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Vinay Ambegaokar

Date of Birth: January 16, 1934

Date Submitted: May 3, 2017

Religious Affiliation: None

What is the meaning of life?

I believe that goodness is more important than god.

Religion, if not religious fervor, is in the news every day.  May an atheist try to explain the origins of his belief?  I will resort to anecdotes, because attempting general arguments for beliefs may well be self-defeating.

Born in India in 1934 into a Hindu family, with a mother who performed a religious ceremony every morning, I was sent at 7 to an Anglican boarding school.  My mother, an educated woman, thought that it could not hurt me to be exposed to other religions.  As it turned out, there were 14 services every week.

I grew to love the cadences of early modern English in the King James bible and the Anglican Prayer book, and I know quantities of both.  About the creed and the miracles, I somehow kept an open mind.  At 12 I was taught the English reformation: Bloody Mary, Good Queen Bess, and all that.  Unfortunately, a year later I switched to a Catholic day school where some wonderful Irish Christian Brothers---with names like Brother Clancy and Brother McGrath---re-taught the English reformation; I learned that Mary Tudor was weak but well meaning but that Elizabeth was “mistress of all the arts of dissimulation.”


At the same time, the 1947 pre-partition riots were taking place, with Muslims killing Hindus and vice versa.  I decided that if religions could so color history and make good people behave so badly, they must all be bunk.

My father, a scholar of Sanskrit who knew the sacred texts well enough to correct priests rattling through them at weddings and funerals, allowed me to decline the Hindu ‘thread’ (or coming of age) ceremony.  In his great old age, I was him why he permitted a barely teenaged son to be so unorthodox.  He said that I seemed to have been born a ‘rationalist,’ which he apparently viewed as a strand of Hinduism and was reason enough for him.     


None of the schools I attended proselytized actively, but I did hear from time to time about monotheistic ‘higher’ religions, code words for Christianity.  [The Muslim boys were not singled out.  There were no Jews.]  Only later in life have I come to think that, if one must believe in a pervading divinity, pantheism is preferable. 

No so long ago, when kind Danish friends arranged a stay in the apartment off Nyhavn in Copenhagen in which Hans Christian Andersen once had a room, I found on the shelf and reread his “Little Mermaid.”  I had forgotten her plight.  She is desolate because she does not have an ‘immortal soul.’  For me, who will happily go after death to wherever ordinary mermaids go, it is a failing of the ‘higher religions’ that they have rooms only for humankind.

The religiosity of ordinary Americans never ceases to amaze me.  When I went over the handlebars of my bicycle and broke a shoulder 15 miles from Ithaca, New York, the clean-cut man who helped me up said “Should we pray together?”

“Whom are we praying to?” I asked.

“Jesus,” he replied, somewhat nonplussed.

“Well, go ahead,” was the best I could up with.  He put his hand on my shoulder and intoned, “Jesus, heal this man.”

At the same time, some Americans I admire are oh so politically incorrect.  Consider Ambrose Bierce’s definition of Eucharist in his “Devil’s Dictionary,” which perfectly captures what was worrying me at 13.

Although an atheist, I am not a born-again atheist, and understand that man, an animal with an irrational need to explain, had to invent life-after-death and Gods.  [This insight may, in fact, be at the root of my extra-logical jump from irreligion to atheism: as the most sensible way of dealing with a basically unanswerable question.]  As I said, for me goodness is more important.  And goodness in my actions is what I attempt to achieve, guided by their likely consequences here-and-now and by the lessons, both the noble and the tragic, of history.


A sacred feast of religious sect of Theophagi.  [Godeaters, my limited Greek etymology tells me.]

A dispute once unhappily arose among the members of this sect as to what it was that they ate.  In this controversy some five hundred thousand have already been slain, and the question is still unsettled. 

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