Response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #1: Foreword

On the back of the current hard-copy edition of The Young Atheist’s Handbook by Alom Shaha are the following words:

“This is a book for anyone who thinks about what they should believe and how they should live.”

It is fascinating to see just how many high-profile, heavy hitting atheist thinkers have queued up to endorse this manifesto. The distinguished philosopher A. C. Grayling tells us that Shaha has found “that precious liberty of mind which makes its possessor open to all good things.” Physicist, broadcaster and former president of the British Humanist Association Professor Jim Al-Khalili tells us that “this is among the most powerful and convincing arguments against religion that I have come across…” The famous comedian Tim Minchin describes it as “an honest and often very moving story about valuing truth over hope, even in the face of grief.” And there are other endorsees and endorsements of a similar stripe; perhaps I do need to mention the science writer and broadcaster Dr Adam Rutherford who suggests that “atheists and religious people alike should read this to see that the path to enlightenment is not always easy…”

This is the first in what will be the longest blog series I have undertaken, in that the posts will correspond to the different sections and chapters of this book. Alom Shaha and Alexander Douglas have a number of things in common. We are both BAME British passport holders who were not born in this country. We were both born into religious families within communities where irrespective of actual confessional belief and/or life practice, religiosity and culture went hand in hand. We both had a real interest in science as schoolboys, although I chose music (anthropology, philosophy and theology came later) and at this point I am finally able to say that I do not regret that decision. My interest in science began with the fact that my father was a biological scientist (PhD in microbiology, multiple Masters degrees, etc).

Shaha chose mathematical sciences; more power to him. Although it is sad that (by his account) his childhood home was not a happy place with a father who was occasionally cruel, without making inappropriate and unregulated comparisons, my late sister and I certainly had reason to question a number of the decision-making policies of our parents that impacted our lives very negatively indeed, not least with regards to religious adherence that – more often than would be ideal – was enforced without anything that qualified as a valid explanation. Worse yet, we were both victims of a type of mimetic social cognition that framed everything around a discourse (because ‘hermeneutic’ is too good a word) of shame. Separate to religious identity, in this context one is raised with the understanding that one’s first duty is to avoid bringing shame on oneself and one’s second duty is to avoid bringing shame on one’s parents (and corresponding family members). This has led a significant number of Christian religious adherents to a way of life that I am now describing in print for the first time as the cancer of trying to make God look good – because if, within this cultural economy that I am describing, one is some sort of non-liberal Christian, then one’s first duty becomes not bringing shame upon ‘God’s name’ (with the others being pushed into positions two and three). You may very reasonably expect to hear more on this subject.

Alom Shaha is of course not the only person to question his religious upbringing. As will become apparent, Shaha and I will find accord at more than one juncture over the course of his narrative. I have taken up the challenge from the author and his endorsees and I am very interested to see how these ‘lessons for living a good life without God’ stand up to scrutiny. I’m going to read a section/chapter and then respond to it; so at this moment in time I have only read the foreword and introduction and skimmed through the chapters. This post is the response to the foreword.

A. C. Grayling (a philosopher whose work I have followed for some time and some of whose books I own) is actually the author of the foreword, which I have found to be remarkably similar in tone to the kind of writing found in religious texts of more than one type. With apologies to (Professor) Grayling, here is a brief list of prospective soundbytes in this foreword:

“…illuminates the route to a better destination…”

“…presents the logic and evidence along with the story of his development…”

“…shows how people can free themselves from tradition, superstition and powerful pressures to conform…”

“…the greatest kind of liberty there is: liberty of mind.”

“…looking for a true and meaningful forward path in life that was not overshadowed by the crushing bulk of outdated thought systems.”

This is very reminiscent of the type of endorsement found on the back of confessional religious books:

“…I am confident that his account will help many others to a shorter and less painful journey to the one he had to make.”

And some of this has already been cited, but for the sake of context and transition:

“[Alom Shaha’s] book is another lantern on a road that too many people find dark and steep; it illuminates the route to a better destination for all those who seek…that precious liberty of mind that makes its possessor open to all good things.”

