‘The Young Atheist’s Handbook’: A Review by Daniel Loxton

‘The Young Atheist’s Handbook’: A Review by Daniel Loxton February 11, 2014

Earlier today, an excerpt of Daniel Loxton’s review of Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook was published at Religion News Service. Loxton’s full review appears below.

“I remember the first time that I ate bacon,” begins The Young Atheist’s Handbook. This was a small moment, back when author Alom Shaha was waiting tables at a breakfast buffet. And yet, accepting a joshing co-worker’s lighthearted dare to taste bacon was also a “momentous, pivotal moment in my life, requiring courage, strength, and determination,” for Shaha was raised as a Muslim. “It might not be an exaggeration to say that some Muslims would rather die than eat pork,” he reflects.

“I wanted to try bacon,” Shaha writes, “not just because it smelled good, but also because I wanted to commit this act of rebellion against the religion I had been brought up to believe in but had largely rejected.” He instantly loved the flavor, which was diminished only by the “visible disgust on the face of one of the other waiters, a friend of mine and fellow Bangladeshi, who took his religion a little more seriously.”

What is it like to be the sort of person who recoils in disgust from the thought of consuming a crispy strip of sizzling, savory bacon? I have no idea. My mouth is watering simply from writing the word. To be repelled by bacon is to be situated within a physically different experience of the world. I might almost ask what it is like to be a bat.

As I’ve tried to absorb this slim, unusual, wonderful book, my thoughts have returned to again and again to challenge of empathizing with the lived experience and diverging perspectives of other human beings.

The Young Atheist’s Handbook is not in fact a handbook, but a personal memoir. Alom Shaha is a London-based science teacher. He was born in Bangladesh and raised in the UK. Some aspects of his life—his Muslim upbringing, his experiences as an immigrant confronted by racism and religious bigotry in his new homeland—are quite far removed from my own background as a sandy-haired Canadian raised by hippies in the Pacific Northwest. Other facets of Alom Shaha’s life, such as the challenges of atheism and the joys of geek-culture, are as familiar as the back of my hand. And in still other sections, The Young Atheist’s Handbook brought the shock of unexpected recognition—the feeling that another human being can understand a central, secret part of my lived experience, even though they were not there.

Structurally, the book is both simple and complex. Shaha tells his own story in roughly chronological order, with eight snappy chapters unified by themes such as “Being Good,” and “God is Love.” Those looking for the atheist book genre’s standard arguments for non-belief and the expected critiques of religion will find them, presented in an uncommon way. These are sewn throughout his narrative, an informal thread of philosophical reflection upon the joys, frustrations, and tragedies of his own life. Shaha describes this approach with characteristic frankness: “While I have touched upon some of the philosophical arguments for the non-existence of such a deity…I don’t think I have much, if anything, to add to these arguments—at least, nothing that you couldn’t find in a hundred other books, or simply by googling ‘arguments for and against the existence of God.’”

It is a book of remarkable honesty and vulnerability. The atheist subculture is macho in its way, especially online. Against the theatrical bluster of the blogosphere, Shaha has the confidence to unselfconsciously tell us he kisses and apologizes to books he happens to step on. He describes the transformative power of romantic love, argues that “religious love can be the same thing”. He writes about childhood prayers to wake up in Narnia; reveals that he cried during the movie The Crow; tells us about the eyeliner he wore as a goth. He has a tattoo in honor of his mom.

Within 20 pages of chuckling about the bacon, Shaha’s story had me in tears. His mother was, by his account, a wonderful woman consumed by something she couldn’t control. “My mother’s presence in the world,” writes Shaha, “was enough to make me feel safe, protected. When she was well, it was evident in everything she did that we were the centre of her universe: it shone through in the way she fed us, bathed us, held us.” But this woman was unmade, swept away from the children she adored by severe mental illness. Sometimes her sickness manifested as melancholy; sometimes, as something even more frightening. As Shaha matter-of-factly describes it, “the trauma of her psychotic episodes is still fresh in my mind, including one incident in which she dangled my newly born brother over the balcony of our flat. When a psychotic episode took hold of her, her behaviour would become increasingly erratic: she would become sexually disinhibited and, eventually, so violent that she would need to be locked up.”

