H is for… Heathen

At the Guardian, Julian Baggini has posted his Heathen’s Progress in which he uses the term ‘heathen’ as a positive version of atheism. Now, I like positive atheism, or positive non-theism, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position – for, as the Non-Theist Friends network said in their epistle: “wrestling with the paradox of “nontheism” as a negative term signifying a positive commitment to wholly human values”.

I even understand why they might not want to use some of the available alternatives – humanism might be a good word, but maybe it sounds selfish or isn’t non-religious enough, and secularism has more than one sense which might make it confusing.

I don’t think you should take the word heathen for that position, though. Although there are atheist pagans, and probably atheist heathens, most heathens are polytheists, practicing a pre-Christian religion. Odin is a God. Thor is a God. Frigg is a Goddess. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Julian Baggini is after.

I’d like to invite atheists who want a positive word for their beliefs to actually describe their beliefs. Are you a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, a materialist, a truth-teller, a scientist, a rationalist? Of course, those things can go with being a Pagan or a Christian or a Jew or a wide range of other religious identities, so if what you want to say is ‘I’m not a Christian’ or ‘I’m not a theist’, then you’ll have to say that as well. So what? We don’t have to reduce ourselves to a single label, and we always lose something when we try to do so.

I’m a Quaker Pagan Buddhist naturalist (but not usually a naturist). What are you?


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