This may seem like an odd lateral divergence, but: the composer Steve Reich is known for not only his own brand of minimalism (a technical term in this context) but also for consistently asserting that his music most certainly did not tell a story. I have read one unpublished PhD thesis which suggested that this might well be the case of (with apologies to Shakespeare): “methinks the good composer doth protest too much”. I became fascinated with the question of why it was so important to Reich to insist that his music should not be associated with the concept of narrative in any way, and eventually concluded that while on a certain technical and abstract level the composer has a right to specify their preferred hermeneutic framework for the listener, their ability to control that is ultimately non-existent. The most one could say is that it would be incorrect to analyse Reich’s music in a manner which placed narrative into an account of his composition process as something he actively intended, because he has disavowed that – but notwithstanding, different listeners find themselves drawn to different narrative planes while listening, and the composer has no authority whatsoever to disavow those ‘lived experiences’.

The harder one presses any viewpoint, the harder it is to avoid one’s communication becoming imbued with varying levels of shrillness (this is just as true for unspoken text as speech itself). Let’s be absolutely clear about what’s going on here: this blog post series is being authored by a Christian whose theology is pretty conservative and who doesn’t believe that religion is simply a private matter of personal conviction. But this enterprise isn’t ‘evangelism’. Over the last decade my blog posts have been read by more non-Christians than Christians and my fellow church members (almost all of whom I have had to expunge from my social media existence) are not the primary audience for this blog series. There is no assumption of (and also no interest in) any sort of extrinsic persuasion that takes anyone from one set of beliefs to another (however defined and understood) in this series of posts. However, it is both my right and my prerogative to question the legitimacy of assumptions and presuppositions that take the form of categorical statements that assume that anybody that has chosen a religious path has ipso facto failed to experience so-called ‘enlightenment’, much less ‘liberty of mind’. Let’s consider these soundbytes further.

“…illuminates the route to a better destination…”

Truism it may be, but it is still the case that the above could be claimed for apologetic enterprises in service of pretty much any worldview, religious and otherwise. The use of the definite article for ‘route’ indicates that the writer believes that there is only one route – but then we have an indefinite article for ‘better destination’ suggesting the prospect that there is more than one such destination (should this have been what Grayling meant, I would be in complete accord). Moving past that discrepancy: as far as I am concerned it is reasonable for anyone to propagate what they believe to be ‘truth’ that will improve the quality of lives of others. I am looking forward to discovering whether that which is illuminated is anything other than the personal constructions of the author (Shaha, not Grayling), as opposed to a destination that actually makes life worth living.

“…presents the logic and evidence along with the story of his development…”

It may surprise readers who are not acquainted with the journey taken by academic theology over the last 150 years that this discipline and its cognates place an increasingly high premium on the rational dimensions of epistemology and ontology within theology; logic is a part of this story as well.  It Keeps Me Seeking: The Invitation from Science, Philosophy and Religion is a 2018 publication co-authored by Andrew Briggs (Chair in Nanomaterials at Oxford University; he also has a theology degree), Andrew Steane (Professor of Physics at Oxford University) and Hans Halvorson (Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University). The authors share a collective commitment to robust empirical enquiry, a certain type of analytic philosophy and what I would describe as a religious outlook cast in theological garb. They contend from the outset that if a person has to ask if God exists, whatever they are thinking about and referring to is not God. While I understand the presuppositional framework that has led to positions such as this, I would not begin to express myself in such a way, despite having my own commitment to a religious worldview and to philosophy that is not in any way anti-science. What I am doing is making the point that if Shaha’s appeals to science and philosophy are supposed to point people away from a theistic worldview by virtue of the logic and evidence they offer (both of which appear to be considered antithetical to a religious outlook by Grayling, and Shaha by extension), this is both ill-founded and naïve (not a good look for either philosophers or science educators).

The American philosopher Nancey Murphy holds doctorates in both philosophy of science (she studied with Paul Feyerabend, no less) and theology. Inspired by the late Imre Lakatos, in 1990 at the beginning of Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning she offers a revision of a late Kantian dictum:

“Philosophy of religion without theology is empty; theology without philosophy of religion is blind.”

Just under three decades later, Murphy has written one of the most incisive accounts of Christian philosophy of religion that takes recent developments across the philosophical continuum (not least the increasingly sophisticated dialogue between theistically and atheistically-inclined philosophers at the intersection of science, meaning and personhood) on board. Grayling appears to believe that

“…the greatest kind of liberty there is: liberty of mind.”

is only available to those who do not choose a religious path. If this assertion is to be taken seriously and as an example of fairness and non-sectarian intellectual equity, he has to demonstrate that anyone who rejects atheism cannot be understood to be in possession of liberty of mind. Now, if a religious person were to use that kind of language with regard to people who hold other viewpoints, they would be attacked without mercy.

