Q&A: Deep Thoughts with Alom Shaha, Author of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook”

Alom Shaha can be called many things: physics teacher, Guardian columnist, filmmaker, ex-Muslim, eater of bacon, kafir, infidel, and the author of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook.” What Shaha, 38, can’t be called is dishonest, condescending, or uncaring. “The Young Atheist’s Handbook,” explains, through his upbringing, why he doesn't believe in God -- or Allah if you prefer -- and why he left the Muslim faith.

As a small boy, Shaha’s family moved from Bangladesh to London’s hardscrabble Elephant and Castle neighborhood, and his childhood would be suitable for fellow countryman Charles Dickens if he’d ever written about Bangladeshi immigrants. Racist thugs tormented Shaha and his friends on the soccer pitch, yet it was still a place of refuge. At home, Shaha’s abusive alcoholic father gambled away whatever he got off the dole, a mentally ill sixteeen-year-old younger brother was institutionalized, as was his mother who fell into a coma and passed away when he was only thirteen. His beloved mother’s death planted the seeds of a non-believer because neither God nor the thought of heaven provided solace. In Shaha’s own heartbreaking words, “If I had felt that there was an afterlife, believe me, I would have killed myself then and there to join her.”

“The Young Atheist’s Handbook” is the story of how Shaha came to ditch the Koran, quit attending mosque, and grew into a thoughtful non-believer. A mixture of memoir, research, philosophy, and the ponderance of life’s big questions, the book is a clear-eyed, inquisitive, deeply humane examination of how Shaha -- and a growing number of global citizens -- came to follow the path of atheism. In light of the violence perpetrated in the name of religion this past week, the ideas in Shaha's book come across as prescient and profound. He joins us here for a wide-ranging and thought-provoking conversation.

You mentioned that there are a couple of other books about people who have left the Muslim faith. We hear a lot about people who leave abandon Christianity, but not so much about former Muslims. 

There aren’t a lot of ex-Muslims. There is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian woman who wrote “The Infidel.” She now lives in the States and is very angry about Islam and has written books where she is highly critical. There is also a book called “Why I Am Not a Muslim,” by Ibn Warraq, which is an intellectual taking apart of Islam and the Koran. My book is very different. It’s a personal story about the fact that I don’t believe in God, and it doesn’t have a lot to with growing up Muslim or anything like that. I think not believing in God is a universal trait. Anyone from any background can not believe in God. It just happens that I grew up in a Muslim family. It’s not that big of a deal. There is no reason Muslims, Christians, Jews, or people of any denomination can not come to the conclusion that the things their parents told them aren’t true. That’s where I’m coming from, and it’s a bit disconcerting that people think it’s a big deal because I come from a Muslim background. Post 9/11, Westerners have a very negative view of Muslims, but most Muslims are ordinary people and aren’t that different from ordinary Christians or Jews.

Early in the book, you write you take issue with Islam's “forbidding of fun.” As a lifelong, now lapsed, Catholic, I like your point because it speaks to how religious leaders can keep people under their thumbs by making it a sin to be your own person.

I like that expression, "a sin to be your own person." It’s one of the most deeply insidious things about religion, the rules and regulations seem to be out to suppress our very nature. If you look at the treatment of sex in conservative religions, they make sex out to be this evil dirty thing when it’s not. Sex is a natural, beautiful thing. Islam doesn’t encourage dancing or music, and I think dancing and music are wonderful expressions of the better part of our nature. As a child, I thought all the rules and regulations took all the fun out of things, and I rebelled against that. I wanted to have fun.

You say early on that you should call the book “The Young Agnostic’s Handbook,” but I've always understood that word to mean a lack of caring about whether or not God exists, at least in relation to humans. Clearly, you care.

I’ve had this argument with lots of people. It basically boils down to semantics and definitions of words. Technically, an agnostic is someone who can’t be sure. Scientifically, we can’t be sure there is no such thing as a God. Agnostic is not a particularly useful term unless you are in a philosophical circle and that word needs to be used precisely. I don’t think the term agnostic is useful for those of us who want to talk about the non-belief of God in a public arena. In a political sphere, we need to call one another atheists because we are making an identity statement.

The catchall term used in the United States is “non-believer,” which applies to secular humanists, and maybe even pagans. What do you think of that term?

I quite like “non-believer,” but I think "The Young Atheist's Handbook” has a nice ring to it. Non-believer is a valid term. Personally, I’m a humanist. I’m a registered member of the British Humanist Association. I believe in humanist values, but for the purposes of this book, I went with atheist. It’s about my atheistic beliefs and the title is absolutely a conversation starter.

