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Aspiring polymath since 1982

Being Atheist

In today’s religious climate, its not very easy to rise up in front of a crowd of your peers and elders and have to state the uncomfortable fact (for them) that you do not believe in the things that they believe in, and that your belief system actually consists of an emphatic lack of belief in theirs. There are the usual exclamations about landing up in hell, wise elders shaking their heads and saying that its just a growing-up phase and that you will revert to believing in God again, just you wait and see. Scandalized aunts whispering loudly that that boy was always weird and different. Peers tittering or staring incredulously, as if your pronouncement was the verbal equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild (mildly NSFW) video.

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Why is it so difficult for people to accept that there might be someone who does not believe in God and actually has very good reasons backing him up? Why does an atheist not only have to explain his belief (or lack of it) in front of everyone at every given opportunity, but also have to deal with people who think that their faith is being put to question by your lack of it? After all, we are all atheist in some way or the other. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins from his talk at TED, “If you ask someone who is a Christian if he believes in Allah, Vishnu or Odin, he would definitely say no. As atheists, we just go one god further”.

We don’t become atheist because its something that can get talked about at cocktail parties, or because its a laugh scandalizing people. We are atheists because that is the only frame of reference that explains and satisfies the recurrent question of who we are and where we belong.

As a person born and brought up in a mildly conservative Hindu family, its been a question that I have grappled with myself for a while. My interactions with the faith that I was in mostly consisted of weekly or monthly trips to the nearest temple and reading up on the works of well-known Hindu philosophers. The more I read, the more it struck me that even as Hindus, the belief systems and philosophies that they worked with had so much variation (as Hinduism lacks any dogma)

If there was so much variation in their beliefs, then the only logical conclusion I could arrive at was that all or nearly all of it had to come from a man-made source. That religion itself was a man-made construct, adapting and evolving itself to meet the requirements and needs of its adherents over the centuries of its existence. So if it was a man-made construct, then where could God arise out of, except from a blind devotion to the central dogma of his or her existence?

My realization was not a Hindu-specific realization, because if you were to examine any of the other major world religions you would seem the profligacy of man-made construct in their belief systems, their religious texts, their rituals and dogma. How else could any one explain the sheer proliferation of sects in stridently monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity?

The second realization that I arrived at was that religion needs unquestioning belief. That it brooks no questions and rarely, if ever, accepts speculation. Religion could never be like science, accepting nothing unless it had passed the gauntlet of academic scrutiny, empirical testing and validation. Even in economics, while there might not be a mathematical equivalent of 200805051210.jpg for the relationship between supply and demand, there is still a very clear and unambiguous correlation between the two. Religion has nothing of the like.

The third realization that I had which was to push me even farther, was the realization that science and religion are essentially antithetical to each other. As a person who was deeply interested in science and its questions, the sheer impossibility of any form of logical reconciliation between religion and science was something that made me realize that it had to be one or the other. That for me, there could not be an uneasy truce between the two like Human Genome Project director Francis Collins was able to arrive at very publicly, in his books as well as talks.

Like Pascal’s wager, I tried making my peace with the incoherence of organized religion and my growing lack of belief in a higher power by hiding behind the convenient skirts offered by agnosticism. And it did work for a while as long as I kept myself away from any discussion regarding religion or faith that would re-ignite the doubts all over again. I stifled any close-blasphemous verbalization regarding religion that came to my lips now and then. The surprise for me was how accepting people were of my agnosticism.

It was kind of like being treated as the befuddled aunt at a party who mixes everyones name up without any recognizance of her errors. Indulgent smiles from religious people who in their hearts would have been hoping that I would find God as long as it was their own. Nods of understanding from other agnostics who might have seen in me, a reflection of their own reconciliations and journeys. Things would have continued in this fashion if I did not make the decision last year that I could not be truly free till I acknowledged who I was, because otherwise I’d be living a lie that I really had no reason to continue living.

