Religion and identity: the young atheist’s handbook


In this first podcast in a our new series on faith and non-belief in contemporary society in partnership with the Rationalist Association, Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist Magazine, talks to Alom Shaha, author of the Young Atheist Handbook: How to live a good life without God about why he gave up Islam and why he thinks it’s important that Muslims who no longer believe say so.

CM: Alom, your book is a culmination of an intellectual journey to non-belief, but you mix it up with stories about your life. Tell us about your background, where you grew up, and what your family was like.

AS: I was born in Bangladesh in 1973, just shortly after Bangladesh came into existence  –  just a couple of years previously it was East Pakistan. It was at a time when the British economy was booming, which probably none of our listeners will remember, but the British government had gone out to its former colonies and basically asked people to come over to Britain to do jobs like driving buses, working in factories and so forth, and my dad was one of thousands of Bangladeshi men from our region of Bangladesh, Sylhet, who came over and took on these jobs, so my father’s first job was in the Ford factory in Dagenham, and he worked away in the factory for a few years until he could save enough money to fly my mother and me over.

We stayed with other family who’d arrived before so we stayed in a room belonging to family in Brixton and then another room belonging to an uncle in Elephant & Castle, and eventually we were given our own council flat on the same estate and I ended up going to school in south London with lots of other Bangladeshi kids, but also lots of other black kids and white kids and Chinese kids and the very diverse community that south London was back then and still is today. It was exciting and fun of course, but in the seventies racism was much more of an obvious problem than it is now. We lived in Elephant & Castle which wasn’t very far from Bermondsey, a heartland for the National Front, and open racism was acceptable back then. It wasn’t like today where you would never see people openly racially abuse each other on the street. I don’t think there are gangs of white youths walking around looking for non-whites to beat up these days.

CM: But you experienced that…

AS: Well when I was young one of the worst things about living in south London was that there were these gangs of white youths who used to actively seek out Asians and black people to beat up and I witnessed people getting beaten up and I saw some really horrendous incidents. On one occasion, I saw three or four white guys kicking down my friend’s front door and beating up his whole family, which was almost unimaginable. And nobody did anything to stop it . They lived upstairs, they lived on the same block of flats and there weren’t any repercussions. I don’t remember the police getting involved or anything.

CM: So in this context, presumably the idea of community becomes especially important. What kind of community were you part of, if you were part of a community? Was there a Bangladeshi community within this?

AS: I was part of many communities, so yes I was part of the Bangladeshi immigrant community of the estate, but at the same time I was part of the primary school community. I was part of that community of children who went to that primary school and who were part of a community with their teachers and other staff at the school, and I was part of the community on the estate as a whole. So yes, the Bangladeshi community was a subset of the community of people who lived in those circumstances. We lived side by side with white people, a lot of Irish immigrants as well. Although race was something which divided us in many ways, we still had lots in common, particularly our poverty, with the other members of the community of the estate.

CM: Just staying with the Bangladeshi community, what percentage of the Bangladeshi community were Muslim?

AS: I think pretty much one hundred percent of the Bangladeshi community were Muslim. I don’t recall any non-Muslim members of the Bangladeshi community.

CM: How important was Islam to the community that you’ve talked about, the Bangladeshi community, or how central?

AS: I guess you didn’t think about it as a child, because it was just always there. We were expected to go to the mosque. We said, for example, before eating we would say bismillah. It was just part of our culture to have these bits of Islam embedded in our everyday life. We celebrated eid, my parents fasted, as did all the other adults, during Ramadan. So as a child I knew I was a Muslim, because that’s what I had been told I was, and that’s what those things in my life relating to Islam made me believe I was.

CM: So at what point did you start having doubts about that or questioning it? What were the triggers for that?

AS: I don’t remember a single dramatic moment where I questioned the existence of God. I just have this…it’s really hard to accurately remember your childhood, I think, but I do recall a sense of unease with what I was being told about God.

I also remember one particular incident where I felt a deep sense of injustice. That was being in a mosque and being told that the white kids and the black kids that we played with were going to burn in hell. I distinctly remember that.  I’ve said this in public before, and I’ve had people say “well, that’s not what Islam says”, but I have very little respect for those arguments, when people say “oh, that’s not the true version of Islam” or whatever. Religion is practiced however it is practised, and different people have different takes on it. It just happened to be that as a child I was told that non-Muslims burn in hell, that’s what I was told by people in authority.

