Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 8 (On Having Been Religious Myself)

Like John Kerry who was for the Iraq war before he was against it, I too was once religious.

Lots of atheists and agnostics start off the same way, until something disillusions them. In my case, the catalyst was reading depressingly regular newspaper reports about communal riots between Hindus and Muslims during my formative years in India. Sometime around the age of 18 or 19, I remember thinking to myself with a shock, "Religion is evil!"

And since then, I have only moved further and further away.

This post is to talk about the phase of my life before my conversion, specifically one incident that I think I should share even though I'm ashamed of it.

I was always a voracious reader, and the Staff Club library at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (where my father worked), had a reading room with lots of magazines. In my teens, I used to go there whenever I was bored and spend an hour or two reading up on current affairs and politics.

One day, I saw a strange pamphlet among all the commercial magazines. It was a fairly low-budget publication, with the picture of a chessboard on the cover and the title "God Check-Mated". Intrigued, I picked it up and began to read.

[Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, you too can read this pamphlet! It was published in two parts in Freethought magazine in September 1978 (page 263) and October 1978 (page 331), around the same time that I read the complete pamphlet.]

As I read the pamphlet, my horror grew. The two authors (A. Harnath and A. Suryanarayana), described on the back cover as "gentle rationalists", were impiously questioning the very existence of God! I found their tone very condescending. The pamphlet was structured like a questionnaire in multiple sections. In each section, they would ask a series of questions (rather amateurish ones, to be frank) and they would end the section by saying something like, "After answering all the above questions, do you still think your belief in God stands to reason? (If yes, proceed to the next section.)" The last section ended (I thought) extremely patronisingly:

After answering all the above questions, do you still think that your belief in god stands to reason and it is not a superstition?
(If 'yes', not even your own 'God' can help you!)

I was offended by the pamphlet, by its premise, by its tone, everything.

And I did something that I have been ashamed of ever since.

I stole the pamphlet from the library and destroyed it. I was all of fifteen years old.

Curiously, I'm also glad that things happened the way they did, because I think I now have an insight into the minds of millions of unthinkingly religious people.

I often ask myself why I felt the need to destroy that innocuous pamphlet. People who steal books from the library generally do it for selfish reasons, i.e., to add to their own collections. But I wasn't interested in stealing the pamphlet to keep it for myself. I wanted to prevent anyone else from reading it. Why??

I guess I was afraid it would "corrupt" other people and make them "bad". I was fighting for goodness and righteousness by removing the pamphlet from public view. I was saving people's souls. I was being loyal to God. 

And while I was afraid I would get caught smuggling the pamphlet out of the library under my shirt, this was just a mundane fear of breaking a human law. In my heart of hearts, I was convinced I was doing the right thing. I may have been committing a petty crime in the eyes of the law, but I was doing something blessed in the eyes of God. If I had received news then that someone had killed the authors, I would have cheered!

I now know the name for what I felt then - "moral certainty".

On Jan 4 2011, when bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri gunned down the man he was meant to protect, - governor Salman Taseer of the Pakistani province of Punjab, - he did not run away or resist arrest. He fully expected to be sentenced to death, and he didn't mind. That was simply a minor punishment according to the laws of men. But in the eyes of God, he had done something blessed. He had killed a man who had spoken of repealing Pakistan's blasphemy law. He had punished wickedness and defended the faith.

The face of moral certainty - Mumtaz Qadri being driven away after his murder of governor Salman Taseer

Qadri was showered with petals when produced before the court. Educated people (lawyers, no less) eulogised him.

Make no mistake about this. When I condemn moral certainty in others, it isn't an idle condemnation. I know what moral certainty feels like from the inside. And it isn't pretty.

When I say that religion can make good people do bad things, I remember with horror the monster that it made of me.

True, I had only suppressed a document that I thought impious. But I could just as easily have called for the banning of a book. I could even have killed someone who I thought was being impious! I could have been Mumtaz Qadri or Mohammed Bouyeri (the man who killed Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh).

[Is there a rationalist equivalent to the phrase "There, but for the grace of God, go I"?]

This is my confession. I have felt the irrational, hunted fear of a superstitious person who cannot accept another opinion. A contrary opinion is not just bad. It is dreadful and must be made to go away, by any means possible.

And so, even as I defend the freedom of speech against the protests by Muslims worldwide, I know how they feel. I've been there.

And I will never go there again.

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