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Freedom from Religion: Why 'No Religion' Should be a Category

There’s a small but growing community of those who shun religion

Published: Aug 19, 2013 07:29:30 AM IST
Updated: Aug 13, 2013 05:40:33 PM IST
Freedom from Religion: Why 'No Religion' Should be a Category

Ritesh stands out among the lakh or so students cramming for the Joint Entrance Exam in the coaching mills of Kota, Rajasthan. Unlike most of his comrades, the 18-year-old isn’t praying for a high rank. He has been an atheist since he was 11 and struggling to cope with bullying in his school hostel.
As he tells it, “I was physically weak and often got beaten up. I used to cry and ask God, Why does this happen to me? After the fiftieth time or so, I wondered who the hell I was talking to. And, on that wonderful night, I became an atheist.”
Ritesh is a member of a small community: Those who shun religion in an ostentatiously religious country. Disbelief in God does not necessarily exclude anybody from India’s broad religious spectrum. Buddhism and Jainism are agnostic. Hinduism had ‘Nastik’ philosophers.

Many historical figures were also atheists. Jawarharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, for example. Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar became a Buddhist, rejecting casteist prejudices. The Dravida Kazhagam movement was founded by EV Ramasami “Periyar”, who required his followers to renounce God. And of course, communists are atheists, by definition.

Many modern atheists have arrived at unbelief simply because religion didn’t make sense to them. Jude, a software engineer, quit on religion while in school, after running a scientific experiment: “I experimented with study a little and pray a lot, then pray a little and study a lot. Then I tried similar experiments with other kids. It was quite clear prayer never helped.”

The Census of India doesn’t have a separate category for ‘No Religion’, or ‘Atheist’, lumping them together with Bahais, animists, etc as ‘Others’. In the 2001 Census, the ‘Others’ added up to 0.6 percent (roughly 4.5 million). This is way less than the global average of 13 percent.

However, ‘Others’ doubled in 2001 over 1991, and may well have doubled again in 2011. There are also many non-believers, who find it too much trouble to claim lack of faith. Yash, a software developer from Mumbai, says, “I haven’t performed any religious ceremonies for my daughter. But the only options on the Birth Certificate are Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Other. I ticked ‘Other’ and wrote ‘None’. The nurses objected. I had to select Hindu in order to avoid a future legal mess.”

Given the multitude of forms Indians have to fill up, not being a recognised official category has costs. It also takes time and trouble in many other ways to be officially non-religious. A religious ceremony can be performed instantly and registered later. But a civil marriage under the Special Marriage Act requires a licence, a wait period, proof of residence, and other formalities. If one wishes to donate organs—or the body to science—after death, legal arrangements must be made in advance. If one wishes to avoid one’s assets being passed on by the default provisions of religious personal laws, it is necessary to make a valid Will and register it. After death, that Will must undergo probate. All this costs time and money.

In addition to bureaucratic tangles, the non-religious often face emotional blackmail, social pressure and even legal threats. India’s archaic laws, such as Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, make it a criminal offence to question religious doctrine, let alone mock faith. These laws are often used to harass people in absurd ways. Sanal Edamaruku, a rationalist engineer, faces criminal charges for demonstrating that a cross in a Mumbai church was dripping water due to capillary action from a blocked drain, rather than through some miracle.

Not only can such laws be used to target the non-religious, they have no corresponding shields against  mockery or ostracism. Quite a few have suffered estrangement from their families and have been abused by their peers. Asha, a Kashmiri Pandit, says her reluctance to perform shraddh ceremonies for her parents led to a breach with her siblings.

Anita, from a Catholic family in Kerala, says it was a “horrible day” when she ‘came out’ as an atheist. “My mom was most intolerant and I faced very harsh reactions from her. My dad was more sad than angry. Strangely, once you come out, people who previously seemed to be liberal now act like fundamentalists. Maybe it’s because they’re dealing with their own doubts.”

Nanda, from Mumbai, had problems at school “because I refused to go to the ashram or learn verses from the Gita.” She publicly repudiated her religion after the horrors of the 1992-93 riots. Akhtar, a 35-year-old from Moradabad, says he’s stopped participating in social and family occasions because of the inevitable heated arguments centred on his non-belief.

Marriage is a major flashpoint. Geetha, from Chennai, was coerced into a temple marriage. Swati, a Banjara woman who runs her own business, says, “I refused to get married to a believer and did not, in fact, ever get married since I couldn’t find a suitable atheist.”

