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The Heathen's Manifesto: A Response

26th March 2012

This Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the Guardian Open Weekend in response to Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Manifesto. I’ve been following Julian’s accompanying series in the Guardian’s Comment is Free with interest, finding it equal parts encouraging and perplexing.

The event on Saturday provoked similar mixed feelings. The document, which you can read in full here, is in many ways thoughtful and helpful, motivated by Julian’s desire to see a more productive conversation between those who hold religious beliefs and those who don’t. He’s clearly embarrassed by some of the excesses of the ‘New Atheists’ (although is curiously unwilling to point the finger at the more egregious examples) , and is, I suspect, attempting a Cameron-esque image detoxification of a group which have become the religion debate’s very own nasty party.

However, as I left the buzzing Guardian building on Saturday, dodging past the Cheese Boat, tie-dye handbags and open mike poetry, I was a little frustrated. The discussion we were able to have was shallow and short lived, and we weren’t able to scrutinise the manifesto itself in any depth. Julian’s fellow atheist and CEO of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson was clearly miffed that, rather than an attempt to rally the non-religious around the label humanist, Julian was undertaking a rebranding exercise, so much of the discussion was concerned with the validity of the attempt itself.

I was therefore left with some serious questions unanswered. I fear that  despite Julian’s best efforts- and I really do think he is sincere in not wanting to be tone-deaf to religion- the document perpetuates misunderstandings about the kind of things religious people believe and how they can and should engage in society.

Take, for example, in his welcome critique of scientism, the line “science is not our bible, the last word on everything”. This is not how most Christians use the Bible. There do exist a very few strict biblical literalists but I’ve never encountered a true one. For the overwhelming majority of Christians the Bible is an irreplaceably important piece of evidence, indeed a foundation stone for the Christian faith but not in itself God or the “last word” on Christianity. If it was there would be no such thing as theology. Even for Muslims, though the Qu’ran comes much closer to being the ‘last word’, the hadith and tasfir are vitally important. This misconception of religious people as blindly and simplistically applying ancient texts to their lives as if they were a “manual” is unhelpful.

Julian also uses the terms ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ as the basis for much of his manifesto without fully defining what he means by them. His assertion that reason is “multifaceted, not reducible to logic” is welcome. However, Julian made clear on Saturday that he discounts personal experience as a valid form of evidence as it varies so much from person to person. To rule out experience as even one form of evidence, among others, on which religious people can reasonably base their faith, is a very fast way to shut down productive conversation.

Finally, and most worryingly, Julian states that religious people may be resisted " with hostility " when they “stand in the way of social or medical progress”. I asked, but didn’t receive an answer, who it is who gets to define social or medical progress. I would love to know if Julian is one of the unreconstructed modernists who see history as an upward march towards human perfection, and therefore greet all innovation as morally laudable. My strong suspicion is that that he is far too nuanced a thinker for that to be the case, and therefore he must surely see the validity of religious people at least taking part in the conversation about what progress actually is.

I think the Heathen’s Manifesto is in many ways a welcome and refreshing addition to what had become a tired debate about the way religious and non-religious believers engage. I’d sincerely want to applaud anything that attempts to make this most vexed debate more informed and less tribal. However, when even our brightest and most thoughtful atheists engage in oversimplification and worryingly sweeping statements like those above, we’ve clearly got a way to go.  What we need is a proper discussion about it- whether in print or in person- and I’d very much like to be a part of it.

Elizabeth Hunter

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