society, somehow, it is expected that children always respect and think good for their parents. I was convinced that if I wish ill of my parents, the God would get angry. [While 'speaking' to God, I didn't really open my mouth and utter any words nor did I use any elaborate gestures]. It was at that stage when my maternal grandmother had spoken on my young maternal uncle’s untimely death (her son, in effect) that “Upar-waada ni leela kaun samajhi shakey chhe; aa badhu toh paachhala janmon na karmon nu phad chhe” [loosely translated in Hindi: "Upar-waale ki leela kaun samajh sakta hai; yeh sab toh pichhale janmon ke karmon ka phal hai"; in English: "Who can decipher the designs of the Almighty; all these are the consequences of our deeds in the past incarnations"]. As I had been convinced that souls leave a person’s body once he/she dies, it became easy to correlate how the soul would leave one body to enter another (including, one of another species). Also, in class 5 itself a Hindi teacher I used to quite like had told that one gets incarnated as a human after 85,00,000 incarnations as some other lower organism (like dog, worm, or even a plant)! So, one must do good deeds in this incarnation, and then only can one get to enter the Heaven (the term ‘moksha’ had not been introduced to me, yet). Of course, again given his confidence, I had started believing him. I was only happy that I was going in the ‘right’ direction – by trying to be good to others and not hurting anyone.
So, by the time I had turned 11, I had a comprehensive theory about the God and souls. I became convinced that all the bad experiences I had had in the childhood were owing to my bad past deeds. Then, that the God was testing my putting me in difficult situations, and that if I emerged out of them without making ‘mistakes’, the God would be happy and I would enter the heaven (and would get to laugh smugly at all those left behind for having ill-treated me [including the parents] or others who would have used short cuts in life, like cheating in exams, stealing, hitting others, killing, etc.] However, there was yet another lurking doubt: if my soul was so nice as I was in *this* incarnation, then how could the very same soul have done bad deeds in the past incarnation? That is something I could never understand and the doubt had remained unresolved for long.
Being in India, it is inescapable in the childhood that one would choose ones favorite god. Mine, mostly because of the portrayals by Nitish Bjaradwaj, was Krishna (click).
- Nitish Bharadwaj as Lord Krishna. Courtesy: metromatinee.com
I had to confront the question: who exactly was the God I was communicating with. Though, I was charmed by Krishna, I somehow never felt it was he I had been speaking to. Just then, to my rescue came another idea – that all the 33,00,00,000 (330 million) gods that existed were actually different manifestations of the same God. I had again found the explanation attractive. My smugness again made me believe that the God I was communicating with was the ‘main’ one and not some altu-faaltu subsidiary god.
My conversations with the God used to be highly varied. I remember vividly once I had read in a children’s magazine – Tinkle (click) that ants leave a chemical trail when they walk in files and that is how those ants walking behind would know what path to take. To test what I had read, I had actually tried wiped with finger a small segment of the line along which ants were walking and that had worked, i.e., the ants no instead of walking straight were actually getting scattered and sort of circumventing that point where I had rubbed my finger! I was initially happy to have tested the assertion successfully, but suddenly I was struck with guilt that I had made the hardworking ants walk that much more and that I must have added to their anxiety. I also felt ashamed that just because I was much mightier than the ants I was playing God to them. And at that point I had apologized to the God. I had told him (yes, somehow it was a ‘him’) that he could punish me for this kind of indiscretion and I would be alright with it, as I truly deserved punishment. I guess, I must have been 12 at that time.
