Don’t be misled by the title: this is a book about love. Love for life, love for family and love for curiosity, which leads — circularly — to a love affair with books.
Don’t be misled by the title: this is not a handbook. At least not in the sense of being a manual or guidebook for atheists. Rather Alom Shaha, a physics teacher who was born in Bangladesh and raised as a muslim in south-east London, has written a completely candid account of his life and his journey from religion to atheism. He bares his soul to reveal that he has not found one within himself.
The Young Atheist’s Handbook is moving and insightful. At times Alom’s story is raw. With an unflinching eye he examines how his experiences, especially in his early life — the untimely death of his devoted mother, the brutal punishment at the hands and belt of his neglectful father, the inspiration of his teachers and his own encounters with students in his physics classes — have shaped his world view. As he recounts the story of his journey away from Islam, a religion that he entered through an accident of birth, he reflects on the profound questions that occur time and again to young people who amass the courage to question their faith, the questions of free-will, of motive and morality, of evil, of heaven and hell, of life after death.
These questions are explored with a determination that is at the same time respectful and firm. The author strikes a modest tone that I am sure will draw readers in, even if, as people of faith, they find the text uncomfortable.
The book leans on extensive reading. It feels solid but is not trying to be scholarly. Theologians and professional apologists for religion may take issue here and there but that would, in a way, miss the point. This is the story of someone who is on a personal journey and makes no claim to have all the answers. As he writes towards the end of the book:
If you’ve noticed the occasional bouts of confusion, contradictions, flawed logic, or misinterpreted ideas, well, they’re there because I am a flawed individual, confused and contradictory. I put these shortcomings forward unashamedly because my final thought is this: none of us is perfectly rational, none of us is in possession of all the possible facts, and none of us is free of beliefs based on irrational foundations.
The Young Atheist’s Handbook is truly a gem of a book; it’s lucid prose shines with feeling and wisdom. It has the substance to endure.
Don’t be misled by the title: the book was written for young people but it also deserves to be read by young people who have grown up.
Robin Ince (right) interviews Alom Shaha at the launch of his book.
Declaration: I am a friend of Alom Shaha and was delighted to be able to attend his book launch on 10th July with my teenage children.