Losing My Religion

In terms of religion, I had a bit of a strange upbringing. My father was a rationalist, bordering on atheist. My mother was insanely religious, even following a godman. And no – I never once saw them fight about this.

Both of them tried to impress me with their own religions. My mother tried to inculcate in me the habit of praying every morning, and looking for strange patterns (“if this flower on this photo falls, then it will be a good day” types). My father would refute most of these things saying “how can you be a student of science and still believe this stuff?”. I suppose I consumed a lot of coffy bite when I was a kid.

In any case, with a combination of influences, both internal and external, in my early youth I was this strange concoction of “not religious but superstitious”. I had both a “lucky shirt” and a “lucky pen”. Back in class 12, I had convinced myself that “Wednesdays are a particularly bad day for me”.

I really don’t know if this has anything to do with my upbringing, but I would see patterns everywhere. I would draw correlations between random unconnected things, and assume causality. I staunchly refused to admit that I was religious, but allowed for strange patterns and correlations nevertheless.

When I had five minor car accidents during the course of 2007 (it wasn’t a great year for me, and I was quite messed up), I believed (or maybe was made to believe) that it was “my car’s way of protecting me” (I wasn’t hurt in any of those, though the car took a lot of beatings and scratchings). I had come to believe that a particular job didn’t go well because on the first day of work, I had splashed water on a kid on my way back by driving fast through a puddle.

The general discourse nowadays is that religion improves people’s mental health. That it helps people see meaning and purpose in their lives, and live through tragedies and other kinds of unhappiness. A common discourse on the right, on social media, is that it is the lack of religion that has led to the mental health epidemic that we have been going through for a while.

The way I see it, based on my own experience, this is completely backward. The basic thing about religion, at least based on my mixed upbringing, is “random correlations”. A lot of religion can be explained as “you do this, God will be happy with you and give you that”. Or that something was just “meant to be”, maybe based on actions in one’s past lives.

Religion is about “being a good person” and “karma”, and that all your mistakes will necessarily get punished, if not in this life in the next. The long period over which karma operates significantly increases the scope of random correlations that you can draw from life.

First of all I’m good at pattern recognition (something that has immensely helped me in my academics and careers). The downside of being good at pattern recognition is that there can be LOTS of false positives in patterns that you recognise. And when you recognise patterns that don’t really exist, you learn the wrong things, and after that live life the wrong way. And I think that was happening to me for a very very long time.

And so came the lucky shirts, the lucky pens, the precise order in which I would check websites at work every morning and many other things that were actually damaging to life, especially mental health. The pattern recognition was making me miserable, and the religion and superstition that I had come to believe in gave credence to these patterns, and (with the benefit of hindsight) made me more miserable.

In 2012, after having burnt out for the third time in six years, I began to see a psychiatrist and take antidepressants. It was the same time when I had started my “portfolio life”, and one of the items in that portfolio was volunteering with the Takshashila Institution, where I was asked to teach a class on logical fallacies.

That’s possibly a funny trigger, but hours of lecturing about “correlation not implying causation” meant that I started finally seeing the random correlations that I had formed in my own head. And one by one, I started dismantling them. There were no lucky days any more. There wasn’t that much karma any more. I started feeling less worried about things I wanted to say. I started realising that being “good” is good for its own merits, and not because some karma recommends that you should be good.

And I started feeling happier. Over the course of time, it seemed like a big load had been taken off my head. And so, whenever I see discourse on social media (and in books) that religion makes people happier, I fail to understand it.

In January 2014, I met an old friend for dinner. While walking back to the parking lot, he casually asked me what my views on religion were. I thought for a minute and said, “well, I firmly believe that correlation does not imply causation. And this means I can’t be religious”. That’s when I became convinced that I had lost my religion, and had become happier for it. And I continue to be happy because I’m not religious.

Put Comment