On Heathenism

In the Guardian, Julian Baggini has exploring hethanism in a really interesting series of articles culminating in a manifesto, in which he pleads to atheists to reconsider their relationship with religion.  He identifies the smug tone which has come to be associated with the term “atheist”;  the primacy that non-believers give to the material world and acknowledges that non-believers accept the unknown while rejecting supernatural explanations.  In a world where religion is a major source of tension and its differences used to exploit, invade and conquer, a simple declaration promotion of atheism as a means of combating religious influence is as effective as promoting post-genderism as a means of fighting the patriarchy.  It may be the desired end game, but
we live in the here and now.

With the Islamophobia of the last decade and the New Crusades being carried out individually in Norway by Breivik and militarity by Bush and Blair as well as the growing strength of the religious right in the UK, religion has a visible presence in our collective conciousness.  The state-sponsored persectution of muslims has found ts way onto the streets, while the religious right of the US have grown stronger and are making their presence felt across the pond.

The EDL – a protofascist organisation – is based around a reaction to Isamophobia, a fear of muslamic ray guns at every corner and sharia law in every court.   Although its Scottish equivalent has not raised much purchase, its English counterpart has and from an opposition to Islam has expanded to a generalised nationalism played out through cultural intolerence veiled in the cloak of religion.  In contrast to this, the “Big Society” of David Cameron sounds fluffy.  Its the kind of thing that your lberal happy-clappy Christian could get excited about, and indeed religion is playing an increasing role as the other structures of civil society are breaking down.  Relgion is being co0-opted into education in the UK, through both church schools and the explicit teaching of creationism.  And nto healthcare with religious bodies formng consortum to purchase healthcare services and pronouncing on reproductvie rights issues.  Of course where this intersects is sex education.

In a world where the the traditional sexual tie of marriage is in flux, sexual behavour and the nature of sexuality changing, sex is becoming increasingly commercialised and commodified.  Clear health messages around reproductive issues is essential in tandem with broader health and emotional issues to assist people navigate their sexuality where options are open, yet exploitation rife.  Organised religious influence in health and education is pernicious.  It gives a level of influence to a deeply unaccountable body.  Unaccountable not necessarily at the bureaucratic level but also at the metaphysical.  Churches interpret and pass judgement on theological issues which are then presented as a blueprint for how human society should be run.  Whether a person’s belief structures incorporates a sky pixie is of no business of mine.  I may think it wrong, illogical or plain daft, but their beliefs are theirs and the choices that they make as a consequence of those beliefs their own.  Where we come into conflict is where organised religion seeks to influence or restrict my choices on that basis.

Many vegans hold deeply held beliefs about the morality of using or eating animal produce.  Some adopt veganism as a simple solution to religious dietary requirements, some through objections to animal exploitation, some  in protest at the farming methods used, some through global justice concerns.  You occasionally come across evangelical vegans, who check the soya milk for evidence that a small insect was killed in the harvesting and who look snidely at your leather boots, but they are thankfully the minority.  Most just go happily about their business of avoiding animal produce only discussing it if someone professes interest.  In collective gatherings, veganism will be raised as a method of ensuring inclusivity – as a vegan diet encompasses all, vegan  offerings are usually the sustainance of choice within radical communities, there is no requirement for people participating in such communities to believe in veganism, merely to adopt its standards while within the community and afford it respect.  Vegans and rampant carnivores cohabit happily, and if they cant the carnivores know where the door is.

A personal belief system can cohabit quite happily with those who do not share it, as long as there is tolerance on both parts.  A respect for the belief structure from the non-believers, and an acceptance on the part of believers that their views are not universal.  Where problems arise is where believers consider their belief structure entitles them to impose restrictions on the behaviour of others, outwith mutually agreed boundaries.  Agreeing that a dinner part will be vegan to include everyone is quite different from decreeing that all dinner parties will be vegan.

Every society has an implicit believe structure, imposed most strongly by law, but also through administration.  Our law, although secular, can trace its origins back through Christian traditions, and many of the less explicit social restrictions can be similarly traced back to relgious influence.  Havng said that  religion is not necessarily a negative force.  The Christian liberation theology of the Americas,  and its Jewish and Islamic equivalents have pushed social justice issues while retaining links to organised religions.

