Do Muslim international students want segregation? Polling on ISocs, religiosity and gender mixing

You’ve no doubt read by now of the much-maligned support of Universities UK for gender-segregated seating at campus events like those of the so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy, an organisation banned from several universities in Britain whose leaders explicitly oppose feminism and endorse violence against women and whose website doctors out photographs of female speakers offered only ‘to deliver talks, lectures and presentations to and for women‘. (The IERA and groups like it observe a strict taboo on women speaking publicly in front of men, as do a worrying number of Christian groups.) The recent withdrawal of UUK’s position, prompted by cross-party condemnation in Westminster and protests by people on this network, has encouragingly been welcomed and praised.

While their stance officially is under review, it seems unlikely now that anything but prohibition will follow. A more interesting question is how (or whether) it gets enforced – seating practices like this, and a post on the subject is in the works, are more prevalent among student Islamic groups than coverage has acknowledged, and likely to be difficult to police. (It’s important to stress that Islamic Societies aren’t necessarily representative of Muslim students at large – more on this below.) In the mean time, there’s a separate canard I think should be addressed.

The Observer‘s editorial applauding UUK’s retraction, topped with a twinkly-eyed photograph of Richard Dawkins from the Guardian site’s go-to album for any secularist story, states ‘it has been suggested that segregated meetings appeal to overseas Muslim students vital for university finances’ – referring, I think, to the statement by members of Reading University’s (banned) atheist society that authorities feared anti-segregation action ‘might eventually reduce the university’s intake of international students‘, specifically Muslims from ‘hardline religious countries’ whose higher tuition fees education bodies need.

The idea seems to spring from the assumption political Islam is a product of immigration, alien to Britain and imported from Sharia states; the reality is that British Islamism is largely a second or third generation phenomenon among the (grand)children of immigrants for whom fundamentalism is partly a misguided attempt at anti-Western cultural authenticity. (This why people like Alom Shaha are regularly smeared as ‘coconuts’, ‘brown on the outside, but white on the inside’, when they leave Islam, and why clash-of-civilisation arguments that portray Islam as essential to particular cultures and in conflict with ‘Western values’ only make things worse – that’s exactly Islamism’s selling point.)

The Centre for Social Cohesion, a conservative think tank now integrated into the Henry Jackson Society which (not) coincidentally funds anti-extremist group Student Rights, major players in the anti-segregation campaign, commissioned a YouGov poll of 632 Muslim students in 2008. I’ve referred to it before because it contained questions on atheists, gay people and sharia – to my knowledge, it’s the only poll specifically of Muslim students that’s been done. 80 of those surveyed self-identified as ‘Not British'; it seems reasonable to assume for the purposes of this post that these were the international students being talked about, since a ‘Partially British’ category (of 125) also existed, and was probably more likely to include immigrants to Britain or those of dual nationality.

What does the data tell us about Muslim international students’ attitudes to segregation, then? Specifically, does it back up the idea a clampdown would stifle numbers and starve universities of funds?

Well… no.

The first thing to say, of course, is that the idea prima facie is implausible. According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the number of international students on UK campuses in 2011-12 was 435,230, of whom 177,880 came either from EU countries or China. Of the top ten ‘sending countries’ outside the EU, only four (Nigeria, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) had double-digit Muslim populations, providing between them 50,845 students, less than 12 percent of the total. Even assuming all of them to be segregation-supporters – moreover, segregation-supporters who wouldn’t study in Britain if it were banned – the hole left by their absence would hardly be gaping or irreparable.

Moving specifically to the findings of the CSC’s YouGov poll, only 21 percent of non-British Muslims were members of their university’s Islamic Society, compared with 26 percent of their British (and partially British) counterparts. 65 percent of British Muslim students weren’t members, rising to 71 percent for non-Britons.

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This is striking both because it suggests practices in Islamic Societies aren’t at all a good barometer of Muslim student opinion generally and because they’re almost always where gender segregation happens. Of the fifth of non-British Muslims who do belong to one, 15 percent – that is, three percent of the total – were committee members, while only 31 percent went to most or all of its meetings and events (6.5 percent of the total). This compares with a third of ISoc members among British Muslim students (8.6 percent of the total) who attended most or all events, and 61 percent who attended either none or not many (15.9 percent of the total).

In summary: British and non-British Muslim students are about equally likely to be loyal ISoc members. Only 21-26 percent of either were members at all.

One thing that should be noted at this point is that the total of 81 non-British participants probably has a higher than usual error margin – perhaps ten percentage points or more. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about this: no other data exists for comparison as far as I know (please tell me in the comments if it does), and true figures could be either higher or lower than those shown here: we can’t second guess them. It’s probably a good idea not to put huge amounts of stock in this data, particular where smaller differentials appear, but there’s nothing else to go on currently.

