India and freedom from religion
India celebrated her 67th Independence Day on 15 August 2013, but we the people of India are still not free in many aspects. I am going to talk about one such aspect in which we are yet to get our freedom – freedom from religion.
The constitution of India grants us freedom of religion – every Indian citizen is free to follow any religion he/she wants, but it does not grant us freedom from religion – at least on paper and in official records. The way things are currently, you have to have a religion. You can convert from one religion to another but you can not give up all religions altogether. You have to be accounted for under some religion. That does not go well with a country that has secularism as one of it’s ethos.
Let’s talk about secularism – the term secular means separation of government policies and laws from religious matters. That the policies and laws will not be influenced by religion. That is what secularism means – separation of church and state. It does not mean I respect your religion and you respect mine. And certainly does not mean whatever Indian politicians want us to believe it means.
Ok, back to freedom of religion – in practice you can choose not to follow any religion and you can just stopped doing whatever religious mumbo jumbo your religion prescribes, but in the personal matters where the law gets involved – marriage, divorce, inheritance – you will be covered by religion based personal laws like the Hindu Personal Law, Muslim Personal Law, Christian Personal Law etc. And that is why authorities ask for religion of the child when you ask for a birth certificate. The form that you have to fill up before you can get a Birth Certificate has a column for religion and the options are – Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Other. When my daughter was born I selected Other and wrote None as another couple from Mumbai had done. And that was not accepted! I was forced to select Hindu as religion. Where is my constitutional right of freedom of religion!?
Atheists, agnostics and others like me who do not believe in any super natural creator and do not want to follow any religion are often faced with this dilemma when we are asked to select a religion for birth certificate, for school admission or in the census. There is no place for us to be counted as what we are and not get clubbed into a category that we do not fall under.
This is not done.
A lawyer from Mumbai pleaded in court to give up religion entirely and his plea was rejected. As per a recent survey 3% of Indians consider themselves atheists and further 13% consider themselves non religious. When 16% of the population of the nation likes to describe themselves as irreligious, how can we continue to club them with the rest of the population?
We want legal recognition for people who do not believe in God/s. The least this country can do for us is provide us with a None option in the religion column.
With this goal in mind, some of us atheists have formed a group called Indians without Religion.
We do not want to take away anybody’s right to follow any religion, we just want our constitutional right not to follow any.
It is difficult be an atheist in India. A land of 33 crore (330 million) Gods and birthplace of multitude of religions, the social stigma and apartheid faced by unbelievers is huge. From relatives who stop talking to physical violence and legal threats – atheists face it all. Just for not believing in ancient fairy tales and believers think it’s no big deal.
It is a big deal for us. On one hand in schools we teach evolution and big bang to students and on the other hand we ask people who they think created the world and the humans and force them to choose one story while not giving any option to say that they support the fact of the science and not fiction of any particular book.
People often ask me, if you do not believe in God why are you so obsessed with it? Good question. I don’t play golf or follow F1 or football and hence I don’t write about these things. But neither does entire world. And you are not castigated for not having an interest in football. When almost entire world is religious and you are saying you do not agree with them, unless you speak out you will be clubbed with them and being forced to do what they are doing. Atheists have to unwillingly participate in religious activities going on around them. We are bombarded with religion from all directions. It is everywhere – at home, in schools, in offices, on the streets. Believing in God is a default position – for majority of the population at least – so it is important for us to stand out.
Besides, if people can wear their irrational beliefs on their sleeves why can’t we wear our perfectly rational and scientific ones on our sleeves? We are not going around knocking the doors of people giving them anti-religion messages like some religions do.
We exist. Our world view is completely scientific and rational and we want to be counted as such. We don’t want to be clubbed together with folks who want to believe fairytales. We have no objection with what other believe and do, just do not include us in the same league in the official records.
If you want to join us in this endeavour, join our Indians Without Religion Facebook group and drop by in one of our meet ups. It’s a long journey and there are many hurdles. But we shall overcome!