The Young Atheist's Handbook: A Review

I apologise for not having gotten around to this sooner - when the book arrived I was actually away and didn't come back until the 4th.

So Alom Shaha, a physics teacher at a comprehensive school in London who also works as a film-maker, writer, and science communicator, has written The Young Atheist's Handbook, which is essentially a personal account (at least, that's how I see it) of one man's journey towards atheism.

As I first opened the book, one of the things I noted is that it wasn't evangelistic in tone; it doesn't aim to convert people to atheism, and as such it flatly goes against the stereotype of atheists as a group of shouty evangelists. Shaha makes no bones about thinking atheism is better than religion, but his book encourages people to doubt and question rather than reject God unthinkingly, and it's all wrapped up in a richly detailed personal account. Opening with a vivid and funny account of tasting bacon for the first time while working as a waiter in a London hotel, he describes his sometimes tragic life growing up as an immigrant, with all the ins and outs of having to adjust to a new culture. As a migrant myself, what he wrote about really resonated with the way I sometimes feel - his prose is good at drawing out emotions you ordinarily pass over, and of heightening the ones you already feel, because it's so very fluid and honest. I admire that in a writer.

But it's not just funny - it's very human. Tragically so, in fact. Shaha describes death and mental illness openly and honestly, and without stigma. He talks about the holes his mother's death left in his life, and he does so without trying to cover up the pain, or to exaggerate it, and he explains about human impermanence and the lack of an actual soul. It's a wake-up call to dualists that explains things simply and clearly.

The Handbook is essentially a personal account, but it's not an egotistical one; Shaha's description of his love of books and of his going to a Christian private school thanks to support from others rings true with me, and even if people haven't gone through the experiences he did, he writes well enough to make people try and understand. Most of the ideas talked about in the book aren't new to me, since I read a lot, but they're very worthy ones. The thoughts and opinions that particularly interested me were the ones that other atheists don't necessarily talk about; the popular image of an atheist is a shouty hard-liner, which Shaha doesn't fit at all. It's interesting and, I'd argue, necessary to hear the opinions of more moderate atheists.

The other thing that struck me and that I liked was that although Shaha is critical of Islam, as he is critical of religion in general, he is also critical of Islamophobia. Having met some atheists who don't seem to understand the difference between criticising religion and hating brown people, I like the fact that Shaha draws a line between the two and tries to tackle these issues. I also like that he rocks the boat a little - he says things that people want to cover up, but that are still true. That honesty drew me in from the start.

Something that doesn't stand out in the earlier chapters but that shows up in the later ones is that Shaha, put simply, doesn't do dogmatism. He criticises religion, what he calls "dick atheists" (come on, we've all met a couple), and everything in between - like NOMA and not rocking the boat. And he does it all in the name of trying to be honest. That's something I haven't seen for quite a while, to put it mildly. Religionists, faitheists and new atheists will probably all get pissed off to some extent - this is a book that puts honesty before people-pleasing. But there are too few books in that mould and it's always good to read one; I hope other people, regardless of their religious or atheistic leanings, feel the same and try and think clearly and logically rather than rushing to bite the author's head off in angry tweets, Facebook statuses and blog posts.

Being a huge nerd and a rather critical one, I also had a look at the notes at the end. Those expecting scholarly references from all the best journals will be sorely disappointed: everything from books to song lyrics are cited. I personally find it forgivable because the Handbook reads like an extended personal essay rather than an authoritative guide to atheism and religion, and that's what it should be taken as. It's easy to read and can be finished in under a day, but it's not simplistic - far from it. It's humble, funny, sad and honest and I wish that it had been my introduction to atheism instead of The God Delusion. Don't get me wrong - Dawkins is a fantastic polemicist and good at stirring people up. But it's not so good at encouraging doubt and critical thinking, which the Handbook does better.

Would I encourage others to read it? I must first qualify my answer by saying that whenever I find a good book I run around gabbling about it hysterically - I feel sorry for my friends, family and loved ones, since the poor things have to cope with me singing the praises of Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse and Nikos Kazantzakis when they'd rather be reading something completely different. But yes, I would encourage people to read it, particularly people in need of a wake-up call - whether they're dogmatic and set in their ways or mired in doubt. And I would do that because while this book looks rather unassuming, it's not. It's a book about doubt, honesty, and questioning things, and as such, it will help those who've got some thinking to do.


  1. Thank you for the review. I believe it's the first one from a genuine "young" atheist. Absolutely delighted you liked my book.


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