Thursday, March 29, 2012

Religion and the Liberal Democrats - like sex, but without the warmth

Oh dear, I appear to have helped stir up a bit of controversy over young Mr Farron's letter to the Advertising Standards Authority and, by extension, provoked an ongoing row about religion. It hasn't been pretty.

I consider myself as someone who believes in God, albeit rather informally. I instinctively make the sign of the Cross on entering a Catholic church, I light candles for my late grandmother (as much out of respect for her as out of any expectation that it makes any actual difference), and, most of all, I feel vaguely guilty that I am not more devout (not actually guilty enough to remedy this, more a background level of guilt, if you like).

But, as an ersatz Englishman, I take a quintessentially English view of religion, as I do of sex. I have no objection to people practising their faith, as long as they don't force me to join in against my will, and as long as they do it privately amongst consenting individuals. I'm not wild about public displays of religious faith, just as I'm not keen on people performing sexual acts in public.

That doesn't seem too difficult for most people to live with. But it is, I fear. There have been some astonishingly intolerant remarks made in the course of the debate, some of them from quite surprising sources. And I am puzzled by that, as we do seem, as a country, to have decided that tolerance is all well and good, with the exception of religion.

I am not a huge fan of organised religion. In the wrong hands, it has been, and continues to be, used as a justification for war, repression and intolerance. In more recent times, the emergence of a religious bureaucracy has led to a rather ponderous response to societal change. But the notion of faith is a powerful one, and can be, if taken in the round, a good one. A tolerant faith, based on universal tenets of decency, honesty and consistency, is a force for good in an increasingly cynical world.

For we all believe in something that cannot be proved, be it religious faith or liberalism. Both are ideas, rather than solid facts, the aim of both being to build a society in our image, both open to interpretation, argument and disagreement, both of which leave space for doubt and uncertainty.

So perhaps we could go easy on the vitriol, and accept (and respect) our differences. Because, ultimately, we're all in the same lifeboat, and it will go easier for all of us if we can just rub along a bit...


Jennie Rigg said...

My view on religion is broadly similar to yours, I think, albeit from the oher side. The problem with young Mr Farron's letter to the ASA is that it was trying to make religion a special case, and it was trying to make everyone else adhere to more strict rules than religion. And that strikes me as unfair. And, in the current climate of Warsi and Dorries and religious campaigning on all sorts of fronts it was bound to stir up a bit of feeling, especially among people who are already feeling embattled by people attempting to restrict their rights on spurious religious grounds (women and LGBT folks both being among those, and both being groups I belong to).

Like I said in my original post on the matter: I really like Tim, but sometimes he makes it hard for me to do so; and generally this is on occasions where he's said "sure, I'll sign that!" to somebody without really thinking through the consequences, which is (by his post on LDV) what appears to have happened here.

Mark Valladares said...


That seems fair enough.

I suppose that my concern is that, having signed the letter, he has then disowned it to a greater extent. And are there other documents are there out there that might be 'problematic' later? It's about judgement and Tim has given me some doubt on that score.

Oranjepan said...

I take a sidestep on religion, though I'm fascinated by the philosophical aspects.

It's always controversial when a debate is painted into two polar opposites, so yes, this is where I think you share some responsibility, Mark.

As 'an ersatz Englishman, [who takes] a quintessentially English view of religion' you did take a very Anglo-centric theological perspective.

Between the atheism and monotheism it would've been better to also consider the polytheistic, pantheistic, monolatrist and other viewpoints - if 'God' works in 'mysterious' ways, it is because each theology describes the workings in different ways and that this creates space for a valid justification for any claim made.

Or as my Hindu neighbour says, 'which God'?

Mark Valladares said...


I suppose that one's sense of God is influenced by one's upbringing and by those around you. My sense is a monotheistic one, although I have no reason to cleave to such a stance other than a sense of cosy familiarity.

If the concept of God defines where you find him, her, it or them, then that should suffice. But I am relatively simple, reflective soul, and you can over-complicate a really rather simple point in attempting to cover too many bases.

Mine is a message of tolerance, not a reflection of the multiplicity of religious and non-religious faiths, seen entirely through a personal, but openly described prism.

Oranjepan said...

absolutely, and that's the difference between subjective and objective, and open and closed perspectives.

I'm really trying to express something deeper about the nature of liberalism as a pluralist movement, which requires exactly that sort of tolerance which doesn't come easily with religious discussion for the reason you state... that we are influenced more strongly by what we are familiar with.

So, rather than avoid the debate now that's it's been opened up, I think it's important at least to recognise there is a lack of representative balance so far.

I for one am very wary of getting tarred with a pro-Christian or anti-Christian brush, because the subject is far too sensitive while there's a state church for nationalists to rally around.

Unknown said...

Personally my main objection is that it's impossible to support the ASA situation without being accused of being anti-Christian or illiberal or a bigot or against freedom of speech while, on the other hand, it's also impossible to disagree with the ASA decision without someone popping up and making comments about "invisible make-believe friends and fairy tales".

It really doesn't contribute to the standard of debate.