I tore through The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life Without God shortly after it was published. In it, Alom Shaha—an ex-Muslim, science teacher, and active member of the British Humanist Association—offers important contributions to ongoing discussions about atheism. While I don’t agree with every argument Shaha makes, it is a magnificent read.
The Young Atheist’s Handbook also raises difficult questions. One such question is whether atheists should actively work to talk people out of religion, which is a point of contention among many involved in movement atheism.
In the guest column below, Daniel Loxton—an award-winning author and editor for Skeptic magazine—tackles the book’s controversial claim that “the world would be a better place if there were more atheists.”
Guest column: Reflections from Daniel Loxton on The Young Atheist’s Handbook
For all The Young Atheist Handbook‘s gentleness, Alom Shaha is not a pushover. Nor is this an agnostic book…
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 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 (“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.
Read Daniel Loxton’s full review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook later today at NonProphet Status. 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).