It’s common for religious groups to tell stories of atheists and other non-believers converting to their religion. But how often do we atheists hear stories from those who lost their religious faith? There seems to be a vacuum here and it’s one that ex-Muslim Alom Shaha aims to address in The Young Atheist’s Handbook, the story of his grappling with living a life without God and rejecting his religious upbringing. It is his own personal story but one that will resonate with many ex-religious and one that certainly feels familiar to my own story; just replace “Muslim” with “Catholic” and Alom could be my long-lost Bangladeshi twin.
I didn’t read any philosophical arguments in the Handbook I hadn’t heard before but I don’t think that’s the point of the book; as Alom himself says, there are very few on either “side” who are swayed by argument alone. What matters more in the book is how these arguments presented themselves to Shaha and at what times in his life; the death of his mother while he was young, living with an abusive father, trying bacon for the first time… It’s that old cliché- I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care. Alom shows that he cares, that these arguments are not just for the cold ivory tower but the mushy, messy human heart. His book presents a refreshing antidote to the unfair stereotype of the atheist as a heartless materialist looking with disinterest at a world of meaninglessly interacting atoms.
While the book may be called a handbook, it is anything but; a Humanist like Shaha would not set about to tell people how they should live. But in providing this memoir, Shaha does succeed in two very important ways- in showing a questioning, doubting, human face of British Muslims that will surprise many readers and providing a source of advice and council to others who may find themselves where a younger Shaha once was; struggling to shake lose beliefs they know not to be true.
So what would my own handbook look like? Very similar to Alom’s actually and I imagine many who left the religions of their parents would find themselves writing a similar book if we had his writing ability. I lost my faith around the same age as Alom but unlike him I got it back; I took Catholicism very seriously for at least two years of university. Catholicism, even in Northern Ireland, doesn’t have the same cultural bond as Islam did for Shaha- for me the fear was a life without meaning. It turned out that life need have no meaning other than the one you choose to give it. But I don’t think there’ll be any need for Rory’s Young Atheist Handbook on bookshelves; The Young Atheist’s Handbook provides a great, well written and very personal account of what it’s like to go through this journey. Now go, read it.