Bringing Home the Bacon: response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #2 (introduction)

I’m going to begin this response/review with two quotations. Here’s how the introduction (‘Bringing Home the Bacon’) begins:

“I remember the first time that I ate bacon. It was a momentous, pivotal moment in my life, requiring courage, strength, and determination. Well, kind of.”

And here is how it ends:

“I hope that the story I tell might provide comfort and reassurance to those who need it, and that it will confirm it is okay to leave behind the religion of your childhood and find other ways to make sense of the world. My intention in this book is not to tell anyone what to think, but merely to say,  ‘Here are some ideas that I have encountered, which have made me think about religion. Join me in thinking about this stuff.’ This is very much my story, incorporating my beliefs about these things; yours will be different.”

By virtue of a cornucopia of platitudes, soundbytes and more legitimate propositions, many Christians take it as a given that one of the most effective ways to ‘share one’s faith’ is through ‘sharing one’s testimony’. For over a decade and a half I have lost my belief in this idea thanks to (what I consider to be, subjectively speaking) the quite terrible ways in which (over 95% of the time in my experience) personal testimonies are both articulated and propagated. It seems as if the more spectacular the anecdotal content of a ‘testimony’, the more voyeuristic the Christians listening to it become. One of the least understood aphorisms of the Christian devotional author Dallas Willard (who, despite training for pastoral ministry, found his true professional vocation over forty years of teaching philosophy at the University of Southern California) is the one where he says that preachers should not tell stories.

One of my long-held personal concerns (that has now also become a formal academic concern) is the question of how music and emotion inter-relate in corporate worship services. At some point someone might get around to undertaking a major interdisciplinary study (music psychology, cognitive neuroscience of music and the new kid on the block by the name of neuroaesthetics will all be involved) of what might be happening at the point in church services that across several denominations is understood as the ‘altar call’ (or a cognate thereof); it will not make comfortable reading for Christian musicians or clergy. The use of music at certain points in worship services is all about affect through effect and this is achieved at the expense of a genuine and perspicuous understanding of what one might be saying ‘yes’ to (antithetical to that which Jesus himself pointed towards). I understand Willard to have something dimensionally similar in mind when he offers his proscription against storytelling. The legendary actor Dustin Hoffmann was once the main figure in a Sky Atlantic advert and towards the end he uttered these words: ‘Isn’t that the power that stories have – to make us feel?’ Stories have the capacities to leverage a type of power that plays into the mimetic processing of societies at large, resulting in people doing things because of what other people have experienced even more than because it relates to what they want to do and who they want to be. [If it turns out that for a significant part of global Christian life praxis, short-scale emotive processing governs every thought and action, that cannot be taken as intrinsic to Christianity itself.] And so the inane ways in which for too many Christians assume that any given story about how and why anyone becomes a Christian believer is supposed to have any kind of purchase power make no credible contribution to legitimate reasons for rejecting what Christianity itself actually teaches.

My religious tradition also has a moratorium against eating pork. I remember the one and only occasion when I intentionally tried pork. It was on one of the most memorable camping trips of my life and I was not yet 12. The meal in question was a barbeque and at that time I was not a vegetarian. Without recounting the details, by subterfuge I managed to get myself a hot dog and liked the taste of it enough to eat the whole thing. Does that mean that ‘it was delicious’? There is a moment in one of the Inspector Rebus novels (written by Ian Rankin) in which the main character enjoys a breakfast that included stolen bread rolls – the point being that the bread rolls somehow tasted better precisely because they were stolen (interestingly, stealing will be a significant theme two posts from now when Shaha addresses the question of being good without God). It is left to the reader to make the connection between the attractive taste of ill-gotten bread rolls and the fact that a senior law enforcement officer has committed a theft that is even more unnecessary than it is petty. One might reasonably conclude that the author is implicitly drawing his readers into complicity with the notion that even a police inspector is entitled to a little bit of rebellion now and again. I can certainly remember the frisson that came with the action of rebelling against my faith tradition for as long as it took to eat a hot dog (that wasn’t made from beef or chicken). However, two years later I was with some church friends on a ferry boat crossing the North Sea at night, and we had finally escaped the clutches of the adults responsible for our safety and welfare and were quietly rampaging all over the boat. We found an unfinished bottle of beer and sure enough, people were daring each other to drink from it. I didn’t leave the group, but I had already made a decision that I was never going to drink alcohol. It did not change at that moment and I have remained resolutely teetotal to this day.

