Alom Shaha is everywhere. His hardback The Young Atheist’s Handbook launched several weeks prior to the time of writing, and it’s been heralded with press attention, TV interviews and talks – as he puts it – ‘for every Skeptics in the Pub group in the country’. When we meet in the café at the National Theatre, he’s just spoken at Wrexham Science Festival and had ‘quite a weird interview’ on the radio. Intrigued, I spend our first few minutes letting him vent.
‘The interviewer hadn’t read the book,’ he tells me, ‘and was doing that whole BBC “balance” thing. He said to me, “I’m going to try and attack you, just so that it doesn’t look like we’re favouring you.” He had no clue what the book was about or what I was saying, and was just clutching at random things that might annoy an atheist.’
To be fair, I understand the impulse to provoke. This man is an up-and-coming writer who’s making waves, a professional physics teacher and a public speaker; he’s telegenic, the star of various science videos on YouTube, and worked previously in politics as well as production at the BBC. In his spare time, he’s a magician. (A good one, I’m told.) This background suggests a scripted, media-savvy performer, the kind about whom more can be revealed with a bit of sparring. I’ve considered an opener like ‘So, Alom… your book’s a vehicle isn’t it?’
The moment we meet, I know this would be wrong. Alom is quiet, unassuming and – not to say shy – self-deprecating, not an inch the urbane smooth talker I’d expected. This isn’t a bad thing. People who are calm and winning on TV can be smug in real life, and his diffidence gives him an air of approachability. ‘I’m not sure I’m as articulate or eloquent as I ought to be for some things I do’, he says, though he concedes ‘I can be very good [on] things I know about.’
That certainly explains why he’s most at home in the classroom. (In a chapter about science called ‘Let There Be Light’, he states ‘I have never felt so good about myself as I do when I am teaching.’) Laconically, it also shows why the book’s best parts are biographical: ‘I’m not going out there pretending I’m an expert on [religious] matters’, he tells me, ‘but what I am an expert on is my personal journey.’
I’m an English student and a science fan, and Alom’s a physics teacher with a love of books – ‘They have shaped me and they have saved me’, reads the third chapter of the Handbook – so inevitably, our discussion turns literary. That chapter, ‘Escape to Narnia’, relates his childhood love of C.S. Lewis and his later recognition of the Narnia series as Christian allegory. ‘I didn’t particularly like Aslan’, it reads tellingly.
I’ve often thought those books are best when they zoom in on human characters, abandoning grand metaphor – when they tell us how the Pevensies know not to shut themselves in wardrobes, or that the best way to fall asleep is to stop trying, rather than how we ought live. I engage with Narnia most when it’s personal, and Lewis doesn’t hammer the God point home. When Alom agrees, I suggest the same could be said of his own book.
Most chapters start with experiences from his youth, and shift half way through into abstract discussions. His section on religion and morality, for example, begins by telling us as follows how he was beaten brutally for shoplifting: ‘As soon as I came in the door, my father grabbed me by the hair and started whipping me with his belt. He continued to thrash me as I lay on the floor, in the foetal position, trying to protect myself’. The kind and patient Bangladeshi man then staying with his family, who had brought him home, was the one Alom would name as an ethical role model. ‘Ironically, he was the only one who wasn’t Muslim.’
When later in the chapter, he briefly tackles theodicy (reference is made to the Ten Commandments and the problem of evil), it feels academic in more sense than one. The point’s been made, implicitly and powerfully, that religion on its own won’t make you moral, and my sense is that the average reader won’t require much more persuading. This doesn’t stop the Handbook being readable, of course. If it suffers structurally in places, the author’s prose is fluent and engaging. I’m struck, in fact, that Alom writes more elegantly than he realises.
‘One of the difficulties writing the book’, he says, ‘was dreading having written a book that I myself wouldn’t like to have read. I read the book now and see sentences and paragraphs I would rewrite.’ It’s true that many artists are their own worst enemies, but Alom’s writing shows more confidence by far than his attitude toward it. ‘With my favourite writers, I feel that the way they use words is really sophisticated and powerful. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of that – there’s a lot more work for me to do for every word and every sentence in my book to count, and I don’t think I’ve begun to get there yet.’
I disagree. Perhaps he holds himself to such high standards because of his affinity for reading? It appears to be his greatest love. (‘I’ll be honest’, he tells me. ‘If you asked me to choose between science and literature, I would pick literature.’) So when his self-doubt leads him to drop a certain bombshell, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Alom continues, ‘I secretly always wanted to write a book, because it would be an amazing thing to do, but I never actively pursued it because I didn’t feel I could. There was a fear that if I attempted it I’d fail, realise it was rubbish and realise I wasn’t capable of writing a book. I feel that I’ve cheated: I haven’t used my imagination at all. I’ve written about myself. I haven’t created a character [or] a world. I haven’t done that thing I secretly wanted to do, which is to write a novel.’ The fog of his soul-searching lifts, and suddenly he’s self-aware. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘I’ve just confessed to you that I want to write a novel.’
