Indian atheists seek recognition in the land of a million gods – The Times of India


Question 7 in the 2011 India census form asked respondents to disclose their religion and if it fell in the list of six major religions, then write a corresponding code. Most atheists and agnostics found this to be a closed question that compelled a religious response. 

Though the union ministry of statistics and programme implementation had asked enumerators to record ‘no religion’ for the respondents who said so, yet technically, only the coded answers in the Indian census form were tabulated as classifiable data. In this scheme of things, a lot of minor or tribal religions as well as atheists and agnostics got lumped together in an unclassifiable category of ‘Others’. In the 2001 Census, 0.1% (727,588 people) were reported as ‘Religion not stated’ and 0.6% as ‘Others’. Neither categories logically accommodate atheists.

As far as administrative data goes, the state requires an enumeration of people born under certain communities and does not concern itself with individual beliefs. However, the complete lack of any official data regarding the number of atheists poses a larger concern. As Akshat Rathi, a doctoral student at Oxford University, UK, asks, “Given that the government doesn’t do the job of counting atheists, who does?”

In most other countries, academic research and government funded social surveys is what estimates the number of atheists. “Unlike other countries, religion has a great political and social bearing in India,” said Raghu De Souza, an atheist.

Tarika Seth, a student of sociology at Lady Sri Ram College says, “As a secular country, India ought to officially recognize its atheists . But the lack of data can be a hurdle for sociologists who want to do a demographic survey or carry out any research on atheists.”

Legally, atheism is a grey area. Recently, Shrirang Balwant Khambete, a practicing advocate, pleaded in a Thane sessions court that he wished to abandon all religious beliefs and be declared non-religious. His plea was struck down by Justice SS Todkar who said that though being non- religious is a personal choice, should the court sanction it legally, it could complicate matters for his family members as after his death, they would be caught in a legal trap on several issues like heir to the property or rituals etc.

While apostasy (renouncing religion) is allowed under the right to freedom of religion and the Special Marriages Act of 1954 allows the marriage of people with no religious beliefs and non-religious and non-ritualistic marriages, there are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are largely considered as belonging to their religion of birth and caste for administrative purposes.

This casual approach of the state, atheists say, is deplorable. Most of them feel very uncomfortable filling official forms, like hospital and gratuity forms, that require them to mention their religion. “Part of this discomfort stems from not being considered a ‘serious category’ in a country that celebrates religion like no other. Official recognition would go a long way in letting society know that atheism is not a ‘phase’ but an alternative way of life,” said Debarati Roy, a research scholar and sociologist.

Written By: Saumya Sethia
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  1. Why can’t Atheism of India be considered a religion – belief that there is no purpose of the universe. Agnostic would be the better ‘undefined’ category, of not knowing (if any) the purpose of the universe

  2. When are we going to get:

    -paragraph  indentation when replying to a specific post and quoting that post(maybe reply with a quote itself)
    -basic edit option after posted comment
    -intermittent shading of posts(white, grey, white, grey..)
    -options for quote, bold, underline, hyperlink, etc..

    This bare bones format is quite unacceptable and is putting people off, you already lost huge audience after eliminating the forums, this will have the same effect.

  3. Because… (deja vu all over again)…
    “Atheism is a religion in the same way not collecting stamps is a hobby.”
    And it’s not “the belief that there is no purpose to the universe”; it’s not accepting the existence of a god or gods because of insufficient evidence.

  4. Bruce, not believing there is a purpose behind the Universe is not the same as believing there is no purpose. It is the same as the deities existence issue (although is it still possible that deities exist, but don’t have any purpose or are not involved in any purpose). Remember that all agnostics are also atheists, but there are some atheists who hold beliefs of non-existence re some specific, or all general deities, and so are not agnostics.

  5. Another (possible) facet of this problem regards those who may retain some nominal or cultural ties to one of the religions of India, but prefers to be ruled by secular law.  What if a nominally Muslim Indian does not want to follow Islamic/Sharia Law in terms of inheritance, and wants to treat his daughters equally with his sons in his will?   Does designating himself as “Muslim” shackle him to Sharia Law in terms of his Will? 

    My point is that when a state tries to follow multiple codes of law, with some citizens bound to a religiously based law code–as Malaysia does, and as apparently India does–it results in a hopeless tangle, not only for atheists and agnostics, but also for liberal believers who prefer to not be bound by religious laws. 

