How to Talk to Atheists (Part 2: Do Atheists Exist?)

Written by Ajit Krishna Dasa

In our previous segment we saw how people position themselves in relation to the existence of God. In the segment at hand we will talk about what an atheist really is. 

How do we, as devotees of Krishna, figure out what an atheist – and what atheism – really is? 

-Do we search the internet? 

-Do we arm wrestle about it? 

-Do we just think really hard about it? 

-Do we consult a dictionary? 

-Do we ask an atheist? 

-Do we make an online survey? 

No, of course not. As devotees we look to sastra for an answer. Interestingly enough sastra says that there are no atheists! 

But wait, Srila Prabhupada spoke about atheists all the time! 

Well, yes, that is entirely correct. But as we shall soon see there really are no atheists in the sense that there exist no such person who does not know that God exists. We shall see that the term atheist denotes a person who knows that God exists, but who tries his best to deny and suppress this truth. 

As devotees we quickly learn the Vedic position on the difference between the body and the soul. The soul is eternal, the body is temporary. The Vedas describe the soul as a part and parcel of God in the sense that the soul is an eternal individual person, qualitatively one with God, but quantitatively different. The soul shares the same qualities as God, but in infinitesimal degree. Thus, although there is a oneness, the soul is eternally different from God, and the soul will never become God. God and the soul has an eternal loving relationship as Master and servant. 

The Vaisnava philosophy explains that the living entity, the soul within the body, originally, before it came to the material world, existed in God’s abode, the spiritual realm, and that its constitutional position is to have a personal loving relationship with God. 

That loving relationship with God is described as the inborn and eternal nature of the soul. But due to the existence of free will, a prerequisite of love, some souls become envious of God and choose to misuse their minute independence to revolt against His supremacy. 

These rebellious souls try to deny and suppress the fact that God exists. Out of love and respect for the free will of the soul, God gives these soul a chance to forget Him and come to the material world to try to become supreme themselves. 

The purpose of the material world is therefore two-fold: 

1) to give the souls a chance to enjoy independent of God.

2) to gradually teach the souls through the law of karma that enjoyment without God is not real enjoyment, thus inspiring them to return home, back to Godhead. 

Through millions of births and deaths in the material world the souls here will gradually come to understand the futility of material enjoyment, and desire to re-establish their lost relationship with God by the practice of bhakti-yoga (devotional service to God).  

Here are some selected quotes from the Vaisnava scriptures and acaryas to establish the eternal relationship between the soul and God, the soul’s forgetfulness of this relationship, and its resultant fall into this material world.

Caitanya Caritamrita

Pure love for Kṛṣṇa is eternally established in the hearts of living entities. It is not something to be gained from another source. When the heart is purified by hearing and chanting, the living entity naturally awakens. (Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 22.107)

“It is the living entity’s constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa.” (Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 20.108)

Forgetting Kṛṣṇa, the living entity has been attracted by the external feature from time immemorial. Therefore the illusory energy [māyā] gives him all kinds of misery in his material existence. (Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 20.117)

“The living entity is bound around the neck by the chain of māyā because he has forgotten that he is eternally a servant of Kṛṣṇa. (Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 22.24)

O son of Mahārāja Nanda [Kṛṣṇa], I am Your eternal servitor, yet somehow or other I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up from this ocean of death and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet. (Caitanya Mahāprabhum Śrī Śikṣāṣṭakam, Text 5, as quoted in Caitanya Caritamrta)

Srimad-Bhagavatam

The human soul further prays: The living entity is put under the influence of material nature and continues a hard struggle for existence on the path of repeated birth and death. This conditional life is due to his forgetfulness of his relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore, without the Lord’s mercy, how can he again engage in the transcendental loving service of the Lord? (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.31.15)

My dear Lord, You are glorified by the selected verses uttered by great personalities. Such glorification of Your lotus feet is just like saffron particles. When the transcendental vibration from the mouths of great devotees carries the aroma of the saffron dust of Your lotus feet, the forgetful living entity gradually remembers his eternal relationship with You. Devotees thus gradually come to the right conclusion about the value of life. My dear Lord, I therefore do not need any other benediction but the opportunity to hear from the mouth of Your pure devotee. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.20.25)

In this way both swans live together in the heart. When the one swan is instructed by the other, he is situated in his constitutional position. This means he regains his original Kṛṣṇa consciousness, which was lost because of his material attraction. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.64)

‘When a living entity, thinking himself different from Me, forgets his spiritual identity of qualitative oneness with Me in eternity, knowledge and bliss, his material, conditional life begins. In other words, instead of identifying his interest with Mine, he becomes interested in his bodily expansions like his wife, children and material possessions. In this way, by the influence of his actions, one body comes from another, and after one death, another death takes place.’ (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.16.57)

