Atheism in times of Corona

It's high time the option "None" was available against "Religion" on an Indian census form. It's our constitutional right. Javed Akhtar's award and activism just made atheism cool and sexy! It's time to come out.

Illustration Credit: Derek Monteiro

The lockdown due to Covid-19 brought a few home truths, among many in some sections of our society. In no particular order, these were:

  • We could live without visiting temples, mosques, churches and other places of worship

  • The high priests of religious orders had to bow down to science, reason and logic, when lives were at stake. Some may have done so willingly, some even consciously and some forced by the law

  • Our religious institutions are custodians of vast amounts of gold, cash and real estate – none of which was put to good use, barring some Gurudwaras and a few other exceptions, during the pandemic. Temples alone are known to hold roughly $200 bill worth of gold. This value in kind could have kept 200 mill unemployed and affected people going for a year! Why do people donate to religious institutions ? And to those that demonstrate such glaring apathy? Why aren’t such institutions accountable, even in a crisis?

  • The belief in God or a higher supreme being, has also been tested. At the very least, the lockdown demonstrated that such “faiths and beliefs” could be kept private .

  • Forced to keep Gods and religions out of public during the lockdown also ensured, that their potential to cause divisions, often the case in India, was kept somewhat in check

In this backdrop, the recent Richard Dawkins award given to Javed Akhtar, is significant. He is the first Indian to receive this recognition.

Richard Dawkins, a celebrated evolutionary biologist, in his many well received and often controversial works, has consistently argued against the presence of any Supernatural Creator and has maintained that religious faith is delusionary. He has further argued for increasing influence of education and consciousness to counter religious dogma and indoctrination. The award was instituted to recognise the efforts of those who have raised awareness around atheism. It is given to anyone who has distinguished herself in the fields of science, education, scholarship, entertainment by upholding the values of secularism, rationalism and the pursuit of scientific truth.

Javed Akhtar, a celebrated writer and lyricist, has  been a vocal champion of human rights and secular, constitutional values. His Muslim roots have often put an extra burden on him to prove his allegiance to his country. With his wit and poetry, he has been more than a match. Being considered a bigot by all major faiths, in his view, has made him an “equal opportunity atheist”! His protests on the controversial citizenship bills and the widespread use of bigotry to divide people were best expressed in his poem Write (translated by Rakshanda Jalil):

To speak of that which everyone is fearful, of that you must write
The night was never so dark ever before, write!

Throw away the pens with which you wrote the odes
In praise of the true pen dipped in the heart’s blood, write!

The narrow circles that confine you, break all of them
Come under the open skies now, of a new creation, write!

That which finds no place in the daily newspapers
That incident which happens everywhere every day, write!

That which has happened finds mentions
But of those that should have happened, write!

If you wish to see spring return to this garden
Call out from every branch and on every leaf, write!

His poem on the plight of workers during the epidemic concludes with the lines (roughly translated from Urdu):

“God’s doors were closed

Who would they ask

As there was no one

Among  the echoes of Silence”

His contributions are even more noteworthy, if seen from the backdrop of the industry he earns his living from. The celebrities in the entertainment industry have often preferred to stay away from taking public stands on human rights issues – some out of cowardice, some out of genuine fear due to lack of supportive laws and most out of plain greed. A well known, educated and highly acclaimed actor, friendly with the powers that be,  even resorted to voodoo science to explain how sound could destroy the infamous virus!

Some surveys indicate that as many as 20% Indians were confirmed atheists, or were unsure of their religious orientation or didn’t subscribe to any specific belief or faith. The pressure to conform to a faith is especially high for women who have been entrusted to pass on “faith based rituals’ to the next generation under the garb of tradition and cultural continuity. Any rebellion in this regard is seen as un-sanskari and the woman risks getting blamed for all the ills that befall the family

It’s high time the option “None” was available against “Religion” on an Indian census form. It’s our constitutional right. Javed Akhtar’s award and activism just made atheism cool and sexy! It’s time to come out.



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