Alom Shaha talks about "The Young Atheist's Handbook"
Alom Shaha is a Physics teacher at a comprehensive school in London. Outside the classroom, he also works as a film-maker, writer, public speaker and science communicator.
Alom grew up in a strict Bangladeshi Muslim community in South-East London in the 1970s and 80s. 'The Young Atheist's Handbook' is the story of his personal journey away from a religion which defined every aspect of his cultural identity, towards a new identity as a free thinking atheist, and a new understanding of his moral and ethical values.
It is a book which sets out to inform, encourage and inspire young people to break free from the beliefs they have simply inherited, and decide for themselves what they believe and who they want to be.
Ahead of Alom's lecture at our upcoming Questival event on 3rd-5th August, we caught up with him to talk about his new book, and discuss his views and experiences on atheism and humanism:
Alom Shaha was an avid reader as a child, but among the books he read most frequently was one he did not understand at all. His parents insisted that he recite passages from the Quran, in Arabic, without ever teaching him what he was reading. Written in a language he could not comprehend, the words were meaningless - all he knew was that reciting them made him a Muslim.
Alom's Muslim heritage was made apparent in other ways, too: he was expected to go to mosque after school, to eat only Halal food, to fast for Ramadan and then celebrate Eid. Atheism was an alien concept - a distant option, far out of reach:
“As a child, I didn’t really know there was such a thing as an atheist. At that age, you accept the labels that are thrust upon you by adults. Growing up in England, I was labelled a Bangladeshi, a foreigner, a ‘Paki’...and a Muslim, which was a label given to me by my parents. Much later, as an adult, I developed a sense of discomfort with that label...I was calling myself a Muslim, but I didn’t feel like a Muslim.”
When the time came to tell his friends and family that he had become an atheist, they already suspected what he was going to say:
“I think my close friends had known I was a ‘non-believer’ since I was a kid. They've always been aware that I wasn't a 'good Muslim'! I’d given up going to mosque at the earliest opportunity, and I’d stopped pretending to fast by my early teens. After my Mum died - I was thirteen at the time - I felt no obligation to through the motions any longer.”
Unsurprised his friends have family may have been - nevertheless, it was not an easy path for Alom to take. For many others who, like Alom, are raised in a community where religion and culture are tightly entwined, it can be harder still:
“I have a lot of Irish friends who are atheists, but still call themselves Catholics, because they feel their religion is integral to their cultural identity. In the Bangladeshi community where I came from, you might find yourself ostracised for ‘coming out’ as an atheist - I know at least one person whose marriage was devastated by it, and I know many others who are afraid of ‘coming out’ because it would have a similar effect on their families. This is why a lot of people feel they can’t be open and honest about their views on this.”
And what about the atheist/humanist community? Are we doing enough to encourage these people to be open about their disbelief - or are they being discouraged by the perception of atheism/humanism being centred around a white middle class intellectual elite?
“I don’t think there’s any deliberate exclusion of non-white atheists, but I do think there’s an unintentional exclusion of minority communities. There are people who deny the existence of this problem - they say that atheism is a free choice, and anyone can decide for themselves if they want to be an atheist - but there is research which shows that it is harder for people from Muslim communities to be openly atheist. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to write ‘The Young Atheist’s Handbook’ - so people from all backgrounds can see that atheism and humanism are ways of being which are open to them.”
Alom is keen to see a greater diversity of voices in the atheist/community:
“I have nothing against the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, but I feel we need to hear different voices - voices which will reach a wider, more diverse audience. In life, it’s always easier to imagine ourselves being like people like us...what I mean by that is that people of different ethnicities need to see people like themselves doing what they aspire to do. Atheism and humanism are global movements now, and if the people speaking on behalf of those movements are all old white men, then that’s not representative of everyone who is and who wants to be atheist and humanist.”
His hopes for the future?
"These days, on political discussion panels or at literature festivals, there is a concerted effort to represent different genders and ethnicities, and I think atheist and humanist conventions should do the same - to be honest, a lot of them do already. Also - this sounds awful - I’d like my book to be a success! I feel my book is adding to the diversity of atheist narratives out there - and not just because I come from a Bangladeshi Muslim background, but also because I’m not an academic or a public intellectual like Dawkins or Dennett. I think what I’m presenting is a very ordinary atheism - I’m promoting the idea that ordinary people can be atheists too.”
Alom's enthusiasm for atheism and humanism as universal concepts is both infectious and rather inspiring - we look forward to taking similar inspiration from 'The Young Atheist's Handbook', which will be on UK shelves by July 17th!
We're also really looking forward to hearing Alom speak at Questival in August. What will he be speaking about?
“I’ll be speaking about love! How humanists and atheists talk about love, and how that might be different to how people who believe in God talk about love.”
Many thanks to Alom for taking the time to speak to us. To find out more about Alom Shaha and 'The Young Atheist's Handbook', be sure to visit Alom's website as well :)
Written by Gareth Hall