The story goes like this: An atheist goes to a fancy restaurant and asks for a cup of tea. The religious waiter brings the tea and there is a fly in it. Angry atheist says, “What is a fly doing in my tea?” The waiter says politely, “Well, I think he is praying.” The atheist gets angrier and says, “Prayer never solves anything, I can’t drink this. Take it back.” The waiter smiled and said, “You see? The fly’s prayers were answered.”
I am not an atheist. I am not a blogger. I am not a person who finds it amusing to hurt other people’s religious sentiments. However, in light of the continuous chant “Hang the atheists” that is going around these days, I am just a citizen who is attempting to understand this widely misunderstood phenomenon called “atheism.”
Persona non grata
In Bangladesh, nastikota or atheism has been considered derogatory for as long as we can remember. Any self-proclaimed nastik is automatically outcast from the society and dealt with the harshest of social ostracism. Even the Ekushey Padak winning writer Humayun Azad had to suffer because he truthfully expressed his atheism in public. The fear of being called a nastik is so widespread that even among the most educated classes very few will publicly admit their slightest disregard for religion. Therefore, any interpretation of religious dogma, no matter how outrageous it appears, will be tolerated silently. Otherwise, any protest against it would mean being branded as a nastik, a sure death to any political or social aspiration. Most of the youths in Shahbagh movement were not atheists, but as soon as they were labelled so, somehow the movement lost sympathy of many believers. An atheist is almost automatically seen as a bad person bound to burn in the fires of hell for eternity, which is ironic, because atheists don’t tend to believe in heaven or hell anyways.
What I understand is that atheism is not a religion. Atheism is the disbelief of any existence of God or deity. Atheists don’t have religious scriptures or “holy” books, they don’t have a prophet or an idol, and they don’t have a temple or a mosque. They believe in the non-existence of all that a theist would believe. In our country we brand anyone who doesn’t follow an organised religion as nastik. In reality there are many forms of disbelief. You have your garden-variety confirmed atheists, then there are the ones who subscribe to “no religion.”
You have your “spiritual” ones or agnostic ones who believe in some form of higher power but no religion. There are implicit ones, and explicit ones. There is practical atheism and there is theoretical atheism. There are existentialists, metaphysical atheists, there are people who believe in monism. And finally there are people like my friend who was an avid atheist in college, but whenever his business is in trouble, he goes straight back to his folded jainamaz (prayer mat) and cries to Allah for mercy.
In actuality, atheists neither follow any rituals, nor do they have any unified custom or culture to preach. As a matter of fact, atheists cannot be considered as a collective group, let alone with a collective doctrine since they never do anything collectively. There is no one ideology or set of behaviours to which all atheists adhere universally. It is somehow the most individual form of belief system. When Richard Dawkins published his seminal book on atheism called “The God Delusion”, he was very angry with his publishers because they were marketing the book saying, “A must read. This is a ‘bible’ for all atheists.”
Who are these ‘atheists?’
So who is an atheist? Jyoti Bosu, Karl Marx, Mao, Lenin, Nietzsche, Humayun Azad and Jean Paul Sartre come to mind. Of course, as famous intellectuals, they fit the profile. As a young boy once I saw some highly educated communist party leaders talking of progressiveness and atheism in the same tone. I used to think one has to be in a highly intellectual category to proclaim themselves “atheists.” Later in my life, I realised nothing could be further than the truth. Worldwide statistics of atheists show that anyone, regardless of their educational or intellectual background can be or already is an atheist. The actual figures are quite scary or impressive depending on which way one looks at it.
