Loneliness

I read an article yesterday on loneliness in general and more specifically on the physiological impact of a state that was conventionally thought to be purely psycholgical. The biological and genetic basis of loneliness and its impact on the body.

It was a total eye-opener for me. I thought I should put down my thoughts on some of the subtler aspects of this terrifying state discussed in the article.

The essentially subjective nature of this feeling

Loneliness is a subjective experience. This was totally understandable for me. I am a person who enjoys solitude at times and need a certain amount of time everyday away from everybody and everything. I don’t see being alone as a necessarily bad thing. But, an enriching experience when enjoyed in adequate amounts. Always being with people and engaging in group activity has the effect of normalizing our personality and dulling our individuality. But, sometimes you really do feel alone and scared.

This state is not something that can be diagnosed from the outside. The most interesting thing about loneliness is that you can feel it when you are surrounded by people and friends or not feel it at all when you are in the middle of a dessert all by yourself on your cycle. I have experienced both, so I know.

The essentially subjective nature of this experience does not in any way blur the clear and identifiable consequences to our physiology, brain function and even brain and body anatomy(when the condition is chronic). This insidious effect is explained in terrifying detail with facts, scientific experiments and observations.

Solutions

But what most caught my attention is the last para which seemed to suggest that faith in God, joining a church, religion etc. can all help people who are battling loneliness. This was something that made me think a bit. The foundations of any religion are false. But, the comfort and solace it can offer embattled individuals has a measurable impact on them. Is this the reason some people believe so strongly in the power of faith despite the apparent hollowness of the faith itself?

The promise of a silent and watchful guardian, a protector, an all-pervading and all-powerful consciousness that values you and takes note of everything you do and go through. A lot of people consider this to be a fanciful notion. But, for someone deprived of company and emotional intimacy, it might be just the thing that can save them from the abyss of feelings of emotional isolation.

The testimonies to the healing power of faith can have a scientific explanation though the faith itself is built on shaky foundations. The relief from the constant pain and torture that loneliness inflicts on someone can do wonders for a chronic sufferer.

As a critic of religion what do I say to this?

The human mind is a wonderful thing. But, it has its weaknesses and I might have fallen prey to a certain lack of sensitivity to the ways in which people can be affected by their experiences and behave in ways that may seem inexplicable to someone not acquainted with their background and its impact on them.

There is a true need here that needs to be addressed to ensure the holistic health of our society. Just like food, water, air and shelter, intimacy, both physical and emotional with either imagined or real entities is a real need. Religion has managed to step into a vacuüm generated by the growing isolation and selfishness of our society. It has offered to satisfy a human need… at a cost. The suspension of logic and critical thinking. The acceptance of dogma and hierarchy. And ultimately unquestioning faith.

Whether the price is worth the product is something everyone has to figure out for themselves. But, is there a way in which help can be more directly delivered to those in need of it. Can’t community and connection with others be nurtured through means that don’t involve indulging in common delusions? Should one reach for the quick-fix solution that religion offers or aim for a higher and more total solution to the underlying problem.

Society and by society I mean children should be conditioned from a very young age to be caring and sensitive to other people’s needs so that in the future the net of social safety becomes denser and stronger and fewer people fall through it.

We should in some way be sensitized to the variety of human experience and thought and be conditioned to respond with understanding to every sort of people. Some people have a natural knack for this. Some don’t. But everyone should be aware of this. So that the world can be a less lonely place for everyone in it…

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Religions and morals

A lot of people harbor a deep suspicion of atheism and atheists. I was recently reminded of this while reading an article on how admitting that one is an atheist would badly effect his/her chances when running for a public office.

This has always struck me as a rather strange phenomenon and I have often wondered why someone would fear/doubt an atheist more than a guy who believes in God. Religious institutions have done a very good job of convincing a lot of people that all the morals required for a person to participate peacefully in the process that society is comes solely from them.

The business of giving advice

It is definitely an easy thing to do. The various institutions which exist in the name of religion and spirituality are more than happy to tell you that everything there is to know and understand about human morality has already been made clear to them through the word of God. Moreover they are willing to interpret these words in the light of the various dogmas they bandy about to tell you what you should do. In return for a sufficient amount of money of course.

