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Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 8 October 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Michael Hakeem Memorial Award — first place

Baby steps outside religion’s cradle

This student received a $2,000 scholarship from FFRF.

Clad in thin, white muslin cloth and a garland of freshly cut roses, I sat cross-legged, obedient yet oblivious, in front of a holy sandalwood fire. A handful of priests dressed in the same attire chanted prayers in the old Persian language of Pharsi. I echoed them gracefully and flawlessly, though I did not understand a word I said.

A few hundred people sat by to witness the theatrics ­— well-wishers, distant relatives, close family, strangers, familiar faces — akin to a gathering of Tolkien’s hobbits at Bilbo’s flamboyant 111th birthday.

The main event was soon underway, and an off-white handspun thread was tied around my waist, to be worn for the rest of my life. At age 7, I was now inducted into Zoroastrianism, a religion with roots in ancient Persia.

I followed my parents to whatever religious ceremonies they went to. Like a well-oiled machine, I recited my prayers and tied my thread each day with steadfast diligence to remain pure and pious. Before long I started to wonder to whom I was praying. If God really was an omnipresent spiritual force, why would we need something as mediocre and materialistic as a thread to symbolize our loyalty? No one had any satisfactory answers that would silence my questions. I knew something did not add up.

In retrospect, I find it amusing that I was ceremoniously brought into the religion at such an early age, when I hadn’t a clue about what was going on. Like scores of other children being baptized or celebrating their bar mitzvah, I wasn’t given a chance to mature before making a conscious and informed choice.

Religion began to seem like a plague and a dangerous impediment to our society.

Carl Sagan noted in his novel, Cosmos, that “it is the birthright of every child to encounter the cosmos anew in every culture and in every age.” Given my religious upbringing, I consider myself lucky to be able to experience and learn about a world outside my own.

I owe my passion for space exploration to a Discovery Channel documentary on the Harrier Jump Jet when I was about 11. I distinctly remember watching those ferocious aircraft elegantly pierce the clouds and wondering if I could take to the skies one day. I found myself in a state of unbridled enthusiasm, engrossed in books and Internet articles about aviation, space and astronomy.

As I turned the colorful leaves of my astronomy books and saw pictures of great swaths of stars swirling in majestic discs called galaxies, I was overwhelmed with awe and humility. That our sun is one among trillions; that we, as sentient beings, constitute a speck in our unfathomably voluminous universe, made me scoff at our inane egocentricity and cocky conclusions that a god exists, whose mundane affairs include listening to our prayers and creating and controlling everything.

Of course, that is just one point of view. A person of unconquerable faith in his or her god would take the enormity and beauty of the universe as firm evidence of unmistakable divinity. But that “evidence” is no product of the meticulously performed scientific method and stems more from an innate desire to be connected to the cosmos and a restless need to explain the mechanics of nature with no regard as to how baseless and arbitrary the solutions may be.

Science has debunked many ancient theories. The Chinese thought a solar eclipse was an ominous devouring of the sun by a mystical dragon or dog; ancient Egyptians thought it was a vile serpent named Apep. It then came as a shock to me, that not only was the six-day creation story in Genesis an important aspect of a religion with 2 billion adherents, but that millions actually believed it as fact.

I was amazed to read about people who denied hard evidence for the tried and tested theory of evolution in favor of some obscure scripture handed down from centuries ago. Even more heart-wrenching was discovering that evolution was ridiculed and banned at several educational institutions. It amuses me that today, I would be labeled insane if I believed in a mystical celestial dog that eats up the sun every few months, but merely labeled a Christian if I pledged allegiance to a god who created everything as we know it in six days.

Although I rejected unproven claims such as the direct creation of life by a higher being, I could not, with absolute conviction, conclude that there is no god. I often mused over the origins and nature of our universe and the laws of physics, and found there are still plenty of mysterious questions to be answered. Science beautifully explains what it can, and given a healthy environment for progress, has the potential to uncover the rest of the secrets. It doesn’t pretend to know all the answers but patiently and methodically seeks them out.

An agnostic character

I developed an agnostic character, feeling unshackled and liberated from religion’s blind promises and absurd restrictions. I found it hard to share my views with my parents, who both have unshakeable faith in the almighty. Though I occasionally debate with them, I have no plans of generating friction with certain elder relatives by questioning their revered beliefs.

I still admire the nonviolent and charitable traits of my community. Several Zoroastrian families actively engage in philanthropy to improve the well-being of our society, and unlike some other religions, Zoroastrians don’t seek to impose their ideals on others through fear or force.

As I continued my reading, I saw great hostility in the history of proselytism. If the replication of memes down through generations merely allowed a religion to survive, it seemed like converting people, clans and sometimes vast populations ensured that a religion thrived. Minorities were persecuted and blood spilled in crusades and conquests. It was a constant showdown between the great contenders, and often, the innocents holding ringside seats suffered heavy collateral damage.

Catholics vs. Protestants, Christians vs. Muslims, Jews vs. Muslims, Muslims vs. Hindus, Shiites vs. Sunnis — all kill each other, fueled by self-righteousness that their God is right and all else is blasphemous. Despite the relative diminished intensity of religious violence and the advent of enlightened ideals, blood continues to rain in the name of God today.

I was deeply saddened as I witnessed the Islamic terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and the war waged in the Gaza strip in 2008-09. Suffering and strife are rampant in the holy battlegrounds of our modern world. All this senseless violence and destruction stirred in me a sense of despair and cynicism. Aside from its irrationality, religion began to seem like a plague and a dangerous impediment to our society.

One of my icons of popular science, Michio Kaku, noted that religious terrorism is “one of the main threats in man’s evolution from a Type 0 to a Type 1 civilization” on the Kardashev scale, which measures a civilization’s level of technological advancement. Our dangerous addiction to religion is a major factor that hinders us from truly maturing as a species worthy of the intelligence and conscience we possess. With the ideas of gods, angels and demons, heaven and hell, we took our first cosmic baby steps as a primitive civilization trying to explain our existence and find the meaning of life.

Now we have the tools and the capacity to find rational and truly illuminating answers to our questions. A time will soon come when we will lift ourselves out of our comfort zone and take our first steps outside the cradle, only to witness the wonderful universe as our eyes and minds see it, not as they imagine it.

And that is my faith.

Kaizad Raimalwala, 20, is from the emirate of Dubai and is a sophomore at Purdue University. He’s majoring in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

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