With the rise of atheists in secular societies, an important question is- should atheists read theology?
If you are a knowledge seeker, but have intentionally shunted out reading of theology due to being an atheist, I would definitely recommend reviewing such a decision. I’ve seen voracious readers say “I’ve read so many books, what’s next? There are no more good books in my wish list, but don’t recommend theology because I am an atheist”. Read it, you will thank me later. It is analogous to travelling the world to get more perspectives. Just like travelling to Vietnam doesn’t make you a Vietnamese, reading theology does not make you religious. In fact, if you are into study of patterns, you will like these concepts. It will definitely feel like taking the brain to the gym, and it will positively impact your performance in other walks of life.
I don’t believe in one ‘personal god’, so that makes me an atheist, but I still believe that the ‘idea of religion’ is a worthy human pursuit. When humans encountered things that were deterministic, they put it in science books, and when they encountered something abstract and philosophical, they put it in theological books. Every civilization has tried to approach this question of existence in their own way and in that process they ‘figured out’ something and penned down their thoughts in such a way that the benefits of that high philosophy could trickle down to the masses without having to do deep study (hence the regimented prayer timings and other ceremonies). Religion is a culture’s answer to the philosophical questions that man faces. It’s literally an encyclopedia written by our ancestors while trying to juggle with the nature of existence. In that sense, I would give some credit to every religion for attempting to explain it in their own way. In addition to the metaphysical aspects, the Abrahamic religions have a political aspect of materialistic self-preservation and propagation, that makes these religions lethal towards other groups, unlike Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism which are pure theologies and have pure philosophy (Shruti) and separated political aspects (like in Chanakya Neeti and Manu Smriti). What makes Hinduism even better is that it is crowd sourced repository of information which keeps getting edited with new data every time our civilization progresses.
I remember Subhramanian Swamy saying, Hindus congregate at festivals like Kumbh, but they don’t realize that the real benefit of congregation is to create a sense of unity and show the strength of our civilization, and whatever spiritual benefit you get is just a trickle down effect. It’s not because the rivers and gods and temples emanate magic that you go there, you go there to represent yourself as a part of a large civilization. One for all and all for one.
Doval has said “old religion used to say, if you don’t believe in god, you are an atheist; New religion says, if you don’t believe in yourself, you are an atheist”. Understand the deeper meaning of this on a practical level. You are an individual, you have individual interests. You are also a part of a group and you have collective interests. The bigger the group, the stronger position it has in any negotiation, the stronger it is, the more dividends it yields for the group, and by proxy, the more dividends trickle down to you as an individual. Even if you are an atheist, your individual interests are intertwined with how well the group does. No matter how loudly you scream that you are an atheist, when you are walking in a Muslim locality, for them, you are just another kafir and you will be given the same treatment that is meted out to other Hindus. In that case, you don’t have a choice of stepping out. Now that you are sure that you will anyway be made to pay the price of being part of a group, then why not make sure you also gain the dividends of being a part of that group? The group becomes stronger when you are a part of it, and you become stronger when you are a part of the group, this might in fact reduce the chances of you facing attrition in the first place. Being an atheist is the worst bargain you can make for yourself. You get all the cons of being a kafir and no pros. No matter whether you are atheist or not, you have to foot the bill. If you are a practical atheist who believes in hard logic, then I hope you see how bad this logic of atheism is. When you say that you are an atheist, you aren’t really signing yourself out of the group, you are only signing out of the benefits of the group.
Even if you don’t want go to temples and chant prayers, go to Kumbh, Akshar Dham, Jagannath Puri and witness your civilization alive and ticking. Don’t chant mantras but do read high philosophy. It will definitely make you a better person. Don’t confuse deterministic science with indeterminate philosophy. When existential crisis hits, even the best of scientists commit suicide. Both science and philosophy has a place in Hinduism. You need both to live a wholesome life. Atheism is for those Abrahamic religions which have a history of persecution of scientists by the Church and Clergy. Hinduism never antagonized science, it has always assimilated it.