But, are they doing a good job of it? I mean, when you pay them to tell you what you should do with your lives you are certainly not acting like an adult. But, at the very least you have the right to expect some value for your money. Right? Maybe a more important and perhaps basic question is whether they really are capable of doing the job they claim belongs to them, well.

Is the business based on a sound product?

I have tried a lot to put aside my very profound disagreement with religion, the kind of philosophy that drives it and the conclusions it arrives at. Most of my problems with it stem from the fact that I have a very strong passion for truth and a belief that it has some intrinsic value which is worth significant sacrifices. Not a lot of people nowadays claim that the religious texts are literally true simply because they look more and more ridiculous with the passage of time. The defense of religion nowadays finds its material in the problem of the source of human morality and the need for psychological comfort and support in times of distress and depression.

If you are going to claim that you already have with you everything required to make an informed decision about such a complex and subtle problem as morals then will you be open to asking deeper questions and critically looking at your own suggestions?

Secondly, given the fact that almost every religious book is full of contradictions, how do you go about choosing which directions to follow, which stories to take in their literal sense, which ones are metaphorical etc. etc.. People in the know say that you have to use your “common sense” or if you feel like you are not up to it leave the questions to the people “qualified” to do it. If it is possible to twist the sometimes incoherent and ambiguous texts into something that YOU THINK sounds right, then what really is the role of the text? Can’t you arrive at the same conclusions by yourself or better still through a wider consultation among people with different perspectives? Going one step further, aren’t these texts of dubious sources and doubtful intentions a force constraining when it comes to reasoning out deep and confusing questions?

Thirdly and this where hints of my problem with religion based philosophy not regarding truth with the value it deserves starts becoming apparent. If you are going to go around saying that somehow you know better than everyone else how everyone should act, then you either be ready to battle the world with your wits or if you are too lazy for that claim the backing of some authority that everyone respects and fears.

You know what everyone fears, respects and bows to!? Yep, you guessed it right! It is the UNKNOWN! Something you are told you cannot understand, control or communicate with yet possesses total and absolute power over you. A lot of people have traced the origins of supernatural thinking to holes in man’s understanding of the world. Though it is an ever shrinking one, it will always be there and it will always have some power over our lives. But, some people have succeeded in assigning an anthropomorphic personality to it and claiming its backing for their actions and words.

The authority

Whatever you say or do has value only as long as people continue to believe in that authority. It is only then you escape from the need to provide clear reasons or results in support of your prescriptions for life decisions. So, it becomes of paramount importance that you first and foremost drive into everyone’s psyche the importance of never doubting that authority. To value faith above all else. To not question you. This is important because this is where it all starts. Built on this foundation of lies the tottering edifice of religious morality rises up in search of answers to the bigger problems. It is only when you start moving away from the stink of the foundation that you get anywhere even close to solving the problems you are interested in.

Where this gets us

Well, what is the end result of it all. More often than not it results in a kind of moral inversion. Instead of starting from the question of what one should do to leave peacefully with others you started with ensuring that whatever you say carries the weight of the truth without any need for experimentation or the difficult test of passing the critical scrutiny of society.

What does this inversion mean? Things that are really important, like honesty, integrity, civic sense, non-violence etc. become somehow less important than making the required contributions to your priests, chastity, credulity, not pissing off your God and ensuring that everyone hears about him or better still believes in him.

It is really when we get to this point that the defense of religion on the grounds that it somehow makes people more moral starts to fall apart. Good people generally speaking find justification for and enough motivation to be good to others. No matter what their religion. The reason for this is that man evolved to be a social animal. That is why the overwhelming majority of people in the world are good. But the bad ones will simply twist things to suit them. Moreover some good people, people of action and strong convictions can simply and easily be prodded into taking their religion too seriously and through that made to do grievous harm to others. The really sad thing is that the firm conviction and absolute trust that unquestioning faith creates in people can act to undermine their own consciences and abate their natural guilt.

