LibLink: Tim Farron – What Kind of Liberal Society Do We Want?


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Theos is an organisation which, in its own words: “stimulates the debate about the place of religion in society, challenging and changing ideas through research, commentary and events.”

This week, Tim Farron gave the Theos Annual 2017 Lecture.

It is an extremely thoughtful, nuanced and quite complex speech.

You can read it in full here on the Theos website.

I did consider cutting and pasting various clips from the speech. Indeed, various websites have snipped away at it. But it really is best to sit down with a cuppa for twenty minutes and read the whole thing in full. I don’t think it does justice to the lecture to just read snippets or summaries.

That said, I will offer this paragraph, which I liked very much:

Any self–interested person can fight for their own liberty or for the advancement of their own world view. That doesn’t make you a liberal one bit. Fighting for the rights and liberties of others, and for the space for a world view that you do not accept, that is what makes you a liberal. I continue to seek to be a consistent liberal.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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22 Comments

  • “Well look, atheism is not the absence of belief, it is a belief in absence and therefore the absence of common values. It’s a belief in there being no unifying truth. But if there is no unifying truth then, by its own standard, the belief that there is no unifying truth must also be bogus. If you declare that there is no unifying truth then it stands to reason that this declaration isn’t true either. Ergo, atheism doesn’t exist. And I refuse to believe in something that doesn’t exist.”

    That is one of the silliest arguments I’ve ever heard in my life.

    Somehow “I’ve looked at the evidence, and could not see any conclusive evidence for the existence of God” becomes “There is no unifying truth” and then “And therefore nobody can believe anything”.

    I really do expect better of someone who, elsewhere in his talk, seems like a reasonably smart person.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Dec '17 - 1:36pm

    Paul gives us a quote which illustrates why I am a Liberal.It as usual , from Tim or many others ,does an either or. The answer to something ha to be the opposite of what you do not like.

    You can be a Liberal and fight for your own liberty and your world view. And you fight for the right of others to do likewise. But you recognise neither you or they should do so if it harms others in a serious way, and accept the consequences thus.

    Andrew gives us a quote which does a very similar thing from Tim on atheism vs theism. Again Tim forgets there is such a thing as agnosticism, or , more common, not sure, the answer to the question , of what do you believe religiously.

    Tim is a genuine Liberal. He is a staunch theist. He is an evangelical Christian.

    Only that he does not seem to see ,that to be too sure ,too often ,is a drawback in a leader, this alone, means he was not really therefore as good in that role as he could have had, or might have, us believe.

  • I think the problem is that it takes an article this long to explain how you can be an evangelical Christian and a liberal. I’ve read it, but who else will?

    Like Andrew, I could pick holes in the Christian apologetics, but that isn’t really the point here. I particularly object to the conceit that there is a choice between Christianity and relativism, when Christianity is as syncretic and cultural a pheomenon as any, and relativism is much newer even than liberalism. And I’m not convinced that the anti-Christian tyranny is at the door. Who has a problem with Theresa May on faith grounds?

    But I think there is something more particular going on here: born-again evangelical Christianity is eccentric within Christianity, and liberalism is eccentric within that. For all that eccentricity is, as Tim says, a wonderful thing, if you are a party leader people will want to prod your eccentricities to see how they squeak.

    An evangelical and a liberal? Coo. How does that work? Prod.

    Tim has explained perfectly well how it works, but that’s unlikely to shut anybody up.

    And the fit is particularly difficult in politics for two more reasons:

    1. We do like to look inside our politicians and understand what will motivate them – that they will identify with us as opposed to the other guy, and that means not being prejudiced against us in thought as well as in deed.

    2. To the extent that prejudice has become unacceptable to express and is thought likely to go unexpressed, there is a hair trigger sensitivity to the potential dog whistle, the clumsy wording and the giveaway gaffe. Truly prejudiced people will test the boundaries and blow the dog whistle by making quite nuanced statements, and so if your actual and unprejudiced position relies on nuance to express itself, you may find yourself with no good way to express it.

