To be, or not to be, that is the question
— Hamlet, Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 1
To believe or not to believe has become the dilemma of the twentieth century intellectual with Stephen Hawking paving the way to disbelief.
As we bow down under the weight of existentialist dilemmas and develop six packs and slim abs, we profess not to believe what we cannot see. Some even trace it to religion being divisive, creating barriers and brainwashing humankind with ritualistic and typified role playing.
The term atheism has its etymological roots deep in 5 th century BCE. However, it came into play only around the French revolution. And then as the disbelievers grew in numbers, people did surveys. According to studies done in the last decade, less than fifteen percent of the world population do not believe.
Looking at the historic evolution of disbelievers, I would say they have been and continue to remain a minority, except perhaps in China where the red revolution wiped away all gods except communism. Even if the current government is restoring holidays during older festivals along with Mao’s birthday and Chinese new year, the wounds that lacerated the theists will take time to heal. After Mao and free thinking took its toll, a survey taken in 2015 stated 61 per cent of the population were atheists!
I feel in most of the non-communist world, disbelief has remained the privilege of those who have the education and time to debate and question.
However in China, where I spent eight years, my Ayi ( my housekeeper, literal translation aunty) from Xian told me how she remembered the soldiers coming and destroying their family altar and asking them to replace it with Mao’s picture. That must not have been a very easy situation for believers. The post Mao university educated youth in China mostly informed me they were ‘free thinkers’. I really do not understand what that means since all of us are free thinkers. We are all free to think what we like. Though I did notice one thing, the mass sterilization of religious beliefs made people more docile and tolerant; or was it centuries of subservience, first to emperors and then to political ideology( twentieth century guru Harari called communism a ‘religion’), that had made them docile?
I wonder if Mao could have converted all of the population in the area we label India now into becoming disbelievers or free thinkers as in China? Would the people have forgone centuries of belief and spiritual quest to take on the yolk of a new belief system?
The vehemence with which people react to belief and disbelief is in itself astounding. Mobs form, political parties make it their agenda. There have been Klu Klux Klan-like reactions all over the world towards religion or the lack of it. The nineteenth century white supremacist group was not only anti-black but also developed sentiments that were anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Though there were laws to subdue the hate group, did these sentiments die out or are they still simmering secretly?
The rise of Modi in India has brought to the fore the large divide between the formerly voiceless non-monied and the monied with loud voices. In The Billionaire Raj (2018), James Crabtree talks of how the non-monied masses reacted to speeches directed against the divide that existed between the unschooled non-affluent masses and the elitist, affluent population, who despite being lesser in number were more vocal. Religion or perhaps, we should say practices and rituals, for the non-monied was a way of life and continued being so; the fanning of differences already having been instilled by the divide and rule used by the the erstwhile British Raj.
Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight (1975) talk of how independence for each Indian meant a different thing. Some rejoiced. And some wept. Eminent lawyer and journalist Khushwant Singh who had lost his home in the other nation recalled:“I had nothing to rejoice about. For me and millions like me (in both India and Pakistan), this Independence Day was a tragedy, They mutilated Punjab, and I had lost everything.” In this case, it was called religious rioting.
Did the difference in beliefs exist all along and, therefore, could be fanned leading to a state of orgiastic frenzy that ultimately led to mass killings? Was it any different from what the Red Army did in China? Historically, is it differences in faith that lead to war or is it a lust for power, land and wealth cloaked behind a system of beliefs?
The thing that frightens me most is the intolerant violence with which people believe or disbelieve — perhaps much in the tradition of big Endians and little Endians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).
In China, the Red Army has been quietened. There are no strong reactions or mobs. These have all been outlawed. People seem happy. Once, in a while, the government subdues protests or anger against some people or situation. But, more or less, all is quiet on the Chinese population front, with due apologies to Erich Maria Remarque. But on the other hand, few young university educated free thinking Chinese friends told me that dilletante activities like writing books had also been purged in China… Intellectuals had been purged…
While my atheist friends continue to disbelieve, I wonder, is it only in God, or in things related to creation myths, to the existence of light and dark, to the existence of anything they cannot see or invent themselves? It is good to question. However, I do not fancy reinventing the wheel or the alphabet. I would much rather use one for travel and the other for writing out my ideas.
Sometimes, I wonder how ideas come into my head? Who creates thoughts? Who or what puts it there? Why is it I have an urge to write and Madonna sings like a lark? What is the phenomenon that created DNA? Who decides how and when life forms are created to populate earth? Who or what made the Big Bang happen so that we all came into existence? Who or what creates and destroys life? Do we have right to destroy that which we cannot make?