This is an old essay that I wrote years ago. These days, I might define myself as an atheist. So read it if you like, but treat it more as a historical document.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once proposed something that has come to be known as Pascal’s wager. The theory goes to suggest that regardless of whether God exists or not, it makes more sense to accept him (or her, or it) as real. Pascal did it by calculating likelihoods and possibilities.
Since then, the wager has faced criticism and challenges from many quarters and has been accused of being impractical, illogical, pointless and other things. One particular criticism among these attracts me more than any other, mostly because I am living proof of it being untrue.
The criticism in question is that the Wager is rendered pointless by the fact that even if one accepts Pascal’s logic as valid and accepts God as real, he wouldn’t really be believing. He would be accepting God merely because his existence is more of a statistical possibility than his non-existence. It wouldn’t be real faith, it would be make-believe devotion.
What exactly is belief? Is belief in God any different from the momentary belief we exercise in the reality of a movie or a book when we are in the middle of it (and are probably in tears)? Does momentary suspension of disbelief count as “true” belief? Can we decide to believe? Is faith in God an option within anyone’s reach at any point of time?
There are those that would say yes and there are those that would say no – that faith can only be had through reason and evidence. I wouldn’t do either of those. Instead, I want to tell you how I came to believe in God.
I grew out of the norms of a traditional Hindu family quite early in life. I couldn’t see the point of spending large amounts of time in pursuit of beings whose existence was largely questionable. Sure, Shiva was meditating on Kailash and Vishnu was lying in the comfortable coils of a large snake floating in a sea of milk somewhere and Brahma was sitting on a lotus whose stem grew straight out of Vishnu’s belly button. It was all a lot of fun when I didn’t know any better. But then education happened and I realised that there was no Kailash and no sea of milk and no city of gods and no army of demons and no nothing. Anywhere. At all. They were all just stories.
Thankfully, I was never the sentimental type and the realisation didn’t hit me hard. I did however, grow openly dismissive of the God concept. The family didn’t care much for my disagreement as long as I toed the line (attending religious festivals, praying, chanting during ceremonies etc). But eventually, I couldn’t continue with the appearance of it either. I was not a hypocrite, I had self respect. I couldn’t lie and pretend to believe something I knew to be untrue.
I broke rank with the family on religious matters. I stopped paying even the rudimentary lip service to God and religion. The family, being the family, put up with it.
In the meantime, education continued to happen. My mind opened up to entire new worlds of knowledge and imagination. I devoured all manner of books from wherever I could. I read more of science, not because I disrespected the arts, but because I liked to have answers to my questions (and I had tons of questions). Science had all the answers. In due course of time, I did turn to fiction. But what I found was that all the arts gave me were questions.
These were not questions that could be answered with calculations or by putting two and two together. These were amazing questions. These were questions about me, about my identity, about this universe, and my place in it. These were the questions that drove me mad at first, and then taught me to accept them and to live in their shadow.
I remembered that long ago, religion had seemed to address these same questions. Questions about who we are, and where we came from, and why we are here, and where we go after we are done with whatever we are doing here.
I remained an atheist for quite some time after that, trying to balance the equation out in my head, and failing. I had refused religion on the basis that I could not live a lie. Now, for that very same reason, I couldn’t carry on believing that there was nothing more to the world than what I could see, feel, or judge based on existing evidence or extrapolation.
Atheism became a very unattractive place to be in – a place with walls all around. Not only did it not provide me with satisfactory answers, it even refused to acknowledge the questions as valid. As far as science is concerned, “Who am I?” isn’t even a valid question.
But my fancy philosophical quest didn’t even come close to pointing in the general direction of God. I was, for all practical purposes, an agnostic. I listened to people on both sides of the fence and tried to make up my mind. What if there is really nothing more to the universe than what science can show us? Were my prized questions pointless? Even if something resembling God did exist, what is the point of worshipping him? Why not go look for the creator from a scientific standpoint? Why is man obsessed with the question about who he is?
Being agnostic made me feel honest to myself. I didn’t know the answers, but at least I was admitting it – I was being open-minded. But realising God’s existence was going to take more than an open mind, at least in my case. It was going to take effort. It happened on a day when I was in my first job, in Mumbai.
