The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life without God
See what Alom Shaha had to say, speaking with Ghaffar Hussain ahead of the release of his new book, The Young Atheist's Handbook
Is a righteous and moral life possible without guidance from divinely inspired scripture? Alom Shaha, a science teacher from south London, certainly seems to think so. In fact, he has just released a book that highlights exactly how, in his view, this can be achieved.
Born and raised as a Muslim by parents of Bangladeshi origin on a tough south-east London council estate, Alom is no ordinary atheist. Nor has he had an ordinary upbringing. This is a man who has had to endure violent racist attacks, an abusive and negligent father and the untimely death of his devoted mother all before the tender age of 13.
Despite all of the above, he is one of only a small handful of atheists from a Muslim background who celebrate their atheism openly.
His perspective on atheism is also as unique as his background. Alom’s book -- The Young Atheist's Handbook -- seeks to highlight the importance of the individuality and experience and how these two influence the way in which we, as humans, form our views of the world. He seeks to do away with the stereotype of atheists as joyless rationalists by illustrating how a meaningful, purpose-filled and happy life can be led without god.
Intrigued by this unique individual and his interestingly titled book, I decided to catch up with him and interview him for the Commentator.
Ghaffar Hussain - In a nutshell what is your book about?
Alom Shaha - My book is simply the story of how I went from being born into a Bangladeshi Muslim family to being one of relatively few out and open atheists from such a background.
I’m also a Physics teacher at a secondary school and I’ve had many interesting discussions with my students and these have led me to believe that young people would benefit from a text that presented ideas about atheism in a manner that is more accessible and digestible. I presented the idea to my agent and she convinced me that I ought to make it more about my personal journey.
What do you intend to achieve with this book and what will it contribute that is new?
I hope I’m adding a new voice to contemporary ‘atheist’ literature. My experiences are clearly different to those of the so-called ‘horsemen of the new atheism’ and I hope my book will demonstrate that atheism is not something that is just for intellectual elite, rather it is something for people from all backgrounds, regardless of class and ethnic origin.
Why do you feel atheism is something that should be promoted and celebrated?
I believe that lots of people only follow a religion because of parental and cultural pressure and that they would be happier if they could be true to themselves and lead godless lives. Belief in god is not something that comes naturally to all of us; many of us find it impossible to believe in god and it can be liberating and life-enhancing to fully embrace this lack of belief and live our lives without religion.
How can a moral and righteous life can be lead without divine guidance from our creator?
There’s nothing to suggest that one cannot live a moral and righteous life without religious belief. Morality is something that has been around far longer than the god of the Abrahamic religions, I suspect we were moral beings long before we developed religious ideas and certainly long before we had the Ten Commandments.
There is no evidence that the ‘guidance’ in religious texts is divine - anything presented as ‘divine guidance’ ultimately has human origin.
What kind of reaction are you expecting from Muslim readers?
I’ve had a really positive reaction from lots of secretly atheist ‘Muslims’ - people who have felt very alone in their lack of faith. They’ve written to me to thank me for writing my book. My childhood friends are all Muslim and they’ve really welcomed it - they’ve always known that I didn’t follow Islam as they did and they think the book is very much part of their story too.
One Muslim friend has said that he feels the book is really about the journey everyone should go on to find their true self, and I think he’s right about that.
One of the most depressing aspects of writing this book is the fact that I’m now repeatedly told how courageous and brave I am. I find this very condescending, as if someone from a Muslim background couldn’t write and speak openly about being an atheist.
I think there is an insidious prejudice at work here - a prejudice against Muslims that has been encouraged by an Islamophobic media that presents all Muslims as Islamists or fundamentalists who cannot bear criticism of their religion. It saddens me that so many people have a negative view of Muslims based on the actions of a few extremists who have, admittedly, carried out atrocious acts.
When the book was published earlier this year in Australia, I had a lot of Christians tell me that, despite the central theme of atheism, they liked my book. One Christian reviewer said that “this is not a book to argue with - it's a story to listen to and meditate on... it's an honest telling of one man's experience that everyone should read, no matter their theological stripe”. I hope that Muslims will welcome the book in the same way.
How would you respond to those that say you have very little knowledge of Islam and your assertions are based on misleading assumptions about the faith?
I don’t need a deep knowledge of Islam to know that there is no evidence for the existence of a god. My position is not specifically anti-Islamic, I am an atheist because I do not believe in the existence of any gods. I’d go as far as saying that my book is not so much an anti-religion polemic as it is a celebration of atheism.
On what basis do you dismiss the existence of God? Is your approach ontological or scientific?
As I write in the book, I don’t think we believe or don’t believe in god because of arguments, be they scientific or ontological. I think gaining belief and losing belief are processes which are shaped by a variety of factors ranging from our life experiences to our natural predisposition to find certain ways of looking at the world more satisfying than others.
Do you believe in absolute morality, and do you think it is necessary?
I think humans are undoubtedly moral creatures, but certain aspects of what we consider to be our morality are not fixed. Morality can and does evolve as societies develop and change.
Who are your influences in intellectual terms?
Perhaps surprisingly, that’s a really difficult question for me to answer. I can’t hold up just a handful of people who have influenced my thinking. I think I’ve been far more influenced by the fiction I have read than anything else - I think I’ve learnt much more about the world through the storytellers than I have the intellectuals. Of people who are writing today, I have tremendous respect for the work of Kenan Malik.
What advice would you have for young people who are beginning their own journey for self-discovery and realisation?
My advice would be - explore the world of ideas for yourself, read as many books as you can and don’t accept anything as the ‘truth’ without asking ‘how do we know that?’ Above all, be true to yourself and don’t feel that you have to believe what your parents do, or unquestioningly accept the beliefs of those around you.
Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator
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