I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Kima Jones.
Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up? Did your parents talk much about their own faith, or take you to any religious services? When do you first remember being aware of the concept of God, and what did you think of it?
My family is from the West Bengal state in India. My parents’ religious background, strictly speaking is Hinduism, but that does not quite do it justice or paint a comprehensive picture. Firstly, not only is Hinduism a diverse range of beliefs and practices, I want to stress that my family was a multifaith household with a background of Hinduism. Let me explain further. My maternal grandparents, and as such, were/are devotees of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who introduced a very interfaith approach to the idea of God even though he himself was an ordained priest at a Hindu temple of Kali. He practiced rituals and forms of prayer of different faith traditions without discrimination, and even abandoned Hindu iconography when especially immersed in some of these experiences. I think more than anything, his contribution to interfaith dialogue came at vulnerable time in India’s religious politics. The British Raj was gaining a stronghold in India, and Indians were experiencing major shifts and challenges to their religious identities like never before. What Ramakrishna did was establish the notion among Indians, and especially Bengalis of the time that all religious and spiritual paths lead to one God, and that whatever form of worship and religion one may inherit and practice is valid. The Ramakrishna order is still active in India and around the world, and they celebrate festivities from other religions, too, such as Christmas, Easter, Eid, Vesakh and many others.
My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, was an atheist widow, which people still find hard to believe. She lived till the age of 105 and never cared for God or religion.
So as a child I was taken to all kinds of services, not really as a spiritual or religious event but as cultural and social excursions. I guess I was in a geographically advantageous position growing up in India, as I got to visit many Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim sacred sites. I thought the sites themselves were cool, historically and culturally, but understood little about what each faith meant and why this God figure was necessary to warrant just having amazing architecture. I never got any formal religious education. I’d hear a story at school, or from a children’s book about the life of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, what have you, but the tangible differences in the specifics of the ideas of divinity never really occurred to me. I believed anyone who believed in God, regardless of their faith background, believed in the same God, and I just didn’t bother with specifics so much because I didn’t believe in God myself. My earliest memories of spirituality or religion is characterized by aggressive indifference to divinity and marked curiosity in the history and mythology behind religions. I treated them as fairy tales or high fantasy literature that simply took on special meaning for a group of people, so it was largely interesting to me ethnographically. I would not get any real religious education until I moved to Canada at the age of 12, and subsequently attended a Catholic high school.
(I would like to read a book about the life of your paternal grandmother, whenever someone has the time to write one, please and thank you.) I imagine moving to Canada and going to Catholic school for the first time just as you started puberty was a pretty low-key event that had little effect on how you viewed religion, culture, God, yourself, and other people, so we should just skip that, right? “Pretty much the same as before, Catholic school in Canada.”
I should mention that before I attended my Catholic high school, I went to a public middle school. In Canadian public schools, you don’t talk about religion if it’s not relevant to the curriculum, so while I knew my classmates were Lutherans, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims and belonged to all sorts of other groups, institutionally no one cared, and we were just kids, so it never really hit us either. I went to a Catholic high school because it offered the International Baccalaureate program and was close to my house, and as an aspiring polymath, that was pretty much what I was looking for in my high school experience.
Let’s just say, my preconceived notions of Catholicism were oh-so-wrong. My exposure to Catholicism prior to arriving in Canada was through chill nuns who hung out at convents in the Himalayas or taught at schools in India. I knew they were strict, but not beyond what I would expect from avowed ascetics. In Canadian Catholic school, interestingly, I seldom had any encounters with the clergy or anyone involved with monasticism. And man, lay Catholicism was…different.
My first encounter with how ignorant I was about the Catholic faith happened while I was in my Grade 9 orientation camp in Haliburton, Ontario. There were a dozen or so of us girls in this cabin, and we had a camp counsellor just a bit older than us. We sat around in a circle and talked about the “Catholic high school experience” and how it was different. We arrived at the topic of Christlike behaviour and works of charity, and eventually “how to help the people in Africa.” People had the usual discussion about sending clothes, food and money to charities. When it was my turn to speak, I just blurted out, “why don’t we just teach them about contraception and condoms?” with a dead serious face. Everyone gaped. For what it was worth, I was not trying to rock the boat, I genuinely believed it’s not the business of religion to dictate what people did with their bodies, so long as it wasn’t hurting anyone else or themselves. I knew the whole Christian preoccupation about chastity, but I certainly didn’t realize that a ban on contraception was part of the package. Silly me.
I mean, I didn’t exactly have sex ed in India, and my parents hadn’t broached the topic beyond a few vague remarks, but I lived in India, and not exactly under a rock, so I was aware of all the family planning/AIDS prevention public service announcements and initiatives. Plus, I had Encarta. I knew what’s up.
