atheist

India is going through a lot of communal tensions for the last few years. As a response to it some secular persons have been, among other things, organising ‘Inter – Faith Meetings’. Recently in Hyderabad we have been having such meetings. Many religious leaders came. I was asked to represent the Atheists. In the meeting I declared myself ‘atheist, irreligious and anarchist’. These three concepts are related and I believe they can play a small but significant role in reducing these tensions in our country.

The tone of this article is neither theoretical nor polemical. It is in the tradition of ‘cadre education’. This is so because neither in the mainstream nor in normal ‘secular or left wing media’ these trends are adequately represented. Often they are represented in a negative way. In this article I will begin with removing some misconceptions about them and then expound the positive role they can play in the current situation.

Atheism

Most people have not met atheists. They may well imagine atheists as an incarnation of devil with horns on their heads. The religious people denounce them as godless or those who do not fear God. They imply that atheists have no morals or ethics and they can do anything including immoral things.

As a matter fact the oldest Atheist Society was called ‘Ethical Society’ and the international organisation is called IHEU – International Humanists and Ethical Union!

The Ethical movement is an outgrowth of secular moral traditions in the 19th century, principally in Europe and the United States. At the international level, Ethical Culture and secular humanist groups have always organized jointly; the American Ethical Union and British Ethical Union were founding members of Humanists International, whose original name “International Humanist and Ethical Union” reflected the movement’s unity.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_movement)

Humanists International (known as the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or IHEU, from 1952–2019) is an international non-governmental organisation championing secularism and human rights, motivated by secular humanist values. Founded in Amsterdam in 1952, it is an umbrella organisation made up of more than 160 secular humanist, atheist, rationalist, sceptic, free thought and Ethical Culture organisations from over 80 countries. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanists_International).

Atheism in Ancient India

According to popular belief, atheism is a modern invention: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” Friedrich Nietzsche declared in 1882. Supposedly, it was the modern European mind that invented the criticism of religions and religiosity.

But what if it was the other way around? What if philosophical skepticism, rational arguments, and non-religiosity came first, while religions developed later? What if irreligiousity was suppressed by medieval religious minds, before this worldview was resurrected in the modern era? In the beginning was … atheism?

The Indian school that rejected supernaturalism was originally named Lokāyata, which can be translated as prevalent (ayata) among the people (loka) – in addition to meaning “this-worldliness”, “worldly”. Since the last half of the first millennium CE, the term Cārvāka or Charvaka, has also been used for these atheist, skeptical, naturalist, and materialist traditions.

-The untold history of India’s vital atheist philosophy by Dag Herbjørnsrud (https://blog.apaonline.org/2020/06/16/the-untold-history-of-indias-vital-atheist-philosophy/)

Atheism Today in India

Of India’s 1.4 billion people, fewer than 33,000 are self-declared atheists. (https://religionnews.com/2022/05/17/in-india-hindu-nationalists-embolden-challenges-to-atheism/). These are census figure. ‘The religion data from 2011 Census of India was released in August 2015. It revealed that about 2,870,000 people had stated no religion in their response, about 0.27% of the nation’s population. However, the number included atheists, rationalists and also those who believed in a higher power.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreligion_in_India).Obviously they do not include Jains and Buddhists because in the census they do not declare themselves as atheists. If we include them the number will be much higher. Most of these atheists do not go about talking about atheism. Most Indians don’t even know that the Jains and Buddhists are atheists. It is only when atheism is combined with irreligiousity that it becomes a social issue and attracts the hostility of current Hindutva lobby.

Irreligiousness

All atheists are not irreligious. As we have said above, Jains and Buddhists are atheist and are religious. Today for all practical purposes Jains are indistinguishable from Hindus. There is a lot of inter marriage between Jains and Hindus. Other atheists also by and large do not wear their atheism on their sleeves.