Sarath, a Telugu Brahmin atheist, says he was “forced to do the Upanayanam [thread ceremony] because my parents want an arranged marriage. I have hopes of ‘saving’ my future spouse and kids if I have an arranged marriage, though I would prefer to marry a Freethinker.”

Nishant, a banker from Ambedkar’s community, faced peer pressure in his college hostel.  “There, I was exposed to fasting, vegetarianism, hate towards other religions, religious fanboys and fangirls. I faced discrimination when I opposed religious practices, and many forceful attempts were made to change my thinking.”

Babu  Gogineni, director, International Humanist and Ethical Union, remembers the occasion “when I was invited to speak to the Bar Association at Rangareddy District Court on Scientific Temper. The presiding judge learnt I was an atheist and refused to preside even though my subject had nothing to do with religion.”

Social media has helped such scattered individuals find each other. There are multiple Facebook and Google groups and local meatspace chapters. Nirmukta, for example, is a rationalist organisation that debunks superstition and hosts debate forums. Indians without Religion is another society that wants to become an NGO fighting for the rights of the non-religious.

As the non-religious band together, they hope to carve out some space and recognition. As Suchi, a engineer from Chennai says, “People need to respect that you have put at least as much thought into your atheist beliefs, as they have into their religion. Only then can there be a true separation of church and state.”

Losing Their Religion
Atheists have long demanded the inclusion of a ‘No Religion’ category on official documents. Lawyer Nikhil Mehra explains how an appeal could be filed: A writ petition would have to be filed challenging the absence of a No Religion category. The grounds would be freedom of conscience under Article 25(1) and Article 14. The core is: I have the right to live my life as I wish as long as I am within the ambit of the law and am not trampling on the rights of others.

Article 25(1) guarantees the freedom of conscience, and that must inherently encompass the right not to profess any religion. Every citizen has the right to profess and exhibit such religious belief as is approved of by the citizen’s judgement or conscience.

If my conscience or judgement doesn’t permit the acceptance of existence of God, or any particular religion, I can’t be treated differently for it, provided my actions do not impinge on the rights of others. Following from there, I have the right not to engage in certain religious practices and similarly, I have the right not to belong to any religion.

In terms of the right to equality (Article 14), a standard government form ought to permit atheists to not be compelled to forcibly ascribe to a particular religion. This amounts to a suppression of their right to freedom of conscience. In that sense, an atheist is being treated unequally since his freedom of conscience is not treated in state action at par with that of a believer.

(This story appears in the 23 August, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Mohan

    people prefer to be in a religion or caste because of benefits they get from being so. already there is general category. religion and caste are also a reason for political power. nobody can eliminate this age old system. this can be eliminated only if income/ of the person is considered for benefits.

