I was raised in a moderately religious family where education was given priority. We attended religious events and participated in religious rituals but it was never imposed on us. It simply became a part of life for me that I didn't give much thought to. I am a logical person so there have been many occasions in my life when I have questioned my faith. In the end I reached the conclusion that even though my logical side completely refuted the faith I was taught to have as a child, it takes a person of very strong mindset and conviction to completely deny the existence of a higher being. And I am surely not one of those people. I honestly believe that most people who claim to be 'atheists' actually have no idea what that entails. Just because you are critical of religion doesn't mean you are automatically an atheist (whether labelled by yourself or other). The same logic applies to those claiming to be religious.
The term 'atheist' gained popularity in Bangladesh following the political turmoils earlier this year. The reader is most likely well aware of the Shahbag movement but I will attempt a short relevant recap nonetheless. A protest began in February 2013 in an area called Shahbag in Dhaka, Bangladesh, protesting the verdict given by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) against a war-criminal of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The life-sentence verdict was deemed too lenient and people took to the streets demanding capital punishment. Known as the Shahbag movement, the protests grew quickly with people from all walks of life participating in what was initially a non-partisan movement demanding punishment for atrocities (an estimated 3 million murders, 200 thousand rapes and countless accounts of torture, arson, looting, forced religious conversions etc.) committed against the Bangladeshi people over 40yeas ago, justice that was long overdue. However as with most non-partisan political attempts in Bangladesh, dirty politics infiltrated the movement and what we are left with now is a population grossly confused about what the movement was about in the first place. A key element used to mislead the people was religion. The fact that one of the bloggers who had participated in the movement and subsequently murdered by the war-criminal supporters, was an overt atheist (and expressed that clearly in his posts), all 'bloggers' and pro-Shahbag protesters were labelled atheists. Besides most of the war-criminals under trial are part of an Islamic fundamentalist political party (largely unpopular during the elections I might add, but backed by the leading opposition party). Taking into account a country with over 90% religion fearing and practicing Muslims and some well placed fake blog posts, the the term 'atheist' was successfully interjected into the layman's mind as a person who was bent on insulting religion. And so another political ploy saw success as the focus shifted from war-crimes to religion (or it's lack thereof). At this point I would like to mention that I'm not an atheist but strongly pro-Shahbag.
While it is understandable that the uneducated and largely ignorant portion of the population would fall for such a distraction, what shocks me most is that young people from upper middle class families and an apparently educated background are also refusing to logically think it through and harbor a sudden hatred towards all those 'God-hating Shahbagis'. The finger is not just pointed to Shahbag supporters but has extended to anyone supporting the current government. This stance was clarified to me by an encounter a friend had a few weeks back. My friend met up with some old university friends and as with most gatherings nowadays, politics came up. During the discussion my friend expressed not support for the current government but distrust in the opposition for backing up the politics supporting war criminals. He further expressed concern about recent events involving a whole new religious extremist group demanding implementation of religious laws in our democratic country similar to laws in countries like Afganistan and the Middle East. These laws, among other things, would create serious restrictions on women's rights and in effect take our country's development several steps back. Take into account that the leader of this group has already blamed a national disaster on the attempt of a women's rights group to hold a rally and you would think no way could anyone with an ounce of sanity support politics backing such primitive demands. You would think but you would be wrong. My friend was immediately labelled an atheist for appearing to support the current government. This assumption was made by default - you cannot have a middle ground in Bangladeshi politics anymore. You're either a good pious member of society if you support the opposition (who are backing the fanatics) or the current government making you an anti-social element, that is, an atheist. These so called 'educated' university friends further went on to berate my friend saying he was unaware of the current government's corruption and was blindly supporting them and that his 'atheistic' beliefs disgusted them. Lets ignore the fact that my friend is a hard working member of society who looks after his parents and siblings, earning for a family of five while his university friends, despite having completed an engineering bachelors degree, are happily looking after well established family businesses without having to worry about next month's income. Yes, let's overlook this fact and berate him for supporting the need for justice for heinous crimes during the liberation war that earned our independence, berate him for not supporting the country's move back to the dark ages. I'm getting off topic here. The point is, even these educated people are unable to reason out of this tangled political web. And at the end of it all is what they consider the ultimate insult - you're an atheist- and it is this statement that reveals their frustrating ignorance. Atheism is simply the refusal to believe in a higher being, a personal choice that in no way determines any other aspects of a person'a character. Inability to understand this basic fact is the most vexing form of ignorance currently prevailing in our country's youth.
Now lets look at the other end of the spectrum. The other day another friend expressed his frustrations about the fundamentalist situation in our country. This friend had previously expressed open atheistic beliefs. He went on to say the, quoting the arrest of some atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, that the reason atheists are being 'beaten up ' is because they are not organizing. Animatedly, he explained how he would, if he could, get all the atheists to come together and organize against the religious fundamentalists and their supporters, that they would have periodic rituals to berate and disprove religion as a whole. My response was simple - how does that make you any different from them when you're essentially doing the same thing they are just from the other extreme?
From the above examples, it is clear that the problem is not religion or atheism. The problem is extremism. And ignorance of course. Those with extreme religious and extreme atheistic beliefs need to understand that you are no different from each other except that fact that you have completely opposing beliefs. Putting that aside, both groups solidly believe they are right and what they believe should be law. Both groups have the compulsive need to preach and defend their stance regardless of relevance. There is nothing more annoying than a religious or atheist fanatic imposing their beliefs on others. The argument is simple. If you have true understanding and conviction in what you believe, there is no need to convince anyone else. If you must, then give others the logic or the positives of your faith, tell them how you may or may not have benefitted from it and then leave it up to them to decide. If a system of belief is to be successfully implemented, it cannot be forced. And a little tolerance goes a long way. Understand that each person is different. You have your beliefs and they have theirs. If what you believe is true, you do not have to prove it by disproving or undermining anyone else. All that does is give rise to more mindless hate. Practice your beliefs, apply them to yourself and others with similar beliefs but understand that those with opposing beliefs have the same right. But this simple concept cannot be appreciated unless we overcome ignorance. Allow me to attempt a small dose of logic. Theist or atheist, everyone should support justice. What the war-criminals did in 1971 is not something that any responsible Bangladeshi can turn a blind eye to. Unless you claim that they are exempt from their crimes during the second largest genocide of the last century because they claim to preach a certain religion, or that the demand for their proper punishment is nullified simply because some of the demanders are openly atheists, there is no reason back down from asking for justice. If dirty politics is what bothers you then that is a different discussion. Before berating someone on religious grounds for supporting the punishment or war-criminals consider the fact that they did not care about religion when committing their crimes. They only cared that the murdered, raped and tortured were Bangladeshi. It is only fair that when asking for justice, religion or lack of it (of the criminals or those demanding justice ) is deemed irrelevant.