On Religion, Choices and Criticism

Credits: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Credits: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

All issues involving Paris/religion are too sensitive and dense to talk about lightly. Lives have been lost; families are smaller, emptier. But there is one thing, I feel is right, to talk about: criticism of religion, since a lot is being said how it might have been unwise of Charlie Hebdo to do what they have been doing: criticising a religion.

My basic understanding (at this point in my life) is it is very wrong of us to criticise someone for things she didn’t choose. Like a person’s surname, her colour of skin, and the like. Things beyond her control. But a religion is very much something we have to chose for ourselves. In fact, we have to chose two things here:

  1. Whether to embrace religion.
  2. Whether to embrace ‘X’ religion.

A religion may well be, once you’ve chosen, the bedrock of your life. But so could a stray dog a lonely homeless person found on the streets and now gives her life some meaning be (or <insert your preferably grand scenario to assuage your offended-by-religion-being-compared-to-a-stray-dog heart>).

But tomorrow Mrs. M feels the dog to be a nuisance for the neighbourhood and very loudly badmouths the dog to her neighbour, which the entire neighbourhood hears. This comes to the attention of our homeless person. As it turns out, our homeless person doesn’t shoot down M, but tries to make the dog, her life’s one shining light, more acceptable.

There are two things of note here:

  1. The homeless person realising it is not unnatural for a fellow human to not value the dog as much as she does or speak of the dog as highly as she does. (Thus allowing freedom of opinion, free speech)
  2. The homeless person realising it is even possible for fellow humans to hate the dog she so loves. (Thus making use of Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ by putting herself in other’s shoes)

If a person cannot think this way, what that person needs, more than a religion, is a simple lesson in humanity and common sense. The important thing is to realise that choosing a religion or a dog to be the centre of your life doesn’t make them the right and perfect choices for you or everybody.

As Wittgenstein talks in his book On Certainty, it is very difficult to be absolutely “certain” about things we take for granted everyday. And we can only be certain, if at all, by eliminating all other possibilities. Where there is a choice, there is an alternate possibility. And even though our choice may seem to be the correct one at this moment, in the long run, it may well turn out to be a disaster (or may not). Moreover good and bad, right and wrong are all relative terms, never absolute. What is right for you (Wittgenstein whispers: Are you really sure it is right?) may not be right for the girl next to you and vice-versa. So how could a human who cannot figure the chain of hundreds of reactions her simplest choices trigger off until it is too late, whose choice of embracing religion and choice of embracing ‘X’ religion both have competing choices in atheism and other religions, respectively, can be so sure that her choice is absolutely (not relatively) correct? How can that religious person be so arrogant to feel offended by another human questioning and slandering her choice when that same religious person has the very same right to question and slander the choices made by her fellow human and it is nobody else’s fault but her that she chose not to exercise that right?

I’ll end my chain of thoughts here and let more famous people hog the limelight.

It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that.” As if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more… than a whine. It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I am offended by that.” Well, so fucking what? – Stephen Fry

To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. A law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed. It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended. The right to ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be ridiculed because one in my view represents openness – and the other represents oppression. – Rowan Atkinson

There are just no grounds for any person to be offended by any other person over anything, much less over a choice which practically begs criticism, as every choice warrants criticism. Simple as that.


The God That Never Was


It’s been five years now. How time flies! But does it really? Maybe for some. Maybe for you, maybe for me. Yet somewhere today, in a dimly lit room, sits a mother holding her child’s photograph. Cobwebs litter the walls and corners. The door makes a creaking noise as a lonely wind brushes past it and tiptoes through the house. The window was open. She rises up with a sigh and walks over to it, dragging her feet through a layer of dust. The whole room seems forgotten. There’s dust on the study-table and spiders climbing through the curtains. Nothing seems to have been touched in months, years. Nothing, except for that photograph. It doesn’t seem to have a speck of dust anywhere. But it’s wrinkled and soft..and wet. She closes the window shut, turns the dim light off and sits alone in the darkness, clutching the photograph close to her chest. For some, time stands still.

“Do you believe in God?” “Of course, mother. Why wouldn’t I?” “Good boy. May He bless you with all the happiness in the world.” “God is great.” “God is great.”