Speaking personally, it has never once occurred to me to consider for a moment that any atheist has by definition failed to experience liberty of mind. It saddens me that over the years I have lost more than one good friend who refused to accept the possibility that I could possess a religious viewpoint that was in fact my own and not that of my parents – but one need not be in any way religious to see that this is a jaundiced viewpoint that manifests a disturbing lack of humility. I do not need my friends to possess the exact same worldview that I do (I frequently prefer the company and conversation of atheists to Christians and for the record I would rather read Grayling than Derek Prince). Why does Grayling believe that Shaha has actually found liberty of mind? Because there is a world of difference between rejecting something and actually positively accepting something. As of now, all I know is that Shaha has rejected the brand of Islam that would otherwise have been part of his inheritance. I wait to see if he has found something intrinsically positive in atheism, or whether or not the positives are all in fact apophatic (i.e. only positive by virtue of being negative).

“…shows how people can free themselves from tradition, superstition and powerful pressures to conform…”

At the time this post goes live I am in the process of preparing to publish on Black British Gospel Music. There is a long story here that has also brought me to Black Theology, something I never once thought I’d ever be involved with. But although I have become very concerned about the fact that the British theological establishment exerts a domesticating hegemony over the ways in which the theological task is conceived here in the UK and the impact this has had on BAME Christians (i.e.not just black), I am even more concerned about the fact that in today’s so-called Black Church, the oppressed have become oppressors.  There is a powerful Bible text which I will share in a contemporary translation:

Matthew 23:15 New Life Version (NLV)

15 It is bad for you, teachers of the Law and proud religious law-keepers, you who pretend to be someone you are not! You go over land and sea to win one follower. When you have him, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are.

[Please do not be put off by the now-dated gender pronoun. There are bigger fish to fry.]

Christianity is not a set of traditions. It is a set of beliefs, but it would not be enough to simply hold those beliefs as verbal propositions if they did not translate into praxis and action (see Richard Bernstein’s marvellous 1971 publication on this). It is sadly the case that many religious people attempt to force others to be like them as opposed to being the best version of themselves, and although this is not quite the kind of thing that René Girard had in mind when he was developing his version of mimetic theory, I can safely say that, like Philip Yancey in Soul Survivorthat “my faith has in fact survived the church.”

That said, are we seriously supposed to believe that there are no dangerous superstitions, traditions and powerful pressures to conform outside of religious enclaves? Look at the story of Desmond Doss as told in the film Hacksaw Ridge. Even allowing for the inevitable Hollywood treatment, there is no doubt that Doss suffered terribly for not wanting to bear arms because of his faith. Religion does not have a monopoly on powerful pressures to conform (much less superstitions and traditions) and contemporary atheism is not demonstrating an openness to the possibility that anyone can not be part of the movement and make an informed and rational decision. The following is taken from a 2015 Guardian long-read article by Sophie Elmhirst:

Last July [2014], Dawkins wrote, in 136 quickly infamous characters, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” For Dawkins, this was simply the illustration of a basic point of logic; on the other hand, he was using a highly sensitive crime as an example. “If I used another example it would have been obvious,” Dawkins said, by way of explanation. “The point is there are people who seriously refuse to admit that some rapes are worse than others.” Isn’t that a judgment to be made by the person who’s experienced it? “Exactly, which is why I said date rape may be worse than stranger rape. I said that. It’s up to the victim to decide … But it’s absurd for the thought police to come along and say that it is forbidden to allow a woman to rank some rapes as worse than others … This is a logical point, and there are people who say that emotion trumps logic.” For Dawkins, the idea that someone could understand his argument and still disagree with him was bewildering. “There must be something wrong with how I’m expressing it,” he said. In the presence of his logic, there is no room for an alternative view.

This one section of the article has more fodder for analysis than this post can deal with right now. For starters, Dawkins offered two categorical statements (which he would likely characterise as propositions) in two successive sentences. How on earth can he then say that he actually offered a qualified statement (“date rape may be worse…”) when the ‘evidence’ tells us that he did no such thing? And as for the implications of his position (which makes sense when one thinks about how the Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse, a former ally, has had to acknowledge that Dawkins’ engagement with philosophy is humorous journalism at best but conceptually ignorant (and that’s putting it nicely – one also thinks about the fact that his fellow Oxonian scientist David Deutsch laughably claims to be a philosopher these days, but now we’re getting side-tracked…).

However, this idea that “someone could understand his argument and still disagree with him” – a necessity for academic endeavour that involves more than one human being – is obviously not something Dawkins understands. So, returning to Grayling and Shaha:

“…looking for a true and meaningful forward path in life that was not overshadowed by the crushing bulk of outdated thought systems.”

