Two of the most fundamental questions: are we, collectively and individually, the handiwork of a Creator; and, if so, is it possible to have a one-to-one relationship with that Creator? If you believe that the answer to both those questions is ‘no’ (and I’m an atheist, by the way) is it unreasonable to argue that ‘believers’ should not be allowed to begin political or other public meetings with a prayer?
Let me put that question another way. How much of a difference does a personal, committed religious belief make when it comes to elective office? In other words, is a practicing Christian (or any other ‘believer’ for that matter) necessarily more honest, honourable and reasonable than an atheist or agnostic: or is he more restricted because his beliefs demand greater personal and moral rigour?
Let me refine that question even further: does a ‘believer’ believe that his duty as an elected representative is to follow the precepts and steers of his religion, particularly when it comes to moral and social issues, or is his religious belief something that he can just set aside under the ‘whipped’ system that tends to be the norm in a council, Parliament or Assembly?
Over the years I have been at many, many meetings which began (and sometimes ended) with a prayer, when someone would get up, invite us to bow our heads and then ask the Heavenly Father ‘for guidance and intervention and wisdom in reaching decisions.’ In all of those years I never saw the slightest hint of intervention or guidance from the Almighty. Indeed, there were many occasions when I hoped that He would do something, if only to end the babble and discord which tended to be the normal fare at these events.
The few moments of prayer rarely prevented the fraying of tempers, the tossing of accusations from side to the other, or the cheap jibes and even cheaper point scoring. In all of the thirty or so years in which I sat in public or press galleries I can’t actually recall one moment—not one single moment out of thousands of hours of debate—in which a key issue turned on advice from the Bible, or when political opponents reached surprising agreement by reminding themselves of a key passage from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
But I do remember an awful lot of occasions when the Bible was referenced when it came to something like abortion, gay rights, punishment of wrongdoers or the opening of pubs, shopping centres and bookmakers on a Sunday. My goodness me, it was astonishing how agitated, animated and weirdly articulated they became, veritable trumpets of God’s message in their holy-word-for-holy-word denunciation of secular society.
Yet very little holy-word-for-holy-word promotion of economic strategy, or the benefits system, or the National Health Service, or any of the hundreds of other issues which demand their attention as councillors, MPs or MLAs. Do they not do detailed study of the difficult bits of the Bible? Is it easier just to stick with the old reliables about fornication and blasphemy?
What is the point, after all, of inviting God’s guidance and wisdom if you don’t actually get around to asking your fellow believers something as basic as: “What would Jesus do about the housing problem in that area” or “How would God want us to respond to the needs of the drug addict and binge drinker”? If the Creator is to be involved in your deliberations wouldn’t it make sense to bookmark some of His teachings and recommendations during your search for policies and solutions? I’m presuming that God isn’t a card-carrying member of any political party and that the teachings from the Bible apply as much to Christians in the DUP as they do to Christians in Sinn Fein!
I actually have no difficulty with those who have religious beliefs—be they derived from the Bible, Koran, Talmud or whatever. There have been times in my life when I have been so low and depressed that I would have welcomed evidence of a God. There have been moments when I have yearned for a divine presence to make sense of our four miscarriages and the murder of friends by terrorists. There are still moments when I envy those who can, in Tennyson’s words, ‘by faith and faith alone embrace, believing where we cannot prove.’ Atheism is not an easy opt out—it’s also a place of terrible loneliness, too.
Anyway, I really don’t mind if elected representatives (to be honest, I would apply it to any event at which people come together) want to begin with a prayer. But I would be interested in knowing what influence they expect that prayer to have on the course of events. Do they want God’s teaching to be the backbone and framework of policy and legislation? How many of them, for instance, have ever defied the Party whip because the policy they are being asked to endorse is at odds with God’s Word?
My difficulty in all of this is that I don’t know why they want prayer to be part of the formal proceedings. Why can’t the believers have a prayer breakfast, lunch, dinner or just coffee and biscuits before the meeting? Better still, why can’t they just pray at home before they even leave for the meeting? Making prayer a part of the formal business of the meeting or sitting suggests that both the prayers themselves, as well as the God to whom they are directed, are an essential part of the meeting and business to be conducted.
As it happens, I’m not convinced that we live in an increasingly secular society. While there is evidence that growing numbers of people have wandered away from formal, ‘established’ church worship, there is also evidence that similarly growing numbers are looking for answers and peace of mind in make-it-up-as-you-go-along philosophies, fads, cults, lifestyles and cynically marketed mumbo-jumbo. I sense that people still want to believe in something, or Someone in whom they can believe, they just don’t want the formal, regulated, ritualistic structures of Roman Catholicism or the Church of England.
The vast majority of people in the United Kingdom do not go to any place of worship on a Sunday, or any other day of the week. Schools teach Christianity alongside other faiths and religions. Religious programming across the media embraces a lot of beliefs and Thought for the Day now welcomes humanists, atheists and agnostics. The names of both “God” and
”Jesus Christ” is used blasphemously almost every day on radio and television—in a way that was unimaginable thirty or forty years ago. Christian prayer does not have much of a part to play in the everyday lives of most people anymore.
If any council, Parliament or Assembly—with powers of self regulation—has a majority of members who are ‘believers’ then I’m not convinced that any outside body should tell them how to regulate themselves. That’s a matter for the electorate further down the line. But nor do I think that Christians, or any other faith, should have the power to insist that prayer be part of the proceedings if they happen to find themselves in a minority. There is no law—and nor should there ever be such a law—which prevents any elective representative from holding and practicing a religious belief, however peculiar that belief may seem to others. But nor should there be a law which entitles ‘believers’ to any additional rights if they are a minority interest.
Christianity (and other faiths) is an important fact of life for many people, albeit a minority. Individual Christians (and those of other faiths) have played very important roles in the history of the United Kingdom. But Christianity should not be given ‘protected status.’ Christians have, or so they would argue, God on their side. That should be enough for them!