It was around that time only that a few more questions had started bothering me. I started thinking we get so much caught up in various things we try, e.g., my parents had given me the incentive that if I get the first rank in the class, they would buy me a cricket kit [it was a different matter that I never got the first rank! ], and we also secretly wish that God fulfill our wishes, but what is in it for the God to listen to our wishes and actually fulfill them? When I was in class 6 (around 10 to 11 years age), I had been introduced to the game of chess by the same cousin I had mentioned above. Then, I played the game with a few other people. Colloquially, in Hindi when a piece would be captured, we used to say “(e.g., raani ko) maar daala” (“the Queen has been killed”). I realized that people took a perverse pleasure in deciding the fate of the chess pieces. A couple of years down the line when I was faced with troubling questions, I thought that perhaps all the things that were created by God, including us, humans, were for his entertainment. God must have been feeling bored and that is why for his amusement he created us just like chess pieces.
Those were the times when I had started believing that our souls were just created out of a larger soul (called parmaatma; loosely translated, “the supreme soul”) and that the purpose of life was to perform deeds such that we could attain salvation (moksha). Initially, I used to feel that one needed to do ‘good’ deeds to be able to reach there. But later on, as my ideas evolved, I had come to conclude that this kind of ‘liberation’ from life-death-cycle could be possible only if one realized the true nature of the Universe, that, our lives and all that we could perceive were for God’s amusement, that there was nothing ‘real’ about all of this, that the entire system was in place only to test us and filter out the souls unworthy of attaining salvation. It was in midst of thoughts such as these that during the morning assembly the students were ‘made to’ (it was not active coercion, but somehow no student, including myself had found anything wrong; as such the prayer was very secular and had contained ‘good’ things; though, now I shudder to think to what extent even such ‘secular’ prayers were directed at inspiring servility and submissiveness in humans) to sing a prayer, which had included asatoma sat gamaya; tamasoma jyotir gamaya… and another song, which can be found here (click). I used to actually visualize a large burning wick (parmaatma) giving rise to smaller burning wicks (souls of human beings), which would return back to the former. I was convinced that somehow it was a ‘pious’ thing to have God at the center of my thoughts.
Now that I was in class seven (aged between 11 to 12), some doubts had started troubling me. My life was no longer miserable. I had started taking active interest in academics. My scores had improved a lot, though they could never satisfy my parents, but at least now they were not worried about me. I had also become quite talkative. I used to discuss many of my ideas, including that on God with my friends (who were all my age, and usually, my class mates). I used to be surprised that most of the people used to be quite agnostic about the existence of God, yet they used to offer prayers. I also used to think those who did not believe in the God’s existence to be fools. Because, they used to offer what I used to consider a very childish and simplistic reason to not believe in the God’s existence – Agar Bhagwaan hain, toh humein dikhte kyon nahin hain; humein unki aawaaz sunai kyon nahin deti hai. Yeh sab andh-vishwaas hai-types [loose translation: if there exists a God, then why can't we see him; why are we not able to hear his voice. All this is blind belief]. Of course, there were others who used to point out how they had asked God for something, with highest strength of belief, and also offered prayers to the effect with right ‘technique’ and yet what they had asked for, was not fulfilled. I used to consider them even greater fools, and much worse, too selfish. When I had started believing that our lives were one big test and basically meant for amusement of God, I had somehow come to believe that everything in the Universe, including the material things we wanted belonged to him. God would give us whatever he deemed as appropriate based on our past and current deeds. I used to find it cheap that we would pray to the God to grant us wishes, and thus, do us a favor ‘out of turn’. I started thinking it stupid to bother God with such trivialities as *my* first rank in the class, *my* getting a cricket kit, etc. At some point in time, I also got convinced that God does not pay attention to our prayers, but just does those things to us that we deserve owing to our deeds or some other of God’s designs. A time came when I started detesting all others’ idea of God. I used to equate with a megalomaniacal sadist boss, a God that would grant us wishes on praising (indulging in sycophancy) and would punish us on ignoring or disregarding him. I was sure that the God could not be like that that and the people who used to worship God for some favors were actually bringing disgrace to the God. As time progressed, my God had become less and less human-like. I thought it was childish to think that the great God would have taken the form of human beings (the way the gods would be portrayed in the mythological serials and