The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade
The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade

Have you ever been in a situation where your deepest beliefs are proved conclusively wrong? Have you been tortured by the proverbial head vs. heart struggle that ensues? Do you know that feeling when your mind cannot continue to hold on to the old ideas even at gunpoint? But letting those go would create a vacuum that your heart would burst trying to fill. Taking the bullet would seem the easier way out.

There is a cold, rational, philosophical and intellectual aspect to this situation. You are enlightened. There is a tragic, personal, humane aspect to it too. You might be broken.

The book I have selected for this month, The Outcast, by William Winwood Reade explores both these aspects. It is what is called a secularist work and it was included in the Thinker’s library, referred to in an earlier article recommendation.

It is the story of two young men, who lose their faith in the religion they have been taught since childhood. Considering the time in which the novel is set, the consequences are not only personal and emotional, but also social and economical. One becomes insane and commits suicide; the other survives to tell both tales but loses a lot in the process.

The beauty of the book is that it is like a gentle hand stroking your shoulder in assurance as you make that immense leap from theism to atheism, hoping to lose only your irrationality and not your humanity. The author appreciates what it takes to abandon religion. It is not like the threatening, belittling sermons of aggressive atheists who cannot (or  pretend not to) sympathize with why people need religion at all or how much it means to abandon something you have grown up believing in, irrespective of the rational merits of abandonment.

The inevitable, but insoluble question about who/what God is has also been discussed with intellectual rigour and personal sensitivity. The madman’s ravings makes him out to be demigod whose drama production is called The Earth. It is produced to make an intellectual point to his peers. Too bad if the little animated creatures he made on earth are actually sentient and  subjected to cruel death through wars, diseases and natural disasters! He gets criticized for his cruelty and indifference, but he has already created what he wanted to create.

The sane man discovers an interpretation, which comes from a well-discussed line of philosophical thought. The bigger truth, if any, about God is impossible for the human mind to decipher. We have created the semi-human God. That’s not likely to be right. The concept defies reason all too often. Whatever higher powers are there above us, they cannot be understood in anthropomorphic terms. But this disbelief in the God that religion forces on us doesn’t mean we can’t be good. It reminds me of the final realization Levin has in the legendary novel Anna Karenina, although for him the revelation was more about returning to religion than abandoning it (strange, isn’t it?).

The sane man also discovers what he calls his own religion. Be good without expecting any rewards for it – in this life or in afterlife ( echoes of the Bhagwad Gita?).

No – I haven’t summarized the book for you. The conclusions are nuanced and aren’t even the main point of the book. The point is in the process of losing faith and losing yourself with it, or surviving it.

Despite being 140 years old, this book is immensely readable and relevant today. We struggle with the necessity as well as the terror of the loss of religious faith more today than ever in history.

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