An example

There is this funny story I know about a friend of mine. I always used to think that it illustrates the problem of misplaced priorities of faith-based morality pretty well. This friend used to regularly download porn(rather copious quantities of it) on his neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi connection. He used to tell us that watching porn was anyway a pretty bad sin that would need some serious confessing to wash away. But, it can’t be helped. He was relieved that at least he didn’t have to pay for his weakness.  This reasoning always used to make me laugh. Watching porn is something people do privately and I can’t think of anything bad that could come out of it. In fact, it might even be helping the mighty American Porn Industry. Not to mention lots of talented young guys and gals who make money from something they are passionate about and enjoy doing!(Hahaha). Plus, in our deeply repressed society it might help douse some fires and improve the collective mood a bit. But, using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission is a pretty bad thing in my book. You are exploiting a guy’s ignorance for your own benefit. It seems even worse, in light of the fact that if the friend ever ran into some trouble that guy wouldn’t mind helping him out.

When things that don’t really matter are blown up into huge crimes it blinds us to the things that actually hurt other people.

I have no problem with people even the ones who are in my life and closely associated with me being religious. But their faith should be a personal matter and it cannot be allowed to influence decisions that affect everyone. On a larger scale, I think, our society needs to consider questions of ethics, law and state powers as completely separate from questions of faith and not allows faith-based bodies to interfere with decision-making in these areas.

Sometimes, breaking rules is the only way to ensure justice

Today, I learned that Salman Rushdie has decided to not come for the Jaipur Literary festival after all citing death threats. This is on top of the fact that his book The Satanic Verses is still banned in India. Coming on the heels of the death of the great MF Hussain as a citizen of Quatar in a hospital in London and various other such events this news was very depressing for me. I have always found such incidents to be shameful and every time something like this happens, it is like someone has violated my own sense of security and feeling of freedom.

How is that a bunch of good for nothing bigots who have contributed very little intellectually, culturally, economically or socially apart from serving as dead-weight on the ankle of India who is in a mortal struggle to free herself from debilitating social evils and systemic problems get to decide on what others should or should not do? How is it that they have a right to be outraged when people don’t take their god or gods or prophets or whatever seriously? Why is that their sense of outrage at books being written or words spoken more important in the eyes of society than the outrage of the common man at having his freedom to enjoy what he likes, to travel wherever he wants or his right to personal safety violated?

Anyone can believe in anything. That is up to them and their right to do so is something that is worthy of protection by every member of our society. But, to think that everyone should respect what they respect as a result of their beliefs is a mistake and  if such desires are indulged it can do immeasurable harm to the intellectual and moral fabric of our society. If the government is going to accept that no ideas that can “offend” people can be disseminated then where are we going to find material with which we can evaluate, understand and question ourselves? If intellectuals, artists and activists have to operate under the yoke of religious bigotry and blackmail by pre-modern  organizations, then what hope do we have as a society of progress and enlightenment?

If the government is worried about the hurt caused to people why doesn’t it take into account the outrage that the decent, hard-working moderate majority of India feels on seeing their fellow citizens of talent, ability and erudition threatened? What about their hurt at finding out that the government won’t be willing to side with them in a confrontation with violent bigotry? What about their opinion on books and movies denied to them because it is offensive to someone else?

What is this “offense” or insult anyway!? I have the right to say no to anything that can happen inside my house or be exposed to without my express intent. I shouldn’t be allowed to decide what others should read, what others should write, what should be available on the book-shelves of India, what DVDs and CDs are available for purchase, what audio can be distributed, what can be there on the internet etc. etc.. If there are outright lies being published under the guise of fact, I can challenge them in court with a request for evidence.