movies). After all, humans were just like other animals, just a bit more intelligent, so it must be human arrogance to assume God to resemble us, is what I had concluded. As my God became formless, I also came to believe that he did not after all seem much interested in the affairs of the world. Perhaps, it must have been in class eight (age: 12 to 13 years), when I started recognizing “Mother Nature” as an independent entity. I thought that there must be some intelligent entity that had created the Earth and the ecosystem. Note here that I used to consider this latter force as some sort of subsidiary to the ‘main’ God, and I had never defined the relationship between the two. This change was brought about because I had read a few articles about fossils and had started gathering some knowledge about ‘evolution’ in school texts. Though, I had heard and read about Darwin, I could not appreciate the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ for a few more years. I used to look at evolution as a process effected by God, wherein the various species took lot of time to come to evolve. This I had thought was because the ‘Nature’ was trying to evolve best possible organisms through trial-and-error. It was also the time when I had become very environment-conscious. I used to write poetry about the destruction of the ‘Nature’, used to draw posters, etc. to try to make others aware of what all wrong we were doing to the ‘Mother Nature’. In all, I used to think of ‘Nature’ as a living entity being abused by human beings (not unlike in the movie – Avataar). My ‘conversations’ with God had greatly reduced as I was getting convinced more and more that God had little interest in my personal life or for that matter, even the workings of the Universe. That I was too small for God to be interested is something I had accepted long back, but as I learned more about the expanse of the Universe, I also became increasingly convinced that even the Earth was too small for God to be actually bothered about and micro-manage.
I do not remember how, if, I had reconciled my ideas of soul with that of newly learned ideas like that of evolution. The first time I felt I had required to do a major re-think about my ideas of the Universe, God and nature was upon my reading an introductory text to Biology by an American author. It was a book brought to me by dad from his library. Prior to that I had been very much into reading up science, but most of that had been physics. E.g., I was very, very fascinated by the idea of electrons revolving around the nucleus, which in turn would be composed of protons and neutrons and how simply changing the number of protons in the nucleus would give rise to a new ‘element’. The said book had started with a very lucid definition of life, something on the lines of “life is a series of biochemical processes that involve nutrition, respiration and reproduction”. The first thing that struck me was life was a “process” and not a thing, like a ‘soul’ that I used to think it to be. Also, later on in the chapter the author had explained how most of the components of the biological cell had nothing remarkable about them and that they were in fact ‘non-living’. It was also stated that most of these components were also self-assembling, meaning if we would put all the organelles and their components in a compartment they would take their ‘right’ positions and start performing those activities that would make the cell ‘alive’. These facts were very startling for me. It was for the first time I started thinking that the ‘seat’ of life was not somewhere in the forehead (where I used to think the soul to reside), but in each and every cell. All this made me look at life as something less special and miraculous than I had been thinking all along. But on the other hand, my interest was piqued. I think beyond that point, other than quantum physics and thermodynacmics, etc. no other field of science had fascinated me as much as cell and molecular biology had.
The next major event in my life was when a science teacher (in class 9; age – 13 to 14 years) had pointed out that in villages, especially in olden days, diseases were considered to be curses by God for doing bad deeds and that this was basically people’s ignorance. So much so that diseases that caused rash, e.g., ‘chicken pox’, ‘small pox’, etc., were called by names of specific goddesses whose visitations they were considered to be. This had made me wonder for the very first time as to how did people *know* that the God existed. It was for the first time I started looking at not just man as God’s creation, but God also as man’s creation. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that man was apt to attribute to God that which he could not account for himself. I started thinking of all other examples like lightning, thunder, rain, floods – everything was attributed to the whim of the God.
It was at that point when a guy who had come to my house to ‘see’ one of my cousins as part of a marriage suit had stated (I paraphrase): “the sum total of all the knowledge is like a tall stick. Whatever portion lies in the illuminated state is what we call knowledge, whatever is above that and can’t see, is what we call God”. The guy was, for different reasons deemed unfit for my cousin, and eventually the two did not marry, but for me, he was the person to have made one of the most profound and influential statements I had ever heard.
