Can you be atheist while being Hindu?

This will take some explaining. Bear with me.

Words don’t have meanings that are independent of usage. What a word means is an agreed-upon definition. The word “Apple” is used to indicate a specific fruit. Everyone who has handled the fruit and has learned the English language knows of this agreed-upon definition. So the word works.

Now imagine that there was a community of people who used the word “Apple” to indicate a fruit that you and I use the word “Mango” for. Or imagine that in a few centuries, the word “Apple” is used to indicate something entirely different. Maybe people will refer to ships using the word “Apple”. Maybe “Apple” will become a blanket term for a whole range of fruits.

The bottom line is, the usage of specific words changes over time and space.

Here we are talking about words like “Hindu” and “Atheist”. They have particular usages. But these usages are not universal. If we are going to have an understanding of what a “Hindu Atheist” or an “Atheist Hindu” is, we have to be clear in our understanding of what those phrases mean and where they have come from.

The word Atheism

Atheism is the opposite of Theism. Theism is a word that has been used to denote a belief in god or a similar higher power. It comes from Theos, the ancient Greek word for god. The Greeks, like the Hindus had many gods. Later in the day, when Rome came about and Greco-Roman culture prevailed in and around the Mediterranean, there was a small sect of troublemakers running around, disrespecting the gods.
Some of these houses of worship were set up in the cities of Asia Minor where John’s Revelation was sent (see 1:4; ch. 2-3). The church at Pergamum (where the Temple of Augustus and the Altar of Victory stood, Frend, p. 148) had some who were eating things sacrificed to the idols (Rev. 2:14). Thyatira, noted for its trade guilds, which required its members to sacrifice to the gods, too had some who ate of these sacrifices (Rev. 2:20). The other churches of Asia and the rest of the Empire met similar problems as these.
These were the “atheists.” They denied the Roman gods. They were also called asebeia-a Greek word meaning “want of reverence, impiety, ungodliness.” (For N.T. usage of this word see Rom. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:16; Tit. 2:12; usage of its cognate Rom. 11:26; Jude 15, 18.) In their attempts to serve the one and only God, the religious world about them thought that because they did not partake in the same practices that the Romans did, the Christians were atheists.
That’s right. The word that Romans used for these early Christians was Atheist. The reason was what it has always been — rejection of god. Of course, the reason the definition of atheism was different was because the definition of god was different.

Today, in Conservative America, those who don’t believe in the god of the Bible are called atheists. If you ask a modern, educated atheist in America what his or her atheism means, they might tell you that it is a simple rejection of the claim that a god or gods exist. Atheism in the West today largely targets the monotheistic faiths — Christianity and Islam. They also reject the god claims of every other religion, but those are not their primary targets because they are not as close to the power structures of those nations.

In every society that has a dominant strain of religiosity, there exists an atheistic impulse. It pushes against the religion that defines that society. Every religion that holds a society together, also constrains it, suffocating many. This suffocation finds expression in the form of a denial and a revolt.

That’s not to say people become atheists due to suppression. Most atheists simply break out of religious thinking on the basis of their ability to reason and then cement their non-belief using a scientific understanding of the world. In earlier times, when our understanding of the natural world was somewhat fragmented, there was still a lot of space to shove the god concept into. These days, there is less god space in the natural world, but religious people still find it. When they can’t find it, they try to move science around and create patently artificial spaces such as “Intelligent Design”. Western atheists spend a large amount of time debunking these supernatural claims even though their definition of atheism is simply a rejection of the god concept. A lot of Western Atheists might in fact be called anti-supernaturalists. I should also point out that it is entirely possible for an modern atheist to retain belief in supernatural things other than god.

This kind of ambiguity can lead to the word “atheist” being seen as something it is not. Prominent atheists like Sam Harris have even argued against the need for using the “atheism” label. Science proponents such as Neil deGrasse Tyson consciously distance themselves from the atheism label fearing it will automatically associate them with a lot of causes they don’t need.

So to sum up, the word “atheism”, though it seems to have a specific usage, has been differently defined as well as differently reacted to in times recent as well as long past.

What we need to know therefore, is where it sits in the context of Hinduism. Is anyone who rejects the Hindu gods an atheist? Or must this rejection extend to the various “spiritual” schools of thought as well? Does a philosophy such as Advaita count as atheism? Or do its claim about Brahman make it theistic?