    As a secular non-Indian, I doubt that Indians will much care what I think, but it seems to me that Secular Law should be de facto and assumed for all Indians.  As a bow to tradition and in the spirit of compromise, an opt-in option could be made available, whereby, for example, a devout Muslim could actively choose to piggyback Sharia Law onto the secular code, and be bound by the strictures of Sharia Law.

  6. I don’t know about Sharia, but Hindu law is quite simple in that regard. If you’re a “Hindu” (ie, culturally, not in terms of belief), and you die without leaving a will, the inheritance goes by Hindu law. If you leave a will, it goes by the will. Also, I think, ancestral property (that is, property you inherited from your ancestors) is conveyed to your descendants by Hindu law, regardless of the will.

    I think it should be clear from what I said – Indian civil law is segmented by community (happily, not criminal or corporate law). Hindus follow Hindu law, Muslims follow a watered down Sharia, and so on. This is not an ideal solution, but it’s the political compromise that has held since before Independence. The Constitution calls for a uniform civil code, but that’s really contentious.

    Apart from allocating constituencies, the purpose of the census is to help guide affirmative action policies, which are again segmented by community. For these policies, it’s not really relevant whether one believes or not; it’s a question of what opportunities or barriers you’ve historically faced, and how much your community has overcome that (or not). The last census that actually had this data was quite a while ago (as I recall, during the British rule), and until now, the data’s been mostly extrapolated guesses from the old census. So it’s time for a census to determine these things, and see who needs help.

    At least, in theory. In reality, it’s pandering to caste loyalties for votes.

  7. Atheism in India faces challenges quite different to that in the West. For starters, V. D. Savarkar, the man usually attributed to the founder of the Hindu right-wing political movement in India, called himself an Atheist. His definition of Atheism was quite different to what we would generally concur. Then you have the Dalit Buddhist movement, which once again comes under the umbrella of Atheism denouncing any god or goddess but still you have religion. The largest Atheist movement of the subcontinent called the “Dravidian movement” (or Self-respect movement) which was founded on the ideologies to overthrow superstition and caste, is itself now hijacked by religious bigots. The current chief minister of Tamil Nadu (Ms J Jayalalitha) is a leader of one of the parties born out of the Dravidian Atheist movement but still she is well known to be filled with superstition, vaastu and what more, she carries out her official duties as dictated by astrologers. So it makes it ridiculously hard for someone from the subcontinent to step out of religion and take up reason. After all, most of the times you make an attempt in that direction you end up being mislead into another “religion”. 

  8. Dravidian “atheism” is not really atheism. It’s more a case of anti-hinduism (or more specifically, anti-brahminism). They claim to be atheist, in other words, because the brahmins are not. But right from the beginning, they were quite superstitious. One of the core ideological principles of dravidian theories is the past existence of a glorious Lemuria, where the Homo Dravida has a wonderful civilization that was brought down by the marauding Aryans (read: brahmins)… Anyway, right from the start, there were always dravidians who were not atheist. The (supposed) atheism was mostly EVR’s core followers.

    The thing to remember about Hinduism is that it’s counted as a single religion merely as a historical accident; when the Muslim and other western travelers came here, they wrote a lot about “the Hindus” doing this or that, by which, they meant “the natives of India”. There are diverse philosophical, legal and moral systems within “Hinduism”. There are native atheist and rationalist systems like Lokayata, existing side by side with the craziest of Tantric astrologers, bridge religions like the Baha’i and animistic folk beliefs. What’s common is something of a intersecting set of legal codes, a shared set of customs and traditions, and basically, a label placed on it all by outsiders, which has been accepted by those on the inside.

    Historically, the government – whether Islamic (Sultanate, Mughal), British or independent India, has lumped everyone in the “not Christian or Muslim” category into a single heading of “Hindu”. So, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and even Parsis come under Hindu law for all practical purposes. And that includes atheists, especially those who are culturally “Hindu”.

    “Religion” is a bad label for this field in the census – it’s better to say “community”, and just side-step the whole thing!

