A rude assembly

Seamus Bradley's blog

The Heathen Manifesto: A Critical Appraisal

Recently, Julian Baggini’s Heathen Manifesto was published in the Guardian. I think there’s some good in it, but some bad. So I though I would write up my thoughts on it. There are twelve points, and I thought the best way to structure my ramblings would be to address each in turn.

First, I’ll lay my cards on the table. I am, in a phrase I’m shamelessly borrowing from someone else, a methodological atheist, but a philosophical agnostic. Nothing distinguishes me from the atheist except that I don’t have the convinction that there is no supernatural entity. That is, I accept the logical possibility that there could be some other way of knowing; some way of knowing about the non-physical. Kurt Gödel thought that humans had the capacity to perceive the realm of mathematical truths. That’s the kind of knowledge of a non-physical realm I can’t rule out. And once that’s in the picture, how would you ever decide what ways of knowing get at truths? It’s just a sort of sceptical worry that you can’t know there aren’t inaccessible realms of truths. At least, not until you tell me what truth is. Most of the time, I act as if I were a methodological naturalist, and then you do get negative answers to all these existence questions.

I am going to be quite negative of much of the content of Baggini’s manifesto, but I should make clear now that I endorse the spirit of what he is trying to do. I should also make clear that I have read the printed version, and just skimmed the (longer) online version.

1 Why we are heathens

The first point on the manifesto is basically an explanation of why Baggini adopts the term “heathen” rather than use some of the other terms bandied about: “Bright”, “Rationalist”, “Atheist”…

I agree that “heathen” doesn’t have the same smugness of “rationalist” or “bright”. In fact, it even has the same “reappropriating a term of abuse” connotations that “queer” has for the LGBT community. I don’t see what’s wrong with “atheist” though. It is, at least, obvious what being an atheist means. It means disbelieving in the supernatural.

But given what follows, it’s clear that Baggini doesn’t mean for “heathen” just to be a better word for “atheist”, despite what he says in this first point. I’ll say more about what Baggini wants “heathen” to do in my summing up

What I don’t quite get is why “we” need a label. Given the ecumenical character of his later discussion, there doesn’t seem to be much need to unite under a single banner. This is only ever going to be a loose association of individuals, united only by some fairly vague principles. Do “we” really need a word?

2 Heathens are naturalists

Warning: philosophical hackles raising. This is one of several points on the manifesto that are woefully underspecified. The point seems to amount to a repudiation of anything supernatural. But without a proper characterisation of “Nature” this is contentless.

Also, despite his philosopher credentials, Baggini seems to be using “naturalism” to mean something quite different from what a philosopher means when she says “naturalism”. But see the next point for more on this.

3 Our first commitment is to the truth

Baggini says “Naturalism is one of the conclusions we come to, not the basis for our worldview”. I’d always understood naturalism to be exactly the basis for a worldview (and one I happen to endorse, at least as a methodological principle). Baggini doesn’t say anything about what is the basis for the heathen worldview that leads to the conclusion of naturalism. Baggini mentions that there is a commitment to using our “best evidence”. But what counts as evidence? Presumably divine revelation is not a source of evidence (much less truth). So what decides what counts as evidence if not some sort of methodological naturalism as the basis?

Baggini also mentions fallibilism here. But more on that when fallibilism takes centre stage

4 We respect science, not scientism

Now it becomes clear why Baggini doesn’t want naturalism to be a basic principle of the heathen worldview. He wants to distance his reasonable brand of non-religion from the radical scientism of certain prominent atheists that is unhelpful and polarising.

That said, there does seem to be some apparent tension between this point and the previous two which seemed to put science on something of a pedestal. He suggests that this allows heathens to accept the value of history. The suggestion being that this is a possibility that is closed to scientismists. (What? Sorry, but “scientist” is already taken…) But does scientism entail seeing no value in history? This would certainly require argument. What Baggini wants to do, I suppose, is give an example of something scientism rejects that heathenism accepts. This isn’t a good example, but I can’t think of a better one. Heathens accept the value of art perhaps? Literature gives us an understanding of human nature that science can’t give us? A reasonable brand of scientism would surely restrict the supremacy of science to claims about the natural world? Would that be to defang the position?

So what is this point supposed to be saying? The subtext seems to be that this point outlines the restrictions on what heathens actually deny. Heathens deny (only) that specifically religious ways of knowing (divine revelation, etc) are ruled out as guides to truth.

Given the commitment to “no supernatural entities”, and the fact that specifically religious ways of knowing will presumably be about the supernatural, this doesn’t seem to tell us much.

5 We value reason as precious but fragile.

Warning: linguistic pedantry ahoy! This sentence looks like it got on the wrong end of the crappy subediting hammer. We cannot read the “we value…” as distributing over the disjunction: that is, we don’t value reason as fragile. It would be great if reason were robust! It looks like the intention is to say something like “we value reason as precious, but it is fragile.” Incidentally, the “as precious” seems redundant, or plain wrong. We value reason. We value reason as pragmatically useful.

Anyway. Linguistic quibbles aside, this point seems to be expressing a commitment to fallibilism and anti-dogmatism, which is a good thing.

