Heathen Manifesto – A Christian Response

The article in the left column by UK philosopher Julian Baggini appeared at http://mg.co.za/article/2012-03-30-a-manifesto-heathens-can-believe-in/  I am quoting it here in its entirety with a corresponding response in the right column.

– Udo Karsten

A manifesto heathens can believe in

Like many, I have observed the rise over recent years of the so-called new atheism with a mixture of delight and despair.

The focus has been on the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates. There is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation and a sense that the debates have sunk into a stale impasse.

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 about atheism into areas where more progress and genuine dialogue is possible. This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse.


Heathen manifesto – a Christian response

I enjoyed reading Julian Baggini’s manifesto for heathens. It was simply a breath of fresh air considering the stale impetuosity of the New Atheism of the past decade or so. I’m appreciative of the fact that this kind of manifesto invites a better understanding of atheism and undoubtedly encourages more respectful dialogue. But I have to say that for this very reason I wouldn’t describe it, as Baggini does, as a pointer to the “next phase” of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It really is a radically different (and may I add, much needed) approach. I commend Julian Baggini for this. It waits to be seen, though, if staunch new atheists can really appreciate it.

As a Christian believer I was surprised to find how much there was to agree with (if maybe for different reasons) in this manifesto, even if I ultimately find atheism lacking as an adequate view of reality.

I’d like to venture a few remarks on where I, as a believer in God, agree with points in the manifesto, as well as where and why there are points of disagreement.


Why we are heathens
The word “atheist” has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for. We need a name that shows we do not think too highly of ourselves. “Heathen” fulfils this ambition. We are unsaved, without divine revelation, forced to make our own imperfect way in the world.
Response: I can sympathise with the desire to see atheism defined more positively in terms of what it stands for. It just seems strange, though, that Baggini immediately proceeds to talk about heathens as “unsaved” and “without divine revelation”. Isn’t this defining heathens in terms of what they oppose?
Heathens are naturalists
Heathens believe 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.
Response: I like this clear, positive statement of belief: “Heathens believe the natural world is all there is and there is no purposive, conscious agency that created or guides it.” (Technically, only the first part defines the belief positively, in the second part Baggini again seems unable to completely avoid stating the heathen belief in terms of what it opposes.)

This statement of belief is basically on par with the kind of statement a theist would make (e.g. theists believe that a purposive, conscious and supernatural agency exists that created and sustains the natural world). The point to notice is that neither this naturalistic statement of belief, nor the theistic one, is automatically suspect as a claim to how the world really is. Therefore the presumption of atheism, which many people (atheists!) believe to be the default position, is simply that – a presumption. Any statement of belief is reasonable in so far as there is sufficient reason to believe it, and that to believe it is more plausible than to deny it. Both the naturalist and the theist therefore need to explain why their beliefs are more rational or at least more plausible than their denial – it shouldn’t be merely presumed.

Of course, the heathen manifesto is meant to be a statement of belief and not an argument for the veracity of those beliefs. But let it be noted that the theist is very happy to challenge the notion that there is “no reason” to believe in the existence of a supernatural entity like God. I’m also guessing that when an atheist acknowledges “many mysteries” he simply means “gaps in our current scientific understanding” or that talk of “unseen dimensions” might refer to something like the impenetrable weirdness of the quantum realm. But is there really “no reason” to believe that at least some mysteries (not to mention things that are clearly understood) point to the existence of an entity or realm that simply does not and cannot translate to some kind of scientific description? Or that an unseen dimension really do exist (mainly because a being like God exists) which is far more real than string theory could ever suggest or any speculation about multi-verses could achieve? Really? No reason?


Our first commitment is to the truth
Naturalism is one of the conclusions we come to, not the basis of our world view. 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. That is where our primary commitment lies and we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong about some of the specific beliefs that has led us to.
Response: I think the lines can often get blurred here. One may think that you have come to a certain conclusion based on observing objective facts and careful reasoning, when in fact your conclusion may simply be a preconceived notion of how those “objective” facts should be interpreted. The presence of this kind of bias is true, to a lesser or greater degree, for any world view. The question is about which unproved assumptions, taken together as a whole, give better explanations for why and how we experience the world as we do. Theists are just as committed to the truth, to “using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have” as any person could and should be.


We respect science, not scientism
Heathens hold science in high regard, but that does not make us scientistic. Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world. But science is not our bible, the last word on everything. 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. Science may even make life uncomfortable for us. For example, it may undermine certain beliefs about free will and rationality.
 Response: I admire Baggini for saying this in the way that he does (and I suspect that he really was choosing freely and acting rationally in doing so!). This stands in refreshing contrast to the impression one gets from listening to some of the New Atheists of today. Many of them indeed worship at the altar of Science (read scientism), dismissing all other claims to knowledge as the unfortunate and unreliable by-products of human imagination and creativity.
We value reason as precious but fragile
Heathens have a commitment to reason that fully acknowledges its limits. Human beings are imperfect users of reason, susceptible to biases, distortions and prejudices that lead even the most intelligent astray. Reason itself always leaves us short of certain knowledge, requiring us to rely on our judgments in order to come to a conclusion.
Response: Well said! The limits of reason reflect the condition of being human. Of course, a Christian theist would want to add that if there is a God and if such a God has revealed certain things to humans about himself and his purposes, then our fragile reason should take such revelation and its implications for such fragile reason into account.
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 agnosticism. We have a high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic world view. 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.
Response: I like what Baggini says. In fact, we as Christians can learn something here. There is no danger of losing salvation, denying Biblical truth or betraying Jesus when Christians would simply express themselves more often in a way like Baggini does: that we have a high degree of confidence in the truth of our Christian world view. Too often Christians simply assert what they believe dogmatically, as if that is the final say on any matter, no discussion needed. Doing so exudes an air of arrogance and disrespect. Dismissing opposing views out of hand closes off all meaningful conversation and with it any hope of positively influencing others – or simply to understand others better or to be better understood. What Baggini says applies equally to us as Christians: to be open to the possibility of being wrong does not mean that we would therefore lack conviction that we are right.