In many of my discussions on people’s beliefs about the God, those defending the God’s existence used to most commonly rely upon two arguments, viz., “can you explain how this could happen (e.g., evolution of life on Earth, creation of the Universe from ‘nothing’, etc.)” and “Can you do such and such thing (e.g., ‘creating’ life, ‘bringing back’ dead people, creating the Universe from ‘nothing’, etc.)” I became increasingly confident that less the people understood the phenomena around them, stronger was their conviction in the existence of God. This realization had made me come up with a question:
If our confidence in the existence of God was inversely proportional to the fraction of phenomena we could understand ‘scientifically’, then let’s say to begin with when we had known almost nothing about the world around us, the strength of our belief was 100 x units. But then we came to know what ’causes’ lightning, diseases, earthquakes, etc., so gradually, the strength of our belief came down to, say, 20 x units. Then, there might be a time, though, really, really distant into the future, that we would know *everything* about the Universe. In which case, would our confidence in the existence of God come down to zero x units? More important, does this whole analysis not make our confidence in God’s existence lot less firm than what we would like to believe it to be?
Along with these thoughts, as I found more and more people I could confide in and discuss my ideas with, and thus as my emotional dependence on God reduced, my ‘conversations’ with God had almost stopped. Given my skepticism, even when I had to pray owing to peer pressure or in some kind of social situation, e.g., like visiting Ganesh pandaals (a small make-shift stall) during Ganesh Chaturthi and when I had to bow my head, close my eyes, and ‘pray’, I used to feel very awkward, for I knew I was pretending to pray. I call it pretense, firstly, because I had stopped believing long back that one really needed to close ones eyes and bow the head to ‘speak’ to the God. I couldn’t believe God could be such a bastard who would rejoice in making the same people feel servile who he only would have created. I had also stopped believing long back that the God would give in to sycophnacy (which most of the aartis and bhajan-keertans actually are). In fact, I used to be apologetic to ‘my’ God that I was caricaturizing him by being party to all this silliness indulged in by people who could not understand what God ‘really’ was. Of course, on the other hand, I had also been losing the emotional contact with God and also was getting more and more skeptical of his existence and the nature of the God, if he were to exist. It was under these circumstances, that I used to prefix my prayers with “If God, you exist, and if you’re interested…” and then go on to request something like saving the ecosystem or making people more sensible so that they would not indulge in violence or cruel behavior or to relieve the poverty-afflicted people of their pains. As I tried to explain earlier, the idea of asking something for the self, and praising (devotional songs, prayers, etc.), bribing (offering money/food) and emotionally blackmailing (observing fasts or some other vow, like that of celibacy) to get all that was totally reprehensible to me. That to me reeked of worst kind of immorality. I used to shudder to think if God were to be really like what most people imagined him to be.
With this phase, another question troubled me. Why did I have to respect God? Is it only because God had superpowers? Is it because God had the power to determine my fate? Or is because God was really ‘good’ (“good”, as in, from a human perspective – benevolent, kind, generous, just, impartial, etc.). I suddenly felt a resentment towards the idea that this respect was borne out of fear. I searched my mind thoroughly and I was relieved that I did not respect God at least out of fear, because somehow my conscience had always been clear. I had done nothing ‘wrong’ deliberately with intent of hurting others, so why should I be afraid? But in midst of these thoughts, my God had actually turned quite impersonal.
