Things Tim Farron doesn’t understand: Atheism

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(Hopefully not the first in an ongoing series)

If you’ve seen more Liberal Democrats facepalming than usual this week, it’s probably thanks to Tim Farron’s speech to the Theos think tank in which he puts forward the argument that maybe it’s liberals who are the real illiberals. Featuring a variety of hoary old cod-philosophical chestnuts like equating freedom of speech with freedom from criticism, his speech goes on to argue that Christianity “is the essential underpinning of liberalism and, indeed, of democracy” which feels somewhat of a stretch. While I wouldn’t argue that it’s antithetical to either, for every Christian he cites on the side of social progress, there were others fighting against them, arguing that their particular brand of injustice was endorsed by the Bible. I don’t dispute that individual Christians have had an influence on the development of liberalism and democracy but to claim that Christianity itself is somehow fundamentally linked to them feels akin to claiming that you can’t use calculus without agreeing with the religious views of Newton and Leibniz.

It also misses out that saying ‘I am a Christian’ is similar to saying ‘I am a liberal’ in that the statement alone reveals very little about the person’s actual belief. Just as ‘liberal’ is used across almost the entire political spectrum, so ‘Christian’ can mean anything from fire-and-brimstone revivalists who think Trump’s a bit too moderate for their tastes to Quakers complaining Jeremy Corbyn’s a bit centrist. There are plenty of intersections between the two along those scales, but neither is fundamental to the other.

However, the bit of the speech where my raised eyebrow threatened to tear a muscle came near the end when he talks about atheism like this:

Well look, 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.

This is a somewhat bizarre interpretation of atheism, most notably regarding atheism as a belief in itself and thus somehow self-negating because it’s a belief in nothing. It also comes up earlier when he says it would be “silly…to make atheism the state religion”, which I would agree with, though we’re clearly using two different ideas of silly here. He thinks it’s possible to make atheism a state religion because it’s somehow a belief like a religion, while I think it’s silly because it’s the same as declaring you’re going to make a pumpkin your car.

There’s an old saying that Tim doesn’t seem to have encountered or understood: we’re all atheists, I just believe in one less god than you. I don’t believe in Tim’s God the same way he doesn’t believe in Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Odin, the Tooth Fairy or Russell’s Teapot. However, not believing in a certain category of things does not mean not believing in all things, and it especially does not mean that atheists believe in an absence of common values. By a similar leap of logic I could argue that if there is no unifying truth there can be no unifying understanding, thus there can be no language, therefore you’re not actually reading this blog post right now because the language it’s written in doesn’t exist. That argument doesn’t actually make sense – all I’ve done is transposed the word ‘unifying’ from one context to another and claim it does – and it’s the same as suddenly reversing the words in your definition of atheism and claiming that’s also true.

Atheism does not mean believing in nothing, it just means not believing in a god or gods. Atheists can believe in universal truths and values, but ones that are revealed by natural action or human discovery, not by being handed down by divine writ from above. Some may not believe in unifying truths or common values, but there are plenty of religious people who do the same – some will live in heaven for eternity, while the rest of us are doomed to eternal damnation is hardly unifying, is it – so to claim it’s a special property of atheism, and one shared by all atheists, is simply misunderstanding the concept at a basic level.

I’m annoyed by this speech, not just because it feels like a real slap in the face for those of us who defended Tim a few months ago, but because it feels like little more than a compendium of Christian cliches about secularism, liberalism and atheism. It seems to be getting him some attention, but when Tim’s new admirers include people like Tim Montgomerie and Douglas Murray it’s hard not to be reminded of Dora Gaitskell’s comment when her husband basked in seeming triumph at a Labour conference: “all the wrong people are clapping.”