Alom Shaha

“The Young Atheist’s Handbook” author Alom Shaha, photo courtesy Alom Shaha.

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

Cover of "The Young Atheist's Handbook" courtesty Alom Shaha.

Cover of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” courtesty Alom Shaha.

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.

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton, photo couresty Daniel Loxton.

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).

35 Comments

  1. For atheists who want to convert the young I will let the bible speak to the punishment you have to look forward to.

    Luke 17:2
    It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.

    This verse not only applies to atheists but to all creeds of faiths just to make sure that is clear.

    Further extrapolate a milestone can be quite large, to fall into the ocean tied to one would be painful. Further if a person survived the terrifyingly fall you will most certainly drown. This is the dread full image a person was in the coming day of the Lord to all who should cause another to fall.

    To atheists I would suggest you throw away everything you have heard about the bible as most of it is wrong. Major prophecies are coming into view that concerning the Middle East and Europe that 100% accurate in Daniel and Revelation.

    • A number of religious faith chose to use fear, as a way to gain control over people John Obrian

      A Hindu may suggest that great harm will happen to someone who dares to not follow orders of animal sacrifice

      A Taliban might suggest someone will be harmed , should they not agree to be involved in Jihad.

      While Christians also use their own type of “fear factor” , as a way to try and rule over people

      The bible says loads of stuff . But there is no good reason, to think of it as actually being anything more, that words of ancient people, getting involved in the art of scaremongering.

      Which is often, the chosen tactic , of so many groups actively involved in these forms of tyranny

    • Thankfully you do not speak for all people who identify themselves as Christians. I’d prefer to live in harmony with athiests & people belonging to other faith traditions as opposed to hanging millstones around the necks of those who hold views different from my own.

      • GOD loves atheists just as much as he loves you Conundrum. But you will all face judgment before GOD. There are two types of people on this earth. One sows tares for the current Lord of this word, another who sows for the harvest for the bridegroom. It seems you have comprised yourself for sake of unity Conundrum and its a grave mistake. Those who sow to convert the young to atheists work for the Prince of the Air and you should now who that is. Those who work this prince will face the judgment without the blood of the lamb. Since Christ loves atheists more than they can understand someone has to sound the trumpet to warn them of the error. For if you seek only unity and do not sound the trumpet GOD will put their blood on your hands Conundrum. Ezekiel 33:6

    • Hi, John Obrian.

      When you are saying that atheists who share your views will face the punishment outlined in the bible, you are stooping to bullying, threats, intimidation and mental terrorism.

      It would be like me saying that if you post your views online there is guy that I have heard of who will torture and torment you endlessly and burn your skin and do all kinds of detestable things to you, so you better stop. Then I would try to pretend that I am on the high road by saying… “Oh, it’s not me that would do this [or even want that to happen to you], I am just warning you!”

      What a load of bull.

      You are using your make-believe god to threaten and intimidate others. You are using threats and trying to induce terror (i.e., you are a terrorist, by definition) as a means of shutting down the freedom of speech of others.

      In the marketplace of ideas, let the best rise to the top on their own merits, without influence by thinly veiled threats and attempted intimidation from folks like you.

    • Re: “For atheists who want to convert the young I will let the bible speak to the punishment you have to look forward to.”

      If all you can do is hurl threats of eternal perdition at people in the hope they’ll knuckle under to your dour metaphysics, you’ve lost the argument before you even began it.

      If you have any objective, verifiable evidence that your threats are any more than the childish rants of your ancient co-religionists, please provide it. Otherwise, go threaten someone else. I haven’t got time for nonsense.

      Oh, and don’t say your evidence is anything in the Bible. It contains demonstrable lies … and I’ll be happy to show it, if you choose to push the issue.

    • This statement shows you do not understand of the true gospel. Any preacher who states people burn in hell for ever has a gross misunderstanding of scriptures and destroy the character of GOD.

      • Every obnoxious religious fanatic thinks they have a monopoly on understanding the scriptures of their religion.

