What does Bhagavad Gita make of persons who just go about doing their swadharma, fulfilling their duties (being a good child to parents, is a good spouse, a good parent, citizen etc.) but don't believe in a higher power or God?
I am interpreting the term atheist in the question as materialist.
Gita has a very low opinion about materialists.
According to them nothing is ultimately real in this world. It is Godless and without any moral basis. Being born of sex union, what else but lust can be said to be its cause?
What happens to materialists?
These vicious men, oppressive, cruel and sinful as they are, - are always hurled down by Me into demoniac wombs in life after life, in the transmigratory cycle.
What Gita means is that materialists would remain in Samsara, the cycle of birth and death, since they will not do spiritual practice to purify their hearts and know God and will thus suffer. Of course you might object and say that here Gita is talking about vicious men. Yes, that is correct but even materialists would also stay in Samsara.
Why is Gita saying this?
The answer is given below.
The only way to end of sorrow is to know God. When men shall roll up space as if it were a piece of leather, then will there be an end of sorrow, apart from knowing God.
Svetasvatara Upanishad VI.20
I wouldn't say that Gita detests materialists but definitely has a low opinion of them and warns them of the dangers of Samsara.
As already discussed in comments, an Atheist in Hinduism is:
- One who doesn't believe in the infallible authority of the Vedas
But your question asks: "who do not believe in higher power or God". So your question is asking, to those, who view the world as fully material only.
[As an example Buddhism doesn't believe in infallible authority of the Vedas, but Buddhism does talk of higher beings like Devas and Shakra and MahaBrahma. So although they are atheist in Vedic point of view they are not Atheist from "who do not believe in higher power"]
So, I'm taking "Atheist" here to mean "who do not believe in higher power" i.e., They do not believe in things like re-incarnation and afterlife, law of Karma, etc.
More precisely they believe that Consciousness in our body is only due to congregation of atoms and product of mass of atoms.
Now a question may arise Is there any Indian Philosophy which considers consciousness is merely a product of the conglomeration of its constituents?
Yes, there is a philosophy called Chārvāka Vāda which holds consciousness is only product of body and the self which we see in our body comes with the birth of our body and dies with death of our body. They do not believe in any higher power. They believe only in Pratakshya Pramāna (direct testimony).
So, does Bhagavad Gita gives us freedom to say that self comes as product of body and goes when body dies?
Yes, while teaching about eternity of soul in Chapter 2 Lord states:
अथ चैनं नित्यजातं नित्यं वा मन्यसे मृतम् ।
तथापि त्वं महाबाहो नैनं शोचितुमर्हसि ।।
BG 2.26: If, however, you think that the self is subject to constant birth and death, O mighty-armed Arjuna, even then you should not grieve like this.
Here, Lord is stating that, even if you believe that self dies when body dies, then, you shouldn't grieve like it. But this doesn't mean that Lord is endorsing this statement. This only means Lord is giving freedom to Arjuna to believe in this type of philosophy also. This means Bhagavad Gita doesn't detest atheists. Here, Lord is using the words "Atha Cha" which means "Even if"; this clearly shows Lord is giving freedom to Arjuna to have this view also.
In Vedanta, Brahman is the source of everything including higher powers as I discussed in answer here and from 1.2 of Mandukya Upanishad "Aayam Atman Brahman" or "This Atman is the Brahman." So, disbelief in Eternal Atman means disbelief in Brahman and Brahman is the source of higher power also. So, disbelief in Atman clearly gives view of discarding higher powers (in Vedanta) as Brahman is the source here.
But as we already know from Verses of Upanishads and Vedas that non-atman view is not correct. Then a question may arise Why is Lord giving freedom to have this view also?
It's because it is not so easy to understand about Atman. Some people by their Prakriti Swabhāva (innate nature) become atheists. They can't change their view at all. So, Lord is giving them freedom. A similar conversation also occurs in Shiva Gita as I discuss here. Here Lord Rama asks:
शृण्वन्तोऽपि तथात्मानं जानते नैव केचन ।
ज्ञात्वापि मन्वते मिथ्या किमेतत्तव मायया ॥ ३६॥
And some can't even know Atman after hearing too and some while knowing also call it false. Why is it so? Is it your Maya?
