In Douglas Adams’s words, atheists prefer ‘the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance’

A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg dry pork and Hanumanthu mutton pulao, when somebody asked the question, “So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?” We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual — and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.

Let’s not talk about science and modernity — we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law — and even in the supposedly modern US, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked “the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru” when he became the chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of doubt and put those ravings down to cynical role play rather than to genuine self-delusion.

I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it — and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief doesn’t always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their non-belief. As a correspondent to The Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the non-belief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons — one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, “The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I would take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.”

A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining — and we are too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we’ll be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by self-awareness — you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?

It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course — but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anaesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.

But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard — and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are we held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?

One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and non-believers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?

Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let us leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion — there’s also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.

(Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com)

Follow Amit on Twitter @amitvarma

(This article was published on February 14, 2014)
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