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While levels of religious observance aren’t necessarily a predictor of ‘radicalism’ – they can be the opposite – it’s worth pointing out non-British Muslims were again about equal in their use of campus prayer rooms and attendance of Friday prayer, with non-Britons slightly more observant over all in each case but numbers well within each other’s error margins.

28 percent of British Muslims used the campus prayer room between twice a week and daily, compared with 45 percent who’d never visited at all (37 percent) or went less than once a month (8 percent); among non-British Muslim students, a third used the prayer room twice a week to daily, whereas 44 percent had never used it (31 percent) or did so less than monthly (13 percent). 28 percent of British Muslims always attended Friday prayer while 27 percent never did, with intermediate frequencies also near-symmetrical; 34 of non-British Muslims always attended compared with 25 who never did.

These differences aren’t really statistically significant: British and non-British Muslim students are about equally observant, and both are somewhat polarised.

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38 percent of British Muslim students said ‘Islam is a religion whilst Islamism is a political ideology’ while 14 percent said ‘They are both part of the same thing – politics is a big part of Islam’. This compares with 33 percent of non-British Muslims who distinguished the two and 25 who didn’t, a difference which seems significant if still small. Equal numbers in both groups (24 of British Muslims, 23 percent of non-British ones) agreed with neither of these statements, while 24 percent of the British and 20 percent of the non-British group said they weren’t sure.

So non-British Muslim students may be slightly more likely to be Islamists than their British counterparts, but the difference is slight and the figure still only one in four.

Finally, when questioned specifically about women…

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61 percent of non-British Muslims thought women wearing ‘the hijab’ (this may have been ambiguous) fairly (28 percent) or very (33 percent) important to Islam, while 33 percent thought it not at all important (18 percent) or not very (15 percent). Among their British peers, 62 percent called it important (30 percent very important, 32 fairly important) compared 30 percent who disagreed (18 percent not very important, 12 percent not at all).

Non-British Muslims were somewhat less supportive of the statement ‘It is up to the individual Muslim woman as to whether or not she chooses to wear the hijab’, with 59 percent agreeing compared with 65 of British Muslim students. Notably, the opposing answer ‘Women should wear the hijab – female modesty is an important part of Islam’ (supported by 30 percent of British participants and 38 percent of non-British ones) isn’t necessarily contradictory, but in any case, the differential is again a fairly small one.

Interestingly, no obvious difference can be seen in male and female response to these questions across the sample group as a whole. Of course, we don’t have crossbreaks for how gender and nationality correlate here, and if we did the groups would be too small to interpret usefully. British Muslim students are more likely than non-British ones to say wearing ’the hijab’ is a woman’s choice, but only by 59 to 65 percent. This is quite a useful question, since groups and events where segregated seating is practised tend to require all women present to wear headscarves.

On the direct question of how acceptable it is ‘for men and women to associate freely in Muslim society’, 49 percent of non-British Muslim students said it was very (21 percent) or fairly (28 percent) acceptable, while 33 percent called it ‘not very acceptable’ and 12 percent ‘not at all acceptable’. British Muslim response was ambivalent, with 62 percent saying either ‘not very‘ (30 percent) or ‘fairly’ (32 percent), with extreme stances less popular (16 percent for ‘very acceptable’ and 11 percent for ‘not at all acceptable’).

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One question that followed (emphasis YouGov’s) was ‘Do you believe that men and women should be treated equally?’ I haven’t bothered to include it here because, as more or less whenever pollsters ask this question, almost everyone said yes – over 90 percent in each national subgroup. It’s almost never a useful question: almost everyone thinks men and women should be equal, but disagree about what this entails. (Asking people if they’re feminists, for example, gets very different results.)

A similar problem may on some level exist with men and women ‘associat[ing] freely’. Exactly what does and doesn’t this describe? Most Muslims, I suspect, would support mosques separating men and women for prayer, and presumably those who called association unacceptable here oppose, say, unmarried men and women socialising together, but would all of them oppose mixed or unregulated seating at public events?

I don’t know. I’m somewhat inclined to think so, though, because the position stated here is so blunt: if believers are willing to say free association of men and women is unacceptable without qualification, it seems likely their views are fairly all-encompassing. We can probably assume, at least, that everyone who said association was ‘not at all acceptable’ is pro-segregation – otherwise, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. The answers can at any rate be summarised thus:

Aggregate support for and opposition to male-female association are roughly equal in both groups, ranging from 41 to 49 percent. Support, however, was more moderate among British Muslims – among non-British Muslims finding it acceptable, opinions were more evenly split between ‘very’ and ‘fairly’ answers, where British Muslim students strongly favoured ‘fairly’. Students opposed to free association in both groups found it ‘fairly’ unacceptable close to three times as often as ‘very’.

