Why I am an Atheist
‘It is a matter of debate whether my lack of belief in the existence of an Omnipresent, Omniscient God is due to my arrogant pride and vanity’ – Bhagat Singh’s classic Why I am an Atheist, written in the year 1930, begins with these words. Later in the essay he says, “The epithet of vanity is always hurled at the strength we get from our convictions.”
This 5,790 word essay was first published in People, a periodical brought out from Lahore, in September 1931. In the essay, Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary freedom fighter, a socialist in his beliefs, a powerful writer and a prolific journalist, begins by asserting that his atheism is the result of rational inquiry as opposed to vanity or pride. He had an “unswerving, unwavering belief in God” through childhood and his time at the National College, Lahore (which he joined at the age of 15), writes Professor Chaman Lal (honorary advisor, Bhagat Singh Archives & Resource Centre, Delhi Archives) in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly (September 15-21, 2007).
In 1923, when Singh, who was born in 1907 in Banga village of Lyallpur district (now Faisalabad district in Pakistan), came to Kanpur, he joined the Hindustan Republican Association (renamed the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in 1928 — he refers to it as the ‘Revolutionary Party’ in this essay). His comrades ranged from firm believers in god – such as Sachindara Nath Sanyal, the party’s founder – to those with more ambiguous views on the subject.
His own convictions
changed radically when he started to study these questions more seriously: “By
the end of 1926, I was convinced that the belief in an Almighty, Supreme Being
who created, guided and controlled the universe had no sound foundations.”
So in this essay, Bhagat Singh asks the theists: why did this god create a world full of woe and grief? To the Hindus, he asks: “What is your view about those punishments inflicted on the people who were deliberately kept ignorant by selfish and proud Brahmans?” And finally, “I ask why He does not fill the hearts of all capitalist classes with altruistic humanism that prompts them to give up personal possession of the means of production and this will free the whole labouring humanity from the shackles of money.”
The British did not rule India because God willed it, he writes, but “it is with the force of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and above all because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin, that is, the exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is He doing?”
Bhagat Singh believed, and wrote in this essay, that in the long run, all
religions, faiths, theological philosophies and religious creeds become
supporters of tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes. Society,
he wrote, must fight against this belief in God.
“Instead of developing the ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle – lethargic, idle, fanatical as we are – we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool.” He writes and notes that “Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking.”
'Inquilab Zindabad' and 'Down with Imperialism’ – two slogans that spoke of this revolutionary thinking, caught the imagination of the Indian people, writes Chaman Lal, when, on April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and his comrades threw “harmless bombs” in the central assembly to “make the deaf hear.”
Bhagat Singh and his comrades
had been underground since the 'Lahore Conspiracy Case', and the killing of
John Saunders, a police official in Lahore city. The intended target was James Scott,
superintendent of police, Lahore. Bhagat Sungh held Scott and Saunders responsible for the death
of Lala Lajpat Rai which they set out to avenge. (Rai was a veteran freedom fighter and social reformer from Punjab; he was president of
the Indian National Congress in 1920, and died while leading a demonstration
against the Simon Commission in Lahore.)
He read and wrote extensively in these two years. Why I Am an Atheist – which S. Irfan Habib, historian of science, calls “a strong rebuttal of blind faith and a zealous defence of reason” – is a product of this period.
Habib notes that Bhagat Singh matured as a political thinker while in prison, and his prison diary reveals the trajectory of his political evolution. He drafted four manuscripts while in jail: The Ideal of Socialism, Autobiography, History of Revolutionary Movements in India and At the Door of Death. He also wrote several other papers, including Why I Am an Atheist and Letters to Young Political Workers.
Singh, who was 23 when he was hanged, had no illusions regarding his impending
execution. Beliefs [in god] make it easier to go through hardships, but as an
atheist, the only option is to depend on yourself, he noted. “I am going to
sacrifice my life for a cause.”
“The day [he sacrificed his life] shall usher in a new era of liberty when a large number of men and women, taking courage from the idea of serving humanity and liberating them from sufferings and distress, decide that there is no alternative before them except devoting their lives for this cause [of India’s freedom]. They will wage a war against their oppressors, tyrants or exploiters, not to become kings, or to gain any reward here or in the next birth or after death in paradise; but to cast off the yoke of slavery, to establish liberty and peace they will tread this perilous, but glorious path.”
Focus by Oorna Raut.
Bhagat Singh, 1930. First published in People in September 1931. (Converted from the original Gurmukhi (Punjabi) to Urdu/Persian script by Maqsood Saqib; translated from Urdu to English by Hasan for marxists.org, 2006).
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