That realizing one thing and accepting it are two totally different things, is something that I have gained as an experience truly my own. Arriving at the conclusion that I could not in all conscience consider myself a part of the religious majority was easy. Making a clean break from religion and the comfort and security of its community was for me the most difficult part of my transition.

Starting off with irrational fear of uttering anything bordering on blasphemous, being tight-lipped about religious orientation or interest, avoidance of any discussion on religion or faith, the convenient subterfuge offered by agnosticism were all the different steps that I went through before arriving at the courage to publicly verbalize my atheism. A courage required for me to scale the barriers raised in my mind and psyche by my upbringing in religion rather than the courage required to face the public eye.

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This post of mine is not raise questions in the eyes of people who do profess a faith in God and/or religion. The purpose is basically to chronicle in a small way the journey I undertook to the port of call where I’m right now. There are atheists out there who propound that all atheists should be out there proselytizing the truth about atheism, the irrational belief of God and the corrupting influence that religion has on the daily lives of billions. While that might be motivation for some, for me it looks very much like the religious evangelization that I have come to dislike.

I do not seek to “convert” anyone to atheism and I do not engage (as much as possible) in arguments for atheism unless dragged or provoked into it by someone. I’m an atheist because thats what’s fulfills me as a human being and not because of any sense of self-righteousness on my part. I believe that people should be free to believe in anything that they want to even if it involves fairies and leprechauns and I do wish that religious people had the same attitude of understanding when it comes to other belief systems. After all, does it take a stretch of imagination to go from angels and demons to elves?

I do think that atheists out there have a responsibility though. And that responsibility involves being more open about our atheism, about not hiding behind words like agnosticism and making the public more aware about what atheism means and what it means for them. After all the known enemy is better than the unknown (at least for religious fundamentalists). In the sublime words of Donald Rumsfeld, let us not be “unknown unknowns” but “unknown knowns” to start with and slowly make the transition to “known knowns”.

Lets make sure that there is enough material out there regarding transitions made by people from a religious belief system to atheism. Material which will serve as guideposts for people out there too confused and maybe also scared to make the transition on their own. Prominent people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have their part to play but so do we. At a smaller, grassroots level, we can take baby steps also to ensure that there is a support system that people can use. Especially for people who are letting go of any that they ever had.

Most importantly, keeping in mind that we do not ever want to be equated as an “Atheist Church”. Nearly all of us have arrived where we are through logical reasoning and introspection on our part. Proselytizing or evangelizing of any kind would just undermine the journey of any people who would care to join through such a drive.

I have collected some links that I think would of use to anyone interested in this topic. This page will be continually updated with new links and material, as and when I come across them.

Websites:
  • Why Won’t God Heal Amputees : Website examining systems of prayer and religion and refuting them through simple logical reasoning. Slightly Christian-focused but that might be because its an US website
  • Internet Infidels : Promoting a naturalistic worldview, namely “the hypothesis that the physical universe is a ‘closed system’ in the sense that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of it can affect it. So naturalism entails the nonexistence of all supernatural beings, including the theistic God.” Good reading material and references
  • Positive Atheism : Another website containing a lot of material and references for use by atheists and people stuck on the cusp. They promote activist atheism which should be self-explanatory to anyone
  • Richard Dawkins : The great grand-daddy of atheists out there in terms of visibility and activism. Site contains reading samples from his books as well a very active discussion forum on atheism. Great resource, highly recommended. Be prepared to lose a lot of your time on the site though (it’s that engaging!)
  • Atheism in India : The only good resource on Indian Atheism that I could come across. Web site collates material from over half a century of the Atheist Center’s existence. Based out of all places in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh. The official website is here
  • Flying Spaghetti Monster : A parody religion cooked (pun intended) by an activist in Kansas to protest against the inclusion of Intelligent Design as a theory in science textbooks in the state. Spread like wildfire across blogs and the news networs and now has its own approved Church and Bible.