  • Tim is absolutely right about liberalism, the Christianity I’m not going to go into. The European liberal parties are not really liberal in the classical sense of the word anymore and I think I know why. When you hate something and stare into the abyss for long enough the abyss stares into you, and you can end up becoming the very thing you hate. After the referendum so called liberals were complaining that a few people now felt emboldened to say the nasty things that they actually thought like this was a bad thing, it’s not. It’s a liberating thing. People feeling free to be honest about what they really think is liberty, the so called liberals however want that oppressed. But while oppressing others might make so called liberals feel better because they don’t have to hear things they don’t like, it will make things worse in the long run. The range of acceptable things to say will continue to shrink and shrink until the majority are oppressed and the whole thing explodes.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Dec '17 - 8:37pm

    I think that Tim is a better politician than he is a philosopher. His perspective on atheism is as daft and theistic as I suspect many atheist perspective on religious people’s basis of belief. His statement that “It’s a belief in there being no unifying truth” makes no sense. Truth is truth. It does not unify or divide. People can accept or dismiss truth from their own perspective and position. Striving to get them to do so but not forcing them or shaming them to do so is pretty liberal in my view. Go placidly. . . . . . . 😉

  • In some respects, Tim is still smarting from his experience as a Christian and as a Lib Dem. He has every right to question the apparent lack of compatibility.

    He thoughtfully questions competing forces such as freedom and conformity and yes, these apparent states are also forces because they invite pressure from others.

    Social media is a blessing and a curse. It is certainly an amplifier. It encourages groupthink, which, in my experience is almost always wrong. But then, I am a rebel because I reject social media. The simple truth is that I have no wish for Zuckerberg to own the rights to my data or to create algorithms to define my sociological profile.

    Equally, I do not crave for followers to intercept my every conscious thought as transmitted via twitter and I cannot generate the enthusiasm to squander my time checking for a myriad of inconsequential tweets by others. This means that I am out of touch, but from what? Anything of importance will emerge into my consciousness eventually, hopefully cleansed, confirmed, optimised and checked against reality. In the meantime, I am satisfied that I am not missing anything of any importance.

    Tim also touched on attitudes. Is an attitude a state of mind, a contemporary value, fashion, belief or a compromise? This question troubles me because I believe that others have difficulty in deciding. Perhaps I feel guilty because I despise political correctness because it is a lack of tolerance. I despise virtue signalling. It is hypocrisy and snobbery. I despise a “holier than thou attitude”.

    Tim is correct in that such qualities are personal. The attitudes I have mentioned are not personal, they are postures. Worse than that, they are negative attacks on others. Such attitudes, delivered to their targets via social media, are the worst types of aggressive attack. Tim’s speech rightly questions our values.

  • Tim tries to deal with the issues he failed to deal with during the general election, but I am not sure he is clear what the answer is. He talks of the need for Christians not to be judgmental but talks of “genuine Christianity”, which is judgmental. He talks of his pastor preaching faithfully from the Bible without compromising or watering it down, but he rejects the call for conformity within the Bible. In fact he seems to be in denial about Christianity calling for conformity almost from as soon as Jesus was executed. He doesn’t seem to know about calls for conformity within the New Testament and the early church and the pre-325 church as well.

    He sets out a partial answer to the questions put to him during the general election, “what is the point in legislating to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were? It isn’t liberal, it is counterproductive and it does not follow the Bible’s teaching.”

    “But making people live as Christians when they aren’t, is unwise, ungodly, counterproductive and illiberal. As a Liberal I say it is wrong, and as a Christian I say it is wrong and it doesn’t even work!”

    He thinks Christianity has the ultimate truth. It therefore must follow that all other beliefs but his version of Christianity are untrue. This moves him into doggy areas. His answer is Christians must support choice and everyone must have the freedom to reject the truth and by implication do wrong. This was his problem about gay sex. He thinks God has stated that gay sex is wrong, but he will defend everyone’s right to do this “wrong”. He states “Fighting for the rights and liberties of others, and for the space for a world view that you do not accept, that is what makes you a liberal. I continue to seek to be a consistent liberal.” He concludes with “tolerate those whom you find intolerable” instead of tolerate what you find intolerable.

    However as he seems to believe in a judgmental God who has given us a set of rules to live by, even when he wants not to be judgmental because he supports everyone’s right not to live according to his God’s rules, he thinks this is not the correct way to live and so appears judgmental. And I don’t know how he can appear any other way while believing there is an ultimate truth in Christianity and not multiple ways to God.

