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REVIEW (First published on Goodreads) The Young Atheist's Handbook


Barnet Humanist rated a book 

really liked it
Read in December 2016
The Young Atheist's Handbook is not what it says on the tin. In fact, as I was reading, a series of brilliantly clever puns and critiques of this title were buzzing about my brain, ready to pounce on Shaha's poetic licence in producing what is effectively a well-crafted but badly-titled memoir.

And then I saw the light. Well, not really. I read the last chapter. Spoiler alert.

The concept of this book is properly addressed in the final chapter, where Shaha's punchline hits home. There simply can't be a 'handbook for young atheists', because the whole idea of prescribing a model of atheism is self-contradictory. And yet, Shaha reminds, the (ever-growing) population of young nonbelievers shouldn't be deprived of a little book to carry and refer to in times of need or solace, just as we all see the faithful leading through their favourite holy book for comfort in the bus or the train.

And herein lies he feat of this book. Grounding the opening chapters in a fascinating and candid biography of his own experience of grief, discrimination and apostasy from Islam, Shaha gradually, gently nudges the reader into reflecting on the social consequences of religion. Without departing from the personal and the biographical, providing the younger reader especially with a narrative thread, the Handbook moves from science to theology and philosophy, providing the young atheist with an accessible yet erudite foundation for accessing the intellectual joys atheism brings.

It took the firey prose of Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great" for me to openly identify as atheist a few years ago. I believe I might have been spared a decade of garbage 'agnosticism' and fatuously labelling myself as 'spiritual but not religious' if I had read this book as, say, a 20 year-old. So it sort of is a Handbook for Young Atheists, even though it's not.

Nobody can or should dictate how to be an atheist to young people, and Shaha elegantly sidesteps this trap. But he also dodges another pitfall; that of rallying atheists by bashing religion. This book steel-mans rather than straw-manning the arguments for religion and, despite his many personal reasons to despise the despotism of faith, Shaha's generosity towards the faithful is truly refreshing.

As a fellow teacher, if I had a student approach me about atheism, this book would be at the at the top of my list of suggested reading for them. So despite the wonky title, Shaha has fulfilled WB Yeats' micropoem Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors.

What they set out to do,
They brought to pass.
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

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