There is a silent, faceless enemy among us, stalking our future. It fills the dark deprived recesses of our society and uses the cover afforded it by the ignorance and helplessness of the masses. The authorities think that they are “playing it safe” by forfeiting every challenge thrown its way. They think that they are doing the people a favor by allowing them to be lead by people with a divisive and communal ideology motivated by political aims and personal ambitions. Every time the people in charge, whose responsibility it is to know better and safeguard our values and true legacy take a step back and shy away from confrontation, they are simply setting themselves up for a bigger challenge in the future. The stakes will be higher and giving up might not be a  tenable option then…

The government does not ban every book, movie or painting that offends any number of people. Only when there is a threat of violence does it rush to oblige the demands made of it. What does that tell people who are taught to be intolerant? That if you ask nicely no matter how reasonable you are no one is going to listen to you. But, if you are going to make a lot of noise and threaten to unleash death and violence then whatever you want will be given to you. When civil rights organizations, authors’ guilds and decent people request the government for lawful protection the government has a moral obligation to listen. Else, eventually, the only people left with options will be the ones prepared to kill and once everyone realizes that, we will be only a stone’s throw away from anarchy and bloodshed.

The constitution sadly provides protection(Section 295A of the IPC) against criticism targeted at religious ideas. But, what about injury targeted at more universal ideas like freedom or expression, right to criticize and right to question? Are they not worthy of at least as much protection as old fairy tales? Reading the First Amendment to the US constitution was an instructive experience for me. It cannot be the business of the government to act as the protector of religious dogmas.

It is not enough that the government does not ban anything, it has to step in and use its muscle to protect people when rights are under attack. We have no issue with deploying massive forces against our own people. We don’t mind it when government machinery and money is put to use to maintain and service pilgrimage routes and to help people make pilgrimages. When there is an individual being threatened we must not think in terms of his security. It is our own freedom that is under attack. Nothing can be more precious and worthy of defense than that.

I read today in the morning paper that the authors at JLF read out passages from The Satanic Verses as a gesture of resistance. Individuals showed courage and vision that is worthy of emulation by our country. People like them are the ones who keep the flickering flame of hope for this country burning.

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

I had spent the Onam holidays at home. Sleeping, eating, watching movies and generally just letting myself redefine the boundaries of laziness. I also read this delightful book that I had bought but did not up until then have time to read.

It was an insightful, light, engaging and exciting book.  I have read similar books before. Like Phantoms in the Brain by Dr.Ramachandran and Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan. The book was funny in a very subtle way and featured a lot of DIY experiments. It was also a very unique book.

Most books that deal with paranormal phenomena simply give natural reasons and explanations for allegedly supernatural occurrences. But, that is not the main aim of this book. This book instead tries to focus on one of the several reasons that are generally considered to be the reason behind such things. Human fallibility. It tries to look at why our brains mislead us and the possible reasons for the existence of such chinks in our cognitive abilities. So, it is essentially a book more focused on understanding ourselves than anything else.

Our tendency to protect our ego, our beliefs and our self from perceived dangers, our ability to see patterns, to weed out unnecessary information and focus on the essential etc. are abilities that are necessary for our day-to–day life. But these same abilities and gifts can, given a set of conditions mislead and fool us. The book exploits these incidents to try to gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

The  part where the nature of free-will is analyzed was wicked-cool. The idea that one section of our brains is tricking another section into thinking that it is in control was interesting. I was really impressed by the way our brains carefully build up and preserve the illusions of consciousness and sense of agency. The book details how one can muck around with these things by oneself and some of the experiments described were very exciting.

There is one another chapter that really struck me. It dealt with how cults arise and certain personalities manage to gain absolute and total control over a huge number of people. I have witnessed this phenomenon in real life. Almost all of us have. I have always been doubtful of the claim that you can control another person using hypnosis and make him do things that he does not want to do. This book too is deeply critical of that idea. But, it goes on to point out that by studying cults one can learn a far more effective method of controlling other people. The tragic Jonestown incident is described in some detail to describe how such methods work in real life.

Very often we fail to realize that we are surrounded by and soaked with stuff that are so intricate, beautiful and mysterious. We don’t notice these beautiful things and don’t make an effort to understand and appreciate them. The book tries to explain the need for a more critical outlook on things and how it can lead one to a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of the world and it’s workings…

In response to a comment

I recently made a post detailing my position on one of the last arguments that people throw up in defense of religion in an all-out debate. The question of whether religion is the only practical and reasonable choice as a last resort for people in distress. The post was in no way meant to detail my entire position regarding atheism or my reasons for why I think it is a more intellectually honest and morally superior choice. It was merely meant to caricature the position that prayer has a useful role in people’s lives. I got this valuable feedback as a comment. I found that this comment mirrors the position of a lot of people and  is sort of a mean position when it comes to opposition to atheism or secular ideas. So, I thought that I would post a reply to it.

