I have a number of brown friends who are staunch, one might even say devout, atheists but you’d never know it because they are very private about their beliefs. I find this a bit perplexing because they are quite outspoken on most other personal and political matters, but when it comes to matters of religion and God, these desi atheists (==> daytheists) are still in the closet because of the social costs involved in exposing themselves.
Very Favorable: 7%
Mostly Favorable: 27%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 33% [Link]
That’s even more negative than American opinions about Muslims, both amongst born-again Christians and amongst non-Chiristians! In fact, more Americans would be willing to vote for a gay candidate than an atheist:
Atheists “are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public,” … In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6 … and only 37 percent said they’d be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That’s down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll–which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.)… [Link]
Surprisingly, tolerance for atheism might be higher on the desi side. While I don’t have comparable poll numbers, atheism has a long history within India as a philosophical movement, going back to 600 BC:
Carvaka, an atheistic school of Indian philosophy, traces its origins to 600 BCE. It was a hedonistic school of thought, advocating that there is no afterlife. Carvaka philosophy appears to have died out some time after 1400 CE. [Link]
[Amartya Sen says:] “Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Even within the Hindu tradition, there are many people who were atheist.” [Link]
In fact, some prominent Hindutva figures are actually atheists:
Well-known personality, Veer Savarkar, who was president of Hindu Mahasabha, was an atheist. He is credited for developing a Hindu nationalist political ideology he termed as Hindutva (Hinduness).
Bal Thackeray, the founder and president of the Shiv Sena, has publicly proclaimed himself an atheist after the death of his wife.[Link]
There’s a long tradition of atheism on the Indian left as well:
The Atheist Center was founded in 1940 by G. Ramachandra Rao, a university professor who adopted the name Gora for himself and tried to win Gandhi over to atheism… the keynote of Gora’s prose is a majestic confidence that the death of god leads directly to moral and political solutions: “The problem before atheists is to find out a method by which economic equality is achieved while preserving the freedom of the individual. That is, taking democracy and socialism together.” [Link]
Atheist Centre, right from its inception, gave highest priority to fighting the evil practices of untouchability and caste distinctions. In the teeth of severe opposition, Atheist Centre took up the programmes of inter-dining and intercaste marriages to fight the heinous custom of untouchability. Gora made it a point to stay only in an untouchable locality when he was invited to address a meeting at any village. An inter-dining programme was also organised in the village on the occasion. It was a deliberate attempt to usher in social change in a traditional society. [Link]
And even politicians are sometimes willing to take a stand as proud secularists:
… no less than thirteen Cabinet ministers [out of a total of twenty-nine] chose to make their pledges using the secular phrase “solemnly affirm”. as opposed to the usual for of “in the name of god”. [Link]
p>Given all of this, I have some questions: Is it actually easier to be an atheist in India than in the US? Why do ABD atheists fear social sanction if they let their freak flags fly? Is this one of these ABD things, where religion is seen to stand in for culture, and therefore SouthAsian American identities are actually more constraining than SouthAsian ones? If you’re a theist, do you think of atheists as different? If you’re an atheist, do you feel constrained? I’d be happy to receive some cross-cultural education on these matters.