How the living entity has left God, and has forgotten his eternal relationship with God, is described In the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Here we find the following allegorical story about King Puranjana told by Narada Muni. In the story, a brahmana, who symbolizes Paramatma, says to a lamenting widow:

“The brāhmaṇa continued: My dear friend, even though you cannot immediately recognize Me, can’t you remember that in the past you had a very intimate friend? Unfortunately, you gave up My company and accepted a position as enjoyer of this material world. My dear gentle friend, both you and I are exactly like two swans. We live together in the same heart, which is just like the Mānasa Lake. Although we have been living together for many thousands of years, we are still far away from our original home. My dear friend, you are now My very same friend. Since you left Me, you have become more and more materialistic, and not seeing Me, you have been traveling in different forms throughout this material world, which was created by some woman. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.53-55)

‘“Thus Mahārāja Khaṭvāṅga, by his advanced intelligence in rendering service to the Lord, gave up false identification with the body full of ignorance. In his original position of eternal servitorship, he engaged himself in rendering service to the Lord.’ (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.9.48)

” ‘When the living entity is attracted by the material energy, which is separate from Kṛṣṇa, he is overpowered by fear. Because he is separated from the Supreme Personality of Godhead by the material energy, his conception of life is reversed. In other words, instead of being the eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa, he becomes Kṛṣṇa’s competitor. This is called viparyayo ‘smṛtiḥ. To nullify this mistake, one who is actually learned and advanced worships the Supreme Personality of Godhead as his spiritual master, worshipful Deity and source of life. He thus worships the Lord by the process of unalloyed devotional service.’ (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.2.37).

A materialist, his intelligence perverted by the action of his deceptive senses, cannot recognize You at all, although You are always present within his own senses and heart and also among the objects of his perception. Yet even though one’s understanding has been covered by Your illusory potency, if one obtains Vedic knowledge from You, the supreme spiritual master of all, he can directly understand You. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 12.8.48)

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura

All animate beings of this world are Vaishnavas or servants of Vishnu, the all-pervasive Supreme Lord. All lifeless objects are also Vaishnavas. Those who possess the faculty of taking the initiative are Vaishnavas as also those who do not possess the power of initiative. The Highest of all persons Whom all these Vaishnavas serve, Who is the root and support of everything is Vishnu. The atheist is also a Vaishnava by constitution, but not by disposition. His aversion to Vishnu is due to the abuse of freedom of will which is the natural condition of cognition forming the stuff of the individual soul. The atheist is unwilling to serve Vishnu. He is, therefore, deluded to serve Vishnu and he can thus exist only through ignorance which overtakes the soul although he is by constitution perfectly self-conscious, which is the natural state. The atheist is a disobedient servant of Vishnu whose existence is maintained by the mercy of Vishnu in the form of His deluding Energy which persuades the atheist to accept willingly the ignorant service of Vishnu under the impression that the atheist is his own master in doing so.” (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Vaishnavism – Real & Apparent)

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura

As long as the jivas stay fixed in the service of Krsna by their choice, they are free of maya or karma, but when by misuse of their free will, they desire to enjoy for themselves and they forget their inherent service to Krsna, they become deluded by maya and controlled by karma. When they realize that service to Krsna is their inherent nature, they become free from the bondage of karma and the affliction of maya. Because their bondage exists before entry into the material universe, their bondage is called “anadi,” without beginning, and they are called eternally conditioned. Those who are not bound like this are called eternally liberated.

[…]

Forgetting Krsna, the jiva, under the control of maya, seeks to fulfill his desires. 

[…]

The minute conscious particle, the jiva, is by nature the servant of Krsna, the complete conscious being. Service to Krsna is the nature of the jiva. Forgetting this eternal nature, the jiva remains in bondage. When the jiva remembers his eternal nature he attains freedom. 

[…]

The jiva is in reality a pure spiritual entity, under the spiritual potency. But

because of the marginal nature of the jiva, the jiva has a tendency to become bound by maya. But he is only forgetting the inherent nature, service to Krsna; the pure jiva’s state, form and transformations are all spiritual. (Sri Caitanya Siksamrta, p. 35-37)

Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada)

The original home of the living entity and the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the spiritual world. In the spiritual world both the Lord and the living entities live together very peacefully. Since the living entity remains engaged in the service of the Lord, they both share a blissful life in the spiritual world. However, when the living entity wants to enjoy himself, he falls down into the material world.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.54, purport)

“The first sinful will of the living entity is to become the Lord, and the consequent will of the Lord is that the living entity forget his factual life and thus dream of the land of utopia where he may become one like the Lord.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.1, purport)