  9. I completely agree with you on the Dravidian political parties going off-track, although I don’t subscribe to the demonizing the Lemurian (or Kumari Kandam as they called it) idea. The theory is quite clearly proven to be wrong now, but when it was postulated it was a sound theory to explain the archaeological and biogeographical anomalies of that time. The ones who currently subscribe to this antiquated theory are superstitious bigots, but blaming that on the early proponents of this theory would be rather unfair. Sorry to be going a bit off the topic but I want to point out here that Devaneya Pavanar, the most profound proponent of the Kumari Kandam theory was itself encouraged and felicitated by the Congress party at a time when it had crossed swords against both DK and DMK. Given these reasons, Dravidian movement and Tamil nationalism are contemporaries but not synonymous in its original form.  They were so entwined that they later amalgamated into one shedding of its atheist roots. 

    This is where my original comment comes in. It is generally believed that the so called Dravidian parties are atheistic. The atheist identity of these now corrupt and nepotistic parties have left a wrong impression on atheism in that part of the world. I know quite a few Tamils who do not believe in a personal god but still under a census would identify themselves as Hindus. 

    The above is not confined to Tamil Nadu but also to many other parts of India where you can still be an Hindu and not believe in God. Of course this is because of the diversity within the Hindu faiths. Although I agree with you on this that all the native faiths of India are merely segregated as one religion I beg to differ that it was done by the  Muslims or European invaders. 

    The aggregation was done by Hindu stalwarts themselves. Certain practices like sati, thuggees  etc were a clear embarrassment to these Hindu noblemen. For example, it was his “reforms” through Brahmo Samaj that got rid of sati (according to them a fringe practice) and he encouraged more uniform religious practices based on the Vedas. Since most Hindu scholars by that time realised that the Vedas were quite acceptable to the British scholars as work of high literary value they took up the task of unifying Indian native religions into one Vedic religion. 

    One can note that even in 1878 when the news daily “The Hindu” was founded, the word Hindu simply meant Indian and nothing more. It was in the later years by what is now called as the Hindu renaissance that ‘Hindu religions’ became ‘Hindu religion’. This would explain why Hindu law includes so many religions. Although I quite agree that its weird to call Zoroastrianism as Indian religion. 

    However, there is no point in all the jibber jab I wrote above because I totally agree with you that the census should have said community rather than religion. Because both ‘atheism’ and ‘religion’ are terms that means quite different within the Indian context compared to the west. 

  10. On Lemuria, when it was proposed, maybe… Now, it’s an embarrassment at the very least, when the Grand Old Man of dravidianism, who’s supposed to be rationalist comes up with something like this. I don’t think that’s fringe by any measure of the word… And I meant that one only as a single example. There are others too.

    On the aggregation, yes, the final aggregation was done by Indians themselves, but my point is that Indians wouldn’t have made that connection without external influence. In fact, I’d go ahead and say that the common self-identification would have started far before your date of the 1870s – I’d say sometime during Mughal rule would be more accurate. Still, my real point is that there are a whole lot of barely connected philosophies dumped under the umbrella of “Hinduism”. They usually share similar (if not exactly the same) culture, but it’s not a “religion” as a Westerner would understand it.

    I think we agree in general, the specifics are wild and crazy. But hey, this is India! The specifics are always wild and crazy!

    PS: Tamil guy here, and I’m probably biased by the number of times I’ve had to explain to people that no, Lemuria is not, and never was, real, and that it was a failed theory that was adopted and taken to extremes. It’s taught in history syllabus in schools! How benighted is that?

  11. Oh I certainly agree that the Lemurian proponents do exist in Tamil Nadu and yes it is very shameful indeed that this bygone theory is taught in school. I am a Tamil too, so I see your point and share your pain. 

    And I also agree on the external influence on the Hindu identity. Conflicts between Saivites and Vaishnavites (although not as violent as Protestantism vs Catholicism) is well documented. If left without external influence they probably would have evolved into their own religions. 

  12.  I disagree. Some of us, Dravidians take pride in calling ourself rationalists. I grew up in a liberal society in India and there was a huge distinction between the wishy-washy type atheists you are refering and those of us, who didnot believe in anything that doesnt have scientific evidence. And btw, as a dravidian rationalist who grew up in India, I have never heard of Lemuria. We do study a lot about Sangam literature and the glory of the Tamil civilization, but that is just from a historical context. Nothing remotely superstitious about it.

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