On Religion

Last Thursday there  was a function at home, of the religious type. An aunt and an uncle had come home and sang a large number of hymns. I was told that the hymns were part of a series, called the narayaneeyam, and all in praise of Lord Krishna. There were a few activities also planned along with the chanting of hymns, and occasionally people in the audience (a few other relatives) were asked to do a “namaskaara” to the deity. I mostly put ‘well left’ to these additional stuff, and watched the proceedings dispassionately, sunk into my bean bag with my laptop on my lap.

One of the guests at that function was a two-year old cousin, and he seemed to be full of enthu. He is of the religious sorts – his mom is hyper-religious, I’m told. And he did all the namaskaaras and other activities with full enthu. Later on, my mother was to admonish me saying how even the two year old would respect religion, while I just looked on. She complained about how I’ve been spoilt, and fallen under the wrong influences. I muttered something about the cousin being too innocent to know what was going on around him because of which he sincerely obeyed.

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion about six months back, I didn’t feel anything special. I’m told that the book has a lasting impact on its readers – one way or another – and that a lot of people consider it to be life-changing. I felt nothing of the sort. I just read it from start to finish, agreeing with most of its contents, and using some of its sub-plots to enhance the Studs and Fighters Theory. The only ‘impact’ it had on me was about not being a quiet atheist, and to get into arguments about existence of god, etc.

I have an interesting background in these matters. My mother and her immediate family are all ultra-religious, and I happened to grow up mostly in my maternal grandfather’s place (since both parents worked). My late father, on the other hand, was a rationalist, though he stopped short of calling himself an atheist and would passively approve of my mom’s various religious indulgences. He would quietly drive my mother and my family to the Sai Baba ashram in Whitefield, and then wait patiently outside while the rest of the people went in for their “darshan”. I would usually go in and make noises about exposing the Baba.

I don’t know how, but till recently (when I read Dawkins’s book), I would never realize when people were talking about religious stuff. For example, whenever my mom said “it’s due to god’s grace that you escaped the accident unhurt”, I’d just think that she was being rhetorical. At least, that (and swearing) are the only cases in which I take god’s name. It’s only recently, and after reading Dawkins’s book, that I realize that my mother wasn’t being rhetorical after all, and that she actually believes that it was the strength of her daily prayers that ensured I escaped those accidents unhurt.

It is also intersting to note the selection bias. My mother, and her ultra-religious sisters, and their ultra-religious relatives, selectively pick on favourable events and attribute them to god’s grace. Earlier, before reading Dawkins’s book, I would shut up, but now I’m a bit more vocal about these things, and ask them why their prayers didn’t prevent the unfavourable events from occurring. Then, they start looking for the silver lining in the cloud and attribute that to their prayers. Never mind the cloud.

So what about my religion? Some people find it contradictory that my political views are right-leaning (socially) even though I don’t believe in God. I say that I’m ‘culturally hindu’, and that Hinduism/Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life. And if you scrap away all the rituals and other beliefs, what remains in hinduism is the religion that I follow. I like to describe myself as “athiest but culturally hindu”.

I believe that poojas are just an excuse to throw feasts. I believe in rituals such as marriage ceremonies as no-questions-asked-processes which “have to be done” but I don’t believe that they are a necessary condition for any benefit, or against something bad.

Two years back, when my father died, I found the post-death ceremonies quite depressing and decided I’m not going to do them. So an uncle came up to me and asked me why I didn’t want to do the rituals. I told him I didn’t believe in them. He replied saying there was no question of belief but it was my duty to do the rituals. I told him that I didn’t believe that it was my duty to do them.

Problem with defeating elders in logical arguments is that they tend to take it personally, and then decide to attack you rather than attacking your argument. I finally ended up doing all those rituals. But I happened to fight with the shastris during each and every ceremony.

In hindsight, I realized that my fighting with the shastris, though ugly, had managed to send a “don’t mess with me” message to my relatives.

14 thoughts on “On Religion”

  1. The way i see religion/God,it gives one a certain mental strength,when things are not going one’s way,things which are beyond one’s control(like someone’s death,prolonged illness etc) in the form of a hope that somehow(and one really doesn’t know how) things will be alright.

    If we deprive people of that hope,a lot of them will break down.Not everyone has the mental strength to face miseries that life throws at us.And religion/rituals/God gives them that hope.

  2. I’ve always been an atheist – and I think you and I are pretty much on the same page as far as beliefs are concerned. However, I disagree with Dawkins’ confrontational approach entirely – because of pure pragmatics. Nothing good can come out of picking a fight with the faithful. I have tried on numerous occasions – and I bear the scars of these confrontations.

    Religion is a placebo. The religious have happier lives – and even have better sex lives (!!) – because they are concerned that God is looking out for them. Religion is also responsible for keeping the society stable. People have a rationale not to steal if they believe in a diety. Not everyone can appreciate the philosophy behind evolution – and religion gives such people closure.

    On the other hand, religion can also be a nocebo. That’s when some nut thinks he/she is cursed and falls sick! But I think the placebo effect prevails over the nocebo effect overall.

  3. Rationality does have its limits. I’ve met several self-proclaimed athiests who may not engage in idol-worship, but do indulge in hero-worship nonetheless, which isn’t too different from the former. In my book, a Rajnikanth fanatic or an Ayn Rand cultist is as much a “religious type” as a Krishna devotee.

    No matter how rational we claim to be, I guess most of us have had heroes growing up. We tend to idealize them and gloss over their shortcomings. Which is what religious people do with respect to their Gods.

    1. hahaha! excellent point about rajni-worshippers. and i agree that ayn rand-cultists are on the same page as krishna worshippers

  4. I had the same reaction when I read God Delusion. Mostly stuff I agreed with, but nothing revolutionary. In fact, lot of the arguments I found to be rehash from an old kannada book I had read – ‘Devaru’ by A.N.Murthy Rao, a well-known atheist in Karnataka from a few decades back.

    Dawkins’ other book – Selfish Gene – had a much higher impact on me. It totally changed the way I look at life.

    1. i agree that Selfish Gene is Dawkins’ better book. had to struggle through parts of The God Delusion – never happened in The Selfish Gene

      NED to read Kannada books (basically i’m slow at reading Kannada, so will take a long time) else I’d’ve read Devaru

  5. God is a good entity to thank in good times, but more importantly to blame in bad times. That is a good way for people to rationalize…

    Almost similar for religion – rituals which people hope will make life better, sometimes just in case anything inadvertant happens 🙂

  6. I’ve found that picking arguments with religious people is an exercise in futility. And older relatives take any skepticism as wanton invective (or less often, with smug condescension). Both reactions drive me nuts! (Paul Graham’s essay on identities is a revealing read on the tendency to attack the person instead of the argument.)

    I haven’t read The God Delusion, but I did read The Selfish Gene recently, and it was awe inspiring! I remember wondering if the average god-fearing religious Indian would ever get to experience such a feeling (of everything “falling into place”), and whether I would ever figure out what it is that gives their arbitrary beliefs such conviction.

  7. An extract from a book that I am reading:
    ….it is therefore a necessary step in practising religion as an experience instead of reducing it to an expression of conformity with a dogmatic creed or adherence to a formal code of conduct & rituals…
    So, the ‘don’t mess with me’ part never comes into picture if you are practising a religion, it only comes into picture if you are ‘following’ A religion

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