Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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Coming Out Atheist: a tribute to godless people

I remember a time that I was in an airport, getting coffee before my flight and chatting with the barista. He asked where I was coming from or going to (as chatty people in airports often ask)—and I hesitated. I was coming home from an atheist conference, and I was tired, and I didn’t know if I felt up to having that conversation. But we’d been talking at the conference all weekend about how important coming out was, and I felt like I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t take this opportunity. So I went ahead. I said that I was coming home from an atheist conference, that I was an atheist writer and speaker and had been giving a talk.

And he got the biggest surprised smile on his face, and said, “Thank you. Thank you for doing that work.”

So writes Greta Christina in Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, And Why, released this spring. You know if you’ve watched her blog in recent months that she spent them writing it. I spent parts of them reading it, too.

I can’t say I’m unbiased. I’m quoted several times, thus unlikely to impede book sales on purpose. I have all kinds of reasons not to enrage the author (like she’d need it). And having had input on two drafts, I’m bound to like the final one – I’d have no right to make noises if I didn’t. There’s no point trying to be detached. If you’re seeking a balanced, neutral review, don’t seek mine. But do buy Greta’s book. It’s great.

Coming Out Atheist is in some ways a sequel to Why Are You Atheists So Angry (2012) – more precisely, a difficult second album. Her earlier book (and first atheist one) shared its title with a Skepticon talk attendees and YouTube viewers loved, itself spawned by a viral blog post. The formula makes sense: only a wilfully self-sabotaging writer could fail to capitalise on such a winning theme. After that, though, where to go? Coming Out Atheist isn’t one speech or article’s clear product, nor deliberately topical. It didn’t write itself the way its predecessor might be said to have. Whyever Greta embarked on this and not a different book, she thought about it. Her thought, I suspect, was to shine a light on other other unbelievers.

‘This book feels very much like a collaboration, even a community effort’, the book’s introduction, since cut, read. Why Are You Atheists So Angry was declaratively and self-consciously its author’s book, written Greta-Christina-style by Greta Christina of Greta Christina’s Blog, on Greta Christina’s thoughts about religion, with Greta Christina in its cover art. The maker, not just the medium, was the message. Coming Out Atheist, by contrast, spotlights dozens of names: ‘Sarah, a former Catholic’; ‘Jesse Daw[,] a 33-year-old gay man living in Fort Worth, Texas’; ‘Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Madison Scaccia (dates of service: August 2011 – present)’. ‘CoolRed38, who was brought up as a Muslim in the Middle East’. ‘CD from TX, a former passionate Christian and worship leader’.

These atheists’ and others’ stories fill the book – over 400, many of them cited there, inspired it, and the finished product pays tribute to them. Reading them changed my thinking on a hotly argued topic.

All kinds of tensions have arisen about paralleling queer and atheist struggles, something new atheism has been prone to do from Elisabeth Cornwell’s (then Richard Dawkins’) OUT Campaign to Bill Maher’s statements on unbelief and gay marriage. Straight atheists’ readiness to poach queer lexis certainly deserves reproach, but it bothers me how much critique has stressed stating one’s atheism simply isn’t like being out-LGBT – like ‘coming out’ in either case means one essential thing and nothing else.

Identities mean infinitely many things. There are people who think ‘gay’ means anyone who isn’t straight, who think it means exclusively same-sex attracted, who feel all manner of attractions but claim it since they only act on same-sex ones; people who think ‘atheist’ means any non-theist; that it means convicted god-denier; that it means confrontationalist. Many describe themselves using any of these terms because they understand them certain ways. Likewise coming out.

There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who struggled internally at length and performed tearful confession-rites to parents. There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who never struggled at all. There are queer people and atheists who took years to formulate a clear identity and those who ‘always knew’, queer people and atheists who attacked, harassed or disowned and those who surfed smoothly out of the ‘closet’, queer people and atheists who reject the notion of the closet or necessity of ‘coming out’ at all.

Taxonomising comings-out is easier to do across belief and gender-sexuality columns than it is to do within them. Queerness and godlessness are both taboos that get brushed under the rug, unspeakable politely over dinner – whatever secular heaven Britain might be thought to be, it’s still the case that calling oneself an atheist feels rude. This is a closet just as much, I think, as the ones we’ve build around sexual and gendered deviance, a constructed stigma that policies expression. We can’t speak any more sweepingly about what realities, in either case, are faced – they vary enough that to do so means homogenising queer people and atheists.

I say this as one of each. So, I’m pretty sure, does Greta. Her book’s not out yet (so to speak), but you should read it when it is.

Now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older: celebrating National Poetry Day

The most unusual thing I ever stole, as far as I can think, was a book of poems. There was no previous owner as such – at the age of fourteen, I’d received a copy like every student in my year, and while officialdom demanded these books’ return after two years, I resolved early on never to give mine back.

