Sanal Edamaraku believes that every child is born an atheist, ignorant about the existence of a God. His Christian father and Hindu mother were both atheists and left it to Sanal to choose his faith. “My parents had a very open approach while raising me — no religious indoctrination whatsoever,” he says.
In 1960, when his parents filled out his school admission forms, they wrote ‘no religion’ and ‘no caste’. The school argued that Sanal must have a religion and a caste, but relented later. Sanal went on to become the first-ever officially registered non-believer student in the country. Today, he says, thousands of students in Kerala are non-believers.
Having been brought up without any perception of God, his discovery of Jesus came in his first year at school. His class teacher, a nun, narrated the story of Cinderella and then told the class another story about Jesus. “For a long time, I imagined Jesus as Cinderella’s younger brother,” he laughs.
The decision to become an active rationalist, however, came when he was 15. “Susan Thomas, a young lady in our neighbourhood and a nationally-acclaimed athlete, was diagnosed with blood cancer. Her religious family refused to get her treated, believing instead in the power of prayer. She succumbed soon thereafter,” he recounts. “This made me realise how dangerous hyper belief can be.”
He decided it was time to do something and so he founded a rationalist organisation for students and began campaigning with other activists to rid people of their blind faith. There’s been no looking back since. Today, Sanal is the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, an organisation that conducts various campaigns in rural India to educate masses about the dangers of blind faith. He describes the concept of ‘rationalist reality theatre’, one of the techniques they use: The idea is to create an illusion of supernatural powers and then, when the audience is least expecting it, expose the sham behind the supposed miracle. The practice helps open up people’s minds, he says. He insists the aim of his campaigns are not to introduce people to atheism, but to educate people against ignorance.
In a country where religion is considered sacrosanct, Sanal is no stranger to controversy. In April this year, he explained the ‘miracle’ of the weeping Jesus Christ statue at a prominent Catholic Church in Mumbai. He termed the phenomenon ‘capillary action’ and said it was caused due to a drainage problem. He was slapped with an arrest warrant for hurting religious sentiments.
Four years ago, Sanal was a guest on a news channel’s talk show where a tantrik tried to kill him with his ‘supernatural’ powers. “The tantrik, Surinder Sharma, said he could use his chants to kill me within three minutes. The drama went on for hours as he tried in vain while I kept laughing. I’m not afraid of curses or holy men,” he says.
Sanal feels that there are two Indias, one that is progressive and that has the potential to become a superpower, and another, that is dogged by tantriks, astrologers and superstitions that take it backwards.
“Intolerance is the biggest problem of our times. Fanatic groups hamper development,” he says. Yet, he does not want to become the ‘chief of atheism’. “Religion is a closed compartment and I only urge people to engage in open freedom and dialogue and understand the universe.”
How does he explain believers who turn to religion in troubled times? “Like every other person, I too have problems. The difference is that I face my problems knowing that they can be solved by my own efforts.”