Anyway, I had religion classes for the first two years of high school. We talked about the Beatitudes, some Christian history, Catholic sacraments and mystagogy. All fine and dandy. I could appreciate Catholic spirituality and asceticism, ones that didn’t concern themselves with the “threats of rampant secularism” because it strived to transcend the everyday material world, but lay and evangelical Catholicism and I seemed to have some beef. What’s with the obsession with believing that you are the one true apostolic Church and everyone else had it wrong? Why was there this preoccupation with becoming a governing force in people’s lives beyond their moral and spiritual needs? To me, these forms of Catholicism were mostly preoccupied with establishing political order, far more so than any authentic concern about spiritual truth, even though they claimed otherwise. I had (polite) arguments with religion teachers about these things and the confusing notions in Catholic sexual morality. I thought the stories of early Christianity were fascinating. Apparently my fascination with asceticism had started early, and I thought the Desert Fathers and Mothers were the bees’ knees. After Christianity became a more organized religion, it seemed that I had checked out mentally. Not that I would at all qualify for being Christian in any way, I still didn’t believe in God, and the most I could do is describe myself as an agnostic. People in school knew I wasn’t Catholic, and some (both teachers and students) called me a pagan, which was truly bizarre. I worshipped no one, not even idols. Also, is that supposed to be an insult or something?
Around this time, I discovered Zen Buddhism. I loved reading koans because they were like little logic puzzles that aren’t meant to be solved, simply contemplated. I loved the imagery, the poetry, the mythology and the trippy plots of some of the Jatakas and the koans. If I was in search for spiritual truth, it seemed like this was the way to go. So I became a hobbyist Buddhist for a while, until that is, I realized “Buddhist” was indeed a very misleading term to describe me. I practiced certain aspects of Zen Buddhism, but it still couldn’t claim a large enough place in my worldview for it to become my religion. Sure, it didn’t care for God, but I could have that without Buddhism too. What was the point of calling myself anything?
I was eventually able to simply identify as an atheist. Little did I know that it comes with its own baggage, like the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris trifecta. That’s where the fun began. The New Atheists didn’t represent me, for a number of reasons, and it frustrates me to this day that they have a monopoly on what atheism is to the international public with the belief that bunch of 19th-century white aristocratic gentlemen had single-handedly invented atheism and passed it down to them. As if! Did they not read in Encarta/early Wikipedia that ancient Indian philosophers had entire systems of thought devoted to atheism and rejection of scripture, long before Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead”? This was only the beginning of my rift from mainstream atheism.
I’d love to talk more about that last part, because I went through a phase in my own young adulthood where I found New Atheist writing to be deeply compelling, and had a brief flirtation with Richard Dawkins (I blush to recall it). It’s not at all surprising that atheism often comes with significant cultural baggage, and it’s amazing how many of us don’t realize that atheism and agnosticism weren’t invented by male Westerners in the wake of the Enlightenment.
Can you tell me a little bit about what draws you to atheism? What does your atheist outlook look like? Are there any writers or thinkers in particular who have influenced that worldview?
I think I have always been an atheist. I currently identify as an agnostic atheist, because I find it necessary to qualify the fact that I don’t claim to have absolute knowledge on the existence or lack thereof of God. I’m an atheist because I simply don’t have faith in God.
I too, had a brief flirtation with Dawkins. I remember reading The God Delusion as a teenager thinking I had found my manifesto or something. It feels funny to think about that now. I think what I object to most about the brand of atheism that the likes of Dawkins promote is the idea that there’s a conflation of lack of faith with rationality. This is simply not true. Plenty of people are perfectly rational with faith, and many are very dangerously irrational without one. This is also a bit of a classist and elitist because it assumes less educated people cannot find lack of faith on their own, and that education and reason are necessary requirements to attain enlightenment by atheist terms.
Since my teenage years, my atheism has changed a lot. In high school, the atheist movement was somewhat exciting as I felt validated in my lack of faith, especially in my Catholic high school surroundings. It was quite enlivening, in a way that I imagine finding religion is for many people, but some of the assumptions simply didn’t sit well with me. I was not an atheist because of reason or because there is no proof of God’s existence to a 99.99% probability. I was not an atheist because I had proof of no God, or because I needed or wanted a proof of God in order to believe, but simply that the notion of God didn’t happen to be part of my spiritual faculties. The other day I saw Nicole Cliffe tweeting about how she found faith, and that it seems it either happens to you or it doesn’t, and that she is not interested in convincing others that God exists. This is similar to how I feel about my atheism. It’s just always just been there, I didn’t have to seek my lack of faith, it was a preexisting condition in my spirituality. I didn’t need proof. I didn’t need logic or reason or science. At a very basic instinctual level, I simply had no faith. Many atheists found atheism after having not-so-great experiences with religion. This was certainly not my case.
Despite my atheism, I’m one of the most spiritually greedy people I know. I define spirituality as the feeling of connection to all living things in our shared condition of being, living, thriving, suffering and ultimately dying. This is a feeling I consider sacred. I am spiritually greedy in that I do not want to have to pick and choose between any kind of faith tradition or practice where I can find opportunities to deepen this connection. My atheism allows me to be the captain of my own spiritual destiny and to find my individualized methods to get in touch with the sacred. This sacredness has nothing to do with God but everything to do with how we experience our lives and how an acknowledgement of the common thread of being in all of us can help us be more empathetic to each other. I know some religions see God as Being Itself, and I think that’s beautiful. In my case however, respect for our shared being does not require a divine figure.
