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This is real atheism || Acharya Prashant, in conversation (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
8 min
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Questioner (Q): Acharya Ji, my first question to you is that we have a lot of people, in fact, an increasing number of people, who are saying that they are atheist, they do not follow any religion. They seem to be confused about what religion is. What according to you is the importance of religion? Whether somebody is born into it or is it by choice, whatever it is?

Acharya Prashant (AP): You see, there are two kinds of religions. The first one is the usual formal organised popular kind of religion that is generally known by that name. The word ‘religion’ has been appropriated by organised systems. So, in most of these organised belief systems, there is a story, a story concerning a particular God.

So, usually, when people say that they are not religious or that they are atheists, they mean that they do not subscribe to that belief system or any particular belief system. So, they say that they are religious or irreligious, and that was kind of bound to happen. Because every story is just that—a story, a product of the mind. And every belief system is just that. It’s something that you believe in. It does not really have any truth to it. So, all the religions that found themselves on belief were bound to lose charm one day and that’s what is happening.

Since the advent of science and right from the day, Newton showed the universe to be deterministic, and then you had Nietzsche who declared ‘God is dead.’ And you have today’s age when people can be cloned, and man is fighting death and disease and all the divine rights of the Gods are being usurped by Man.

There actually remains no need to belong to a belief system because the beliefs themselves are being very openly shown to be false. So that kind of atheism was waiting to dominate thought and society and that’s what is happening.

If you can’t tell this generation, a well-educated youngster, some fairy tales, some cock and bull story about one supreme figure sitting somewhere higher up in the skies and on his whim, one day he decides to create the universe and the universe he creates through this and that means. He picks up some soil, picks up a bone and chants some verses or mantras or special words and does this and does that. It all sounds so juvenile. People won’t really take it seriously. So, that kind of atheism was not only waiting to dislodge the conventional kind of religion but I also think that it is very much alright that is happening.

But then, apart from this particular definition of religion, there is the real religion as well. Real religion is not confined to any particular sect or stream or organisation or belief system. You could call it ‘essential religiosity’. And what is this essential religiosity? This essential religiosity is about the thirst of the mind to truly, honestly reach a point, a destination, a state where it can be at rest, where it can be at peace. Now, this is real religiosity. This religiosity must not be shunned, it cannot be done away with. Because if Man keeps aside real religion, then he will turn neurotic.

Religion is not something that you take upon yourself; religion is one’s fundamental crying, an inner need. It's like the thirst of the body. Now the body has thirst, hunger and such things and the mind has restlessness and ignorance and unfulfillment and loneliness; these are the states of the mind that the mind is actually born with. We take birth with these things. There is fear inside, there is loneliness inside, there is ignorance and there are a lot of animalistic tendencies that we are born with. So, these are there and therefore, Man needs true religion.

If Man does not have true religion, man will suffer endlessly and therefore, it is a bit unfortunate that in the name of atheism, even true religiosity is being rejected. Atheism is wonderful if atheism is used as a counter-narrative to all the stupidities of popular organised religion.

In that sense, a lot of great saints were actually atheists. A lot of religious reformers were actually atheists because they did not subscribe to the prevailing notion of Godhood. And the prevailing notions of Godhood, you would agree, have been very rotten at many points in history, at many places on the earth and that’s why there has been a need for religious reform and when we have had those reformers, we have been grateful to them. So, that kind of atheism is alright but I become a bit nervous when I see people discounting even core spirituality by asserting that they are atheists.

Now, if you are atheists, that’s alright. See, you may not want to have a God and that is alright. One can understand that God is a bit of fiction but it is not understandable if somebody says that he or she does not want to have peace or Truth. Now, real religiosity is about having peace, not about having God. It's another matter if you start calling God as a synonym of peace or Truth or understanding and that is a different thing. But that does not usually happen in the popular version of religion. So, the religion that wants you to believe in stories and a certain kind of cosmology and certain stories of genesis. If you want to discount that religion by becoming atheistic, it is pretty much alright.

But it would be a tragedy if we start saying that we don't need compassion, that love is an outdated value, that we do not really need deep understanding, that we do not need simplicity, that it’s alright to wallow in falseness, that we do not really need to know the core Truth, why? Because we are atheists. Then there is a great problem.

So, if the trend is away from religion which we are witnessing in America, in Europe, in Japan, even in countries like ours—if the trend away from popular religion, results in a cleansing of religion, results in people moving away from religion towards spirituality, then it's a welcome thing actually. Because we do not want superstition in the name of religion, do we? We do not want strife in the name of religion. And we very well know that a lot that goes by the name of religion is truly rotten. We do not want all that. So, if people are distancing themselves from all that, people are dropping all that, and by dropping all that, they turned truly religious or spiritual, then it's a welcome thing. On the contrary, if someone says, ‘I am atheistic and I do not believe in Bhagvan or Ishvar and, therefore I am refusing to read the Gita even or I am keeping Vedant aside, I do not want to go into the philosophy of the Upanishads, then it's a scary thing, very scary thing.

You see, that has been the intended relationship between religion and spirituality. Religion is the outer case. Religion is the shell within which the core, the kernel of spirituality is enclosed. So, people were taught to be religious so that they could be spiritual. But Maya is so wonderful that religion, instead of becoming a gateway to spirituality became a barrier against true spirituality.

So, therefore, when religion is challenged or when religion is dropped or discarded, sometimes I take it as something auspicious. It's good that people are discounting the usual kind of religion. But if along with religions, spirituality too becomes something abhorrible, something that can be avoided and something that is taken as outdated and repugnant, then we have a great problem. We cannot throw the baby away with the bathwater. Just because most of what we call religion is a huge mess. We cannot claim that even the core of religion is something we can do without. No, we cannot do without that.

Man is a religious animal. We cannot live without true religion. Equally, if we have a bad religion, it will not let us live. So, it's a tight ropewalk and we have to be very, very careful and attentive in negotiating it.

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