All these thoughts had crossed my mind when I was in classes 9 to 11 (13 to 16 years of age). In between, when I had just turned 15, there was a huge upset in life – I had ended up with very bad scores in class ten exams, especially, in science and social studies despite having worked very hard and systematically for the exams (studying in a very focused manner and also going through previous years’ question papers). Also, having been in CBSE, predicting ones score in science and social studies used to be very easy. My final scores were astonishingly below my most conservative estimates. The reason I emphasize on this is because, all my life I had been a very casual student. I almost never used to study much before the exams. I used to avoid going through the previous years’ papers as I used to find that unethical. My explanation used to be: if copying/’leaking’ questions in exams is wrong, then knowing the questions that could be repeated in exams beforehand and learning their answers and simply reproducing them is also wrong. And hence, I used to avoid seeing the papers. Plus perhaps, I was too casual a student to be doing such things. These things were *beneath* me! However, class 10 ‘board exams’ happen to be landmark exams in India. Personally, they were not very relevant to me because I would have anyway got admission to the ‘Junior college’ in my colony where I used to live, but these scores were important to get admission in ‘Agrawal classes’ (a parallel coaching institute that ‘prepares’ students for class 12 board exams, so that students would score well then, these scores in turn used to be criteria for admission into graduation courses). In the colony where I used to live, securing admission in Agrawal classes used to be a matter of prestige. ‘Classification’ of students was based on ‘Agrus’ and ‘non-Agrus’. While, I used to care a zilch for such classifications, my parents were visibly embarrassed. They felt I had let them down. They had been telling me repeatedly for past many years to ‘mend’ my ways, not be so casual and over-confident, and to not be so unconventional in my approach to exams. Then there were relatives and family-friends who would speak in patronizing tone as to how ‘Agarwal classes’ was not everything and that other coaching institutes were also good. Actually, these things did not affect me owing to my thick skin, but they had also been sensitizing me to some other much more uncomfortable doubts – “was I being really over-confident?”, “did I really ‘deserve’ the low marks I had obtained?”. Then one another, perhaps, most relevant to the current blog post: “Was God punishing me for my ‘insubordination’?” Was God really like the way other people had thought him to be – like a megalomaniacal boss? I told myself that these were not the right times to think over such issues as I was emotionally disturbed and thus my inferences would be automatically too instinctive and wrong. I told myself that perhaps this was the toughest emotional test God was making me pass through, and that there are much worse things that people go through. But this was for the first time, a doubt had been sown in my mind about the validity of the interrelated assertions: “so shall you sow, so shall you reap” and “hard work always pays”. These doubts were very hard to reconcile with. They had made me feel helpless.
Then, when I reached class 11, I started understanding the Universe lot better than I used to before. This was largely because of reading books on physics. I increasingly started appreciating that the classification of empirically gained understanding of the World into ‘physics’, ‘chemistry’ and ‘biology’ was quite artificial. To be more precise, at most fundamental level, biology is nothing but chemistry (and a bit of physics), i.e., biochemistry and molecular biology and chemistry was nothing but simplified physics. So, I realized that the most fundamental ‘truths’ about the Universe could be explained solely by physics. One of the very basics book on physics had claimed that there were only seven “laws of conservation”, which if taken as premises could explain the whole of physics that we know. And further that, scientists were looking for law of conservation of one physical ‘quantity’, which in turn could account for all those seven laws. Though, I had remained skeptical, the entire idea did not seem implausible. This revelation had taken me closer to my conviction that “yes, there indeed might come a time, when we would be able to understand and explain everything, then what is it that we would need God for as a hypothesis?” At that point I surmised, “though we might find out how the Universe came into being and the way phenomena within it occur, we would never be never able to tell the purpose behind its existence and the way it exists. That must only be known to the God.” But I also found the entire logic quite circular. If the Universe, to come into existence and to have ‘determined’ its manner of functioning (laws of physics), required there to be a God, what made the God come into existence and what determined the manner in which God would function?. This doubt had remained unresolved in my mind for quite some time.
On the other hand, I obviously knew that the day on which we would know and understand everything about the Universe might never come, but that to me started seeming to be a very perverse reason for the belief in God’s existence. The entire basis of God’s existence was wreathed in negativity – ignorance and inability of humans. I started asking myself, “what fundamentally is the difference between saying “I don’t know; I can’t do that” and saying that “God knows; God can do it”"? Also, as explained above, if the basis of our belief in existence of God had to be our ignorance and inability, then shouldn’t we feel less confident about God’s existence as we knew more and could do more? Would that be fair to the God in whose existence we believed? This diminishing divinity of the divine was something unacceptable to me. That made seem God more like an excuse to cover up our ignorance and inability rather than anything else.