And Lord replies as:
एवमेव महाबाहो नात्र कार्या विचारणा ।
दैवी ह्येषा गुणमयी मम माया दुरत्यया ॥ ३७॥
Oh Mahabaho it is as you spoke, there is no doubt in it. My maya is very hard to overcome.
So, due to Maya of Lord and due to factors like past life Karmas some can't even know Atman after reading scriptures. But for those also, in Gita, Lord states to do their duty. Hence that verse came.
OP also asks "persons who just go about doing their swadharma, fulfilling their duties."
We can term such person as unsuccessful yogi i.e., He doesn't have complete knowledge but doing meritorious activities. Such persons enjoy the portion of merit and get good or virtuous birth in next life by the virtue of their meritorious Karma and can have right or Dharmic view. In the chapter 6 Lord states:
प्राप्य पुण्यकृतां लोकानुषित्वा शाश्वती: समा: |
शुचीनां श्रीमतां गेहे योगभ्रष्टोऽभिजायते || 41||
अथवा योगिनामेव कुले भवति धीमताम् |
एतद्धि दुर्लभतरं लोके जन्म यदीदृशम् || 42||
BG 6.41 The unsuccessful yogis, upon death, go to the abodes of the virtuous. After dwelling there for many ages, they are again reborn in the earth plane, into a family of pious and prosperous people. Else, if they had developed dispassion due to long practice of Yoga, they are born into a family endowed with divine wisdom. Such a birth is very difficult to attain in this world.
Another question may arise: In many places, is Lord condemning certain views and states "those having such views are unintelligent", etc.?
We shouldn't take those condemnations in absolute sense. Lord is only condemning out of compassion of Jeevas, so that Jeevas may be able to get liberation as soon as possible. Gita already states everything as manifestation of Brahman, so there can't be anything that is not Brahman:
ब्रह्मार्पणं ब्रह्म हविर्ब्रह्माग्नौ ब्रह्मणा हुतम् |
ब्रह्मैव तेन गन्तव्यं ब्रह्मकर्मसमाधिना || 24||
BG 4.24: For those who are completely absorbed in God-consciousness, the oblation is Brahman, the ladle with which it is offered is Brahman, the act of offering is Brahman, and the sacrificial fire is also Brahman. Such persons, who view everything as God, easily attain him.
Vedas also declare the same as I discuss in my answer here.
As the above verse clearly holds everything is Brahman in absolute sense, so condemnation of any view in other parts of Gita can't be taken in absolute sense. They are only to be taken relatively as everything is Brahman in absolute sense.
Furthermore, it is also difficult to see Lord in everything:
बहूनां जन्मनामन्ते ज्ञानवान्मा प्रपद्यते ।
वासुदेवः सर्वमिति स महात्मा सुदुर्लभ ।।
BG 7.19: After many births of spiritual practice, one who is endowed with knowledge surrenders unto me, knowing me to be all that is. Such a great soul is indeed very rare.
i.e., only after spiritual practice from many births a rare person can see that Lord resides everywhere (i.e., Vãsudeva).
As the BrihadAranyaka Upanishad states:
III-ix-3: ‘Which are the Vasus /’ ‘Fire, the earth, air, the sky, the sun, heaven, the moon and the stars – these are the Vasus, for in these all this is placed; therefore they are called Vasus.’
As clear from above "all this is (whole Universe)" placed in Vasus and Lord residing on these Vasus is Vãsudeva. So, only a rare person can actually see that Lord is present everywhere and it is difficult too.
