Sacrificial lamb

Tim Farron’s resignation shows the cost of admitting to religious views in a liberal, secular society

Counterpoints
"The Sacrificial Lamb", by Josefa de Ayala, c.1670

Tim Farron’s resignation as Liberal Democrat leader is a prime example of the cost of admitting to religious views in a liberal, secular society. As a religious studies teacher in a secondary school, I notice this all the time. And never more so than last year.

It was the autumn term and I was teaching 12-year-olds the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Usually these lessons pass smoothly. The atheists are happy that none of the arguments work and the theists don’t care because they have their own faith and experience.

Last year, it was different. Suddenly there emerged a number of girls so strident in their atheism that no one dared to contradict them or even venture to suggest an alternative position. The lessons became unbalanced and uncomfortable. Girls who had faith became distressed. One even asked to be excused from lessons.

Something had to be done. I told the class to split into three groups: agnostics, atheists and theists. Each group was to prepare a presentation about their beliefs and then stand up and make it to the class. During their presentation, no one else was allowed to speak. Or make a sound. Or gesture.   

The groups worked away busily. First up were the agnostics, explaining why they couldn’t adopt a position. Then came the atheists, their arguments unsurprising: the presence of suffering in the world; the possibility that religion was merely a crutch; the absence of evidence for the existence of God. Finally it was the turn of the theists.

Only four were willing to talk — two Catholics and two Muslims. Quietly and hesitantly, they spoke in turn about their faith. One shook visibly. Another had to leave the room for a while. When they finished their presentation they went out into the corridor, burst into tears and hugged.

The next lesson, I invited questions, channelled through me, for each group. I can’t remember the girls’ questions but I can remember mine. I wanted to know why these 12-year-old atheists were so angry. What had engendered such emotion? One girl said her mother was forcing her to go to Christian summer camp, though she didn’t believe in God. Another said she was never allowed to take the credit when she did well in a test because her mother always attributed her result to God. The third said that she actually quite liked the idea of God but, whenever she said that, her mother got cross. 

After those lessons, everyone calmed down. Everyone’s voice had been heard and no one felt stifled or angry. I’m not sure what the girls made of the exercise but the lesson, for me, was clear. Stifled, unheard voices beget upset and anger. Lead to a class of distressed twelve-year-olds. Lead to Brexit, a hung Parliament and the election of Donald Trump. If we want a society which is calm and stable, liberal and tolerant, we can’t trample on the views of others. Tim Farron’s voice was stifled. He resigned. A minor sacrificial lamb, perhaps, but I hope his final bleating makes people sit up and think.