Alom Shaha @ The Wheeler Centre 27th Feb

Alom Shaha
Alom Shaha

Growing up in a strict Muslim community, Alom Shaha  learnt that religion was not to be questioned. Reciting  the Qur’an without understanding it was simply a  part of life; so, too, was obeying the imam, praying  to a god he wasn’t sure existed, and enduring beatings  when he failed to attend the local mosque. Yet Shaha  was drawn to science and its power to illuminate.  As a teen, he lived between two worlds: the home  controlled by his authoritarian father, and a school  alive with books and ideas.

In a charming blend of memoir, philosophy, and  science, Shaha explores questions about faith and the  afterlife that we all ponder. This is a book for anyone  who thinks about what they should believe and how  they should live; for those who may need the facts,  as well as the courage, to break free from inherited  beliefs. In this powerful narrative, Shaha shows that  it is possible to live a compassionate, fulfilling, and  meaningful life without God.

As a little taster as to what you might expect from his coming talk at The Wheeler Centre and in the book itself, we’ve reprinted with permission an article by Alom that appeared in The Guardian Online in the UK.

No, I don’t believe in God

Alom Shaha, The Guardian, Comment is Free, Saturday 5 June 2010

I am an atheist. I imagine that the typical Cif belief reader may not think this is a particularly big deal, but it is for me, because I’m not just an atheist – I’m an apostate from Islam. Apparently there are people who would happily kill me for making such a statement. But I’m not expecting to be killed, or even threatened; despite what the BNP and certain elements of the press might want you to think, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not rabid fundamentalists who respond with violence to every perceived slight.

It’s not easy “coming out” like this. Yes, this is a term that is usually applied to people declaring their homosexuality, but there are parallels which justify its use in this context – especially if you come from the kind of background I have.

Open displays of racism were acceptable
Open displays of racism were acceptable

I grew up on a council housing estate in the Elephant and Castle, an area of London notorious for crime and poverty. My family was one of a large wave of Bangladeshi families who emigrated to the UK in the early 1970s. It was a horrid time to be a young Bangladeshi in Britain – a time when pubs displayed signs saying “no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs”, and violent racism was rife. We got used to the shouts of “go back home you dirty pakis”, and lived in fear of physical abuse ranging from being spat at to being beaten up on the street. In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that the Bangladeshi community was a close-knit and insular one.

It was not only our shared experiences as immigrants that unified us, but also our shared religion. Islam was the religion that defined many of my cultural experiences as I was growing up and it is the religion of all those “aunts” and “uncles” who will be so disappointed if they ever read this.

For many of the people I grew up with, being a Bangladeshi is inseparable from being a Muslim. The same is true of many of the Bangladeshi students I teach, as evidenced by a conversation I seem to have at least once a year with new students:

Bangladeshi Student (clearly excited and a little proud at encountering their first Bangladeshi teacher): “Are you from Bangladesh, sir?”

Me: “Yes.”

Student: “You must be a Muslim then.”

Me: “No, I’m an atheist.”

Student (now a little bewildered and visibly disappointed): “But you’re from Bangladesh, you must be a Muslim.”

I tell my students the truth, but I haven’t been so straight with the other Muslims in my life. This is an attempt to fix that. However, this is no dramatic renouncement of Islam, no attack on Islam of the sort the that some people seem to get such a hard-on for. I’m just someone whose education and life experiences have brought me to the conclusion that there probably isn’t a god and that I can live a perfectly happy, moral life without practicing any form of religion. Just as people who are gay don’t have a choice about it, I don’t think I have a choice about being an atheist – I suspect I am somehow predisposed to be a non-believer and am grateful that I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a country where I can openly express that non-belief.

Once these words are published, there’s no turning back for me, there’s no more pretending or avoiding the issue with friends and family – some of whom will be hurt and feel insulted by what I write here, some will be disappointed and genuinely concerned that I am sabotaging the future of my eternal soul, and a few will be outraged and disgusted at the thought of having anything to do with an infidel, a kafir. But my oldest, closest friends, the boys I went to primary school with, the boys I still hang out with pretty much every Friday night, the boys I consider brothers, already know I’m an atheist, just as they’d probably have known if I was gay.

It’s not for them I’ve written this piece, it’s not for my “uncles” or “aunts” either – in many ways I’d rather they didn’t read it. I’d like to say that I’ve written this as a call to action, to encourage others like me to come out as atheists. But that would be far too grand an ambition. No, the truth is that I’ve written this for the same reason so many of us tweet or blog these days: to confirm to myself, and to let others know, that we are not alone.

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