Heathen Manifesto? Is this what we need?

In a recent article in The Guardian, Julian Baggini wrote what he called his ‘heathen manifesto’.

These 12 rules for heathens were his way of trying to go beyond the view of atheists as militant extremists with whom it is pointless to enter into debate. Back in September 2011, Julian wrote about a ‘stalemate’ in the debate about God.

So far – quite interesting. There is a tone of shouty hectoring in some atheist writing. There is a tendency to let the extremes or the most superstitious or crass elements of faith stand for the whole of religious phenomena. In my next blog post I will begin to look at some of the 12 rules – and return later for the rest.

But before I move on – if Dr Baggini is concerned about this stalemate, that must indicate that he has a view that a debate around religion is potentially fruitful and worth facilitating.

Why?

At the end of the September 2011 piece he writes of wht needs to be done to:

get beyond name-calling and move this debate forward.

What I wonder is: forward to where?

I raise this not (only) because I am a contrary git, but because I am not sure of what the function of a debate between atheists and theists is. Is it to convince each other to change our views? While better debate in such matters may be preferable, I doubt that such activity makes any difference to where most of us stand: that is – one’s faith (or lack thereof) is rarely the result of a rational, dialectic process. Humans don’t seem to quite operate like that. Furthermore, I am not sure that this is what Julian has in mind: he is not proposing a debating chamber where atheists convert theists (or vice versa). So what kind of debate would he like?  He notes (in the Rules) the importance of secularism, and I largely agree with him on this point. However – this seems non-negotiable (rightly) – so what is there to debate?

I agree that atheists need to clarify our position, to work together and individually to face various challenges: existential, political, ethical and more. That is partly why I wrote Dispirited. However while we might well learn from some aspects of some religious traditions (to disavow this view does seem like militant dogmatism), and have personal and philosophical discussions within the detail of more and less individual contexts and settings: the idea of ‘public debate’ between the larger social groupings seems to make little sense to me. As an aside, I am not quite sure even what ‘public debate’ actually means: does anyone else?

Julian Baggini writes:

It is time, therefore, for those of us who are tired of the status quo to try to shift the focus of our public discussions of atheism into areas where more progress and genuine dialogue is possible

I agree that there is work to do here, and will in future posts engage with the idea he puts forward in his manifesto, but I wonder what we might recognise as success in the context of a public discussion, or what public dialogue even hopes to be.

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2 comments

  1. [...] I said in a previous post, I share much of his view that atheism is too often seen as arrogant, shouty and aggressive. That [...]

  2. The thing I find frustrating is that atheist talk about religion is fixated on belief. Yes, believing in a supernatural, transcendent, omnipotent creator deity is rather bizarre – but that’s not the whole of religion. The only religion that makes a complex belief system a test of membership is Christianity. Even Islam just has the shahada, and that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. for most other religions, the key test of membership is belonging and practice.

    Atheist talk on the Bible is fixated on pointing out its contradictions and its inhumane bits, as if all Christians regarded it as infallible and the received word of God. They don’t. A quick search on the internet (for Marcus Borg, John Spong, Richard Holloway, Karen Armstrong, Paul Tillich, and even Bishop Kallistos Ware) would reveal some more nuanced ways of interpreting the bible.

    And the same goes for understandings of the divine / numinous.

    Practices such as meditation can help people to become more compassionate and able to engage in social justice activities.

    Symbolism of the Earth as Gaia can help people to want to take care of the Earth.

    On the other hand, spiritual practices and symbolism can also make people disappear up their own backsides. it all depends on whether one takes these claims literally or not, or sees them as means to an end.

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