  • Paul, I may not have used the right words. I am sad that Tim’s convictions led to his feeling that resignation was necessary.

  • Christopher Haigh 2nd Dec '17 - 12:22pm

    The relationship between liberalism and religion is a very important one and Tim is right to open a discussion on this. I for one am really at home with the tradition and beauty of the Anglican high church. But even within our own group parish their were tensions between our more catholic orientated high church and other evangelical orientated churches in th parish. Especially with regard to Alpha courses ! This was ultimately resolved by a diocesan regrouping of the parishes.

  • Michael Romberg 2nd Dec '17 - 1:49pm

    Liberal society is secular, not atheist. Individuals may believe in god or that the earth is flat or in science or the fundamental goodness of people. It is their choice and liberalism should defend the right to make almost any choice that people make.

    We do forbid violence, deception &c. Quite apart from the effect on individuals, that prohibition is because violence and lying prevents rational discussion of what the best thing to do is.

    Liberalism has problems with unpleasant views that do not necessarily lead to violence & deception, views like racism. We oppose them. But it is hard to see how far we can forbid them or their expression or their activation without losing core elements of liberalism. There is a trade-off there and no obviously right place to draw the line.

    The reason we have difficulties with religion is because it works in a way that is a little like violence. A violent person says “I do not care about your arguments; I’m going to hit you if you do not do what I want”. A religious person says “I do not care about your arguments because you are only human and God has said that the answer is X”. Therefore, introducing god, introducing the irrational, attacks the ability to reach an answer by argument, by rational discussion.

    Hence, any person who says “these are my policies because God has shown the way” is suspect because they cannot be reached by rational argument on scientific principles. Of course religious people argue about what god’s message is – the existence of many religions is obviously a clear sign about the existence of god, or at least about human error in divining his purposes. But those arguments are not scientific, but based for example on textual analysis of revealed truths in scripture; you need faith in order to join the discussion.

    Moreover any religious person who sets out political views based on rational arguments will always be suspected of window-dressing views that actually come from faith.

    I am not denying that religious faith leads many people to lead a good and virtuous life that a liberal would admire; just as faith leads many people to lead thoroughly nasty lives that we should condemn.

    But a religious person in politics is always going to be open to the charge of putting faith above reason. And that goes against a core tenet of the liberal order – our shared values, if you like – a belief in reasoned debate as a way of reaching the best answer.

  • @ Paul Walter

    I am not so sure about Simon Hughes. I remember his voting record being attacked because he voted according to his Christian world view rather than a more liberal world view. However, Tim’s problem stems from his conservative view of the Bible and lack of knowledge about the liberal view or his rejection of it. I expect we are both aware of the Jed Bartlett attack on conservative Christians who based their views on the Law as set out in the Old Testament. It is possible for a conservative Christian to reject the Law as set out in the Old Testament but still see Paul’s letters as authoritative and so have a long list of things Christians should not do. Liberal Christians accept that Paul’s views were based on the norms of his time, especially Jewish norms and can therefore easily see some of what Paul condemns as not necessary being what God actually condemns. A very liberal Christian might even apply this to sayings of Jesus where they are convinced the gospel writers are faithfully reproducing a saying that actually goes back to the historical Jesus rather than the early church. Liberal Christians can see cultural influences in early Christianity and other religions and conclude there is no ultimate true way to worship God, but God has given mankind many equally valid ways to worship the ultimate deity. God can be seen as a liberal who doesn’t want mankind to conform to only one way of worship, but wants mankind to have diverse methods of worship.

  • Katharine Pindar 2nd Dec '17 - 6:52pm

    Those are very useful points you make, I think, Michael B.G., about what Liberal Christians may believe. After all, the word of God which came from Jesus had to be written down by men, who as you suggest were inevitably products of their culture. I as a Liberal Christian don’t worry about some illiberal writings of St Paul, thinking to myself that from what I read of Jesus he would never have condemned gay sex or the equality of men and women.

    I do have a problem with Tim’s faith when he said that ‘Christianity tells us that we are not good… our greatest need is forgiveness from God.’ I know that’s orthodox faith, but I object on grounds of fairness! – God made me, so why didn’t He make me good, so I wouldn’t need forgiveness? I am similarly always bothered by the unfairness of many people not being able to believe in God, and don’t see how they can be condemned for what they can’t help. I assume there must be some way in for them after death, in the life to come.