You had a rough upbringing. If your dad had been an atheist, would you have gone the other way? Are your beliefs an outright rejection of his parenting?

That’s a great point, but I feel like I am honest in the book that I’m not an atheist because I’m clever or had an intellectual journey. I don’t not believe in God because of my experiences, thus I’m predisposed to look at the world in a certain way and so forth. I can’t say for sure that if I had a different upbringing, I would be the same person with the same beliefs. Who knows who I would have been had my father been different and had my mother lived? Those are experiments we can’t do.

You say in the book that there hasn’t been a Muslim reformation, like you find in the Christian or Jewish faith. Is that something, as an atheist, you’d like to see because it pushes the faith farther down the humanist line?

Absolutely. I think all these religions, these thousands-of-year-old philosophies, need to adapt to the modern world. They need to bring their morality in line with modern thought. In the U.K. and America, there’s this discussion of whether or not gay people should have the right to get married. They absolutely should and the only objections come from religious people. As for equal rights for women, look at the so-called “pro-life” movement -- the anti-abortion people are largely religiously motivated. These are battles we must win. They will be won when these antiquated religions catch up with modern moral thinking.

As a science teacher, you talk about clashing with anti-evolution types. In dealing with students, are they open to new ideas about the universe, or is it a constant struggle to get past this one basic precept?

It varies from child to child. The idea that God created the universe is an easy notion to grasp. It’s the kind of a simple explanation that our brains come up with when we don’t have any better information or better ways of making sense of the world. The Big Bang theory requires slightly more sophisticated thinking, but we live in an age where the fruits of science are everywhere to be seen. Science has tremendous authority and we have good reasons for believing in the Big Bang theory. I would add the caveat that the theory may be wrong, but it’s highly unlikely that a man in the sky made the universe. Teenagers are highly capable of grasping these ideas, unless they come from homes where they have been thoroughly indoctrinated with a religious viewpoint.

I think a lot of people would be with you up to a point, but then say that God kick-started the Big Bang. They won’t let go of that idea.

There are brain scientists who say that humans have an instinct for God, that our brains manufactured God because we want to believe there is something more. The idea of something bigger than us, something beyond us, is hard to let go of. People intellectually believe in the Big Bang or evolution, but it’s hard to take that final leap. The problem I’ve always had with it is the question kids ask, “If God made the universe, who or what made God?” The answer is inevitably “God was always there.” It’s a philosophical conundrum. I don’t need to have God to make some sense of the universe; other people do.

At one point in the book you say people could live richer lives without God. But life can be so messy, mundane, disappointing, and unfulfilling that hanging onto that thread of God seems to be a way to deal with the idea that this life is it.

That’s a frightening thought for a lot of people, but for people like myself, it’s liberating. This life is it, and I have to suck the marrow out of it because I’m not going to get another one. People can’t accept that, which makes sense, but it’s not an intellectual thing. It boils down to feelings, some weird other part of our brain that creates the world we want, rather than the world that is.

What would you say to someone who says “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual?”

I think those people are reaching for meaning and purpose, which is what we all do, but what does it even mean to “be spiritual?” Does that mean to enjoy music, art, beauty? In that case, I’m a spiritual person, but do I believe there’s “more?” No. What is this “more” stuff? Even if it exists, we can’t access it, so it’s irrelevant to our lives. It’s pointless to talk about. There is no ‘more.’ These people are incapable of believing in God, because so much of it is based on ancient stories from the Bible and the Koran, so they come up with wishy-washy notions of spirituality. That’s fine, but frankly, it’s meaningless.

There are innumerable examples of terrible things done in the name of religion, but isn’t it the same with atheists? Take your pick: Hitler or Stalin?

Absolutely. That’s why I don’t go into the tired argument of why would a loving God allow so much evil. Humans use ideas to do bad things to each other. History is filled with ideological wars. Religion provides a particularly powerful identity because there is an appeal to a higher power. A divine being somehow justifies the actions of man, but we’ve seen horrible things done in the name of Nazism and Communism. I don’t believe religion is the only ideology that leads people to harm.

What is your hope for the book?

I’d love to see lots of young people reading my book. The British Humanist Association is going to launch a campaign this fall to put a copy of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” in every school library. That’s very exciting because I want young people to have access to it and they don’t buy books. But it’s published, so it’s out of my hands. I want to get started on my next book, which will be about love and physics.

Any concerns about the book’s reception since you publicly admit to being an ex-Muslim?

I don’t have any concerns about being an infidel. I haven’t written anything insensitive or inflammatory and I think any Muslim would have a hard time taking offense at it. I hope it’s received in the spirit that it’s written, a gentle personal story.