I came across the BBC’s Religion and Ethics website (bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/atheism/beliefs/reasons_1.shtml). One particular thing caught my attention. Their section “Atheism” listed ten different reasons why people call themselves atheists. I thought that it would be a good idea to learn the other point of view, and therefore I decided that as a series we shall examine the other party’s point of view and then see whether we can come up with a satisfactory Vedic response.
Let us begin with the first reason. It’s technically called “A non intellectual reason for someone being an atheist.” Someone says that he or she was just brought up or educated in that way. Or they have simply adopted the beliefs of the culture in which they grew up. So someone raised in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea or in Communist China or North Korea or in some other such place may claim that they are likely to have no belief in God because the education system and culture make being an atheist the natural thing to do.
The very first thought that came to my mind was this: Is this person trying to justify what he or she is doing because it is someone else’s responsibility?
It is easy for someone to explain their current state of affairs by stating that it was not exactly their choice but it happened due to reasons beyond their control.
Let us therefore try to understand the concept of a human being having the capacity to use his or her reasoning power. Man is defined as a “rational animal.” Rational means having or exercising the ability to reason, or having a sound mind. This feature distinguishes us from other living beings in the form of plants, animals, insects, etc. Other living beings just do not question their existence and simply go on living till their time runs out. Human society is different: it has philosophy. Philosophy is defined as the love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual investigation and moral self discipline or an inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. Thus over the past thousands of years philosophical minds are respected for their opinions as opposed to the general feeling of the uneducated mind.
Although someone may put the responsibility of not believing in God on some other factors, individual responsibility cannot be ruled out as insignificant.
A conversation may go like this:
Q. Why do you not believe in God?
A. Because I was born without any such belief.
Q. Why were you born in that way?
A. Well, I do not know why. Am I responsible for that?
As you can see, the conversation meets a dead end.
Even for seemingly simple choices in life, many of us go through the motions of just being satisfied with the feeling that “I just like blue, and don’t ask me why.” Or, “Oh, how much I hate this bread . . . now don’t ask me why.” It is easy to brush these off as mere trifles, but the philosophical mind is not satisfied until it gets an answer.
MANISH AND HIS MUSIC
Manish picks up a CD by a rock band known for its satanic image and plays it into his portable player. Putting on the earphones, he turns the volume way up. “Maybe I was just made evil,” says Manish to himself. That leads to another thought: Maybe some people are made good like Avinash. Everything always seems to go right for Avinash; God seems to like him.
Manish is not a theologian, but he’s contemplating something that Western theologians have discussed for centuries without reaching any definite conclusions.
The question is, Does God choose certain individuals or groups for salvation?
In other words, are there chosen people? And, alternatively, are certain persons selected for condemnation? Or atheism?
The technical term for the matter under discussion is “predestination,” a word which implies that our final destination, be it heaven or hell, is programmed into our souls from the beginning of our existence. Thus the question of predestination is closely connected with the concept of free will.
A lot has been spoken and written about all this, but most of it is highly speculative. Not surprisingly, many of the views expressed contradict each other.
Speaking of the Judeo Christian tradition, C. T. McIntyre writes in his article on predestination in The Encyclopedia of Religion, “Advocates of all positions have appealed to the scriptures, although the scriptures do not contain doctrines of free will and predestination, nor even these words.” It would be too bad, however, if we had to rely on theological speculators to answer such questions. It’s hard to trust them, because the human mind is so limited and prone to error.
For those willing to explore Vedic teachings, help arrives in the form of a concept called “karma.”
By now the Sanskrit term karma has gained almost mainstream usage in the Western world. I think about something and, amazingly, the cosmos responds to it. Indeed the stuff of karma is consequences. That means reaction to every action, not just the ones we casually choose to weigh and consider. The Vedic universal law of karma regulates all the actions and reactions of fully conscious entities.
WHAT ABOUT PLANTS AND ANIMALS?
Our present understanding of action and reaction allows for causality in the structure and processes of matter. Any scientist or layperson will accept action and reaction in matter. It appears to our modern vision as self evident. The Vedic view of causality however includes consciousness. To the Vedic seer, the cause and effect of consciousness is self evident. The Vedic sage knows that full consciousness the special gift to humanity spawns reactions. Since plants, animals, and other entities with little display of consciousness are analyzed as having no free will, in the Vedic system they do not accrue karma.
