Growing Up in India: From Christianity to Naturalism

At fifteen, I was at the top of the world. This was India in the 90's and I was one of the "popular kids" in high-school with not a care in the world. I had the most amazing girlfriend- she was beautiful, smart, an athlete and singer and in love with me! My life was good. Or so it seemed.

I grew up in a Protestant Christian family in the midst of a multicultural assortment of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian sects. Being a minority, the Christian community in India is very close knit. For me, this meant that I saw the same people in school, when visiting family friends, and of-course, on Sundays in Church. Not that I complained - it was tons of fun! Every year our Church would send the youth group on Christian "retreats," usually to some spectacular mountain-side campus, a secluded remnant of British colonialism, run by the Church. It wasn't all prayer and Bible study. Most of the time, it was about having clean "Christian" fun. Even sneaking away with someone to kiss or smoke cigarettes behind the bushes was immensely exciting. Some of my best memories are from those days.

But something was starting to happen to me. All those years of reading was catching up with me and I was starting to reject the literal interpretations of the Bible. I stayed in Church and I can recall defending the validity of biological evolution with my friends who were spouting the same flawed arguments against it that they had heard from our indoctrinators.

My father had always encouraged my inquisitive nature as a kid. Growing up, there was never a lack of provocative reading material at home and father was the one to go to when you were in need of answers. So when I started having doubts, I went to him. After talking with my father I started to publicly profess a non-literal explanation of the Biblical stories. But I was fooling myself.

I could barely stay seated through the sermons in Church. I would watch the heads of the people in front of me and try to interpret the inconsistencies I was hearing as metaphors from God. I forced myself to stay. For my mom. For my girlfriend. To no avail.

The community I valued so much was slipping away from me. My girlfriend dumped me for not believing  in God. She actually quoted a passage from the Bible that, I believe, is meant for such situations as breaking up with heathens. At the time it hurt like hell. But I had to be honest with my family, my friends and....with myself. I was an atheist.

Then came college.

Through my undergraduate studies I would often seek reductionist solutions to subjects such as consciousness and morality. Even in my chosen field of biology, it was impossible to find people who knew the answers to such questions. However, the Internet Age had begun. It took me 5 more years and a Master's degree to start making sense of a world without God. I still did not have a philosophy to live my life based on, but I had plausible answers to some of the questions I had asked myself years ago. My solution to this dilemma of not having a working life-philosophy was to adopt a personalized form of Social Darwinism. Yes, I know, it does it does not follow, but my formal training taught me nothing about the implications of the naturalistic world-view. More importantly, religion taught me that biblical morality came from the God who created everything - therefore it seemed logical that natural morality must follow from evolutionary causes. I was aware of the science and yet lost as to its philosophical implications.

It took me a few more years to discard the simplistic moral ideas that I had adopted. I learned to dissociate human social ethics from evolutionary moral theory. I feel that the lack of structured education in the implications of a naturalistic world-view is an enormous oversight within the system, especially considering the influence of science in our lives. In my personal quest to understand these implications, I thought about the question of free-will. It had always seemed to me that free-will had to be an illusion, but the rejection of metaphysical dualism was what led me to completely deny contra-causal free will. All the evidence pointed to a deterministic universe. The universe that I knew, at least.

In my early twenties I took an interest in two areas of thought - consciousness and evolution. My self-education further strengthened my conviction in the rejection of free-will. I remember reading Francis Crick's statement about biology being an attempt to explain life as physics and chemistry. That summed it up nicely.

Opening my eyes to a new way of seeing things, one of the differences I immediately observed between Hinduism and Christianity was in this regard. Many of my Hindu friends were determinist while Christians have to account for the contradiction in believing that an omniscient God granted us free-will. But most people regardless of religion still functioned as though they believed in free-will. The realization that our social systems are based on the illusion of free-will came as quite a shock to me. Thinking back, it's so obvious that I wonder why I was surprised at all. At this point in my life I started to think about social responsibility and morality. Initially I felt apathetic, but soon I realized that I had a tiny bit of compassion deep within me that would not let my realization of the absence of free-will pass without doing something about it.

There is a book written by an anonymous prisoner while s/he was in a jail cell somewhere out West, in the late 19th or early 20th century, called "An Open Letter to Society from Prisoner 1776 (New York, Fleming H. Revell, 1911). The author makes the case that the events that befell him/her could have, under different circumstances, occurred to anyone. To me, the implications of the laws of the universe were clear. We are the product of our genes and the environment and are in control of neither. The rest is details. How do we reconcile the need for a "just" society, where we value the emotional needs evolved over millions of years, with the realization that free-will does not exist? How do we determine "right" and "wrong"? The moral questions are extremely hard to answer, and reading Prisoner 1776 was an exposure to the sociological side of the debate. I came to believe that our humanity, evolved by natural selection, does not need to reinforce the intuitive emotions that traditional culture depends on for social functionality. I began to see that many of our intuitive feelings about concepts such as abortion and euthanasia can actually increase suffering in the world. Peter Singer, the philosopher, was to become one of my new heroes.

Through the years I have built my understanding of the natural universe to the point where I can start feeling some of the same emotions that religion provided me with when I was a child. These days, I love the feeling of amazement I get when I see what science can tell us about our past and our future. The realization that cultural constructs such as race, religion and nationality evolved in the tiny interval between the eons of common human evolution and the present day, is in itself extremely liberating. It is a pleasant thought to know that we are not as divided it seems. It's this common story we share that brings us together to "rejoice" at the idea of existence. This feeling is not new. I had always wondered at the natural universe and have never ceased to be humbled by it. But now, I am starting to actually feel something that I thought I had lost forever. I am starting to feel like I belong.

– Ajita Kamal