Monday, 26 March 2012

Are You A Heathen?

Julian Baggini has written in the Guardian that we need to rethink and re-brand atheism to make progress in public debate with the religious.

He's right that the debate about the place of belief in public life and the rights of non-believers has become polarised and that moderate atheists are often excluded (in the same way that moderate believers are).

Baggini writes that 'We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves'. He's right that groups like the Brights do no one any favours as the name is a PR disaster, implying superior intelligence and smugness. He's also right that humanism is not the answer as it's just a sub-set of non-believers.

His solution is to re-brand atheists as heathens because 'in the public imagination [atheism] amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins'.

The word 'heathen' has the same root meaning as 'pagan' - people who live in the countryside and who are therefore not civilized (living in the city, from the Latin civis). These people had their own belief systems that were characterized by the derogatory 'heathen' or 'pagan' as primitive, along with everything else they did. It was also a term used by early missionaries so it has a racist tinge to it as well.

As someone who was raised in the countryside, far from civilization, I'd like to reclaim the word 'yokel' and make it a source of pride but I won't be calling myself a heathen.

Other groups have reclaimed words or changed their meaning (gay, for example) but one of the problems with heathen is that it's already in current use. Heathens are a variety of neo-pagans and British heathens have an annual meet called Heathenfest in Peterborough. They may not be too pleased with the word being co-opted by atheists*. Heathen is also a thrash metal band and the Heathens are a Dudley speedway team.

Baggini does say that people may not agree with everything in his manifesto, that it is a broad set of principles, 'an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like'.

But no matter what we decide to call ourselves, there will still be moderates and extremists and there will still be people calling themselves atheists.

This could lead to non-believers becoming like the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea. Our opponents will be pleased to see dissention and division so, rather than establishing common ground between believers and non-believers, a name change could just be divisive. Perhaps he should have run a focus group first before re-branding the product.

He writes that heathens can be religious, they are people who 'reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and who see the essential core of religion in its values and practices' and many religious people 'will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens believe'.

Maybe a few of them will but they are not considered true believers by the more orthodox. Hostility to non-believers and attacks on human rights come from these most orthodox of believers and religious leaders who will not embrace any of the manifesto points. They don't want common ground or common cause. These are the people who have access to the media and to government, not the more moderate believers.

While it may appear pragmatic to soften our image in order to engage with them, the fundamental differences remain and the hard core are not going to be mollified by heathens any more than they currently are by atheists. If reasonable, calm debate worked, we wouldn't be in the position we're in now. By suggesting a re-brand, he is acknowledging that we must change because the religious hardcore will not - but perhaps the re-brand is pandering to them, bending over backwards to make them accept and engage with us. Making concessions to a bully doesn't work, it just gives him more opportunity to mock, dismiss and kick you.

One of the manifesto points is about secularism. This is the key issue and the one he should focus on. It doesn't matter what non-believers call themselves or what believers believe, it is what happens in the public sphere that needs our attention. Our efforts should be focussed on making sure that religion doesn't claim any unfair advantage or try to disadvantage non-believers, women, minorities or the 'wrong' sort of believers.

Baggini's aim is to find 'common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible'. Entering into dialogue with the religious could be productive in some areas, but it's more important to make politicians listen and act to protect our rights. This might be easier if we had some religious people on board - and in some cases we already do work on common causes together. The National Secular Society has already been doing this for some time, for example on freedom of expression and sharia courts. But in other cases, it's the opposition between belief and non-belief that's the source of the problem, the different and intransigeant interpretations of human rights. No amount of dialogue or image-softening will fix that fundamental disagreement, rooted in incompatible world views. Secular legislation and education are the only routes.

Directing the re-brand at politicians so they are less timorous about engaging with us might work but recent governments have shown scant regard for facts and evidence and too much regard for religious arguments. The media is as bad, giving endless time to extremists because they make good copy while moderates do not, often getting a paragraph tacked on to the end of a story, if they're lucky. A bishop who rants about gay marriage is going to get far more column inches than any moderate, whatever they call themselves.

It's easy to wear a badge or a T shirt with Heathen on but re-branding is not what's needed. What we do need is for moderates (of both sides) to be more active, not let the extremists of either side go unchallenged or hog the limelight, to let them, the media and the public know they do not speak for us. There are a lot of us; what we call ourselves is irrelevant, we need to get out there.

*I've contacted a couple of pagan and heathen groups and will add their comments if they respond.

1 comment:

  1. Come on, let’s re-brand!

    I will do the colouring in myself. We can get a GCSE work experience student to do the logos using their snazzy MS Word skills.

    Do you think Tony Blair Associates would do mates’ rates for the NSS?

    As secularists our arguments work on their own merits. When they don’t, we acknowledge that, we analyse them and we come up with ones that do.

    Re-branding is an exercise undertaken by those whose arguments don’t work in order to divert attention from the fact that…their arguments don’t work.

    Having said that, I do think it’s important that we occasionally use the word ‘secular’ to mean ‘normal’: