Daytheists in the closet

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.

Stamp celebrating the founder of India’s Atheist Center

On the one hand, it’s not surprising that they have some hesitation about outing themselves. Religion plays less of a role in the US than it does in India, but even so most Americans have a negative view of atheists, as shown in a 2003 Gallup poll:

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.



Gallup poll on the characteristics of Presidential candidates

107 thoughts on “Daytheists in the closet


    In a study done at Cornell University, it was found that athiests were 63 percent more likely to return a wallet found on the street than self-described Christians. The research was done with a planted wallet and a hidden camera.

    is that because the religious folk would justify finding a wallet by saying that God deemed it so?

  2. I feel the comments made by a political leader need not be given as much importance….and I see no rationale in calling bal thackeray an atheist …the very definition of a hindu will be lost…..There have been numerous occasions things have been claimed by political leaders which make no sense in real life…

  3. I’ve been examining my own feelings about this since reading this post. I think in my case, it’s true that I do not have very positive feelings about atheism and those who espouse it; but it’s not because I feel they are morally or ethically inferior to theists or have an “undesirable” set of political beliefs. I have realized I have a strong tendency to see atheists as less intelligent, less open and lacking in the ability to perceive the deepest levels of reality. To me, the existence of God is such an obvious, intuitive truth that anyone who cannot perceive it must be wearing some kind of blinders that prevent them from that realization. They are not looking deep enough, long enough, hard enough. Yes, they are looking deeper than many unthinking theists, but only deep enough to see the ugly, negative things, not deep enough to see the next layer underlying that: shattering, unbelievable, pervasive beauty and love. And that’s God. They don’t know the existence of that layer; they think they’re at the deepest layer and can’t conceive of anything beneath it. They can’t see the forest for the trees. To me that denotes a fundamental lack of something — something hard to define, but something fundamentally important that I consider a necessary quality in my friends and loved ones. I don’t enjoy associating with those who lack it. Sorry, maybe I’m not “tolerant” enough, but that’s the unsweetened truth.

  4. Try being an atheist in a muslim country. Oh, you can’t you get your head chopped off. Allah Akbar! Just talk to the Hindu.