CHENNAI, India (AP) — Despite India’s millennia-old history of nonreligious movements, most atheists and rationalists choose to keep quiet about their skepticism of faith — it’s easier and far less risky than going public in one of the world’s most religious countries.
The space that does exist for debating religious authority and belief is shrinking, said Avinash Patil, a religious skeptic who was born Hindu and is now a leader of an anti-superstition group working in one of the country’s western states. He blames the growth of nationwide religious and communal tensions over the last decade as well as rising Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.
“When you are open about it and engage in activism, it can get challenging, and even dangerous,” said Patil, chairperson of Maharashtra Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti.
In fact, Patil and his organization are still seeking justice for its founder and renowned rationalist, Narendra Dabholkar, who was gunned down during a morning walk in Pune 10 years ago. Patil helped organize vigils and rallies Aug. 19-20 for Dabholkar in Mumbai and Pune. The murder trial is ongoing.
Indians not affiliated with any religion — known as the “nones” — are a very small minority among the nation’s 1.4 billion people, according to government statistics and independent surveys. They include atheists, agnostics, the culturally religious but not observant, rationalists and the spiritual but not religious.
It is possible that nones in India are underrepresented in such surveys due to societal taboos and shortcuts taken by interviewers, said Stephanie Kramer, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center who led a 2020 survey about the nation’s religious makeup.
Only 13 out of the 30,000 Indians surveyed by Pew said they were unaffiliated with any religion, while many more responded that there was no such thing as having no religion, Kramer said.
“Such a tiny percentage of people with no religion is unusual,” Kramer said.
Hindus are the largest religious group in India by far. They comprise about 80% of the population while Muslims account for 14%, the largest of the minority religions. The country also is home to Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and numerous Indigenous faith traditions.
Renouncing one’s religion is allowed in India, and the Special Marriage Act of 1954 permits people with no religious beliefs to marry, as well as nonreligious and non-ritualistic weddings. But the country doesn’t officially recognize atheism or the nonreligious. To avoid a hassle, some feel forced to list a religion on government forms such as birth certificates, or on school admissions paperwork.
“There are delays with documents when you don’t state your religion,” said Jaswant Mohali, a coordinator for the rationalist group Tarksheel Society Punjab. “Sometimes we take this issue to court, but most of the time we just state our religion at birth to avoid problems with official documents.”
Mohali’s and Patil’s organizations are among those pushing for the government to add a “no religion” checkbox to the country’s new census form. But irreligious activists don’t just advocate for their specific causes; they have long pushed for other social justice issues like caste and gender equality.
Although small in numbers, atheists in India have been able to exert influence and advance their agenda “with a human approach and empathy,” said K. Veeramani, president of the Chennai-based Dravidar Kazhagam, a social justice organization advocating for equality. It was launched in the 1940s by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
“It’s not about a show of hands,” Veeramani said. “It’s about clarity of thinking. The rationalist way of life is about equality and equity.”
The group, along with its coalition of political parties, has resisted Modi’s central government policies. Their biting rhetoric has sometimes proved controversial.
On Sept. 2, speaking at an event in Chennai, Udayanidhi Stalin, Tamil Nadu’s sports minister and son of Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, called to eradicate Hinduism, comparing it to coronavirus, malaria and dengue. After a firestorm of criticism from opponents, allies and Hindus both within India and in the diaspora who called his statements anti-Hindu, Stalin, who identifies as atheist, doubled down on his comments, clarifying that his fight is against a system that perpetrated caste discrimination.
Sharp rhetoric about Hinduism often stems from deep-seated hurt and the trauma of caste, and not from hatred of Hindus or upper-caste Brahmins, said Annamalai Arulmozhi, a Chennai-based lawyer born to parents who were followers of Periyar and raised their children as atheists. Arulmozhi, who is still an atheist and a feminist, says feminism and fighting inequities perpetrated by the caste system have been central to Periyar’s movement, which continues today.
Fighting for justice means facing opposition from religion, culture, caste and everything else the system throws at you, Arulmozhi said.
“Atheism has given me the strength to stand against all of this,” she said. “To get justice, you have to oppose all these structures, branches and corollary institutions. You need to reject all that and only view your path and your goal as a humanist. That feeling, to me, is atheism.”
Arulmozhi said her family would not have had the opportunity to get an education without the push for equality that Periyar led. She has found living as an atheist “freeing.”
The nones in India come from an array of belief backgrounds, including Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. Atheism is still largely invisible and ignored in India, said Mohali, who was born into a Sikh family. Rational thought, he said, is without a platform.
“There are a lot of television channels for religion, but not for science or rational thought,″ he said.
Sultan Shahin, founder of a progressive Muslim website called New Age Islam, said he is seeing more Muslims in India questioning their religion and some even calling themselves “ex-Muslims.” Shahin shuns such labels but said most would view him as a “cultural Muslim.”
“I question how the Quran is compiled and I ask these questions openly,” he said. “We need to have room for these discussions without fearing for our safety.”
Historically, doubt has been an integral part of India’s spiritual DNA. The gurus or spiritual masters, including the Buddha, encouraged followers to ask questions. Ancient Indian scriptures, such as verses in the Rig Veda, address skepticism around the fundamental question of a creator god, and the creation of the universe, said Signe Cohen, associate professor of religion at the University of Missouri who focuses on Hinduism and Buddhism.
“Buddhism is a functionally atheist religion because there is no belief in a god who is the creator of the universe or a savior of humans,” Cohen said.
Other religions that took root in India pose similar questions, she said. Jain texts raise the question most atheists ask: If there is a creator god who is the ruler of the universe, why is there so much suffering?
Materialist schools of thought dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries include declarations that human beings are nothing more than their physical bodies, and denied the existence of god, the soul and life after death. Others that denied the existence of gods still believed in rebirth and the soul.
India has also seen several movements in the last century that emphasize spirituality over religion and ritual, like the one started by philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. His foundation is headquartered in Chennai and emphasizes living in the present.
“He (the philosopher) said we don’t need to go the previous or next life because how we live now dictates the quality of the next moment or the next day,” said Harshad Parekh, a longtime follower and educator in Krishnamurti schools who was born Hindu and now is agnostic.
Krishnamurti died in 1986, but his view on the search for truth lives on in followers like Parekh.
“Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique,” according to the late philosopher.
Krishnamurti also repeatedly stated that he held no nationality or belief and belonged to no particular group or culture. Parekh strongly aligns with that belief.
He does, however, support the Modi government.
“I’m not for or against any religion or faith group,” he said. “But I do like what this government has done for the economy.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.