The Silent Discourse: Atheism and Agnosticism in Indian Politics

Atika Sayeed,

Kolkata (West Bengal): In the rich tapestry of Indian politics, discussions often range from economic policies to social justice. However, one significant topic remains conspicuously absent: the role of atheism and agnosticism. Despite the presence of atheists and agnostics both in the general population and within political parties, no political entity has ever acknowledged this group. In a nation that prides itself on diversity and secularism, this silence is particularly notable.
The reluctance of politicians to address atheism and agnosticism could stem from the deeply religious nature of Indian society. Religion influences both personal and professional affiliations, including political party membership. Major political organizations, whether secular or theocratic, tend to avoid isolating their religious followers. Consequently, political conversations often marginalize atheistic and agnostic worldviews, which reject the existence of deities.
Government statistics and independent surveys cited by AP News, most of India’s 1.4 billion people identify with a religion. These categories often overlook those who are atheists, agnostics, or culturally religious without practice. Stephanie Kramer, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, noted that many without religion might not appear in these surveys due to societal norms or biases. Out of thirty thousand people interviewed by Pew, only thirteen identified as unaffiliated with any religion, highlighting the societal tendency to marginalize non-believers.
Including atheism and agnosticism in political debates could enrich discussions and promote a more rational approach to policy-making. Atheistic and agnostic perspectives, grounded in scientific temper, secular education, and rationalist thought, could lead to policies based on logic and facts rather than faith and tradition. Addressing these viewpoints during elections could show inclusivity and acknowledge the diverse beliefs of the Indian voter base.
Talking about atheism and agnosticism can also empower non-religious individuals, providing them with a sense of belonging and recognition in the political sphere. This inclusion could foster a greater acceptance of freedom of thought, leading to better understanding and social cohesion.

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Insights from Indian Youth

A student from the Department of Hindi of the Presidency University, who chose to remain anonymous, shared his views on atheism’s long standing presence in Indian society. He noted that belief systems, whether theistic or atheistic, are constructs responding to each other’s existence. He argued that atheism is as much a construct as theism, relying on the latter for its relevance.
He however added, “Indeed, belief systems have been constructed over time. A particular school of thought suggests that humans have invented the concept of God, attributing their joys and sorrows to this creation. From my perspective, both theism and atheism are not inherent; they are responses to each other’s existence. Atheism, by definition, opposes theism, thus defining its own existence in opposition. This opposition negates various religious doctrines. I contend that atheism is as much a construct as theism. Atheism relies on theism for its relevance, and without theism, atheism loses its significance. Ultimately, it appears that nothing fundamentally changes.”
Discussing community faith, he observed that while atheism might face pushback, theism is also under scrutiny. He noted that there is little organized effort to include atheism in political agendas, despite the presence of individual atheist politicians. He emphasized the need for philosophical thought to be more integrated into Indian society before it can influence politics.
When asked about agnosticism, he described it as an open, uncertain attitude that neither rejects nor fully accepts beliefs. This openness contrasts with the often rigid stances of theism and atheism.

Political Dynamics and Religious Politics

Zaheen Lakhnavi, a poet and a philosophy student, discussed how political parties focus on religious issues to garner votes, especially near elections. He criticized the government’s use of religious politics, despite constitutional prohibitions against it. He noted that mainstream parties increasingly seek votes based on religion and caste.

He pointed out that atheists often face civil and social conflicts, with families and society labeling them as “kaafir” (infidel or nonbeliever). He emphasized the need for political parties to recognize and include atheistic and agnostic perspectives to foster a more inclusive and rational political environment.

Intersection of Atheism, Agnosticism and Politics

The interplay between atheism, agnosticism and political dynamics, especially during elections, reveals several important insights. The increasing significance of secular voters necessitates political parties to address concerns about the separation of church and state, scientific principles in policy-making and human rights.

Younger generations are more likely to identify as non-believers, necessitating different political approaches to attract their votes. Atheists and agnostics often support policies based on reason and empirical evidence, influencing campaign platforms and state decisions.
While the number of secular voters is rising, atheism and agnosticism still face prejudice in some areas. This can affect elections, as religious voters may oppose atheist candidates. The evolving political landscape will require understanding and addressing the concerns of nonreligious voters to achieve political success in an increasingly diverse society.