When I was a child I used to believe in things like ghosts, monsters, god and equality. I’ve since done away with many of those beliefs, though I still believe monsters exist, I see them on the news sometimes.
To be clear, I stem from a fairly conservative middle class family. My mother was wholly in favour of having a religious scholar come around every evening to compound my material learning with the spiritual kind. This entailed reciting verses in a language I didn’t understand, but was taught to read fluently.
It was a beautiful thing, come to think of it, chanting those delectable words without being encumbered by the banality of meaning. If I were an aesthetic purist back then as I am now, I would have loved it. But I was just a kid, and it made little sense to me.
In school, they taught us about the history of Islam and how gloriously it was spread on the back of the sword. The kids would chatter about the tales of bravery and courage by the early caliphs, they’d invoke the names on the playground, where some skirmish or war was reenacted every day.
Back then, all I really wanted was a bicycle. I would see all these kids flying around on the streets outside like they were roman warriors on flattened, awkward looking chariots, basking in the dust and glory of the streets of Lahore. Seeing no imminent signs of procuring one, my mother had played the ‘it’s not safe’ card, I turned to prayer.
But just when I was about to ask for one, I realized that god must be a busy person, entertaining prayers from kids like me all over the world, not to mention those annoyingly needful grown ups. It was unlikely that he’d be in the habit of answering more than one prayer from the same person; simply not enough time. So if I wanted to ask for something, why not make it really good?
I upgraded my prayer from a bicycle to a jeep, and on further reflection, from a jeep to a helicopter, and finally a yacht. That was the limit of my imagination back then.
I would be the happiest kid in the world if god just gave me a yacht. It needn’t be the biggest yacht in the world, but what’s size to the purveyor of all the universe? It might as well be.
I got up from the prayer mat feeling pleased with myself, I had reasoned myself into an enterprising supplication. God had to give everyone at least one wish in their lifetime right? So if I just kept asking for a yacht I was sure to eventually get one.
That didn’t work out the way I had planned. I have a car now but it sinks quite easily in water. See that’s the thing with religion and reason. If you try and apply one on the other, well, it’s like oil and water, they never mix and you just get scolded by your mother for making a mess.
But I was a slow learner, I would contest religion with reason many times over, and think myself into tiny little migraines.
I was always told that something could not come from nothing. Everything needed a creator and a sustainer. My young mind likened it to the things I consumed every day. Everything came with a manufacturer’s label. I wondered if there was a print on my butt that said ‘made in heaven’. But found none.
Then I realized the same thing could be said of god. How did he come from nothing? Without a creator or a sustainer? How was he just…there? Was that not nonsensical too?
Then there were god’s widely proclaimed attributes.
God was great.
God was all powerful.
God was all merciful.
Yet he was the most just too. Just what? Confused? How could something be the epitome of both justice and mercy given that god’s justice is the retributive kind. That’s the same concept of justice and mercy that our father used when grounding us for the slightest mischief, “I am strict, but kind, it could’ve been worse, I could’ve disowned you”. Way to playing on people’s fears.
God was also all knowing, he already knew which people were going to end up in heaven and which people in hell. So what was the point of playing it all out? It’d be like watching daytime reruns of an old and unpopular soap opera.
He was all seeing, that meant he saw you when you were in the loo, or in the shower, rubbing soap under your armpits and squinting into the water. Or when you were…you know.
Watching it all. What a voyeur! This kind of stuff would land him in prison quicker than he could say khyber pakhtunkhwa. Had he never heard of privacy laws?
If god resided on earth he’d be a registered stalker. Everyone would have a restraining order against him. He’d be like that homeless guy looking into people’s windows and stealing their mail. Nobody would like him. Nobody would want to be friends with him. Who wants to be friends with someone who already knows all your dirty secrets? That’s just no fun.
He was also all wise. Yeah, a huge, endlessly sprawling universe and 7 billion people stuck on one tiny planet. That was some municipal development level wisdom right there.
Then came a point when I realized that I could do a lot of things that god never can. I could lie, cheat, steal, get drunk, have sex, rickroll people online and, you know, die. By the end of my life I’d have experientially defeated god, for he is bound by his goodness to never indulge in vices.
Then came a point when I realized that the idea of heaven was pure torture too. What would I do for all of eternity? Really, what?
Eternal existence without any sense of time or how or why would be just as unbearable as senseless oblivion, so why fear the one thing and not the other? The fear of death was at the core of all spiritual longing, but I didn’t understand how people couldn’t fear perpetual meaningless life? The thought terrified me. Especially with the kind of company one could expect in heaven.
Then I realized that god himself must exist in an existential quandary. He must be the most tortured soul of them all. His existence does indeed precede his essence and he is compelled to exist, there is no way out. He must ask of himself the same questions that we do here on earth. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why am I talking to myself? Is that a strawberry muffin in the fridge?
He must be lonely. And miserable. Having no equal, nobody to look upto, no mentor, no closure, no sense of belonging.
Finally I realized that sitting around trying to rationalize an abstract entity that may or may not exist is probably not the best way to spend my days on earth. Reason and religion, oil and water, I was slow but it came to me at last. But something still bothered me, why did other people not think like this? Like me? Why did they cling on to their beliefs?
I would see my mother fastidiously kneeling over her prayer mat everyday and figured that okay, people need this like they need caffeine or alcohol or happy pills, who was I to take away their crutches. But then you never realize how dangerous handicapped people can be until they turn that crutch skywards and bash you on the head with it.
See I never wanted to be a militant, take a stand on things sort of an atheist, primarily because I loathe to think that atheism is anything that defines me as a person. I am not a contrarian, I don’t want to rest my world view on denying somebody else’s. Atheism was just the first step in my personal development to something more fulfilling and wholesome, without the incongruency and limitation of religion.
But, we are forced to define and defend ourselves against an aggressively vocal majority. They deny us the space for personal growth by making us defend our lack of credence in their tales. They keep pushing us back to the point where some of us are even inclined to think that atheism, the denial of an imagined worldview, is indeed the crowning achievement of human rationality, that it is something to be proud of. That it is the battle won. It isn’t. Atheists can be just as bigoted, biased, racist, sexist and immoral as anyone else.
So now I’m a pretty vocal atheist, despite my better judgment and distaste with the term itself. Even in a country where that is ostensibly masochistic behaviour. Sometimes I get threatening stares in the market place or even at home when unsavoury people are around.
But I am compelled to explain to them that I no longer feel the need to be coddled by concepts of godhood and immortality, because they answer none of life’s inherent, puzzling questions.