The real form of religion is spontaneous loving service to Godhead. This relationship of the living being with the Absolute Personality of Godhead in service is eternal. The Personality of Godhead is described as vastu, or the Substance, and the living entities are described as vāstavas, or the innumerable samples of the Substance in relative existence. The relationship of these substantive portions with the Supreme Substance can never be annihilated, for it is an eternal quality inherent in the living being. (Caitanya Caritamrita, Adi 1.91 purport)

The living entity is eternal, and he existed before the creation of this material world. Unfortunately he has forgotten his relationship with Kṛṣṇa. The living entity’s forgetfulness is described herein as anādi, which indicates that it has existed since time immemorial. One should understand that due to his desire to enjoy himself in competition with Kṛṣṇa, the living entity comes into material existence. (Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya 20.117 purport)

‘That is explained in Caitanya-caritāmṛta, nitya siddha kṛṣṇa bhakta. That truth is there already, but he has forgotten it. Therefore by this propaganda of devotional service, chanting and hearing, he simply revives the truth. The truth is there, that I am eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa. (Srila Prabhupada, Philosophy conversation with Syamasundara, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz)

According to the desires of the living entity, the Lord makes him remember or forget. If the living entity is demoniac and wants to forget the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the Lord gives him the intelligence to be able to forget the Supreme Lord forever. Similarly, when a devotee wants to serve the Supreme Lord, the Lord, as Paramātmā, gives the devotee the intelligence to make progress in devotional service. The Lord directly witnesses our activities and experiences our desires. The Supreme Lord gives us the facilities to act in the way we wish. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.30.26 purport)

Kṛṣṇa…, our relationship is with Kṛṣṇa, and that relationship cannot be cut off.’ (Srila Prabhupada, 23rd December, 1968, Los Angeles)

Devotee (1): In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, it says that Kṛṣṇa did not want us to come to this material world. If Kṛṣṇa did not want us to come, why are we here?

Prabhupāda: Yes. You forced Kṛṣṇa to allow you to come. Just like sometimes a child forces his father. Father says, “My dear son, do not do this. Do not go there.” But he insists, “Oh, I must go. I must go.” “All right, you go at your risk. That’s all. And you suffer. What can be done?” Because you are son of God—God has got independence, full independence, almighty—therefore you have acquired the quality of your father. You have got little independence. So God does not interfere with your little independence. If you persist that “I must go and enjoy independently,” so God says, “All right, you can go.” This is the position. You have to take sanction. That is a fact. But when you persist, God sanctions. And you come and enjoy. (Srila Prabhupada, Lectures, Bhagavad-gita 3.27, June 27, 1974)

“The conclusion is that everyone sees God at every moment, but the atheist class, they do not accept that he is seeing God. He denies or telling lies that he is not seeing God. But a devotee of God, he sees God at every moment within his heart.” (Srila Prabhupada, Speech at Olympia, Paris, June 26, 1971)

Innate idea is in everyone, that is, “God is great, and I am,” what is called, “controlled.” That innate idea is everywhere. But sometimes, out of ignorance one tries to become God. That is not possible. That is māyā, and he suffers from this. Artificially trying to become God, that is simply waste of time. It will never become possible. That is called māyā. Otherwise, innate idea is that he is servant and God is great. That is innate idea.”

[…]

He has conception of God, practically, but because under the spell of māyā he has become foolish, he tries to cover that conception, that somebody is there. How any sane man can deny that some superior power is there who has created this vast ocean, vast land, vast sky? How one sane man can avoid this conception? Nobody can avoid, but artificially, foolishly, he tries to avoid. Atheism. But that will not endure, that will not stay. His foolishness will be exposed. So this is innate idea, but the atheist class, demon class, they want to cover this innate idea artificially.” (Srila Prabhupada, Philosophy Discussion with Hayagriva, John Locke)

What we have seen so far is that all souls, i.e. all living entities, are not atheists by default. On the contrary, all beings are theists by default. Thus, people do not become atheists due to lack of evidence of God, or because they believe there is evidence against, or an absolute proof against, the existence of God. We all know by default that God exists. Atheists are those who wilfully try their best to deny and suppress the inborn knowledge they have of God. 

Turning back to our Theism-Atheism Matrix (see Part 1) we can see that there is only one valid position, namely that of gnostic theism. The other three positions are not only false, but are different ways in which the soul tries to delude itself and suppress its eternal and innate knowledge of God. The soul is able to suppress its innate knowledge of God to the degree where it believes its own lie so much so that the innate knowledge of God becomes suppressed, or pushed down, into the deepest layers of the subconscious.

So, now we know how people position themselves in relation to God’s existence, and we know what an atheist really is, namely a sort of closet theist who tries to suppress his knowledge of God. In our next segment we are going to talk about how we can and should use this knowledge when interacting with people about the existence of God. This will lead us into a discussion about epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

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