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RUMINATIONS

Thank god for atheists

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Every major religion in the world claims to be the fastest growing one. Each claim is correct. It depends on how you count. Religions can grow because of higher birth rate and automatic bequest. Most growth occurs this way. They can also grow through conversions. You can count growth by absolute numbers or percentage per year. Take your pick. If you think these measures favour larger, more established religions, feel free to start your own, enroll or convert a few people, and claim growth in hundreds or even thousands of percentage.

Irreligion isn't lagging behind either. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 gave non-religious groups the largest gain in terms of absolute numbers in the previous decade, growing from 8. 4 per cent of the population 14. 1 per cent, close to a 75 per cent growth. By 2008, it was 15 per cent (a slowdown caused by the religious embrace of the Bush era). In other words, some 35 million Americans are counted as "nones" under the religion category. They comprise 33 per cent agnostics, 33 per cent theists, and 10 percent atheists, the last group described by my guru, the late George Carlin, as a "non-prophet organisation".

The percentage of "nones" was much higher (22 per cent) in 18-29 age-group, suggesting that youth care less about faith, and advancing age and intimations of mortality make people reach out to religion. Turns out the "non-prophets" also constituted a high percentage in New Zealand (34 per cent), which probably explains why it is a largely peaceful place. More people have been killed in the name of religion than any other cause, even in countries that profess to be secular.

How you define secularism really depends on where you stand in the belief spectrum. If you are a nonbeliever, then secularism typically means the state should have nothing to do with religion, virtually a godless state. If you are a believer, then secularism means the state is neutral and unbiased in matters of religion. Since in most countries, including in India and the US, religion is having a run of the place, the second definition is more current. Our governments are neck-deep in religion (all religions) even while claiming to be secular.

On a still, late summer evening last month, guests milled on the lawns of the Indian Ambassador's residence to celebrate Eid. They were mostly Indian Muslims from the Washington DC area. Between brief speeches, Urdu shairi, Hindi songs, and a meat-heavy dinner that was certain to induce heartburn, I mulled about how religion had crashed into Macomb House in the guise of culture.

The showcasing of India's multicultural, multireligions, plural, secular tapestry began during the time of Lalit Mansingh, the Indian ambassador in early 2000s. Mansingh was also something of a culture czar (he served as Director General of Indian Council for Cultural Relations between taking up top diplomatic assignments. ) From celebrating festivals such as Diwali, Ramzan, Baisakhi, and Christmas, the embassy added Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, and Navroze, the Parsi New Year, to the list. I don't recall if Ambedkar Jayanti was added too, but at one point Kashmiri Pandits and North Easterners got their own gig, and I'm waiting for others to pile on to this slippery slope.

Coincidentally, the Bush White House also did the same during its eight years, although it resisted hosting Diwali for the longest time, arguing that if it did, then other religious groups would demand their festivals be included. The Obama White House embraced Diwali more as a cultural milestone, and also added a Guru N anak celebration, both in recognition of Sikh activism in the US and as a tacit acknowledgment of India's Sikh prime minister who appears to have generated more r espect in the White House than any place else.

The White House has long celebrated Christmas and Easter sans religious overtones. But the religion which gets most attention in Washington DC is Islam. It began innocuously enough in 1996, when the American Muslim Council sponsored the first Iftar Dinner Celebration on Capitol Hill and the then First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted Iftar in the White House. Post 9/ 11 though it became a regular feature. President Bush held eight Ramadan dinners in office to stress that America's war with violent extremists was not a war with Islam.

Religions now jostle for attention in Washington DC. Last Friday, there was the clear political spectacle of President Obama greetings Jews on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the White House, while Hillary Clinton was hosting an Iftar dinner at the State Department (while Islamist mobs were raging against the US across the world and Israelis were fuming at Obama). Meanwhile, Hindus want the White House to continue celebrating Diwali, and Sikhs have made their impression.

Sadly, no one has ever hosted an event for atheists, probably because there are no votes, no money, and no sensitivities involved there. Atheists may burn in hell, but they certainly don't go around burning things. As someone said, thank god for atheists;if there was no god, there would be no atheists.

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