Books:

  • The God Delusion : A distillation of Richard Dawkin’s work involving atheism and refuting the claims of intelligent design, its a great read for people like me. Might not bring smiles to the religious majority out there
  • The Blind Watchmaker : The book that really started it all for Richard Dawkins. An examination of evolution that puts down the argument for intelligent design cogently and decisively. A great read again, even for the religious right
  • A History of God : This is another book which really shook my core. Former nun Karen Armstrong examines the evolution of monotheism from its roots in paganism to its current avatar of devout bureaucracies. If this will not shake your questions about religion as a man-made construct, nothing else on this page will. Brilliant read.

There are some great books out there by Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens also but I’ve focused on Dawkins as he seems to be more readily available here in India.

The atheistic difference is and should always be that it offers a path based on humanism and rationalism, not one based on the very tools and techniques that started pushing us away from the folds of our religious backgrounds in the first place.

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eDemocracy and Participatory Citizenship

The idea for this post came from an event called eDemocracyCamp held in Washington DC that I happened to come across. As the name might tell, eDemocracyCamp is based on the BarCamp model, and its purpose according to their website is “eDemocracyCamp will connect citizens, researchers, developers, practitioners and anyone else interested in the topic to learn about the current state of e-democracy and share their visions for its future direction”.

Going through their website and the sessions that they held, made me realize that for all our talk about being the world’s largest democracy, for most of us our duties as citizens ends with the casting of a vote (if at all). I’m equally culpable as I finally got around to getting my Voter’s ID Card issued this January only. And this, when I do not consider myself an apathetic citizen.

Civil Society and Participatory Citizenship is a theme that has really interested me over the years though like most Indians of my generation, a general fatigue brought on by constant reminders through Tehelka, TV sting operations and the general perception about the political class, that the pervasive rot in our political system is enough to put us of any interest or involvement in governance, local or otherwise.

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The introduction of the Right To Information Act (RTI) was supposed to improve transparency and serve as an instrument for civil society to monitor and critique the functioning of the government. Though how aware the general populace is about RTI and how to go about using it for their benefit is still moot. Even in urban India.

Easy access to simple details such as land records, birth and death certificates, caste certificates, would enable the common man to break free from the grip of the lower bureaucracy was the rationale behind e-governance services in many states. In reality, several villages that I have had the opportunity too visit over the last one year are not yet aware of the availability of their government’s e-governance services.

Therefore access to information alone cannot be the “killer app“.

Mediation of information will be the “killer app”

I don’t know how many people are aware of it, but all the questions asked by MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions and the government’s responses to them are available online here and here. There might even be a similar system in some State Assemblies though I’m not aware of it. All this is fine till some actually tries to find some information on the website. It’s just not possible. Mainly because of their total reliance on search queries to go through the data

The organization that implemented this data, the National Informatics Center (NIC) has absolutely no clue (or interest) in tagging questions with relevant tags, creating a taxonomy of the data collected in the Parliament so that a person interested in knowing if the government has been asked any questions about uranium ore mining in Jaduguda can easily navigate to the relevant portion of the site.

Take the case of another NIC website, Agmarknet. The aim of the website was noble. To capture agricultural commodity prices from across the nation and disseminate them as far as possible so that a paddy farmer sitting in Kerala during the harvest season, will have an idea of the prices for the same paddy in Punjab. Again, an idea which looks far better on a presentation rather than in execution.

Mainly, because there is no assurance to the public about the quality and verifiability of the information being collected and then disseminated. Several times, impossible prices have been reported on the website because the people entering this information are clerks and peons at local agricultural marketing committees, who obviiously have no incentive or interest in ensuring that the information being entered is perfect. And as for dissemination, the less said about that, the better.

Most of my efforts online trawling through Indian Government websites has made me realize the sad fact that if we are going to wait for NIC or another government agency to improve eDemocracy and e-governance services, we will be in for a pretty long wait. Another realization that I came to was that efforts need to start in urban India first and then percolate to rural India. If we cannot make our urban citizens less apathetic about their local governance, expecting rural India to do so is expecting too much.

