Opinion: time to talk about things that don’t matter

Now, before I start, let me be clear: I am not an atheist and in fact find atheism’s certainties as puzzling as those of fundamentalists – the latter are certain that God exists and the former that he does not. Quite how, after centuries of Enlightenment philosophy, there are adherents to either point of view is beyond me.

Anyway: I go to Church, have doubts, fall far short of my ideals. Sorry.

Last week there was a High Court judgment against Bideford Town Council. In a nutshell it said that prayers should not form part of a council meeting.

I belong to two councils. Council A starts its meetings with a procession, followed immediately by prayers, almost always Christian and usually Anglican. I once tried to escape when the relevant cleric had established herself as particularly vacuous and was chased by an officer, who was concerned that I was not in the chamber.

My human rights were infringed. But in the scheme of things it cost me no pain, no embarrassment and did not prevent me doing my elected duties.

In Council B, there is no procession. There are prayers but they are held before the meeting and do not form part of the Summons.

It is clear to me that the latter is the preferable state of affairs. I do not hold with the National Secular Society’s view that

‘Religious worship has no place in a secular debating chamber that exists to serve all sections of the community, regardless of their religious beliefs, or indeed lack of them.’

There are lots of things in life I don’t agree with. But I am a liberal and am not going to state portentously that the reading of the Daily Mail, believing that Margaret Thatcher was a good thing or supporting a football club (any football club, since you ask) have no place in the council chamber.

The council chamber can have many uses and should be available to those of faith as well as anyone else. Just don’t make faith – especially of a particular kind – compulsory.

Despite the fact that this issue had caused me mild personal irritation in the past, I had not expected (for want of a better expression) all hell to break loose. The Daily Mail screamed: ‘The secular attack on Bideford that aims to destroy our national faith’ (by which in fact it meant only Anglicanism).

Eric Pickles also weighed in (no surprise there) saying that councils have the right to say prayers (so they do – but that’s not the point) and bishops were wheeled out across the media.

This is a vast overreaction. No religion survives or fails because of what goes on in council meetings. And councils are not better governed just because they force people to join in their prayers.

A thoughtless discourtesy has been ended in Bideford and, as a result, my own Council A.

Now let’s get back to looking after the needs of local people.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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  • Quite right.

    Hysterical knee-jerk overreaction is so much more fun though!

  • I agree with you that doing prayers before the meeting rather than a formal part of them is the solution that gives the greatest freedom for all, and that this isn’t actually a big issue (now how about the bishops and disestablishment…).

    But I can’t help but counter the point about “atheism’s certainties”. Are you 100.0000% certain that the Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn’t exist? Can you categorically prove that it doesn’t? Of course not, but does that make you agnostic on the question of whether it does? Atheism, for me, is the view that the case for the existence of any god is no better than the case for anything else that one could propose exists with no proof (and no experimental predictions that might provide it). As far as one can be certain of anything, I don’t think Russell’s teapot exists. The same goes for ‘spirits’ and ‘gods’, and thus I am an atheist.

  • I. too, am an atheist. However, I enjoyed the churchman ‘getting the better of’ Dawkins (BBC, Today)…

    For any who didn’t listen…Professor Richard Dawkins, founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Reverend Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’….. Dawkins has done a survey asking those who identify themselves as Christians, questions on the Bible. Those who fail to answer are, according to Dawkins, “not really Christians”……

    .Dawkins said an “astonishing number couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament.” But his claim that this indicated self-identified Christians were “not really Christian at all” was challenged by Fraser, who said the poll asked “silly little questions” to “trip” people up.

    Giles Fraser:…. Richard, if I said to you what is the full title of ‘The Origin Of Species’, I’m sure you could tell me that.

    Richard Dawkins:…… Yes I could

    Giles Fraser:….. Go on then.

    Richard Dawkins…….: On The Origin Of Species.. Uh. With, Oh God. On The Origin Of Species. There is a sub title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

    Giles Fraser…….: You’re the high pope of Darwinism… If you asked people who believed in evolution that question and you came back and said 2% got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to go ‘they don’t believe it after all.’ It’s just not fair to ask people these questions. They self-identify as Christians and I think you should respect that.

  • The Fraser-Dawkins debate this morning was just brilliant. Not just for the Dawkins stumble (and I think he did get nearly there in the end) but for the fact that Fraser nailed him on the main point. You can say you believe in evolution whilst only having a sketchy scientific knowledge so why can’t you say you are Christian with an equally sketchy knowledge? Dawkins may now be thinking that the money spent on that service was not a good idea…

    Getting back to the point of prayers before Council meetings, my view is that they have no place there whether as part of formal proceedings or otherwise. Either way it is a use, albeit small, of council resources.

