Thursday 23 July 2015

God, Gays, and Lib Dems 2: The Lake of Fire

(Part 1, in which I explain why I care about Tim Farron's religious views, is here.)

It seems fair to assume Tim Farron, the new Liberal Democrat leader, thinks gay sex is immoral. He refused to answer when asked three times by Channel 4 News if it was a sin, but his life would be much easier if he had simply said no.

Now, Farron himself said we are all sinners. Evangelical Christians like him believe all sorts of things are sins. They certainly think atheists like myself are grievously offensive to their deity:

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. --- Revelations 21:8
(So, I'm morally comparable to murderers and whoremongers? Thanks a lot. Also, I'm told "the abominable" is usually interpreted to mean homosexuals.)

I'm the second damned sinner from the right, between the murderer and the whoremonger.
Image source: Iguana Sell Pens, who have some very nice Inferno-themed fountain pens.

Moderate denominations like the Church of England can be somewhat vague on the nature of hell. In my understanding, the evangelical groups are more literal. They believe hell is a real place, it is extremely painful, and atheists will go there for all eternity. Some people who consider themselves good Christians might end up there too, but atheists don't have even a theoretical chance of escaping.

Let's stop and consider this. The evangelical belief is that I deserve to be tortured forever by an infinitely just, loving, and wise deity. Yes, I might save myself by repenting my irreligious ways and becoming a Christian. The Queen might abdicate and join the Revolutionary Communist Party. I can assure you neither is very likely.

(I'm focusing on Christianity in this post; as I understand it, Islam has similar beliefs about hell, but Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other major religions are less ferocious concerning the afterlife.)

Burning writers and flying saucers

In the evangelical doctrine, a great many wise, kind, and beloved people are now being tortured in the name of love and justice. Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Iain Banks are all suffering in hell. If I go there myself, at least I will be in good company.

I cannot emphasise enough how odd this looks to a skeptical outsider. If I said aliens were going to descend in a flying saucer, take David Cameron to a faraway planet, and spend the next million years torturing him with red-hot irons, and this would be a good thing, you would reasonably draw two conclusions: (1) I was pretty weird, and (2) I really despised David Cameron.

In point of fact, I do despise David Cameron (although less so than certain other members of his party), but I don't think he deserves to be taken away and tortured for the next million years. I can't think of many people who do; maybe the most sadistic of criminals, but perhaps not even them. The Christian afterlife scenario is functionally the same, but with God instead of aliens, and infinite time instead of a puny thousand millennia.

It is very insulting. Surely that is the whole point; to convince me that I am a very bad person and will be justly punished for it, unless I become a Christian before it is too late.

Fortunately, we live in a pluralist society. That includes not just legal tolerance, but social tolerance as well. In the name of getting along, we sometimes choose to overlook one another's beliefs. It's not ideal, but we live in an imperfect world, and I'm sufficiently content with the outcome.

Christians can be good leaders, even great ones. I think the late Labour leader John Smith would have been an excellent Prime Minister, and he was a devout member of the Church of Scotland. Desmond Tutu is a moral giant, one of the great heroes of our time, and a retired Anglican bishop. My philosophical disagreements with Tutu are real, but next to his courage and achievements they pale into insignificance. Beliefs matter, but I judge leaders primarily by their actions.

Second-class citizens

So, what's the problem? If Farron thinks everyone is a wretched sinner, why does it matter that he includes gay people?

The difference is that Farron singles out gay people for special condemnation. They can be good Christians, or they can have a pleasurable sex life, but not both. To become people who do not deserve eternal torture, they must give up an essential part of themselves.

The key point is very simple: Farron thinks it is immoral for gay people to enjoy sex. If he thought the same of women, or black people, or the disabled, he would be out of a job very quickly. Why are gay people different? The ugly truth is that in our society, prejudice against gays is still more accepted than racism or sexism.

I chose to be an atheist. I didn't choose to be straight, any more than LGBT people chose their orientation. But in Farron's view, my relationship with my wife is morally superior to that of any gay couple. Once you hack away the polite obfuscation and theological waffle, Farron's beliefs are an expression of profound contempt for LGBT people.

What does it matter?

How much difference does it make? In dry and practical terms, maybe not much. Farron leads a party which is a shadow of its former self. The Liberal Democrats' commitment to gay rights is deep and long-standing; Farron probably couldn't shift it much if he tried.

Be that as it may, this is politics, and symbolism matters. Even if it is purely symbolic, Farron's belief that gay sex is immoral has real consequences. LGBT people are still a vulnerable minority who face serious discrimination and bigotry. Whether he likes it or not, he encourages those who want an excuse to hurt gay people in this world, instead of letting God sort it out. I am seriously uncomfortable about voting for, or being represented by, a person who believes such things.

Belief is more salient for the Lib Dems, because they now have very little practical power. Any recovery will depend heavily on image and moral authority. Farron's beliefs about gays are likely to weaken his party in this respect.

To be clear, Farron has the right to believe whatever he wants; but he does not necessarily have the right to lead the Liberal Democrats at the same time, and he does not have the right to avoid scrutiny. Freedom of conscience does not mean freedom from consequences. If he wanted to take advantage of the polite convention that we do not question religious belief, he should not have become a politicians, let alone leader of one of the three major UK parties.

It remains to be seen how Farron and the Liberal Democrats will react. As I have said before, I wish the Lib Dems well. I believe they champion valuable and important ideas. It may be that on balance, Farron is the most able leader they can find; but I would not rule out a coup of the type that deposed Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell. Given Farron's views on gay sex, I would not be particularly sorry to see him go.

Note: The initially published version of this post was mysteriously eaten by the Blogger software. This version is restored from memory and an earier draft and has a few minor differences.

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