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Review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook—But Not Here

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 11 2014

YAH-CoverFor much of the past year I hoped to find the time to read and review UK science teacher Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook, which had great buzz among softer atheist voices. Finally I found a moment last year to dig into the book. And loved it. It’s a brisk, wonderful read—and every bit as moving, and as laudably pluralistic, as its reputation suggested. It was an experience I really enjoyed. I wanted to tell people about it.

The question was, where?

As many readers know, I am an atheist in my personal life. At the same time, in my professional life I am an advocate for old school “scientific” skepticism (PDF). I regularly argue that the distinct and valuable tradition of scientific skepticism should be clearly distinguished from other parallel rationalist movements, and from the religious and political beliefs of individual skeptics—including my own. Skepticism is not an atheists only club.

But I’m not a machine. I have my own personal, extra-scientific beliefs beyond my work in skepticism. I don’t think most readers judge too harshly if I mention those beliefs from time to time as a personal aside. With that in mind, I’ve occasionally  put on my atheist’s hat here at Skepticblog, as I did in 2012 to review another pluralistic atheist memoir: Chris Stedman’s Faitheist. I generally just hang a little flag on those instances—a disclaimer explaining that I’m bending or suspending my own policy as a special case—and figure that about covers it.

But as my review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook grew to 2,700 words of pure atheism and personal opinion about atheism, I started to feel uncomfortable about the convenient option of publishing it here, or from any of the Skeptics Society‘s platforms. It felt like a bend too often, and too far. A bend into hypocrisy.

I sat on the piece for a few weeks. Then I consulted with my publisher Michael Shermer about options. Then I sat on it some more.

Finally I reached out to Chris Stedman, whose book Faitheist makes such a fine companion to Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook. Stedman graciously proposed that he submit an excerpt from the review as a guest post for his Religion News Service “Fatheist” blog, and then also post the entire piece separately a few hours later.

And so, that’s what we did. The full version is live now at the at the NonProphet Status blog.  The excerpt version, drawn from the end of the review, is also live now over at RNS (where it appears under the headline, “Should atheists proselytize? Thoughts on ‘The Young Atheist’s Handbook'”).

I hope you enjoy the review—and because I loved Shaha’s memoir, I hope you buy the The Young Atheist’s Handbook.

Note to Commenters: I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.

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6 Responses to “Review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook—But Not Here”

  1. matt crowley says:

    From the review: “I don’t know whether humanity would hypothetically be better off without faith, but I’ve come to feel that denouncing and opposing religion mostly just makes the world worse—for atheists, and for everyone.”

    Really? Does denouncing the results of faith and religion such as female genital mutilation, suicide bombings, torment of children with visions of Hell, demotion of women to second class, etc, make the world worse? Are you really asserting that we should NOT denounce such things?

    • Just as I don’t care either way about any religious implications that a given testable claim may have when I critique it as a skeptic, as a humanist I likewise support criticism of bad practices regardless of their religious justifications or affiliations. Very often—I think almost always, at least over the long term—specific harmful social attitudes or cultural practices can be separated out and meaningfully addressed without first ridding the world of religion. (In this way, for example, America is increasingly in favor of marriage equality, even though it remains highly religious.)

      Specific bad behaviours ought always to be critiqued. Does anyone disagree, theist or otherwise? We only argue over what behaviours those might be.

      But merely believing there is or isn’t a god or gods or an afterlife or so on—all that is your own business. I’m pleased when people think deeply about existence and meaning and about how to live life wisely and well, even when I disagree with the conclusions they reach. I think it’s entirely possible that “religion” (whatever that might be) is a net benefit for humanity. Unquestionably it is a positive part of the lives of some individuals, and a negative part of the lives of others.

    • Daniel says:

      Although I’m not religious, I grew up in a religiously observant household, and attended a synagogue that was full of very smart and compassionate people. The rabbi, who died a year ago, was a certified genius that had about two thousand people attend his memorial service, mostly Jews of course, but also Chrisitians, Hindus, Muslims and a few atheists, one of whom is my dad (it’s a long story). Similarly, my best friend’s father was a devout Roman Catholic and very respected surgeon, who raised five successful children. Religion worked for them, and, so far as I know, they did not practice female genital mutilation, advocate suicide bombing, or torment their children (or me for that matter) with visions of hell. My rabbi’s wife decided to go law school in her 50s, and is now a prominent civil rights attorney, so I think it’s safe to say that he didn’t demote his wife to being a second class citizen. Same as my friend’s sisters, one of whom is a lawyer, the other a PhD.

      Similarly, most of the atheists I know aren’t too keen on the murder or the mass enslavement of large swathes of humanity by the likes of their atheist brethren, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao. And I’m pretty sure that my atheist friends understand that a religious farmer in the American Midwest knows a lot more about feeding whole populations than any atheist Communist has ever known.

  2. V. Berthelsdorf says:

    Far too many athiests treat athiesm as a replacement for a religion they have left. They then feel the need to “preach” the wisdom of their conversion to others. The rational of athiesm should be obvious to skeptics, and somewhat like preaching to the choir as it were. As an athiest & skeptic I enjoy your blog. I think you made the right choice.

  3. Randy Grein says:

    A great review. I can appreciate the conflicted perspective, education vs. tolerance, having to walk that tightrope myself at times. In general I like to educate, although it is very difficult to do so until the audience is ready, so I try to avoid the argument unless someone else brings up some of the quainter notions in religion. Then it’s a matter of presenting evidence in a mild tone, allow the other person the chance to rebut, and walk away at the end. (Oddly enough, I was just listening to a podcast, the Modern Manners Guy, the episode is titled “When to walk away from an argument”.)

    Otherwise I try to remember people have the right to believe what they want. It allows me to maintain a happy marriage and friendships with many people of faith. Remember, ‘none of the above’ may be the #3 religious choice, but we are still a small minority.

  4. Johnny says:

    “But merely believing there is or isn’t a god or gods or an afterlife or so on—all that is your own business.”

    I agree that legally it is. However, you are overlooking those scientists who feel that science and religion are not compatible ( http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/06/23/science-and-religion-are-not-compatible/ ) or even Steven Novella who thinks (if I’m not mistaken) that belief in an afterlife is to neurology as creationism is to biology. At least you haven’t addressed that point of view. It’s something very wrong with trumpeting your own point of view on a controversial matter as the end of the story. Especially when you are not a scientist yourself, and clearly many scientists do disagree with your point of view as to the (in)compatibility between science and religion. Remember what you yourself wrote about what (if anything) skeptics can say about science ;)