A few days ago, one of my friends made a statement about how in a debate between a religious person and an atheist, the atheist would always be calmer. That statement gave me the urge to write about a topic that has been in my notes for a while now – atheism can be just like a religion in many ways, except that the followers do not have a deity they worship. Maybe I should rephrase that: while atheism is not like a religion, a lot of overzealous atheists make it look like one, in the way they behave quite like their counterparts – fanatical or over-devotional religious followers.

As I have written before, I believe in a power beyond our senses that I call God, only because it is a word that’s readily available. I do pray; but it’s more like wishful thinking, an attempt at retaining hope that things will be fine eventually, even if it looks hopeless and dark at times, and a reminder that we do have a lot to be thankful for. There are customs and traditions that I follow, like performing Vidyarambham for the kids, waking up to Vishukkani on Vishu, lighting lamps for Diwali or decorating our Christmas tree. But these are all done for the sheer fun of it, and to make sure that the kids grow up enjoying our festivals and knowing the traditions which are pleasant and sweet. I don’t impose it on others, nor do I mock people who follow some customs that I don’t.

I do call out traditions and superstitions which are hurtful and insulting to others, like antivaxx campaigns that can put so many innocent lives at risk, ones fabricated and continued only to suit the set norms of a patriarchal or homophobic society etc. But if someone decides that they want to follow something that makes no sense scientifically, but is also not hurting others in any way and doesn’t try to force it on others, I wouldn’t ridicule them, call them stupid or try to start a debate to prove them wrong. Simply because it’s their choice and their life. Knowing that line of when something needs to be called out, and more importantly how, is the key. And not many “hold that key” of “sense, sensibility and sensitivity” (to quote a certain Thevalliparambil Joseph Alex).

I find it admirable that atheists have a strong sense of conviction in believing only what can be seen or explained logically and scientifically. I have never found the need to convince them that “sometimes there are things beyond logic or our understanding” and such cliched stuff. Just because I believe in something I know isn’t rational, logical or scientific, only because it makes me feel good, I shouldn’t expect others to believe in it. That decency in respecting others and their beliefs, I feel, is one of the things that makes me and those like me different from a religious extremist. While I have found my counterparts among atheists – ones who follow their minds and let others do the same, I have also found counterparts of fanatics there – quite a lot of them. Just like the case with anything else, this radical and extremist section of people is the enemy of atheism too. As with any other category, these folks can be easily found on social media.

The problem with this section of atheists is their absolute need to have others ditch their beliefs, absolutely harmless ones at that, and agree to their stance. There is a smug surety of themselves and what they believe in, that borders on arrogance, about them. And they feel it is okay to look down on those “irrational, senseless beings who worship a figment of their imagination” and try to either set them right or belittle them with their most powerful weapon – knowledge.

Quite a lot of times, I have seen believers trying to find solace amidst intense grief or misery by praying or saying that they believe God does everything for a reason. When they lose their loved ones, they talk about how they know that the ones who left are happy in another world. For sure, that wouldn’t make sense to non-believers. And there would always be questions raised, rightly so, when religious groups try to exploit someone’s grief for their own selfish purpose. But if someone, in their personal space, says they try to find peace by turning to God, why should we ask them a million questions around “If God loves you, why put you through this? How cruel is your God to do this?” If a mental image of their loved ones smiling from some other world helps heal their wound, why should we ask them “How dumb are you to believe in such nonsense?” Why should anyone think that they have the right to deride someone else’s beliefs or source of strength just to win a debate that they didn’t even ask for. What do we lose by just letting them be, leaving them to find peace for themselves in their own way?

More than the “when” or “why”, the “how” goes way overboard most of the times in this attempt to prove God wrong. The questions posed, the statements made, the sarcasm and humour used are all so overdone to the point of being sadistic and disparaging. I’ve sometimes wondered reading comments from the self-proclaimed ‘more knowledgeable, more sensible and definitely more civilized’ ones, what kind of pleasure they derive from ridiculing and verbally squashing someone who minds their business, only because they believe in something different. Why this need to pick a fight for no reason and prick someone else’s bubble of peace? What might seem a ‘bubble’ to us could in fact be their fortress.

When people of science, especially doctors, say “let’s pray for the best”, it doesn’t have to be interpreted that they don’t have confidence in their abilities, that they shirk responsibility for their actions or that they are insulting science. As long as they are not providing testimonials giving a stamp of approval for “miracles” from saints, thus ceasing to acknowledge the validity and worth of the medical profession or science in general, a simple “Thank God we were able to save the patient” is no reason for a hue and cry. The same way, when a patient’s family says “Thank God we didn’t lose our loved one”, it doesn’t have to be assumed immediately that they are ungrateful towards the doctors who did their job, or that they would have attacked the doctor if the result was different etc.

The justification for such behaviour is always that “they are arguing about something imaginary, so they are wrong; we are arguing about something real, so we are right”. That reminds me of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s lines from Kahaani, when asked what makes the cops different from terrorists in sending an innocent woman to her death as collateral damage – “They do it against the law, so they are wrong; we do it for the law, so we are right.”Their justification never answers the real question of “why this behaviour, this sense of entitlement?” And more importantly, it doesn’t answer the question “How are you different from them?” Because in essence, except for the central concept of worship, or the lack thereof for that matter, the conduct is pretty much the same. In short, what they believe they are above, is exactly what they do.

The point is simple. Whatever you think works for you, follow that. But the world would be a much better place if people, whatever their beliefs or personal choices might be, decided to follow the simplest, most basic philosophy in life – live and let live.

Also published on Medium.