We’ve discussed our mutual appreciation of His Dark Materials, and I’d certainly like atheist fiction to become a genre. The Handbook also deals at length with the idea of Bangladeshi atheists as ‘coconut[s]: brown on the outside, but white on the inside’. For a writer so concerned with unbelief and ethnicity, his ambition seems appropriate – in the Harlem Renaissance, I note, atheist novels were a major challenge to the power of the black church. Anyway, I think he’s wrong about having cheated.
Creative non-fiction, I say, is a recognised category; some of the best memoirs read like they’re novels. In telling us about upbringing, Alom has created a world of characters: his brother Shalim, whose fragile mental health meant he believed himself a superhero, prepared to battle his caring relatives in hospital visits; the teenage colleague who first dared him to eat bacon, and was taken aback when he did; caring Mr. Grimmett, the headteacher young Alom was loath to disappoint. The versions of these people in the Handbook are likely semi-fictional, based on an adult’s memory decades later and simplified to fit within 200 pages. This isn’t a bad thing: it lends the Handbook a compelling narrative, at times a deeply moving one.
This isn’t to say the book is flawless. Far from it: certain chapters feel comparatively spare and risk falling into vagueness, particularly those on love and science, and the direct commentary on world religions tends to paint them with a carelessly broad brush. (We’re told for example that ‘Islam is inflexible in its claim that the Qur’an is of divine origin’, and that ‘only a tiny minority of theists would claim to have direct contact with a god’, both questionable assertions at best.) The final chapter, ‘Kafir’, admits this weakness, saying that if we’ve noticed ‘confusion, contradictions, flawed logic, or misinterpreted ideas, well, they’re there because I am a flawed individual’, but this doesn’t mean the lack of nuance isn’t an issue. These are minor quibbles, though: the biggest problem with the Handbook is it doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be.
When Alom shifts from telling his own story to discussing abstract concepts, his implied reader abruptly seems to change; the straightforward storytelling which is the book’s best feature puts me at ease, but with sentences like ‘This is known as the Euthyphro dilemma’, it’s as if he’s addressing a class in their mid-teens. Where this teacherish tone creeps in, it’s hard not to feel at least slightly patronised. There are moments, too, when the writer’s voice turns polemic – for example when he says ‘I sincerely believe that, for billions of people around the world, superstition and religion are shackles, things that prevent them from being all they can be’. There’s nothing wrong with this, and he does it well, but it might be more at home in the comment section of the Guardian than here.
Alom agrees with this assessment when I put it to him: ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, and that’s what I think is almost problematic about the book.’ From a review-writing perspective, it certainly makes it difficult to rate. On what terms do you judge a book with such clear multiple personalities? As a personal memoir, it effortlessly gets five stars; as a secular polemic, three and a half; as a pedagogic guide to belief and nonbelief, rather fewer. But this is one book rather than three, so as enjoyable as it is, the question of how far it achieves its aims is hard to answer.
My feeling is that each of Alom’s voices has its place, and each if he separated them more – into narrative book-writing, public commentating and science communication – would be stronger. Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.
Alom’s accent, to be heard on innumerable YouTube clips and podcasts, is by turns Bangladeshi, estuarine and public school. (Alleyn’s, where he gained an assisted place for seven years, plays a prominent part in his story.) He’s the child from an estate who grew up with the rich, the rationalist who in memory of his mother kisses books if he steps over them; the physics teacher who’d give up science for novels; the confident, stylish writer who thinks his own sentences poorly chosen; the camera-friendly media pro who’s quiet on first meeting an interviewer.
Even his atheist rhetoric is chameleonic. In his introduction, Alom states his admission to eating pork ‘may be the most controversial thing I write in this book’. He later goes on to say ‘It’s one thing to be complicit in the unnecessary suffering of animals; it’s another thing entirely to suffer from sexual repression because you’ve been brought up to believe that God disapproves of masturbation, or to live as a second-class citizen because you’re a woman, or to live in fear for your life because you’re a homosexual. Yet this is the reality that is imposed on millions, if not billions, of people around the world because they live in communities or countries that base their morality and laws on religious beliefs founded ancient books and stories.’ A few pages later, he states ‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree that religion is morally wrong’.
One moment it’s a firebrand we’re reading; the next, a diplomat. This division’s artificial, of course, but the question stands – why the inconsistency? It’s sometimes better, Alom tells me, to appear harmless before moments of secular rage. I’m only semi-appeased, but he submits ‘My opinion’s always changing and evolving. I hope that I’ll be better able to express some of my ideas a few years down the line, and I suspect I will have changed my mind about a few things.’
In the final analysis, it seems to me that the Handbook’s precise contents – its shifting intentions and tone, and the precise ideas its author advances – are less important than the person we meet reading it. Rather than memoir, polemic or informative guide, it might be best rest as an introduction to Alom, an atheist of many colours who at present hasn’t found his niche. The public voices he presents are various, but each is confident and wishes to be heard. Despite its faults, I’ll recommend friends read his book – not just because it’s a compelling read, but because whatever he does next is going to make waves, and they likely ought to know about him.
Though I don’t regret withholding it, I think my sparring opener might have been right: The Young Atheist’s Handbook is a vehicle for Alom Shaha, a heretic who wants to be heard. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.