Some of my earliest childhood memories are about awkward exchanges and uncomfortable silences between my parents and some of their friends and relatives regarding God and religion.
When some of Baba’s friends from grad school visited us, they would ask him jokingly if he was still a non-believer. My mild-mannered but sarcastic father would often respond with something like this: ‘See my point is that the world population is growing. And God has enough on his plate already. So we need to go a little easy on the guy when it comes to approaching him with our troubles. That’s why I try to solve my own problems. Imagine me going to the temple in the afternoon and loudly ringing the temple bell, when the poor guy up there might be trying to take an afternoon nap. It’s kind of inconsiderate on my part, isn’t it?’
That would silence his friend. But the questions would return during another friend’s visit.
My parents didn’t talk to me or my brother about religion either.
When I was about 10-years-old, I could take it no more. By then, I was certain that my parents thought and felt differently about God and religion compared to pretty much everyone I knew. While we celebrated all Hindu festivals, our home was not filled with idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, and Ma and Baba never prayed.
It was time they came clean. So one evening, I sat my parents down and asked them: “Guys, what’re your thoughts on God?”
My parents smiled and exchanged glances. (That was the standard response whenever I sat them down to ask a difficult question about life, the universe and everything.)
Baba responded first. He closed his eyes, like he usually does when he tells a story or makes an argument and began to make his case.
He told me that his father (my grandfather) had abandoned religion after an intense period of being obsessed with religion. He had diligently read all religious texts-the Bhagavad Geetha, the Bible, the Quran, etc. – and decided that religions provided people with a moral compass. But each religion was so certain that its own way was right that religion also often led to conflict. So, he decided if he followed a basic rule – lead a simple, honest life and treat fellow human beings with kindness and dignity – he would be fine.
He instilled that simple rule in his four sons and they’ve lived by it all their lives. (I must add that my atheist father has a stricter moral code than most people I know.) Baba then added that being a scientist, he was a rationalist and only believed what could be scientifically proven. Hence his unwavering atheism.
Then it was Ma’s turn. She told me that maybe there was a God (or Gods and Goddesses as in Hinduism). But she didn’t see much divine interference in the world around us.
Ma didn’t understand why thousands of people in India die every year of hunger. She didn’t understand why people were devoutly religious and still dishonest. If there was a God wouldn’t he have wanted things to be better?
Maybe Gods have plans we don’t understand. But Ma felt she was better off focusing on people she could see, touch, and talk to. And that if she treated them well, God wouldn’t be upset with her for not praying regularly or maintaining any of the hundreds of rules set down by our religion. (By the way, my mother regularly partook in religious ceremonies, not to pray, but to be part of a community.)
It was probably a lot for a 10-year-old to digest. I don’t know. I can’t remember what was going through my head as I listened to their arguments. But clearly, they made enough of an impression on me that their words and stories have stayed with me till date.
What I do remember is asking them what they thought I should do or believe.
That, they told me I had to figure it out by myself. If I felt I needed to pray, I should do it. But, I should also probe deeper and ask whether I really believed, or whether I was doing something out of peer pressure, and if religion and the existence of God fit in with the way I perceive the world.
Well, that was helpful!
I’d hoped the session would clarify what I was supposed to believe. Instead my parents had carefully placed the burden of decision on my skinny, 10-year-old shoulders.
As an adult I’ve come to have a tremendous amount of respect for how my parents approached religion in their parenting. They gave us the freedom to believe or not believe.
And when I think of that freedom, I do wish my father too had had the freedom to own his atheism and not have to defend his thinking. I wish my brother and I had had the freedom to discuss these issues in school, instead of feeling awkward for questioning religion.
That’s why Ashley Cleek’s story gives me hope. Maybe the new and burgeoning movement in India will lead to more public and social acceptance of atheists.