The thinkers who have influenced my current philosophy are mostly religious folk who do believe in God. It’s also strange that the majority of these people happen to be ascetics, but maybe I’m a fan because I’m a graduate student and we lead similar lifestyles to them, except for the whole celibacy part. I’m a big fan of early Christian ascetics like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, because through there experience much of contemporary Christian spirituality was established. St. Benedict’s Rule is something I practice in my day to day life, with a good balance between contemplation and community. I am also very inspired by Zen literature because it urges us to experience the beauty of the present moment that I think is very therapeutic and life-affirming. I’m also getting into Sufism and its ideas about finding enlightenment within oneself. Rumi is not only a great poet but also an amazing student of the human condition and I think we can all learn from his verses, regardless of our religious or spiritual affiliations. I’m fascinated by the philosophy of Bauls of my native Bengal, who disregarded caste and religious boundaries in favour of celebrating the divine love that occurs among humans and finding divinity within earthly realms. Recently, perhaps a bit inspired by Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me, I have become interested in North American indigenous spirituality. I’m particularly interested in the idea of sacred clowning, which have similar counterparts in other cultures as jesters, tricksters and satirists. I find this especially compelling because much of religion seems to be a battle between dualities. Practices like sacred clowning subvert our logical expectations and reductionist dualistic thinking in favour of nuance, and I just love that.
I actually attend religious services sometimes. I’m a fan of Lent-related contemplation. I spent my last New Year’s Eve at an Anglican Convent as part of a retreat, and I am soon attending some formal Zen training sessions. I’m almost embarrassed by my interest in spirituality as an atheist, but I guess it’s my lot in life.
Oh, not at all! I think it makes enormous sense, because you’re clearly someone who thinks a great deal about faith and spirituality and meaning, and I don’t think that just because you’re an atheist means you shouldn’t or can’t participate in religious conversations and experiences. You can be fond of something that doesn’t belong to you, if that makes sense.
It sounds like your conversion was more of a gradual transition (like Crowley, the Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards) from mostly-culturally Hindu to an atheist with a healthy interest in weirdos who live in the desert, and that it’s been a mostly positive, affirming process for you. Was there ever a time were you felt conflicted about it? That you ran into difficulty with any members of your family over your spiritual beliefs?
It’s funny that you mention Crowley. My first name literally means “the first that was created” (feminine form) in Sanskrit. It’s not a mythological character, so I often align myself with Lilith a la Alphabet of Ben Sira.
I have been lucky enough that no one in my family has had any issues with my atheism. The times I have run into trouble is when I try to explain to well-meaning people that I don’t need God in my life, not even for spiritual well-being, thanks very much. I think most of the conflict I had was with myself and a certain culture within atheism that doesn’t really care for my interest in spirituality, or dare I say, even mysticism. When I go to religious services or places, I am able to explain to people that even though I don’t have a God, I’d be a fool to remove myself from a vital part of the human experience, that of transcendence through spirituality. Of course, religion or spirituality is not the only means by which we can do it. We can do it through art, music, literature or just being around people we love. I still think the world at large still has a somewhat distorted idea about atheism and the forms it comes in. Some of us have rich inner lives similar to devoutly religious people. There have been times when I have been so moved by religious art and music, that I really wanted there to be God, or if there is God, that I could find the faith to believe. This has also happened during times when I had particularly shitty times in my life, for example in the aftermath of deaths in the family. I remember that when my childhood dog died, I was heartbroken that I would never see her again. I really wished there was an afterlife where I could hang out with her for sure, but I don’t know if there is. I mean, sometimes, I hope that there is some way to have parts of your life accessible even when the time for them is past, and I struggle with this every day. An afterlife would be a simple solution, and I really want to believe in it. Maybe it exists as something we haven’t imagined as, maybe there are parallel universes we go to, who knows. Life and death are weird things, and I’m nowhere near at peace with the finality of it, but the elusive moments in which I feel really connected to everything, I know that I’m always with those who I loved and lost to death, sometimes with their memories, their belongings, but nothing is really lost. They continue to live within me, and shape who I am. For now, this is consolation enough.
Oh, how the BEST is that Lilith tradition? B O N K E R S, is what it is.
I would love to know what the Venn diagram of “atheists” and “people fascinated by mystic traditions” looks like. I don’t think atheism necessarily means hostility toward religion, and it seems like that’s something you believe too. There’s an enormous number of people in every religion (and within atheism, too), in my experience, who feel discomfort and wonder and confusion and pain at the mysteries of life and the realities of death. There are a great many more similarities between them than one might think – all believers are not blissfully certain of the rightness of their faiths, and all atheists are not completely uninterested in spirituality and completely convinced that they know everything about life and death.
That’s pretty much it. Thanks for letting me be a part of this!
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.