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It is rare that one needs to speak up as an atheist and disown the speech or behavior of other atheists as communal hatred. Atheists are usually the smallest minority anywhere and where there is communal violence, they are usually on the receiving end, so the question of atheists being perpetrators of communal hatred rarely arises. There is the occasional Dawkins outrage, but it is not so relevant to India. However, there is extremism among atheists as well and today seems to be a good occasion to condemn and disown it as well.

Atheists often argue that there is no collective belief system called atheism. It is merely a lack of belief in God. It is true as far as it is a question of extrapolating the actions of one to others. However, the label itself confers a certain amount of shared traits - notably a stated disbelief in god. And while disbelief is an absence, the issue in extremism is rarely the belief or lack of it, it is the fervor in making the statement and imposing views on others. Atheists can cross the line between stating disbelief in god and religion to attacking a community based on their beliefs.

Like the beliefs of two atheists may have nothing in common, the beliefs of ISIS may have little in common with other Muslims as well. All atheists believe there is no God. That word play on disbelief being a lack of belief is well and good, it is also a belief about that lack. We aren't merely considering that there may be no God given the lack of evidence or that God is an unproven claim. We are certain that there isn't any God. We are not open to the possibility that there may be one (those are the agnostics). We aren't interested in exploring the possibility and potentially invalidating our claims. We define God by what we reject and ignore any interpretations of God that are saner. We are certain and see no need to contemplate alternatives as potentially viable.

Muslims believe there is one God and it is Allah and Mohammed is his messenger. Hindus have a diverse array of beliefs that can encompass countless gods or none. Christians believe there is one God and Jesus Christ is his son and so on. As an atheist, I must say there being no god is the logical conclusion of a contemplation of God as a sentient, omnipotent being. Belief in imaginary friends is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn't lead to denial that prevents well being. One simply projects what one believes is the best onto an imaginary external figure and gives it the authority we don't feel confident claiming as ourselves. I know there are lots that define God in a manner that makes sense to them and stay away from intentions and super powers. Indeed, a vivid imagination is necessary to creativity. I am sure, there are benefits. To others. I don't see the value.

No matter what a religious book says, the extent to which it is complied to by people always varies and the extent to which atheists engage with their disbelief also varies. For many, like me, it is a non-issue. God is absent. It doesn't take any space in daily life unless there is a requirement to analyze or discuss or state. Encountering someone expressing belief creates no urge to validate my own belief through convincing them into disbelief - a very similar process as seen in believers who tend to get you to believe in their Gods. It is no concern of mine whether you prefer God to Mickey Mouse. There are atheists who are more radical. They will not tolerate you being irrational and will strive to get you to .... um... see the light. Heck, there are atheist fundamentalists who won't tolerate "moderates" like me and expect us to do more to counter claims of God. To what end, I have no idea. Waste time over a non-existing creature even when fully aware it doesn't exist? What for?

Free Speech is a fundamental right. It is a bit dinged in India legally, and further butchered in practice. There are limitations by law or processes of engaging with the state. But apart from larger processes that are a part of belonging to an organized country, state, city, locality, home, etc that are established and a consequence of our social contract, while we do no harm to another, the assumption is that we have a legal right to speak, act and behave as we wish without being subject to impositions, limitations or harm. The rules are the same for all. Even when the laws have flaws and restrictions - typically those covering blasphemy - the understanding is that they are known to people up front and they apply to all (needless to say they get enforced with religious bias almost everywhere they exist). These are usually always facing a challenge, and rightfully so because they infringe on the right of disbelievers and critics to state their own views.

Free speech for atheists and in congruence with their "beliefs" typically ignores prohibitions on blasphemy where they exist and naturally includes the right to disagree about religion and God, to state their disbelief, to criticize the beliefs of other religions, including revered figures. We gleefully say, we are ok with you doing the same. Quite liberating, it is, to have nothing to defend. Turns out, the larger problem with religion - fundamentalist and communal violence - is a human trait and atheists are not immune to it either.

Communal hatred is not about our views or opinions - which in my view are acceptable regardless of being offensive. It is about people. It is the tantrum of the child being told there is no Santa. It is the tantrum of the child who proves Santa is better by calling Spiderman stupid, except these are adults with real power to inflict harm and when at the end of their ability to convince someone that Santa is better, are perfectly capable of harming someone for thinking Spiderman is better. Harm is not always physical. It can be emotional, social, economic. And when it targets the socially vulnerable and allies with others attacking them, it threatens to splinter social coherence for all.

There isn't any rational critique of religion when you comment on brutal ISIS beheadings that Muslims are taught to slaughter at an early age. You are simply letting your hatred for the Muslim community blind you into thinking of them as a monolith that acts in a manner you have associated in your mind with the worst of Muslims you hate. It isn't a rational critique of Hinduism to say Hindus burn their wives on funeral pyres or stigmatize widows. It is stereotyping of an entire community and reducing them to nothing but the nasty attributes you give them. It is not recognizing them as individuals, not even recognizing a diversity of compliance with your arbitrarily assigned trait.