  • Doh – for “service” read “survey”.

  • Simon Titley 14th Feb '12 - 4:23pm

    I broadly agree with Chris White. The court judgement provoked some hysterical overreactions about “banning prayers” and “militant secularism” (whatever that is).

    The judge simply said that prayers should not be part of the formal business of a council. And that is right and proper. A council meeting is a democratic space that should be open to people of all faiths and none – that is what ‘secularism’ means, not anti-religious. Councillors who wish to pray remain perfectly at liberty to do so, but they may no longer ram their beliefs down other people’s throats.

    Imagine if, every time you ate out in a restaurant, the waiter stood next to your table and said grace before your meal. Would your human rights have been infringed? Probably not. But it would be an awkward and embarrassing imposition, And if you were a non-believer (which probably a majority now are), it would make you feel unwelcome.

    However, I disagree with Chris that this issue is unimportant. The principle of secularism is vital for democracy; no one should be disadvantaged because of their religious beliefs but, equally, no religious believer should enjoy any special rights or privileges.

    I would strongly recommend everyone read this excellent defence of secularism in the Harry’s Place blog last year:

    The whole blog posting is worth reading but it ends with this clear statement of principle:

    “A liberal, secular society protects all of its members and frees them to live as they wish, provided they respect the rights and freedoms of others. To keep religion out of the political sphere is not to censure people who have ‘faith’, but rather it is actually a prerequisite for the creation and maintenance of a stable society whose members follow many different faiths, philosophies, and political ideologies, but can unite around a shared public language and shared basic values (the rule of law, the rights of the individual, and so on).”

    So don’t make the mistake of dismissing the Bideford test case as a sideshow. There’s a fundamental principle at stake, and we must remain on our guard.

  • Brian Robinson 14th Feb '12 - 4:42pm

    You say you “find atheism’s certainties as puzzling as those of fundamentalists – the latter are certain that God exists and the former that he does not”. I agree broadly with Adam in his response above. I think it is better to view atheists as people who do not believe in the existence of God, and leave certainty to one side.

    Let us say there is either an even number of Lib Dem supporters in Stoke-on-Trent or an odd number. If someone claims there is an even number I might well ask how they know. If they do not give me what I consider to be a satisfactory answer, I would have no reason to believe there is an even number of Lib Dem supporters in the city.

    That does not prejudge whether it is possible to know; it simply holds that as things stand I have no reason to believe the city has an even number of Lib Dem supporters. We might consider whether it could ever be possible to find out — whether if we asked everyone in the city they would all tell the truth; whether the numbers might change even while we were asking people; whether there is even a shared, coherent notion of what it is to be a Lib Dem supporter so we could know we were all talking about the same thing, etc. — but that is different.

    Of course, some atheists may talk in terms of a “certainty” that God does not exist. Probably not very many, though; and we might expect a range of views within atheism, just as within theism. What is important, however, and why I have taken the time to respond to what many people may see as just a casual remark at the start of your discussion of prayers in council meetings, is that atheism does not need a response to questions such as: “Are you certain God does not exist? How can you know?” To think that it does is to misunderstand the issue, and may result in such absurdities as equating atheism with fundamentalism, as if they were two equally implausible claims about knowing something with certainty. Let’s not allow such casual assertions to take hold and become accepted without question; goodness knows where it would end.

    So, while I do not claim to be certain there is not an even number of Lib Dem supporters in Stoke on Trent, I certainly have no reason to believe that there is.

  • Daniel Henry 14th Feb '12 - 5:06pm

    What Simon Titley said.

  • Richard, perhaps they could read aloud an article from the latest Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs section?

  • As a christian I have found prayers at the start of council meetings quite wrong ever since I attended a meeting and saw all the Tories nodding along to the vicar praying about protecting the vulnerable in the community. Then an hour later the self same ‘christians’ voted to close the last old people’s home in the area and then an hour after that cut services to the disabled.

    There are too many people calling themselves christian when they know nothing or ignore the words of the gospel – hypocrites.

    Since then I refuse to attend the prayers at the meeting but say my own prayer – privately

    Christianity should not be a social club, a way of standing up with your rich friends and saying I am so Christian while worshiping money not god.

  • David Pollard 15th Feb '12 - 9:10pm

    A Secular society should be based on Freedom, Fairness, Tolerance and the Rule of Law. The understanding of these changes over time and a Secular society will adjust to what works at any point in time.

    Atheist is a very narrow definition of people who believe in the natural world and do not believe in anything supernatural whether it is Father Christmas or the tooth fairy, or unicorns or vampires etc. etc. A being that Christians call God, is just one of the supernatural things an atheist does not believe in.

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