The long and short of it? Educators can relax: Muslim students from abroad won’t flee Britain en masse if segregation’s banned. Nor would much change if they did: they’re only a small fraction of the UK’s international fee-payers, as well as of its campus Islamists and fundamentalists.

 

“Waging all-out war against religion”: New Atheism, Alom Shaha and me

In his book The Young Atheist’s Handbook, Alom Shaha – now a physics teacher at a London school for girls – recounts a friend’s entry in his own school leaver’s book, ‘Watch out … because this boy is going to find out if God really does play with dice.’ He ascribes this statement sheepishly to zealous adolescent hubris, so I’m bound to stand up for it, but I’m not sure he should cringe on looking back: the slogan predicted, if inadvertently, his adult apostasy as well as scientific skill.

Alom is one of my favourite atheists. Around the time of his book’s release in summer 2012, I interviewed him for a piece reviewing it. Before all else, what struck me was that more than one voice came through in its pages. To quote myself,

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. The 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 half 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.’

Eighteen months have passed. As if on cue, he sides in New Humanist’s current issue with the backlash against ‘New Atheism’:

“Muslims are destroying our way of life!” This is not a Daily Mail headline, but something an irate member of the audience yelled at me at a talk I was giving . . . parroting the kind of rhetoric that is not just to be found in the pages of our tabloids, but also amongst many people who wear their atheist identities with pride.

. . .

I also encountered hostility . . . because I am, according to some, an “accommodationist” – an atheist whose prime objective isn’t to wage all-out war against all religions and their believers, an atheist who doesn’t think it’s productive to go around telling people who believe in God that they’re ignorant, wrong or stupid . . . who is full of admiration, respect and love for many people who describe themselves as having some sort of “faith”.

I can’t help but feel that people who expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to convince people of the non-existence of God are largely wasting their time. It’s easy to criticise religious belief, to point out the irrationality of faith, to show that God is just an idea. . . . But even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their God is a fiction, many people continue to have “faith” because that’s how their minds work. . . . [W]e all have some irrational beliefs, dodgy notions that we hold on to despite an absence of evidence, because we want to feel them to be true, not because they are.

. . .

When there’s a religiously motivated terrorist attack, I’m not sure it’s helpful to attack religion, to vilify believers. When we have children being segregated from each other on the grounds of their parents’ religions, I’m not sure arguments about the non-existence of God are useful. When we want to implement laws and policies that tackle inequality, pointing out the silly, anachronistic rules in ancient religious texts is not how we ensure support from religious people who are on our side. . . . there are more important things to consider . . . in the battles we face to make the world a better place. If we want to eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, if we want to address the inequalities and injustices of society, we cannot afford to alienate those with whom we differ only on the question of God.

. . .

I’m starting to think that identifying as an atheist isn’t terribly useful most of the time. As many others have pointed out, defining yourself in terms of something you don’t believe seems a bit pointless. I increasingly find myself introducing myself as a humanist, someone with positive views about how the world should be, rather than someone with a rather simplistic view on how the world isn’t.

I agree on most things with Alom, but not on this – my vote, predictably, goes to the case made by Tom Chivers overleaf against ‘treating religious beliefs with unearned respect’, which to keep from treading further on New Humanist’s financial turf I shan’t replicate here. (The magazine, and you ought to buy a copy, is in Smith’s for £4.95.) I could argue from first principles with any of the core points here – like Chivers, I think atheists should speak more accurately on Islam so as to hone, not blunt, our criticism; plenty of useful negative identities exist, ‘apostate’ being one, and if discrediting religion is so easy, why not try? – but all those points feel a touch tired by now, and in the end, Alom’s personal angle grips me more. To say time’s changed his viewpoint would be easy, but the truth is that I’ve always found his stance hard to pin down.

It’s an odd thing writing in the third person of someone you know privately, especially in disagreement, but we’ve exchanged the favour several times. I confess it was I who flippantly called Alom an accommodationist the second time we met, after hearing him say much the same in a Skeptics in the Pub talk. (Terry Rodgers, of Edinburgh Skeptics, sums up the version given there in the phrase ‘We have to move on from the era of The God Delusion’, asking on Alom’s behalf, ‘if someone’s beliefs give comfort or an illusion of being loved, to whose benefit would it be to take that away from them?’) It wasn’t a tense moment, at least from where I sat, and I’d like to think I’m quoted not because Alom puts me the way he views those concerned for ‘our way of life’, but because my wording captured the backdraught he’d faced more stridently elsewhere. Certainly I was surprised (and mildly dissatisfied) by how well his argument seemed to go down, but mainly I was incredulous: this didn’t seem to be the man whose book I’d read just months before.

