Quite a well-written essay by Bhagat Singh on why he was an atheist. Although now his arguments may seem clichéd (because we have come across such arguments against theism multiple times, especially from people who have no idea what they’re talking about) they are grounded on his experiences, his way of thinking and the writers and ideologues he had read during his brief lifetime. With such great command over words he puts forth his argument despite the fact that after a week a judgement may decide whether he should be hanged or released.
I think whether you believe in God or not is your personal choice and if it is not imposed on you, I don’t care if you derive energy by offering water to the sun or like Bhagat Singh, believing in your own reasoning and logic. By the end of the day, what matters is how you have spent your day. If you observe the contemporary world, there is actually no way of knowing who is religious and who is an atheist. In my eyes, a person who misbehaves and ill-treats people and then goes to the temple or mosque or church doesn’t really believe in the Almighty. Fanatics think that they are at the top of the chain when it comes to being religious whereas they are not following a religion but a cult that has sprouted out of a misinterpreted religious thought.
Bhagat Singh’s argument assumes that God has got to be a binary concept. The existence of God should mean there should be no misery and oppression in the world. This is a sort of disenchantment not a belief. If you flip his argument upside down, it means he would have believed in the existence of God if everything would have been hunky-dory in the world. Since there is misery, since there is inexplicable pain, since unfairness, since inequality, hence no God. A “God” by definition wouldn’t have allowed so much pain and misery to exist.
Another folly that I find in his logic for being an atheist is that he attaches too many human attributes to pain and suffering. Destruction in the sense that we know it, is occurring every second in the universe. Stars are dying, galaxies are collapsing, new stars are being born out of massive explosions, supernovae are occurring and according to recent lines of thinking, maybe complete universes are being annihilated and born. Compared to that, what is earth? It must be the tiniest of the tiniest dots in the scheme of the universe. The humans are just one of the species. There are millions of species on this tiniest of the tiniest dots. Yes, the earth is going through a phase where the humans are the dominant species but the earth goes through various faces. There was a time when the dinosaurs were the dominant species. They were at the top of the food chain.
So if we need to define God we shouldn’t define it by the degree of pain and pleasure that exists in this world. I think both pain and pleasure are natural phenomena and God has got nothing to do with it. You go outside, you can easily find a beautiful flower blossoming somewhere even by the roadside and you will say, “hey, this is godly beauty!” And then somewhere you can also find a volcanic crater brewing lava – a simulacrum of hell for many. Going by Bhagat Singh’s argument, whether God exists or not, depends on your worldview. Just to make sure that we don’t end up thinking that he is an atheist because of his worldview, he briefly mentions in a paragraph some scientific facts that try to explain the existence of life on Earth (he talks about the evolutionary theory by Darwin, for example), but eventually, what gets established is that it was his worldview that convinced him he should be an atheist. I’m not saying this is wrong, I’m just saying that whether you believe in God or not shouldn’t depend on the degree of pain and pleasure that exists in the world, but on plain logic.
What’s God? I don’t think anybody has so far been able to pinpoint exactly who God is. We are humans so we attribute human qualities to God. Since we have no clue who God is, it’s easier to use symbols. In programming parlance, we need to define a constant or a variable to attribute some value to it. The same is the case with manifestation of God in various religions, cults and sects. An idol becomes a God. A mythological figure becomes a God. A prophet becomes a God. A lineage of gurus becomes gods. A tre is e becomes a God. A river. Animals. And actually these are not gods, these are representations of God. The variables and constants we would like to assign values so that it becomes easier to identify them. You don’t want to pray in vagueness. You don’t want to pray in front of “whomsoever it may concern”. It’s a relationship. For the relationship you need a well-defined persona in front of you. So a Hindu may have Hanuman, a Christian may have Jesus, a Muslim may have Muhammed and a Buddhist may have Buddha. These are not focus points. Instead of “Dear whomsoever it may concern” we prefer to say “Dear Bajrangbali” because it’s easier to talk to an entity that has a well-defined form. Of course there are religions that also have a formless God but still, they have symbols to concentrate on.
Bhagat Singh says that you can be more selfless if you are an atheist. He says that when a religious person sacrifices he or she expects to go to heaven or be born as a king or a privileged person. An atheist on the other hand dies just for the cause. As an atheist, he says, he is embracing the gallows simply for the sake of the cause. He expects nothing in return. He doesn’t expect glory. He doesn’t expect heaven. He doesn’t expect to be reborn as a king because of his valiant sacrifice.
He assumes that if a religious person sacrifices he or she is expecting rewards in return, or at least metaphysical or esoteric rewards like a place in heaven or being reborn as a privileged person. He doesn’t seem to believe that a religious person would sacrifice just for the cause, the way he was doing. He must had believed that in order to die for a cause, just for the sake of the cause, a person has to be an atheist. He cannot imagine a person steeped in religious traditions dying selflessly. This, seems to be a hole in the logic, and I will explain this a little later.
