Grandpa the Angry Atheist

Question from Nik:

I am an Atheist born in to a Hindu family in India. A month back, I revealed my atheism to my grandfather who is a more open and aggressive atheist than I am.

He went on to accuse me of visiting holy places with my family members and said I should be ashamed of myself. I on the other hand argued why I should stop from having good time with my family just because I am an atheist. I do not see any reason to accuse any one for believing in god or distance myself from others just because I do not share the same view as them.

Do you think it is obligatory for an atheist to let everyone know what their belief is? I was never forced to take part in any activity I do not like. But if I ever happen to see any one do atheist-bashing I will definitely defend it.

Am I really wrong in keeping my atheism to myself? I agree, at times I am guilty of acting as I do believe in god just to avoid unnecessary confrontations, though.

P.S. My parents do know I am an atheist.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re certainly not alone in keeping your atheism to yourself. There are a lot of atheists who haven’t told anyone at all, so just by letting your family know you’ve been more open than many.

In principle, atheists have more freedom to participate in the rituals of faiths we don’t share than members of any religion, because we don’t have a jealous god who gets angry at us when we “stray”. The worst that can happen is that we get angry with each other, like your grandfather does.

There are two probable reasons for this, but I don’t think either one is very strong.

1. Perhaps he thinks you’re betraying your principles by participating in worship. Only you know what your principles are, and whether you’re actually worshipping the Hindu gods by visiting these places. You probably don’t give that impression at all when you’re out there.

2. These trips may support the religion itself, whether through monetary donations or simply by giving the authorities and other visitors the impression that the Hindu faith is more widely shared than it really is. It’s perfectly reasonable to donate to a religion if the money helps to maintain sites of not only religious but social and historical significance, and which everyone can enjoy. Also, there are ways to make it clear to the general public that the religious aspect is not the main reason why many people are there; in fact they probably already know this.

As for whether you should be proclaiming your atheism wherever you go, that’s really not productive some of the time. Yes, it’s good when a decent amount of atheists are open about it because it encourages others to “come out”, but if they’re disruptive about it they may generate an amount of antagonism towards atheism that isn’t worth the publicity. (Read about the Crackergate affair, where a student walked out of a Catholic Mass with a consecrated wafer and Catholics everywhere went ballistic. Atheist commenters condemned Catholics for their pointless outrage, but few if any condoned the student’s actions.)

I honestly don’t see anything wrong with what you’re doing, if you don’t. It might be useful to know exactly why your grandfather objects, in case I’ve missed the mark regarding his motivations. Maybe Rohit, our near-resident “cultural Hindu” atheist commenter, can help too.

One thought on “Grandpa the Angry Atheist”

  1. Hey Nik … first off – I wish I had a grand-dad like yours !!
    I love talking to the older atheists born into Hindu families – I love the way relatives tend to look away or run for cover when these guys openly denounce religious thinking during family get-togethers. Given the Hindu tradition of respecting elders the tension that these atheists cause (the religious Hindu relatives can’t openly go against the old atheist out of respect, yet they hate the drubbing that hinduism receives from the old atheist) at family occasions is so amusing !

    I think there’s a fair share of closet atheists born into Hindu families. And most forms of Hinduism practiced today are so mild that most atheists born into Hindu families probably do not face much problems living without declaring their atheism.
    Maybe your grand-dad has had some bad experiences with the loony fringe of Hinduism (the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena brand of Hinduism) and maybe that’s made him particularly militant. Its also possible that he has had bitter experiences of Hindu – Muslim riots that used to be fairly common in India till around ’90s and that’s made him a militant atheist.
    Maybe your grand-dad believes that he is trying to instill “the courage of your convictions” in you (as SmartLX’s pointed out in his first point above). If I was an atheist grand-dad I probably would have done much the same (but that’s just me!).

    I do agree that there is a lot of fun in visiting “holy” places in India. I for one love going to Gurudwaras – I love the langar (for those not familiar with the term – its a free communal meal served at the Sikh place of worship). Plus I find the reading of the guru granth sahib soothing in a nostalgic way. I always try and visit a Gurudwara when I travel back to India. I do not donate anything though, as I think the money’s probably going to find its way into the coffers of the loony fringe. I wish there was a way I could ensure that I could give money for a trust established separately to maintain the place / to help serve the free meals. But there is no clear way of ensuring this. I tend to look at my mooching at holy places as the price religious people pay for their silly beliefs and use this (twisted) rationalization to make peace with the guilt pangs I sometimes get about not paying for what I get from such places !

    Hindu festivals are pretty fun to celebrate – I do not believe in the religious premises of Holi, Diwali, Janamashtmi etc, but at the end of the day they are a nice forms of community get-together and celebration.

    I don’t know how old you are, but I think its probably your age to enjoy … so I would say go ahead and do as you please. Its ok to keep your atheism to yourself, though I personally do not do so.
    I would however, encourage you to consider taking a few actions – 1) Talk to your grand-dad and make it clear to him that the only reason you visit holy places, take part in rituals etc. is that you think they are fun and because at present you want to avoid unnecessary confrontation with the more religious Hindus 2) Try and find out from your grand-dad how he became an atheist and try to understand the reason for his militant atheism 3) Read up a bit more on Hinduism – how it led to castes, how castes are still prevalent in large parts of India and the immense problems that this archaic system causes. Read about the damage caused by organizations like Shiv Sena etc (I’m hoping this will give you ammunition to tackle religious Hindus when you do decide to be more forthcoming about your atheism).
    You’ll find that Hinduism has over the centuries inspired a fair share of crazy social practices – some of which are deeply enmeshed in the Hindu society and stop us from become a forward thinking, progressive community. Your grand-dad probably sees that and thinks that the “fun” of the religion is too small a compensation for the damage the religion has caused over the long run.

    A lot of us atheists do not want to keep our atheism to ourselves simply because we feel there is too much silliness in the world inspired by religion. We feel compelled to remove some of the silliness by arguing against religion and arguing for rational thinking. Atheists too are capable of loony actions (the crackergate affair pointed out by SmartLX is one such act of lunacy in my view). Try to avoid such steps – there’s always a more rational, less provocative path that you can take to prove a point (most of the time) – though your grand-dad may not agree to this !!

    All the best.

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