積ん読This is the Japanese word "tsundoku", meaning "the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with such other unread books" (amazing that such a short word can mean such a thing, but I'll trust that the internet isn't lying to me on this occasion). I have such a pile in my living room, containing well over 50 books. The pile emits a special radiation that induces guilt when I am in its vicinity...
Dear Mr. Shaha
I read your book in Turkish some time ago. When I read your statement that you don't know if your book can translate into your mother tongue or not, I feel sorry for you and feel myself lucky at the same time. I'm a Turkish Republic citizen and this kind of books can translate into my language. Unfortunately Islamist movements are getting stronger in Turkey day by day. We can't even announce that we are atheists. Otherwise no one give a chance to us in social life or for employment. Sometimes we are lucky just to keep alive.
Recently we experience a new kind of Islamist pressure. Islamist groups started a campaign against atheism pages on Facebook. They invite Muslims to some kind of jihad (a version for social network) and want them to inform atheist groups to Facebook administration with outrages insults. They are so crowded so Facebook shut atheism pages based on that false reports.
Lots of atheism pages shut down or force to hide. After that, some Turkish atheism groups started opposite campaign. All atheists inform that page for hate crime. It was a meaningless online war but it was Islamists fault and atheists had to defend themselves. I read some of messages on that their page. A man said, "I feel like to take my gun and go to war." Religious people acted like they are in a real war against atheists. Most popular message was, "...until no ateist exists."
You said, "My Turkish brothers/sisters stories must be like my story" in your book. You were right. So I just want you to learn these incidents.
An atheist from Turkey
The Turkish edition of The Young Atheist's Handbook was published a few weeks ago. Over there, the publishers have gone with a different title, Tanrının Öldüğü Gün ("The Day God Died"), taken from chapter one of the English edition. Here's the introduction I wrote for it:
There is a Turkish grocery store in my neighbourhood which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is a remarkable sight on Christmas day, when most of London is eerily still and quiet because almost all other shops and businesses are closed. The shop is popular with locals - the staff are friendly and helpful and there is a wonderful selection of products including, of course, Turkish Delight. I often stop there on my way home from work to buy fresh ingredients - coriander, chilies, ginger and garlic, and usually some lamb chops or liver - with which to cook my evening meal. I suspect the shop's butcher thinks I buy my meat there (instead of from the supermarket where it is cheaper) because it is halal, after all, I look like many of the other Bangladeshi Muslims who live locally. He always greets me with a cheerful "asalamu-alaikum brother" and I always reply "walaikum salaam". I have never had the opportunity to, nor seen the need to tell him that I am not a Muslim, that I am an Atheist. I wonder what he would think? Would I fall in his estimation? In an ideal world, he would simply shrug and still call me "brother" and continue to wish peace upon me.
As a child, when I still thought of myself as a "Muslim", I was excited to find out that the Turkish children at school were also Muslim, as I had previously only known Bangladeshi Muslims. It seems to be a human instinct that we prefer people who are similar to us, so I am sure that many Bangladeshis and Turks in the UK will have first become friends through their common religion.
Just as I grew uncomfortable with following Islam as I grew older, I know there must be young Turkish people in both the UK and in Turkey who realise that the religious stories handed down to them by their parents are not ones which they can believe. I know there must be Turkish people who go through the same difficulties that I have seen so many Bangladeshi "Ex-Muslims" go through in the UK and it is my hope that my book might, in some small way, help them make their own journey towards happy, fulfilling lives as non-believers.
It seems to me that Bangladesh and Turkey both have a complicated relationship with religion and democracy, and that secularism is under attack in these countries which have previously taken pride in their separation of state and religion. I have been saddened by the many reports of state persecution of anyone, particularly artists and writers, who openly criticise Islam in Turkey. As I write this, the Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say faces trial later this year, on charges of "insulting Islamic values". He has said that the trial is "saddening not only when judged on its own merit but also for Turkey's image."
It is therefore heartening that a Turkish publisher has chosen to publish my book, which is very much one that promotes atheism and encourages the questioning of Islam, and indeed any religion, as a way of life. I don't know if there will ever be a Bangladeshi translation of my book but I am incredibly grateful to my Turkish publishers for giving me the opportunity to take my story to people in Turkey. I wish I could read Turkish because I am sure that Nuray Onoglu has done a wonderful job with the translation - I know of the care and attention she took to ensure that she was accurately conveying what I wrote in English.
