Thursday, 6 September 2012

An accomodating atheist

Oxford Skeptics in the Pub is back in operation after a lengthy pause, and the second event of the year, last night, featured a speaker who was the author of "The Young Atheists Handbook", Alom Shaha.

Young Atheists Handbook, Alom Shaha
Young Atheists Handbook

Alom is an ex-muslim from a Bangladeshi background, working as a physics teacher in London.  In his slightly self-effacing way, he was very comfortable with the audience, and he encouraged the event to become much more of a discussion than the normal format of a lecture with questions.  Everyone had an opportunity to join in, with a friendly, humorous and cooperative atmosphere.

He wrote the book because he found that the question of 'god' (whether God or Allah) was coming up in lessons.  He had had challenges from some religious children about topics such as the 'big-bang'.  He explained how he disliked having to answer questions with "Because it is on the syllabus" but that sometimes that was a last resort.  He was clearly comfortable with his atheism but not out to 'convert' people.  On the other hand he sees no reason to hide it.  He pointed out that it was fine for other teachers to be openly Catholic, so there is no reason why he should not be openly atheist.

His whole approach to the issue of religion was gentle and empathetic to the point that he was accused several times of being an accommodationalist.  Initially he readily admitted it, but later started to ask what exactly that meant.  However, he was at least a sophisticated accommodationalist, realising that people arrive at the beliefs for a wide variety of reasons, not all of which are rational.  He says that although he personally (and at present) does not believe in a god, he does understand why others might and he concedes that there is no way to tell whether he might in future find reasons to believe.  The whole concept that life really might be pointless is not one that everyone can buy into.  Religion can come to the rescue for some, and he argues that there is not necessarily any harm from that.

His main aim in speaking and writing is to introduce children to the very concept that some people are not religious.  He points out that many young people are simply not aware of the possibility that they can question the existence of god, whatever their parents happen to believe.

This brings us to a topic that then was thoroughly debated.  Few seemed to disagree that 'coming out' as an atheist is not equally easy for all people in all communities.  Leaving Islam or a fundamentalist christian community in USA would clearly be harder than leaving the Church of England.  It is also recognised that their are racial and ethnic differences. 

He seemed to be keen to suggest that one way to move forward is to promote secularism rather than atheism.  He noted that the word 'secular' has been hijacked by the religious, and to some extent it is now taken to mean something that is threatening to religion rather than an opportunity for freedom of religion, and from other religions.

So it seems that I agree with a vast majority of what he says and I feel sure that I could enjoy a long and friendly discussion with him.  But there are a few things that I definitely would take issue with.
  • He thoroughly dislikes many internet atheists, and their aggressive approach, and that everyone says things that others have already said as if those things have never been said before.   I agree that I also dislike the rudeness of the extremists too - both ends of the arguments.  Nevertheless I do learn things from every argument I hear.  In this case I feel more tolerant and accomodating than Alom.  I also think it is not overwhelmingly probable that he has said very much new in his book.  What is the difference?  (I admit I haven't read it, so I can't claim that for certain, and I do understand that he is getting good reviews for his narrative style.  But I would like to discuss that aspect.)
  • He maintains that there doesn't have to be a conflict between science and religion.  I'm not completely sure that is true.  The discussion can indeed be avoided, and it is even possible to skirt around the general topic in a friendly way.  But ultimately when push comes to shove, in my view, and for some people, there is a conflict.  I also think that the existence of god is a matter that science should take very seriously, because potentially it affects everything else.  [Update:  On this topic, a fellow blogger has commented about the incompatibility of science and religion, in 'Science and Faith - I beg to differ']
  • It is evident that he has had some disagreements with Richard Dawkins.  I felt that he spent a little too much time building a straw-man of Dawkins to attack.  Although empathetic to the religious, Alom seemed less empathetic to the slightly more robust atheists and tended to bundle them with the 'really aggressive' atheists, perhaps unfairly in my view.  Dawkins is by no means the most aggressive atheist in the world.  I suppose I take the view that sometimes there are times when tough things do have to be said, and I admit that I am unashamedly a fan of Richard Dawkins.

Apart from that, it was an really enjoyable evening.  He concluded that he 'did not have any solutions', and that although he had not ambition to be one of the four horsemen he thought it would be nice if he could be there on a Shetland pony.  He doesn't want to write about religion any more.  His handbook is apparently not really a handbook, but as he says, nobody minds that the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not really a guide.

Shall I buy a copy.  I can't decide, partly because I'm not sure that there will be anything new.  I have read a great deal about the subject and found most of his words refreshingly familiar.

But if you have not read much, you will learn from a nice guy with a great sense of humour, I'm sure.

1 comment:

@blamer said...

He speaks excellently on radio too.

It's probably healthy that famous atheists can now be mistaken for accommodationists.

In the end there probably isn't a nice way to say Genesis 1 is incredible precisely because it isn't credible.

Or that testamonies get tested and fail. That that New character isn't new. And that that Good News is wrong about goodness.

But it's important to keep giving these answers using many voices, whilst still religio-politics continues calling the godless their antichrist.