Sunday, 19 July 2015

Tim Farron's Illiberal Beliefs

As a LibDem supporter I voted for Norman Lamb, but did not have too many qualms over Tim Farron's election as LibDem leader. Farron made these statements in his leadership election blog and supporting document:
I love this party because in my heart and in my soul I am a liberal.
I believe in a society in which we are all free to make our own choices and live the lives we want. But freedom means very little when the only choices we have to make are whether to feed our children or heat our homes.
Now we must be the voice for the poor and the disadvantaged, the underdog and the despised. We must defend fundamental human rights and freedoms from Tory attack; it falls to us to make the unequivocal economic and moral case for immigration; and I will proudly make the case for Europe in the forthcoming referendum.
Liberalism is about championing the individual against the powerful, that means standing firm for our Human Rights Act, against internet surveillance and illiberal extremism orders. But it’s also about protecting individuals from those giant evils that rob people of their freedom: poverty, poor housing, inequality. 
A free society that glories in diversity is a stronger society.
We believe that everyone is entitled to equal respect, whatever their income, personal characteristics, way of life, beliefs or sexuality.

This is all excellent liberal stuff, and pretty much in line with my left of centre thinking, so there seems little reason to question his position as leader of a national political party.

I was vaguely aware that Farron was a Christian, but that did not worry me; we live in a culturally Christian country where many people adopt some kind of religious belief from their family or community, so it's not front page news that the leader of a political party is a Christian. Even though many Christian beliefs strike me as odd and groundless, it's illiberal to insist on a certain way of thinking, or a certain set of beliefs.

A corollary of that, then, is that it's liberal to maintain a certain level of epistemic humility, and illiberal to display certainty in one's beliefs.

It's disturbing then to read these sorts of comments from Farron:
He thinks God knows everything. ‘Every hair on your head is numbered,’ he says, without blinking. God knows every hair on his head? ‘Yeah.’
He scoffs at the idea of a ‘half-baked distant God – either he created every bloomin’ atom in the entire universe or he didn’t’. He derides those who believe in ‘some kind of part-time, low-wattage God’.Similarly, he believes Heaven and Hell really exist. Heaven is ‘a place where there’s no more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death’.
It exists as a physical entity? ‘Yeah. It’s what the Bible tells me.’
Such certainty strikes me as illiberal. His conversion to Christianity sounds ill-considered:
He became a Christian at 18, when marooned in a house in rainy Singapore on a trip with his mum. ‘There was nothing to blinkin’ read and I read this weird-looking book on God. It was life-changing,’ he explains.
For something so 'life-changing' you would hope that a deep thinker would need more than one book.

As John Sergeant writes, these things suggest a fundamentalism to Farron's Christianity that should disturb any liberal:
There are past statements of his...which strongly suggest he holds fundamentalist views regarding the Christian faith...
Such peculiar but (too?) strongly held views can lead to bizarre political actions. He signed a letter to the ASA saying:
...unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling [that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions] on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.
He subsequently conceded that this was silly, but still maintained the ASA 'really aren’t appointed to be the arbiter of theological matters, I think they’ve overstepped their remit.' and admitted:
As a Christian I believe that prayer helps – although my belief is that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity.
So he does believe in prayer-healing, which is pretty daft on evidentiary grounds, and completely daft on scientific grounds.

He said 'the ASA decision offends my Liberalism far more than it bothers me from a Christian perspective'. This appears to be based on his appeal to freedom - 'an organisation that makes a faith based claim that is clearly subjective (in the same way that a political party makes subjective claims) should be able to make those claims within reason.' But prayer-healing is not a subjective claim; it is that prayers heal people ('God can heal people from medical conditions'), not that they make them feel better. It is a statement about reality, not a value judgement.

Farron's religious beliefs have here led him to a confused position. CAP code 12.1 clearly sees medical claims as objective, so there is no sense in which the ASA have overstepped its bounds; instead Farron would have to campaign for a rewrite of the CAP code. Any such rewrite would leave us all open to advertising claims that could not be objectively adjudicated.

Perhaps Farron is appealing to my principle of epistemic humility, arguing that we should never discount the possibility of prayer-healing? Perhaps, but the ASA is not saying that prayer-healing does not work; just asking for justification of any advertising claims to protect consumers in an environment where snake-oil salesmen will exaggerate the efficacy of their products. And would Farron like us to take his statements about the world with a similar pinch of salt? Like this one?
Christianity, I am convinced, is not ‘a bit’ true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else matters … There is no middle way.
...which he apparently made at a National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in 2013.

One would hope that Farron's liberalism would lead him to a more liberal view of  touchstone issues, but fundamental religious beliefs like these, not held lightly or humbly, naturally cause Farron difficulties on the question of SSM and abortion, on which he said:
Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time.
The worry from his response to the prayer-healing debacle is that he will mould his liberalism in the light of his religious beliefs, not mould his religious beliefs in the light of his liberalism. As Catherine Bennett writes:
It seems only fair to ask that, when ethics are debated, [MPs] disclose which supernatural affiliation has dictated their response, along with any penalties for disobedience.
(Photo "Tim Farron 2014" by West Berkshire Liberal Democrats from Newbury, England - IMG_1781. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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