Along with above doubts I had, since long I had started getting another lurking doubt – if God had determined everything about our lives (fate), what was the original basis for such determination? If, e.g., my fate on a given day was determined by God to develop an impulse to steal, and if God knew about this impulse, and just like everything else in the Universe, it is only God who made the existence and occurrence of such an impulse possible, then how was it my *fault* that I would develop that impulse, not have the will power to resist it (remember, God only left me bereft of the requisite will power) and that I end up acting on that impulse?
This question had thoroughly shaken the foundation of my morality and my basis to judge others and myself. It is at this point that I substantially lost the smugness I felt for being what I considered to be more moral than others.
It was in midst of such doubts that on an impulse, I had conducted a thought-experiment. I decided to close my eyes, and contemplate for a couple of minutes a Universe where no God existed. I had an impending feeling that I was about to do something very significant, that there was some great threshold I was about to cross. True to my usage of the word ‘experiment’, I had no idea what feeling would I end up with on trying the experiment. Would I feel so agitated and distressed that I would have to open my eyes? Or… I did not know what else could have been felt, because that is the only thing I thought could be felt, and perhaps even secretly wanted to feel. It is thus that I closed my eyes. I had purged the lurking God out of my mind. I tried to visualize the billions of stars falling over each other in crowds called galaxies, that in some corner was this Solar system, and in it, the Earth. I vanished the Earth. Nothing happened. Nothing happened! No galaxies had wept, not God was beating his chest in despair. There was no God! Whether there was this Earth or not – it made no difference to everything else that existed. Whether there was God or not – it made no difference to everything that otherwise existed. That something existed was the only truth. And whatever existed, even if it were to stop existing, it would make no difference. And no, I did not feel agitated. I opened my eyes. And I was confronted with a question: Did I still believe that the God existed? How could have I lied to myself. I now knew there was no God. But there were so many other questions to answer. What if I were wrong, would I not miss out on such a beautiful conception as the God? Would I not be unfair to the God, in that case? Also, I hated to admit it, but I realized that if I were to stop believing in the God, there would be a huge vacuum in my life – both on the emotional front, because God was a support for me to rationalize that after all things were not always in my hands and secondly, a vacuum of purposelessness. What was the purpose of my existing? It was the very last time I had spoken to my God and was something on these lines:
“God, I do not know if you truly exist. I have realized that to believe or not believe in your existence is after all a matter of choice now. You had been with me for so long. I realize that I would feel weak if I were to stop believing in you. But there were these two minutes when I just tried to contemplate Universe’s and my existence without you and yes I could do it. So, if I were to still keep on believing in your existence, it would be a most fundamental dishonesty. I would be lying to myself. And most important, lying in matter of something that I hold so dear to myself, i.e., you. I can bear the pain that not believing in you, if any, might cause, but I cannot bear to live with the fact that my belief in you would be calculated and be guided by a certain kind of shrewdness that believing in you ‘helps’. Hence God, hereon you do not exist.”
Stopping to believe in God did not trouble me to the extent I had anticipated. But there was something else that troubled me. “What was it that I had been believing in for so long, with which I used to talk, and in a way, for which I had been living my life? What was it?” I was afraid that I knew the answer. It was me deluding myself. I felt very angry. I felt betrayed in a very deep sense. Something that had meant so much to me was just an illusion? And much worse, an illusion created by own mind to deceive myself? How could I do this to myself? I had not been able to forgive myself back then. I still cringe to think I had done all that to myself. Perhaps, the reason I could buffer the anger and the shock that ensued was simply because I also felt relieved. I felt relieved that no longer did I feel an obligation to believe in something that I had basically stopped believing in, and perhaps even, never even believed truly in. I felt relieved that I had gotten rid of a falsehood that had warped my world. This – perhaps the most memorable event in my life – had occurred when I was in class 11, and I guess I must have been on the verge of turning 16.