And this is where atheism has its own brand of extremism and communal hate. It is a matter of rationality, whether our criticism is a logical evaluation of something or a statement of own belief or a statement of unfounded beliefs about other people (also known as fake news, if media does it). The last is not a fundamental right. I don't actually have a right to call you a scammer and hound you, taking every opportunity to discredit you and cause you emotional and possibly professional and economic harm from the consequences of my selectively interpreting your actions to fit my projection of you as a scam artist. That is stalking and harassment.

Just like knowing one atheist doesn't mean you know what all atheists do, selectively picking one Muslim or Hindu fanatic and calling all Muslims or Hindus fanatics based on that is the sign of an irrational mind that speaks more about paranoid delusions than skepticism or disbelief. Where does this hate come from?

Well, a lot of it from human nature. Unlike most identities associated with belief or a lack of belief, atheists are unique in the sense of their lack of belief having originated from different places and as a result of different circumstances. Some born to non-religious families are too.... vacant on the subject of belief to even qualify as atheists - they are more in the zone of that measuring scale not being relevant to them. Many others are a product of losing belief in a specific religion and its Gods and then learning to apply it to other gods. The religion of their origin can have a lot of anger or trauma attached to it, because they have suffered the disillusionment from it. In many cases, they may have suffered persecution as a result of it. Additionally, they may have stopped believing, but their experience as an insider gives them a unique insight into that religion and culture which allows them to make a more vigorous criticism of that religion more than others.

For example, I am no fan of Islam, but I can take it or leave it unless someone harms another. When they do act like absolute idiots, it still hurts me less than when Hindus do it. Because as someone born a Hindu Brahmin and who lacked belief in both religion and caste, but grew immersed in the culture, my own identity is mired in it. I know enough of the religion to hold a visceral anger against fundamentalists as those who enact the worst characteristics of the religion - that anger is a result of the betrayal of my painstakingly adopted values at the hands of the religion, not my lack of belief, which in itself is no reason for any particular emotion. That anger is because the acts of that brand of extremism caused me to have to reinvent my core identity as distinct from my roots. To consciously distance myself from aspects that I learned to feel ashamed of when I examined what the things I unthinkingly assumed to be "truth". In contrast, I don't feel anything about Islam. I haven't invested anything in it to feel cheated. I feel some for Buddhism because I spent half a decade as a part of a Buddhist family, so again, that feels like home culture and any wrong perpetrated in its name would make me feel violated. This will continue till I make my peace with it mentally. It is part of being human. Learning to recognize these influences rather than being an unthinking slave to them is a part of our philosophical evolution.

Similarly, Taslima Nasreen or Tarek Fatah (two ex-Muslim atheists) are vicious in their attacks on Islam and Muslims. I can understand that. They have had their trust broken by Islam. Taslima has been exiled from the country of her birth (and I think Tarek moved away on his own before they decided they didn't want him back). Needless to say, both have got plenty to be angry about on a personal level.

The problems arise when you believe your "insider" status as someone who was once a Muslim or Hindu gives you a unique insight into the case, but it actually isn't so and it is your hostility with the religion preventing you from seeing the observable reality. For example, like many upper caste Hindu men too fought for the rights of women and caste equality and widow remarriage, many Muslims are non-violent (to the point of being vegans), gentle, insightful souls. The vast majority of any identity is rarely acting in any manner similar to the extremist stereotype. In fact, extremists of all sorts have more in common with each other than the various identities they hijack. This is actually a no-brainer. if you take any diverse collective, the minute you stray the slightest from the definition of that collective, you stop being able to accurately describe its constituents. If an accurate description were possible, it would have already been included in the meaning of the word. And often, even the actual definition doesn't really fit.

Most people are born into their religion and had to do nothing, in particular, to "accept" it. So even core beliefs like "all Muslims believe in one God who is Allah" are actually up for debate depending on their conditioning. Most people aren't excessively religious and often kids grow up without any major belief and they are of the religion simply because that is part of the traditions of the family they belong to. Such a person may actually spend less part of their day thinking of their religion and what some holy book teaches than an atheist from it with a grudge or a zealous follower of another religion, who seeks validation of his beliefs being "right" by somehow proving others "wrong".

Regardless, there is a line. Atheism or rationalism cannot be the shoulder to fire guns of communal hatred from. Unlike religion, rationalism is not an identity, but a trait. If you make an irrational argument, sorry, you aren't being "a rationalist" no matter what you claim. Atheism is a lack of belief in God, not a set of beliefs about people who believe in that god.

Exploiting atheism and rationalism to conceal deep rooted hatred of specific communities is living in denial. There are terms - Islamophobia. Hindutvawadis recently helpfully invented "Hinduphobia". Use them.

Not atheism. Not rationalism. Not in my name.

The Twitter and Youtube accounts of CENTCOM (Central Command) appear to be hacked and are posting pro ISIS content, threats as well as what appears to be detailed information for officers.

The account claims to have breached computers in all military bases.

The account is currently suspended..

