A spectre is haunting the Guardian Open Weekend

Oh no not that – not another installment of Heathen’s (ant-like) Progress. But yes, it is so.

This time it’s a manifesto. Oh good, more management of atheism by a self-nominated boss of atheism. More telling us all how to do it more korrektly by some random guy. More “we have to do it this way” from one person who keeps forgetting to show us his Certificate of Rulership Over All Atheists.

In recent years, we atheists have become more confident and outspoken in articulating and defending our godlessness in the public square. Much has been gained by this. There is now wider awareness of the reasonableness of a naturalist world view, and some of the unjustified deference to religion has been removed, exposing them to much needed critical scrutiny.

Unfortunately, however, in a culture that tends to focus on the widest distinctions, the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates, the “moderate middle” has been sidelined by this debate. There is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation, and a sense that the debates have sunk into a stale impasse, with the same tired old arguments being rehearsed time and again by protagonists who are getting more and more entrenched.


I’ve pointed this out a million times, and here I am having to point it out again. (Well not having to – but there it is again, so it needs pointing out, and I’m right here, so I’ll save you the bother.) Here’s the glaring problem with that passage (and with the article and with the whole series): Julian is himself contributing to the very perception he cites, in this very article and series. He’s been contributing to it for a long time, ever since the piece in the Norwegian humanist magazine Fritanke. The backlash against “new” atheism has created a perception that “new” atheism is shrill-and-militant, and having created the perception, it cudgels “new” atheism for being shrill-and-militant, thus enforcing the perception, for which it cudgels “new” atheism, some more, etc, in an endless cycle which does its bit to keep journalists solvent. Given that Julian is himself one of the people responsible for the “perception,” he’s the wrong person to keep wringing his hands about the perception. He’s the wrong person to point the finger at “a culture that tends to focus on the widest distinctions, the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates” when he’s a stalwart of that very culture. The fact that his statement that “there is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation” links to one of his own articles demonstrates this hilariously; I suspect that the link is editorial rather than authorial, but that makes it no less ironic.

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. To achieve this, we need to rethink what atheism stands for and how to present it. 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. We now need something else.

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.

Modest, isn’t it. Who’s “we”? Who commissioned Julian to manage the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse? Whence comes all this instruction and prescription?

The manifesto itself – meh. It’s not so much a heathen manifesto as a Julian manifesto. It’s not quite up there with Marx and Engels for rhetorical flair, so meh.

h/t Geoff