At points throughout the Handbook, if not (see above) uncomplicatedly, Alom excoriates religion, quoting Thomas Paine in calling its institutions ‘human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind’. He dismisses NOMA, writing that ‘while it may be good for the societies we live in to be tolerant . . . we demean the concept of truth by reducing what it means to something that is determined by a misguided desire to agree with our fellow humans’ and stating ‘While I don’t condone the behaviour of “dick atheists”, I can empathise with their frustrations. I’d like to think I’m not one, but I’m not prepared, as I think [Stephen Jay] Gould did, to compromise my intellectual integrity to avoid causing offence.’ Crediting his life’s experiencing with having ‘freed [him] from the shackles of superstition and religion’, he goes so far as to say things like ‘Religion allows people to ignore the needs of real beings in favour of the supposed wishes of a being that does not exist’, and ‘just as many individuals outgrow religion, the human race as a whole needs to outgrow religion’, later adding ‘despite my best efforts to be reasonable, empathetic and understanding . . . the world would be a better place if there were more atheists, if a greater proportion of the world rejected religion and embraced the view that we humans can make a better, fairer, happier world without God.’ ‘Can we truly fulfil our potential as a species’, he asks, ‘as long as we hold on to, and encourage, the perpetuation of the lie of life after death?’ ‘It will be a huge failure of the human race if we do not evolve better, more relevant, more just ways of living our lives.’

These, one would think, are quintessential New Atheist stances, if not ones reminiscent at times of an older continental antitheism. It’s hard to believe they share an author with the piece in New Humanist quoted above, but he has a robust case for adopting them and makes it well. Alom’s book describes in its memoiristic stretches his being forbidden from birth from eating pork; his melancholy at missing out on Christmas unlike classmates whose religion(s) seemed not to revolve around ‘the forbidding of fun’; how a local imam told him ‘to be really, really scared of Allah’ and that non-Muslims would ‘burn in the fires of hell for eternity’; how he was, further to this, ‘brought up to believe in hell, a place where I would be made to burn and subjected to terrible torture’ failing good behaviour; how his mother, suffering mental illness, was said in the time before her death to be possessed by religious family members and adults; how an ‘older Bangladeshi boy’ told him her loss and his brother’s various disabilities ‘were proof that God thought there was something rotten with my family’; how acquaintances dub him ‘a coconut: brown on the outside, but white on the inside’ due to leaving Islam; how his secondary school made him choose to sing Christian hymns or be ‘excluded from the rest of the school’ with only one other (Jewish) boy; how relenting after two years of this to stand silently among classmates as they sang evoked in him ‘lingering bits of guilt’ for failing, quite literally, to keep the faith; how his physics teacher expelled him from a lesson aged eleven or twelve for exclaiming ‘Jesus Christ!’; how his father ‘glared at’ him in his teenage years for piercing his ear, ‘piss[ed] off’ since ‘good Muslim boys’ apparently refrained from this; how to keep up appearances, he was made to attend prayer with his brothers at the local mosque, learn suras by rote and mindlessly recite ‘La Ilaha Illallahu Muhamadur Rasulullah’ (‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’) under ‘the threat of a beating from our father’, even when one brother ‘would cry with desperation immediately before having to go to these miserable lessons’; how his brothers (Alom escaped their fate) were subjected to genital-cutting, nightmarish at any age, once old enough to be ‘terrified of the surgery and fully aware of the prospect of pain’, at the hands of someone he suspects ‘was just an imam with a scalpel and minimum training’, and ‘how heartbreaking it was to hear their screams and whimpers every time they moved the wrong way during the night, or when their bandages had to come off for cleaning during the day’. (Notably, their family is several times described as less religiously ‘hardcore’ than others in the area.)