Others on Twitter have expressed skepticism about the hacked account citing incongruencies like the ISIS never referring to itself as the ISIS or noting that some of the material posted was already available on the internet while the rest was unverifiable. The quick confirmation from CENTCOM of what could be a serious breach only fuelled suspicions that it was a false flag operation.

Sounds dramatic and alarming. Further updates awaited.

U.S. Central Command  @CENTCOM    Twitter hacked
U.S. Central Command @CENTCOM Twitter hacked


"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases." began George Orwell in his landmark essay "Reflections on Gandhi". It is a good principle, to go by news reports.

One such controversy raging these days is the violent stand off between the supporters of "Sant" Rampal and the police, who were trying to arrest him to execute the non-bailable warrant against him. Rampal is wanted in several cases of murders and attempted murders against him, which appear to be originated in clashes between his supporters and those of the Arya Samaj.

Why did these clashes happen? There are several reports that could point to reasons. The first and biggest being "Sant" Rampal's criticism of the Satyartha Prakash, written by "Swami" Dayanand Saraswati the founder of the Arya Samaj.

In a country where anything religious is respected, both Arya Samaj and the bhakti traditions and Kabir (whom Rampal supposedly follows) are respected for social reform and one would imagine that if masses must go for opium, they at least went for one that desired better things on some social evils at the very least. This ongoing controversy however discloses a dark side.

One where godmen and religious traditions associated with social reform have enough informal "troops" to fight riots.

The criticism of Dayanand Saraswati's Satyartha Prakash by Rampal seems to have been the trigger for ongoing bad blood between the rival religious gangs (for want of a better word) and Rampal has alleged on several occasions that he is being persecuted because of his criticism of the book.

That his views are not popular among locals appears to be apparent, but then if we're speaking of Haryana, jeans and phones with women aren't popular either, so that doesn't really say anything one way or the other. People who criticize religious figures or books generally get rabid responses from unthinking masses that the state is not interested in suppressing since sooner or later they are useful for political goals.

After spending 18 months in jail, he seems to be evading courts (42 times so far, it seems), which has led to this non-bailable warrant that got resisted by his followers on mini-war footing. This definitely seems to be a question mark on his credibility. While it may be understandable for an innocent person with no hope of getting justice from the law to avoid it altogether, this seems to be more of a situation of show of strength against the state and will probably not help his case either.

On the other side, what seems suspicious is that those attacking him seem to have got away with very little scrutiny - if any. While Rampal makes news, there are no questions raised about the Arya Samaj - which seems a little surprising. Media is again in one of their rare unanimous modes on his guilt - which is always suspect in a country as diverse as ours. This alone is worth wondering whether he is being framed.

Casualties in the clashes seem to all be from among his followers with women in the lead. Which does not seem to speak of dangerous assaults made on police, though the reports sound like pitched battles. The original case where clashes led to one death also seem to have had cases only against Rampal and not Arya Samaj.

Rampal also has other issues with Arya Samaj who do not want his influence to increase in areas they control. They have tried to show his ownership of the land with Satlok Ashram as a result of forgery - this would not raise skepticism, except the forgery case was filed on the day after the two followers clashed in 2006. It is a little unrealistic to imagine that a forgery done in 1999 was brought to light and objected in 2006 and one day after clashes with rival religious group. A later case of assault was filed by a person claiming to have been beaten to get a fake confession of being a spy for Arya Samaj. A murder charge was added to it when a woman out of four protesters to die (and hundreds injured) to police bullets was alleged to have been killed by Rampal or on his orders when police opened fire on Arya Samaj protesters opposing the turning over of possession of ashram to Rampal.

Rampal insists Arya Samaj is behind all the cases on him, and this is entirely possible given the timeline of cases unfolding and inevitable connections with Arya Samaj since then. On the other hand, it is equally possible that he is guilty. His views are no less abhorrent. For example those on eating meat.

Sant Rampal - a self proclaimed Godman
Self proclaimed Godman claims to be a reincarnation of Kabir

In other words, the freedom of views that he claims for himself in critiquing Satyartha Prakash is not something he is willing to allow others who are not even criticizing him.

No one appears to shine in this sordid saga.

However, one point remains to be made. Free Speech must include the right to challenge views in particular if social thinking is to refine. Even if it is religious leaders doing the criticizing. Every religion has a concept of what it will not accept. Whether it is the godless heathens or the shudras or women or whatever is deemed not good enouh to coexist with. When masses are in the grip of religious zealotry it becomes all the more important that an unpopular views survive or we end up waking up too late like in the case of Narendra Dabholkar.

Therefore, ugly as it all is, I want to say this:

I endorse Rampal's right to have an opinion on Satyartha Prakash and other religious entities and to state it without fear of repercussions. It is my hope that the court can get to the bottom of this matter and judge the case with due punishment to crimes. It is also my hope that if there appears to be sufficient merit in Rampal's allegation of being targeted by Arya Samaj in retaliation for his views, the court takes appropriate action to punish Arya Samaj as well, in the interest of safeguarding the increasingly narrowing social space in which religious entities may be criticized on merit (or otherwise). It would be the final nail in the coffin of this sordid saga if persecuting rivals for religious criticism succeeded.