We have no illusions about life as heathens
It is possible to lead a meaningful, happy life as a heathen, but it is far from inevitable. Ours is a universe without guarantees of redemption or salvation and sometimes people have terrible lives or do terrible things and thrive. 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.
Response: I completely agree that heathens, without any belief in God, can live very meaningful, happy lives – even happier and healthier lives than many religious people! What the theist would want to point out is that a term like “meaningful” has no reference point if there is no ultimate meaning to life. Christian theists believe that God created humans for a purpose, that human life finds its ultimate meaning in the reason God created it for. To believe that each individual or society creates their own meaning, as heathens do, does have subjective value and might often be liveable, but it doesn’t mean that it really is meaningful. In fact, this view doesn’t even help us to understand what “meaningful” really means, nor could it, for there is no ultimate reference point. The theist would say that heathens live meaningful lives not because of their beliefs, but in spite of them.

(*I am fully aware of Baggini’s book, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life where he explores the issues raised here.)


We are secularists
We support a state that asserts the shared values necessary for people of different convictions 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. State action must be justified in terms that all understand, on the basis of principles that as many as possible can share. This does not require that religion is banished from society or public life.
Response: Yes, in a pluralistic society, the state should not give any special privilege to any particular group or belief.  The problem is just that in practice the frequently held approach is that, whilst religious beliefs are out of bounds in the public square, non-religious or secular beliefs are allowed to fly under the radar. It seems that these beliefs are given special privilege by default, in virtue of being non-religious. But what makes secular beliefs more neutral or acceptable than religious ones? One could also note that it is one thing to recognise shared values, but quite another to explain why, on naturalistic grounds, any specific set of shared values is preferable to a different set of values. Why are human rights preferable to slavery? And does it really solve anything to appeal to what the majority understand and shares? Would slavery be right if we lived in a society where state action (for the legislation of the right to own slaves) were “justified in terms that all understand, on the basis of principles that as many as possible can share?”


Heathens can be religious
A small minority of religions reject the existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts and see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. These are entirely compatible with the heathen position.
Response: Trying to find common ground with those whose thoughts and beliefs are different from ours, is important and useful. I’m just doubtful that you can simply reduce the religious core to values and practices without reference to the very specific and often radically different beliefs in different belief systems from which those values and practices were derived. Supernatural entities and divinely authored texts often make up the essential core of those beliefs. As was emphasised already, theists and heathens might agree that human life is valuable, but they have very different reasons (i.e. beliefs) for why this is the case and possibly even to what extent it is the case.


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.
Response: I’m not going to belabour the point of asking why, on a naturalistic scheme of things, anybody would have to promote values such as social justice and compassion. But the point about respect and sympathy is well taken and much needed – for everyone. It is especially significant to me that an atheist (sorry, heathen) like Baggini can recognise (unlike the utterly “tone deaf” new atheists) that religious people can indeed be committed to sincere, rational and non-dogmatic inquiry and still arrive at different conclusions. I applaud him for that.
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. Our general stance is not one of hostility towards religion, but when it promotes prejudice, division or discrimination, suppresses truth or stands 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.
Response: I can accept this wholeheartedly. In fact, every ideology, religion or world view should in principle welcome criticism and scrutiny. Those who discourage such criticism or scrutiny often turn out to be the propagators of prejudice, division, discrimination and suppression of truth and progress. I think that criticism and scrutiny can keep everyone honest and humble in what and why they believe certain things.
This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than with forging links between us and others
Our commitment to independent thought and the provisionality of belief means that it is almost a precondition of being a heathen that you do not entirely support this manifesto. At the same time, although very few people of faith can be heathens, many will find themselves in agreement with much of what we believe. This is what provides the common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible: we need to accept what we share to accept with civility and understanding what we most certainly do not.This is what the heathen manifesto is really about. 
Response: Being able to dialogue respectfully with others on issues on which we fundamentally disagree is often a very difficult thing to do. But I believe we can learn to become better at it. Perhaps it is as simple as consistently applying Francis of Assisi’s advice of first trying to understand before seeking to be understood. I think we will be rewarded beyond what we thought was possible if we do so. This is no wishy-washy sentiment, but a real possibility if people could manage, for a moment, to suspend their fear of what is different and risk that all that is different is not necessarily bad.

I believe that this is what Christian love and charity asks of us.


1 Comment

  1. Well done Udo,very well analyzed! Sam Harris writtes “We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence. And faith is a conversation stopper.” It seems at least that Baggini allows space for dialogue which is greatly encouraging!
    Thanks for a very informative post!

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