6 We are convinced, not dogmatic

Here is the anti-dogmatism again. Given that it’s hard to be a fallibilist and be dogmatic, I’m not sure why this point is being belaboured.

But it’s the first part of this point that is interesting. “We are convinced”. Baggini wants to distance heathenism from “shoulder-shrugging agnosticism”. Boo.

Baggini wants heathens to be highly confident of the lack of any supernatural being. Where does this negative belief come from? What is the basis on which is is built? The scientismists can appeal to the lack of scientific evidence for the supernatural as evidence for the negative claim. But heathens can’t (see point 4).

Maybe the commitment to naturalism is enough to convince the heathens of the negative claim. But again, Baggini doesn’t take the naturalism to be a starting point, so what are we starting from? If I may be permitted a little proper philosophy, what theory of truth is in play when Baggini says “we have a high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic worldview.”?

7 We have no illusions about life as a heathen

This is one of several points that don’t feel like manifesto commitments that heathens should sign up to, but rather like a consequence of being a heaten. It doesn’t feel like it belongs on a statement of what heathenism is.

8 We are secularists

Here comes an important political point, and one I will spend some time on. Heathens believe that “[The state] should not give any special privilege to any particular sect or group… State action must be justified in terms that all understand”.

While I agree with the spirit of this point, I don’t like the wording. First, let’s clarify something: sometimes I do want a particular group or group to have privileged influence on particular policies. I want our climate change policy to be influenced by the opinions of climate scientists. I want health policy to be influenced by the views of doctors, medical scientists and so on.

So what specifically does secularism seek to rule out? Or why is it OK that those groups have privileged influence on those policy areas? The above examples are obviously cases where relevant expert judgement is informing policy. This is a good thing. So what does it take to have relevant expertise? One important way is to have relevant scientific knowledge. Those groups should influence policy.

The important point, I guess, is that religious groups should not be such a part of deciding policy. That’s why this point about policy decisions is on a manifesto ostensibly to do with individual beliefs.

It’s a little vague, but I guess you could read this point as being more far-reaching than just ruling out religious meddling in policy issues that should be settled by matters of fact. Maybe you could deny that homeopaths have relevant expertise to be deciding health policy. But that’s maybe besides the point of the current project.

A second point: I don’t want to require that policy should be decided on the basis of evidence that can be understood by all. I don’t need to understand all the intricacies of human biology to accept that health professionals and medical scientists are making the right decisions. It’s called “division of cognitive labour”. What I do need to endorse is that the people deciding the policy are qualified to do so.

9 Heathens can be religious

As long as “religion” focuses entirely on “values and practices” and accepts that “science trumps dogma” then it is compatible with this brand of heathenism.

Like (7), this seems more like a consequence of heathenism, rather than a principle of it.

10 Religion is often our friend

I think this is an important point. Baggini wants heathens to be respectful to the religious, as long as they’re not misbehaving (see 11). Again, certain prominent atheists don’t endorse this approach: confrontation and insults are their tools.

But really, this has nothing to do with being a heathen. Respect should just be the default attitude to dealing with other people. That should be a commitment of being a human being, not of being a heathen.

11 We are critical of religion when necessary

When religion “promotes prejudice, division or discrimination, suppresses truth or stands in the way of medical progress” heathens can (should?) be critical. But again, I find myself thinking that this is just a commitment of being a human being and has nothing to do with religion. Heathens, and anyone else, should have the same duty to criticise secular organisations for being prejudiced, standing in the way of wellbeing or what have you. Do heathens have a special duty to be critical of religious groups when they promote prejudice as opposed to when a secular group does? Why should that be?

Here’s a point I could have made at a couple of junctures. It seems weird to say it, but the heathen manifesto is too concerned with religion. For example, in (8), it feels like religion is irrelevant. What is important is that certain groups should not unduly influence policy decisions. Whether the group is religiously motivated or not is just besides the point of deciding whether the group has relevant expertise.

This makes the “anti-agnostic” line of (6) seem especially weird. Most of the things on this manifesto I can sign up to (given the above qualifications) so why should I, as an agnostic, be excluded?

The digested manifesto

Baggini’s manifesto has twelve points but there are not twelve distinct points being made. As I see it, the following points summarise the content of the Heathen Manifesto.

  1. Truth should guide policy
  2. Science is a guide to truth
  3. Fallibilism and non-dogmatism are appropriate attitudes
  4. Respect should be the default position
  5. Injustice and prejudice should be opposed, and social goods promoted
  6. There is no truth in religion

All but the last of these don’t seem characteristically atheistic or heathen: they seem like commitments any reasonable individual should have, regardless of religious outlook. The last is basically just a restatement of what it is to be an atheist. But this then makes clear that Baggini is not offering a “what it means to be my kind of atheist” manifesto, but rather he is also trying to replace the specifically moral commitments that religions (ought to) instill in their adherents. This is a “what it means to be an atheist and a human being” manifesto.

I’d suggest that this last be replaced with “Religion is not a guide to policy-relevant truth”. This would be a manifesto I could sign up to.