The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This 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.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.


Why we are heathens

It has long been recognised that the term “atheist” has unhelpful connotations. It has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for … “humanists” are a subset of atheists who have a formal organisation and set of beliefs many atheists do not share … “rationalist” and “bright” both suffer from sounding too self-satisfied, too confident, implying that others are irrationalists or dim.

…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. We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.

I accept that there are many unhelpful associations that the “New Atheist” publicity has brought to the term, but I’m not sure that it is quite time to ditch it. Baggini writes that heathens lack divine revelation, and deny the existence of any supernatural deity (see point 2), but this would imply that “atheist” is the most accurately descriptive term. Traditionally, “heathen” has denoted someone who holds to beliefs outside of Christianity, and as such is a positive claim. I’m not sure that Baggini quite navigates this distinction, and this is a theme that emerges a few times in the Manifesto.


2 Heathens are naturalists

Heathens are not merely unbelievers: we believe many things too. Most importantly, we believe in naturalism: the natural world is all there is and there is no purposive, conscious agency that created or guides it. This natural world may contain many mysteries and even unseen dimensions, but we have no reason to believe that they are anything like the heavens, spirit worlds and deities that have characterised supernatural religious beliefs over history. Many religious believers deny the “supernatural” label, but unless they are willing to disavow such beliefs as in the reality of a divine person, miracles, resurrections or life after death, they are not naturalists.

One of the reasons that I like Baggini’s writing is that he is eager to define his terms clearly to avoid confusion. I am also impressed by his willingness to embrace naturalism as a belief, as a positive truth-claim about the world. As a Christian, I completely disagree with his belief but I respect him for stating it clearly and in a way that allows discussion.


Our first commitment is to the truth

Although we believe many things about what does and does not exist, these are the conclusions we come to, not the basis of our worldview. That basis is a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have … Hence we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong. It also means that we respect and have much in common with people who come to very different conclusions but have an equal respect for truth, reason and evidence. A heathen has more in common with a sincere, rational, religious truth-seeker than an atheist whose lack of belief is unquestioned, or has become unquestionable.

I embrace this commitment wholeheartedly.


We respect science, not scientism

Heathens place science in high regard, being the most successful means humans have devised to come to a true understanding of the real nature of the world on the basis of reason and evidence. If a belief conflicts with science, then no matter how much we cherish it, science should prevail. That is why the religious beliefs we most oppose are those that defy scientific knowledge, such as young earth creationism.

Nonetheless, this does not make us scientistic. Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all. There are scientistic atheists but heathens are not among them. Science is limited in what it can contribute to our understanding of who we are and how we should live because many of the most important facts of human life only emerge at a level of description on which science remains silent. History, for example, may ultimately depend on nothing more than the movements of atoms, but you cannot understand the battle of Hastings by examining interactions of fermions and bosons. Love may depend on nothing more than the physical firing of neurons, but anyone who tries to understand it solely in those terms just does not know what love means.

This one is a little tricky for me. The recognition of science vs scientism is important, and it is very valuable to have this stated clearly. What I’m less clear on is how Baggini can reconcile this with point 2, which very clearly claims that the natural world is all that there is. But if the natural world is all that there is, and science is the best means of discovering truth about the natural world, then surely the true meaning of the battle of Hastings is ultimately a purely scientific pursuit?

I’m glad that he recognises that there is more to the world and human experience than scientific analysis can deduce, but I’m not sure that he’s left any space in his worldview for that “more”.


We value reason as precious but fragile

Heathens have a commitment to reason that fully acknowledges the limits of reason. Reason is itself a multi-faceted thing that cannot be reduced to pure logic. We use reason whenever we try to form true beliefs on the basis of the clearest thinking, using the best evidence. But reason almost always leaves us short of certain knowledge and very often leaves us with a need to make a judgment in order to come to a conclusion. We also need to accept that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, susceptible to biases, distortions and prejudices that lead even the most intelligent astray. In short, if we understand what reason is and how it works, we have very good reason to doubt those who claim rationality solely for those who accept their worldview and who deny the rationality of those who disagree.

Great points, ties in well with his earlier objections to “brights” and “rationalists” as suitable labels. Recognising the limits of our own reason is all too rare in human discourse. I try to maintain the same level of respect for reason and awareness of its limitations.


We are convinced, not dogmatic

The heathen’s modesty about the power of reason and the certainty of her conclusions should not be mistaken for a shoulder-shrugging agnosticism. We have a very high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic worldview. But we do not dogmatically assert it. Being open to being wrong and to changing our minds does not mean we lack conviction that we are right. Strength of belief is not the same as rigidity of dogma.

Again, a useful point. I have similar impatience with rigidly asserted dogma. I don’t share his high degree of confidence in the naturalistic worldview, but that’s a different matter.


We have no illusions about life as a heathen

… Ours is a universe without guarantees of redemption or salvation and sometimes people have terrible lives or do terrible things and thrive. On such occasions, we have no consolation. That is the dark side of accepting the truth, and we are prepared to acknowledge it. We are heathens because we value living in the truth. But that does not mean that we pretend that always makes life easy or us happy. If the evidence were to show that religious people are happier and healthier than us, we would not see that as any reason to give up our convictions.

This is a brave statement to make, and I applaud Baggini for having the courage of his convictions. I respect that he values the truth so highly.

Personally, I feel that he has missed the boat a little; he acknowledges that there is no comfort or consolation in atheism and that religious people may be happier and healthier, due to the hope that they feel. Again speaking as a Christian, I would suggest that the hope, happiness and health are due to the comfort and consolation that follows from a relationship with God. But that’s just my perspective.


