Editorial: Pork, alcohol and sex
Leaving religion behind
The opening chapter of The Young Atheist’s Handbook, the new book by our cover star Alom Shaha, is dedicated to the joys of the bacon sandwich. Or more accurately a particular bacon sandwich, the one he ate when he was a young waiter, the first one he had ever eaten, the one that confirmed the fact that he was now prepared to go against the precepts of Islam, the religion he had grown up within, the religion of his parents and the Bangladeshi community in South London where he grew up. It is a big moment for him: both marking his emancipation from a faith he no longer believed in and symbolising the long-forbidden secular joys – pork, alcohol, sex – that his new-found status as a self-described atheist entitled him to sample. Shaha’s book skilfully weaves together a narrative of his life growing up in Elephant and Castle with the arguments and ideas – from physics to philosophy – that led him to question and then reject the religion of his parents. He reveals why he felt compelled to write it.
Shaha is convinced that it is vital for those who do not accept the revealed truth of religion, especially those brought up Muslim, to say so, in order that young people are aware of the full spectrum of options available to them. But no doubt he will still be denounced as the latest example of that new scourge of society, the aggressive, militant atheist. On both sides of the Atlantic religious conservatives have recently been ramping up the rhetoric against secularists. In the US President Obama – not exactly a stranger to a pew – is denounced by Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich as the “mastermind of a secular-socialist machine”, and the language is hardly less absurd in Britain – former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says militant secularists are trying to bully Christians, the Conservative Party Chair Sayeeda Warsi says militant secularism is akin to totalitarianism and, best of all, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Catholic, says it’s time to call a halt to progress. Meanwhile David Cameron, trying to play both ends against the middle in his tepid support for gay marriage, in a recent speech commends the Christian “fightback”. For a cool take on all this overheated nonsense read News Editor Paul Sims' look at the phony war on British secularism, and Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau's analysis of the threats to the US separation of church and state.
While defenders of the faith would like to think that religion plays a wholly benign role in society, this issue makes abundantly clear the harm it can cause. James Gray reports on the recent growth in exploitative fringe religious groups, aka cults, while Sarah Ditum looks at the recent disturbing cases where accusations of spirit possession have led to the torture and murder of children.
In the light of such horrors it can be hard to retain faith in humanity. For inspiration turn to our profile of the indefatigable campaigner on behalf of the victims of torture and genocide, Helen Bamber. Since her volunteer work as a teenager in Belsen, Bamber, now 86, has been listening to and supporting the survivors of man’s inhumanity to man for more than six decades, and has still managed to retain her sense of humanity and faith in the human spirit. An equally human and humane approach is offered by former Bishop Richard Holloway in our books interview. Holloway’s memoir, Leaving Alexandria, narrates the story of his journey into, through and eventually out the other side of organised religion. Though Alom Shaha and Richard Holloway are from very different religious traditions, their conclusions are markedly similar: one of faith’s biggest flaws is its cruel and repressive approach to human sexuality.