These passages struck me like lightning. This is a story of crushing familiarity for me, and I suppose for many children of families broken by severe mental illness or addiction. “You can imagine how terrifying it was for us to see our mother in this state,” he writes, and indeed one might try—but I don’t really have to. I’ve seen such a descent into madness myself, tried in desperate futility to stop it with prayer and love, felt the terror and loss and sorrow. My family hid our sorrows as best we could, isolated by the knowledge that it would be difficult for many people to relate to our shared experiences. For Alom Shaha to try to communicate his family’s story when I am not willing to make the same attempt—not in print—strikes me as moving and brave. I admire his disclosure very much.

After a long struggle with “all sorts of medical problems,” Shaha’s mother died. He was 13 years old. He remembers racing, too late, into her hospital room; he remembers being caught in the arms of a Bangladeshi relative:

“Your mother is no more.” That’s a precise translation of her words: “Your mother is no more.” I remember emitting some sort of feral yell, crumpling to the floor, and crying so hard that it hurt. … I was inconsolable then, and I am still inconsolable today. Nothing that has happened in my life since that moment, nothing I believe and nothing I know, can provide consolation.

The Young Atheist’s Handbook is warmed throughout by its empathy, and here we see into its heart. “This is why I suspect that I am in some way predisposed not to believe in God,” Shaha reflects, “because God is the only thing that could have provided any solace. Death gives birth to Gods; without death, there would be fewer Gods, if any.” The consolation of religion is not available to him. This does not make him blind to its value in the lives of other people: “Just as religion can provide some people with answers to the question of how the world is, it gives some people a sense of meaning, solace, and happiness—and who am I to cast judgement on that?”

Shaha is highly sympathetic to those who face bigotry or suspicion because of their perceived membership in some group of Others. His break with Islam could not be more complete (“I am a kafir, an infidel, an apostate”) but he carries with him the lived experience of racism and bigotry, poverty, and the difficulties of living as an immigrant, a person of color, and a member of a distrusted minority faith. “The sting of the word ‘Paki’ is one of the indelible memories of my childhood,” he recalls, with a note of tired frustration for those who hear such utterances as “just words”:

The meaning of these words is deeply imbued with a notion of racial hatred that is hard for some people to imagine, simply because they have never and can never experience such racism for themselves. For example, there is no word that I know of for white people that can make them feel, and indeed believe, that they are inferior by design.

But the immigrant community in which he was raised was not set apart merely for the color of their skin, but also by their minority faith. And while naked racism may be less commonly voiced than it once was (one can hardly imagine a modern London police officer calling a child “Paki,” as happened to Shaha), Alom portrait by Desfear and distrust of Muslims has only become more mainstream in the years since 9/11. “Just as the racists I grew up with saw all brown people as being the same—that is, inferior—Islamophobes today see all Muslims as the same,” he reflects. This isolates Muslims, exposes them to violence and hate, constrains the horizons of their lives. The Islamophobia accepted and perpetuated by our culture and media must for many, Shaha writes, “have the same devastating effect that racism had on me as a child. To me, it is an issue of human rights: I worry that many Muslim people in the west now feel like second-class citizens because of their religion.” Bigotry toward western Muslims pushes them toward a transnational Islamic identity (and in some cases, radicalization), creating barriers in their home countries “that only compassion and empathy will break down.”

This perspective is especially vital given that well-known atheists have proclaimed, “There is no such thing as ‘Islamophobia.’ This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia.” As a former Muslim, Shaha’s more direct perspective differs:

Although I am an atheist, I nevertheless find it distressing that people can be contemptuous of all Muslims based on their own prejudices about what it means to be Muslim. Some atheists are guilty of this ideological categorisation, too, and it bothers me that some of those who really should know better feel that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot, by definition, get along. I suspect this is a point on which I differ from many more-hardline atheists, but perhaps my own experience of being judged for my skin colour has made me acutely sensitive to such judgements being exercised upon others.

Confronting Islamophobia does not insulate Islam from criticism, but instead creates the opportunity to criticize Islam justly:

I think that it is important for people like me, who are critical of some aspects of Islam, to be clear that our criticisms are not founded on the same racist assumptions [of Islamophobes], or motivated by the same kind of thinking. We can be critical of the ideology behind Islam, as well as the way in which it is sometimes practised, without being critical of those who believe in Allah or attend a mosque. People often unfairly conflate the two and, as a believer in human rights and justice, I find this abhorrent.

