On Tuesday night, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron gave a speech in which he stated that liberalism ‘is eating itself’ by being intolerant of Christianity. The content of his speech makes a number of bold claims for the status of religion in public life, but in doing so betrays a number of misunderstandings around atheism, secularism, and what it is these terms really mean.
In his speech, Tim Farron has claimed that ‘Atheism is not the absence of belief, it is a belief in absence and therefore the absence of common values. It’s a belief in there being no unifying truth. But if there is no unifying truth then, by its own standard, the belief that there is no unifying truth must also be bogus. If you declare that there is no unifying truth then it stands to reason that this declaration isn’t true either. Ergo, atheism doesn’t exist. And I refuse to believe in something that doesn’t exist.’
Though epigrams can be fun devices for putting across ideas, they don’t necessarily lend those ideas any legitimacy, and Mr Farron’s claim lets slip a few misunderstandings about the nature of atheism. An atheist is, simply put, a person who does not believe there is a god or gods: that’s all! A person’s response to this one particular question doesn’t say anything about whatever other beliefs and values they might have. They may be nihilists, Buddhists, humanists – or whatever. Surveys show most atheists in the UK in fact hold positive humanist beliefs about the value of life and how to find meaning and purpose. And certain beliefs, such as that you should treat others as you like to be treated, appear to be innate and common to all of humanity.
Tim Farron further claims that ‘I am not a secularist but I believe in a secular society where there is no “state faith”. That in Britain we have a church trapped as part of the furniture of the state is a waste of a church. A boat in the water is good. Water in the boat, is bad. A church in the state is good, the state in the church is bad. Really bad. It pollutes the message of that church. It compromises it. Weakens its witness.’
His support for separation of church and state is longstanding and welcome, but perhaps Mr Farron should acknowledge the simple fact that the UK, as a state, privileges Christianity in all sorts of ways over all other beliefs. This includes the fact that a third of our state schools are religious – overwhelmingly Christian. The fact that all the other schools have to have Christian worship every day. The fact that provision of pastoral care in hospitals and prisons is overwhelmingly Christian. And the fact that we have an established church whose supreme governor is head of state, and flowing from that have 26 bishops who sit and vote in our Parliament on the laws that affect us all.
In this context, to argue that the UK is, effectively, a non-religious state is far from the truth – however non-religious British society may be. With this in mind, we sincerely hope that Tim Farron will work with us towards a free and equal society where tolerance, rational thinking, and kindness prevail.