An Atheist’s Take on Religion

My parents are and have been extremely religious and they had inculcated religion in me at a very young age, like all parents do. However, mom tells me that my Dad was not always this religious. It’s only in his late thirties, when he was faced with challenges at work, that he started treading on the spiritual path. I on the other hand was always religious, until the day I lost my faith.

This post turned out to be longer than I expected (2000+ words!), hence feel free to skip the next few paragraphs and resume reading from where the arrow sign is pasted, in case you’re in a rush that is!

As a kid I used to be in awe of the sights, smells and sounds that one experiences inside a place of worship. Being born into a Hindu (Nair) family from Kerala, living in Dubai, my visits to temples were limited. But I recall being very excited whenever my parents or my maternal uncle used to take me to the temple, the only one in the 30 km vicinity. What I used to look forward to most was the poori-bhaji and the motichoor laddu that was given out to all the devotees, as prasad, on their way out. Whenever we used to visit Kerala on holidays, my parents always planned a trip to at least one of the most ‘renown’ temples there. Needless to say, these temples were bigger and more crowded. Soft sounds of chatter resonates through the enclosures within the temple, while frenzied sounds of the chenda melam (Harmony of drums and c-shaped trumpets) emerges from outside. One would surely be taken aback the first time they step outside into the courtyard and see rows of elephants adorned in vibrant caparisons, being fed banana bunches by their mahouts or devotees. The sight of oil lamps flickering, the sound of temple priests singing bhajans, the smell of sandal and incense burning, fills your senses and leaves you mesmerized.

The courtyard at Guruvayoor, in Kerala.

Dubai being a Muslim country, I had the opportunity to experience various facets of Islam as well. Our house was located about 500 meters away from a mosque, which meant that I grew-up listening to verses from the Quran. I learnt about Prophet Muhammad and some of his preaching/teachings in school. I had friends in school who were locals and some of whom were from countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Some of them even used to come home for tuition since my mom was a primary/elementary school teacher. Our Muslim neighbors would sometimes share biryani and dates with us after they broke their fast during Ramadan. I lived this way for the first eleven years of my life, after which, all of us except dad, moved to our new home in Kerala. I was in a whole new country amidst people I didn’t know or trust. They acted differently and they treated me differently. Being the shy kid that I was, I went into a shell. I gradually started getting to know a few kids from the village who invited me to accompany them to the temple. In a matter of few months, I was running around doing errands for the temple and I was at the forefront of every major event at the temple.  After receiving some flak from my relatives, for my actions and my overt closeness to the village folks, my mom restrained me from getting too involved in the temple activities. This, I assume was because we were from the ‘upper society’ and the kids that I was friends with, were not so fortunate.

Coincidentally, all my schooling in Kerala (6th to 12th grade) happened in Christian schools. Well, this was also because most of the ‘good’ schools in that area were run by the Christian community. We were taught stories from the bible as a part of moral science. I subscribed to Christian fables that came by mail order.  I even remember doing a bible course through a free distance learning program and I did it because I wanted to, I wasn’t forced. We were given free pocket bibles at school, by visiting missionaries. In 10th grade, I fought with my parents to let me stay at the school’s boarding facility. They had to concede, of course. The reason behind me wanting to live in the school hostel is another story altogether. In boarding school, there were very few non-Christians. We read out verses from the bible and sang hymns after our study hour in the mornings and in the evenings. We went to church every Sunday, sang more hymns and read more verses from the bible. I did everything they did, stopping short of wearing a cross around my neck.

I don’t exactly remember when I stopped believing. It hadn’t become very evident to me until my early twenties. I however do remember debating the Big Bang theory and the Adam & Eve theory with my sister back when I was in school. Until recently I was trying hard to convince myself that I was just agnostic and not an atheist, but I couldn’t fool myself into believing that any longer. I still wear a red thread (mauli) on my wrist, I pray before I leave for work every morning and I even accompany my parents to temples once in a while. But this is because my mom asks me to and not because I want to. And that brings me to my main point, before stating which, I want to add a disclaimer at this point saying that the purpose behind this post isn’t to speak for or against religion, it’s merely to put forth my views and observations about the topic. When I look back at my upbringing, I understand that I was born into a religion and it was not something that I chose. I was trained to be spiritual and I imbibed the beliefs that my parents possessed. I had the opportunity to experience a bit of all the mainstream faiths. And I realize that my fascination with religion had very little to do with belief. It was the larger than life stories, the traditions and the customs, the extravagant festivities and the sense of acceptance that appealed to me. I had spent a lot of time reading as a kid, which was probably the reason why I started to challenge and question the status quo. I had started arriving at my own conclusions as well. I started reading and hearing of instances of communal violence, terrorism etc. which I was oblivious of, all the while. I observed that a lot of what was being said in the holy books from various faiths contradicted each other. I even perceived contradictions in people’s statements when they spoke of God and his actions. Like I said before, I don’t remember when but somewhere during this phase of awareness and realization, is when I lost my faith.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
Dalai Lama

Today, I stand firmly behind my belief, which is the one of non-faith. Having said that, I also believe that as much as religion and faith can be bad for mankind, it quite evidently has its benefits as well. Let me state a few reasons for why I think it’s good and why it’s bad.

Why is religion good for us?

Religion is that one force that binds us by a sense of morality. Take away religion, I assure you laws and weapons would serve very little purpose. It’s what we like to call Karma. If we didn’t fear a supernatural force, we wouldn’t have cared for the consequences of our actions. If it weren’t for religion, we’d have witnessed Armageddon by virtue of our own actions, long before.