The book was our course anthology, containing over fifty texts to study for exams. No one was expected or supposed to read or write about that many – the book, a mass-produced A4 affair, contained sections of poetry from pre-1914, from ‘other cultures’ and by then-current national writers, from which teachers made selections – and my class must only have read and discussed umpteen. I read each last one though, slipping the slim volume into my bag instead of handing it in at lesson’s end, sneaking home with it to pore over its contents at my leisure. I remember distinctly that when I turned sixteen the month exams were held, each page was thick with spidery teenage script, annotations laced like latticework between text and images, covering it to the last square inch.

How I loved that book. The two years during which it was a course text for me were perhaps the hardest of my life, and certainly those most filled with fear: fear of going outside, fear of harassment, of physical assault, fear of being outed; fear of homeless, fear of self-harm, fear of attempting suicide; fear of failing. Fear of succeeding. The fear I most lucidly remember though, perhaps oddly given its competitors, was of my voice. Public speaking is a widespread fear especially in teenagers, and I still recall my fourteen-year-old self’s efforts not to shake during a speechmaking assignment, but more than that, I loathed my voice. Nasal, stuttering, equipped with vowels to match neither my region nor my social class, it brought me no end of embarrassment and angst. (When a line in Othello called for ‘bastard’ to be read out, my long, southern ‘a’ drenched in self-aware discomfort, I squirmed inwardly.) Somehow, the anthology I half-inched home was an antidote to this.

Humanist platitudes on literature and why to study it are ten-a-penny, mostly involving tawdry clichés: friends found between book covers, world travel from inside one’s bedroom, hot tears shed theatrically reciting A.E. Housman. Like much of humanism, seemingly in all its forms, these are unsalvageably middle class apologies, speaking to those who love English, who rejoice in it, but not who need it; whose education is for leisure not survival. My feeling (and for this I won’t apologise) is that that book of poems saved my life, or at least helped to. When I scoured its innards reading Walcott, Blake, Imtiaz Dharker, I sensed for the first time that my voice could mean something – that it might, one day at any rate, make people stop and listen if I learned to do with it a fraction of what they had; that instead of hampering me, it might grow strong like Sujata Bhatt’s titular tongue. It’s the greatest privilege there is really to have a voice, a powerful engine of hope to think yours might be heard. That shaped as well as saved me: it’s what first impressed on me that I should be a writer, a great part of what made me want to study literature. I know I’m not alone in this.

The anthology remains on my shelf, its contents having stayed with me since first reading them. This being Britain’s National Poetry Day, I’ve wondered which poem from it to share here, but only one was ever a serious contender. Simon Armitage’s ‘Kid’, the title entry from his third collection in 1992, resonates more strongly with me now than ever.

A rare trochaic pentameter, turning traditionally heroic iambs back to front, the poem’s metre suits its subject matter. Years after having flown the Batcave, a jaded adult Robin vilifies his former mentor:

I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.

The caped crusader has been found out, myths of familial warmth with Robin scotched, affairs with married women blown open, ditching his ward only to wind up destitute and alone. It’s a bleak, pained monologue, but triumphalist as Robin taunts him finally:

Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without a shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

It’s a poem for anyone who’s outgrown a hero, let alone a swathe of them – for all who’ve learnt to mistrust those they were told cared about them, as certainly my teenage self did, beaten, kicked and spat on while teachers stood by. (My former headmaster, whose insistently gendered title is revealing, is one Batman I can’t fail to envision reading Armitage’s lines. Neither of us ever deserved to know the other.) There’s a silver lining in there too, though: a suggestion we emerge taller, harder, stronger, older on anguish and betrayal’s other side. I feel sure personally that I’ve Armitage, his fellow writers and poetry at large to thank for that.

There are other texts from that anthology which merit reading (I wish I had the space to name each one), whole other volumes I could mention just as lovingly. But that stolen book of poems gave me a sense of hope and strength I desperately needed. I’ll never give it back.

Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011′s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

Rowling’s Potter spin-off could be better than the previous films

[Warning: spoilers!]

Yesterday it emerged the Harry Potter franchise isn’t done. JK Rowling’s wizarding world, following her announcement of a spin-off film series, clearly has still to give up the ghost. (Or the dragon. Or the hippogriff.)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due for release presumably within the next two years, will be inspired by the fictive textbook of that name, mentioned peripherally in the Potter series, and perhaps the real-world version marketed for charity in 2001. The textbook’s author Newt Scamander, a kind of magical David Attenborough, will be the film’s lead figure, and the story will apparently take place in twenties New York, 70 years before Harry and Hogwarts.

