Heathen atheists? Part 1…

As promised, I wanted to make some comments about Julian Baggini‘s article in the Guardian, his Heathen Manifesto.

As I said in a previous post, I share much of his view that atheism is too often seen as arrogant, shouty and aggressive. That doesn’t mean that this is true of all, or even that many, atheists, but the discussion of Theism and Atheism in the public realm is often futile, combative and just plain annoying. So I was heartened by his statement of intent:

Julian BagginiThis manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.

This seems intriguing, at least. And off he goes with 12 principles. I will not be delving into all of them in detail, in this post. Just the first one. But I shall (be warned) return to some in the future…

He starts with what atheists call themselves. There has been much discussion around this. Some feel ‘atheist’ is too negative – too much “not-one-of-those”. So perhaps ‘humanist’.

I don’t much like this term, which I discuss the term in Dispirited, where I state that:

Humanism often has noble intentions, but regularly appears as a parody of religious groups.

I go on to say more – but the term seems rather aged and locked into a liberal, institutional political setting in our culture that means it only appeals to some atheists, and really repels others. That won’t do then. We have ‘brights’ for atheists.

Calling those who reject the supernatural and the theistic ‘brights’ is fairly new, but already seems in decline. Despite Daniel Dennett’s claim that ‘bright’ doesn’t imply that the religious person is ‘dim’ – most seem to read it that way, and I would be surprised to see the term last another decade in common use. So – Baggini is right in that stage may be set for a new term.

So he opens the manifesto with: 1. Why We are Heathens.

I have seen a lot of criticism of this term. I don’t much like it myself, and don’t expect it to catch on. Lots of critics have complained that heathen actually has two main flaws:

  1. Heathen historically has referred to believers. Whether it be historical pagans of various sorts, or some damn variety of neo-pagan reconstructionists, they have been believers. Often in many Gods, or Godessess, or in some kind of nature-focused monistic pantheism. But they clearly where/are not unbelievers.
  2. The other objection is that term is often used in a derogatory manner, as a (not very strong) insult against the ungodly. It certainly has a pejorative tone.

Those making objection 1 have a point, but it is not that fatal. Words change their meaning over time – and I am sure Baggini knows the problem, but thinks the benefits derived, and common usage as time goes on, will deal with its legacy-meanings.

Objection no.2 is clearly only put forward by those who have not fully read, or taken on board, what Baggini has to say about the term. Indeed, they seem to miss his key point in favour of the term by doing so. He knows that it is a pejorative term. That is his point, to a large degree. He says so:

If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. “Heathen” fulfils this ambition

While I am still unconvinced by the actual term – the first point here is telling. Atheists are often portrayed (and I don’t intend, here, to get into the details of whether there is any basis for that portrayal) as over-earnest, smug, humourless and arrogant. This term demonstrates humour, and humility. Two substantial virtues. I was rather surprised that so many rushed to point out that the term was offensive and abusive -when that was actually (at least in large part) the actual point of selecting it.

So I will not be using the term, I dislike the register and also think it sounds way too close to all those mind/body/spirit things that I’d like to disassociate from atheism. However, I think he is well justified in looking for a better term here. Just for the record, I like his principles 3, 5 (a bit), 7, and 10 (only a little, but yes).

So for now – what will I call myself? Maybe I’ll have to stick with miserable, atheistic, existentialist nihilist git for a while longer yet…

7 comments

  1. I’m always a tad doubtful when people offer the ‘reclaiming language’ argument. Words like queer and n****r are extremely loaded and best used within those communities for a good reason.

    I find heathen problematic simply because of its negative connotations – particularly related to christian missionaries going off to convert the natives.

    You can be a miserable, atheistic, existentialist nihilist git for a bit longer if I can be a fundamentalist atheist! (And there’s another loaded word – fundamentalist!)

  2. Living in the Bible Belt of the USA, I am always amazed to hear criticisms such as “atheism is too often seen as arrogant, shouty and aggressive”. Here one rarely hears of atheists at all. They have in general learned to stay quiet. If it is known, they are usually viewed as morally inferior and in major need of salvation, i.e. missionary work).

    1. Thanks Mott, that very interesting..

      The view I am representing here is how the UK media (partly through reporting, and partly through who gets to speak for atheism) seem intent on portraying it. The papers here often contain complaints from Christians about how “militant atheists” are sidelining faith and the like. It is not really true, but nonetheles it is a common discourse in papers like the Daily Mail.. See http://liberalconspiracy.org/2012/02/12/hysterical-claims-that-christians-are-under-attack-are-rubbish/

      Thanks again for the comment..

  3. Well I just don’t think there is anything wrong with atheist myself. Yes someone people abuse it, but I don’t think it is any reason to give it up.

  4. I wish people would not use the term “neo-pagan”. Protestant Christians are not referred to as neo-Christians. Why the heck should Pagans get a neo prefix? It’s not our fault if pre-Christian religions got persecuted out of existence, thus creating a hiatus.

    Also, the term Heathen does indeed refer to Pagans who follow Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Germanic mythology and practice – so it seems daft for atheists to be called that.

    I refer to myself as a non-theist (I think there’s an ineffable wossname but it doesn’t have a personality) and don’t care that it involves a negation. The via negativa is an accepted part of mystical theology. So atheists, be atheist and proud (but please stop being shouty at liberal religions – we’re on the same side).

  5. I call myself antitheist, which is appropriate for me personally, though clearly not for all atheists.
    Totally agree about Humanism, I instictively reject its ‘life is meaningful’ assertion, as you do in the book. Humanism seems a substitute for religion, which is what we do not want or need.

  6. [...] so much so that some aren’t even sure about the term atheist, and others think it needs a [...]

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