The dilemmas of an agnostic on Deepawali

What do agnostics do on a Deepawali? It is our biggest festival, celebrated with lights, get-togethers, shopping, giving and receiving gifts, elaborate decorations and rituals, solemnity and exhilaration. Anchored in religion, it makes the world joyful for the faithful. But the agnostic does not have religious belief. So, what do they do?

Well, I am trying to find answers. Till a few years ago, I used to do rudimentary puja—for the sake of convention rather than out of pious conviction, which I lost quite early in life. But then I realized that worship without faith is hypocrisy; in fact, it is almost sacrilegious to the gods, if there are any (you may ask why should an agnostic bother about sacrilege, a question to which I have no answers).

I say ‘if there are any,’ because that is the correct agnostic position. Agnosticism is the belief that we don’t know if there is/are any God/gods. It is a tougher position than the atheist’s, who simply denies everything religious or divine. The atheist can be as cocksure as the theist: the former in the denial of divinity and the latter in its acceptance; and both can carry on their lives without any doubts or misgivings.

The agnostic is denied such cocksureness; doubts are his constant companions; and a skeptic disposition is his perdition. Therefore, sometimes I think that it is better to accept the French philosopher Pascal’s pragmatic theism that he enunciated (but did not practice). Whether or not God exists, he said, is impossible to prove by reason. This is a fact: God’s existence has neither been proved not disproved till date.

Yet, you have to wager whether or not God exists, says Pascal. “It [the wager] is not optional.” Man is not only condemned to be free, as Sartre said centuries after Pascal, but also condemned to choose between the existence and non-existence of God. Either you believe or don’t believe in God, he says. Since His existence or otherwise is unknowable, it is futile to even embark upon such a journey.

It is better to look at the four possibilities arising out of your believing or not believing in God: (1) you believe He exists, and He does; (2) you don’t believe He exists, and he does; (3) you believe He exists, and He doesn’t; and (4) you don’t believe that He exists, and He doesn’t.

If (1) turns out to be true, it can be the path to redemption; (3) will mean a lot of wastage of you time and effort all your life; (4) would incur no such wastage; but if (2) is true, then you are screwed.

Pascal, therefore, recommends belief—not an unreasonable recommendation.

I shall ponder more over Pascal’s, and others, philosophical doctrines; and, hopefully, arrive at some conclusion by the next Diwali. Now is the time to celebrate the Festival of Lights, which I intend to do with as much gaiety as I can. And wish everybody a very happy Deepawali.