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…

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.


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.