Polly Toynbee and what’s bad for politics

Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and outgoing president of the British Humanist Association (BHA), writes in today’s Guardian that ‘Atheists are better for politics than believers’. Whilst I would fiercely argue against any notion that Atheists are somehow objectively worse for politics than believers, I’m not convinced Ms Toynbee’s case is particularly well established.

In the first instance, she argues:

Rows over gay marriage and women bishops bewilder most people. With overwhelming popular support for both, how can abstruse theology and unpleasant prejudice cause such agitation at Westminster and in the rightwing press? Politics looks even more out of touch when obscure doctrine holds a disproportionate place in national life.

By all means, disagree with the theological stances that would eschew gay marriage and the appointment of women bishops. However, there is nothing ‘abstruse’ or ‘obscure’ about these doctrinal positions. In fact, as doctrinal positions go, these views are widely held, fairly well known and not particularly hard to find in the texts from which they are drawn. More to the point, there are plenty of believers who favour one, or both, of these policies. This blog has made no secret of its view on marriage, favouring equality in law by removing legislation on marriage altogether and introducing civil partnerships for all, leaving marriage as a non-legal ceremony performed according to one’s preferred tradition.

Further, it is disingenuous to claim the government’s proposals carry ‘overwhelming support’. Majority support, arguably, but an overwhelming majority seems to be overstating the case somewhat. Behind the comment is the sense that religious feeling is driving all opposition to gay marriage and women bishops. Certainly, in the case of the latter, religious feeling is driving the outcome, though it is surely right that those who belong to the Church in question should have final say in matters related to that organisation. It would be bizarre in the extreme for those who do not belong to the Church, have no affiliation with the organisation and avowedly refuse to join because of their disdain for it to be the ones to have the final word in its affairs. That would be the equivalent of allowing the Conservatives the final word on appointments within the Labour Party! However, in the case of gay marriage, as the census figures highlight – to which Toynbee herself alludes – the numbers opposed to gay marriage seem higher than those claiming any form of religious affiliation [1]. Most strikingly, given the title of her piece, Toynbee seems to be suggesting that opposition to these proposals automatically makes one ‘worse’ for politics.

Toynbee also highlights the recent ‘right to die’ debate. She argues it is religious conscience that prevents us from allowing individuals to end their own lives, laying the blame squarely at the door of ’26 bishops and other religious lords’. There is undoubtedly a large number of people who, as a direct result of their religious convictions, vehemently oppose such laws. However, the census figures once again undo Toynbee’s argument. If religious affiliation is significantly down as she claims then religious affiliation cannot account for the entirety of numbers in opposition to the policy. Again, Toynbee’s argument appears to be if one disagrees with the policy they are, by definition, bad for politics.

Toynbee goes on to highlight that Section 5 of the Public Order Act led to an ‘extraordinary alliance of extreme religions wanting the right to preach fire and brimstone against gays joined with free thinkers wanting the right to be rude about religions’. Her comment demonstrates her prejudice; offence being legitimate when directed against those whom she is not at all concerned about offending. Frankly, this blogger would defend her right to ‘be rude’ about religions for, as she rightly notes, ‘in the rough and tumble of free speech, no one can be protected against feeling offended’.

She goes on to give a common objection to the Moral Argument for the existence of God, based on a woeful understanding of the argument itself. She claims the religious argue Atheists ‘have no moral compass’, though somewhat scuppers her own argument by stating ‘wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity regardless of faith’. Quite how one can have a moral compass whilst at the same time making no moral claims seems difficult to maintain. Nevertheless, contrary to her understanding, the moral argument revolves around the very premise that Atheists do, indeed, have a moral compass. Indeed, Toynbee’s own rejection of certain conservative principles and what she perceives as religious opposition to certain government proposals raised in her piece belie her assertion to make no moral claims.

All of this, she avers, means Atheists are better for politics than believers. However, it appears what Toynbee really means is those who disagree with her are bad for politics. Frankly, this position negates her claim to be ‘with Voltaire, defending to the death people’s right to believe whatever they choose, but fighting to prevent them imposing their creeds on others’. For, on Toynbee’s view, whilst people are free to believe what they want without imposing their creed on others, she is free to believe what she wants whilst imposing her creed on others. In truth, neither believers nor Atheists are fundamentally bad for politics. It is this position espoused by Toynbee that seems particularly problematic.


  1. See http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/4984 for a statement on the overstatement of figures both ‘for’ and ‘against’ the proposal and the actual figures delivered from various polls.


  1. Hear hear.

    Succinctly and reasonable argued. Thank you.

    Toynbee's words seem to betray an aggressive intolerant anti-theism which I would hope is not representative of humanists in general.

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