It relates his close encounters, too, with believers and belief: the friend who declared in the wake of a natural disaster, ‘I don’t understand how an earthquake could happen in Pakistan [-] it’s a Muslim country’; the one who ‘“protects” his mother from his “true opinions”’; the numerous male acquaintances who ‘did not marry the love of their life because the girl was not of the same religion’; the white Englishman who converted for his Bangladeshi wife, both of whom are ‘now secretly atheists’ but hide this from her parents; the arranged marriages foisted both on his parents and on numerous current friends; the ‘months of shame’ his mother endured sleeping beside her children while her husband’s mistress visited their bed, an indignity Alom attributes partly to traditions ‘not uncommon in Islamic countries, where polygamy is sanctioned by Qur’anic law’; the streets of Elephant and Castle where he grew up, where ‘the men would walk several feet in front of the women, a sight that is not unusual in Muslim communities even today’; the sixteen year old who ‘went from taking an active interest in women’s fashion to wearing traditional Islamic dress almost overnight’, donning a hijab in her own words to Alom because ‘My brother has become a strict Muslim’ – in his own, ‘because she has no choice’; the student of his who like him had been raised reciting the Qur’an in Arabic without knowing passages’ meaning, but described it as ‘so beautiful that it  could not possibly have been written by a human’; the eleven year old who promised to boycott lessons on evolution, telling him ‘It’s against my religion to believe we’re descended from monkeys’, and the others who’ve told him his lessons on the Big Bang are ‘an attempt to undermine their religious beliefs’, ‘upset or offended by the suggestion that they should be “forced to learn this rubbish”’; the students in his science class who’ve told him ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’; the trainee teacher of religious studies who recoiled at his suspicion physics classes made some students question their beliefs, a conversation which resulted in her ‘storming off after stating “You scientists think you know everything, but you don’t!”’

Then come the spotlights on religion in the wider world: 22 million sub-Saharan Africans living with HIV thanks to the Catholic Church, ‘an epidemic that is devastating these countries’; ‘the recent spate of homophobic violence in certain parts of Africa . . . fuelled by both Christian and Muslim leaders calling for communities to “flush out gays”’; the Islamist states where ‘homosexuality is strictly illegal, and punishment can range from a violent beating to death by stoning’; the U.S. Christian in 2011 who murdered a gay man ‘because “he read in the Old Testament that gays should be stoned to death”’; the two New Yorkers in 2009 who ‘viciously attacked’ a gay man there and were defended by a friend whose homophobic tattoo quoted Leviticus; Webster Cook, student at the University of Central Florida, threatened with death by Christians when he took a communion wafer home instead of eating it, accused by a local priest of kidnapping Jesus in so doing (‘If anything were to qualify as a hate crime’, the priest in question said, ‘this might be it’); Usama Hasan, imam and physicist, threatened with death by British Muslims when ‘he claimed that Islam was compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution’; the stonings or whippings prescribed in versions of Islam for women who have sex before or outside marriage, ‘carried out in many Islamic countries today’; ‘the requirement for women to be covered up’, and ‘reports of young Muslim girls feeling pressured by their peers into wearing the hijab’; genital-cutting ‘practised in many Muslim communities . . . in which the clitoris of young girls is removed with the specific intention of reducing, or even entirely destroying, their ability to enjoy sex’; ‘guilt, shame, and anxiety, all of which can lead to serious psychological harm’ promoted by widespread religious attitudes to masturbation; ‘unnecessary and avoidable pain’ caused to animals by religious slaughter; Jehovah’s Witnesses who ‘refuse blood transfusions when critically ill’ and ‘members of religious cults who commit mass suicide’; the ‘many wars . . . carried out in the name of God’ and ‘conflicts spurred by religion . . . around the world’, including between African Christians and Muslims and conflicting schools of Islam in the Middle East; the ‘promise of a reward in the afterlife’, ‘used to encourage young men and women to kill themselves, and others, so that they can become martyrs’, ‘to deny help to the poor, helpless, and oppressed’, ‘to explain away human misery rather than deal with it’; that ‘most children are . . . brought up with the impression that it is evil not to believe, and that they will be punished – often in horrific ways, such as burning for an eternity in hell – for deviating from the rules and regulations of their parents’ religions’; that ‘belief without questioning is seen as a virtue in some, if not all, religions’.

If ‘New Atheism’ can be seen as a distinct philosophy, its central precepts can I think be summarised as follows:

  1. Religion is to blame for widespread suffering and injustice, not just due to its contingent structural embodiments, but because of its inherent epistemic nature.
  2. Religion benefits from and has historically relied on unearned deference, rendering criticism of its claims heretical, unlawful or socially unacceptable.
  3. Religion’s claims and inherent nature deserve to be criticised unflinchingly, with this deference discarded in the name of combating injustices it lets them cause unchallenged.

I’m as up as any for a new New Atheism which pays deeper attention to the social contexts in which religion operates, including with regard to ‘sexism, racism, homophobia . . . inequalities and [other] injustices’ – this was the founding principle of Atheism Plus, whose supporters are (if nothing else) right to recognise the current secular movement is at base a push ‘to make the world a better place’. I don’t think that movement is, to date, without its major faults, but I do think its core ideas as stated here are right. It would be to the planet’s benefit for religious beliefs to be taken from, or rather abandoned by, its populace. Alom’s book gives all manner of reasons why.

Each manifestation of religion above is a blight that would, at very least, have far greater difficulty arising in a more skeptical world. Many of those mentioned simply couldn’t.