In 2012 WIN-Gallup poll of Zurich published a report titled “Religiosity and Atheism Index”, which measured global self-perceptions on beliefs, based on interviews with thousands of men and women selected from fifty-seven countries across the globe. According to that poll, 13% of the world’s populations are confirmed atheists and 23% are non-religious. Interestingly, in this chart, the first two countries with most atheists are from Asia...China and Japan! I am personally always sceptical of these polls and their findings. However, even at a huge error margin, the truth is that a large amount of atheists and non-believers exist in this world. These millions of men, women and children all across the globe are real people in flesh and blood just like us. What we must ask ourselves now is that when we say “hang the atheists,” do we mean we should hang all these millions of human beings as well?
These days most Europeans consider themselves as either “non-religious” or atheist. It is not surprising, given the fact that Europe sustained a torturous reign under Christianity for over a thousand years. The Taliban religious fanatics would be considered small fry compared to the Catholic Spanish inquisitors.
In the name of God, they mass-murdered the dissenting population, raped women for “purification,” forcefully converted the rest to Christianity and ended nearly seven hundred years of Muslim presence in Spain, almost overnight. Sounds familiar? The biggest mistakes of liberals are thinking that ignorance is harmless. In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, once there was a huge middle-class liberal intelligentsia that oversaw a peaceful and prosperous nation. Once they were driven out of the country by religious fanatics using fear and intimidation, the gap was filled with warriors, bigots and religious fanatics, and the rest is history. Fear is a powerful method of zealots. Do we really want the same fate for Bangladesh?
God’s private army
The funny thing is that everywhere in the world, in every era, these religious fanatics committed genocides and tortured the masses in the name of “righteousness.”
Most of these foot soldiers of God truly believed that they are doing the right thing and “heaven” will be waiting for them. Thus, when the fifteen-year-old skinny madrasa boy is burning a CNG with a pregnant woman inside or holding a placard in bad English saying, “hang the atheist and blger,” it might make us wonder behind all that criminal mask, there might be a presence of naiveté that honestly believes killing atheists will get him the gorgeous “hurs” (angel). The road to hell is paved with good intentions!
“Atheists are anti-Islam” - this is a statement with inherent logical fallacy and convoluted emotions. Yes, there are atheists who are anti-Islam, but so are many Christians, Hindus and Jewish people who would do anything to defame Islam. If we hang the anti-Islam atheists, must we not hang all the Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs too? Being an atheist, just like being a Christian, does not automatically make a person Islamophobe. Otherwise, as a country Bangladesh would not be having such a wonderful relation with Japan, where most of the population is considered to be an atheist or a non-believer. All atheists are not highly moral people either. Some individuals who choose to call themselves atheists may also choose to behave like fanatics. If an atheist attacks Islam with his sharp words, he is no better than the ignorant mollah who attacks a Hindu temple with his sharp sword in the name of Allah. Atheism also does not guarantee anyone automatically to be considered as a “free thinker” or an intellectual. Most free thinkers I have seen all across the world were believers of some form. It is neither a zero-sum game nor is it a mutually exclusive argument. One of my friends wrote on Facebook: “Atheists are peaceful people,” which is yet again another example of logical fallacy. Atheism does not justify fanaticism, nor does it assure pacifism. It is just a word that means not believing in any God. Otherwise, the average atheist is just a human being with imperfections, hunger, emotions, love, hate and aspirations like any other person.
Your way for you, my way for me
Now that we have carefully busted the myth of atheism, we must concentrate on our collective conscience. If we ought to aspire ourselves to be successful as a secular modern nation, we must think deep to define the word “secularism” and try to find a way to include all forms of belief systems, including the ones who choose not to believe. “Lakum deenukum waliya deen” - To you be your religion, and to me mine. (Al Quran. 109:6). Live and let live. We don’t have to believe what atheists believe, but we must accept the difference in belief systems. We must ask ourselves, is “secularism” only confined to including established religions? Is it not a system of including all kinds of belief? Are we so arrogant to say that the path to peace and enlightenment is through killing off dissent? When will we learn to accept our inherent differences? Shobar upor’e manush shotto, tahar upor e nai (Above all else are human beings).
I am not an atheist, but I don’t want to hang one.