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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