However there are atheist organisations which promote rationalism and scientific temper. They conduct programmes in public, schools and colleges to spread the scientific temper and expose the frauds of false god men. They expose the ‘miracles’ performed by these false god men and show that they are nothing but tricks performed by magicians. In villages they protect widows who are falsely accused as witches and who allegedly cause death of infants. Their journals carry articles by atheists who are important scientists and philosophers (like Bertrand Russell). After independence to till 1990s, their activities went quietly because Nehru personally and Indian Constitution supported spread of scientific temper. Even some government departments like Department of Science and Technology actively promoted rationalism.

All this has changed drastically in the last decades. The Hindutva lobby has been propagating glories of ancient India through all kinds of unscientific readings of the past. Rationalists are regularly harassed, jailed and some time even murdered. The cases of murders of four rationalists — Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh are well known.

(https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/dabholkar-pansare-kalburgi-lankesh-murder-cases-digging-out-weapons-million-rupee-question/articleshow/70301389.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst)

 Anarchism

Not all atheists and irreligious people are anarchists nor are all anarchists irreligious and atheists. Before going any further, let me give a definition of anarchists: Briefly: 1. Anarchists are opposed to all authority, 2. Anarchists believe in self management within a local community on the basis of ‘a free association of free people’, 3. The Anarchist community will federate with other communities also on the basis of ‘a free association of free people’.

As in the case of atheists, there are a lot of misconceptions about anarchists. Since they are anti authoritarian, the image is that of a young man with long hair, unkempt dirty clothes, who doesn’t listen to any one, who does what he likes, in short he is an anarchist! It is true that many anarchists in the past and today have long hair, but rest of it is just an image. They forget the second point about self management within a local community. In general anarchists are gentle, low profile people, often good gardeners or have some good artistic manual skills. A large number of poets, authors, artists, theatre persons, philosophers, educationists, musicians etc. have been anarchists. The reason is obvious. Creativity needs freedom and hence anti authoritarian philosophy attracts these people.

At a social level, many poor and working people have been oppressed by authority. During medieval periods every mainstream authoritarian religion had a corresponding rebel group. Islam has Sufis, Christians have Quakers and a large number of smaller groups and Hinduism has Bhakti movement, particularly ‘Nirgun Bhakti’ movement where all the saints have been from artisan castes. As a matter of fact the philosophy of these Nirgunias and Sikhs was very close to the Sufis and most of the conversions to Islam have been from these castes.

However the mainstream revolutionary anarchist movement in modern times does combine atheism, irreligiousness with anarchism. The great anarchists have been: Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin. Anarchism as a movement was largely in France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal and in Latin America, though there are anarchists in all developed countries. They were a major force in Spanish Civil war and are still a major force in Mexico.

In the last twenty years global climate emergency and the response to it, that of, transition towns and the Russian Eco villages are very much in the Anarchist tradition.

Concluding Remarks

Humans have been around 3 lakh years. Until recently, that is until 9000 years ago, they lived in self managed small communities. Concepts of God, religion and state/governments etc have come since then. So 97% of the time humans did not know God, religion or state. Thus they were ‘atheists, irreligious and anarchist’ people! What happened in between and in recent times?

Man has the capacity to modify nature much more than any other species. Around 9000 years ago this capacity of Man became significant and man began to ‘exploit’ nature. Through a complex social process exploitation within the species also began and thus emerged what Frederick Engels described as ‘Origin of Family, Private Property and State’. There has been rebellion also among human species from the beginning.

This exploitation of man by man reached a very high level in the last 300 years and at the same time rebellion and revolution also reached high levels. In the latter half of the 20th century exploitation of nature also reached very high level. Rachael Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring’ was the first important book of this kind. Since then in the last 20 years it has become clear that all this has become unsustainable and we are on the verge of collapse. ‘The only way to achieve a sustainable and just world is via a Transition Towns movement. The required sustainable social form must be based on mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing, cooperative local communities, willingly embracing far simpler lifestyles and systems. (Detailed in ‘The Simpler Way’, 2019.) The Simper Way would be liberation from the consumer-capitalist rat race, enabling a far higher quality of life. It would not involve reduction in modern technology.’ (Ted Trainer, ‘Can we Strengthen the Transition towns Movement?’ Unpublished, personal communication.)

In this situation the theories of atheism, irreligiousness and anarchism have a big role to play.

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com


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