Sabu:(While agreeing with **** about the video) You say that religious belief degrades one’s intellect. And now, that is the opinion of an atheist. Even you move away from being tolerant and rational, and become one sided here. Religious belief is above/below rationality, it is a subjective thing. I don’t find any point in arguing what is right or wrong here. This whole religion thing might be a mechanism people sought for sharing their fears and tensions. Let that be. Why should you become so uneasy about such things?(The way the three member group got agitated was our starting point; It is time to do away with such baseless convictions as all those who believe in religion do so because they are not rational). There are as many number of hardcore ‘rational thinkers’ as there are hardcore fanatics. The best thing to do here would be to be tolerant. Religion has done many good things too (though I agree that bad things outweigh the good ones ). It has presented common people with a manifesto of living. It has made them more or less disciplined. And I think there is actually no way you can prove or disprove the existence of God. In short, let subjective things like belief or atheism not make us prejudiced and predisposed.

Even you move away from being tolerant and rational,…

The comment accuses me of moving away from tolerance and rationality because I accuse religious belief of restricting intellectual growth. I have a fair understanding of what tolerance means. It is, in a nutshell allowing people to make their own choices. It is leaving them alone and asking to be left alone regarding matters which are purely personal and affect no one else. I don’t think I have become intolerant merely because I restated the mainstream scientific position regarding the uselessness of prayer and it’s diversionary effects and consequences on my personal blog.

Religious belief is above/below rationality[sic], it is a subjective thing.

While it is hard to find absolute error with belief in a “higher power”, an esoteric and/or recondite  philosophy of life, worshiping of the universe(pantheism) or agnostic faiths, the same cannot be said of organized mainstream religion. Accepted scientific opinion is utterly opposed to the idea of a personal God with an anthropomorphic personality favoring one variety of one species of the millions that inhabit the earth. It is completely damning of the evidence for religion and the “unassailable truth” of the texts that form their backbone. We no longer have scientists or physicists of caliber pushing one religion or the other. I would like to recommend a piece by Stephen Hawking that was published in The Hindu.

If you look at surveys of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, you will find that 80+ percent of its members are atheists. Reason, curiosity, propensity for acquiring new ideas are all linked to a higher IQ. A lot of studies link higher IQ with liberal ideas and atheism.  So, there is something to back up my opinion that reason is in fact neither above nor below but somewhat opposed to religion.

“Why should you become so uneasy about such things?”.

Well that one is very easy to answer. The world over problems are being fueled by millenia old lies. We have Afghanistan(Taliban), Pakistan, India (BJP-RSS combine), the US(Right Wing Tea Party movement gaining force), Egypt(Agitation for democracy being hijacked by Islamists), Israel-Palestine(Israel committing atrocities in the name of fairy tales while masturbating to fantasies of a promised land), Palestine(Ideological rigidity aggravating suicidal tactics), Somalia(Al-Shabab) etc. etc. There is more than enough reason for anyone to be unsettled by the price that is being paid for the calming, soothing and tension-reducing effects of religion.

The way the three member group got agitated was our starting point; It is time to do away with such baseless convictions as all those who believe in religion do so because they are not rational.

That fact that the 3 people got agitated and started screaming like monkeys while the atheist did not does point to the fact that baseless convictions are indeed to fault. But which one is the baseless point of view. The one that made people scream in outrage and babble nonsense or the one that made a guy calmly explain what all precautions need to be taken to face an emergency. Also, I would like to make one more thing absolutely clear. No one believes in a religion because they are not rational. How does that make sense? You go up to a guy and ask him why he believes in Jesus or Allah and what does he say? “I am not rational, that is why!”? Absolutely not! The reasons for why people believe the stories are many.

