I can remember back to when I was around 7 years old, and I was sitting in Hindi class (in Jaipur, India). We were learning antonyms in Hindi. The word ‘Aastik’ came up – a person who believes in God, the antonym to which is ‘Nastik’. That was my first realization that it was even possible to be a non-believer.
I had always assumed that God was omnipresent – watching me at all times and making sure I didn’t do anything bad. Back then, I was even scared of having any bad thoughts, as I believed God could read my mind.
On my way back home after that day in school, I distinctly remember asking my dad, how someone can be a non-believer, how is it possible that they don’t acknowledge the existence of God? I don’t remember what he replied.
The home I grew up in wasn’t too religious. However, God did creep unknowingly into every sphere of my daily life. Every evening after sunset, we weren’t allowed to turn on any lights in the house before a short prayer to God. We had to respect books, pens, pencils or anything that we use in school as they helped us get knowledge, which was equivalent to God. So dropping a book or a pencil was as good as disrespecting God, and if you ever did – you had to quickly pick it up and touch it to your forehead and then kiss it, or you risked getting shunned by the knowledge God. My parents weren’t strict about it, but we were expected to pray to God before we ate, before we slept and after shower in the morning. I don’t even remember what my beliefs were at that point. It wasn’t so much about religion, or Hinduism, or any particular God, it was just that I accepted the existence of God.
A few years later we moved to Kuwait. I had developed a keen interest in Astronomy, and so on my birthday, our family friends gifted me Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I remember the first thing I turned to when I started reading the book – the few colored pages in the middle of the book with photos. Photos of nebulas, galaxies, planets and the one that has been etched in my brain from the first time I saw it – two human footprints side by side, one is from Tanzania 3.6 million years ago and the other from the Moon. I remember being mesmerized by the book and just lost in the thoughts about the Universe, its size, its age… From that point, it wasn’t too long before my belief in God was gone.
My parents weren’t too hard on me, as I continued most of the practices I had developed since I was a child and they believed I was just going through a phase. That was right around the time we got our first computer and access to the internet. I remember spending hours surfing Astronomy websites, reading freely available lectures on Black-holes, Einstein, Physics…creating backup of my favorite astronomy photos on floppy drives… I still have my collection J
I remember when the Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars in ’97, for some odd reason, I felt, here it is, the concrete proof God doesn’t exist. I’m still not sure why. But from then on, my reasons for being an Atheist just grew. I took a lot of pleasure every-time I learned that a famous scientist was also an Atheist and debated religion every chance I got with an attitude of almost pity towards others who were still prisoners of religion.
Not until my university years did I become less militant and actually developed an interest in studying world religions. I also became a politics junkie. The more I read; I realized that by being so confident that only my views were right, I wasn’t much different from anyone else who is religious and confident they are the ones who are right. So I’m slightly more tolerant of other’s religion now.
I realize now that the skepticism that grew out of reading Cosmos has shaped my life since then, as repeatedly it has pushed me towards accepting the authority of a scientist or a scientific book/journal, more than that of my parents, my priest or any religious text.