JRP (not much at all) vs. the "Heathen Manifesto"

A couple of months ago, Julian Baggini presented a proposal for a "Heathen Manifesto" in the electronic (and maybe print) pages of the United Kingdom magazine The Guardian. Having recently heard of it, and reading it through, I have very few complaints, none of them more than trivial--except of course where we principly disagree on metaphysics, as supernaturalist theists and naturalistic atheists logically do.

I warmly recommend readers check out the article at the link above; and then click on the jump for some commentary.

My first and really main problem, or one of two rather (which as will be seen is still quite trivial), is that "heathenism" doesn't seem to be a good fit for what Julian is proposing. Historically, heathens were pagans, not only in the sense of referring to more-or-less uneducated rustics living in the hills (and/or out on the heath, as it were), but also referring to polytheists worshiping personalized natural and social processes. Julian by contrast is definitely proposing a naturalistic atheism--a friendly type of naturalistic atheism to be sure, but not polytheism.

A more cynical or hostile Christian than myself might retort that he is still worshiping Nature and so the term would still fit, but that isn't at all what Julian is up to either: his propositions are far too self-critical to be read with any fairness as worshiping Nature in any way.

Perhaps he has found a better term since the end of last March; and I admit I can't think of a more appropriate term myself, while being sympathetic for a need to position better in the eyes of the public. Maybe "Nice Atheism" compared to "New Atheism"?--Julian is well aware that the super-evangelical (for want of a better term) party of popular atheism in recent years has been casting a black light on all atheists, and that steps need to be taken by other atheists to save themselves from becoming a cultural joke. ("The so-called 'new atheism' may have put us on the map, but in the public imagination it amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins, which is not an accurate representation of the terrain many of us occupy." Not that I disagree, but Mr. D doesn't need much help to be a richness of embarrassments: those who volunteer to be straw men only have themselves to blame if they get burned.)

Still, I won't complain if a movement of friendly atheists manages to co-opt a term that wouldn't normally apply to them at all but rather to (some of) the people they logically oppose. If silly Christians have gotten into the habit of calling atheists heathens, I can hardly blame some of them for trying to take the term and make it a title of respect again; and I certainly can't blame Julian for choosing a term that (sort of, at several removes) expresses a salient and respectable self-criticism. ("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.")

And I'd say Julian has done a good job proposing 12 rules of principle for his Nice Atheism movement. ("More like guidelines than actual rules", if I may quote Captain Barbossa, and if I may paraphrase Rule 12.) Such a group of NAs would be far less amusing to score quippy points against, but would make far better opponents--and I expect far more challenging opponents, too. Largely because they wouldn't be shooting themselves in the foot constantly trying to beat religion in general and Christianity in particular with any stick. (Or metaphors to that effect.)

Obviously I don't agree with Rule 2, but that is only because I am a supernaturalistic theist, not a naturalistic atheist. (Julian conflates 'naturalism' and 'atheism' in the popular fashion: not only is there one and only one systemic level of reality, dependent on nothing but itself for existence, but It also has no conscious, purposive agency. This is a technical inadvertence, though, not a real problem so far as his proposal list goes.)

I would prefer if he had a more neutral understanding of dogmatism in Rule 6--since dogma is any belief that defines correspondence in a group, and in that sense he is advocating quite a few dogmas himself--but I sympathize with him using the popular negative connotation of dogma to mean a belief that should not under any circumstances be challenged.

My main practical critique is this: I do not think it is practically possible for a polity (as in his Rule 8) to have "shared values necessary for people to live and thrive together", even (perhaps especially) when those are "people of different convictions", while still being "neutral as regards to comprehensive worldviews". I think it is a contradiction in terms to expect "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" while also expecting these people not to agree on fundamental grounds for their justification. To disagree in regard to some particulars perhaps; but without agreement on fundamental grounds there will be endless challenges regarding the multiple justifications and disparate grounds. Such a confusion would no doubt synchronize with a goal of "not giv[ing] any special privilege to any particular sect or group, or use their creeds as a basis for policy"; but by practical definition a majority sufficient to create and (it must be said) impose a shape of polity (and without such an imposition there would be no practical political result) according to a substantial agreement on principles among themselves (and what would these principles be if not "fundamental convictions") in terms that all understand, would NOT be such a confusion. What it would be, by logical necessity, is giving special privilege to a particular sect or group, namely the group with the shared principles and terms of understanding for justifying and formulating policy, i.e. using their creeds (their shared principle understandings) as a basis for policy.