There are as many outdated thought systems in the secular non-religious world/s as in the religious worlds. Simon Perry tells us that religio, in ancient Rome, “was a ‘binding obligation’ or deeply rooted devotion that was by no means restricted to belief in a supernatural deity” (Atheism after Christianity, 1998: 38). Religion has become an increasingly complex word-concept that is routinely squashed into something that can be articulated in a soundbyte; but as William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence, 2009) has noted, religion cannot be satisfactorily defined by examining the beliefs and practices of specific world religions (substantivism) or the practical effects of a belief system (functionalism). Scary as it will be for both religious and non-religious types, ‘religion’ is what Perry describes as a

“…shape-shifting term of contempt destined to elude definition: any definition too loosely worded will not condone all that a modern atheist may wish to condemn; the only definition of religion broad enough for such a task will end up including all humanity and therefore obliterate the distinction between the religious and the non–religious. It is for this reason Cavanaugh notes [that] our understanding of religion tends to be mythological…” (1998: 39).

Sounds to me like an excellent example of an outdated way of thinking, if not a comprehensive ‘thought system’, which raises the question: is the idea of a single-shot overarching ‘thought system’ in any way tenable? I agree with the doctrinal positions of my church, but I do not agree with all of the practices of my church. Should I leave my church and abandon a ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ thought system just because of that?!

Is Alom Shaha going to avoid the kinds of mea culpa referenced above?!

Well, I did not plan to write this exhaustively on just this foreword, but here we are. I have no idea if the readership for this post and series will get into double figures, but ‘the unexamined faith is not worth keeping’ and so I am looking forward to seeing what I can learn from this reading process whilst pushing back very hard. If you’re still reading this, thank you for your time and I hope you will keep reading!

  2 comments for “Response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #1: Foreword

  1. March 23, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    “Christianity is not a set of traditions. It is a set of beliefs, but it would not be enough to simply hold those beliefs as verbal propositions if they did not translate into praxis and action ”

    it is a religion that has hundreds if not thousands of different contradictory beliefs and claims. It is most certainly not one uniform belief set. If one would take that into account, Christianity would not be considered a main world religion at all. I have seen Christians consistently attach each other and claim that each other are wrong, without being able at all to show that they were right.

    When the basic ideas of the religion cannot be agreed upon, who is saved, how is one saved, what is sin, what is heaven and hell, predestination vs. free will, etc there is no reason to think that any version of Christianity has any truth at all. You all don’t even believe each other.

    As an atheist, never heard of this book. I’ll be interested if you write more about it.

    • theomusicologist
      March 23, 2020 at 6:59 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to engage with this post on this blog.

      I see that you got as far as the section that you quoted. I do not know if you got to the end, where I make the point (using the words of others) that the very concept of ‘religion’ is deeply problematic. I presume that you would agree that not all atheists believe the same things in the same way. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini were all atheists and whose actions were driven by their beliefs. Are you endorsing their actions? Are you someone who believes that some human beings are better than others? Because if not, then you are only one example of a person who does not see eye to eye with other atheists. Which means that the very same argument you have used about the ‘basic ideas of the religion’ not being universally agreed applies to worldviews that are not religious as well as those which are.

      However, if a person refused to say that they did not believe in God but wanted to claim the label ‘atheist’, that would not make sense. But to simply say that one does not believe in one single idea is to say nothing of significance or worth. I do not believe in the tooth fairy, or that the earth is flat, or that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are inferior to white people, or that all white people are evil because of the history of slavery and imperialism. These are all positions that can be easily espoused and equally easily jettisoned if one chooses. The first two I examples I gave require no commitment of any sort. But the third is very different depending on one’s ethnicity, and the fourth just as much and perhaps even harder.

      To say that there is no possibility of truth in Christianity because many Christians do not get along with each other (much less disagree over doctrine and dogma) is like saying that a person from a minority background should not ever believe that a white person can see them as equal because so many white people do feel superior. If you keep reading, it is more than likely that we will end up looking at arguments that atheists and Darwinians make against the theory of natural selection. I will not be taking sides on that matter; but I will make the point that not all these people believe the same thing in the same way. And I could not possibly refuse to believe or not believe something because of other people’s opinions. A bunch of people who all agree on the same set of beliefs might be all equally wrong/misguided/etc!

      The next post will appear soon. All best to you!

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