Old news: atheists “embarrassed by prayer” and other nonsense

While browsing through an editorial found at the Telegraph, I felt compelled to save the link so I could comment on some of the points made by the author, Christine Odone. She starts out by remarking on an attempt by “A Mr Clive Bone [who] was suing his former colleagues for opening council meetings with a prayer.”

The practice “embarrassed” him as an atheist and contravened Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of belief. Mr Bone and the National Secular Society, which is fighting his corner in the High Court, want to sever the link between religion and public duties.

Picture public life, if the humanists have their way: no Remembrance services held by local authorities; no chaplains in the Armed Forces; and the opening of Parliament, as well as parliamentary sessions, shorn of all reference to a spiritual authority. Why stop there? If Bone wins his battle, the Coronation Oath itself would have to change. We wouldn’t want the monarch “embarrassing” Mr Bone and his fellow atheists, would we?

Would it be truly world ending to put a stop to government sponsored religiosity? It makes perfect sense to shed references to a spiritual authority. Prayer is a pointless way to start a council meeting. Aerobics would at least get the heart pumping a little. What does prayer do except make those who do it feel a little more pious? Maybe chaplains could stay in the Armed Forces, but humanists and atheists should be allowed their own, if that’s the case. Or at least the religious chaplains could agree to learn how to deal with those wanting secular support for what they’re going through instead of an automatically prescribing a dose of unwanted proselytizing.

public prayers have been central to this country’s celebrations since the days of King Alfred. It is easy to blame Strasbourg for the razing of cherished traditions and the evisceration of Christian culture.

If someone could explain the reference to Strasbourg, that’d be terrific. I don’t understand the relevance. It’s not the key point here for me anyway. Gone are the days where kings claim a god speaks through them, I hope? There must be other ways to unify a populace besides a shared religious belief. My grasp of British history is pretty poor at the best of time but isn’t England a country where Catholics were killed when Protestants were in power and Protestants were killed when Catholics were in power? I bet there was a lot of public prayer then, too. How exactly did it benefit anyone to include it in celebrations? Thank God I’m not Protestant! Give me something to throw… Thank God I’m not Catholic! Give me something to throw…

However, the trouble lies not with Article 9 but with how courts insist on interpreting it.

Aidan O’Neill QC argues precisely this. Judges tend to focus on the discriminatory act, arguing, for example, that atheists and Christians alike would be wrong in banning same-sex couples from sharing a double bed in their B&B. So the Christian taken to court can’t claim that his religious beliefs are infringed. This is all wrong, Mr O’Neill says. Christians have special requirements, just like the disabled, women, the elderly or ethnic minorities. Courts must accommodate their beliefs, not ignore them. I hope that this will prove a winning argument.

That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a while but sadly I don’t think she’s joking. Homosexual couples would get in trouble for trying to ban atheists or Catholics from renting bedrooms at a B&B, too. Discrimination is discrimination. People aren’t exactly choosing to be disabled or old. People can choose to be women but that’s not a choice made on a whim and it could probably be argued that transgendered people have even more discrimination to deal with than “ordinary” women and men.

It’s not so much about beliefs anyway, it’s about rights as human beings. In terms of ethnic minorities, it might be a combination of both, of course. People might be dealing with racism on a daily basis, or their religious observances are constantly mocked or their religious needs ignored. Kosher food, halal food, prayer breaks, not able to work certain days. Their religions create “special requirements” but I think overall there’s an emphasis on making sure those requirements aren’t going to infringe on the rights of other human beings. I don’t think insisting on prayers before a council meeting counts as a special requirement in the same way a turban or veil might. It’s not like the Christian god will strike people down dead if they don’t pray on time. Allah won’t either, but it’s built into Islam so they have to act like He would. That’s what makes their prayer time a special requirement. Christians can pray whenever the hell they feel like it so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal if there are times they’re asked not to out of respect for those who aren’t believers. I think Christians are just very used to getting their way all the time like it’s deserved instead of merely a long-standing habit in dire need of breaking.

Beginning work with a prayer, after all, reminds officials that they are but humble servants, and that their duty calls for more than leafleting people about hosepipe restrictions. Which makes me wonder whether it was not so much being forced into the presence of a higher authority that embarrassed Mr Bone, but being held to a higher standard.

I doubt Bone’s issue has to do with him wanting a pass to be a bastard. I think officials should think of themselves as accountable to those in their community instead of to some ethereal thing in an invisible place. They should want to act in ways that will serve their community so if they are going to take any oaths, it should be to the people they represent and commit to them a willingness to be held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens. Citizens need to be able to hold them accountable. A belief that a god might do the same winds up rather meaningless once taxes are raised or some bizarre new by-law gets a go-ahead.

Governing bodies need to work on being secular because that’s far more inclusive than giving special treatment to one religion at the expense of all others. Christians wind up not being very humble at all when they whine about this issue.

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One Response to Old news: atheists “embarrassed by prayer” and other nonsense

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