I don’t have many regrets from the life that I’ve spent, the life that I was gifted. There are ups and downs, no doubt and a couple of things aside, there isn’t much that I’d like to change about the last 22 years of my life. Yet, as the days have rolled by, there were things, thoughts that began knocking on my mind’s door when I least expected them to. Things I wasn’t sure were in my mind to begin with. With every year and every knock, the door was getting weaker, the knocks were getting heavier, louder. Yet I resolutely held my own, pushing the thoughts aside and living yet another day. Maybe I didn’t like the idea of losing to my own thoughts or maybe I was scared of what might happen if I let those thoughts in. Maybe. I thought it was just easier to postpone the decision for another day. Years rolled by, things stayed calm and the knocks altogether stopped. Life went on as before. Then one fine day, five years back, there came an avalanche, a tsunami. The door was destroyed, ripped to shreds. And the mind just stood there open, naked. The eyes finally saw.

There is no God. We’re on our own. We’re all we have. It’s scary. It should be. It’s a scary world out there. But you have to admit, it’s also strangely uplifting, freeing.

I was never given an option. I never knew there was an option. It has always been like that. Me, my family, my friends (give or take) ..and God. It was like the Avogadro number, or the Planck’s constant. Or any other constant for that matter. To question God’s existence was to question the beliefs of those who brought you into this world and who brought them into this world, and so on. And I wasn’t a man big enough to do that. I’m still not a big enough man nor will I ever be a big enough man to question the beliefs of said people. But however strong the base is, there are things in the world that can still shatter the strong but false foundations.

I remember waking up early. It was a holiday I think. I’ve forgotten why. Maybe for an exam or something. Or maybe I just skipped school that day. Everyone else was still asleep. Eyes half-closed, I dragged myself to answer the bell. The newspaper guy had tossed the paper and left. I loved to read the paper so I sat down on the sofa. The front page was filled with news about the Mumbai terror attacks. The police and the forces were still trying to rescue the hostages. That was all me and my family watched the previous day. Mother and sister prayed all the time. I think everybody everywhere did. So did I. It was horrific. God had to do something.

Mother must’ve heard the bell. She too woke up minutes later and without a look or a word, she straightaway headed to the living room, switched on the television, muted the news channel and sat down. I knew she had started praying again. I don’t think she ever stopped praying. Feeling a bit guilty, I began praying again. Browsing through the paper, my eyes fell on a story resigned to the footnote. It was about a little girl and her little brother. A woman found them wandering through the Mumbai station, holding each other’s hand, searching for their mother. In the middle of the gunfire, the stampede, the madness. She brought them to her home. It’s been three days now. The kids are still waiting for their mother. The woman who found them breaks down before the journalists. The door in my mind was ripped apart. The foundations were shattered. From that moment, I stopped praying.

They said a lot of things. That God is good. That everything happens for a reason. They talked about karma. About sharing the bad in life with the good. That there’s spring after winter. But there wasn’t a single reason in the whole wide world of God I could find that would make him do what he did to those kids. Innocent souls now ravaged for life. No karma, no heaven, no hell can explain the brutality of this tragedy. What harm could souls as young and as pure as them ever do to deserve that? The God, the caring father of his billion children, the protector of the universe, what good is he if he can’t look after his own children? No father will turn a blind eye to the travails of his children. Where was he when two little kids were snatched away from their mother, left to fend for themselves, wandering alone in the pits of hell? If God exists, then he probably doesn’t give a damn. And that contradicts the definition of God, the caring parent who quite simply has to give a damn. Ergo, God doesn’t exist.

It was a simple thing, in the end. I probably always knew it in the back of my mind. The back of my mind? Ah, yes. Those knocks on the door. They were always there. But I ignored them. I was too scared to imagine a world without God. Without a watchful protector looking after me and those I love. I needed a wake-up call so severe to open my mind, my eyes. But I can imagine it now. Many people still can’t. And that’s all right. Lucky are the ones who die knowing there’s a God. It’s a sad thing, but they are lucky. If they’ve done good in life, they would believe they’ve booked the tickets to heaven. If not, at least they know where they’re going. To those who know better, it’s a strange world. There is no heaven, there is no hell. This is all they have.

If there are any regrets about the life that I’ve lived, this is one of them. That a part of these beautiful years, a part that was as quiet, as close and as sure as my shadow, was a lie. But there are no more knocks, no more doubts. There’s a new foundation. Maybe on lonely, turbulent shores but it’s a true foundation. It will hold, come what may. Because that’s all there is.

But the world is neither just nor unjust
It’s just us trying to feel that there’s some sense in it
No, the world is neither just nor unjust
And though going young
So much undone
Is a tragedy for everyone

It doesn’t speak a plan or any secret thing
No unseen sign or untold truth in anything…
But living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
You want everything
Another world where the sun always shines
And the birds always sing
Always sing…

Robert Smith was right.