James Randi's Personal Troubles
Graham Nicholls and the Out-of-body Experience

Baggini's Heathenism

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.


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I was thinking recently about my own frustrations with "bishop-bashing" types, and my concerns are much like yours. Not their lack of belief, which is usually honest and reasonable, but (a) the false narratives of science[1] they have built-up and expect everyone else to accept on their word, and (b) the — I fear increasingly — illiberal spirit with which they approach those who profess or practice some form of religious belief.

It's always refreshing to see atheists who reject (b). Hopefully more will start to see through (a), as well.

That said, I do see one problem with the term "heathen": it's already being used by a small-but-increasingly-visible[2] minority who follow some variant of pre-Christian Northern European religion.

[1] The narratives in which, for example, parapsychology is all bunkum, and religion isn't an incredibly varied and nuanced class of things.

[2] For example, in 2009, Dan Halloran, a Theodist, was elected to New York City Council… as a Republican, no less.

You obviously haven't heard of the expression "bashing the bishop". It means something else entirely.

You obviously haven't heard of the expression "bashing the bishop". It means something else entirely.

I Googled it. LOL!
Well, you could always say that much of the dialogue between the New Atheists is just "mentally bashing the bishop".

I believe that the afterlife and naturalism are entirely compatible. What's more, the evidence recorded by psychic research tells us that it most likely has an energy body being the authentic vehicle of consciousness as an additional element of nature. The astral body as a structure made of a unknown material.

Consider that the spirits of the dead are supernatural while the rest of the universe is natural is as absurd as to consider that quarks are supernatural and the rest of the universe is natural.

Light is electromagnetic in property. We know that the nerves in the human body give off electromagnetic energy. Why then is it a stretch to speculate that the astral energy body could be a combination of the physically known electromagnetic phenomena of physics and something else like subatomic light energies which are only recorded at present by human consciousness? A combination of the two seems to be a perfect explanation to me.

Firstly, we do not know the real nature of electricity or light. We know a lot ABOUT them but not what they actually ARE.

Secondly, it can't just be a coincidence that people with psychic or intuitive perceptual abilities can sense discarnate human beings.

Thirdly, in the case of physical phenomena from hauntings even though we don't have global acceptance of their reality, the fact that these phenomena even exist at all shows that the line between these different vibrations of energy are not as black and white as it may be believed to be.

It's a little unfortunate that no-one realises there are religious neopagans who call themselves heathens -- they work with the norse pantheons.

But then the understanding of religion by atheists is always appallingly low. They literally understand absolutely nothing about it. To someone with even a first year undergraduate's knowledge of comparative religion, this stuff is just so embarassing.

I don't think having different definitions of 'heathen' is a big problem really. As far as I can see every version of major world religion seems to have a number of variants - often regarding the other variants as inauthentic. Long live the People's Front of Judea.

I thought every brit at least would know what 'bashing the bishop was' lol.

I think Juan's comment regarding natural and supernatural is interesting - this is about understanding the natural cosmos we all inhabit, it might appear somewhat pejorative to define phenomena which one doesn't understand as anything other than natural. Maybe material and non-material or physical and non-physical? I dunno - operating above pay-grade now :)

Paul: I don't think having different definitions of 'heathen' is a big problem really. As far as I can see every version of major world religion seems to have a number of variants - often regarding the other variants as inauthentic.

Last time I checked, atheism isn't a variant of polytheism. :-P

But, of course, for that very reason, there won't be any real problem distinguishing heathens like Baggini from heathens like Halloran.

Methinks you're swatting flies here, our Robert! ;)

True Badocelot, having said that neither is christianity or Islam lol

David R, may be that this astral body formed of energies known today, but it seems very plausible, because the astral body contains all the senses and is the vehicle of consciousness, and I do not know if the electromagnetic energy could perform all these functions. And it is true that some psychics can feel spirits of the dead suggests that these are physical, natural.

But the key issue is what Paul says: we tend to call "supernatural" to the facts that we know and we seem unintelligible while we call "natural" to what we know to some extent. So if psquicas delve into research, we see that the spirits of the deceased can be as natural as anything else, something that can be addressed empirically.

So what is the relationship between science and naturalism? Scientists should try to know what in the world, without prejudging what may be in the world a priori, because this just may decide to research it, so it's a mistake to believe that science starts with the idea that there are no spirits or gods, because the science´s ontology can only be conclusion, not premise. Only research will be able to know what in the world.

Oops. I meant did not seem very plausible.

Re the above, this link might prove of interest:



An interesting post. As you state, anybody who claims that the "hits" by mediums are pure coincidence hasn't really studied the research.

I must confess, however, that the first time I read the Piper material I wasn't overly convinced. It took three reads for it to sink in. That's why I am now attempting to write a book about Mrs. Piper and the research done with her. Unfortunately, the researchers of old didn't do a good job in explaining it.

Author of:
Transcending the Titanic
The Afterlife Revealed
Running on Third Wind
The Articulate Dead

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