Now, maybe I’m wrong and there is a sky pixie and its all part of their grand design that I dont believe in them.  Pascal reckoned that you should hedge your bets in that situation, choosing to believe rather than risk eternal damnation, but betting with God is even more of a mugs game than the Casino.  The Casino may be rigged, but God is omnipotent, onmiscienent and omnipresent.  You’re really, really not likely to come off well if you bet him a tenner far less your soul.

And your soul is important.  Much derised by the atheists, there is a metaphysical component to all human existance.  You live, accumulate experiences which shape your beliefs, assign the intersection of these beliefs and experiences weight then act in accordance with your accumulated idealistic structures.  And therein lies your soul.  No-one has your unique set of experiences, although some will have very similar.  Every soul is unique and hence ultimately alone.  It is in the finding of kindred spirits that we overcome this aloneness finding others with similar experiences and beliefs.

Religion provides these kindred spirits.  The beliefs indoctrinated from on-high, rituals and shared reading material ensure a commonality of experience.  It seeks to influence belief to ensure that experiences are perceived a particular way, and use experience to justify that belief.  The Churches with their stained glass windows, colour the congregation, not only through the words from the pulpit, but also by the hue of the environment.

Not all atheists are the same.  Catholic atheists differ from Protestant atheists, they have been coloured differently, neither are the same as Jewish atheists or Muslim atheists.  Atheists like to pronounce themselves against all religion, refusing to believe in any God, and of course that is true, but as a cultural protestant, however weak that relgious influence may have been,  I never had to “not” believe in Allah, I did have to not believe in God.

And hence why I am a heathen.  I reject a Christian Protestant God, for it is my personal interface with a theological belief structure.  I bear christanity no ill, and indeed will stand with Christians under persecution such as that seen in Israel, Iran or any other country where they face oppression against an alternate dominant religion, but I do so on the basis of their culture not belief structure.  I am one of the others – the descendants of Cain’s wife.  I recognise Adam and the Garden of Eden, but am are not of them.  I was not fashioned from his rib, nor sustained by favoured soil.  I am a heathen.

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6 comments
Keith Fyans
Keith Fyans

To begin I want to be clear in my terminology and want for conversation as otherwise we could all end up at cross-purposes: An atheist is someone who (in response to others claims) has no belief in a god or gods. It says nothing else about them. Religion is the assertion of truth in a statement without demonstrable evidence but instead asserted upon faith. Also, ultimately, we are discussing moral and social customs, and as such we are stating what we see as the best way forward (this was also made clear in your post, but bares repeating). I'll also not reply in length to what I find to be an offensive, insipid and internally contradictory article in the Guardian as that would be a long series of posts in and of themselves. Suffice to say it was a perfect example of the problems with religion and religious thinking. My main issue with the blog post is that you make a series logical falicies along with some demonstratably untrue points. First, none or the problems you mention (islamophbia, commercialisation, objectification, etc.), are caused or prevented by atheism. They are just nothing to do with the atheism. That being said some of them are (at least in part) caused or supported by religious belief. On personal belief, this is all well and good in theory, but the moment that person has to evaluate a situation which will effect another in which their religion informs the decision then it is no longer personal. Religious belief prompting the "right" or "wrong" decision to be made is unimportant as it should play no part in any decision which involves another. I would also ask that we give serious thought to which actions are affected by "personal" religious belief, as I think this is often hugely underestimated, and sometime those actions we think will not touch another have a massive domino effect. Contrary to the views created by accepted religious privelege, most secular law has nothing what-so-ever to do with "religious values". In most cases secular laws are based in evidence and stand in direct opposition to the "devinely inspired" irrationality and brutality of bygone cultural norms. I'm at a loss as to what a "spirit" is. If I am correct your assert that it is the "metaphysical" component (what do you mean? How can you know?) that exists (evidence?) when "you live, accumulate experiences which shape your beliefs, assign the intersection of these beliefs and experiences weight then act in accordance with your accumulated idealistic structures" (is this not just memory and perosnal belief? Why does it need a magical component?). I'm really confussed. Is this just a fallacy from ignorance (aka "god of the gaps")? Your last paragraph is filled with religiously flavoured poety, but is that what you think actually happened? To be a heathen (as presented in the guardian piece as opposed to the traditional heathen) is to accept religious belief. Yeah, I know it contradicts itself, but that is what religion does, along with having people go through some impossible mental contortions to justify the contradiction.