CHOOSING PEOPLE OR CHOSEN PEOPLE
The basic message of Vedic literature on the question of predestination is that the choosing is done by the individual soul and not by God. We are choosing people, not chosen people.
God says He is neutral. In Bhagavad gita (9.29), Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, says, “I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all.” We could say that God is the original equal opportunity employer.
Yet Krishna goes on to state in that same passage of the Gita, “But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” God exhibits no special favoritism to any particular person or group, but if someone voluntarily behaves in a friendly way toward Him, He responds in kind.
Now one might object, “Ha! So if you’re not friendly to God, then He zaps you, right? That’s not very cool.” But no, you zap yourself, so to speak. The Vedanta sutra (2.1.34) says, vaisamya nairghrnye na sapeksatvat tatha hi darsayati: “The Lord neither hates nor likes anyone, though He appears to.” He surely does appear to one might be tempted to say.
The reason God appears to hate one person and like another is related to the fact that He arranges to fulfill the desires of each individual, giving each his or her justly deserved reward or punishment. A perverted desire yields a bad result; a good desire yields a good result. Mixed desires yield mixed results. Because the results come by God’s arrangement it looks like He is to blame. But He’s not really.
Consider the example of a judge. One person comes before the judge and receives an award of a million dollars in a lawsuit against an insurance company. Another person comes before the judge and is sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud. The judge is responsible for neither the award of a million dollars nor the ten year prison sentence. The law is there, and in the final analysis the persons who come before the judge have by their own behavior determined the results they will receive. The judge is neutral at least he should be.
One difficulty with the suggestion that God is fulfilling our desires is that we do not appear to always get from God what we consciously want. If I want a million dollars, then why don’t I get it right away?
The reason is that the results of our desires and activities accumulate over the course of many lifetimes, as we take on one material body after another. If in a past life we unlawfully deprived others of wealth, we may now have to suffer for it by having unfulfilled desires for riches. In other words, what we desire is weighed against what we deserve.
Another consideration is that the desire to get rich quick by demanding large amounts of cash from God is a perverted desire. Our desires are evaluated according to a standard not of our own making. And it is according to that standard, whatever it may be, that the results of the specific desires are calculated. Maybe those results will match up with our expectations, and maybe they won’t. But as the Bhagavad gita teaches, whatever we get is exactly what we deserve, which might be the pain of poverty, or a struggling middle class existence, or being rich but not rich enough.
So to sum up, God sets up the system but is not responsible for what we get. The responsibility lies squarely with each one of us. As Krishna says in the Gita (4.13), “Although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer.” He also says in the Gita (9.9), “I am ever detached from all these material activities, seated as though neutral.” And in Chapter thirteen He says, “The living entity is the cause of the various sufferings and enjoyments in this world.”
Now, if you want to criticize God for setting up the system as He did (so that we get bad results for certain desires and actions), you can. But it really doesn’t do much good. Srila Prabhupada says it well in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 7.2.39:
The Lord does not create this material world at anyone’s request. If one argues, “Why does He act in this way?” the answer is that He can do so because He is supreme. The answer is that to prove His omnipotence He can do anything, and no one can question Him. If He were answerable to us concerning why He does something and why He does not, His supremacy would be curtailed.
Certain people will be satisfied with a statement like this; others will feel extreme dissatisfaction, even repulsion. Here we are getting to the heart of the whole question.
By nature we are capable of liking God or disliking Him, of obeying His orders or disobeying them. More accurately, according to the Vedas our natural position is to serve God with love; and if we so desire we can give up that position and attempt to serve our own selfish desires.
1. Coming Back, by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada An excellent introduction to the philosophy of karma and reincarnation.
2. “Chosen people or people who choose,” an article by Drutakarma Dasa printed in BTG 24 08, 1989
3. Searching For Vedic India, by Devamrta Swami
Next time we shall examine and respond to the first of the intellectual reasons: “I don’t believe in God because there is a lack of evidence for His existence.”