By Adi Chowdhury
“Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.”
Tomorrow marks the 45th birthday of Avijit Roy, an icon of freethinking and secular humanism, as well as a victim of the toxic atmosphere of religious fundamentalism suffusing Bangladesh.
Avijit Roy was not simply a prolific writer. He was not simply the man behind the renowned book The Virus of Faith. He was not simply a prolific activist. He was not simply a coordinator of international protests. He was not simply an atheist, not simply a science enthusiast, not simply a humanist, not simply a blogger.
Avijit Roy was a fighter. He was a fighter, relentless against the oppressive forces of superstition and dogma closing in around him, suffocating society, poisoning minds, mangling thoughts. He was a fighter against those maligning the most valuable of human virtues–reason, science, and compassion. He was a fighter against those peddling pseudoscience. He was a fighter against those suppressing skepticism and promoting the vice of blind faith. He was a fighter against those promulgating baseless myths and bronze-age ethical values.
He was a martyr as well. He was slaughtered outside a bookstore by Islamic fundamentalists on the charge of blasphemy and criticism of Islam. His wife Rafida Ahmed, also injured and traumatized during the attack (but who fortunately survived), lamented that “criticizing Islam is becoming a very big crime — a sin — in Bangladesh.”
Indeed, a sin that can get you killed–criticizing religion.
Roy stood tall in a world plagued by superstition and religious dogma. He perpetrated himself as a looming tower of advocacy and activism for reason. He proved himself to be a formidable adversary of myths and pseudoscience. He refused to submit to the authoritarian figure of religion, shrouded in darkness and silencing those daring to speak out. His knees did not buckle even as he found himself entwined in the poisonous social atmosphere that fearfully upholds superstitious religious tradition and lends reverence to unreason.
The following excerpts have been taken from my writing mentioned above:
“For some, Avijit Roy was the harbinger of freethinking, an incandescent augury, heralding in a new era placing emphasis on logic, science, and reason, and ridding ourselves of past superstitions and erroneous, fallacious beliefs, and a forerunner of the nationwide deviation from the irrational. He served as a beacon of social progress, an icon of scientific enlightenment, skepticism, inquiry, evaluation, and investigation. He embodied the trump of skepticism over thoughtless submission.
For others, however, universally of a religious disposition, Roy was a nasty omen, a bad egg, a black sheep awaiting slaughter. His work threatened the very roots of the deep-seated beliefs adhered to by the majority, an intimidation to the most intimate and irredeemably indispensable doctrines in the hearts of the masses. He stressed science and reason rather than blind and unshakeable faith, contradicting the core tenets of what they hold dear. In their eyes, Roy posed a challenge that shook their beliefs to the core, daring to expose the fraudulence of what they regarded to be the most infallible and inerrant of beliefs.
So, naturally, they did what they felt spurred to. Just like the nasty schoolyard bully who dominates, terrifies, and pummels anyone who dares to disagree with him, the religious fanatics of Bangladesh took the initiative to drive a machete through his skull.
And for what? What was his crime? Atheism? Skepticism? The intellectual honesty and courage to not accept something simply on the basis of “people say it’s true”? If the religious genuinely believe that their beliefs originate from the perfect, infallible word of God, why would it bother them so much that writers like Roy challenge their authenticity? Surely something that is divine and holy and perfect will be able to withstand the criticism of mere humans? Are religious beliefs so fragile, are believers trapped in such a state of cognitive dissonance, that they are prepared to slaughter anyone who pipes up with, “You know, you might be wrong. Let me point out why”?
Freethinking and skepticism aren’t exactly the most favorable mannerisms to adopt in today’s Bangladesh. There seems to be a negative stigma that skepticism remains enshrouded in. This seems rather counterproductive, since logic and reason embody the pinnacle of human intellect. Science lies at the heart of all of human progress, giving rise to all that we know and understand, giving birth to the entirety of technology. Science is not something to be undermined, not something to be unappreciated. It’s something to be glorified, conveyed, and popularized. Sadly, anti-intellectualism runs amok in anti-scientific cultures, and that is what Bangladesh seems to be ostensibly devolving into now.
Recent news has seen the demonization and antagonization of logic at a nationwide level. Citizens have embarked upon a voyage that will do nothing but harm Bangladesh—the active avoidance of reason and rationality. In my class, I personally know multiple peers who deliberately eschew logic, undermine science, adhere to twisted prejudices against LGBT citizens, and derogatorily, dismissively labeling writers like Roy as “nastiks.” One girl has even expressed her intentions to avoid and dismiss logic as much as possible because it poses a threat to her deep-seated beliefs. Bloggers like Roy have devoted their time and work to exposing the deeply-held beliefs of Bangladesh that, at their core, reek of prejudice, homophobia, and primitive superstition, and bring nothing new to the table. While religion has undoubtedly made some positive contributions to society throughout history, it has now devolved into a vestigial doctrine, overtaken by science and humanism.
Avijit Roy lit aflame a new movement in Bangladesh; he ignited a new school of thought, a new way of seeing the world, a new system of skeptically interrogating and scrutinizing what people dogmatically assert to be true. I can confidently postulate that his life and martyrdom will be preserved in Bengali history as a pivotal point, a moment Bangladesh made a U-turn from dogma and delved into the far more dazzling world of science and rationality. Roy has served as a herald, signifying a revolution that will shake Bangladesh to its core—a new age of reason is dawning.”
Indeed, a new age of reason is dawning, and Avijit Roy was one of the leaders who helped bring it about. Happy birthday to this great man and a great mind.