Freethought Today · September 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Second Place College Essay Contest for Students of Color winner: By Anuj Krishnamurthy

We must save ourselves

FFRF awarded Anuj $2,000.

By Anuj Krishnamurthy

In recent years, "international development" has become a popular discipline in scholarly and diplomatic circles. Achieving sustainable growth in the developing world is, of course, one of the 21st century's toughest challenges. The World Bank estimates that more than 2 billion people in the developing world live on less than $3 a day; a third of the world's poorest live on the South Asian subcontinent, where my immigrant parents hail from.

Yet, while the obvious impediments to development — corruption, conflict, disease — have been examined exhaustively by academics, a particularly pernicious phenomenon has been overwhelmingly neglected: God, religion and all the associated accoutrements.

I am a freethinker of color because religiosity has proven an intractable hindrance to economic growth in developing countries. So long as religion remains humanity's preeminent mechanism of social control, I've come to believe that people of color all over the developing world will continue to suffer from material misery and spiritual starvation.

The summer before I entered college, I spent a month visiting family in central India. It had been five years since I'd last been there, and, as soon as I stepped out from the air-conditioned sanctuary of New Delhi's airport, I could immediately discern the new developments: more gleaming skyscrapers, more smartphones, more Western fast-food franchises. Yet, in seeming defiance of India's nascent capitalist tradition came something wholly unexpected: more houses of worship. I noticed it instantly — more orange flags perched atop Hindu mandirs and more ornate minarets guarding Muslim mosques.

I was perplexed: What role did ancient religions, often propagating backwards sentiments, have in a burgeoning economy? It is self-evidently absurd to expect the proliferation of temples to automatically rectify, or even alleviate, India's domestic troubles. In fact, the extravagance by which Indians celebrate their holy texts, statues of deities, and conceptions of heaven contrasts sharply with the realities on the ground. India's gods seem to merely watch as poverty, illiteracy and hunger continue to abound, unchecked and uncontested. Religion is far from empowering; it callously compels people to accept their present circumstances, however undesirable, and submissively hope for something better in the afterlife.

What most Indians — and most religious residents of the developing world, I imagine — fail to recognize is that God cannot miraculously imbue their lives with prosperity and happiness and relieve their sorrows. God cannot cure disease; only doctors can. God cannot teach children; only educators and parents can. God cannot improve democracy; only effective leaders can.

Indeed, the agents of any society's collective progress are not divine figures — they are people, people who reject the passivity of prayer and dare to make their dreams reality. Putting our faith in God to solve our problems, then, is tantamount to sheepishly shirking our civic duty. Individuals in any society have a robust obligation to participate in their communities, both commercially and politically.
To the adversaries of atheism and proponents of religion, I say this: Demanding progress from God isn't enough; we must realize the cornerstones of development — healthcare, education, good governance — for ourselves.

Religious fervor in India has also stymied development because it incubates excruciating sociopolitical disharmony. Each election year, embattled political parties pander to religious groups for votes, promising to bolster the standing of certain faiths at the expense of others. Political classes essentially hijack religion, rerouting devotees to serve their own ethically dubious interests. The result is irreconcilable interfaith dissensions, frequently manifested in violent Hindu-Muslim riots and acts of terrorism. Yet, just as there is no divine reward for civic complacency, there is no salvation in self-superior, religious politicking.

As a freethinker of color, I care deeply about my roots. Much of my family still lives in India, and I am genuinely invested in the vitality of India's government and economy. But I fear that religious obsession may upend the tremendous progress India has made.

The secular movement, thus, would do well to consider the identities and backgrounds of young people of color in its critique of religion. After all, the whole world does better when the developing world, long encumbered by unproductive religiosity and colonial exploitation, secures its own economic voice. Secular thinkers can help advance this noble project by incorporating communities of color and issues of development in their work.

Anuj, 18, lives in Monmouth Junction, N.J, and attends Brown University, where he intends to major in international relations and economics. His interests include volunteering at the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, playing pickup basketball, and playing the tabla, an Indian classical percussion instrument.

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