My story is one of a Bangladeshi child who grew up in the UK, but I hope it is one that will resonate with my Turkish brothers and sisters everywhere. With peace and love,
London, July 2012
What's the point of Atheism? That's the title of a panel discussion I'll be taking part in at this weekend's "Battle of Ideas" at the Barbican, organised by the Institute of Ideas. The blurb on the event's webpage asks "how relevant is [atheism] in a society where fewer and fewer people are being raised with a belief in gods which they can reject? Is it precisely the lack of an experience of this personal emancipation, or journey towards humanism and reason, that leads atheists instead to direct their hostility at religious believers and institutions?"
I'm sure the writer of these questions was trying to be provocative but I hope that he or she does not really believe that "coming out" as an atheist is no longer a big deal for anyone, that the journey to atheism is an easy one for all of us. I think there's a misconception held by many people that atheists are some kind of homogenous mass of cosy liberals with nothing better to do than casually adopt the latest identity fad so that they can go around feeling superior. But not all atheists are the same and, even in 21st century UK, being openly atheist is simply not an option for far too many of our fellow citizens.
Within a one mile radius of where I live in South-East London, there are numerous shops that have been converted into churches serving the local African and South American communities. There's even an old pub that's been converted into a mosque. Religion still plays a massive role in the lives of many of my neighbours and I see children all around me being raised to believe in the god of their parents. Like me, most of these people are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Unlike me, religion remains central to their cultural life and therefore to their sense of identity. For the atheists among them, and I assure you they are there, it is not necessarily easy to be open about their lack of faith - they risk being ostracised from family and friends, and indeed the wider community. For many, this may be too high a price to pay. Instead, these people live compromised lives, ones in which they cannot be true to themselves and have to lie to those around them.
I've heard heartbreaking stories from many such people - both face to face at meetings of "ex-Muslims" arranged via the internet and in numerous emails I've received since I first started writing and talking about my atheism in public. But don't just take my word for it - in 2011, Suzanne Brink and Nicholas Gibson of the University of Cambridge carried out a study, "Losing Faith without Losing Face", which found that "There are cases in which people have ceased to believe in their religion yet continue to pretend to believe in that religion. The reasons behind this decision are generally social in nature. It may be that they are afraid of getting hurt when stating their disbelief openly, or it may be that they do not see enough merit in disclosing their newly found disbelief to justify hurting the people whom they love... around one-third of all narratives included statements to the effect that the authors considered it a necessity to keep their deconversion a secret."
It seems to me that how we see the world is central to our sense of self; I cannot help but feel that people who are unable to be honest about these matters are, in a very real sense, oppressed by their circumstances and forced to lead unfulfilled lives. So while much of the public discourse around atheism may indeed be pointless - the world probably doesn't really need any more books putting the case against the existence of god - there is every point in continuing the discussion around atheism if doing so allows more people to break free from the pressures that keep them leading lives of quiet misery as secret non-believers. What's the point of atheism? Well, for me, it's simple: it's about standing up for the truth, about being honest with oneself, and the world at large, about how we think the world actually is.
31st July Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub (SitP)
9th August Book Barge, Barton Marina, Staffordshire
16th August Reading SitP
18th August London, Housman's Bookshop
21st August Edinburgh SitP
25th August Talk for the "Ancestors' Trail" in Somerset
27th August Greenbelt Festival
28th August Cambridge SitP
30th August Hampshire SitP
5th September Oxford Sitp
11th Sept London SitP
16th September Blenheim Palace Literary Festival
18th Sept Leicester SitP
11th October Leicester Secular Society
17th October Bedford SitP
25th October University College London Union Atheist and Humanist Society
29th Oct Hackney SitP
1st November Goldsmiths Humanist Society (open to the public)
8th November Greater Manchester Skeptics
29th November Ealing Central Library
If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I give over quite a few pages to the significance of bacon in my life. Here’s a short film made by my friend Barry Gibb which explains why eating bacon for the first time was, for me, a liberating rite of passage:
As you’ve probably gathered if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I’ve been relentlessly trying to build up interest in my book over the last few months in the hope that people might buy it when it’s finally released in the UK on July 19th. Not sure how successful my efforts have been (I suspect they’ve been pretty futile) but I’ve particularly enjoyed making this series of short videos which summarise what I think are the key “lessons” from the book. The films were animated by Jack Kenny and the music was composed and performed by Jack Challoner
2. Parents are our first Gods
4. Books make us better
It’s Father’s Day in the UK today, and I suspect many people will spend at least a few moments thinking about, and being grateful for, their dads. It feels like today is an appropriate day to share this short film, which encapsulates what I think is probably the central “lesson” from The Young Atheist’s Handbook.
It’s still a couple of months until my book will be published in the UK (July 17th), but Biteback have decided on this beautiful design for the cover of the UK edition and the lovely people at the British Humanist Association have organised an event to launch the book with A.C. Grayling, Samira Ahmed, Robin Ince and Adam Rutherford all kindly giving up their time to speak.