I am wondering what was Yogananda’s view on agnostics and atheists?
Yogananda had the vision of God and knew that atheists are simply still being blind, as he himself had been before he reached illumination. “Seeing they see not.” So his main sentiment must mostly have been compassion, and the desire to help everyone to find the great pearl of life, which is Spirit, or God.
So lovingly reached out to all people, to believers, atheists, and agnostics, stressing the “science of religion”: Yoga works methodically, scientifically, for believers and non-believers alike.
His goal at any rate was never to convert anyone to a belief in God, but rather to a personal experience of His presence. Therefore he writes in his Autobiography of a Yogi:
“I am often beset by atheistic doubts. Yet a torturing surmise sometimes haunts me: may not untapped soul possibilities exist? Is man not missing his real destiny if he fails to explore them?” These remarks of Dijen Babu, my roommate at the Panthi boardinghouse, were called forth by my invitation that he meet my guru. “Sri Yukteswarji will initiate you into Kriya Yoga,” I replied. “It calms the dualistic turmoil by a divine inner certainty.”
Most of all Yogananda taught that “God watches the heart.” An atheist who has a heart of gold is far closer to God than any fanatical believer with a heart of stone or steel. The eyes are the windows of the soul. A cardinal or Imam may have eyes of anger and judgment. In that case in truth he is quite an atheist (literally “No-God”). The atheist may have glowing eyes of love: he, then, is the real God-man, or woman.
Some persons call themselves atheists, but are far from it, as they believe in some Absolute Truth, or in Love as the highest principle. Luther Burbank, a scientist whom Yogananda loved, was named an atheist by the newspapers. “But how far that is from the truth,” Yogananda wrote. Simply Burbank’s definition of God was completely different from the canonical one. He said in an interview: “The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God. But while I cannot conceive of such a God, I do recognize the existence of a great Universal Power which we cannot even begin to comprehend.”
Once a man came to Swami Kriyananda, saying: “I am an atheist. You talk about God. Can you define Him in a way that makes sense to me?” Kriyananda thought for a moment, and answered: “Why don’t you think of Him as the highest potential you can imagine for yourself?” “I can live with that,” the man replied, surprised.
Yogananda too was once approached by an atheist, who told him he didn’t believe in an afterlife; it was his conviction that when we die, that is the end of our existence. Yogananda replied, “Do you know for certain? Suppose there is life after death? Isn’t it more practical to live rightly now? Then, if there is a hereafter, you will be rewarded for your good actions. Even if there is no hereafter, you will find inner peace and happiness in this life if you live it well.” A practical thought for atheists and agnostics!
And one never knows what the karma is hidden in any atheist. It can be a beast or a saint. Yogananda recounts: “I once met a lady in the state of Washington. She was eighty years old, and all her life she had been an atheist. At our meeting, by God’s grace, she became converted to this path. Thereafter she sought God intensely. For the better part of every day, whenever she wasn’t meditating, she would play a recording of my poem ‘God! God! God!’ She lived only a few years more, but in that short time she attained liberation.”
I think Yogananda would advise atheists to meditate daily. That is, as it happens, what “converted” myself from a convinced atheist to a devotional believer.