    on Aug 22, 2013
  • Steve Finnell

    HAS BELIEVED WHAT? Jesus said \"He who has believed and and has been baptized shall be saved.\" (Mark 16:16) The question remains. Has believed what? BELIEVED WHAT? John 20:31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. 1. You have to believe the Scriptures. 2. You have to believe Jesus is the Christ. 3. You have to believe Jesus is the Son of God. BELIEVED WHAT? Galatians 3:26-27 For you are Sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 1. You have to believe you are Sons of God through faith. 2. You have to believe you were baptized into Christ. BELIEVED WHAT? Ephesians 1:7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 1. We must believe that it is only because of Jesus shedding His blood that we can have forgiveness from our sins. BELIEVED WHAT? Acts 8:12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good new about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 1. You have to believe the good news about Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God before you are baptized, not at some future time. There is no record of unbelieving infants being baptized. BELIEVED WHAT? 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, 1. You must believe there is one God. 2. You must believe Jesus Christ is mans only mediator. BELIEVED WHAT? John 8:24 \'Therefore I said you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.\" 1. You must believe that Jesus is the Son of God. BELIEVED WHAT? John 4:41-42.....42....this One is indeed the Savior of the world.\" 1. You have to believe that Jesus is the Savior of all who will accept Him. BELIEVED WHAT? Romans 10:9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 1. You must acknowledge Jesus as Lord. 2. You must believe God resurrected Jesus from the grave. BELIEVED WHAT? John 14:6 Jesus said to him, \"I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. 1. You must believe Jesus is the truth. 2. You must believe He is the only way to the Father. BELIEVED WHAT? Acts 15:11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.\" 1. You must believe you are saved because of God\'s grace and not because of keeping the Law of Moses or your good deeds. BELIEVED WHAT? Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and is a rewarder of the those who seek Him. 1. You must believe that God exists. 2. You must believe that God rewards those who seek Him. BELIEVED WHAT? 1 Thessalonians 4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 1. You must believe in the resurrection of Jesus. BELIEVED WHAT? Acts 4:12 And there is salvation is no one else; for there is no name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. 1. You must believe that Jesus is the only Savior. BELIEVED WHAT? Acts 2:40-41 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, \"Be saved from this perverse generation!\"41 So then, those who had received the his word were baptized; and that day there added about three thousand souls. 1. They believe Peter\'s word. Peter\'s word was, that Jesus was Lord and Christ and that God raised Him from the grave. Peter told the believers to repent and be baptized in water so their sins could be forgiven. (Acts 2:22-38) BELIEVED WHAT? Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved... Why do men not believe what Jesus said? Why do men not believe teaching of the apostles? Jesus said this to some Jews. John 8:45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me......47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.\" When Jesus said \"He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved, was He telling the truth? Why do men not believe that? The words of Jesus was that of the Father. The words of the apostles were the words of Jesus. To reject the words of Jesus and the words of the apostles is to reject the word of God the Father. John 14:24 He who does nor love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father\'s who sent Me. The words of the apostles, including the apostle Paul\'s, came from Jesus. John 14:25-26 \"These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. . 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to remembrance all that I said to you. Galatians 1:1-12 1 Paul, an apostle.....12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. BELIEVED WHAT? They believed Jesus when He said \"Who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved\" YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. Google search>>>steve finnell a christian view

    on Aug 21, 2013
    • Sam

      So, your book says things. Congratulations. Now, give me evidence it\'s not utter nonsense. Also, look into your bible more closely, look for things concerning the approval of slavery, rape and murder.

      on Sep 6, 2013
  • Sachi Mohanty

    I will start with a personal anecdote since this story has a few. In my childhood, may be when I was 10 years old, I did a simple \'experiment\': I would make a \'silent\' deal with God that now I am going to close my eyes and if \'God\' is there, there will be a big ball of gold (say, about the size of a normal football) which will fall from the sky or appear in the garden of the house. I followed up by closing my eyes for a few seconds and then opening them. Predictably, nothing happened. That was probably the beginning of my skepticism. Long time later, I came to learn about atheist thinkers abroad such as Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. And I learned about the fact that a tiny percentage (7%) of the top scientists at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences believe in God. Contrast that with perhaps half of Americans who do believe in God and half who think the Earth was created 6,000 years ago or whatever the Bible says. I learned that Hawking is an atheist and so was Einstein. And Sagan; and Feynman. Of course, all the old folks in my family are \'believers\' to various extent. The dumbest of such believers tend to spend the most amount of time per day in silly religious rituals. So, it\'s pretty easy for me. I am an atheist. The legal aspects aside, I absolutely refuse to participate in any religious gatherings. I think this \'social\' function of religion is what makes it so enduring. I mean, look at how many Indians DO believe in God and then ... well, despair! It is people who are apparently \'educated\' after all who enrich the coffers of the Double Sri Bearded Widow. Look at the millions of \'believers\' in the Afro Sai Baba and the apparent resurgence of the earlier version, the somewhat mentally-disturbed original Sai Baba. Consider who the \'heroes\' of the masses in this country are and how they behave. I will name two ... well, make that three: Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, Mr. Sachin Tendulkar, Mr. M. S. Dhoni. I guess religions will continue to dominate in this country for at least another 50 years. May be we can take hope from China and European nations who truly separate religion from the State unlike America.

    on Aug 21, 2013
  • Nzm

    I grew up pretty much in the museum of natural history in New York, and I have never had any reason to believe in any diety and I am lucky that that is recognized in the US

    on Aug 21, 2013
  • Ajith

    I am an atheist, but I do go to temples and attend religious functions. In india it is really difficult to be an atheist as it will really cut you off from a lot of social gatherings like festivals. I take it this as a cultural thing and I dont think there is any need for declaring myself as atheist. http://ajithsdiary.blogspot.in/2008/12/god-created-by-saints-destroyed-by.html?m=1

    on Aug 21, 2013
  • Help

    Can someone please file such a writ in the Courts? I would do it myself, but I have no money and no legal knowledge. There is no better religion than the lack of religion.