    The greatest problem of liberalism, which Michael Romberg touches on, is how to deal with the illiberal. It’s particularly the case in relation to bringing up children . If everyone is equally deserving of freedom, have I to tolerate a Muslim parent wanting his child to be taught in school that women are inferior to men and should be subject to them? No, I don’t think I can personally tolerate that, and I wonder what Tim thinks.

    Finally, I find it difficult to see how any Christian who believes we are ‘alien’ in this culture of our time can bear to raise children to face such a hopeless situation.

  • Stephen Kelly 2nd Dec '17 - 10:41pm

    There are several large problems with Tim’s speech.

    Firstly, he incorrectly says ‘Well look, atheism is not the absence of belief, it is a belief in absence and therefore the absence of common values.’

    Atheism is, by definition, the absence of belief in god(s). You’ll struggle to find a single atheist who claims that there is definitely no god – just that we see no logical reason to believe in one. This demonstrates that Tim completely fails to understand what atheism actually is (either that or he’s deliberately misrepresenting it, but I’d assume he’s above that.) To then use this to suggest an absence of common values is quite insulting, in my opinion.

    Secondly, he is very inconsistent throughout the speech. He talks about ‘Fighting for the rights and liberties of others, and for the space for a world view that you do not accept’ – but he does this having already dismissed my world view as not existing. You can’t fight for someone’s right to a world view if you’re not even willing to accept that said world view exists. I also find that incredibly insulting.

    Finally, I’ve noticed that perfectly fair (in my opinion) criticism of Tim’s views is often misinterpreted as a personal attack on Tim (any personal attack obviously not being OK). I’m worried that there’s a real danger of the opposite of what Tim suggests coming true: respecting people’s right to hold a religious belief is of course of fundamental importance, but so is respecting people’s right to criticise said beliefs and opinions. I fear we’re in danger of making certain views immune to criticism if they’re packaged as religious. As liberals, surely it’s our job not just to protect people’s rights to hold a belief, but their right to thoroughly criticise beliefs and opinions – religious or otherwise.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been an enthusiastic fan of Tim Farron, but after this speech I feel unable to support him in any capacity at all. I find it deeply worrying that someone who makes such wildly inaccurate statements about atheism represents my party.

  • @ Katharine Pindar
    “I do have a problem with Tim’s faith when he said that ‘Christianity tells us that we are not good… our greatest need is forgiveness from God.’ I know that’s orthodox faith,”

    I don’t recall Jesus saying this. According to Wikipedia it was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (died c. 202 CE) who came up with it (as well as “apostolic succession” to give authority to bishops!) based on an incorrect interpretation of Rom 5:12-21). It seems to be based on the idea that the sins of the forefathers continue on to their descendants, which again according to Wikipedia comes from Greek religious thought. This must conflict with the idea that humankind is made in the image of God.

    I remember Tim saying on TV everyone is a sinner. I don’t recall the gospel writers reporting this. I think Mark the earliest of the gospels has Jesus forgiving the sins of particular people. The closest we get to it is the Lord’s prayer where the person praying asks for their debts to be forgiven as they forgive the debts owed to them (Mt 6:12, Lk11:3-4b). According to some the original was an Aramaic word hoba which could be translated as either debt or sin while others state it is because debt can be used as a metaphor for sin. However Liberals do not think people are not good; we think they are good and rational. This is why we have confidence in them and their decision making.

  • Nigel Jones 3rd Dec '17 - 4:17pm

    Rather late in this discussion, but I want to say how disappointed I was when Tim gave his reason for resigning as leader. It gives the impression to many people that you cannot be a Christian and a Liberal and that true Christians do not accept gay marriage, both of which are false. Like Katherine, I don’t like the traditional emphasis on people being all sinful and as a local preacher, always refer in prayers to there being good and bad in us and always remembering that others, no matter how they appear are part of the created life containing the image of God.
    That brings me to the usual debate about existence of God, which has to include the question ‘what do we mean by God?’. There are many thinkers who are now saying it has been wrong to give the impression that God is ‘a’ being, for example. I am saddened by the impression enhanced by Tim that Christians are automatically like those ‘conservatives’ who tend to hit the headlines and be attacked by ardent atheists. I am a member of the Progressive Christianity Network who take a different approach.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Dec '17 - 12:43am

    Michael, thank you for your research, and interesting comment. I’d like to pursue the ideas with my local clergy. I suppose the basis of the concept of human sinfulness is that God did make the first people perfect, but that they chose to sin, and knew that it was wrong. Tim does allow that humans are gifted with a basic understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Personally I remember being struck by a lecturer at the Keswick Convention telling us that a strength of Christianity as opposed to other religions is that it does accept that we are none of us perfect and that that is all right – so we don’t have to be weighed down by considerations of our sinfulness.