My third realization is that for transparency and participatory democracy to take off, we as a nation need to take back control of our data and our information, as thats what our choices and causes will be based on. It’s always stumped me why its easier to get data about our country off of multilateral websites rather than Indian Government websites. And when even the UN is setting up a common pool of data across all its constituents, it’s high time we did the same for India.

Fourth realization is that in India, Web 2.0, wikis, blogs have little or no role to play in the implementation of an eDemocracy system. India requires an Indian solution and an Indian medium, and as of now there is no media more pan-Indian than the cellphone and more in use by people of all social and economic strata. When they write the story of India’s rise in the 21st Century, no one technology will be in the spotlight, all the way from humble Nokia 1100 incarnations to Blackberrys.

My final realization is that participatory democracy, literally has to start at home. Don’t start with the creation of an application that tracks how and where the Indian Budget is being utilized and the efficiency of utilization. Start somewhere simpler, like finding out what your local Municipal Councillor is doing with his funds and why isn’t there a garbage bin in your street, for example. This is why Janagraaha has such a strong model.

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As for solutions that can be used in India, thats where I’m really stumped. There are some great solutions that I have come across, mainly through the eDemocracyCamp site. Some of them are:

  • They Work For You : A British website where entering a simple pin code will present you with information about the local MP of that area, his voting record in Parliament, his Parliamentary budget and expenses, and other pertinent information. A great, great idea.
  • Fix My Street : Another British website where entering your pin code will present with you information about your area and where you can lodge complaints regarding graffiti, garbage and road repairs required. Made by the organization called mySociety which also made the site above
  • Stemwijzer.nl : A Norwegian website which allows citizens to test their political preferences, compares them to the manifestos of the contesting parties in the elections, and calculates which party has opinions the closest to you
  • Legistorm : An American website that makes public information on staff salaries, privately funded trips and financial disclosures of members and staff of the US Congress. Something like this which clearly allows us to see what each MP is doing with his Constituency Development Fund would be relevant in India

Some interesting blogs on eDemocracy and participatory citizenship that i came across are:

Free (as in beer) and great reading material on this topic can be found at:

There are some Indian solutions that I have come across also, though they are mainly restricted to participatory mapping. There is an interesting project in Mumbai called Mumbai Freemap run by an organization called Collective Research Initiatives Trust and one run by Janagraaha here. Another project based in rural Andhra Pradesh that comes to mind is the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project.

I’ll keep updating these links as and when I come across something interesting. Like my earlier post on information visualization, I want to make this post into a braindump of all the related and relevant information and literature on this topic that I come across.

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The way to move forward as I see it, is to start a discussion forum on not just eDemocracy, but also on Participatory Citizenship and the strengthening of civil society. Preferably, start of an with an online forum so that people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies can iron out their differences and arrive at a common plan of action (or atleast, a list of common grievances) to take forward in meatspace.

We should then think about organizing an event like eDemocracyCamp or Social Innovation Camp, where the different ideas and approaches that come out through the online forum can compete for more public validation and even funding for pilot projects from sources interested in civil society action and advocacy such as the Center for Civil Society, the Omidyar Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the like.

Create a foundation to run these activities so that there is an element of professionalism as well as continuity for these activities. Have a stellar advisory board for this foundation on the lines of what Janagraaha and the Bangalore Agenda Task Force have been able to gather, to provide critical inputs on functioning, funding and the future of the foundation.

It’s time for us as a generation to start taking small baby steps at creating a new public culture for our nation and our polity. And those first steps have to start with information. After all, Thomas Jefferson’s saying back in 1776 that “Information is the currency of democracy”, is an adage far more relevant and achievable in these times of pervasive electronic media.

To end, check out Hans Rosling’s brilliant presentation at TED where using publicly available data, he presents information in a manner easily understood and appreciated by common people. His project called Gapminder is striving to make the vast amounts of data and information collected by multilateral organizations available in a mediated format, increasing both usage and understanding.

This is the mediation required to generate information that is truly engaging and actionable for the public. Let’s hope that we see similar Indian initiatives coming forward soon.

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