The Day God Died: response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #3 (Chapter 1)

Here is how Chapter 1 (‘The Day God Died’) concludes:

T”here is a line in the movie The Crow when the hero chastises a drug addict who is neglecting her child by saying, ‘Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children.’ I cried when I heard that line because when my mum died, God died too.”

I very much appreciate Alom Shaha’s candour in this chapter. As a mental health researcher, his description of visiting his brother on a children’s mental health ward as well as the suffering his mother endured was another reminder of how much work we have to do. To that end, I have decided that some of the material in this chapter that relates to mental health needs to be addressed in a separate post on my mental health blog. However, as I have reflected on this chapter and worked on this post, I can see that this very candour does considerable damage to his cause.

In the very first post in this series, I cited a number of endorsements for The Young Atheist’s Handbook. There is one that I did not cite, and I wish to draw attention to the opening sentence from it now:

“Alom Shaha has shrugged off the shackles of poverty, racism and, most of all, religious superstition, to begin to fulfil his potential as a human being.”

This remarkably odious sentence from author and broadcaster Marcus Chown gives atheists a bad name. It may not have been intended to be offensive, but it is spectacularly badly-conceived. Precisely what does it mean to ‘shrug off’ the ‘shackles’ of poverty? Some people’s fiscal circumstances change and sometimes that is due to hard work. Other people work just as hard but fail to get the same breaks. As such, to suggest that poverty is something that must be overcome before one can ‘begin to fulfil one’s potential as a human being’ is at best a slap in the face to those who have no choice but to sustain existence in poverty and at worst a suggestion that people are only poor because they want to be (by virtue of not working hard enough to overcome poverty). The film Green Book tells the story of a black concert pianist – apart from the fact that ‘concert pianist’ denotes ‘professional classical pianist’ as opposed to one specialising in any other repertoire – and the irony of this situation is that Don Shirley was classically trained and wanted nothing more than to pursue a career as a classical concert pianist. However, the industry hierarchies refused to promote him as a classical artist on the grounds that the American public (read: white American public) was not ready for a black classical solo artist. This makes no sense whatsoever when one considers that black female singers such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price had forged spectacular breakthroughs in the classical music world – but Don Shirley was not given that opportunity and later in his life would express profound disappointment at the way/s in which racism ended his classical music career before it ever got off the ground. Some will assume that because Shirley managed to make some kind of successful career in music, that he successfully overcame racism. This will miss the fact that his fulfilment as an artist can ever be said to have taken place because he never got to play the music that he wanted to play. And anyone injudicious enough to suggest that he could have found time to play classical music without renumeration on the basis that one can be fulfilled in one’s ‘hobby’ if not in one’s ‘job’ has never tried to pay the bills as a professional musician.

Now, precisely what is Chown referring to when he speaks of ‘religious superstition’? There are two words in that lexeme. Does he mean that all superstition is bad, including that which is specifically religious? Or does he mean that religious superstition is something to be overcome, but any other type of superstition (or at least some other types of superstition) might be okay? Or are we to take him as effectively classifying all religion as superstition? Again, speaking personally: I would not dream of asserting that a person must be religious in order to begin to fulfil their potential as a human being. And I would say that superstition in all its forms is a serious problem. It can often lead to decisions which cause pain, suffering and grief. Additionally, this is why Daniel Kahneman (the author of Thinking Fast and Slow) tells us that if we make decisions that appear to work out in our favour, we should not say, “I was right!” Rather, we should say, “I was lucky.” We will come back to this point in the next post but at this moment, I am asserting categorically that even if a person has what both religious and nonreligious people might characterise as ‘religious superstitions’ that are never overcome, this need not debar them from beginning to fulfil their potential as human beings. And so we come back to Alom Shaha.

If God does not exist, then it makes no sense to shape any experience (by virtue of representation and/or interpretation) with reference to God. God cannot die if God does not exist. So what is a reader supposed to make of this? What purpose is served by this choice of metaphor or analogy? We are now about to enter some quite murky territory. If one suggests that a child is incapable of having independent religious experience by virtue of their dependence on certain sort of external parties (which might hopefully include their parents), the same argument must be used in the event that the external parties in question espouse atheism. So let us say that Shaha only possessed a God-concept as a child because he grew up in a religious family environment. However, there is no positive ‘relationship’ with this God. There is, however, a positive relationship with at least one parent (in this case, his mother ‘Amma’). There is no necessary connection between the strength of a bond with the parent and the existence of a bond with an external deity. However, this post cannot do justice to all of the ways in which Shaha’s notional scientifically-underpinned objectivity unravels in this chapter; notwithstanding, I will do all I can to express myself as clearly as possible.