        They think that are giving the one correct insight of the “true gospel” and think people are impressed by the nonsense they express. As if it were something we all haven’t heard before hundreds of times by numerous people like themselves. Every subway preacher thinks they are modern day Jeremiahs. But the reality is they are just annoying self-absorbed loudmouths with nothing better to do with their time.

        Guess what Johnny Boy, you are not the first one to make such patently silly, sectarian, bigoted and just plain ignorant remarks. You won’t be the last.

        I have not seen anything from you which can be taken seriously. By all means feel free to express your desire for my damnation come judgment day.

    • Ha ha. The irony is sooo thick.

      You tell someone else that they will burn for eternity for claiming to know the lord, yet your very same sentence implies that you know what your lord is going to do to someone in the alleged afterlife.

      You must be a Poe, right?

  2. Jersey Romer's God

    Thanks for the review, I plan on getting Shaha’s book. My overall perspective on the debate is in line with Dennett’s…”There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly.” It seems to me that the religious should be called on their BS, if not for their sake, then for the fence sitters’. Yes, some atheists are assholes but at least they are not assholy.

  3. Religion, unfortunately, is not silent and does not stay home. Atheists need to speak up and be counted.

    Why? Because:
    1. The truth needs to come out. If you claim that God exists, explain it convincingly or accept the fact that it is indefensible.

    2. People in power will assert their “God’s rights” over your own rights if you let them.

    3. Religion adds voodoo and silliness to an already difficult world which is in mortal danger of blowing itself up over these needless competing God claims. Only atheists can help people climb down from this nonsense. Religious people can’t do it because their ‘Christ’, ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Mohammed’ will intrude and insist on war first.

    • Some athiests have a natural talent to engage others, ask thought provoking questions and people them to critically analyze their current world views. You are not one of those athiests.

      • Some Theists know that Atheists care about the truth, the dangers that are endemic to religion and that various claims about Gods found around the world are routinely repressive, bizarre and deserve to be challenged.
        You are not one of those Theists.

        • If you as an athiest care so much about spreading truth, perhaps you should actually read the book that this article talks about. Then perhaps your many vitriolic comments on this site might actually have an impact and sway someone.

          • I don’t agree with the thrust of Shaha’s argument.
            The truth must be spread, like it or not.

            If you claim that a god exists, prepare to defend it from every line of argument. If you can’t do that, examine your motivations – you are probably just interested in repressing something in yourself or looking for control over others. It is as simple as that.

  4. Earold Gunter

    I would, as anyone paying attention, agree that the public discourse concerning religious belief over the last decade has being increasingly volatile.
    This is no small part due to what many call the “new atheist movement” with authors Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris leading the charge.

    However I see this as a resurgence rather than something new. In the past our cause has had many outspoken advocates with equal intellect, and both verbal and written eloquence. One only needs to read Paine, or Ingersoll to hear the same messages given back then as it is today.

    Although I see evidence that religion may possibly be on a sort of Darwinian (Happy B-day to him) style evolutionary path to extinction with each new generation finding it less believable, or useful in the creation of a moral society. Like many others, I find myself less patient with each passing day for this to happen.

    Some, like myself, see religions poisonous effect upon society. So no longer are we looking for “a place in atheism for atheists who are friendly or even merely indifferent toward other religious viewpoints.”, we are looking to help evolution along. Some have concluded that it is no less immoral than many of the teachings of religion to stay silent while this poison courses through the veins of our world, as I have.

    It is right, the outspoken opposition to religion is making the world worse right now. Not unlike the current climate of heightened belligerence in our political discourse, public discussion of religion has taken on a similar forceful nature.

    But as it is said, you got to break a few eggs to make an omelet, and I’m hungry. ;-)

    Religion is Poison!!

  5. Jonathan J. Turner

    Here’s a couple of quotes from Ben Franklin, with possible relevance for readers of this column…

    The Wiseman says, “It is a Wiseman’s Part
    To keep his Tongue close Prisoner in his Heart,”
    If he then be a Fool whose Thought denies
    “There is a God”, how desp’rately unwise,
    How much more Fool is he whose Language shall
    Proclaim in publick, “There’s no God at all:”
    What then are they, nay Fools in what degree
    Whose Actions shall maintain’t? “Such Fools are we.” (Dec, 1738)

    Talking against Religion is unchaining a Tyger; the Beast let loose may worry his Deliverer. (1751)

    • The Atheist does not claim “There is no God”
      The Atheist only does not believe in one.