We are secularists

We support a state that is neutral as regards people’s fundamental worldviews. It is not neutral when it comes to the shared values necessary for people of different conviction to live and thrive together. But it should not give any special privilege to any particular sect or group, or use their creeds as a basis for policy. Politics requires a coming together of people of different fundamental convictions to formulate and justify policy in terms that all understand, on the basis of principles that as many as possible can share.

This secularism does not require that religion is banished from public life or that people may not be open as to how their faiths, or lack of one, motivate their values. As long as the core of the business of state is neutral as regards to comprehensive worldviews, we can be relaxed about expressions of these commitments in society at large. We want to maintain the state’s neutrality on fundamental worldviews, not purge religion from society.

This is a bold vision, and I have no inherent issues with it, but honestly I don’t believe that humans are capable of actually achieving the society which he describes.

A major issue for me is that justice, morality and ethics are intractably bound up with the value system of the individual, which is overwhelmingly based on their religious convictions and worldview. I don’t see a practical way around this. So far, in the West, we have achieved largely secular states by taking Christian ethics and trying to strip the Christianity out of them to avoid offending anyone else. But the philosophical basis for those ethics is that very same Christianity, so I’m not sure this is a sustainable long-term option.


Heathens can be religious

There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and who see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. We have very little evidence that anything more than a small fraction of actual existent religion is like this, but when it does conform to this description, heathens have no reason to dismiss it as false.

Apart from Scientism (and perhaps secular humanism), I can’t think of a religion that meets these requirements. It’s a nice conciliatory gesture, but I don’t think that this is really a significant point. Baggini is basically saying that, “You can be religious, as long as your religion is ‘heathen’ as defined in this manifesto.”


10 Religion is often our friend

We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided. We are also sympathetic to religion when its effects are more benign than malign. We appreciate that commitment to truth is but one value and that a commitment to compassion and kindness to others is also of supreme importance. We are not prepared to insist that it is indubitably better to live guided by such values allied with false beliefs than it is to live without such values but also without false belief.

This is a more useful conciliatory gesture, but actually raises more issues than it addresses. Baggini acknowledges the value of religious values of social justice and compassion, and claims them as shared values, but doesn’t actually make it clear why those are important values from an atheist worldview. It is great to say that “commitment to truth is but one value and that a commitment to compassion and kindness to others is also of supreme importance”, and I can understand why all those things are important values in Christianity. What I can’t quite see is why compassion and kindness are important social values from a naturalistic atheist worldview.


11 We are critical of religion when necessary

Our willingness to accept what is good in religion is balanced by an equally honest commitment to be critical of it when necessary. We object when religion invokes mystery to avoid difficult questions or to obfuscate when clarity is needed. We do not like the way in which “people of faith” tend to huddle together in an unprincipled coalition of self-interest, even when that means liberals getting into bed with homophobes and misogynists. We think it is disingenuous for religious people to talk about the reasonableness of their beliefs and the importance of values and practice, while drawing a veil over their embrace of superstitious beliefs. In these and other areas, we assert the right and need to make civil but acute criticisms.

And although our general stance is not one of hostility towards religion, there are some occasions when this is exactly what is called for. When religions promote prejudice, division or discrimination, suppress truth or stand in the way of medical or social progress, a hostile response is an appropriate, principled one, just as it is when atheists are guilty of the same crimes.

I agree with some points here, but the same problems from point 10 are evident. Baggini objects to religions promoting prejudice, division or discrimination, but it may be difficult to rationally explain what’s wrong with those things from a  purely naturalistic worldview.

I think Baggini is mistaken when he talks of “huddling”, at least as regards Christianity. I think that the perception of a huddle collective Christianity is more a theme in secular media than in reality, it’s certainly not something that I have experienced in my three decades of church attendance on five continents. For instance, I’m a Christian but I have little time for Young Earth Creationism (see this earlier post, for instance), and I am similarly impatient with liberal theology.

I also think that his sentence about the dichotomy between reasonable faith and “superstitious beliefs” is off the mark. There is an important distinction between orthodox theology and personal spiritual experience, it is the distinction between Newton’s mathematical equations and the experience of feeling a brick landing on your foot. Christian theology is rational, philosophically robust and intellectually coherent; a personal experience of God may be indescribable. I don’t see anything disingenuous about being able to clearly explain the former but not the latter.

I do appreciate his clear stress on acute but civil criticisms, and I hope that I can do the same when I disagree with those of other faiths.


12 This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others

Our commitment to independent thought and the provisionality of belief means that few heathens are likely to agree completely with this manifesto. It is therefore almost a precondition of supporting it that you do not entirely support it. At the same time, although very few people of faith can be heathens, many will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens belief. This is what provides the common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible: we need to accept what we share in order to accept with civility and understanding what we most certainly do not. This is what the heathen manifesto is really about.

Again, his stress on civil dialogue and open understanding of differences is laudable. I’m also delighted that Baggini has chosen such a time-honoured enumerated structure for his manifesto; 12 is a divine number…



Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Having the wrong conversation


4 thoughts on “The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

  1. Pingback: (“And, oh-boy, have we simpletons lapped it up!”) Scientism Conquers Truth Again, and Again, and Again | Veterans Today « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

  2. Yeah, good stuff!

    I also think that his sentence about the dichotomy between reasonable faith and “superstitious beliefs” is off the mark.

    Yes, it’s hard to see him reconcile

    We think it is disingenuous for religious people to talk about the reasonableness of their beliefs and the importance of values and practice, while drawing a veil over their embrace of superstitious beliefs.


    In short, if we understand what reason is and how it works, we have very good reason to doubt those who claim rationality solely for those who accept their worldview and who deny the rationality of those who disagree.

    I’ve also questioned the assumption that seeking is a good thing – I think it is, and I think the Christian worldview justifies it to be so, but I can’t see how it is necessarily ‘good’ in naturalism.


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