I am an atheist, and I pray. OK, so like most mortals I am inconsistent. That’s one way out of this paradox, but it is not very satisfying. I attend services at the synagogue and observe Jewish rituals with my wife even though I profess to be—not just agnostic about religion but—an atheist. The situation sets off a series of questions. How can I pray when I do not believe in God? Whom do I pray to? What do I pray? Doesn’t my rationality protest vehemently when I am praying? My wife calls me an enigma.
All too often arguments or dilemmas arise because people understand the words differently. The understanding develops from a synthesis of life’s experiences. In my case this understanding entails synthesis of ideas gained while growing up in a Hindu family and attending a Catholic school and later as an adult what I imbibed through various readings, practicing Transcendental Meditation, and living with a Jewish wife. We raised first our daughter in the Jewish faith, and are now doing the same for our grandson. What follows is a summation of my thinking, my belief if you will. The ideas are not original; however, the reason I use them without attribution is that the arguments must stand on their own merit and not on some authority’s say so.
I was born into a Hindu family, and so de facto, I am a Hindu. Hinduism spans a very broad spectrum of belief systems, philosophies, and practices, although they all stem from the principles set forth in the Vedas. At one end Hinduism embraces pantheism with trillions of gods—every person, animal, plant being gods in their own right and therefore deserving of respect and dignity. At the opposite end is the belief in a single abstract, form-less, attribute-less god—the source of everything. I grew up believing that the manifest creation came into being from this formless god, which is pure intelligence, homogeneous emptiness; just awareness. But there is nothing for It to be aware of except of Itself. This self-referral—as the subject of awareness also becomes the object of awareness—is the first split in the totally undifferentiated Being. It is like “breaking of symmetry,” to borrow a phrase from modern cosmology, leading to manifestation of what was un-manifest.
I grew up in a family that followed the precepts of Arya Samaj. Central to this reform sect of Hinduism are monotheism, the everlasting nature of the soul, and abolition of the rigid caste system—which, according to the movement’s founder, Swami Dayanand Saraswati—had corrupted the Vedic traditions, and all gods are but different manifestations of the transcendent One. No wonder then that my parents did not hesitate at all in sending me to a Catholic school, which was run by Jesuit priests. St. Lawrence High School offered the finest schooling in Calcutta, and I remain forever grateful for the education I received at the hands of the fathers who taught us “Moral Science,” but did not proselytize.
To me “God” is a shorthand notation for the omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent entity that created this universe and controls everything that happens in it. A theist is defined as someone believing in a God who having created the universe engages in it and guides its destiny. This entity is super-natural in that natural laws do not apply to it. It is the super-naturalism that I object to. Under this literal definition of theism, I suspect there are many more atheists than people willing to call themselves as such.
My atheism is not just rejection of the personified gods, or of the monotheistic God of Abraham worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who created the world in seven days etc. It is the rejection of the notion that there is a supernatural entity—one that transcends the laws of nature; to whom the laws of causality do not apply; one who works in mysterious ways that we cannot understand, but nonetheless guides every facet of this universe.
I recognize that our existence is most complex and amazing, that power of nature far exceeds mine, and there are virtues such as kindness, generosity, and altruism. Many philosophers have proffered these as proof of God’s existence. But then they are speaking of an agenda-less God, namely of one who merely set the things in motion. Given time—and we have had billions of years to evolve—the relentless forces of nature naturally lead to the most improbable structures. They do not require the intervention of an intelligent, omniscient Being to direct the forces of nature so they produce these complex structures and yes, even human beings. Even the origin of consciousness and notions such as altruism and goodness, which some authors have suggested as evidence of God, are to be found in the neurochemistry of the brain. I do not see goodness in this world as proof of God’s presence, because goodness does not require supernatural intervention. The fact that goodness, altruism, and even consciousness itself can be a result of natural evolution is truly amazing. I celebrate that.
So why do I pray? Why do I recite liturgy that refers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Not because I ascribe any authority to the words in Torah or believe that these were God’s words, but for the simple reason that I find the ideas expressed in them—and in prayers from different traditions—resonating with me. Once you strip the liturgy of the reference to God, you find that prayers are expressions of wonderment of nature, of our aspirations, of our desires, and of contrition. I subscribe to all these feelings. Nature is awesome and amazing, and I am so thankful that I am here to experience it! Think about it. What probability that of the myriads of possible DNA sequences, the one identifying me is here today! I have aspirations. I wish I could be a better person than I am—a kinder, more loving, and less prone to anger person than I am. I wish the world were a more peaceful place that afforded everyone an opportunity to pursue healthy productive lives.
I do not deny that faced with the realities of existence—the all too pervasive injustices, and depravity—it could be comforting to believe that perhaps there is a Being watching over all of us who has a plan. I long for that comfort, and at times am even envious of the people who believe. They can pray to their God to make things right, or accept that it is all happening for a reason, obscure as that might be. But for the atheist there is no solace in such believing.
Hum ko malum hai, jannat ki haquikat lekin
Dil ke khush rakhne ko, Ghalib yeh khayyal acchha hai.
I know the truth about Paradise, but
To appease one’s heart Ghalib, it is a fine delusion.
I admit that I occasionally get goose bumps when I hear the congregation sing Etz Chayim hi or choke up when reciting certain other passages in the liturgy. The physical experience is real. I want to experience that tingling sensation every time, and miss it when I don’t. Friends have argued that this feeling is evidence of God’s presence. But that feeling could not be the proof for God’s existence. It is wishing that God existed. That’s wishful thinking. That’s a prayer!
I first wrote this essay in 2012, and have tweaked it over the years. An abridged version of this piece aired as a Perspective on KQED Radio. You can hear it here.