Vikram Parahoo is a student in British Columbia. We met at a talk, decided to explore his background more. Here we get some insight into Mauritius and religion.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are from Mauritius. You study in UBC in Canada, which is one of the premier universities in the country. Why choose Canada?
Vikram Parahoo: I originally wanted to go to the US and applied to some universities in Canada to increase my chances. In the end, I got into a few in both countries and UBC ended up being the one I settled for.
Jacobsen: What is atheism like in Mauritius?
Parahoo: Mauritius, despite being a secular country, has religion imprinted all over its political and social spheres. The political leaders swear by their faith and get voted mostly by people who share the same belief in God.
Hinduism is the majority religion with about 50% of the population sharing this belief. Atheism is a really arcane subject in my country as most people just assume God exists because their friends and relatives believe.
Fortunately, unlike in some Middle Eastern societies, being an atheist is not a crime. However, it would be harder to get a job or be looked upon with the same respect if people know you are irreligious. The social backlash would be quite severe as well.
Jacobsen: How does that experience differ from the one in Canada?
Parahoo: I have been here for a few years and I honestly love this country. Religion is not a big deal here, so it is refreshing to live life without having religion shoved down my throat.
In Vancouver, I got to listen to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris’ talks with Dawkins having a speech down the street where I live, I met a lot of people who slowly helped me realize not believing in God is not a big deal.
I also have recently become quite a fan of the liberal values Canada bases itself on. I also had the chance of meeting like-minded atheists like yourself; and I had the honour of meeting Armin Navabi, the founder of Atheist Republic.
His book “Why there is no god” essentially taught me how to refute any argument I have ever heard for god. I also got to talk to Travis Pangburn of Pangburn Philosophy. He helped organize a lot of discussions on arts and science by acclaimed authors and philosophers, something that I rarely experienced in Mauritius.
Thanks to Travis, I got to see one of my favourite debater, Matt Dillahunty, have discussions with the likes of Sarah Haider and James Randi, all of these down the street where I live.
Jacobsen: How does an individual extricate or extirpate themselves from religion in Mauritius?
Parahoo: I cannot speak for other Mauritians but only for myself, my realization that no god exists started from when I was in what is the equivalent of grade 6.
We had a Hindi class (where they teach us the Hindi language but also add a lot of religious lessons to it) and the teacher asked us: “What do you all believe in God?” My answer was that my parents told me there is one.
He replied something along the lines of: “Scientists have concluded there is a god for a simple reason. They said that, when you look outside and you observe the planets, the trees, the sea and other such magnificent things, there must be a creator that created these. This is why we know God is real.”
For some reason, I never forgot these words as well as the first thought that came to mind when he said that. “Nature is complex; therefore, God is real? That does not make sense. Can it not be that something else created everything?”
Years later, as I learned more about evolution and the Big Bang theory, that question came back to mind. So, I told that story to a priest I met and asked him that as we know of evolution and the Big Bang that created life and the universe, how do we know there is a god?
He got upset and said something along the lines of “Well, what created the Big Bang? You don’t know. Exactly, that must be God.” That, right there, made me realize that neither I nor the priest actually had reasons to believe in a god.
Because if the Universe and the Big Bang were so complex that the only possible explanation is that they must have been created by a god, that God must be even more complex. So, what created the creator?
Then what created the creator of the creator and that just keeps on going indefinitely. From then on, I was somewhat of an agnostic. As I read more about religions and studied the philosophical arguments for the existence of god and realized they were all fallacious, I gradually evolved into the atheist and antitheist I am today.
I kept that essentially a secret until after I graduated our equivalent of high school. The reason being, at that time and for a few months until I left high school, I was the only atheist I knew. I had no knowledge of atheist authors like Hitchens or Dawkins yet.
And I was scared of what my friends and relatives would think if I told them. Once I left high school, I told that secret to a few friends who told me they did not believe either and that brought us even closer.
I was, at that point, so angry at my parents for making me believe in something so absurd that I started sharing posts on Facebook about atheism which my parents saw and realized I was an atheist. I was in that angry stage for quite a while. I was that edgy guy on the Internet arguing with people about how there is no god. It was a therapeutic way to appease myself and try to get rid of that anger.
Thanks to the way things are here, I slowly understood that my irreligiosity was normal and I calmed down. I still sometimes feel that anger, when I read about someone in Saudi Arabia being tortured for not believing in god or when I read that the US allows some bakers not to sell a cake to gay customers because of the baker’s beliefs in an imaginary sky wizard.
But I don’t go around trying to debate people anymore. I have better things to do with my life.
Jacobsen: Now, living in Canada and studying at a premier institution, what makes for the difficulty in the cultural transition? What makes this easier than living in Mauritius, especially in British Columbia with a much lower religiosity rate?
Parahoo: One of the good things about living in Canada and studying in UBC especially, it is that there are plenty of resources available to help us assimilate and understand the local culture better. My dad works in Dubai and I have been there many times.
So, I was not too estranged from more modern environments and, thanks to the Internet, I had an understanding of the way things work in the West. I had some anxiety issues at first speaking in English for that long and with as many people, in fact, many of my friends talk about how shy and quiet I was, at first.
As time progressed and after taking some accent reduction lessons, I assimilated in quickly and now, though I still have a bit of my initial Mauritian accent, it’s easy for people here to understand me and it’s easy for me to understand others.
Jacobsen: What is the central assumption about atheists and anti-theists in Mauritius? Do these impact life outcomes for the atheists, disagreeing with the general public? If so, how? What are some of the more severe instances of it?
Parahoo: As religion is a really core feature of the Mauritian society, if I were to openly tell people I am an atheist, they would probably look at me like I’m crazy. In some religious households, there may be a serious backlash.
I know a couple of Mauritians who left Islam and kept it secret from their parents out of fear for their lives and so they do not get kicked out of their homes. When it comes to working and living a professional life, being an atheist is a huge disadvantage, there is a lot of communalism going on in the society itself. Hindus vote for Hindus or give jobs to other Hindus, etc.
The way I define my antitheism is basically that I oppose believing in a god and I find a god belief as being irrational (I believe that there is no god)and I think religions are a net loss to society. When it comes to being an antitheist openly, that would definitely be worse.
Not only are you then going against the status quo, now, people also know that you oppose the belief in their higher power; that you find their beliefs irrational and that they would be better off without their imaginary higher power.
This position would probably leave you jobless. Unless, you agree to conform to their religious beliefs and do not disrespect them, but keeping your mouth shut when they have religious celebrations in the public space, when they have a morning prayer in your high school every day and that you have to stand there and listen.
Also, you have to respect other people’s beliefs so do not complain if you are awakened by the Hazaan from a nearby mosque at 5 am. Though you will not be arrested merely for stating an opinion, you may run the risk of being beaten up by a mob of illiterate religious people who fiercely believe and want you dead for hurting their feelings.
In fact, if this interview gets seen in Mauritius, who knows what may happen to me if I do go back to Mauritius?
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Vikram.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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