Religion can do different things for different people—from provide them with a sense of identity and community to strength in something greater in a world characterised by catastrophe and struggle. But everyone has different beliefs and different levels with which they carry their beliefs (and non-beliefs). But sometimes, your unique perspective on life boils down to succumbing to a default option given to you, one that often involves an organised religion in which belief systems and rituals are systematically arranged and formally established.
Now though, colleges in West Bengal are breaking the wheel to allow students to keep these beliefs to themselves, or even eschew religion altogether. About 50 colleges in West Bengal, including some in Kolkata, have added 'humanity', 'agnostic', 'secular' and 'non-religious' as options in the religion section of their admission forms.
It began when Kolkata’s Bethune College, the country’s first institution that allowed women the chance to pursue higher education, added ‘Humanity’ as an option to their Religions on May 27. "We have realised that some students are reluctant to mentioning their religion in the admission form,” the college principal Mamata Ray told the Millenium Post. “We appreciate their views as we feel that 'Humanity' is the true religion of mankind. So we have deliberately kept this category in the religion section. It was a unanimous decision on the part of our admission committee.”
This move comes after many students applying to courses in these colleges began asking why they needed to declare their religious identity while seeking admission. "We found that many applicants had been identifying themselves as non-believer in the option where they were supposed to mention their religion," an official involved in the admissions told NDTV. Before this, students were compelled to pick a religious identity with ‘Others’ being the only cryptic option and even then, not all institutions included it in their forms.
While some colleges like Kolkata’s Scottish Church college offer options like 'agnostic', 'secular' and 'non-religious', other institutions like Maulana Azad College, Rammohan College, Bangabasi Morning in the city of Kolkata, Maharaja Srischandra College in Andul in Howrah district and Midnapore College in Midnapore town have stuck to ‘Humanity’ as an option, while Seth Anandram Jaipuria applicants can even choose 'Atheism'.
In the US, the common application form that is applicable to more than 800 colleges, including Harvard University and Stanford University, lets you pick between options like agnostic, atheist, scientology, Unitarian, Universalist and none when filling out the religion section. And those applying to Nanyang Technological University in Singapore can also choose 'free thinker'.
Now it’s not like atheism as a school of thought is particularly new to the country, with around 2.9 million people in the country choosing to follow it. In fact, this idea of not believing in a greater God or religion has been around in Asia for centuries and traces as far back as Jainism and Buddhism. There’s even schools for scientology, which have proper graduation ceremonies as well.
This step also makes forward strides in a secular direction, something our country desperately needs in a time when even its politicians give speeches coloured in a communal shade and people grow more and more divided on the basis of religion. This is especially significant as just a few months ago in February, a woman in Tamil Nadu was given India’s first ‘No Caste No Religion’ certificate after a nine-year battle. This means she’s no longer obliged to fill the caste or religion category that is commonly asked for in government or admission forms. And while atheism and shunning religion as a movement has been slowly growing for several years now, this new option is a leap forward, one that boils down to the basics of being and belief.
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