Having written my thoughts here, I don’t mean to say that his ideas of atheism and theism were misplaced. We are nothing but a lump-sum manifestation of our experiences, our station in society, our standing in the world, our day-to-day ruminations and our intellectual exposures. Those days he was reading about socialism, Marxism and he seemed to be impressed by the mass murderers like Lenin (Gandhi was a fan of Hitler). He had to bear the injustices of the British rule. He had seen the Indian masses living in indescribable misery and pain (unfortunately a majority of them still do, God or no God). He thought that had God existed, he would have put an end to that persistent misery and pain.
I personally believe that atheists are less against the God and more against the traditional perception of God. God in himself or itself is too vague a topic. For example, if I say “I don’t believe in God” in the conventional sense of it is, what I mean to say is, I don’t believe in God the way people around me believe in God. This is because they constantly say that if God existed then this wouldn’t happen, if God existed then that wouldn’t happen and these are all traditional perceptions of God. Atheism as it exists around us is based on the premise that the world has to function in a particular manner in order for God to exist, otherwise it is humbug. So there is senseless suffering, hence there is no God. What it means is, had there been no senseless suffering, there would have been God. At least that is the simplistic explanation of atheism.
What about rationalism? Is a rationalist necessarily an atheist? Going by the current definition, especially if you go by a secularist outlook (I’m talking about real secularism, not the contemporary Indian variety) rationalism means not believing in superstitious practices. Since they consider all religious practices as superstitious practices, in a way, yes you can say that rationalists are atheists but personally I don’t believe. You can be a rationalist and still not be an atheist. I will give you a small example.
APJ Abdul Kalam was a scientist par excellence. You can safely believe that a scientist is a rational person. While launching missiles he wouldn’t have depended on the position of the stars or the auspicious sighting of various heavenly bodies. You can’t imagine him reciting religious hymns before taking administrative decisions. But he read Gita. He believed in the philosophy of Gita. Although if you closely read Gita it is more philosophical and less religious, but after all it is a religious text. Yes, you can read Gita as a scholarly exercise just to understand its contents, but Kalam believed in its underlying philosophy. Millions of people who read Gita believe in its underlying philosophy, right? So by definition, when you are reading Gita and when you are assimilating its underlying philosophy, you’re committing a religious act. Does this make you irrational? If not, you can be rationalist despite practising something religious.
So no, being a rationalist doesn’t mean that you are also an atheist. Vice-versa, being an atheist doesn’t automatically make you a rationalist. This is because, as I have mentioned above, most of the atheist think that they shouldn’t believe in God because there is lots of pain in the world. This sort of atheism is plain disgruntlement.
Now coming back to the “hole in the logic” where Bhagat Singh believes that a religious person cannot die without expecting a reward. I think there is a fault in this thinking. Do you think when Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed his life he was expecting a reward? Despite being a religious person, he allowed himself to be killed for a cause he believed in just as Bhagat Singh allowed himself to be hanged by the British for the cause he believed in. Going by Bhagat Singh’s logic, Guru Tegh Bahadur’s sacrifice then becomes more respectable because despite being a religious person, he doesn’t expect any rewards. He believes that he can be rewarded but still he doesn’t want those rewards. Bhagat Singh, on the other hand, since doesn’t believe in the existence of such rewards, doesn’t expect them. Because if he believes in such rewards, then he also believes in afterlife and if he believes in afterlife, he gets trapped in the loop of religious beliefs he doesn’t want to believe in. It’s like, if you are scared of heights but still you go to the rooftop of a skyscraper to help someone (or just to prove a point) you are braver than a person who performs the same act but has no fear of heights. Your sacrifice is greater if you know that you can get something but still decide not to get it for your cause rather than a person who knows that he cannot get that thing and then decides not to get it for his or her cause. I’m not trying to compare sacrifices here, since Bhagat Singh gives a hint that his sacrifice is of nobler quality because he doesn’t expect any reward, I’m mentioning this.
What’s my take on God? Am I a religious person? I have no problem with rituals. I can go to a temple and pray. As advised by my respected father-in-law, I read Hanuman Chalisa everyday because for 2 ½ years things are supposed to be tough for me. There is a Sikh prayer (the Mool Mantar) that I often recite, mentally, before going to sleep.
But I don’t believe in “my God is better than your God” because as I have mentioned above, the God that you pray in front of is nothing but an attribution of something or someone you don’t understand. I don’t believe in the evolutionary theory verbatim although the scientific fact must be valid. I believe that there are many aspects of existence we are not aware of.
I don’t disagree with the claim that there might be multiple universes within multiple universes and there might be infinite parallel existences. I don’t think that life on Earth is a fluke. Bhagat Singh wrote that essay just before being hanged and now I’m sharing my own thoughts based on the same and these can’t be flukes of nature. There is something more complex that we don’t understand, something so complex that sometimes we refuse to understand. Whether God exists or not depends on your own perception and your own worldview, but this world isn’t as simple as the Big Bang and the various combinations of pain and luxury, happiness and sadness, and crying and smiling that you see around yourself. I believe that we have limited knowledge of what we know. Does that make me a religious? Again, depends on your worldview.