I’m excited about this. As someone who grew up with Rowling’s books, in fact, I’m very excited by it.

The project’s attracted critics already, of course – nestled between rejoicing Potterheads, users on Twitter have labelled it a cash-in, Warner Bros’ attempt to milk a sacred cow for never-ending profit. They’re right, of course: film studios seldom let a moneymaking series die (hence this century’s ceaseless appetite for reboots), and why should Potter be an exception? Like Imogen McSmith at the Independent though, I don’t actually mind.

Plenty of films well liked by critics and by me have been cash-ins. Before its 2008 release, Iron Man was viewed as a barrel-scraping shot at siphoning the last financial dregs of a superhero genre past its prime, more camera-friendly names like Batman, Superman and Spiderman having been exhausted; in fact, it met with acclaim and helped revitalise comic book film. It spawned two sequels, themselves quite definite money-spinners, the first admittedly perfunctory but the second (earlier this year) the series highlight. X-Men: First Class was anticipated much the same way, but tends now to be viewed by fans – in competition with X2, another cash-raker – as the best X-Men to date. Most sequels are, in the end, pursued for profit, but plenty are seen widely as eclipsing their precursors: Terminator IISpider-Man 2, Superman II, Batman Returns, The Dark KnightAliens, A Shot in the Dark, The Bourne Supremacy, Mad Max 2Star Trek II (the actually-second one), Godfather Part II; for my money, Scream 2. Beloved franchises exist, Star Trek and Bond among them, due in large part to studios’ cashing in.

Many a worthy film, of course, has been dragged through the dirt by mercenary trade-drumming. (Highlander producers, I’m looking at you: there really should have been only one.) It needn’t be so, though. Sans Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, conceived to keep a flagship show in business, it wouldn’t now be toasting its fiftieth year – and what did JK Rowling’s publishers want anyway from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, another sequel better than its predecessor, if not profit? Fantastic Beasts could be something quite special, an exemplary cash-in-done-right – if so, in fact, it may be better far and away than the Potter films preceding it. A devotee for my sins of Rowling’s books, I never cared for Warner Bros’ adaptations; actually, I loathed them. Entering production with the books not yet half-published, they form a case study in how in how not to cash in on something – and, more specifically, how not to film a literary series.

Made much too soon, they had no chance to kit out their narrative with moments of prefiguration, as a film series made now would surely do  - exploring the Chamber of Secrets Horcrux more for instance as Rowling’s novel almost did, to avoid an expodump down the line which works in print but not celluloid, or weaving the Deathly Hallows’ symbol into scenes from earlier books – but in the end, they’re just bad adaptations. Steve Kloves’ scripts don’t just leave out key details and explanations, they make needless changes for their own sake, often (especially late in the series) showing disregard and disrespect for Rowling’s source material. It means something that Harry’s mother’s eyes were the same colour his are, i.e. not brown; that Wormtail exits via redemptive, self-sacrificing hero’s death, not getting knocked out by an elf; that Snape dies where he would have years before without a man he hated, Harry’s father, not in a random fucking boathouse. Characters’ names are indiscriminately mispronounced (the ‘t’ in Voldemort is silent), and they themselves are near universally miscast. The series as a whole feels horribly disjointed, directors, sets, composers, costumes and effects changing as frequently as Hogwarts’ staircases, and aesthetically plain wrong – there’s little to no sense here of a world detached for centuries from our own.

The single biggest problem with the Harry Potter films, in all these respects, is Harry Potter – more specifically, their being adaptations of a pre-existing narrative from Rowling’s books, against which they were bound to be assessed and failed in my view to measure up. In Fantastic Beasts she offers us what is at base a Potter film sans Potter – an independent story, written straight for film, in the same universe. Gone will be Kloves’ unfaithful scripts, with them unflattering comparisons with prior texts and convoluted plots. Newt Scamander is little more than named in the Potter novels; his character and history will be new to us, accepted on their own terms, not weighed against a prior version, and he’ll be twentysomething, played by a full-grown actor from the off. (Daniel Radcliffe, never a natural talent, deserves applause for working at his craft. Ironically, the more he blossoms in indie flicks like Horns and the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings – gasp at his note-perfect Ginsberg in its trailer – the more clearly wrong he was as a blockbusting action lead.)

That this project stands alone is what makes it, and why I hope established people and plots will be avoided. Forget the previous films, however satisfactory or not you found them: JK Rowling has carte blanche here, and she’s giving us her own fantasy film, with monsters and magicians roaming Jazz Age New York. On its own strengths, that’s a mouth-watering prospect – already, I’m hoping Guillermo del Toro directs – and facts to date show that given carte blanche, Rowling impresses.

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.