Not that India does not have a tradition of faithlessness. Right from the ancient times, when there were the Charvaks, there have been atheists. While the Charvaks were materialists, Buddha and Mahavira were mystically inclined atheists. But the tradition of faith has been so powerful that it has completely overwhelmed the tradition of faithlessness and so both Buddhism and Jainism have become faiths converting Buddha and Mahavira into Gods.
Babaheb Ambedkar, perceptive as he was, understood this very well. He had first announced in 1935 that even though he was born one he would not die a Hindu. He realised, however, that the Dalits at large would not be able to discard their reliance on faith so easily. So he searched around for a religion that was at once fair and also provided a set of beliefs that people could hold on to. His searches led him to Buddhism, which he reinterpreted to the extent that he could compare it favourably with Marxism by reworking the teachings of the Buddha. Ambedkar heeded the advice of the Buddha regarding not blindly trusting received wisdom and instead testing it out in real life. Thus, he questioned the mystic aspects of Buddhism and much of the myth surrounding the Buddha and instead opted for an activist and rationalist Buddhism aimed at bringing about social peace rather than only the peace of mind of the individual. Consequently, for Ambedkar the concept of "Dukha" or sorrow became the exploitation of the poor and Nirvana became not a metaphysical state or attainment, but a real society founded in peace and justice. With time the rationalism of Ambedkar's Buddhism has receded and it has become a faith.
How then can one be faithless and yet be effective as a social activist in India? This was the question that I faced when I first began thinking about becoming an activist in college. I read the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita and liked much in them but felt uncomfortable with the assumption of a supreme spirit in them. I read Marx and again felt uncomfortable with the teleological idea that history would progress inexorably towards a stateless utopia. The French philosopher Sartre seared my existence with his ruthless analysis of the self deception that we human beings practice of thinking that we do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice and deflect this responsibility of making a choice onto God or a charismatic leader. Something that he called "Bad Faith". Then, I read his contemporary Albert Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" and it gave me the clue to being both faithless and effective.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust of the Jews and the inhuman excesses of the Stalinist dictatorship in the Soviet Union, Camus pondered over the futility of an "absurd" life that has to be lived under the mindless oppression of the faithful and their institutions, whether of the state and the church or of the political parties ostensibly fighting for liberation. Camus came to the conclusion that the faithless person, whom he called the absurd hero, would have to carry on an endless struggle against the power of the faithful in pursuit of human freedom. To this end, he reinterpreted the Hellenic myth of Sisyphus, who was cursed by Zeus to perpetually roll a rock up a hill as it rolled down again when he reached the top, in what is possibly the most eloquent philosophical statement in support of faithlessness ever - "At that subtle moment when man glances backward over this life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy".
Thus, one can live and work faithlessly in a country where most people are faithful, both those who believe in God and those who believe in grand theories of emancipation!!! However, this drastically changes the way one works for social and economic justice. Throughout my three decades as an activist, I have never sold dreams to anyone. I have always said that there is no guarantee that we will achieve whatever we have set out to do. Sometimes we gain some small victories but largely we have not been able to reform the unjust nature of centralised human society. So while Samson was eyeless in Gaza and relied on his faith, I am faithless in India and rely on my eye for rational action!!