Shaha’s compassionate, pluralistic approach to faith and non-belief make The Young Atheist’s Handbook an inspiring, engaging read. It’s one of very few offerings in the atheist book genre that I’d feel comfortable recommending to a wide audience of believers and non-believers alike as a way for each to understand the other better. (Chris Stedman’s Faitheist is another.)

And yet, for all his book’s gentleness, Shaha is not a pushover. Nor is this an agnostic book. Though he understands as a science teacher that empirical science is unable to resolve non-empirical faith questions such as the existence of God, Shaha firmly claims the word “atheist.” This is a “deliberate attempt to use it as I think it should be used in the modern world—not as a scientific term, but as an identity label that signifies important beliefs.” It is a label with political implications; an identity Shaha takes on as a moral duty. “I feel that it is important for people like me to be ‘out,’” he writes, “because there are not enough such people from a Muslim background who are willing to be open and honest about their lack of belief in God, and this makes it difficult for young people from these communities to be who they want to be.” (I’ve likewise openly described myself as an atheist for over 20 years, though I have no particular fondness for the baggage-heavy label. When members of a distrusted minority declare themselves openly, they help to carry each other’s burden.) Moreover, though Shaha is a pluralist who defends and values everyone’s right to ask great questions and find diverging answers without shame or fear of bigotry, he is also an evangelist for his own views. He rejects the suggestion that “religious and superstitious people are simply ignorant or stupid,” but nonetheless believes that “the human race as a whole needs to outgrow religion”—or at least move beyond the more repressive forms that religion can take:

I have something in common…with religious proselytisers of all stripes. I feel that it is deeply unfair that some people may never experience the joy of knowing that they can lead a perfectly happy life, full of meaning and purpose, without God. So, despite my best efforts to be reasonable, empathetic, and understanding about religion, I cannot end this book without this simple statement: I believe that the world would be a better place if there were more atheists, if a greater proportion of the world rejected religion and embraced the view that we humans can make a better, fairer, happier world without God.

This moral intuition and sense of evangelical calling are points of difference between Alom Shaha and I. Twenty years ago I believed, as Shaha believes, that the world would be kinder and saner with more atheists; moreover, I felt that this made it a moral virtue to try to shake people out of their faiths, even if this had the unintended consequence of reinforcing negative stereotypes against atheists as hostile and intolerant. I don’t believe that anymore. Or more precisely: I don’t know whether humanity would hypothetically be better off without faith, but I’ve come to feel that denouncing and opposing religion mostly just makes the world worse—for atheists, and for everyone. Atheist activism, dominated by a confrontational anti-theism that too easily shades into anti-religious bigotry, has largely talked me out of my belief in disbelief.

My sense of alienation from movement atheism has been almost as complete as Shaha’s from Islam. There just doesn’t seem to be a place in atheism for atheists who are friendly or even merely indifferent toward other religious viewpoints. Or rather, there wasn’t until the emergence of newer, pluralism-oriented voices such as Alom Shaha’s. In these, I see atheist activists who are better positioned to challenge anti-atheist bigotry, voices who can more accurately represent atheists like me in the public square. Perhaps paradoxically, it may be just such inclusive, compassionate voices that atheist evangelists should be looking toward if they truly do wish to swell the ranks of self-identified atheists. It’s often ruefully acknowledged that only a small fraction of de facto atheists are willing to associate themselves with the term. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but I can speak to one of them: the constituency of people living without Gods is much broader and more varied than the ideological belief that religion ought to be opposed.

In speaking to this wider complexity of non-believers, The Young Atheist’s Handbook succeeds where a thousand anti-religious polemics fail: it makes me feel a rare little spark of atheist pride. By telling his tale, Alom Shaha breaks down the entrenched dichotomy between compassionate, pluralist atheism OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(“accommodationism”; Humanism) and assertive, evangelical atheism (“confrontationalism”; New Atheism). He shows us that all these can exist in the same heart. This is a testament to the power of story, the power of the personal. When he shares his hopes and sorrows with us, we share the journey of a fellow human being—as alien, as familiar, and as beautiful as any other lived life.

Daniel Loxton writes for Skeptic magazine, where he is the Editor of the kids’ section, Junior Skeptic. His books include Abominable Science! (with Donald Prothero, for Columbia University Press) and the Lane Anderson Award-winning Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be (Kids Can Press).

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