Shaha writes:

“Dr Robert Buckman, in his book Can We Be Good Without God?, (sic) writes that ‘our parents are our first gods’. They are the ‘caring, benign, powerful figures who look after our needs when we cannot do this for ourselves.’ When we are children and in trouble or need of comfort, we do not pray to an invisible, imaginary being; we turn to our parents.”

In light of what Shaha has already written, I’m now really struggling. His experience of a father who appears to have done more than anything else to make his home unhappy (the word he has used) and a mother who suffered ‘depression that would plague her for the rest of her life’ does not give us a picture of the type of security that any functionalist-instrumentalist notion of a God requires. His father is completely out of the picture in this regard and his mother is only available when she is well. However:

“The periods when she was depressed don’t particularly stand out in my memory, except for a vague recollection of incomprehension as to why my mother was so sad. But the trauma of her psychotic episodes is still fresh in my mind, including one incident in which she dangled my newly born brother over the balcony of our flat. When a psychotic episode took hold of her, her behaviour would become increasingly erratic: she would become sexually disinhibited and, eventually, so violent that she would need to be locked up. She once managed to kick down a hospital door and run all the way home, barefoot, in the middle of the night.”

Earlier, Shaha testified to the fact that he and his siblings ‘thought of our mum as loony, when in fact she was very, very ill.’ And more tellingly:

“She died before I was mature enough to take an interest in her as a person. I envy all those who get to know their mums and dads as people in their own right – what a privilege, joy and honour that must be, to be friends with your parents.”

I want to be careful here, but even as I sequence this post together and dig through Alom Shaha’s testimony I am starting to wonder quite what percentage of this chapter (or to be more specific, the parts of this chapter that recollect Amma) can be taken as empirically verifiable fact and what should be better understood as an anecdotal narrative constructed on the basis of selective memory. We need to be fair to Shaha – he was only thirteen when his mother died. However, more than a small number of children are both effectively caring for and actually caring for parents long before this age. As we will see, there are grounds for speculating as to the reasons why Shaha’s narrative is predisposed towards an emphasis on the love that his mother felt for him and the ways in which he took those to be manifested – but we don’t seem to see dimensionally similar reciprocity on his part. Should one understand that all children only love their parents in the context of possessing a genuine interest in them as persons? This world is absolutely full of people (as Shaha himself knows, being a teacher) who grow up with both parents still living with sufficient proximity to know them well enough to know pain, grief, and disappointment in these relationships, some of which last a lifetime. So one can say, perhaps, that he is only referring to ‘people who get to know their mums and dads as people in their own right’ where this is a positive thing. But for a significant number of people this does not obtain. What is the basis of this idea that parents are ‘first gods’ by virtue of being parents?! And who is the arbiter of whether or not it has any merit? If a person who believes in a god or God can have their belief disavowed by somebody who does not believe in any kind of god, the person doing the disavowing is ethically obliged to ensure that what they take to be a god is congruent with what the believer understands. Otherwise we have a situation where:

  1. A (believer) believes in God (G) as defined a certain way (X)
  2. B (unbeliever) does not believe in God (G) but G is defined differently (Y – defined as ‘other-than-X’)
  3. A and B are only able to communicate at cross-purposes because there is no consensus on G

So the good Dr Buckman tells us that ‘our parents are our first gods’. That surely implies that there are more gods that come further down the line, but this does not make sense if there is no God. What is the basis for any sort of god-concept?! What is gained by using ‘God’ or ‘god’ as a referent?

The unstraightforwardness continues:

“My mother’s presence in the world was enough to make me feel safe, protected. When she was well, it was evident in everything she did that we were the centre of the universe: it shone through in the way she fed us, bathed us, held us. Even today, relatives comment on how much she adored us. We knew it. And we know it to this day because the knowledge of her love buried itself deep within us, in a place where it has been, and continues to be, an anchor to hold us strong through the troubles of life.”