Most of the time it is the only one they have heard. There may be fears of retribution for questioning fundamental tenets of their faith. They have not devoted time to question their beliefs. A lack of aptitude for the kind of science that can answer the questions and dispel the versions espoused by religions. A certain fear of death that needs to be handled more appropriately. I can’t list all the possibilities.

There are as many number of hardcore ‘rational thinkers’ as there are hardcore fanatics.[sic]

This one actually made me smile a little. Picture this scene. On a plane that is about to take off, suddenly the PA becomes live with the Captain’s voice,

“We have just received a tip-off…. There is a “hardcore-rationalist” on board. Everyone please stay calm….”.

The person who made the comment failed to note that the rhetorical impact of “hardcore” was somewhat mollified by its association with “rationalist”.

There are also “hardcore” poets, skeptics, artists, stamp-collectors, rock-fans etc. etc. Somehow, in all these cases the word “hardcore” fails to instill the same sense of foreboding that it does when combined with “religious fanatic”.

The best thing to do here would be to be tolerant.

There is no doubting that tolerance is a virtue. But, we cannot just do nothing when wacky stories start threatening our freedoms and start imposing themselves on us. Also, the idea that faith can help people become tolerant is deeply flawed. A truly religious person who absolutely believes in the validity of his faith can be tolerant only by resorting to a certain level of mental gymnastics(philosophy, anyone?), twisted interpretation of texts and/or by adopting a don’t care attitude. The tolerance is often tainted by sympathy, condescension and a sense of privilege. Also, the ultimate value of human life is more often than not, a corollary of the teachings of most religions. In some cases there is a marked contempt for life in this world that is encouraged by some faiths. This is where religions contradict humanism and secular values  most significantly.

Even if someone does succeed in convincing oneself that his God/Gods and other  God or Gods are all the same, there is still the unsettled question of which set of illogical and antiquated set of rules and practices need to be followed.

Also, sometimes, the conditions that such people impose on society and their opinions when it comes to questions which should be considered in the light of knowledge that came into existence within the last 1000 yrs or so tend to be a constant source of unnecessary suffering.

And I think there is actually no way you can prove or disprove the existence of God.

This is an argument that has been beaten to death. But it never fails to come up. Actually, we have had less success disproving the notion that we are living inside “The Matrix”. But, we don’t go around looking for Morpheus and if we feel that this world is “not real” we take medicines for schizophrenia. We also don’t fantasize about sleeping with latex clad chicks with USB ports on their bodies. The burden of proof when it comes to outrageous claims lies on the claimants. Also, the amount of effort that such claims inspire need to be modulated by the proof for such claims.

religious belief degrades one’s intellect…

I chose to address the objection raised to this statement last as it was one made to add punch to the article and was not that well-considered. But, still, I don’t think that there is any doubt about the fact that theocracies and religious institutions are not friends of the spirit of free inquiry and unbiased research. The worlds foremost centers of learning and scientific advancement in all ages were mostly the result of liberal and secular  leanings and mindsets. The dark ages, destruction of Nalanda, modern day theocracies, the decline of the US as a scientific power-house all stand testimony to the insidious power of unquestioning faith to sabotage scientific growth and advancement. There is a fundamental dichotomy between the kind of mindset that a religious person would need and one that fosters new ideas.

Some people are somehow able to manage to carry on despite this. But, it will only be a matter of time before his/her questions take him to a point where he/she has to confront the walls of dogma and unquestioning faith. What happens then? Which will get sacrificed first?

This one is an important question because in the answer lies our collective fate…

P.S. I greatly enjoyed replying to the comment and it made me think and reflect a little more deeply. I thank the person who made the comment for giving me an occasion to put down my thoughts in writing. I wish that more people would disagree with me and put down their objections here. Debates could follow and I am a big fan of them.

What do atheists do in a crisis?

I was watching this video posted on a popular blog. It is about what atheists do when faced with a crisis warning? David Silverman brought up a point during the discussion(well, sort of!!) which is one that I use often but haven’t up until now witnessed being used in a debate.