I think children have a highly tuned sense of justice, and so when we think something is unfair it really upsets us and I thought as a child, as a very young child, I thought this notion that my friends…and I loved these kids, I really loved my friends as a child…that these children like me would burn in hell because they happened to be different in this way.  And also I don’t think I really believed in this God, and I just didn’t think it was that big a deal –  I thought it was very mean I guess, that these other human beings that I knew and loved would burn in hell.

CM: It seems designed to instil fear.

AS: Yes, and I think it’s disingenuous of people to claim that religion doesn’t do this, because everybody’s heard of hell, and most people will tell you that as a child they had this concept of hell, this place where you burn for eternity. That idea didn’t appear in my head by itself, I was told that.

The truth is I’m 38 years old and I’ve only really just come out now and it seems I’m making this big deal about it because I’ve written this book, but I’ve been an atheist for a very long time –  I’ve just never had occasion to stand in public and say it because before I wrote this book I didn’t think there was any need to do so. My feelings on this have changed. I grew up like loads of people accepting the identity that was given to me by my parents and just accepting that I was a Muslim. I grew more and more uncomfortable with that label as part of my identity, to the extent that I have actively rejected it, but I think lots of people just passively accept the religious identity they’re born with, and it’s not just Muslims.

I think, particularly in my experience, a lot of Catholics find it really hard to say that they’re not Catholic even though they’re atheist. There’s the classic joke about an Irish guy at border control being asked “what religion are you?”, and he says “I’m an atheist” and the guy says “but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

There is a lot of that going on. I talk about this in my book. I think things changed after 9/11. I think the Muslim identity in particular was one that people from Muslim backgrounds felt that they had to bring to the fore, that they were being seen as Muslims first and foremost, and therefore I think a lot of them thought of themselves as Muslim first and foremost. I want to be very careful about not trying to explain away other people’s actions.

CM: But for you in particular it was what happened to your mother.

AS:  I think my book is quite a political book in that it’s telling people to be honest about the identities they hold, but I also think that for a lot of people who don’t do what I’ve done [come out as an atheist]…there’s no need for them, they might not feel any need to do it. But one of the reasons why a lot of people just maintain the labels that they’ve been given is that they don’t want to reject their heritage from their parents and from their community. If I’m brutally honest, I think the fact that my mother died when I was very young and that I didn’t have a very good relationship with my father…the fact that there weren’t adults that I needed to please or whom I would shame by rejecting this particular aspect of my identity, made it easier for me. I’m very empathetic of people from all faiths…Muslims, Jews, Christians, who are atheist but feel that they don’t want to make a song and dance about it and they don’t want to be public about it because it might upset their parents. I completely understand that.

CM: In the book you combine the story of your young life and coming to a position of godlessness (if we can call it that) with a discussion of different kinds of argument. What were some of the resources that you drew on when you were thinking your way out of Islam and into wherever you are now. We know you’re an atheist, but what were some of the important books or people or things that you used think your way forward?

AS: It’s really funny, I don’t know if the book gives the impression that I thought myself out of religion in some kind of organised manner, because I don’t think I did. A.C. Grayling writes in the foreword about how you feel uncomfortable with the idea of God and then you come to the intellectual arguments as to why you feel uncomfortable. I think he’s hit the nail on the head. I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of God. Then, as you grow up, you read, you encounter other ideas, you can find ways of articulating the reasons why that sense of uncomfortable-ness might have existed. It’s weird, because I think lots of atheists go out there presenting themselves as these supremely rational beings who maybe have these incredibly powerful intellectual arguments, and I think ultimately I’m saying that I didn’t feel that God was true.

CM: Professionally, you have been involved in TV, making documentaries, but science has always been a really important part of what you do and you’re now a physics teacher. What part did science play? I know you’re very passionate about science, I don’t know if you’d say you believe in science or you find there’s a kind of enchantment. Richard Dawkins sometimes talks about the enchantment of the scientific stories, the version of the universe that you get from science. Did that have an influence here, or has that in any way given you a framework other than a religious framework?

AS: I think a lot of people might think “you’re an atheist because you’re a scientist”, and I know a lot of my students might think that. Young people often think if you enjoy science that’s going to make you an atheist. I think it’s the other way round for me. I think as a young child I didn’t like the explanations that religious teachings offered, about how the world worked and so forth, and so I think the fact that I was an atheist as a child, fundamentally, is what drew me towards science. I think that I found the explanations of science more satisfying.

CM: How would you respond if someone called you a militant atheist? It’s as if you feel militant about certain aspects of atheism. You’ve written a book that says “listen, if you don’t believe in God, stand up and say it”. Why do you think that’s an important thing to say? Do you feel militant about that, and if so why?

