Thoughts on Atheism, Religion, and Equality

In the last couple of days, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has resigned over what he felt to be a conflict between his religious beliefs and his leadership position. There’s been plenty of speculation on the precise nature of this conflict, especially in light of his previous insistence that his personal religious beliefs did not impact on his liberal principles, and anyway he din’t believe that homosexuality was a sin. I must admit that I’m inclined towards scepticism regarding Farron, but that’s not really want prompted me to write this.

Instead, what I’m concerned with here is the tone of some comments on a ‘humanist’ page on Facebook, which for me summed up a tendency within the atheist community: that of dismissing deities as ‘sky fairies’ and insisting that the most important thing is to ‘mock’ religious believers.1

The problem is, this really misses the point. The gist of the article they were commenting on was that ‘the problem is not religion itself, but the way individual politicians interpret it’. Plenty of religious people (even religious politicians) have found no conflict between their faith and support for gay rights (indeed, plenty of LGBT people are religious themselves). The problem (suggests the article) is not religion in general, but Farron’s views in particular.

However, for many atheists (including prominent names like Richard Dawkins), this level of nuance is incomprehensible. There’s no variation between religious practitioners; there’s no scope for differing beliefs within or between religions; and there’s no scope for understanding the social context in which religion exists. Dawkins, for example, has been vocally dismissive of the study of theology, purporting to believe that to even study religion is to assert the existence of God. This is nonsense, of course; to study religion no more requires belief in God than to study modern literature requires belief in Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, and Dawkins’ opinions are undoubtably within the realms of theology. (Dawkins has since gone even further, to dismiss much of the humanities and social sciences in general; it’s hardly a stretch, at this point, to suggest that he’s simply opposed to any body of knowledge that suggests he might not be the foremost authority on all the world’s problems.)

This kind of atheism misses the wood for the trees. Dawkins and his ilk claim to be deeply concerned by the impact of religion on society, but focus instead on the truth value of the proposition that ‘God exists’, apparently assuming that all of these negative impacts will simply disappear in a puff of logic. Marx wrote in 1842 that he ‘desired there to be less trifling with the label “atheism” (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man)’; for him, the non-existence of God was not in doubt, but equally, asserting this didn’t address any significant social questions.

Here’s a thought experiment: if God really did unquestionably, irrefutably exist, would homophobia be justified? One would hope that most atheists would say no (and, of course, many religious people already do say no). But in that case, why precisely does the existence of God matter? Religious people are far from exclusively homophobic, and homophobic people are certainly not exclusively religious.

A while back, I wondered if Dawkins-style atheists and religious fundamentalists had in common with each other a literal interpretation of holy texts, while more mainstream religious believers are more flexible in their faith. Since then I’ve realized this is untrue; religious fundamentalists don’t have an interpretation that is somehow ‘more correct’ than others (ISIS’ attacks on civilians during Ramadan comes to mind, or Christian extremists’ tendency to ignore the ‘plank in their own eye’). These atheists (or anti-theists, perhaps) have a similar tendency, though: to find, from their position of ignorance, the most negative interpretations of the texts, and to assume that this is the only valid one, that those believers who favour other interpretations are somehow ‘doing it wrong’. One could almost believe that they’d rather all religious people were ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church; ‘moderate’2 religious people pose too much of a challenge to their black-and-white worldview wherein all atheists are good and intelligent and all ‘theists’ are bad and stupid.

As far as Tim Farron goes: it’s hard to support a belief that Christians are discriminated against in this country. As far as I can tell, each of the Prime Ministers we’ve had in the last ten years has been quite openly Christian, while Tony Blair was less so during his time in office but famously converted to Catholicism afterwards; I can’t find out what John Major believed in, but Thatcher was certainly religious, as was (to a greater or lesser extent) almost every Prime Minister before that. What seems to have damaged Farron is not so much his openness about his faith, but his failure to convince the party and the electorate that he isn’t a homophobe (even if he really isn’t). As Labour’s Emily Thornberry said on BBC Question Time last night, “you cannot aspire to be Prime Minister of this country … and think a substantial minority of this country, by their very sexuality, are in some way immoral”; I would add that a clarification that “we are all sinners” does not do much to improve this position.

  1. Full disclosure: I used to be this kind of atheist, although I hope I’m better now.
  2. Although I’m not entirely comfortable with the implied judgement of words like ‘moderate’.