I find this to be – long before we get to religion – extremely dangerous prose, given who the author wishes to reach. He is offering absolutely no repose (perhaps ‘hope’ is a better word) for those who may indeed need to think through the religious inheritance that they have received and the negative way/s in which it impacts their daily lives but (a) who cannot turn to at least one parent for anything resembling genuine affection (much less love, however defined and understood); and (b) cannot turn to even the memory of having had one parent who loved them and was capable of showing it in ways that they understood. I find the hubris of the following statement breathtaking:

“My experiences as a teacher have led me to believe that pretty much all a child needs to grow up okay is at least one parent who really loves them. Being loved can be a source of great strength to a child, but only if he or she knows it… We have all seen evidence that love can make up for whatever other deprivation the child may have to deal with, but pretty much nothing can make up for being deprived of love.”

Readers by now may not be surprised to hear that I have a serious professional interest in music. One of my great heroes is the composer JS Bach who was an orphan by the age of ten and who went on to bury ten of his twenty children. We can only speculate as to what he remembered of his parents, and the evidence we have suggests that his adolescence was anything but a consistently positive experience. More than one conductor and musicologist has speculated about the role of the concept of death in Bach’s music. At one point in the twentieth century more than one thinker desperately argued that Bach did not really believe in God or in Lutheran theology; the church was simply a vehicle for his immense talents. Historians then published research based on an extensive study on Bach’s library which just happened to contain eighty-three theological volumes; a huge number in the context. The extent of the annotations in both the theological works and in Bach’s own Bible – as well as their content – has forced the most secular of early music exponents to admit that whatever their personal feelings, biases and prejudices, JS Bach certainly believed, however much anyone wishes to take that belief as misguided. This composer’s music is taken to embody a very strong sense of ‘spirituality’ (as opposed to ‘transcendence’) and one part of that is the way in which his music embodies ‘hope’.

The actual music that Bach composed asks some profound questions of the notion that religious belief is nothing more than ephemeral wish fulfilment. And there are other people who have found their way in the world and made something of their lives having been orphans from a very early age and having not experienced love from any other parent-type figure for the entirety of their childhood. Love is imbued with strange pseudo-religious qualities by Alom Shaha. Some parents do love their children genuinely, but that love is tainted with darker subtexts which create enormous problems. In some other cases, there are no such issues but the depth and sincerity of parental love has not – in and of itself – resulted in helping a child to avoid psychopathological breakdown. I am genuinely happy that Alom Shaha’s memory of his mother’s love offers him strength, but love has not ever been enough and will never be enough in and of itself.

So Amma dies and so does God. Notwithstanding the fact that for some people the day their parents die might just be the day that God is born, Shaha testifies that:

“I was inconsolable then, and I am still inconsolable today. Nothing that has happened in my life since that moment, nothing I believe and nothing I know, can provide consolation. This is why I suspect that I am in some way predisposed not to believe in God, because God is the only thing that could have provided any solace. Death gives birth to gods; without death, there would be fewer gods, if any.”

Elsewhere, Shaha has observed that one need not be religious to believe in some sort of afterlife. Whilst Christian theology on the subject of life after death occupies a much wider continuum than many non-theologians appear to understand, for many Christians the fact that so many non-Christians are so attached to the idea of an afterlife despite robust atheism would be conspicuously amusing if it wasn’t so serious. If a person wants to believe in some sort of afterlife as a way of attempting to leverage solace from somewhere somehow, a deity is not necessary. I would venture to suggest that Alom Shaha is actually in the majority position: death of a loved one is also the death of God, not least because God is not necessary for a concept of the afterlife (a fact that many Christians never succeed in apprehending). This whole jumbled concept that Shaha has going on here is more than unsophisticated; what he is offering is unsubstantiated confusion as the foundation for frank admission that he has not found a way to be at peace with the death of his mother (a fact that suggests his atheism offers rather less benefits than he has claimed and which severely undermines the credibility of his reviewers).

Given some of what I have seen already in the next chapter, this handbook is well on the way to becoming a handbook for ‘all theists’ rather than one for ‘young atheists’ (however defined). I have experienced profound bereavement myself and God did not die. Not only that, but while I had to plough through a minefield of astonishingly bad theology (some of which really could be construed as ‘religious superstition’), I have found more consolation in God, one of whose names is ‘Comforter’. But this is no saccharine, self-serving consolation. If a person refuses to believe in a God who doesn’t give them what they want, as far as that concept of God is concerned, I am also an atheist. Alom Shaha raises the concept of parents being gods rather than there being any kind of external deity but then offers – through his own story – an external manifestation of a ‘god’ who only functioned as a ‘god’ when they were not succumbing to mental distress. This is the very definition of an anthropomorphic deity which Shaha has already disavowed and which the so-called Abrahamic faiths could not begin to take seriously. The next chapter is entitled ‘Being Good’. Please join me.




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