Monday, April 12, 2021

keir and present danger

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter earlier after I saw this tweet on my timeline, which basically makes the claim that, on the basis of a recent interview, Keir Starmer, if he were to become Prime Minister, would be the first openly atheist Prime Minister of the UK. My first thought was: well, Keir Starmer's leadership of Labour may be distinctly underwhelming on a number of levels, but the statement of non-belief here is commendably clear and non-waffly and pretty unusual for a top-flight politician who might actually harbour some ambition of getting to be Prime Minister one day. 

You'll notice the response from Humanists UK, though, basically saying: yes, this is great, but it's actually not that unusual, as there have been plenty of atheist Prime Ministers, and here are a few examples. My original quote-tweet sounded a note of caution, mainly intended to emphasise how unusually direct I thought Starmer's statement was. I would describe Humanists UK's two subsequent replies as "brusquely dismissive" and "slightly defensive" respectively. I should add that I'm not intending any criticism of them as an organisation or their social media team individually here, but it is a useful exercise in proper critical thinking and scepticism not to take statements at face value, even when they are made by people whose worldview and aims you broadly agree with. It would be ironic, after all, if we were to have what you might call "articles of faith" which are recited by rote but never subjected to any scrutiny.

Taking Clement Attlee as the first example, just about all the Google hits for "Clement Attlee atheist" bring back the exchange referred to here which is his biographer Kenneth Harris' recalling (at an unspecified later date) of a conversation they had on an unspecified date, but almost certainly no earlier than mid-1950s, i.e. well after Attlee's stint as Prime Minister had ended in 1951, and probably after he ceased to be Labour leader in 1955. Attlee died in 1967 and Harris' biography of him, containing this brief exchange, wasn't published until 1982. I have no reason to doubt the basic truth of Harris' depiction of Attlee's beliefs, but I think that a) 15 years after your death and b) while still Leader of the Opposition and prospective Prime Minister are worlds apart when it comes to expressing them.

James Callaghan was a Baptist Sunday school teacher in his early life, and the standard Google result for "James Callaghan atheist" is a reference to a television interview in the 1980s where he supposedly professed his atheism. Again, I have no reason to doubt that that is true (although I haven't seen a transcript of the interview anywhere), but Callaghan's stint as Prime Minister ended in 1979 (when he was already 67) and he stood down as an MP in 1987.

Ramsay MacDonald seems to have roved about through various flavours of religious affiliation throughout his early life but to have arrived at what would these days be called humanism by the start of the twentieth century, well before his multiple stints as Prime Minister (the first of which started in 1924). In fact he served as President of the Union of Ethical Societies a couple of times in the early twentieth century, that organisation being a precursor to the British Humanist Association who have now changed their name to Humanists UK. 

Finally, what of dear old Winnie, the increasingly problematic saviour of Britain during World War II? Well, again, most of the obvious Google search terms yield results which all point back to the same source quote, which is one supposedly from a letter he wrote to his mother in his mid-twenties which includes the line "I do not accept the Christian or any other form of religious belief". On the other hand if you trawl through his most famous quotations looking for invocations of God and Christianity as key pillars of civilisation which need to be defended against, variously, Nazism, Communism, Islam, you name it, you will find many. 

So I think if you were to ask yourself the question: which of these people had made clear, unambiguous and widely-circulated public statements of non-belief prior to their being Prime Minister, I think you could only really come up with Ramsay MacDonald. On the other hand it's almost unimaginable that any of the people mentioned here would have been subjected to, or subjected themselves to, an interview where such intrusive questions would have been asked. Times change, and I, for one, view this as progress.

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