A lot of people argue for religion saying that the prayers and rituals are a great source of comfort for a great many people. A last hope, an ultimate consolation it seems. This is one argument that I have never been able to stomach and for all its superficial appearance of being one that a kind and understanding person would espouse, I feel that at a deeper level it is sad, pathetic and cruel. The strength of the argument lies merely in its wording and it’s use of the words comfort, solace etc. along with the condescending tone of the voice that makes the argument. It could be restated this way.

“Hey, people are really stupid and some people don’t know how to deal with their problems and even if they do, they needlessly worry about whether the measures they have taken are adequate. In such situations a little lying to oneself is helpful. There is a tsunami coming? Tell him that the God who didn’t care about stopping it is going to protect him from it. There, now he is relaxed and peaceful! See? Religion is so beautiful.” If a person is indeed helpless, then how is it kind to him/her to ask him to turn for help to non-existent things? What if there are still things that you need to/can do? Why is it that most people have such a low opinion of other’s coping capacity? If the uncertainty is unbearable, is irrational hope the only answer? What would you think of a grown up guy believing in Santa Claus? Sad or beautiful? Why think differently of someone who believes that someone up there is waiting for the right moment to jump in and help him?

Of course you could say that there is no harm in a little solace. Yes, no harm! But, then, what is the problem with heroin, marijuana or alcohol? All of them give some level of comfort and make one forget his/her troubles for a while. Some of them are cheaper than religion. They don’t degrade your intellect, cause you to become judgmental or lead to you making decisions not based on fact when you are not under their influence.  At least, not to the extent that religion does. So, you should encourage their use by people for comfort, right? Well, no! We have an innate sense of what is right and wrong and somehow artificial reduction of anxiety and pain which is usually the sign of some deeper malaise doesn’t sit well with our conscience. One would feel that same way about prayer only if we can firmly remind ourselves that it doesn’t work. Once that concept is completely grasped, we will feel that same revulsion for prayer and religion that one would feel for drugs and drinking.

Secular Charity

Last week was the anniversary celebrations of the TI India Foundation. On that day several stalls were put up on the company premises by organizations working for various causes. They used the opportunity to spread awareness of their work and to solicit support for their causes. There was also a blood donation camp that was run in which a lot of the employees participated. I thought it was a great piece of work that was being done and was proud of my company for taking the time and effort(the 2 most precious things in my opinion) to put together something like this.

As I was standing there watching people sign huge checks for supporting causes like children’s education, support for haemophilia patients etc. I started thinking about what charity actually means and why people do it. When I was younger I thought that charity was something that was connected to the church and something that you did because God asks you to do it. 10 percent of your money belongs to the poor dictates the Bible and some other religious texts too. Plus, money that you give to charity is not really money given away. God keeps tabs on what you do for the poor and you can use your excess money to gain bonus points that you can cash-in on reaching heaven.

There are other denominations which teach that money given away in the name of charity will come back magnified 10 fold by God’s grace and it actually can be used as a means to get yourself out of poverty.

Still others teach that real charity does not mean giving bread, water or food to those in need but giving them God. After all, if you have God, then all the other problems will automatically go away. It sounds logical(kind of… you could always ask them why God can’t give himself to everyone and has to depend on these weird guys in shiny suits). This is responsible for the furious virulence of Christian Evangelism as it devotes all the money to spreading itself and doesn’t “waste” any of it on petty stuff like food or clothes.

Then there are God’s like Sai Baba who whisper common sense stuff that most people wouldn’t disagree with adulterated with generous amounts of bullshit. People can’t believe that someone can be partly wrong and someone who teaches that you shouldn’t kill others can also be deluded and plain wrong when it comes to other things. These Gods don’t mind the generous donations and fawning devotion of the masses. The people give it thinking that they are really blessed to be able to directly give to God and to have their contributions counted and noted.

Then there is charity that is done/offered along with prayers to solve personal problems like disease or financial troubles. Or sometimes, in exchange for perceived miracles or some more subtle form of divine intervention.

