I feel about atheism much the same as I feel about Brut aftershave. If it must be worn in public at all then lightly is best.
As a young man I took a much harder line; if someone mentioned their faith, I felt an obligation not only to proclaim my lack thereof but also to make the case religion was at the root of brutal conflicts down the ages.
But there comes a time when one must make the conscious decision to try not to be a crashing bore. If someone’s faith is important to them, then who am I to try to put them right?
Accepting the right of people to hold – and live by – sincere religious beliefs requires making an accommodation with views I might find offensive. This I do gladly because I expect the same respect for my refusal to believe in a higher power.
Having called a truce with the faithful, I must admit that – on occasion – I’ve even taken some comfort from their beliefs. When my mother died last year, friends of differing faiths offered condolences that, with their hope for her eternal peace, helped me get through the first hellish days of sudden bereavement.
The atheist’s acceptance of the faith of others is perhaps most severely tested when it comes to matters of equality. The refusal by some church (or mosque or synagogue) goers to support same-sex marriage is especially troubling to the liberal non-believer. But if we refuse to accept that others might hold views with which we disagree then, well, why should others accept our faithlessness?
When, during last year’s general election campaign, the then Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was repeatedly asked for his views on gay sex, I felt some unease.
The Lib Dems’ position on same sex marriage was – and remains – one of unequivocal support. The relentless questioning of devout Christian Farron over whether he believed gay sex was a sin began to feel to me rather like a witch-hunt. So long as Farron and his party continued to support an agenda of equality then his faith was a matter for him, wasn’t it? After all, there was no evidence in the slightest that the leader’s Christianity had got in the way of the party’s liberalism.
When Farron finally answered that, no, he did not consider gay sex to be a sin, it seemed that the matter had been dealt with. He could hardly have been any clearer, could he?
It turns out that he could.
Farron quit as Lib Dem leader after last June’s election saying that “remaining faithful to Christ” was incompatible with him remaining in position. It seemed he had been a victim of intolerance; if a Christian didn’t feel he could lead a political party then something had gone wrong.
Last week, Farron spoke of his regret at saying he did not believe gay sex to be a sin.
During an interview with Premier Christian Radio, the former Lib Dem leader said: “I foolishly and wrongly attempted to push it away by giving an answer that frankly was not right.”
He added that he had felt under pressure to “compromise my faith and say things that were not true” in order to lead his party.
Senior Lib Dems were, understandably, horrified. Leader Sir Vince Cable responded on Twitter, writing that he strongly disagreed with Farron’s personal views. The Lib Dems had a long and proud record of fighting for LGBT+ rights and Sir Vince would “continue to champion rights and dignity”.
The party’s Scottish leader, Willie Rennie, added that while Farron was entitled to his views, he disagreed with him.
Let nobody be in any doubt, Farron is now an embarrassment to his party, not simply because he holds views that don’t chime with the majority of his colleagues but because he lied during an election campaign. This is – or certainly should be – unforgivable behaviour for an elected politician.
Progressive Christians have, in recent years, fought to drag the church into the 21st century when it comes to matters of gay rights. Campaigners such as Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow and a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate, have argued passionately – often in the face of opposition from those alongside whom they worship – in favour of full equality, including the right of same-sex couples to wed.
What a betrayal of those campaigners Farron’s remarks are.
The Farron situation throws into question the assumption that a politician’s personal faith is a matter for him (or her) alone. Not only has he exposed himself as weak and dishonest, he has ensured that personal beliefs are a matter of genuine public interest.
I had a great deal of sympathy for Farron when he quit his post last year. He had – so far as I could see – led his party as a Lib Dem rather than as a Christian; if his faith had impacted on his decision as leader then I couldn’t see the evidence.
That sympathy has now gone. When Farron was asked last year whether he thought gay sex was a sin, he should have told the truth and accepted the political consequences.
These consequences would have included the inevitability that he would have been removed as leader by colleagues but at least he would have been honest. At least he would have shown a degree of honour.
Instead, Farron clung on to his job by lying.
It would be a tragedy if people of faith felt unable to participate in our politics, but those whose views start to impinge on the rights – or support for the rights – of others should probably consider whether it’s the business for them.
Farron’s Christianity is, I’m sure, a great comfort to him, but the version of the faith he espouses is hurtful to others and that’s the point at which he loses the right to respect.
The House of Commons should be a welcoming place for the faithful. Liars, on the other hand…
It’s time for Tim Farron to stand down as an MP.