On PK, OMG, and Bollywood atheism

The following was a Quora answer I wrote in response to a question someone asked about Bollywood promoting atheism. Sharing it because I just rediscovered it and think it is relevant to an argument people make often — that homophobia is a tool for unifying religions.

The question was “Was PK a smart way to promote atheism?” My answer follows:

In a way, yes. And in some other ways, not really.

The thing to keep in mind is that even though there is a robust tradition of atheism in India’s popular culture (despite a robust religiosity right alongside it), people here don’t get treated differently for being atheists and it is rather common to see people say they do not believe in a higher power. Hindu philosophy, from certain points of view, is somewhat atheistic. Unless bhakti is the cornerstone of one’s worldview, the average Hindu is free to not accept God (as understood in Abrahamic traditions) to be a literal truth. It raises eyebrows, but that is mostly all it does.

Now… PK.

I agree that PK was a smart film. It caused us to look at the enterprise of bhakti from an outsider’s point of view and brought a point home that we don’t often think about in our enthusiasm to point out that “all religions are the same”.

They are not the same. They say distinctly different things about how to live. And even on the points that they do agree on, they are not all very nice.

I remember a conversation with a saffron friend some time ago. He could not see a single thing good in any religion other than his own — Hinduism. He took every opportunity point out that Islam was misogynist and that Christianity was imperialistic. But something strange happened every time homosexuality came up! He would start citing instances and statistics regarding how authorities of every religion considered it a bad thing. Forgetting the fact that he was cherry-picking and reverse-engineering his argument, it was almost as if he had turned into one of those “all religions are the same” people. The only difference was that he had latched on to a reprehensible aspect of this imaginary unity.

To him, the pinnacle of religious unity was homophobia.

Was he wrong? Perhaps. But we can’t ignore the fact that the place where all religions meet is home not only to peace and harmony. It is also home to some positively horrific things.

What PK did was to make us aware of this space. It wasn’t the first film to do so. And I think it is plain to see that it will not be the last, but more than atheism, what PK promoted was the need to clearly see the damage that religion does to society.

People were not created to serve religion. Religions were created to serve people. If the practice of religion is creating divides in human society, then it is clear that we have gone off the track somewhere. Far from being atheistic, PK was actually an argument for reform within religion. There is no reason Islam or Hinduism, or Christianity can’t be things that bring us together. There is no reason the followers of these religions can’t question and change the ways they do things. And speaking as someone who is perhaps technically an atheist, there is no reason these labels can’t be set aside in favour of better ones.

If atheism is that label, I am okay with that.