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Off the mark 

By chhotebhai

This title could mean two things (double entendre). Firstly, as in a race, it could mean that one was off the mark in a flash, as the starter called out, “On your marks, get set, go”. Secondly it could mean that one had gone off track or missed the mark. I mean both things – taking off and missing the mark; double entendre.

Two Marks come to mind, Rebecca Mark, and Mark Zuckerberg. The first Mark was the stunning blonde CEO of the Enron power project in Dabhol, Maharashtra. Every time she crossed her shapely legs she had the Maharashtra State Electricity Board officials drooling. Writing in the Times of India for Valentine’s Day in 2002 columnist S.S.A. Aiyar had this to say, that she was “remembered not for her business acumen, but her looks, clothes and legs. Many Indians dreamed of being her Valentine. Gossip columnists claimed she won the Dabhol contract because of her sex appeal”! Unfortunately, that was not enough to get the project off the mark (first meaning) and it ended up being way off the mark (second meaning).

She has much in common with the other Mark – Zuckerberg. Both are or were CEOs, both are/were fabulously rich and both went to Harvard. There the similarity ends. Zuckerberg is 30 years younger than Rebecca. He is of course the CEO of Facebook (FB). Despite a net worth of US$50 he draws a salary of just one dollar. He has pledged 99 percent of his wealth to charity through the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, named after him and his Chinese doctor wife, Priscilla Chan.

I am not on FB, as I prefer to meet people face to face, and read or write books. So what has attracted me to this other Mark, and occasioned this piece? It is a statement he made recently at Christmas time. In his holiday message he wished people a “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah”. Somebody responded to his greeting by asking him if he had now become “religious,” as he had earlier called himself an atheist?

He reportedly replied, “No, I was raised Jewish, and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe that religion is very important”. It is this statement that got me thinking, and not the other Mark’s assets.

Another juicy bit of information came from the Pews Research Centre in America. In 2014 those professing to be atheist, agnostic or religiously unaffiliated rose to 22.8 percent of the population, from 16.1 percent seven years earlier.

The figures from India are a study in contrast. Unfortunately, the Govt of India has not, till date, released the religion wise figures of the 2011 Census. I fail to understand what the previous UPA Govt and the present NDA Govt are trying to hide from the public.

I must therefore fall back on the figures of the previous Census conducted in 2001. It has a provision for “religion not stated”, which may not necessarily be the same as those claiming to be atheist or unaffiliated. Nevertheless it is something to go by.

In a population of 1,028,610,328 the number of such persons was 727,588, or just 7 in 10,000. Their Decadal Growth Rate from 1991 was 75 percent, as against 23 percent for the entire population. So we may conclude that such persons grew at more than three times the average growth. It is till a far cry from the figures in the USA.

That being as it may, why is it that an increasing number in the West are professing to be atheist or agnostic, as distinct from the “religiously unaffiliated”, that would admit a belief in God but not in any particular religion?

I see two reasons for this trend. The first is the declining dependence on Providence. Earlier, if there was no rain a farmer would storm the heavens. Now he simply switches on his tubewell, and gets all the water he needs. So too for the answers to life. One earlier turned to God; now one turns on Google! Has God then become infructuous or redundant?

When the West was inundated with the hippie culture and the unending Vietnam War, the iconic Time magazine published a cover story on 8/4/66 “Is God Dead?” My answer of course is that God is alive and has withstood the test of time (pun intended), though Time’s sister publication “Life” is now dead!

It is in this context that Mark Zuckerberg’s profession of faith, if I may term it that, assumes significance. He is filthy rich and super intelligent. After searching for answers he has apparently found something that makes him publicly admit that “religion is important”. I would therefore deduce that he is now a theist, who believes in God, regardless of what religion he professes.

The second reason for people turning away from religion, especially the organized or institutionalized variety, is their disgust and dismay at the hypocrisy of so-called religious leaders. Jesus himself called them hypocrites, likening them to whitened sepulchres (cf Mat 23:27); people who were a stumbling block themselves, and blocked the path for others too (cf Mat 23:13). Jesus did not condemn the drunkards and prostitutes. But he reserved his harshest criticism for the hypocritical religious leaders of his time (cf Mat chapters 6 & 23).

In my 65 years of life I too have been through stages of blind faith, rationalised religion, and now an emphasis on spirituality rather than religion. Yes, I use the breviary and rosary and believe in the Eucharistic Sacrifice; but I give novenas, adorations and Corpus Christi processions a very wide margin.

I believe in the teachings of Sacred Scripture and the prophetic vision of the Second Vatican Council. I still believe that the Catholic Church, despite its many shortcomings, is the best of organised religion. But I also have a growing distaste and disappointment with the way the Catholic Church has withdrawn into a comfort zone of institutions and worldly splendour. So I am not surprised that many who may not have had the opportunities that I had, to associate with wise and holy persons, have chosen to call themselves atheists etc. I also feel that I have no right to impose my religious beliefs on my adult children. They need to search and find their own answers.

As a social and civic activist I interact with a wide cross section of society. This includes Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Parsi leaders (both lay and cleric), Christians from other churches, and even Marxists at the other end of the spectrum. It is impossible to judge who is a better human being or closer to God. I have seen some avowedly atheists who have shown greater love and concern for the poor and needy than so-called “religious” leaders.

But I also suspect that Indian Marxists are not really atheists. I have noticed that most of their leaders are Brahman. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that they could never establish a pan-India footprint. I also find that religion and caste are so deep-rooted in India that they have not left even the Marxists unscathed. I may in passing add that Marx is an anglicisation of the original German name – Ma rks!

I would end this piece with a teenage experience. I had just come out of the swimming pool in the Cawnpore Club (it has retained its anglicised name) and was in the men’s dressing room. Near me were two burly young Parsi men resplendent in their manhood. One said to the other, “I don’t believe in God”, to which the other retorted, “I don’t believe what you are saying”! This “locker room talk” has remained firmly etched in my memory for fifty years. Many people may externally express to be atheist. It could be fashionable or politically correct to say so. But deep down in their hearts there could be that spark of the divine that they may not consciously profess.

My dear wife invariably falls asleep in church, especially during boring sermons. She has the gift of wisdom. She says, “So what if I fall asleep? If I am sitting in the sun and I fall asleep I am still receiving the sun’s rays”. I bow before my wiser half. It lends credence to my credo that even if there is a breed that has no creed, but does good deeds, then God is not dead to them. That is why, concurring with my wife’s innate wisdom, Vatican II, in the “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” unequivocally states, “Nor does Divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace” (LG 16).

So as we begin a new year I see hope in what Mark Z said. I don’t know if his legs are as shapely as that of his namesake, but he does seem to have his head in the right place, as he shapes the future of another generation. Truly he is off the mark (the first meaning). With faith in God and hope in humankind let us also do likewise.

(The writer is a former National President of the All India Catholic Union)

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