Faith should not dictate political affiliation

When Rowan Williams and AC Grayling made headlines recently, one aspect of the God Debate was turned

Ask most people what it is from Jesus's teachings that they remember and they'll probably say something about loving your neighbour and looking after the poor. It's a little disconcerting, then, that the Christian movements both here and in the USA clearly feel most at home on the right of the political spectrum.

A handful of opinion polls paints the picture of what is going on in America: in 2004, 70 per cent of traditional evangelicals were Republican as opposed to only 20 per cent who were Democrats (Pew Forum poll); the majority of members of the Tea Party support the social agenda of the religious conservatives with heavy opposition to same-sex marriages and abortion (2011, Pew); non-believers are one and a half times more likely to believe that the earth is subject to global warming than are Christians (2010, Pew).

For the religious right, the Land of the Free will never become the Land of the Free Hand-outs. The Christian movement is a powerful constituency represented by various lobby groups which push for a low-tax agenda. And in parts of the country the movement is dominated by the mega-churches which preach the "Prosperity Gospel", that God wants us to be rich.

In Britain the position is less extreme, but still pronounced. The Church of England's label as the Conservative Party at prayer is admittedly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, the agendas of the Christian church and the political right-wing make comfortable bed-fellows. You know the kind of thing: anti-abortion, anti-unions, opposed to same-sex marriage and tough on crime. If, at this very moment, there is a church minister recruited straight from Central Casting pouring tea in a quaint village vicarage somewhere in the south west of England, his china cup and saucer are more likely to be delicately balanced on a copy of the Spectator than the New Statesman.

As for the New Atheists, when they warn of the social ills of religion, it is clear that their own humanist heaven on earth would be headed up by the kind of socially-progressive Guardian-reader to whom your typical tabloid editor would hardly give the time of day. (Even Christopher Hitchens with his famed views on foreign interventions claims to remain a Marxist at heart.) And it should be no surprise that the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream party whose leader is openly an atheist. It was presumably for these reasons that before last year's general election Richard Dawkins took the surprising step of publicly endorsing the party.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. After all, when a country has an official religion (such as the UK) or an unofficial one (as in the case of the USA), one cannot be surprised that those who adopt it are more likely to be the small-C conservatives who are willing to toe the line drawn by the state. But last year controversial evolutionary psychologist Satosha Kanazawa offered another explanation. In a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, Kanazawa reported a link between atheism and social liberalism. Contentiously he suggested that they are the traits spawned by higher intelligence. His explanation was that to look after our own kin and to believe in God carried evolutionary survival benefits which today's more intelligent people are willing to reject.

No doubt Kanazawa would be among the first to admit that the list of the Christian intelligentsia is both long and impressive. Even so, there is much to be said for his theory. Religion is grounded in faith. According to Luke 18:17, Jesus urged us to receive the Kingdom of God, not by persuading ourselves with clever arguments, but rather as a little child would do. To be religious can be either passive (such as by continuing the religion handed down by one's parents or unthinkingly adopting the one foisted on us by society) or it can involve taking an active step such as that associated with born-again fundamentalism. Either way, it is more likely to be based on faith as opposed to argument. Some atheists reject God for the flimsiest of reasons, but their decision is nevertheless generally dictated by reason rather than faith. At a minimum, they can be expected to be more questioning than their religious counterparts. After all it is the atheist movement which has deep-rooted connections with free-thinking and critical thinking philosophies.

And so the events of the last fortnight must come as a surprise. Take AC Grayling. The human rights philosopher and atheist is now on the receiving end of criticism unimaginable a few weeks ago. He is to be the Master of the privately-funded educational institution New College of the Humanities, London. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it's a move which hardly smacks of the leftist leanings of those who share his theology. What's more, the most celebrated member to his professoriate is Richard Dawkins.

And to complete the volte face of the God Debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned on these very pages that the coalition government is committing the country to "radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted". This led to one of the Telegraph's most bizarre headlines a couple of days later: "David Cameron: I profoundly disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury." I bet he does.

Maybe AC Grayling and the Archbishop are unintentionally teaching their supporters a lesson. It can hardly be in the interests of anyone involved in the God Debate if those who have yet to place a cross on the giant voting slip in the sky assume that a belief in various metaphysical matters carries with it a mandatory political affiliation.

If it did, perhaps most of us would choose agnosticism.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.