Responding to the Heathen Manifesto

Today Julian Baggini has his Heathen’s Manifesto published in The Guardian. I was part of a panel discussing it with him, the former Bishop of Oxford, and director of Theos Elizabeth Hunter at The Guardian Open Weekend on Saturday.

This is basically what I said then:

I don’t disagree with much of the detail of the approach that Julian has set out and where I do disagree it is just around the edges. What I object to and don’t understand the necessity of is the re-branding.

1. It is unnecessary

If I were to go through the manifesto and replace ‘Heathen’ with ‘Humanist’, almost none of the statements Julian makes would be affected. So I wonder why we actually need a new word at all. In his article Julian implies that, because there are humanist organisations, the very concept of humanism is separately owned and not available for use. But that’s not true – humanist organisations promote humanism, they don’t own it, and the definitions of humanism that we can find in dictionaries and encyclopedias make it clear that the word covers most if not all of what Julian wants to express with ‘Heathen’:

a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world: Oxford Companion to the Mind

The rejection of religion in favour of the advancement of humanity by its own efforts: Collins Concise Dictionary

a non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values: Little Oxford Dictionary

an appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality…Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing  the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God: Oxford Companion to Philosophy

a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence: Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Devotion to human interests; system concerned with human (not divine or supernatural) matters, or with the human race (not the individual), or with man as a responsible and progressive being… emphasising the importance  of common human needs and abstention from profitless theorizingConcise Oxford Dictionary

Believing that it is possible to live confidently without metaphysical or religious certainly and that all opinions are open to revision and correction, humanists see human flourishing as dependent on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus: Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy

I don’t think that Humanism is a damaged brand or a tarnished concept. It is an approach to life that picks up where atheism leaves off and meets the needs Julian is trying to meet.

2. It is undesirable

It may seem strange for the Chief Executive of a humanist association – an organisation focused around a label for a certain approach to life – to say this, but I don’t think that labels are all that desirable.

Of course it is necessary for concepts to have names, and that includes worldviews and approaches to life. There is also a sense in which naming your approach to life is an aid to confidence and personal development. An anthropologist who was studying the BHA last year found again and again that the moment when those he interviewed had discovered there was a word for what they had believed all their lives was a significant moment for them and it mattered in their own internal narratives of their lives.

But something that should be clear from the definitions of humanism above is that humanism itself is not really an ‘-ism’ in the sense of a prescriptive identity or affiliation. It is more of a post-hoc descriptive word for an attitude that already exists, desirable only because things must have names to be properly articulated and discussed.

A deliberate proliferation of labels and identities, especially when accompanied by manifestoes laying out point by point the contents of an approach to life strike the wrong note for me.

3. It is counter-productive

In spite of what I’ve said about not making a fetish for labels, there is a case for the organisation of people who share a particular approach to life. This is not just for the emotional support of solidarity but so that people with shared views can take joint action on matters of mutual concern (campaigning against state-funded faith schools, for example) and provide for others who share their views (by helping to train non-religious funeral celebrants, for example). In this context, a flowering of distinctions and a proliferation of new and redundant terms is unhelpful and the beguiling vanity of small differences should be resisted.

So, I hope that you will read the Heathen’s Manifesto, agree with most of the substance of it, but not end up making Heathen button badges for yourself and all your atheist friends. Instead, why not join the British Humanist Association!

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