Many are also born, it’s true, from factors other than religion. Suicide bombings, sexism, genital-cutting – none of these should be understood as a purely religious phenomenon, uninformed and unaffected by world politics or cultural history. Nothing, religion and its performances included, exists in a vacuum. But the fact the God idea may not be sufficient for the flying of planes into buildings doesn’t mean it isn’t likely to be necessary. To say we can’t blame religion for it since a web of other factor exists is much like saying that since fallout from prior conflicts and centuries of European racism hung behind Nazism, the Stauffenberg plot was pointless. No Hitler, in Milton Himmelfarb’s words, no Holocaust; no God, no 9/11. A shot at either’s assassination couldn’t possibly make matters worse.

I’m acutely and painfully aware that I am, in essence, lecturing someone by telling them to read their own book. (Sorry.) I don’t mean to be condescending – if I seem to be, it’s because the obvious rebuttal to Alom’s NH piece is to list grievances against religion, and I wouldn’t wish to imply (equally condescendingly) he has none of his own. I know he does; what puzzles me is that I know them to have prompted justified missives from him in the past that would look at home in the very annals of the New Atheism he lambasts. People change their minds, of course, but I heard the same criticisms from him only months after his book’s release, ones it seems itself to answer.

Even there, it’s not always clear where he stands. ‘Just as religion can provide some people with answers,’ Alom writes at one point between statements (seemingly) that it needs to be discarded, ‘it gives some people a sense of meaning, solace, and happiness – and who am I to cast judgement on that?’ ‘If believers ‘come to different conclusions about what they believe, then, unless their beliefs hurt other people, I will not condemn that for it.’ Surely the point, made elsewhere in the Handbook at some length, is that faith beliefs routinely hurt people?

Sometimes the line he takes appears reformist – the incitement to ‘outgrow religion’, to be fair, is qualified: ‘At least . . . the primitive, anachronistic form of religion that still dominates so many people’s lives’. ‘Perhaps, in the future,’ he speculates, ‘societies will rise above the fundamentally divisive nature of contemporary religion and re-invent it to better encompass our scientific knowledge of ourselves, the universe, and morality; perhaps we will shift closer to the idea of religion as a philosophy, a way to provide those who need it with guidance on how to lead better, happier lives’. ‘It is time to modify or abandon the idea of God’, he says as if hedging his bets, and ‘redefine the concept of religion’. Alom doesn’t explore how this might happen – it reads like he’s looking for a get-out clause, a reason to say a less religious planet might not be needed after all.

I don’t buy it. If he means Alain de Botton’s Religion 2.0 or the non-realist theology of Karen Armstrong or Don Cupitt should supplant conventional belief, I agree the world would end up brighter for it, but how to popularise such an approach without first smothering mainstream theism? De Botton describes his project openly as ‘religion for atheists’, and it isn’t by chance that Cupitt formed his views (and Sea of Faith Network) at Cambridge and the liberal end of Anglicanism after centuries of decline in British religion’s power. To reconstruct religion wholesale in this way would necessitate destroying it first, just as New Atheists hope to; there’s no rebuilding the church, at least in such a fundamental way, if it hasn’t been torn down.

I’m not sure, in fact, why one would want to – if literal God-belief would need extinguishing before religion was reformed, why bother with step two at all? Why seek to preserve it in name only, a cloak of empty metaphor and ritual around secular beliefs, except out of emotional attachment or lack of confidence in outright atheism? Religion has no moral viewpoint of its own once claims of fact have been thrown out, its orders we ought or oughtn’t do something relying on the thought a god is watching by whom it is or isn’t earmarked. Stripped of these claims, used a pedagogic puppet of secular ethics, how could it still be called religion? That would be abrogation, not reform – an aesthetic departure from New Atheism’s plot to bury God, but not a substantive one.

Could theism be tamed perhaps, recalibrated to be free of ‘sexism, racism, homophobia’ and capacity to hurt others, as one senses in New Humanist and at points during the Handbook is Alom’s real hope? I’m inclined to say no, at least on a mass scale or completely. Religions evolve to suit their habitats, of course, and kinder, gentler versions can and do gain traction, prompted at times by combative secular Enlightenments and culture wars. (His column cites these as unproductive; they’ve produced a Church of England whose leader says it ‘must accept . . . a revolution in the area of sexuality’, a Vatican pleading quite suddenly to be tolerated.) But my sense is that a life rooted in faith, lived by the arbitrarily imagined whims of a god who may or may not be there, will always have its casualties. I’ve been one of them. I know Alom has too.

