Nepal | August 12, 2020

Atheism in pandemics

Dr Komal Phuyal
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Theistic values assume the existence of the ultimate, divine centre in the universe, whose consent runs both the physical and the spiritual. ‘The worldly phenomena emanate from the super will and end in the super will,’ theism teaches us. The people who have faith in it see an unfathomable source of radiance in such narrative –such stories provide them with a perspective to interpret the self, world, their relationships. The path to devotion is equally hard and assiduous: it demands surrender, faith and devotion in all those people who wish to realise the supreme. It assumes that the super will resides beyond human reason.

As a pandemic, COVID-19 has challenged all faiths, pushing people to seek out support in human reason. People look at science with immense respect in their eyes now –just the way they would show reverence to their deities, the centre of divine prayers in the past. In South Korea, the Church attempted to eliminate the virus through congressional prayer: instead of remedy, the mass gathering turned into a favourable space where the virus travelled from people to people. The authorities concluded that the Church fueled the pandemic through spread of the virus.

The social media has displayed carnivalesque images from all regions. Such collages include Hindu devotees making sacrifices of cockerels to the gods to appease their wrath on humans in Nepal. In India and Nepal, people lit lamps in the evening to assert the victory of light over darkness in a spiritual attempt to overcome the unease, worries, fear and stress amid the pandemic. Such attempts are a welcome act to keep hope alive in a crisis.

The government-enforced lockdown sparks certain uncanny truths of life. If there is any way out from the situation we are trapped in, it must reside in human intelligence, reasoning and cognition that sustain the ability to travel through the mess of the properties of the corona. The exact knowledge of the virus is still absent in the existing science. Like an amorphous entity, the corona mutates itself day and night, makes itself anew, causes further hazards in human health, and puzzles human reasoning.

As a rule, pandemics disturb the theistic mind, for devotion leaves everything at the mercy of the supremo of the world. ‘He is the source and goal: the physical and spiritual come from him and return to him’. Almost all religions agree on this point.  The major apprehension develops from the absolute faith itself now: if God sends everything to the world, the pandemic also comes from him! Can the divine be so cruel that he behaves quite contrary to our beliefs, our devotion, our prayers?

The devotees might sing the songs of prayers, play soothing tunes to their souls, gather in the evening at the respective shrines in praise of the victorious lord to gratify the ego of all ‘greedy’ gods. However, the pandemic remains the same; its effects hit harder; and the society adopts sterner measures.

Unlike theists, agnostics leave it to the impossibility of knowing the supreme power through worldly affairs. However, both solely rest on the premise that worldly events are effects of the universal will. The transcendental desire cannot rob away the pleasures from Wuhan, Madrid, Lisbon or New York. Rome was the centre of faith: the Popes and the Church had all the services offered to the Trinity: the Father, Holy Ghost and the Son. They rendered all the efforts in the redemption of humanity. The selfless living, the celibacy and humanitarian spirit alone mean nothing to the virus.

The more theistic one is, the more trouble one undergoes in critical times. The subject feels left desolated and ignored in the gloom of the world. The dense forest of a pandemic knows no difference in the degree of spirituality, faith and devotion from one human to another. The virus knows no god! Corona does not mind what we believe in, what we have prayed for, and whom we trust in as our messiah.

With the virus on the other side, humans are fighting a war with their own intelligence. They are teaching each other how they should wash their hands with soap water, how long they must rub the hands together, and what the do’s and don’ts are now. The incenses, bells and bows in the churches, temples, monasteries or mosques can save no one now: in fact, the government does not want us to visit such shrines during the pandemic. ‘Lockdown means lockdown: don’t go out to bring the virus home,’ governments say.

Our faiths have no impact on our health; they can save no one. However, they keep alive hope –hope that one day humans will defeat the virus.

As an illusion, hope expects nothing from the supreme will; rather, it still expects humans to resolve the tangled threads of public health and the almost-paralysed social life through worldly intelligence and reasoning. Thus, juxtaposition of the human and the divine appears as a fascinating tale in that the second travels to the first as the final destination, while the devotees have been tirelessly teaching us the opposite is the route.

For an atheist, a pandemic is purely a phenomenon of the world, comprising of millions and billions of particles. A unique set of certain constituent parts can sum into a great threat to humanity; however, such a threat is not permanent. We have set up centres of training human minds in the art and science of reasoning that sharpen the human intelligence to search new methods of overcoming such pandemics like COVID-19.

Isolation is not a curse now: it is a wisely adopted strategy to fight the transmission of viral infection. We have a lockdown, not because some unseen supremo has abandoned us. We adopt even harsh, anti-social measures to bring the situation under human control, to help each other fight the unfavorable elements of nature, and to cleanse from the society any possible challenge of the corona now.

An atheist hopes for an early scientific intervention into the situation, reads a scientific journal paper to understand the nature of the pandemic, talks to friends about scientific possibilities, and waits for a certain breakthrough in human reasoning. If he has to put trust on anything in the universe, it is nothing beyond human beings. If he to expect anything from any other being, it is nothing other than human beings again! The ultimate faith in the human capacity to fight back our troubles turns one into an atheist.

Actually, only an atheist is the absolute humanist who believes in oneself, in other humans, and in human intelligence as the remedy for all the ills in human life and the human world. In fact, an atheist experiences larger inner peace than a theist during pandemics.

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