Yet, when I thought of others who believed in the existence of God, I never found them wrong. I felt that God was a hypothesis that could indeed be used to account for the Universe’s existence in addition to all the science that we know of, what is the harm in presupposing that a God must have created and determined the nature of all this that we call the Universe? So, in that sense I was still not a complete atheist, more of an agnostic, in the sense, feeling that the question whether God existed or not could not be answered convincingly.
In those days, I had been an avid reader. Two unrelated things I had learned/realized changed my outlook a lot. First was my learning about ‘action potentials’ (nerve impulses). I realized that from simple twitch of a finger to something as complicated as the urge to commit suicide – all were generated by chemical processes as simplistic as few ions like sodium, chloride, potassium, etc., moving in and out of cells containing and surrounded by water. This sounded pretty mundane and ordinary to me. I could not reconcile with the fact that my spirit, my emotions that drive me to endure this largely painful life, and the one at the end of which I would get nothing (I don’t remember at what point, but I had stopped believing in the existence of soul – in all likelihood – with coming across that biochemical definition of life), and which make me place myself at the very center of the Universe, so much so that I could see everything only one perspective – *my* perspective – is nothing but a simple play of physics and chemistry! Fundamentally, there was no difference between my emotions – what I consider a life unto themselves and a ‘nonliving’ rock. The same laws of physics could account for their behavior. I had for two days become extremely disturbed. I was filled with such great depression, I would not have panicked even if someone would have told me I were to die in next two minutes. That is the degree to which nihilism had permeated my psyche. My conscience did not allow me to even discuss this predicament with my best friend as I was convinced that complete understanding of what I had realized would make anyone depressed and suicidal. It was a true existential crisis for me. Though, in those two days something gave me the confidence that in course of time, I would after all find some purpose of living this life. Finally, I did: though, my life might have no purpose and all the emotions I experience are merely ions following the laws of physics, I ‘like’ to feel happy. Dying would require lot of courage and anyway, why lose life when the step of dying would be irreversible? What’s the harm in continuing to live? As it is, I am enjoying my emotions. I also realized that it is not good to contemplate on such important issues related to life when I was myself emotionally so disturbed.
The other impactful thing that I had come across was some article on the Times of India. It had something to do with ‘causality’ and ‘determinism’. The author had explained how owing to laws of conservation of linear and angular momentum, etc., if we could determine the current positions of each and every particle in the Universe and the direction and magnitude of forces acting on them, we could predict every event that were to occur in the Universe. Of course, I fully appreciated that we would never be able to determine the positions of every particle (applying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle only further complicated the entire occurrence), so the question of being able to predict was redundant. But what was disconcerting about the above submission was that irrespective of whether we could predict or not the future events, that they would occur was already determined by what had happened in the past. And on applying this principle to the nuerotransmitters and ions that make the brain cells work, it became amply clear that what thought we would ‘get’ given an event in the ‘external’ world, or even what emotion we feel on a given day ‘spontaneously’ were already determined by the past and current ‘positions’ and ‘trajectories’ of the same ions and neurotransmitters in the brain.
No wonder, I felt a sudden loss of control. My emotions, my thoughts, my existence – all that I used to so much covet, I realized were not central to anything the way I used to think them to be, but were merely incidental; incidental to where certain photons and particles might have been positioned in the vast sea of space-time.
God had not come to my aid in all of this crisis. Because, though God could have been something more, but now surely for me he was the outcome of the same neurotransmitters and ions that had made me accept the hypothesis of his existence as well as made someone posit it in the first place. Yet, there was something that had kept me hung on to the idea that God could exist. What was the purpose of the existence of this Universe? What was the meaning behind what seemed so patently meaningless to exist, that is this Universe?
