I am irritated by the current stooshie about Bideford Council in Devon being ordered to take Christian prayers off the official agenda of their meetings. Even Tory Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles has weighed in with his pennyworth. I think any defender of ‘the’ faith (how hubristic is that definite article!?), or any others, should think carefully about this case.
Compulsory revelation of non-Christian identity
Presumably councillors are obliged to be present for all items on the official agenda. If a Christian meeting is on the official agenda, then non-Christians have to attend, and therefore (1) they are compelled to devote some of their time to witnessing the practice of a religion of which they are not adherents, and (2) by their visible or audible non-participation in the prayers, they are also forced to label themselves as ‘non-Christian’. Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Druids, Jews, Muslims, etc., would all be compelled to make it public knowledge that they are not Christian. Now many of these people might be happy about this, but if even a single one were uncomfortable this would be wrong, for the reason I give in the next paragraph.
Bullying intrusion affecting proper conduct of public affairs
Forcing people to label themselves as non-Christian risks exposing people to prejudice. Anyone familiar with the famous blue eyes/brown eyes exercise of Jane Elliott, will know how dangerous labels can be. A label can result in the following thought process: ‘Well, of course, he/she would say, because he/she is a….’ It opens the door to such prejudice and therefore does not contribute to a reasoned debate of issues on their merits, which is surely what we expect of our elected officials. Therefore obliging people to label themselves as non-Christian can be perceived as a bullying intrusion into privacy, with consequences for the proper conduct of public affairs.
Unlikely to endear
Furthermore, such perceived bullying is unlikely to endear people to Christianity. In fact, especially if they come to the view that forcing people to publicly declare whether they believe or not is a Christian policy in itself, it is likely to make them hostile to this religion. In other words, it is surely not in the interests of the Christian religion for its adherents to campaign against a secular state. I find it impossible to believe in the literal truth of the Christian story, and I do not wish to feel persecuted for my ‘sin’ (in Christian eyes) in being unable to believe it. I do not choose not to be a Christian; I simply can’t believe what Christians believe. Two questions for Christians opposed to a secular state:
- Is it right to make me feel like a disdained minority because of my inability to believe what you believe?
- Is it sensible, considering only your religion’s best interests, to antagonise me in this way?
Why do I feel strongly about this issue? I would like to be able to say that it is purely because I have thought about the issues in a calm, rational and detached way. While I do believe that I have thought about the issues in a rational way, I feel passionately about the matter because I have been on the receiving end of Christian labelling behaviour (to avoid labelling, it would be better to say ‘the labelling behaviour of some Christians’!) on two occasions. It wasn’t pleasant.
An atheist in the room!
The first secondary school I attended was a Roman Catholic affair in what was then Salisbury, Rhodesia. Despite being run largely by priests, it was modelled on English public schools and had all the old traditions of fagging, the senior common room, etc. I was utterly miserable, and shall perhaps write of other experiences there some other time. Let me confine myself here to the day a classmate tried to ‘out’ me to the staff as a non-believer. The Religious Education class was taught by a nice enough woman, but I found the subject totally devoid of interest. My boredom ended with a jolt one day when a hand went up and, given permission to speak, a boy’s voice, trembling with excitement, said, ‘Please, ma’am, there’s an atheist in this class’. The room fell silent. My heart raced as I waited for the teacher’s response – what would my fate be?
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said, ‘there can’t possibly be. Now let’s get on with the lesson.’ Whew! I was off the hook – never mind the faint insult in what she had said. The ‘grass’ looked crushed, his blood-lust unslaked as the much-anticipated classroom inquisition (how long had he been planning it?) was relegated to his imagination. He would have to get at me some other way.
The second ‘labelling experience’ happened in the third secondary school I attended, in a place that was then called Verwoerdburg, South Africa (named after the architect of apartheid). The school was pretty good in many ways, but like most government schools in South Africa had a very ‘Christian’ ethos and was for one race only (whites). (I put ‘Christian’ in inverted commas because many Christians would, I hope, take issue with Christianity giving tacit support to apartheid, and I do not wish to insult them.) Having stood up to a bully (another story I might tell one day), I found myself receiving many votes for the prefecture, and was invited to become head boy. My duties included reading from the bible at assemblies. This in itself was an agony for me, but my conscience let me live with it as long as I didn’t have to state that I was a Christian. Perhaps this was a mistake. Anyway, one day I was summoned to the headmaster’s office. The atmosphere resembled that when I had been called in the previous year for the heinous sin of having hair long enough to touch my shirt collar, and had been duly caned for this appalling offence. I sensed that this was about something at least as grave. I didn’t have long to wait to find out what it was. ‘I’ve received anonymous letters saying that you are an atheist,’ he said, his eyes accusing. ‘Is this true? Did we not discuss your views on religion when you were appointed?’ The implication was that I had pretended to be a Christian, and that only Christians could be head prefects.
I simply told him what I remembered saying, something along these lines: ‘You asked me my religious views. I said that I felt people should be free to practise their religions and that I wasn’t prejudiced against people who held views different to my own….’ He couldn’t refute this and the matter was closed, but this experience was gruelling, to say the least.
Win, win, win solution – even Christians will welcome extra kip!
Getting back to Bideford Council, the solution is obvious. Leave prayers off the official agenda and start the meeting five minutes later, allowing Christians to hold their prayers before the official meeting starts. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘I’ve spotted a flaw. While non-Christians would not then have to sit through a Christian event, they could still be identified through their non-attendance.’ Ahem, no. Such an argument displays great ignorance of human nature. I’ll wager that more than one Christian would welcome the opportunity of an extra five minutes’ kip. It’s a win-win-win situation!
If you want Christanity to flourish, then vive la laïcité!