What is needed is a basis conviction of principles, solidly grounded, that allows personal respect among other humans for other humans even when the more powerful group believes weaker groups to be wrong. This would be quite in keeping with Julian's own admirable goal in proposing his Heathen Manifesto; but solid grounds of that sort, which can stand up to challenges and appeals (including perhaps especially appeals for fair play to apply against abuses by the people in power), can only be provided by the kind of fundamental worldview principles found in a comprehensive worldview, specifically whichever worldview (not every worldview!) is most reasonably accurate with regard to facts about reality and humanity's relationship to reality.

To say the least I am sceptical that a worldview which is, at best, sceptical about the fundamental importance and reality of fair-togetherness between persons (which any atheism necessarily would be, much moreso any mere agnosticism, but also any naturalistic theism and almost any supernaturalistic theism) will be sufficient for such a task.

But I do at least agree with Julian (and similar proponents) that we need a polity which puts fair-togetherness between persons, including protection of the weak against exploitation by the strong (notably against fundamental tenets of evolutionary biology by the way), at a premium. At a dogmatic premium, I might even say.

I don't disagree with the basic plea behind Rule 8, only with the hazy and rather contradictory methodology proposed. And I disagree even less with the other rules not yet mentioned!

My first commitment is to the truth, not to my personal ideology even if I think my ideology happens to be very true (Rule 3, "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. That is where our primary commitment lies, not the conclusions we reach.")

I respect science and scientists as valuable contributors to true understandings of reality (which is more a commitment to the logical process of reason and evidence, classic scientia), without requiring science to be the only means of gaining true knowledge about the world. Julian insists that where reason and evidence challenge a belief, even if the belief is cherished, the belief should be dropped; and I'm willing to agree with that so long as provisional caution is also maintained since our reasoning is not omniscient--and there's Rule 5.

I'm open to being wrong and changing my mind, not blindly set in my way without regard to whether I might be wrong, and that's Rule 6 again.

I accept a preference of truth over personal convenience, including the convenience of making myself happy, and that's Rule 7 in principle. True, as a Christian Universalist I am logically more hopeful about how things will finally turn out in the long run for all persons. But I appreciate Julian's self-critical acknowledgment that his belief, as in fact is true of most other Christian and religious beliefs for that matter, includes a substantial amount of final hopelessness for some-or-all people as well as temporary but significant injustice that ought to be rectified where possible. Either way, I acknowledge that a commitment to the truth means that I would not see greater health or happiness in another belief as, in itself, ground to change my beliefs; just as most Christian non-universalists, in my experience, hold to what they believe is true on this topic despite not emotionally wanting it to be true. (I did not become a Christian Universalist because I thought I would be happier that way, for example, although I am occasionally charged for such by people who don't know me very well. And at least once by someone who ought to have known me much better than that. Anyway I respect the discipline of people who believe something else over-against their emotional reaction otherwise, whether those people are Christian or non-Christian.)

I can and do accept that atheists can and do contribute positively to society and to culture, including providing helpful criticism to my own beliefs sometimes (at least in principle), and I am repeatedly on record being respectful and sympathetic to the irreligious (and alt-religious) when "they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as [me], without in any way denying that [I] believe them to be false and misguided." For that matter, I try to be respectful and sympathetic as much as possible to the irreligious (and to the religious) who I think are cheating hard to arrive at their position and/or to attack other positions. I think I can say it's going to be hard for anyone to beat me at this, in principle, because I am fond of quipping that I believe Christianity to be true because I believe in atheists! Which is something I've never yet met even the friendliest atheist able to match in reverse. (No doubt that would be quite a meeting. {g})

At any rate I agree in principle (except the other way around of course) with Rule 10 thereby; and by the same token also with Rule 11 the other way around (being critical of those I don't agree with on belief where necessary). I also agree with Rule 11 in being critical of mystery mongering even among my own side of the aisle. (Although such mongering is hardly restricted to my own side!)

Finally I agree with the goal behind Rule 12: "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." That has long been the basic ground of my apologetic efforts--sometimes at freakishly lengthy length!

And if, as Julian says, that "is what the heathen manifesto is really about", then I wish him and his fellow compatriots God's own luck at it: the 'luck' (or gracious providence rather) we all need in order to walk according to what light we can see, looking for more light thereby.

So, what do Cadre readers think of Julian's efforts and goals? Worth supporting in principle (for sake of fair-togetherness between persons, or "righteousness" as commonly translated in English from the New Testament)? Or not? Applaud or vent in the comments!


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking; donning flameproof armor (just in case)...

Jason Pratt said…
I will add that I am rather more critical of his formulation and application of Julian's Four Articles of 21st Century Religious Faith, as I think he is rather salting the scales there; but that's fodder for a future post. {g}

(The article I linked to in the OP is a finale to a series stretching back several months. The first page of links to his overall series can be found here at the Guardian if anyone is interested.)


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