Saturday, March 17, 2012

'Oh, he of little faith...'

I've a review of Alom Shaha's The Young Atheist's Handbook in today's Sydney Morning Herald, 'Oh, he of little faith'.

It's an intelligent, touching work, which deftly knots science, memoir and a little philosophy.

More conversational than literary, Shaha's Handbook a good introduction to the arguments against religion, and an excellent portrait of a hopeful, morally upright life without gods.  A sample:
Shaha has a talent for framing science and philosophy within autobiography; for showing the life that surrounds facts and theories. While he deals deftly with his own Islamic background, most of his observations and arguments relate to all the Abrahamic faiths. 
For example, Shaha devotes a chapter to books, on which he is known to ‘‘gorge ... in bed, on the bus, in the bath, on the toilet’’. 
Part of his pity for religiously indoctrinated children is the poverty of their literary life; the way their innate curiosity is squashed between the pages of only one book. Worse still, this book is given a divine perfection, which can, Shaha writes, ‘‘stifle human creativity and ... ignore our capacity to think for ourselves, to change and evolve’’. 
He argues that literalist belief in revealed truth is more common in Islam, though this idea can infect Judaism and Christianity with equal virulence. The author’s intellectual drive is troubled by this blinkered devotion to a single text. 
Shaha is also critical of hypocrisy. England’s secular education and institutions informed his atheism but traditional communities and families still play a stifling role. Shaha notes that his father was a failed Muslim, who never had the courage to challenge Islam publicly. Instead, he kept his doubt secret. Shaha calls this ‘‘belief in belief’’ and he cautiously condemns it, hoping it will be challenged when ‘‘more people are willing to come out as atheists, not ... frightened of upsetting the sensibilities of their religious friends, family and communities.’’ I add: perhaps they will be frightened – but do it anyway, with Shaha’s amiable bravery. This may make secular life less awkward or anxious for tomorrow’s children.

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