Why I agree with the National Secular Society, for once

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The UK Parliament is currently debating the Local Authority (Religious etc. Observances) Bill. It was introduced as a Private Members Bill by the Conservative MP Jake Berry, who recently said that it provided “freedom to pray and to hold prayers at the start of council meetings, should that local authority wish to do so.” at a committee stage debate on the Bill.

He also stated that it was designed to combat “an aggressive and unwelcome secular attack on our core British values.” This is, no doubt, referring in part to a ruling in 2012 that prayers before meetings of Bideford Town Council were unlawful if held as a formal part of the meeting, following a challenge by the National Secular Society and an atheist town councillor.

There have also been a couple of amendments tabled by other Conservative MPs to the Bill. Edward Leigh MP has proposed a close which requires local authorities to “keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundations of the United Kingdom” when religious observances are held. Phillip Davies MP has also proposed that prayer actually be a compulory part of Council business (“the business at a meeting of a local authority in England shall include time for (a) prayers or other religious observance, or (b) observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief.”).

Now, I am a Christian, so you may expect me to wholeheartedly welcome these moves. However, far from welcoming them, I actually fear for the implications of the Bill and the amendments, both socially and theologically.

To legally oblige people to pray during public meetings, or at any time, regardless of their faith or lack of faith is pointless at best and counterproductive and divisive at worst. One of the reasons I’ve heard many times for people’s lack of respect for organised religion is the way they feel it was forced down their throats during compulsory religious observance when they were at school. Making people do something regardless of their will is a sure fire way of turning them off of the thing you are trying to encourage. In fact, more than turning the, off of it, it breeds outright hostility to the act and to those who take part in it.

Also, the clear indication that Christian prayer be the form of prayer which takes place not only alienates atheists, agnostics, humanists etc. but also those of other faiths who play an active and important part of our public life. To do that to anybody is wrong, but to do it to democratically elected officials carrying out their mandated duty is mind boggling. This is especially true when you try to justify the reasoning behind it. There is nothing stopping people praying together before meetings or even silently before it, but does it actually have a place in the business of a local authority? I would say not.

Assuming the reasoning behind this Bill is to allow people to follow Jesus’ teachings, why not look at what Jesus himself had to say,

“While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’” (Luke‬ ‭20‬:‭45-47‬ NIVUK)

“‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew‬ ‭6‬:‭5-6‬ NIVUK)

Now, these verses don’t mean that all forms of public prayer are bad, but do show that an insistence on praying publicly demonstrates a desire to show off one’s own righteousness rather than actually conversing with God, the reason for prayer. Doing these things in private will be rewarded, showing off on public is, in Jesus’ own words, hypocritical.

Nobody has banned prayer or limited our right to do so, but we must realise that there is a time, a place and a method. Putting prayer at the start of business of a secular meeting as a compulsion is none of these things. I don’t often agree with the National Secular Society, but they are spot on here. It is simply not appropriate, especially to enshrine it in law.

If the Conservative Party want to “keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundations of the United Kingdom” then maybe concentrating on justice, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and love for your fellow human being rather than battling a form of persecution which simply isn’t there.

Their god is not my God

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The logic is this: God wants us all to obey him, so you can either obey him or face being killed by those who do.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God will shower you with all types of riches and hedonistic delights in the next life if you give all of that kind of thing up in this life and force your choices on everybody else.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God wants you to subjugate half of the population because of their gender. He wants you to make sure they can’t teach, lead, make their own decisions or have any kind of independent thought.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God wants you to be intolerant and hateful towards anybody different to you. He wants you to exclude them, discriminate against them, preach against them and deny them basic human rights.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God has no sense of humour. He wants any ridicule of the more extreme views his followers have to be answered with vitriol, imprisonment, persecution, terror and death.

That isn’t the God I worship.

God doesn’t care if you want to follow him. He doesn’t care if you love him. He doesn’t care if you obey him because you want to or if you obey him because his followers force you to through the law, through fear, through violence… even if they have to behead your friends and family in front of you to make you obey him. He just wants blind obedience.

That isn’t the God I worship. That isn’t the God any Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh I have met or known worship either.

The God I worship, the God we worship, is love. He is generous. He has given us free will to choose how, or how not, to respond to him. He wants us to obey him, but only if we have freely chosen to do so.

The God I worship does not want his followers to respond to satirical cartoons by killing those responsible like those who shot 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo did. He has been through more suffering and ridicule than we can imagine and grieves for all the suffering we inflict on each other on Earth. He has much bigger things to worry about than cartoons.

The God I worship does not want us to install a worldwide state in his name by force, by fighting and killing our way through the world and bringing it to heel by fear.

The God I worship does not want us to hate people we disagree with due to religion, politics or lifestyle. He doesn’t want us to condemn or persecute anybody, but to disagree in love and always point to him.

If God was like the one that extremists of all kinds claim to follow then I wouldn’t want to follow him. I would resist him and his followers. But he isn’t like that at all.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John‬ ‭4‬:‭7-12‬ NIVUK)

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