I worked for a web portal (one of India’s biggest), as a sub-editor. My job involved updating the news headlines on the portal’s main page as and when things happened and reports came in (breaking news!). Most of the time, there were three people at work, given the sheer number of things one had to pay attention to all the time (maintaining web pages, updating headlines, editing news reports, updating SMS headlines). But on weekends, when the news cycle was slower, fewer people were on duty.
It was my first Sunday at work. I was going to be on the news desk all alone all day. I came in hoping against hope that I would be up to the task of keeping the whole system running all by myself. I also prayed (out of sheer habit) that no big news should break that day.
At around 10 am, news came in of a massive earthquake that rocked large parts of Pakistan and north India. Reports full of casualty numbers started coming in from various sources. Our correspondent in Srinagar called and breathlessly dictated a preliminary report – he was running towards his little daughter’s school building, which had probably collapsed.
Stuck with insufficient data and a correspondent who couldn’t have added much even if he had wanted to, I turned to the TV channels for help. Nobody on the screen had any idea what was happening. What little they had, our good correspondent had already told me. I began switching channels, hoping to find something new on the earthquake.
I found a news channel patching through the signal from PTV (Pakistan’s official state channel). What I saw was two gentlemen sitting in a TV studio — one was the anchor while the other was an elderly Mullah. Around them, the studio seemed to shake like mad and the cameraman was perhaps doing all he could to keep the camera upright. I saw dust falling from above them. The set elements behind them started to collapse as the show proceeded.
The two men, surrounded by this mayhem, looked ordinary – no different from each other. What set one apart from the other was the way they reacted to the chaos. The anchor fidgeted in his seat, wondering if he should get up and run out. But he was not sure if the danger was serious enough for him to risk looking like a fool on national television. So he stayed where he was, undecided, doing nothing. He was getting up, sitting down again, looking around, asking if they should go, then looking at the Mullah, then deciding to get up again, and so on.
To me, he looked weak, unsure, and even pitiable. He also, for some reason, reminded me of myself. In contrast, the Mullah was the very image of peace and courage. He sat steady, chanting whatever he was chanting, paying no attention to the chaos around him. Till date, I have no idea what he was saying or thinking, but I do remember being struck by his calm. It was in complete contrast to what my mind contained. All I had were doubts.
I decided then, that I wanted to be him. I decided to believe in God. It sounded stupid to me even as I made the decision, but I figured that if deluding myself is what it takes to gain that kind of courage, then so be it. I will be delusional and I will believe in whatever religion wants me to believe in. I wanted the courage and calm of that Mullah and I wanted it at any cost. I couldn’t carry on being indecisive any longer.
How could I do this? It wasn’t that hard. I merely dismissed my disbelief like people do when inside a movie hall (and end up in tears, or angry, or moved). I figured the end result will be the same, that is, evoking of a feeling – courage and calm in this case. Never mind the fact that I was, in effect, pretending.
The decision took some serious effort on my part. I was actually committing to taking things at face value. That is the exact opposite of what years of scientific education had programmed me for, or so I thought.
As I proceeded with my self-imposed courses of studies, I found that what religion told me was not altogether as delusional as I had imagined it to be. Here was acknowledgment that the questions I had been grappling with were not aberrations. That many before me had asked these same questions and had walked the same path. Here was assurance that there was a world out there, just as I had suspected. Here was language I thought I had invented in my restlessness. I discovered the universe all over again, and it was far bigger than I had thought it to be.
In addition, I found God. I think what religion did to me was that it taught me the language God speaks. I found his presence in everything around me and actually felt him working through the world around me and speaking to me through it. I have witnessed events that I would have passed off as coincidence had they not happened in perfect synchronicity with each other, leading up to a goal I explicitly asked for.
Did I find my answers? A few yes, here and there, partially. Some more, I like to think, I am on my way to finding. But the larger understanding I have come to is that the world is perhaps far too big to span with numbers and equations. That some things do not translate to language at all and can perhaps only be understood with imagination. That the amazing storehouse of stories in our mythology serve to act as metaphors for a reality that defies words.
I am aware that this post does not do much by way of proving God’s existence. That was never my purpose. I don’t think that is even possible (although who knows, it might be). I only wanted to put down in writing my own personal quest for truth. I started off as a half-hearted believer, went on to being a radical atheist, moved on to be an agnostic, and then came to absolutely believe in the existence of God.