    I don’t myself see the convergence of liberal thinking and Christianity that Tim suggests. It has always interested me that Tim seemed to, or at least used to, have real trust in people, which is what you are saying too, that Liberals think people are good. That’s a huge concept, of course, but perhaps Tim’s feeling about people was more Liberal than Christian, whatever his thoughts were? Rationality, I think, is liable to be deflected by feeling.

  • David Allen 4th Dec '17 - 5:01pm

    It’s time Tim Farron stopped talking, took a deep breath, and reflected more self-searchingly on why it all went wrong.

    In a sense, it isn’t even about Christianity. It’s about being fundamentally unprepared for the task. Tim offered himself for a big job interview last summer. Post on offer – National leadership. Key requirements to include: Demonstrating a clear, unambiguous political position on those major election issues on which large numbers of people think that an unambiguous position is essential.

    Tim equivocated, and thus forfeited trust, on one key issue. Twenty years ago, Neil Kinnock’s equally unconvincing repudiation of his earlier beliefs in unilateral disarmanent provides a remarkably close parallel, even though Kinnock’s nemesis had nothing to do with religion or sex. In both Kinnock’s and Farron’s cases, a leopard claimed to have changed his spots, and the public did not believe the leopard.

    You can’t put a new Porschbargini on sale, however beautiful its engine, if you are not ready to reveal how many wheels it has. You cannot put a new leader on “sale”, however many good policies that leader may declare, if the leader is not ready to reveal whether he might secretly despise a significant group within the society which he is seeking to lead.

    Last June, the nation at large clearly wanted to avert its gaze from Brexit, to treat it as a done deal, and to avoid nagging worries that it might be a bad idea. A different leader might equally have failed to overcome that national shy-away from responsibility. However, Farron gave them a ready excuse. “Vote for that weird religious fella – Don’t make me laugh!”

  • Katharine Pindar 5th Dec '17 - 11:25am

    I don’t think that’s fair at all, David Allen. Tim was a fine leader for two years, a worthy successor to his hero Charles Kennedy. Were you there at Bournemouth in September 2015, when we were all inspired by the humanity and hopefulness Tim showed in his brilliant final speech? You well know what a dire state the party had been in, that summer. Tim inspired more than were actually fortunate enough to be there, greatly increasing our membership. Then when the Referendum result came he immediately showed strength and resolution in committing us to Europe and the EU, and carried the Brighton Conference with him in September 2016. He led us in affirming the true values of Liberal Democracy, in caring for individual people whether at home or in the refugee trails of Europe.

    He has too great a heart to have been concerned about the minutiae of his thoughts on gay sex, because people of all beliefs and practices are of equal worth in God’s eyes, and must be shown true toleration by Liberals.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Dec '17 - 12:44pm

    There was an interesting debate at Chatham House last night on separating state and religion. The point was well made that you cannot entirely separate the two. A better question is what is the ideal level of separation? Accepting others beliefs is one thing and the resulting actions another. Certainly our political institutions should be secular.

  • Katharine Pindar, sorry for a belated reply. Yes, Tim Farron had many great strengths as a leader. I voted for him, applauded his clear-sighted commitment to social liberalism and to Europe, and hoped that he could put the nightmare of Coalition behind us. But it all came to pieces, didn’t it?

    Part of the reason for that wasn’t Tim’s fault: the voters could not quickly forgive and forget the Coalition debacle, despite Tim’s fairly effective efforts to change the agenda and move on. But part of the reason was, I’m afraid, down to Tim.

    Sorry, but I’m sure we would all laugh it out of court if a political opponent were to say “Labservative Hero X has too great a heart to have been concerned about the minutiae of his thoughts on Fatal Bananaskin Issue Y”. Wouldn’t we?

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