Alom Shaha hopes that his book “will provide an informal guide to rejecting religion, not only for young people, but also for adults who are new to atheism – people who are ‘young atheists’ in a different sense.” But this introduction represents a deeply impoverished pedagogical strategy. True as it may be that not eating pork is a fundamental part of Islam, there is a world of difference between the type of atheism espoused by Daniel Dennett or the late Christopher Hitchens and that espoused by Michael Ruse and Stephen Jay Gould – much less Stalin and Hitler. If a person decides to accept Gould’s concept of NOMA but reject Hitler’s anthropological hierarchy, no one has the right to say that they are not an atheist. If a person decides to eat pork and still identify as Muslim, the most one can say is that such a person has chosen not to act in accordance with what Islam teaches with regard to that specific part of their own declared belief system. Alom Shaha had been thinking about eating pork for some years before first putting that piece of bacon into his mouth. He had also been thinking about getting rid of his religion long before he became a confirmed atheist. But there is no necessary connection between his desire to embrace pork and his decision to renounce Islam. Moreover, a secular person with a rational commitment to avoiding all porcine products for reasons of health and well-being now has absolutely no reason to take Alom Shaha seriously as a guide to rejecting Islam (at least as far as this introduction is concerned). It gets worse for Shaha; his implicit argument is that to eat pork was and remains an emblem of his freedom, and freedom is the notional idea that runs like a thread throughout the two pages of endorsements at the beginning of the book.

But freedom also encapsulates the prospect that a person may choose to embrace religious faith, and freedom also encapsulates the fact that a person may embrace some aspects of a worldview and not others. Speaking for myself, I have a very strong sense of the kind of adherence that a person should practice so that they can be credibly considered a proponent of a worldview. I believe my conceptual framework in this regard to be as solid as a rock and morally unquestionable – not least because my framework does not specify any specific content of a given belief. But I have come to realise that other people not only can but most certainly will choose to operate with a completely different set of life-hermeneutic lenses, and however much I want them to operate within the purview of my life-hermeneutic lenses, they do have the right (as well as the prerogative) to reject my perspective completely. The point I am making is that a very big part of me desperately wants to assert that a person cannot be a true Muslim and eat pork. But if a person observes every single other aspect of what I understand to be Islamic teaching whilst choosing to eat pork, if I am then asked to offer an argument for why this person should not be considered a Muslim on the statistical basis that 99% of their actions and output are completely in harmony with my understanding of Islam (never mind anyone else’s), what am I going to say?

As a declaration of freedom and as an article of atheist faith, I have no idea what Alom Shaha genuinely hoped to achieve with this introduction. I may be writing this post nine years after this book was first published but last year (2018) the UK finally began to catch up with some other parts of Western Europe with regards to understanding that the number of vegetarians within the UK populace represented rather more than a handful of tree-hugging hippies or religiously misguided nincompoops – to the extent that when one of the leading bakery store chains announced a 58% profit increase due to the success of a vegan sausage roll, even KFC scrambled onto the bandwagon. If a person is to reject Islam from any given starting point, there might be rather more effective challenges that hurt the credibility of the religion in undeniable ways.

Some other issues: Alom Shaha writes that

“Scientists think that disgust evolved to protect us from eating things that might have made us ill, such as decaying corpses or faecal matter.”

If this means anything, what is the argument for alcohol (which actively kills brain cells)? Or indeed any form of controlled substances? [The US drama Snowfall has offered a powerful exposition on the subject of how the sheer addictiveness of crack cocaine (‘rock’) changed not only Los Angeles but the whole of the USA.] The argument that disgust is a powerful tool in inculcating lifelong aversion to anything means nothing for the vast numbers of people hooked on narcotic substances who testify that what they do is the opposite of positive and healthy (some might even use the word ‘disgusting’) based on values that in many cases will have been learned very early in childhood – but they are still unable to stop. I am not saying that disgust towards pork learned at an early age plays no part whatsoever in the reasons why many religious people maintain lifelong abstinence from pork, but I am saying that this sort of speculation only creates problems for anyone trying to make a point in this regard.

