On Atheists and Heathens

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

This tongue’n’cheek bit in the Guardian titled Atheists please read comes with several consequentialities. Julian Baggini writes

We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.

The first consequence comes in that initial, quoted sentence, a binary reliance for meaning. The second comes with the word “enlightened,” which is a baggage term.

If a person can claim an intellectual indifference to “religious” belief, that person might want to avoid classifications that rely on traditional frames. Atheism, for example, is always bumped up against its opposing force. Atheism, it can be written, depends upon religious belief for meaning: meaning, if the world were a room populated by two unbelievers, the room would have a confused identity. The above quote comes from a section in Baggini where he acknowledges the absurdity of such definitions.

I’m very much interested in these definitions, having restudied Lucretius and just completed The Swerve all in the context of Goethe, Basho, and Dostoevsky. If Atheism is defined as a “rejection,” then the subject of rejection remains “another inhabiter of the room.” One problem for Lucretius was an epistemological one: how does one know something or what conclusion can or should be drawn from a list of observed phenomenon? In a particular belief system, the term “know” is, in an Augustinian sense, a supporter of faith. Faith is buttressed by knowledge. In another context of knowing, faith becomes an inconsequential force, an irrelevancy. It simply doesn’t matter or plays no role in epistemology. In this sense, “Heathens” would need no specific frame of reference to hold identity, such as a love of science. A person could simply observe the yellow birds and relate their color to an onion.


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