In Randi's Prize I held a brief imaginary dialogue with Julian Baggini, a philosopher who writes for the Guardian. I picked Baggini because he'd made some remarks about mediums, but also because he sounded like the sort of atheist that a person with religious interests could have a conversation with. That impression has been confirmed by the thoughtful articles about religious belief that he has been writing on the Guardian's Comment-is-Free site recently - not least by the infuriated responses of hardline atheists.
Today in the print version Baggini publishes a manifesto, a list of 12 points that distinguishes what a 'heathen' believes. I like the term 'heathen', but use it in a jokey sense, along with 'infidel'. Baggini has a serious use for it: he thinks it helps distinguish moderate atheism from the highly-charged version espoused by 'bishop-bashers' like Dawkins and Hitchens. It shows that 'we do not think too highly or ourselves', unlike terms such as 'rationalist' and 'bright' - which imply (I guess he would agree) that people who think differently are irrational and stupid.
So what's in the manifesto? Baggini starts with beliefs. Like all atheists, heathens are naturalists, who have no reason to believe there is anything like heavens, spirit worlds and deities. They arrive at this conclusion because their first commitment is to the truth,
a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have. That is where our primary commitment lies, and we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong about some of the specific beliefs that has led us to.
However heathens are emphatically not followers of scientism. For them, science is not the last word on everything. They can even be made to feel uncomfortable by the way it undermines certain beliefs about free will and rationality. They also recognise that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, easily led astray by biases, distortions and prejudices.
Reason itself always leaves us short of certain knowledge, requiring us to rely on our judgements in order to come a conclusion.
That isn't to say that heathens aren't confident that they're right, they just prefer to be discreet about their certainty. They'll concede that religion may help people to be happier and healthier, if the evidence is there, although it wouldn't make them give up their convictions. They are secularists, but don't demand that religion be banished from society or public life.
Some heathens can even be a tiny bit religious themselves:
A small minority of religions reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. These are entirely compatible with the heathen position.
In fact religion is often the heathen's friend:
We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided.
On the other hand that's balanced by an 'equally honest' commitment to be critical of religion when necessary, especially when it 'promotes prejudice, division or discrimination, suppresses truth or stands in the way of medical or social progress.'
There were some approving comments, although it seems a lot of atheists are attached to their dogmatic warrior status, and would hate to lose it. The idea of giving ground to religions is intolerable to them (eg 'I like Atheist, it's loud, proud and to the point. Heathen sounds like I'm a pussy.') But Baggini predicts that many people of faith will agree with much of what he says, and I think he's right. He's to be commended for making the effort to build bridges and deflate the rhetoric.
Obviously, though, I disagree that scientific naturalism is the inevitable outcome of a 'commitment to the truth'.
Elsewhere, as I mentioned in Randi's Prize, Baggini argues that belief in life after death can only be based on faith, since the evidence and good reasons required for a rational argument that it exists are lacking. True, mediums sometimes make correct statements, but then there are bound to be occasional uncanny coincidences and lucky guesses. If there were genuine communication between the living and the dead, there would surely be many more accurate and otherwise inexplicable communications. The fact that they are so rare suggests they are genuine, but frauds, guesses and coincidences.
I went on to point out that Baggini could not reasonably talk this way if he knew anything about psychic research.
Just now I'm going through the investigative material on Leonora Piper, and it's an extraordinary read. Much of it consists of notes taken of sittings, where one can see the back-and-forth between sitter and Piper, in the form of a distinct trance personality. A sitter will typically hear his or her extended family described in detail, with exact names, ages, characteristics, interests, living or dead and so on, without any feedback or anything that gives the slightest support for the cold reading hypothesis. The communications were not only accurate and inexplicable, they were very far from being rare. On the contrary, this material is voluminous and no serious challenge has ever been mounted against it: such efforts as there have been are trivial. Even well-informed sceptics agreed that telepathy was the minimum needed to explain it.
Those of us who know about this, and about many other similar investigations of other individuals, think of it as evidence. In my case, the findings of psychic research help inform my spiritualistic worldview. That worldview may be in conflict with Baggini's naturalism, yet it's surely consistent with the commitment, as he describes it, to 'see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have'.
I'd add that it doesn't appear especially truthful or rational to insist that all mediums rely on pre-gathered information or cold-reading, when there are instances - and Piper is far from being the only one - that powerfully refute that.
Baggini's excuse is ignorance. As I said in my book, I guess he doesn't know that psychic research even exists. It's not on his radar; the people he mixes with, the institutions he frequents will know nothing about it either. It's part of the naturalist creed - and in this respect a creed is exactly what it is - that all such notions have been swept away by modern science.
If, on the other hand, he knows all about Piper but has a reasoned counter-argument, then I would be interested to hear it. I suspect it would be based largely on the fact of no one having won James Randi's million dollars, the possibility of cold-reading, the gullibility of investigators - all those general nostrums that sceptics typically offer, and that reveal minds that have not yet got to grips with the problem.
I think this evocation of the primacy of reason is made with the sceptic's natural complacency. A true commitment to truth and reason could eventually lead a thinker to interesting places - and expose him to deeply awkward conclusions.