Religion gives us a purpose – to gratify and appease the lord so that we’re showered with blessings. Without purpose, we’d have nothing to look forward to. We’d have no festivals, celebrations, traditions or customs to keep us engaged; these of course are rituals that help us serve our purpose.

Religion gives us a sense of belonging. We all want to belong and that’s the reason we always pick sides – be it in sports, politics or life in general. No matter which strata of the society you belong to, religion more often than not manages to unite us.

Religion gives us hope. Imagine if we were all atheists and we had no one to rely on during troubled times – humanity as we know it now would’ve ceased to exist. It’s that false sense of hope, that a supernatural power is looking over us, guiding us and protecting us, that keeps us sane.

Why is religion bad for us?

Religion comes in the way of our happiness. If we trace back into history and start questioning the origin of some of the traditions and customs that we hold close to our hearts today, we’ll stumble upon facts of when, how and who brought these practices into existence.  These rituals and customs were invented to suit the society’s needs, to keep the members of this society in check. As time progressed, societies have undergone transformation. However, we still hold onto the threads of the culture and value system that our forefathers created. The fact that these practices still dictate to us about how we should live, where we should live and whom we should live with, is pitiful. Remember the contradictions I was talking about earlier? Tell me, how can what’s right for one community be different for another? How can the movement of planets define how we lead our lives and how can it mean entirely different things for different communities?

Religion gives us an easy way out. When faced with challenges, instead of standing our ground and facing it head-on, we choose to retreat. Our reason? ”If God wants for it to happen, it’ll happen, there’s nothing you or I can do about it.” We blame our failures on bad luck, fate or destiny and we credit our success to God. If this is the case, then why don’t we just let criminals and murderers run scot-free, after all they’re carrying out God’s will, right? We adopt double standards; we manipulate religion and what it means to suit ourselves. Long story short, religion is like that made-up story you tell your 6yo when they ask you where babies come from. Ergo, the easy way out.

Religion spreads partisan behavior. Hierarchy found its way into our societies and work places from religion. If religion had treated everyone equally, the concept of hierarchy may not have existed today. Years of conditioning has ensured that we’re accustomed to living in a partisan society where you’re slotted either by your belief or by your financial status. We subject ourselves to this prejudice even more by introducing hierarchy into every walk of life, even today. Drawing from two points that I made earlier – we like to pick sides and we like to have purpose, combine these two in the context of partisan behavior when it comes to religion and what do you get? Intolerance, hatred and violence are what you get.

Religion makes us gullible. Ever stopped to think of how big the ‘spiritual’ business is? Ever wondered how the gurus/swamis/priests keep getting richer and some temples/churches keep getting grander and bigger? If you believe that all the money earned from donations go into charitable initiatives, then you’re mistaken. If you’re naive enough to believe that your donations are not being misused, you’re a simpleton. Not just this, even commercial businesses make money off you during festive seasons. And you don’t mind donating your hard earned money or spending it on buying spiritual/religious stuff as per the norm. Because that’s what ‘society’ has taught you, right?

In conclusion, I’d say that if you’ve faith, keep it. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions. People like me are not outcasts; we just think out-of-the-box (metaphorically speaking). However, do realize that there are times when you need to think of things practically and not be blinded by how you’ve been trained to think. Remember that if religion stands in one’s way of happiness, it’s okay to bend the rules. It’s like that line in the new iPhone 5 ad, religion is just general guidelines for the society, and it’s not set in stone.

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5 thoughts on “An Atheist’s Take on Religion

  1. In my experience there are only two kinds of people, people with love and caring, and criminal minded, you can’t make a good person do a bad thing, but a bad person can make you believe that, you are doing a bad thing and, make you do the bass thing. All we need is a system to eliminate this criminals among us, this would be a happy world. A person robbing for a meal cannot be considered a criminal

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  2. agree to many points raised by you- religion does give rise to hope and purpose…to me religion is helping humanity..no point serving gods, if one cannot serve people .i hate some aspects such as donation of gold chunks to the temple, its a mere waste…i don’t think gods are happy when one does that.In fact with that money, if we sponsor education and living to some kids around, trust me that gives happiness and happiness is spiritual.
    I feel spiritual when I visit temples in the wee hours of morning, when not many are around, but when I visit the same temple amongst crowds during evenings/festivals, I don’t feel anything.

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    • Exactly! I keep saying the exact same thing to mom. I can’t blame my parents either; if they don’t contribute to the ‘temple’, they’ll be ostracized by the so-called ‘society’. And what does the temple use the money for? I don’t know, but we don’t really need golden deities to hear our prayers, do we? It’s all a sham. In fact, I can’t think of any other states other than Kerala and Tamil Nadu where such widespread money laundering activities are associated with temples.

      I also agree with you on the point that doing a good deed gives you immense pleasure and satisfaction; the feeling of which can only be described as spiritual!

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  3. I can soo relate to your thoughts. In my life religion & spirituality are totally unrelated.religion & rituals are just a good excuse to socialize & eat good food. Spirituality on the other hand is more personal & refined & dosent exactly go hand in hand with trumpets & horns. Your thoughts about karma also makes a lot of sense…

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    • Thank you for reading Smitha. You’re absolutely right about religion and spirituality being unrelated. Spirituality can mean different things for different people, like for me it means being at peace with myself. Also spirituality is an entirely different topic and I shouldn’t have used it synonymously withe religion. Thanks for pointing this out 🙂

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