~ Who’s there?
~ God who?
That’s precisely the question expected from atheists.
With this joke, Alom Shaha began his talk to a packed (actually overflowing) audience who remained enthusiastic and attentive throughout. Shaha usually reaches out to school pupils to explain science and atheism, but here he suspected he might be preaching to the converted. Ultimately, he gave everyone a passionate and sorely-needed new voice for the skeptics movement. But more on that later.
Alom Shaha is a physics teacher and author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook. In his day job, he found that certain aspects of science were touchy subjects for his pupils. When explaining about the Big Bang, they said he “didn’t want them to believe in God”; the Big Bang contradicted the holy books. Worse: the process of science demands to know why we believe what we believe; it requires evidence and openness to the possibility of being wrong, which is a frightening prospect when you apply it to your own faith.
His pupils had been denied access to other points of view; their Religious Education classes had taught them about God uncritically, as if it were a real thing. But nothing about the concept of deities allows you to model or make predictions about the world. Scientific theories (as opposed to everyday ‘theories’) describe and explain what we see, and can make predictions about what we don’t yet know; they are models of the world which work. We can’t directly sense electrons, but the theories we have about electrons allow us to build mobile phones and computer networks.
Faith schools are a particular problem, because they stop children from encountering and understanding new ideas. Shaha knew all about the importance of this from his childhood. At a mosque, he had to recite Arabic with no comprehension of what the words meant; an imam would beat him if he mispronounced any of them. By contrast, at his school, he was exposed to science and, crucially, to children of all colours and creeds. He could not agree with the imam’s insistence that his friends would burn in hell forever for their unbelief; how stupid would god be to would allow that? Losing his faith was not done in a moment; it was a process facilitated by having his mind opened to different ways people live their lives.
Interfaith dialogues and the marketplace of ideas are essential for children. He has no problem with most believers, since they are usually quite benign, but does take exception to those who try to interfere with the lives of others, or preaching hatred. Secularism means allowing people to be themselves, whether they are gay, atheist or religious. Fighting extremists does not have to involve squashing someone else’s beliefs; if someone’s beliefs give comfort or an illusion of being loved, to whose benefit would it be to take that away from them?
This is where Alom Shaha really shone. His message for atheists and skeptics was admittedly borne of frustration, but it was vital. I would summarise it as this:
We have to move on from the era of The God Delusion.
We are living in a world post-Christopher Hitchens. The major voices of the 2000s all played a part in gaining recognition for atheism, and allowed people to embrace the idea of not believing in God if it was too difficult for them. But they were not without their problems, particularly Sam Harris. Post 9/11, race and religion became conflated. People with brown skin were assumed to be Muslim. Criticism of Islam was denounced as racist. (Incidentally, Shaha found difficulty having The Atheist’s Handbook published in the UK because of a hypersensitivity to offending Islam; this self-censorship helps no-one and perpetuates the myth of violent Muslims.)
Atheists delighted in attacking religions as irrational, and waited for people to convert. But believers are not stupid just because they believe in the supernatural; they can be incredibly smart. The trouble is, nobody is rational. Belief or unbelief in a god is not just an intellectual choice; it is an emotional one too. It has tofeel right. Everyone can hold contradictory beliefs. Everyone has the capacity to believe things without evidence or because some authority figure says something. We would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Skeptics simply must appeal to emotions. We have to learn to tell stories to communicate our ideas.
We must also acknowledge that we are now out in the open. What are we to do? Humanists and skeptics should not fear the label ‘atheist’; it is a political label. Certainly, it is inaccurate, but no less inaccurate than ‘black’ is for describing anyone whose skin is any particular shade of brown. Atheists are united by their rejection of religious authorities as moral or political guides and rejection of faith taking a role education; indoctrination in a faith can be a spare time activity for parents to inflict on their offspring, but not during school hours. We are united by the notion that in the 21st century, religion is an anachronism perpetuated by the common belief that belief in God is a good thing.
We should not fear working with people representing other faiths if our objectives match. Of all the problems that need to be addressed in the world – distribution of wealth, women’s rights, equality – are other people’s beliefs really such a priority? If we want to change the world, we have to start locally, and we can’t do it alone. Instead of attacking other faiths, we should be setting examples of how the faithless are good, kind, moral people too; these qualities are not the preserve of the religious.
Instead, we accept that life is pointless. We find our own meaning and purpose, and we have to work at it. But for the most part, whether atheist or religious, we just get on with our lives, go to work, meet friends and take enjoyment where we can.
Along the way, we can be better human beings.
Alom Shaha received thunderous applause for his talk. If we are to do something with our skeptical, atheist, humanist movements we need new voices to speak for us in the following decades, and I sincerely hope his becomes a prominent one. I don’t think he ever intends or expects this to happen (he’s far too down to earth), but the pragmatic and political message he has for skeptics is just as important as his outreach to school children.
To mangle a phrase from Keats, at the conclusion of the talk I felt “like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.”
One to watch!
An interesting couple of viewpoints in this BBC News article about the decline of faith in the USA; could it be brought about by attitudes towards homosexuality? Younger generations have grown up knowing gay friends, and reject conservative, evangelical views. As Alom Shaha pointed out in his talk, exposure to other people’s lives and lifestyles is vital if we are to destigmatise them.