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Jaideep

    Being non-religious does not necessarily equate to being an atheist. There is a large chunk of people who don\'t have a problem accepting the idea of God (in whatever way that is) but do not subscribe to a religious identity. I mention this because when I came to this article I did not expect to read about atheists, I thought they were already a well recognized class of the society. People however do have a hard time separating the ideas of God and religion.

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Aditya

    Little correction: It is not criminal offense to question religious doctrine. Section 295 in The Indian Penal Code, 1860 295. Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class.-- Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

    on Aug 20, 2013
    • P Das

      The section referred to is 295A IPC, 1860. Section 295A in The Indian Penal Code, 1860 295A. 5[ Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.-- Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6[ citizens of India], 7[ by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8[ three years], or with fine, or with both.]

      on Aug 20, 2013
  • Raja Soni

    Being a non-religious guy should and must be an option under the purview of indian laws. Even the sacred books of other religions say purport that you don\'t have to believe in God blindly. Only when your conscience permits one should believe that. Even the form fill ups when the children are getting admitted to school should not have the religion field mentioned on it. Why divide on the basis of religion.

    on Aug 20, 2013
    • Ddg

      \"Even the sacred books of other religions say purport that you don\'t have to believe in God blindly\".....Please name those religions. The Abrahamic faiths prescribe death to Atheists.

      on Aug 20, 2013
  • Narendra Nayak

    I have been an atheist for five decades and have not faced any significant problems because of that. These are my experiences.http://nirmukta.com/2010/11/26/practicing-atheism-in-ones-life-under-all-circumstances/, this http://nirmukta.com/2010/12/26/a-twice-born-atheist/ can give an idea of how an atheist can survive without any problems even in a country like ours.

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Kesavan

    It\'s good that the topic of religion/atheism is becoming popular in the Indian journalism. I guess more reach out like this might bring such issues in spotlight for the benefit of us, atheists.

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Yash

    Do join us in this new kind of freedom struggle at https://www.facebook.com/groups/IndianAtheists.IWR/

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Sujata

    Recommended reading for all Indians and purveyors of mumbo jumbo in India...

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • K.s.sundaram

    Officially I declared myself an atheist. But my dealing with the government on any matter, while filling up any application I am asked to state categorically about my caste and religion. I leave out the column . But the govt should know that there are people who are atheists/agnostics. is it not the duty of the govt not to hurt the irreligious feelings of the people. A column \'Do not believe in religion/caste should be included. Afterall the govt gets to know the number of atheists/agnostics existing in the country

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Niko Das

    This is a good read. I would recommend that you re-visit the bit on Nirmukta. They have changed their whole attitude and become just like the religions that they (used to) campaign against.

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Neeraj Rao

    \"Anyway, since the author himself says Hinduism allows for \"Nastiks\", he can happily and truthfully tick Hindu.\" That may be one of the dumbest things I\'ve ever heard.

    on Aug 19, 2013
    • Rohit

      Well said. This whole \"Hinduism\" allows Atheism thing, is so full of bull.

      on Aug 20, 2013
  • Freethinkerinbangalore

    Coming out as an atheist to my family was yet another eye opener for me. I learned that they were no lesser jerks than the next religious person who forces their beliefs on others either through force or through tears. I felt sick to the stomach. It angers me so much! If my so called loved ones cannot respect the fact that I do not subscribe to their religion, how do I expect some bearded lunatic to do so?

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Aishwarya Mohan Gahrana

    When I deny to accept rituals and hours long religious ceremonies, family and friends termed me \"Nastiks\". They feel Nastik means something against humanity. Even though, I am not technically \"Atheist\" as I do not deny \"God\".

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Pr

    I don\'t think it\'s a deliberate ploy by the government to not recognize atheists. It\'s just that there aren\'t enough of them to warrant a separate category on a form. Anyway, since the author himself says Hinduism allows for \"Nastiks\", he can happily and truthfully tick Hindu.

    on Aug 19, 2013
  • Raman

    I am certainly in favour of such ATHEISTS, who want \"No Religion\" as another category in the religious beliefs column of various forms. Although I am a strong believer of God, and do indulge in rituals and customs, but thats my belief factor, and I do believe in the belief of athiests as they shall have full right of expressing their religious thoughts. Right to choose shall be foremost the most important law among all the laws.

    on Aug 19, 2013