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.

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