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Those Evil Atheists!

Don’t ask me how it happened but today I managed to navigate my way to the Christian Post web site which reported on an incident in Lodi City, California where the council were considering banning all prayers. Apparently this all started with a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation which claimed that prayer “impermissibly advanced Christianity” and therefore should be stopped.

That sounds pretty unfair, doesn’t it? I mean, if people want to pray why should some anti-religion organisation or a council be able to stop them? Of course, the way I have presented it (which is the message many people would get from the first half of the article) isn’t actually what was really happening at all.

Its not clear until about paragraph 5 that they are just talking about prayer at the start of council meetings. If people want to pray in their own time then they can do that wherever they want, its just during valuable council time that it might be banned. The reason isn’t so much the waste of time as much as the type of prayer, which is always Christian, and against the policy of using “non-sectarian and non-denominational” prayer at the council.

So it seems clear enough. Surely when someone is elected to a council they shouldn’t expect to be able to inflict their religious ideas on others and at the very least they should expect that any religious activities which do occur should be inclusive of as many people as possible.

Of course the Christians are complaining bitterly about it (they are so used to having their own way in the US) and sending some clown called James Klingerschmitt to organise a protest for which the atheists are organising a counter-protest. Its all got a bit silly because the Christians think they can just make a big fuss and get their own way.

But that’s one of the biggest problems with religion: people think theirs is the only true religion and that everyone else should be converted. I know this process isn’t obvious in every case but I think that every religion has some sort of mechanism to grow its influence: it could range from persuading members to enlist their children at an early age to killing people who disagree – and I think you know which religion I’m thinking of here, right?

Its very encouraging to see the atheist/humanism/rationality movement in the US starting to become brave enough to make these sorts of moves. The US is probably plagued more by religious influences than any other western country and its time that changed, so this sort of action (while its largely symbolic rather than practical) is long overdue.

Of course, the Christians are totally misrepresenting the issue and (like they often do) trying to make themselves look like the victims instead of the perpetrators of the bullying. Their on-line petition says something like “don’t cave in to the atheist intimidation by the enemies of religious freedom who are threatening to silence all prayers”.

But its the Christians who are trying to bully people into following their beliefs while ignoring the rest. How can they be the victims here? And no one is trying to silence all prayer. Even atheists accept that it often makes people feel better and if they want to do it in their own time most would say that’s their right. Sure, its really just a waste of time and often leads to harm but it does have a positive psychological effect as well. That’s fine but not really appropriate at a council meeting, I would have thought.

Christianity reminds me a lot of the novel 1984. In 1984 they had a Ministry of Truth which dealt with propaganda and lies. Christians say Jesus is the Truth and the Way (or something equally inane). See the parallel?

  1. shirhashirim
    August 7, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    “Don’t ask me how it happened”

    The devil made you do it?

    I think you’re overstating your point. Christians aren’t ‘bullying people into following their religion’ by having prayers before meetings just as humanists or secularists aren’t bullying Christians into following their point of view by holding minutes of silence (e.g.).

    Prayer is a perfectly normal thing to do, even when some of us are a bit baffled by it, just like minutes of silence, which again baffles others. No need to state that someone is ‘inflicting religious ideas’ on others. Christians -and others- do that, but hardly by prayer…

    Incidentally, the idea that people should not pray in public is quite biblical: Mat 6:6.

    • August 7, 2009 at 7:29 pm

      Okay, so then how would you feel if at a function where someone says “Let’s bow our heads and pray” and I just went ahead and started whatever it was we were doing without them? I find the presumption that I also share the same belief or that I have to show respect for something that I don’t respect by acquiescing to the demand (and it is usually expressed as a demand) rather inconsiderate. If you want to pray at a public function, pray. But don’t assume that everyone else is going to be of like mind.

  2. August 8, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Well yes, it was sort of like “the devil”. If I remember correctly it was a tweet from a very anti-religious person on Twitter but it could have been another source.

    Maybe I’m overstating things. Its hard to tell based on one news report from the other side of the world. But what I was really trying to comment on was the increasing influence of atheism in the US.

    I don’t take Bible verses too seriously for two reasons: 1, they are so open to varying interpretation; and 2, for every verse there is another which contradicts it.

  3. shirhashirim
    August 11, 2009 at 11:20 am

    @Shameless: I really don’t see the problem. I’ve been at lunches where colleagues started their meal with a moment of silence (for prayer). I’ve been at meetings where Muslims asked for a short recess (for prayer). I’ve been at a musical-performance in London which ended in playing the national anthem and everybody stood up. It would be rude (as in: this is not how you mother told you to behave) to purposely interrupt such things. They don’t harm anyone, they may testify to certain convictions, but those aren’t being ‘inflicted’ on anyone (well, unless they force you to sing the national anthem, that would be rude). And I wonder if ‘showing respect’ isn’t supposed to be something you should be doing for things you both respect and don’t respect.

