Lib Dem party president Tim Farron has caused something of a storm within the party by co-signing a letter in his capacity as Vice Chair of the ‘Christians in Parliament’ group urging the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw their 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.” The controversy is easy to understand, as it pits two tenets of liberalism against each other: free speech and rational scepticism.
Personally, I am very happy to defend Tim Farron’s stance. Here’s three reasons why:
First, and most important, Tim has the absolute right to stand up for his deeply-held beliefs. He is a committed Christian, and believes in the healing power of prayer, a belief shared with millions of others who have a religious faith. Whether you agree with Tim or not is irrelevant to the right to express his views, regardless of the position he holds as party president. The advert itself does not advocate relying solely on faith, does not suggest those who are ill should not seek medical help: in their response to the ASA, Healing on the Streets noted that all ‘volunteers underwent detailed training before taking part in their activities,including instruction that everyone who received prayer must be given a letter which included the statements “if you are on medication STAY on it. Under NO circumstances should you stop doing anything a medical professional or counsellor has advised.”‘
You cannot prove or disprove faith
Faith, by its very nature, cannot be proven or disproven. The ASA has ruled that the claim ‘God can heal’ is incapable of scientific justification, which is an understandable position for a neutral regulator to adopt. But there is an important relativist point to be made here, which I can make even if the ASA cannot — there is simply no comparison between (for example) a cosmetics company’s claims and those of a faith-based organisation. If L’Oreal claims it’s wrinkle-creams are scientifically proven to work, I as a consumer want to know if that statement can be justified: the credibility of its product rests solely on the basis of whether it can assure me of smoother skin. Religious faith is a beliefs-system: ‘consumers’ will choose to believe (or not) on wholly different, and personal, criteria.
The ASA exists to ensure consumers are not misled by dodgy claims, especially pseudo-scientific ones which cause the public to spend money on products that over-claim their effect (or may even have a harmful effect). Preventing harm to the public is the right and proper duty of regulation. But I would argue no harm to the individual will be caused by the Bath ministry’s claim that ‘God can heal’. And I trust in the individual to make their own choice where they place their trust and faith. This comment by Stuart Wheatcroft on the Vote Clegg, Get Clegg webpage sums it up very well:
The key question is not whether something is true but whether broadcasting it causes harm to others. As part of that, we need to consider how an individual might reasonably react. In matters of faith, people are well aware that views are contested, which distinguishes this from, say, pharmaceutical advertising. Thus, it is reasonable to expect them to display a greater amount of awareness of the issues, and thus an advert which states “prayer can heal” can be expected to be understood in its proper context as a claim, not as an empirically determined fact. We can’t completely eliminate the risk that any comment will lead someone to do something stupid, but in the interests of free speech we have to draw the line somewhere, and in this case the greater level of awareness allows us to be less strict in the way we formulate the law.
PS: many thanks for the vigorous debate in the comments! I’ve posted a postscript responding to the thread at my blog here: A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron (and in support of freedom)
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.