The Death of a Great Atheist

Goodbye Narendra Dabholkar

In case you missed it, the September 14, 2013 edition of “The Economist” had a tribute to Narendra Dabholkar in its Obituary section, on page 90. I had known about him for some years now, as he would occasionally make headlines over some new act of disobedience or defiance to convention and pragmatism in India. An Indian friend of mine said that he did not get much publicity because those who opposed him did not want him to be famous, and those who supported him did not want him killed. Sadly, the latter fear proved the more accurate. But perhaps with time, his efforts will be more appreciated. I would like to think that he spawned within some people a similar commitment to the truth. If you don’t know about him, I won’t tell you more here in the hopes that you’ll make an effort to discover him on your own. It’s only a click or two away, after all.

His life, for me, goes to the heart of what it means to profess atheism. For many people, atheism is merely the basic definition of the word—a lack of belief in gods. It doesn’t really cover all things supernatural, nor is it a profession of any positive belief or conviction. I see this in a lot of the comments on atheist writings, especially those which try to urge readers or blog followers to take action (you can see one of my earlier blogs on this point).

Atheism for many is not Merely a Negative Concept, it’s a Protestation of what is True

For me, while I don’t believe in any gods, I also don’t believe in any supernatural action. But for people like Narendra, thankfully his conviction goes far beyond the measure of personal attitude. He believed in truth, and shared his understandings with others who would have otherwise suffered for their misplaced beliefs in fantasy. He had the courage to act, to point out to others the falsity of their beliefs where those beliefs resulted in their own disadvantage. Does this sound easy? Let me tell you, it’s one of the hardest things you can do in life. Let me give you an example.

In many communities, medical care is either absent or beyond the reach of the majority of people. In such a community, let’s say the rural Philippines, a mother is struggling with a sick, newly born baby girl who probably has been infected with dengue fever. She does not have enough money for proper medical treatment, and turns to the local church for help. She is told to pray, and maybe she should buy some candles to light for the Blessed Virgin. She is a single mother, and is not made to feel welcome. Maybe her sin has resulted in the harm to her baby. It’s her fault. She takes her baby to the hospital, which accepts it, but doesn’t provide full treatment as she can’t pay them in advance. When the baby dies, she is not allowed to have the corpse until she pays the hospital bill. She contacts people trying to raise the money so she can bury her baby. Three days later, after she pays, the corpse is given back to her.

Could you tell this mother that the candles are useless? That the money spent on a funeral is wasted and should be saved to help take care of her other child? Can you look into the eyes of someone with only one hope remaining and tell them it’s a fraud? I can’t. I have tried, and I am not that strong.

Two Types of Fraud

We see these protestations of belief in charlatanry all the time. Whether it’s at a Thai Theravada Buddhist temple which has a “game” to produce “lucky numbers,” or a Hindu temple where wishes can be granted to sufficiently generous believers, or a Catholic church where you can pay for prayers to be said for the souls of dead relatives stuck in purgatory. But we also see it, probably more often, in the guise of a co-worker who avidly consults their horoscope or fortune tellers, another who wears a lucky charm of some form (often, but not always religious in nature), another who avoids the number 13 or 4 (Chinese culture), and another who wears a ridiculously silly little circle of fabric on their head as some sort of “hat” to make some god happy.

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Narendra recognized that the poor are the most disadvantaged by this ongoing and systematic deceit. It occurs because the poor are often less educated and have less access to traditional means of medical cures, job advancement, or social accomplishment. If you were not able to finish primary school, you have little chance of becoming rich without the intervention of some divine being or through the auspices of “luck” (probably via a lottery ticket, purchased with money better spent on food, education or saved against a future illness). If your child is sick and you can’t afford medical treatment, the only course open to you is of some non-existent supernatural agency, some local miracle cure, holy water, or bogus faith healer. People will try anything, when nothing else seems to work or is available to them.

If I see some Mercedes pull up to a Thai temple, and the driver (or more likely the person riding in the back) gets out and pays for some special service or honor with the expectation that it will deliver to them some future material benefit, I don’t feel like getting involved. They are advantaged enough that they can probably afford such flights of fancy. No one at their home is likely to go hungry because of this donation in hope of further riches.

But it’s different when I see some poor farmer who probably doesn’t have a book in his house, going to donate his hard-earned money. Now, I make a distinction here between true charity and an attempt to buy some reward. The most generous people I have ever met have been poor or less advantaged themselves. Bill Gates may get lots of media credit, but for me he is nothing compared to the poor family that takes in a neighbor’s children when their parents die or are unable to provide for all their children.

Protecting the Poor

The poor are disproportionately victimized by religion, which all too often is willing to ask for their last penny in exchange for the hope of future returns in their afterlife. But it’s not just religion, it’s false healers, fortune tellers, phony “cures” and holy water/relics/talismans. The list goes on and on. It’s not limited to countryside quackery either, as you can see this sort of blatant exploitation going on by just turning on an American television to some Christian evangelical station. The poor, the ignorant, the deluded, the ill-informed are being raped by these schemes consistently, continually, and systematically. Often this occurs with the connivance of the State.

In the name of protecting religion, most governments do not criminalize these activities, for fear of offending the religious. After all, making a donation to a magic stone is not much different than making a donation to a magic religion. Where do you draw the line? Governments are loath to outlaw most of these provably false activities, so it’s up to ordinary people to make a difference. That is what Narendra was brave enough to do. To attempt to intervene and educate people where they were being harmed economically by their belief in falsehoods.

Praying at home harms no one and costs you nothing, as long as you are not delaying medical treatment in favor of the “power” of prayer. But most of these schemes do harm people by taking their hard-earned money and giving them nothing in return. Are you strong enough to intervene? Can you step up to a stranger, and try to explain to them why they are wasting their money? Do you care enough about other people, total strangers, to try to help in this way? Narendra did, and he died for his convictions. I do not have it within myself to be as strong as he was, but I hope that I can be more like him in the future than I am now. To not fear reprisal just because I speak the truth. To recognize a greater good than my own self-interest in trying to protect others from fraud. To value the poor as greatly, or more so, than my own self-interest, or in the case of Narendra, his own life. To love the truth above all else. For me, that is what makes an atheist noble—not a disbelief in gods, but a commitment to the Truth.

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