Ganesh Chaturthi 2018: Finding Value (as an Atheist) in Religion & Faith

Society’s Ganpati 2018: Happy Ganesh Chaturthi! May Lord Ganesha bring good fortune!  [Ganesh Chathurthi is a colorful 10-day festival in India (mainly Maharashtra/Mumbai), involving the Hindu-God Ganesh [1] [2]]

I might be an atheist, but I can appreciate the artistic aspects of idol-making & celebrate the cultural & social aspects of a festival, and all the color & vibrancy that Religious Festivals can add to people’s lives, while also fostering a sense of community … I’ve become a lot less arrogant, and have become partially spiritual … In fact, I have even started going to Temples, not necessarily because I believe in a specific God or Idol. But because I feel it’s important to bow my head to something larger than myself. Earlier, I would consider bowing my head as a sign of weakness: that I’m somehow submitting to blind-faith or dogma. Now I realize that it’s a sign of maturity & wisdom. I’m acknowledging limits to my own knowledge & intellect. I’m accepting that things are fundamentally not in my control. That I can’t mathematically calculate my way out of every situation or optimize inch-perfect strategies to everything in Life. Bowing my head to something larger than myself is a way for me to keep my Ego & Conceit in-check.

As David Foster Wallace brilliantly puts it as part of that EPIC commencement speech he gave in 2005 (arguably the greatest commencement speech of all time) [1][2][3]:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive … On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness … The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. 

DFW’s “This is Water” speech is basically my atheistic version of Hanuman Chalisa [1][2] – an Agnostic Zen/Stoic code of honor worth reading & re-reading again & again. So as to “keep the truth up-front in daily consciousness” as DFW says. My Mom reads Hanuman Chalisa daily. I listen/read this speech once a month (or once every few months). The entire speech is immensely powerful. This extract in particular is among my favorites. It reminds me of why it’s pointless chasing anything material gains or personal ambitions or pursue only one’s own narrow interests, because ultimately, it will lead to disappointment & heartache & emptiness. The thing that you worship will inevitably eat you alive. The only sensible way to live Life is to live for something other than yourself. And worshiping a God or Spiritual-type entity is the only form of worship that avoids this existential emptiness & this knot of eating away at oneself. DFW’s speech reminds me why I should bow my head to something larger than myself (like God). I don’t have to believe in it 100%, and I don’t have to follow the destructive dogma or problematic aspects of God/Religion, but it’s important to bow my head as a sign of Humility & Temperance: to acknowledge that there’s limits to my knowledge & that things beyond my control. To come to a stage of acceptance for the way Life is, or how it’s turned out.

Besides, Faith (in God, or some kind of a higher-power, or a milder garden-variety spiritualism) is incredibly therapeutic. The whole point of Faith, it seems to me, is to believe despite having doubts. So it’s not that you can’t have doubts, or that you have to actually believe that an actual Elephant-God exists. But despite that doubt, you have to show some inexplicable Faith emanating from somewhere deep down in your soul: that things are going to be mostly ok, that you’ve to just keep calm & carry on. In that sense, Faith has a direct metaphorical correlation to persevering in the face of uncertainty, to go headlong into the Fog of Life, without having much sense of direction or trajectory, and yet have that belief that you’re going to end-up somewhere familiar & pleasant. So it’s  not as much whether God actually exists, or what’s the point of all these elaborate, silly rituals. It’s more that through Faith & Rituals, the mind can be tamed & calmed, and be rid of internal strife & discord. It enables you to power through various difficulties in Life, with that unshakable feeling from somewhere deep down, that eventually, things are going to work themselves out, that the pattern will reveal itself. It lifts the crushing  burden of Anxiety & Uncertainty from your shoulders. As an Atheist, I’ve not had access to these cathartic benefits for many years, and I’ve faced an incredible amount of emotional/psychological pain & loneliness, as well as imposed  on myself an incredible amount of pressure … I’ve come to the conclusion that some form of Faith or Spirituality is critical to deal with the ups & downs, the arbitrary impermanence of Life.

[Mirror-Published on Medium here].


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