By Sumit Paul
14 December 2019
Raised by atheist parents, it was exceedingly difficult for me to be present in a mandatory religious class in Tehran, where I spent my childhood. Though no teacher imposed Islam on me, teachers as well as my peers were not aware that I had no religion. I hid my atheism, lest I be persecuted. Unable to bear religious sermons any longer, I finally decided to speak to the head religious teacher (amir-ul-mudarris). With a sense of trepidation, when I requested him to exempt me from this rigmarole of religiosity, he was surprised. ‘Why didn’t you tell me this in the beginning? Had I been aware that you were an atheist, I’d have asked your religion teacher to exempt you from class. You must have suffered a lot, but not any longer.’ With these incredibly sympathetic words, he exempted me from attending any sermon-lecture.
In these religiously intolerant times, I remember that Muslim teacher’s words: ‘You must have suffered a lot.’ This is the spirit of a religion, or in a broader perspective, the essence of humanity. This also holds a mirror to the rest of the Islamophobic world that an atheist can live in an Islamic country sans fear. The magnanimity of my Iranian-Muslim teacher helped me grow into an individual sans religiosity, but full of compassion and respect for the faith of others. I may be a staunch non-believer, but others have faith, and I must respect it.
Today, when I teach Semitic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), I don’t let my unbelief interfere and clash with the religions that I teach. It may sound paradoxical, nay even baffling, how a non-believer can teach religions, but when someone’s no-faith can be nurtured, fostered, and even refined, by believing people, it can become a possibility. I remember my devout Muslim professor’s words in Persian (Rumi, Masnavi no. 9): ‘Choon Ustam Ya Fid Ishq Baawar-E-Shidam, Yaan Az Musalmaan, Yaan Munkir, Nee Butparastaan’ (In the shrine of love, all are welcome, whether one’s a Muslim, atheist or an idol-worshipper). Moreover, the Quran says: ‘La Ikraha Fid-Deen’ (There’s no compulsion in religion). Just like faithfuls, there’s also a place and space for faithless in this world. Life culminates in contrasts and contradictions. Instead of a tussle or a constant tug of war between believers and non-believers, a peaceful coexistence between the two seemingly opposite sets of individuals can help the world become a better place.
Furthermore, excessive religiosity has become the nemesis, a sort of bete noire, of mankind. So, give unbelief a chance to exist and blossom. Because, if you believe that there is a God out there in heaven, he is also the atheism of an atheist!
Original Headline: When an atheist teaches faith
Source: The Tribune India