Given the options, anyway, to ‘modify or abandon the idea of God’ – and it hasn’t had the second one very long – which does humanity seem likelier to take? Rates of religious non-belief, as noted by Tom Chivers in NH, are soaring, while political and fundamentalist beliefs are widespread; both of these, in recent decades, have grown at the middle ground’s expense. It’s easier for me to think Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and their counterparts will simply lose their grip on world populations than that mainstream forms of each will become ecumenical champions of human rights and secularism, whose followers put down their arms and opt to co-exist in harmony.

When has a culture war ever ended in a truce? And why, moreover, call off one we only just started to win?

Don’t be a Dickhead: fisking Nick Cohen’s defence of Richard Dawkins

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post called ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist‘. Currently, it’s the most-read thing I’ve ever published.

The post argues Dawkins uses racialising, xenophobic language (‘alien rubbish’, ‘Islamic barbarians’ etc.) to mount a clash-of-civilisations critique of Islam(ism) – a misguided one which empowers the neocon right and the racist far-right; that we have to read this language in the context of his praise for figures like Geert Wilders and Pat Condell; that he homogenises ‘Muslims’ as a whole into a single hyperdevout, hyperconservative mass; that he singles out Islam in specific contexts where there’s no good reason to; that there are better ways we can discuss it, including critically.

It does not argue, at any point, that Dawkins is at heart ‘a racist'; it does not argue Islam is a race, or all criticism of it racist; it does not judge anyone ‘guilty by association’. (What it says, on the last count, is that if people like the EDL retweet you – if what you say can be so easily co-opted by such people – you should rethink your rhetoric.) I know for a fact that he read it shortly after it went up, then, making all the above complaints, returned to tweeting the same kind of material with added fervour.

That’s when things got busy.

Tom Chivers, at the Daily Telegraph, cited my post in an article called ‘Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan‘.

Nesrine Malik, at Comment is free, wrote that ‘Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric‘.

Nelson Jones, at New Statesman, asked ‘Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

Martin Robbins, also at NS, said ‘Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind‘.

Owen Jones, at the Independent, asserted ‘Dawkins dresses up bigotry as non-belief – he cannot be left to represent atheists‘.

Then, finally – after these and probably a good few other salvos I managed to miss – Dawkins published a piece called ‘Calm reflections after a storm in a teacup‘, which near-epitomised the idea of doubling down. (It also persistently attacked the claim Islam is a race – a straw argument none of his critics here made, which most of us explicitly disavowed.)

Throughout all this, I heard regularly from the Dickheads – an army of online devotees who will never, ever hear anything critical of Dawkins said, no matter how nuanced or moderate. They accused me of hating freedom, being morally relativist, being left wing and long-winded (fair enough), dividing the atheist movement, knowing nothing about Islam, being racist, being PC, being ‘young and naïve’, being an ‘offensive little shit’, being in league with Mehdi Hasan. (Mehdi Hasan and I have no association whatsoever. We do not know each other. We have exchanged perhaps four or five tweets in the last year, such is the depth of our alliance.)

It’s as dehumanising to deify someone as to demonise them, and it’s one thing to like Dawkins while not thinking he’s perfect, but another to reject or try to silence anything negative said in relation to him. Secularity is not strengthened by being uncritical or unscrutinising of its press-appointed leaders, and the foremost of those deserve more scrutiny, not less. This is why Nick Cohen’s recent Spectator column, ‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim bigots, not just Christian ones. If only his enemies were as brave‘, which I’ve seen shared enthusiastically all over the place, grated on me – to the extent I thought it deserved a fisk.

It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’

Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth. With the predictability of the speaking clock, Owen Jones, the Peter Hitchens of the left, thinks the same as Craig Brown, Private Eye’s high Tory satirist. Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, says the same as Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates.

It’s certainly true much critique of Dawkins has been lazy and irrelevant – the charges, for example, that his views on religion must be invalid since he couldn’t recite to order the full, almost-never-used title of The Origin of Species (analogous, apparently, to Christians not knowing which book opens the New Testament), or because his ancestors at one time owned slaves. This does not, however, mean any critique of his rhetoric is worthless, and it seems extraordinarily self-defeating for atheists and secularists to dismiss it from the off. (See also Tom Chivers’ own response to Cohen.)

Sharp operators could sell the same piece a dozen times without changing a word. Read the papers, and you will suspect that is exactly what sharp operators have done.

Yes. I’ve read it. It’s a boring, neither-here-or-there piece. But the arguments against Dawkins’ tweets on Islam aren’t about how he’s shrillstridentaggressive or any of the usual things. They’re about his language being counterproductive and enabling racists’ agendas. Most of the people who’ve rebutted it most strongly – Chivers, Martin Robbins, Alom Shaha – are out-and-out movement atheists with vested interests in taking religion, including Islam, to task. They just want to do it better.