And furthermore, teachings of Bhagavad Gita are words of Supreme Brahman. In the Aswamedha Parva before Anu Gita, regarding Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna states: "परं हि ब्रह्म कथितं योगयुक्तेन तन्मय"..."Param Brahman had told (Bhagavad Gita) while I was concentrated in higher Yoga." So, it can't be that Brahman hates someone. If we see some condemnation in Bhagavad Gita it is not that Brahman hates such people, it's just due to compassion of Brahman.
So, in conclusion we can say: Bhagavad Gita neither detests Atheists nor endorses Atheism.
No, Gita doesn't detest Atheists.
SAmkhya philosophy is considered "atheism" by most of the philosophers. Now, according to Gita, the result of SAmkhya (knowledge of Atman) & the devotional Yoga, both leads to Moskha.
BG 5.4 - The fools, not the learned ones, speak of Sankhya (the path of Knowledge) and (Karma-) yoga as different. Any one who properly resorts to even one (of them) gets the result of both.
However, atheism has different interpretations by different people. Some people interpret in good way "no personal form of god, but higher self" and some people interpret in bad way "no concern about god related questions." See last section for the bad interpretation of "atheism".
"... but don't [believe] in a higher power or God?"
Note that, I am referring "Theist" as Astika & "Atheist" as NAstika, as they are interpreted in popular culture. They need not have 1:1 relation. I will cover other perspective as well.
- Theist (may be, Astika): Believes in the existence of God
- Atheist (may be, NAstika): Disbelieves in the existence of God
BG 13.13 - I shall speak of that which is knowable (should be known). Knowing which, one attains immortality. The supreme Brahman (god) dwelling under Me, is beginningless. "That" is said to be neither existent nor non-existent." (existent = being)
Hence, in context of Gita, both have tendency towards god. Just that former tends by "belief" and later tends by "disbelief". This is kind of love-hate relationship, where the emotion doesn't matter (love or hate), but tendency matters (relationship).
- "theist" believes in god's personal form (SAkAra)
- "atheist" disbelieves in personal form; in other words: believes in formless (nirAkAra)
Both schools of thoughts exist: Astika & NAstika.
- Vaishnava, DevimA, Rudra, Christianity & many more try to understand god through personal form.
- Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, ChArvAka, Ajivika, Scientology & certain other schools reject any personal form of God.
IMO, Neti Neti strikes the best balance among these 2.
The main Qn:
"What does Bhagavad Gita make of persons who just go about doing their swadharma, fulfilling their duties ... but don't believe in a higher power ...?"
Quite similar Q&A happened between Arjuna & Krishna at the beginning of chapter-12.
BG 12.1 - Arjuna said: [Among] the devotees, thus continuously engaged in your devotion and those again [engaged] in your indestructible, unmanifested [form]; Who experiences the union better?
Krishna opines that the devotees with Astika nature are the best in this comparison. However, NAstika also attains the supreme ultimately, but the way is difficult & painful.
BG 12.4, 12.5 - Fully controlling all the senses and always being even-minded, they, engaged in the welfare of all beings, attain Me only. For them who have mind attached to the Unmanifested the struggle is greater; For embodied [beings], the destination to unmanifested is painful.
Another interpretation of "Atheism"
In above answer, we have taken the literal meaning of "believe". But did you mean "care"? i.e.
"... but don't [[care]] about higher power or God?"
This changes the question entirely. Such people, may or may not be praying to god or supreme on face value. You may find them in temples as well. Inside their hearts, these people actually are not concerned about any topic related to "higher power" at all.
In such case, we are talking about Daivi sampadA (divine quality) vs Asuri sampada (demonic quality). Gita's whole chapter 16 is dedicated to it, hence not quoting it except:
BG 16.20 - Being born in demoniacal species in births after births, [those] fools, without certainly not achieving Me, O son of Kunti, attain condemned destination.
Note: This is slightly amusing to me. The true form of god is "Unmanifested". Any personal forms are just means/tools to attain this unmanifested. Interestingly, the people who are plugged into the true form i.e. "Unmanifested" actually have to go through hardships. While the people who believe in personal forms which are incomplete, find the way to supreme easily!