AS: I think the word “militant” cane be used in different ways, sometimes to be an insult, and…

CM: I wasn’t insulting you.

AS: No, I know, and I don’t accept that I’m a militant atheist because I think that when people say that they are intending it as an insult. They’re intending it as a negative thing. I absolutely believe in secularism, and I absolutely believe that the world would be a better place if all the humans who didn’t actually believe in God just said so and that we then proceeded to build societies and ways of life that revolved around the assumption that there isn’t a God and there are no divine guidelines for how to live our lives. I just think that we would live in a better world because of that.

But I may be wrong, and I think if I was a militant atheist I wouldn’t say that.

CM: You’re on a mission to free people or at least open up opportunities for certain people who don’t have them.  But who’s suffering? Do you think people are suffering?

AS: I do think people are suffering. I know that people are suffering. I meet with a number of ex-Muslims who live in London, many of whom are not openly ex-Muslim, and some of them have appalling stories about how their quality of life is compromised by not being able to be honest about their lack of belief, and I find that sad. I don’t want to live in a society where people can’t be honest about what they believe. It seems to me that it should be a fundamental human right to be able to be who you want to be and not be afraid of being ostracised from your community or worse for simply being honest. It really saddens me that there is a cost to being honest about how you feel about the way the world is.

CM: You’ve had quite a response to your book already, which is published in July.

AS: Well the book’s already been published in Australia, so Australians have been reading it and, remarkably, people from all over the world have been getting hold of the Australian edition. I’m happy at this point to say that I haven’t had any negative response, but what I have had are some wonderful emails from people around the world saying “thank you for writing your book”, and actually I can’t really tell you how wonderful that is. You’ve made things – you produce the magazine, I used to make TV programmes –  you want people to watch your stuff and engage with it, but it’s quite rare that one’s work moves people to the extent that they feel they have to tell you that it moved them, and thank you for making it.

I’m finding it hard to express how wonderful that is for me. But also I feel that I’ve done something useful, and that’s what these people are telling me. You’ve done something useful by writing your book. We’re all trying to make sense of our lives and find meaning and purpose and so forth, and for me one way of making my life make sense is to do useful things, and I feel like if I’m doing useful stuff out there, then maybe my life isn’t entirely meaningless.

CM: One of the other kinds of responses you’ve been getting is where atheists say to you “don’t be ridiculous, atheism isn’t anything other than not believing in God, why are you trying to make it a movement?”  But you have quite a strong line on this, and you have quite a strong thing that you want to say to atheists and humanists and organisations like the Rationalist Association that I run.

AS: I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest that there isn’t an atheist community. You just have to look around on the Internet and you’ll see there are lots of online communities of atheists getting together and discussing things. By definition, that is a community. Recently there was an international atheist convention with thousands of people descending on Melbourne to listen to Dawkins and others.  These are things communities do.  If it looks like a community and it smells like a community then it is a community. I completely dismiss the notion that there is no such thing as an atheist community. However, I think the atheist community should be as diverse as humanity because I think atheism, not believing in God, is something that people from all cultural backgrounds, racial backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, whatever – people from all backgrounds are capable of not believing in God.

If we accept that there is an atheist community, and I have explained why we have to accept that there is, then the representatives of that community need to reflect the diversity of atheists. Just because it’s more difficult for atheists from certain backgrounds, for example, I think it’s more difficult for atheists from Muslim backgrounds, to be openly atheist, I don’t think we should not have those atheists represented in the public face of atheism. Just like there is a public face of Islam, a public face of Christianity or Catholicism, I think we have public faces of atheism, and unlike Christianity and Catholicism and so forth…atheism is truly global, and truly diverse, and so I think we should see that in the way that atheism is discussed and presented in the public sphere. It’s not a good thing for any movement, particularly the atheist movement, to be solely represented by rich old white guys. That’s not a good thing.

If you go to public events, and you see – on any subject, say some aspect of science or some aspect of political theory or whatever – and the panel make up is four old white guys, you know that panel is not representative. You know that there must be women out there who have something to say about this. You know that there must be black people out there who have something to say about this. I feel that we should represent the diversity of non-believers in the public face of atheism. There is a public face of atheism, and anyone who says there isn’t is just being disingenuous.

CM: Tell me, where do we go from here? What would you like to see? What are you doing?

AS: I am involved with an organisation called the Three Faiths Forum, where I go into schools and I stand up in front of schoolchildren and tell a very brief story about why I’m a humanist and why I’m an atheist.

