Published: 6 September, 2012
Alom Shaha’s take on religion is not polemical. Yes, he is a science teacher who describes himself as a secularist. He is critical of religious education in schools. He believes there should be more emphasis instead on encouraging youngsters to question beliefs and conventions via philosophy.
He is an opponent of faith schools.
But the 38-year-old, who teaches physics at Camden School for Girls, and has produced and directed a number of TV programmes about science, has an altogether more gentle way of presenting the case for atheism than the likes of Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion he is “not a big fan” of.
Shaha’s own book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, is a deeply personal mix of memoir, science and philosophy.
“I wanted to write a book that would present ideas about atheism in a slightly different manner,” he says. “I’ve said: ‘Here are some things that have happened in my life and this is how I’ve dealt with them using a godless perspective.’”
These experiences include growing up in a strict Bangladeshi Muslim family on an Elephant and Castle estate in the 1970s and dealing with the death of his mother when he was a child.
The book kicks off with a description of what Shaha describes as a “pivotal moment” in his life in the early 1990s when he first tried bacon. He says he has not eaten a greasy spoon fry-up without pork sausages since.
The humorous quality of Shaha’s delivery makes it seem all the more absurd that The Young Atheist’s Handbook was almost not published because of fears it would provoke violence.
At a reading at Housmans Bookshop in King’s Cross, Shaha said an editor at a major publishing house had told him they could not put the book out because of serious concerns about the possible reaction of Muslims – an idea Shaha brands ridiculous.
“There was this notion that because I was from an ex-Muslim background, because I was brown essentially, that my book would somehow be controversial and publishers would be in danger of having their offices firebombed,” he says.
“Think about what it says about our society that a major publishing company refuses to publish a book that is in no way offensive and in no way incendiary, simply because it is written by someone from a Muslim background and simply because there is a perceived risk of a violent reaction from the Muslim community.”
The idea that there is even such a thing as a Muslim community is itself a bit of a fallacy, according to Shaha.
“There’s no single Muslim community,” he says.
“It’s ridiculous to think Muslims are in any way uniform, in the same way that no one would imagine that Christians or Jews in this country are a uniform mass of people who all hold a particular view.
“There has been a spread of Islamophobia and this painting of Muslims as a particular type of person who takes offence at everything and cannot tolerate having their religion questioned.”
Shaha cites a recent experience he had of visiting a Bangladeshi friend whose father was dying.
“There was a room full of Muslim people all praying and reaching to their god for help,” he says. “And they were perfectly happy that I had turned up to pay my last respects to this person and perfectly comfortable with the fact that I was an atheist.”
In the book Shaha describes himself as “a rare breed – a public ‘ex-Muslim’”.
He says one of the reasons he wrote it was to let others who keep their lack of faith a secret know that they are not alone.
Shaha finds the ways in which religion can stifle personal freedoms invidious but says he has no problem with people being religious if it helps them make sense of the world and does not cause harm to others.
He also recognises there are plenty of highly intelligent people who do believe in God.
“I think the reasons why we believe in God are actually similar to the reasons why we don’t believe in God,” he says.
“We arrive at these positions because of all sorts of things.
“Probably a bit of genetics, definitely the experiences we have as we’re growing up, and some degree of intellectual, rational thought.
“But to claim that lack of belief in God comes from simply being smarter is dismissive of the experiences of huge swathes of humanity and is a position that lacks empathy.
“I don’t think I’ve written a book that is anti-religion, I think I’ve written a book that’s pro-atheist. That’s a subtle but important distinction.
“What I’m saying is that one can lead a happy, moral, fulfilling life without God, and that I think more people ought to try that.”