It is also not clear whether Shaha understands the difference between agnosticism and atheism. He says that if he were to be ’strictly scientific’ he would have called his book The Young Agnostic’s Handbook. That would make sense if his position is that it is not possible to know if God exists or not. This is one reason why an important distinction needs to be made between being conceptually agnostic but practically atheist and being conceptually agnostic but practically theist. More than one thinker representing both religious and nonreligious positions takes agnosticism to be a lightweight non-position embodying an unwillingness to commit to one side of the fence or another; either there is a God, or there is not, and this question cannot be credibly addressed with an appeal to ‘synthesis’ over ‘thesis/antithesis’. But Shaha goes on to say:

“… my use of the word ‘atheist’ is a deliberate attempt to use it as I think it should be used in the modern world – not as a scientific term, but as an identity label that signifies important beliefs. I, like millions of others, choose to call myself an atheist because…it lets people know that I do not believe in the existence of the God of the Abrahamic religions nor in any other anthropomorphic God or supernatural being. But calling myself an atheist doesn’t just tell people about what I don’t believe – it also tells them that I think you can lead a happy, worthwhile, and good life without believing in God.”

Shaha is not the first person who wants a word to mean what he thinks it should mean. I find it very difficult to respect that as the baggage I carry as a BAME religious person is part of why I cannot go soft on fuzzy language use (something that religious people are frequently accused of, almost always hypocritically). If we expect to be understood in a given society, we have to find ways to express ourselves as accurately as possible using the linguistic conventions understood by and practised in the society in question without being shackled and domesticated in the process of doing so. An atheist is a person who – point-blank – does not believe in God (however defined) or any sort of supernatural deity (perhaps ‘entity’ is a better word). That is precisely the position that Shaha has espoused; what are his grounds for believing that the word agnostic would have been more appropriate? What sort of book could that have been? At the very least, one would have had to commit to demonstrating both the potential truth and the potential falsity of every single significant position presented therein and why it matters that the reader opt out of making a decision either way more often than not. He is certainly not an agnostic. And in referring to ‘other anthropomorphic’ gods he is claiming that the God of the Abrahamic tradition is an anthropomorphic entity. This is a significant misrepresentation of how all three Abrahamic faiths understand the concept of the personhood of divinity; unlike the deities of classical Greece who were rejected precisely because of their anthropomorphic valencies in the original use and meaning of the (Greek) word atheist (as in literally a-theist), Islam, Judaism and Christianity all attest that divinity is absolutely and wholly other and not at all relatable to humanity as far as ontology is concerned (this is not the time for a detailed explanation of exactly what the Christian doctrine of imago Dei actually means). Shaha may not have meant to misrepresent and prospectively disrespect these three religions in this way, but all of us have a duty – an ethically inalienable duty – to represent other people’s positions as truthfully as we can. In this regard, I find that to be an epic fail.

But before somebody accuses me of being unkind, Shaha does say:

“…this book is loosely my story of how and why I choose to call myself an atheist. I am going to say upfront that I know that many of the ideas and arguments I present here may be approached in different ways, and that some of the concepts may be more nuanced than I have presented them. I am not aiming to critically examine these issues in all their complexity, or to provide an academic treatise on why religion is wrong, but to give a personal take on how I see people interacting with religion, based on my experiences.”

Hmm.

Quite how so self-consciously subjective a book like this is supposed to offer ‘comfort and reassurance to those who need it’ (the point being that comfort and reassurance will ultimately not ever be possible for most sane people on the sole basis of another person’s subjective take on anything) is now beyond me. Shaha wants to have his cake and eat it. On one hand he does not want to overstate his claims and his ambitions for this book. On the other hand, he hopes that it will contribute in direct and specific ways to people making serious, life-altering decisions – which would surely require the best level of reasoned argument possible. The next post will respond to the opening chapter which is entitled ‘The Day God Died’. Let us see what Shaha has for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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