We can start with where the word Hindu comes from and what it implies.

The word Hindu

Indian culture has been a melting pot of philosophical influences since ancient times. These influences sometimes came as curious travellers and sometimes as aggressive invaders. Our civilisation did its best to accommodate all of them. Reactions to these influences have been different — sometimes we fought, sometimes we assimilated, sometimes we rejected advances and retreated into shells like the caste system and feudal social structures.

The word “Hindu” has been used to mean different things at different points of time in history. It has been a geopolitical identity based on the Indus Valley civilisation, it has been a blanket term for all races of people living around the Sindhu river, it has been a religious marker for people who swear by the Vedas, it has also been a religious marker for people who abide by the caste system.

Currently however, Hindu is a very distinct religious identity. Though many people still cling to its more overarching definitions (that it’s “a way of life”, or that it’s “Indian civilisation” itself), it is abundantly clear that we think of it as a religion. We write “Hindu” in the religion column on government forms and we identify with Hindu rituals. So let’s just get this lie behind us and agree that Hinduism is a religion. Calling it a “way of life” is a cop-out. Christians say the same about their religion. As do Muslims. Hell! Even cyclists say the same. When the usage of a word or phrase is so ambiguous that it can be applied to pretty much anything that people do, it becomes completely meaningless.

But it is not surprising that many Hindus do not think that they are following a religion. Apparently, many don’t even know if they are atheists. The 2011 Census by the Government of India found that there are 33,000 atheists in India. That’s right — thirty-three thousand people identified as atheists out of a total population of 1,2 billion. Some people have made accusations regarding the intent of the questioning, but I think it might be more a matter of unclear definitions. I think it is totally possible that a good number of people who identify as Hindu actually think they are atheists!

How then, do we go about drawing the line that separates Hindus from atheists? I don’t think anyone would argue that they are one and the same thing.

The first step, in my opinion, is recognising that the word Hindu, just like the word Atheist, is largely meaningless. Saying “I am Hindu” is like saying “Hinduism is a way of life”. It explains nothing about you and conveys only the vaguest sense of cultural identity.

Think about it. When you tell a stranger that you are Hindu, what are you really conveying?

  • Are you saying you believe in god? Not necessarily. You may actually be an atheist.
  • Are you saying you believe the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to be literally true? Not necessarily.
  • Are you saying you believe the epics are only stories? Not necessarily. Maybe you entertain notions about their historicity.
  • Are you saying you abide by everything that the Vedas contain? Not necessarily. Maybe you only appreciate the fact that they are ancient.
  • Are you even saying that you have studied any “Hindu scriptures”? No. Not necessarily. Perhaps you don’t even know Sanskrit.

See the problem? You might be saying all of the above things, or none of them.

The phrase “Hindu Atheist” or “Atheist Hindu” only makes sense if both its parts make sense. Ambiguity renders these phrases meaningless. And in order for the label we are looking for to make sense, we need both parts to correspond to the most widely-accepted definitions.

There may have once been a time when foreigners referred to all Indians as simply “the Hindus”. But these days, the word Hindu is such a broad umbrella that it conveys very little meaning except the one we use when we use it in government forms.

The Conclusion and a Polite Suggestion

The phrase “Hindu Atheist” may simply mean who identifies as a Hindu for cultural reasons but has no belief in god or gods. But as we have seen, the label “Hindu” does not really mean much even if culturally defined. A much more meaningful cultural label is “Indian”. In modern times, it is geographical at the very least.

Similarly, the word atheist also has a lot of ambiguity associated with it, primarily because it says what one is not but does not really say much about what one is. A way more sensible label might be “rationalist” or “naturalist”. And if these labels do not float your boat, you may choose another one — something that does define you and conveys meaningful information about what you do stand for.

At the end of the day, there is no point using a label that conveys no meaning. You might as well call yourself “existentialist ghost” in that case. If the label you put on yourself has to mean anything, it has to correspond to the ideas other people in your society hold. The society we live in these days is global — we interact with people all over the world on an everyday basis.

If you say you are a Hindu Atheist, many will not understand your intention. On the other hand, if you say you are an Indian Rationalist or a Naturalist from India, it will hold much more meaning.

To quote a teacher of mine, “Speak to be understood, not to be misunderstood.”