      Further, we are far from Benjamin Franklin now.
      We know evolution is true, theology of Hell is incoherent and sadomasochistic, we know mental illnesses account for much of ‘religious writings’ and we know from Freud that religion is a delusional, neurotic practice and it encourages delusional ideas in others.

      God may exist but it looks increasingly unlikely.
      The religions of the world fail to argue any God into existence. And meanwhile the power to obliterate mankind sits in the hands of those who claim God on their side.

      Religion is the immediate danger in the world.

  6. My only caveat is that there is nobody more obnoxious than the recent convert to a belief. They try too hard to impress others with their new found enthusiasm.

    Recent converts have a nasty habit of forgetting that not everyone considers their belief this new “must have thing”. It tends to make them a bit insufferable in their cheerleading.

    • I can agree with that. I became an Atheist 14 years ago, before 9/11.
      If anyone thinks I’m obnoxious now, they should have seen me when the towers fell.

      I’m still surprised 9/11 didn’t wake up more Christians and Muslims to the folly that is religion. If the Abrahamic God exists, He is dead set against Himself and His creation in a way that would rival anything Satan could dream up.

      It just can’t be real. None of it.

      • I can understand your feelings about 9/11. Had them myself. For me it that was a little more intense. I was there and saw it up close and personal. I had to pass by Ground Zero every day to commute for 4 years. [Before the construction began]

        On the other side of it. I also saw how adversity brought out the good in people. To just attribute the humanity that people showed to religion or belief in God cheapens it. Insults the nature of what it is to be a person. People did not volunteer to clear rubble because they were compelled by God or because the Bible told them it was a good idea. They did it because they felt a connection to fellow human beings.

        St. Paul’s Chapel (a 200+ year old building literally right next to the World Trade Center) did not act as the refuge for the people working in the hellscape rubble because they were commanded by a diocese or were blindly following dictates for above. They did it because it was just the thing people did when they could.

        To claim that such humanity can possibly come from a book or the teachings of a priest is to give credit where it never belonged. That claim infuriates me more than any other theist argument.

  7. Concerning the headline’s question, “Should atheists proselytize?” … the answer is obvious. So long as religious believers are willing to roam around as missionaries proselytizing for their own faiths (whichever ones those may be), then none of them has any conceivable right to demand that atheists, or any other kind of non-believer, never roam around proselytizing for their lack of belief.

    I almost can’t believe the question is even being asked. I say “almost,” because I’ve long been aware religionists live by a double standard, and have done so for ages. It’s always OK for them … and no one else! … to be outspoken, but anyone who doesn’t think as they do, is required to be silent and unseen. To have to face that there are actually people in the world who don’t believe as they do, is intolerable to them, and they pitch fits about it.

    • PsiCop –
      You said, “It’s always OK for them … and no one else! … to be outspoken, but anyone who doesn’t think as they do, is required to be silent and unseen.”

      YES! Thank You.

      Atheists everywhere are finally speaking out. And we should be louder.
      Until Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Pat Robertson and the Christian bullies decide to shut up about Jesus I’ll be loud and proud.

      • Oddly enough, the very same double-standard applies even inside of a religion. The tendency to shout down, if not outright repress, “heretics” and other kinds of dissenters has led to more than a little intra-religious and intra-sect conflict.

        One would think that, in the 21st century, and with many centuries of history to instruct them, religionists would have grown up sufficiently to understand that this attitude is counter-productive. But the hallmark of the true religionist is that s/he always refuses to grow up (because, of course, they — and ONLY they! — are by nature entitled to remain as juvenile as they wish to be).

        And so, that’s where things stand. The human race is held hostage by an entire class of people who are completely infantilized, who see nothing wrong with being infantilized, but who will not for one moment tolerate the slightest bit of infantilization in anyone else.

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