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Mar 26 2012

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.

Sigh.

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

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Michael Fugate

    Related – you just to read this silly op-ed by Philip Clayton:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-clayton-emergingchurch-20120325,0,3793097.story

    Churches should really let in doubters? Does he really think that churches would last? What is in it for either side? Wouldn’t nones be better off joining a secular social justice organization?

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    That reminds me of a church in my neighborhood that has a motto on its doors and its lawn sign: “For all believers, doubters, seekers.” Well that pretty much covers it!

  3. 3
    Stonyground

    It is possible for atheists to co-operate with religious people on all kinds of issues that have nothing to do with religion simply by leaving religion out of it and agreeing not to discuss it. Many of us meet religious folk in our workplace, as long as no-one is trying to evangelise and everyone just gets on with their job, we all get along just fine.

    When we are discussing religion itself however, that is a different matter. There is no middle ground, either god’s exist or they do not, there is no way to agree with the believers that gods partly exist. We either limit our beliefs to things that we have reasonable evidence for believing, or we believe things on faith. Believing things on faith gives you a pretty much 100% chance of believing things that aren’t true. Even if it was possible to meet people of faith half way, why would I even wan’t to believe things that are 50% likely to be untrue when I can do so much better by carefully weighing the evidence?

  4. 4
    mnb0

    “we need to rethink what atheism stands for and how to present it.”
    Just as I dislike GC’s appeal to morals I dislike this one as well. Could so called freethinkers just restrain themselves from telling me what I have to think and have to do regarding my atheism? It’s so ….. Abrahamistic.

  5. 5
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    I see what you did there.

    LOL @ title.

  6. 6
    'Tis Himself

    Baginni wants to replace “atheist” with “heathen” because “[i]t 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.” He ignores the point that heathen (a) has its own definition and (b) it also has many dark associations. Dictionary.com has the following definitions:

    hea·then noun
    1. an unconverted individual of a people that do not acknowledge the God of the Bible; a person who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim; pagan.
    2. an irreligious, uncultured, or uncivilized person.

  7. 7
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Well, atheism will disappear just as soon as theism fades from cultural memory. No worries!

  8. 8
    Caravelle

    Baginni wants to replace “atheist” with “heathen” because “[i]t 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.” He ignores the point that heathen (a) has its own definition and (b) it also has many dark associations.

    I really don’t know in what universe “heathen” has less negative connotations than “atheist”. And it’s even worse in that “atheist” by its structure at least purports to be a general, technical term, while “heathen” is a word that was created by a specific brand of religious people to dismiss all who didn’t subscribe to their particular brand of religion – regardless of their actual beliefs. It’s like “barbarian” – all it really means is “not Roman or Greek” (or in this case, “not Christian”), the whole etymology and history of the term is imperialistic. There is nothing positive about its first-order meaning and connotations.

    Now that doesn’t mean it can’t be reclaimed, but that’s where the lack of precision comes in – has Baginni noticed that many people who are polytheist, deist, animist or otherwise consider themselves as having god-beliefs and religion are also trying to reclaim the term ?

  9. 9
    davidb

    I read the article, via the NSS media feed.

    I wasn’t impressed by his attempt to herd cats, but at least he he seems neither so dumb or so self serving as that de Botton character. If that is how he spells his name.

    He is indeed part of the problem, though, IMO.

    David B

  10. 10
    Demonax

    I fear Julian has Flewitis and may be saved at any moment.

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