I remember vaguely that in class 12 NCERT physics text book something non-rigorous was written about the Universe’s existence. It also had something to do with the ‘purpose’ for Universe’s existence, or how there might be no such purpose. It is for the first time I questioned myself as to why did we presuppose a purpose each time we contemplate the Universe’s existence? Why can the Universe just not exist? I smiled as I realized that that such thinking was also an outcome of a flawed perspective humans hold of seeing everything as human-centric. I answered that since all we see around us, is ‘created’ from something else, we think that everything that exists needs ‘creation’, but that this assumption is flawed! Why can something not just exist ‘since eternity’, why does it have to be ‘created’? It is at that point that I turned an atheist in the truest sense. I had stopped believing that God exists, I had stopped believing that the hypothesis of God added any value to our understanding of the Universe, and most important, I was comfortable with all these realizations on an emotional plane. I had just turned 17, then.
Following that, another upset had occurred in my life – I had got a much worse rank in Maharashtra medical entrance exam than I had anticipated. It was another of those exams where I had given my very best and there was every reason I should have done very well, but I did not. I had yet again come to doubt the value of hard work and realized the significance of randomness that governed the important outcomes in my life. I however, despite my distress, did not feel tempted to attribute that randomness to God.
I have come across many explanations for many ‘types’ of gods’ descriptions following my turning a negative atheist (‘negative atheism’ = lack of belief that God exists; ‘positive atheism’ = ‘strong’ belief that God does not exist), and also many well-articulated arguments showing their implausibility, but my fundamental beliefs about God’s existence, or rather nonexistence, the lack purpose to life, belief in naturalism (roughly put, only that exists, which can be perceived or which can make a perceptible change in what can be perceived) and belief that we lack free will have not changed. Yes, it’s a different matter that upon reading more I realized what technical term could be applied to the stages through which my beliefs in the ‘God’ had passed.
Many people, it seems, believe that I would harbor contempt for those who believe in the God. This is not true, or may be if true, not in such simplistic manner. Usually, I am not interested whether a person believes in the existence of the God or not, but as to what thought had they applied in course of retaining such a belief or discarding it. To judge a person in this regard it become important for me to know, what is their understanding of the Universe, how much of science have they come across? How much were they encouraged by the social environment in which they lived to think for themselves, etc. It is here important to point out that Isaac Newton was a firm theist and had in fact written more about Jesus Christ than about science or mathematics. But he is one of my favorite scientists. I do not consider him irrational. Because, what he knew about scientific phenomena was very little. But had he been living in today’s era and would have had access to the kind of scientific knowledge we have, I would have considered him dishonest to believe in the God’s existence. But having said all this, I also need to emphasize upon the fact that most people have some or the other insecurities. Most people delude the self in one area of the life or the other. Those who do so in matter of existence of God are who come to be called as ‘theists’. It is as simple as that. In that I do not hold theists’ theism against them. But what I have also observed is theists are slightly more apt to possess what is called ‘magical thinking’ or a liking for the occult. Apart from some very harmful superstitions that such thinking can engender, there is a risk of being unduly influenced by people with ulterior motives (which are not always restricted to earning money), e.g., practice of astrology, homeopathy, etc. I get somewhat irritated by these, because it amounts to a disregard for methodical thinking – something that distinguishes humans from ‘lower’ animals. But yet, I want to point out that ‘amount’ of rationality employed by a person is one of the many axes along which I judge a person. There are many, many other parameters that matter to me. The only reason I speak so much against religion is because it is most prevalent kind of disregard for logic and most prototypical instance of suspension of questioning – both of which I think are responsible directly or indirectly for lot of what ails the humanity.
I turn 26 today, and quite inadvertently, though I had started drafting this post many days back, it is only today that I could finish it. There is only little more to my life than what has been laid out above.
I wish to deeply thank Sushmita (click) for having asked me about my beliefs on God. Considering her sincerity as a person, I thought it only appropriate to write this blog post.