Debate Magazine

Causing Offence – The Young Atheist’s Handbook

By Carnun @Carnunmp

Here’s another (irregularly published) post inspired by Alom Shaha’s outstanding ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook’.

I hope that these will help a few to consider donating to the campaign to get copies of the book in all English and Welsh secondary schools, the website for which can be found here:


Hair Trigger

Picture courtesy of, used without permission.


“While I don’t condone the behavior of ‘dick atheists’, I can empathise with their frustrations. I’d like to think I’m not one, but I’m not prepared… to compromise my intellectual integrity to avoid causing offense. And I will not tell my students lies about the world just because it might be what their religious parents would like me to do.” Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook

I strongly feel, as I have a lot lot of reason to assume Alom does, that the teaching of science to children owes no censorship of its core ideas and historic developments to the chance of religious offense. Science is, and likely always will be, the best method we have of comprehending reality – and children have a right to know.

However, as I’m sure each and every reader is aware, there are some who feel that a parent’s right to deny their children a decent education overrides this. Allow me to offend them:

Home-schooling a child, for example, with extremely conservative creationist material (like the infamous ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ stimulus Jonny Scaramanga lived through and now writes about over at ‘Leaving Fundamentalism‘) not only infringes upon what I feel to be their own human right to a decent education (and exposure to information), but has the potential to harm both their mental health and even job prospects.

When everyone at University (with vastly superior qualifications) is doomed for hell in your eyes it can get pretty lonely. And when ‘evolution’ is a swear-word, it’s very hard to be a biologist.

Tell this to a well-meaning fundamentalist Christian parent and you won’t get very far though. There’s a time and place for (often misrepresented) ‘firebrand Atheism’, and the issue of education – as it deals with the sensitivities of parents – may need to be approached a tad more carefully than simply telling people they may be ruining their children’s lives.

But, and this is very important to reiterate time and time again, the possibility of offending is alone no reason to keep quiet. Some set their ‘what offends me’ lower limits so sensitively that the very concept of free speech altogether would be threatened if their inability to accept criticism were taken seriously… Only that is often is.

Rampant in countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, ‘blasphemy’ charges are all to liberally handed out for such petty offences as *allegedly* burning pages of the Qur’an or *allegedly* insulting the  prophet Muhammad – often with severe physical punishments as the first port of call. The bottom line, from the point of view of secular ethics and Humanism, is that no matter how sacredly millions hold notions of a long dead paedophile, personal offense does not warrant violence towards anyone exercising their deserved freedom of expression (especially when it’s reasonable, but even when it’s not).

(And yes, that was meant to be provocative to make a small point.)

I recognize that, in many cases, it’s hardly productive, as it may be to tell a parent they’re doing it wrong, to speak with such intentional confrontational passion. I don’t consider myself to be a so-called ‘dick Atheist’, but there is a balance all of us must draw between what’s seen as ‘politically correct’ (I use the term loosely) and our outward sincerity. That said, I see no reason to pick fights where they need not be fought – and so, for example, I wouldn’t seek out a Muslim friend just to criticize Muhammad in front of them. In Islam’s case, like many other faiths (but certainly more so), my fight, for the sake of the victims, is with the religion’s numerous cancerous teachings and the fundamentalists who seek to impose them on the world. Not Muslims.

Of course, if the topic comes up in conversation I will speak honestly – but I see no need to use language reserved for the likes of the Pope when in the company of friends.

Which, even when directed solely at ideas themselves, still sets people off. Perhaps on the smallest of hair-triggers too – which, while it can be annoying (to say the least), is fine. When I say/write something publicly, everyone who comes into contact with it has the right to legitimately and intellectually criticize it. The only place a thought I have is safe from judgment is in my own brain, and rightly so.

I just wish that others would feel the same, because it’s funny how often something like this happens in public discussion (especially in America):

Person A: I think that black people are inferior.

Person B: That’s terrible! I think you’re wrong, and a bigot.


And they never see the irony…

I think the point I’m trying to make (albeit in an unnecessarily roundabout way) is that it’s perfectly fine to be occasionally labelled an arrogant, offensive, patronising ‘dick Atheist’ because if you’re vocal about it at all there’s bound to be someone who disagrees with you passionately and lazily enough  – at even the smallest detail  – to throw the supposed insult your way. All you should be concerned about is trying to prove them wrong in day-toady life by being anything but… If it worries you.

Carnun :P


The ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook 4 Schools’ campaign:

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