Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: The Young Atheist's Handbook by Alom Shaha

It's rare for me to read books about atheism. Having gone through the effort of transitioning from Catholic to atheist just shy of two decades ago it feels somewhat redundant to reaffirm my absence of faith through the works of others. I do not mean to discourage such reading, of course, I merely say why the genre is but a small part of my library.

Of those authors on atheism that I have read there is something of a theme. Christopher Hitchens described himself as an atheist of the Christian sort. Richard Dawkins is a hymn singing bible reader. Sam Harris holds the Christian faith of his upbringing in higher regard than that of other world religions. Dan Barker is an ex Christian preacher. Stephen Law (a favourite of mine, do read everything he's written) also comes from a Christian heritage. The road from Christian upbringing to atheism is one well plodded, the guidebooks are myriad, the signposts abound. But when we reach this destination we meet others who have travelled less celebrated paths, often covert, alone, and in trepidation more pronounced than that found by their former Christian associates.

Alom Shaha trod such a path. His third birthday was the last he celebrated in Bangladesh. He writes a frank account of being raised in a British Muslim community and the influences on his path to atheism. He speaks with an honesty few authors attain - for instance his description of fleeing an Imam's circumcising blade at age twelve, or his rejection of the concept of a soul illustrated by intimate details of how illness and medication, by affecting the brains of family members, radically changed their personalities.

He shows his skills as a teacher through use of analogies to help us atheists of a Christian sort better understand elements of Muslim culture. Take veiling. I read with a sympathetic cringe Shaha's description of his teenage appearance - long hair, makeup, earrings and a jacket with a stitched in hood standing in some contrast to his current straight laced middle aged physics teacher appearance. But he described it as his attempt to assert his own identity, to push back at authority, and to draw the relevant boundaries necessary as one reaches adulthood. He then recounts meeting former members of his secondary school's Christian union, one of whom spoke of how she found being so public about her faith held much the same benefits in carving out space for an identity as Shaha's dalliance with goth garb. The final step is the often overlooked yet important point - a woman's decision to veil herself (or, for comparison, a man's decision to wear Arab clothing) can be a perfectly valid expression of this desire to demarcate the borders between oneself and one's family and community. He cautions rightly that this is often not a choice - on asking a friend why she had started dressing so conservatively the dismaying response came "my brother has become a strict Muslim".

Personally I oppose those who try to regulate what women wear. I oppose both those who would enforce and those who would ban veiling.

No publisher would go to print on a title of this sort without some arguments for atheism in general, and Shaha makes a good fist of the argument from evil, but if you buy The Young Atheist's Handbook for this sole purpose you're rather missing a trick. (Get Stephen Law's "Humanism - a very brief introduction" instead. Or better still get both.) The real magic in Shaha's work is his ability to take white atheists of the Christian sort into a community that we live beside, but not in, and give us the means to relive a journey that would otherwise be hidden from us. If you'd like to understand the journey of an ex Muslim, buy this book.

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