There are probably a lot more of these types of charity. Money given to temples, churches and mosques and to various religious charities some of which are used as fronts for terrorist organisations. Here is an example list.  I am not saying than no good has come out of it. But, I was just wondering whether this constitutes real charity.

Real Charity

Charity is something that is supposed to be unselfish and not seeking anything in return. When you give something away for a good cause, share a little bit of what you have with someone who needs it badly, you feel good. It is something that is fundamental to human nature. We sometimes feel something tugging at our hearts when we see a child crying or a person in extreme pain. We feel that pain. It is called empathy. Helping out that person becomes a matter of helping ourselves out.

While it is possible to condition someone to become insensitive and uncaring, most people by nature become vulnerable and soft when they witness real suffering in first person. It might be possible to not think of how other people are doing but you cannot ignore what you see before your own eyes.

Helping someone, giving away things, putting up with a little bit of discomfort for someone else’ sake are things that should be done for their own sake. There is no God keeping tab. You won’t be getting any points for it. That money is not going to come back to you. Someone you meet later in life might not treat you with the same kindness that you are demonstrating now. That is the truth. If you are still willing to give things away, then you truly have a noble and generous heart. You did not do it grudgingly. You did it simply because you felt good and to give something to justify atleast in a meager manner what chance has bestowed on you.

I was reading an interview in The Hindu of Amartya Sen and he happened to mention that around 50 per cent of India’s children under the age of 5 are malnourished. I was suddenly struck by the fact that there was a 50- 50 chance of me being one of them. I don’ t think I deserve my blessings nor do they deserve their predicament. There is no cosmic agent balancing rights and wrongs and pain and joy. It is up to everyone of us to ensure justice and to do what it takes to guarantee every member of our society, a fair shot at enjoying life. It is like a responsibility belonging to the same category as the “right” to vote. You don’t do it if you don’t want to, but you really ought to.

Secular Charity

People atleast in some parts of India and in other “spiritually advanced” societies have trouble with donating to secular organizations like CARE, CRY, UNICEF or similar secular organizations despite the fact that they follow international audit guidelines and come under the most intense scrutiny compared to the operations of a lot of religious organizations, a number of which have been accused of a range of things from child abuse to funding terrorism to spreading lies and proselytizing. There are lesser crimes like stunting kids’ intellectual and moral growth and making them prisoners of a medieval world view committed by institutions like Madrassas and to a lesser extent by orphanages run by other religious organizations. Again funded by charitable donations.

Somehow, the social workers who don’t claim God’s support have a tough time attracting the attention of the people or the government. When a Sai Baba sits on a throne with wheels and uses part of the billions of dollars of donation money to build super specialty hospitals and grand projects as monuments to “his” kindness,  people are struck with admiration.The Govt. heaps praises on him for being broad-minded, kind and enlightened. The people are all praises for his “generosity” and his “teachings”.

What about people like Binayak Sen? Our soldiers and officers? What about those working with NGOs for various causes? Why is that no one cares for their efforts? Why is that there is no visit by state dignitaries and words of appreciation for them? But they still exist… That is because they do it out of genuine love. They will keep doing it till their death, because they are passionate about it. We all know how many people the God men, the Babas, The swamis, The priests are going to serve if they were separated from their money and dogmas and fan boys….

People don’t fear or respect or value other humans when there is a God hungry for their ass-kissing. Why is that human suffering fails to evoke a response unless there is a religious sentiment goading us on here in India. Why don’t we value the work that honest people do with no motive other than to help others and occupy themselves with something they consider rewarding. Because they don’t do “magic”?

Isn’t this kind of callousness and obsession with the immaterial and the other-worldly a sign of sickness and moral and intellectual degradation?

A parable from the Bible

Jesus once went to a temple and saw a rich man making generous sacrifices to God. After that he saw a poor, old woman throwing in a few pieces that she had accumulated with great hardship. He then commented that the old woman’s offering was more valuable in the eyes of God. I wonder what Jesus would have had to say to an old, poor, atheist woman giving money away to even poorer people OUTSIDE the temple? Wouldn’t that be the real act of kindness?