What’s astonishing is the number of children who have never thought that actually, they need not be part of the religion of their parents, that they can choose to be a humanist or an atheist. That it’s an option for them. I think a lot of young people don’t think it’s an option for reasons that I’ve touched on, but mostly because that the religious identity that we’re born into is one that we’re brainwashed into believing from a very young age. It’s so central to our identity that to even question it is not something a lot of people do. One of the things I feel I can do is show that rejecting the religion of your parents is an option. Let’s be very clear: I’m not going out there and saying to kids “reject the religion of your parents”, I’m not telling them to do that.

CM: You talk about how you meet up with a group of ex-Muslims, some of who are out as atheists, and some of who aren’t. What are the prospects for this taking off, or being able to build this kind of thing? It strikes me that there would be a lot of resistance from the Bangladeshi community, or other religious communities. What will it take that people in your situation, in ten or 15 years, would find it easier than people now, or than you did now?

AS: I think it takes numbers, I think we have to reach a critical mass of numbers, of people who’ve just said “I’m Bangladeshi, but I don’t think of myself as a Muslim anymore”.  But as I’ve said before, it’s not as easy as that for lots of people because that might mean being disowned by your family, it might mean (as I know in some cases) the breakup of your marriage because it’s considered so fundamental to your culture.  I think if it stops being a big deal then more and more people will come out and it will only stop being a big deal when there is a big enough number of people who make that leap, who think “you know what, I don’t want to live like this anymore, I don’t want to pretend anymore, and actually, I’ll pay whatever price I need to pay to be honest to myself”.

I just have to say one more thing, I really know that I am not paying a very big price, I know that. My brothers and sisters are all like me, they’re all atheists, there’s no immediate family that’s going to get upset because I don’t have any other immediate family. I’m not bringing shame onto anybody else, so I just want to make it very clear that I’m not judging those people who choose not to come out.

CM: Let me ask you about another aspect of that, which is in your piece for New Humanist you start off by saying “I’m being told I’m very brave for doing this”. Now one aspect would be I’m going against the community, the other thing is of course the perception that it’s dangerous to come out and say things about Islam.

AS: I certainly expect that I’m going to get some emails from people who say rude things about me, but I think I’d get that whatever I was talking about, I think that’s just…

CM: Welcome to the Internet.

AS: That’s right. I think there’s an unfortunate myth that’s been created that if you say anything that can be perceived in any way derogatory about Islam then somebody’s going to try and kill you. That myth has come about because of stories like what happened in the Netherlands with Theo van Gogh and what happened with Salman Rushdie and so forth.

CM: And the Muslim cartoons as well.

AS: There have been incidents where there has been a violent response from a tiny minority of Islamists, but if you actually look around the internet, or newspapers, or magazines, or books, there’s plenty of people who are critiquing Islam or who say things that some Muslims might find offensive, and those people get on with their lives perfectly happily. One of the people I admire the most is Kenan Malik, and he’s been incredibly critical of Islamists, and written about the Rushdie affair for example and as far as I know he hasn’t received any death threats. If people read my book they’re going to absolutely struggle to find anything negative about Islam. It’s not an anti-Islamic book. It’s hardly an anti-religion book to be honest, it’s more a pro-atheism, pro-humanism book.

I don’t think I’m being provocative in any way, and I actually think that people will struggle to take offence with anything I’m saying. What I find problematic is the notion that someone like me, from a Muslim background, says he’s not Muslim, and there’s an immediate assumption by people who should really know better that somehow I’m incredibly brave or my life’s going to be in danger and this kind of nonsense. It’s just perpetuating a negative stereotype of Muslims, and I have a problem with that. I know lots of Muslims, and they’re not like the Muslims that The Sun or whatever would want you to believe exist. I’m really determined to counter that kind of media portrayal of Muslims. I think it’s a really negative thing. I think it feeds Islamophobia, and it reminds me of the racism that I experienced as a kid, where people leapt to conclusions about what you were and who you were just because you were brown and we’re kind of doing the same thing now with Muslims.

We’re saying there’s this group of people, they’re called Muslims.  Muslims come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colours, and they hold all sorts of different views actually. It’s only a tiny minority who respond in these extreme ways. Unfortunately it’s that tiny minority that the press seem to give attention to.

CM: Well you’ve been very brave coming in and talking to me about it, so thank you very much, Alom.

Alom Shaha is a science teacher and the author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook, Lessons for living a good life without God. Published by Biteback Publishing

Caspar Melville is editor of New Humanist Magazine, and Chief Executive of the Rationalist Association



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