Comments on Heathen’s Progress, by Julian Baggini, Part One

On September 30, 2011, Julian Baggini began a series of essays in The Guardian on the clash between atheism and traditional religions. This controversy, he says, has reached ‘a stalemate, with the emphasis firmly on ‘stale’.”

As a non-believer, Baggini is critical of supernaturalist theologies, but he is also critical of the new atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens). He finds them “spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects.” In a series called Heathen’s Progress he is attempting to clarify issues, discover key disagreements, and find common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics.

Referring to himself as a heathen is provocative and even cute, but I’m not sure it works. Although Baggini’s readers may understand why he is using this term, “heathen” will sound strange to those who hear about it secondhand. But do I have a better suggestion about what non-believers should call themselves? I’m afraid not. Some have suggested that atheists could call themselves “brights,” and I agree with Baggini that this sounds quite smug. So maybe “heathen” is worth a try.

Overall, Heathen’s Progress is unusually clear, insightful, and respectful. I highly recommend this series and I will be commenting on it in future posts. For Baggini’s first essay go to:

One more comment on HP, Part One: Baggini suggests that non-traditional approaches such as agnosticism and liberal religion often promote a religion of the head rather than the heart, offering people “a thin gruel” which fails to meet basic human needs. I completely agree. Many of us are searching for new ways of meeting those needs, but this takes time. One cannot design a new religion or “lifestance” by just sitting down and figuring it out. It may take decades of exploration by dedicated communities of seekers before something new and satisfying can emerge.

Admittedly, religions sometimes seem to flow full-blown from the lips of a charismatic leader. But we cannot count on such a leader appearing. In the long run the most solid foundation for a new lifestance may be the grass-roots work of thousands rather than the wisdom of one great visionary.