Cultural conservatives have always hated Dawkins for challenging traditional Christian beliefs. The liberal-left is fine with knocking Christianity, but it hates Dawkins for being intellectually consistent and tweeting — yes, that’s right, tweeting — against Islam too. Many of the charges against his inappropriate tweets are extraordinary. Jones denounces Dawkins for tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate’. If Jones can’t see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him.

Certainly, many parts of the British left (not usually the liberal parts) fail to acknowledge the Islamist far-right or counter it. This is a problem – but it doesn’t mean that when opposing things like segregated debatesanything goes. Owen Jones isn’t defending separate seating for men and women, he’s objecting to the phrase ‘these Muslims’ with its ring of xenophobia, as in ‘all these Muslims, taking our jobs’. Object to Islamism; object to Hamza Tzortzis; object to his so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy. But call them that, referring specifically to them, rather than conflating them with ‘Muslims’ as a whole. (Cohen, in fact, seems next to acknowledge this issue…)

But let me try to be fair. Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims — not just sexist god-botherers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism. It is all very well atheists saying that religion is not the same as race, because you are free to decide what god if any you believe in, but cannot choose your ethnicity. But try telling that to the persecuted Christians, Shia and Sunni of the Middle East. Their religious persecution is no different from racial persecution. I would go further and concede that Dawkins’s critics had other arguments that weren’t wholly asinine, were it not for a telling detail. They never stick their necks out and defend real liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who are being persecuted in Britain right now.

Yes we do. I do, Alom does, Owen Jones does – in fact, most of the people I know who’ve criticised Dawkins’ comments more than anyone else and shared my post with particular enthusiasm are ex-Muslims.

They stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them. Dawkins has never hurt a fly, so he’s all right. Looked at in a certain light, however, the enemies of Nahla Mahmoud might not be.

I signed the petition to protect Nahla Mahmoud. [Edit: I signed it, in fact, three and a half weeks before Nick Cohen did (the same day he responded to this post).] So should you, if you haven’t heard about her being threatened. This does not mean I have to shut up and marvel at everything Dawkins says – especially on Twitter.

I have picked on her, not because her case is unusual, but because it is so typical. She is a Sudanese refugee who became a leading figure in the British Council of ex-Muslims. Earlier this year Channel 4 gave her one minute and 39 seconds precisely to talk about the evils of Britain’s Sharia courts in Britain. In these institutions, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and women who remarry lose custody of their children. One minute and 39 seconds may not sound long enough to list their vices. But it is one minute and 39 seconds longer than the BBC has ever given her.

Nahla described how she grew up under Sharia. She was ‘always dealt with as a second-class citizen, always bought up to believe that I am an incomplete human being [who] needed a man as a guard.’

She was shocked to find the same system here in her land of refuge. ‘Muslims have been living in Britain for hundreds of years and never needed sharia courts,’ she concluded. ‘Everyone should have equal rights and live under one secular law.’

She and her family have suffered for her simple moral clarity. Salah Al Bander, a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats, went for her. (I was going to write, ‘who, surprisingly, is a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ — but given the Liberal Democrats’ awful attitudes towards women and Jews, nothing they do surprises me anymore.)

Al Bander posted an article in Arabic on the Sudanese Online website (one of the most widely read sites in Sudan and throughout the Sudanese diaspora). He called her a ‘Kafira’ (unbeliever) who was sowing discord. These are words with consequences — particularly when Al Bander added, ‘I will not forgive anyone who wants to start a battle against Islam and the beliefs of the people…’ After mosques and Sudanese newspapers took up the campaign against her, religious thugs attacked her brother and terrified her mother. Nahla told me she is now ‘very careful when I go out’.

I understand that the Cambridge Liberal Democrats have had an inquiry and decided that Al Bander’s words were misinterpreted. My point is that women like Nahla are being terrified and abused every day in Britain. I have seen Richard Dawkins speak up for them as a matter of honour and a matter of course many times, but have never heard a peep of protest from his opponents.

Well then, listen more closely. Clearly this is a terrible, stupid turn of events that needs addressing – but attention to problematic things is not a non-renewable resource, which can only go toward one thing or the other. It’s possible to fight the Al Banders of the world while also pursuing better discourse around them on our own sight; useful, in fact, I’d say. (Also, Dawkins doesn’t help matters for moderate Muslims, especially moderate Muslim women, by erasing them – referring to all who practice their religion in blanket terms as violent, fundamentalist, abusive theocrats.)

One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’

Not so – but I care less about ‘one day’ than the here and now, and here and now my feeling, to paraphrase Phil Plait, that no one in this movement is beyond critique or above reproach. Don’t be a Dickhead.

How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’

Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha

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.