admin
admin

Thanks for your comments, Keith Firstly, I agree that the problems I raise arent due to atheism, but to competing relgious idelogies, but we cant just ignore that religion is a major force in the world and one which causes a great deal of problems, just announcing that there is no God, in and of itself is a belief structure for which there is no evidence. There may be a God, I dunno. I think there probably isn't but its really of no consequence to me. Secondly, I also agree that religious belief comes out of the personal sphere into the public sphere whenever someone with religious beliefs acts in a public manner, but these should be challenged on the basis of rationality rather than theology. Their belief is wrong (or right) for that matter not because of their religion but for material reasons, and the fact that religion is influencing their belief is neither here nor there. Secular law in most cases can trace its origins back to religion, religious law is the source of most law structures. Just because a law is based on a religious tenet does not make it automatically wrong (thou shalt not kill is not a bad motto to live by, but it has nothing to do with Moses!). The challenge is then to construct law based on rationality. In terms of "spirit". I talk of "the soul" which you are right is basically just memory and the beliefs that you aquire from experience, which then influence how you are likely to act in future - no metaphysical component, I also talk of "kindred spirits" but use this more metaphorically - I suppose the secular version would be "fellow traveller", but I deliberately used a term with religious connotations. But no, no literal "spirits". If you are asking whether I believe in the creation myth, then no. But I do recognise it as both a a cultural referrant which informs my upbringing and consequently my worldview, and wish to set my self directly in opposition to Christianity, which as I mentioned in the blogpost, is my personal interface with religion.

Where is the Proof
Where is the Proof

I have always found it weird when people equate religious heritage and religion with race. What I mean is that I thin its a bit strange to say "I am a Jewish atheist" or "Catholic atheist", because the term is inherntly contradictory. I mean, what if you where raised a conservative Republican, but in college started to become more liberal, and became a democrat? You where raised in a really conservative environment, and that affected you, but you wont go around calling yourself a "republican democrat". Your faith and your upbringing are not permant lables that can be attached to you, especially when they conflict with what you are today. I also think your use of the world "soul" should be replaced with the word "mind". Soul implies a metaphisical aspect, and there is no such thing. All of that stuff you described as being metaphysical is grounded in reality, with real life explanations for how they work. No need to take stuff from it that isn't there to begin with. Nit pickings aside, I liked this article. Especially the parallels you draw between vegans and atheists. The mentality of us vs them is rather prevalent in the atheist circles I run in, much to my chagrin.

admin
admin

Its about aknowledging that there is a culture which goes with religion, and just because you reject the belief structure, you are still part of that community and thus informed by the culture. For example, an atheist brought up a muslim with a muslim family will primarily go to wedding/funeral/christening ceremonies in Mosques, will be most familiar with the Koran and wear a headscarf, while an atheist brought up a Catholic from a catholic family will primarily go to wedding/funeral/christening ceremonies in churches, be most familiar with the Bible and support Celtic. All cultural things which have their base in religious ideology. Keith below has also picked up on the soul/spirit/mind issue. I chose "soul" because there is no one thing which sums up the unique individuality of the person other than personal identity, which is a much broader term, and kind of seen as something you *have* rather than something you *are. My personal identity shifts depending on context, but my beingness is the same. I don't believe that it is religiously devined, but it is metaphysical in the sense of being an attribute of the metaphysics.

Where is the Proof
Where is the Proof

I agree that you upbringing shapes who you are, but I don't think anyone should be labeled by their upbringing. What if you where raised a satanist? Er, a the kind of satanist that sacrifices goats and babies and stuff. That influence your life, probably a lot more then anyone raised catholic or muscle would. and yet I would hazard a guess that you would not go around calling people satanist-atheist. Well, actually, that happens all the time, but for entirely different reasons than what we are discussing. I just don't see how it is wise to label people based on things that only influence who they are, as opposed to who they are. As for the soul thing, I think the word "mind" works better for what you are trying to say. There was a school of thought that there where three things that made you you, soul, body, mind. The "body" was, well, your body. Your muscles, hair, organs, etc etc. The "mind" was basically your consciousness, the sum total of your experiences combined into what made you a thinking, rational being. The soul aspect was entirely mystical, it was just a bridge between your mind (and in some cultures your body) and the spiritual realm/afterlife.

admin
admin

Well, satanism - as I understand it is a bastardised form of christianity, so I suppose a christian athiest would get round the embarrassment issue. I get what you are saying, but the mind is more your rationality, while your soul is the sum of your rationality and experiences - which are related but different.

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