    @ojb: increasing influence of atheism in the US? Are you kidding? Teachers (not necessarily atheists) have to fend off creationists everywhere, that only happens in the US (and Muslim countries).

  4. ojb42
    August 11, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    @shirhashirim Where would this right to show your conviction end? If there were representatives of 5 different groups at a meeting should they all be able to have some time for their own ritual or would only the Christian ritual be allowed? That seems to be the issue here.

    I agree I’m seeing this from a distance (sometimes that gives the clearest view) but there does seem to be an increasing trend towards atheist activities becoming more common. I agree that the US has had to put up with the stupidity of creationism in the past (and still does) but there just seems to be a lot more public opposition to that now. I don’t have any stats to back this idea up, its just an impression I gain from various sources.

  5. shirhashirim
    August 13, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    I’m not sure if this is about ‘showing your conviction’, it might be exhibitionistic for some people, but I think for most it’s simply a matter of courtesy: if someone wants to pray before dinner (or sing the national anthem) leave them be.
    Usually with more convictions present, people will find a solution that saves time and satisfies all: a moment of silence before dinner, e.g. I haven’t been watching the Olympic games recently, I don’t know what they do if there are three nationalities on the podium.

    I’m seeing this from the same distance that you do. My impression is somewhat different. Back in the 60’s and 70’s everyone expected the end of religion (or at least its marginalisation) and the advance of science, logic and reason. It didn’t happen, on the contrary: religion is back with a vengeance. As a result, atheists are making more noise and generating more media coverage. That’s not the same as gaining influence.

    It’s what my language calls ‘a rearguard fight’.

  6. August 13, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I agree that as long as it doesn’t become a real time waster and as long as everyone can participate in the way that suits their beliefs (and not just using Christian forms of the ritual which I think is the current problem) then it does no harm and gives everyone some freedom of expression.

    I don’t see the trends the same way as you. The statistics indicate a gradual decline in religious belief except in third world countries where active proselytising is occurring. I certainly don’t see the atheist activity as a rearguard action, more like the realisation that now it is OK for their opinions to be made public.

  7. shirhashirim
    August 14, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    It should give everyone full freedom of expression. Maybe that’s where this right should end, as you asked.

    About the statistics: they do show a decline in organised religion (at least where I live), but ‘religiosity’ (whatever that may be, so for lack of a better word) doesn’t (again: where I live).

    To me it seems that people aren’t so much secularising as they are individualising. Somehow those two are necessarily intertwined as well: individualising religion isn’t possible without at least some degree of secularising.

  8. ojb42
    August 14, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    The thing about prayer is this: imagine you were a fanatical Lord of the Rings fan. Should you be able to do a speech from, say Aragorn, before a meeting? I don’t think so, yet your belief could be as strong as a religious persons. Again religious people asks for special privileges no other group would get.

    The stats do show a gradual increase in non-believers. I agree that many people claim to have some sort of spiritual belief but aren’t members of a recognised church. The definitions become so vague here they are almost meaningless.

    As I said, the stats do show people are becoming less religious but it has happening slowly. In the US non-belief recently reached 10% so the vast majority still have some sort of belief. But the thing I have found is that many people report themselves as belonging to a religion but take no part in that religion and know nothing about it. Its just a tradition to say you’re Protestant, Catholic, whatever, so I suspect the real level of belief is a lot lower than what most stats suggest.

  9. shirhashirim
    August 18, 2009 at 11:48 am

    An Aragorn speech, why not? It’s way within limits of sermons I’ve heard in church… (but then maybe I’m a bit liberal about it)

    It is indeed becoming harder to define what you are talking about. ‘Religion’ is becoming a diffused thing the more it individualises.

    Religion is tradition, or a large part of it is. The idea that there should be a ‘real level of belief’ behind what people report themselves to be, betrays a rather Calvinist view on belief.

  10. ojb42
    August 18, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    OK, so we agree that everyone should be able to express themselves in any way they feel is appropriate before these council meetings. Kind of seems like this is degenerating into a bit of a farce, wouldn’t you say?

    Unfortunately many of these discussions to tend to become meaningless because the terms being used are poorly defined. What is religion, what is faith, what is belief, what is spirituality? Everyone has a different idea.

    One thing I would say: the automatic assumption that there should be a Christian prayer before meetings should be abandoned.

  11. shirhashirim
    August 19, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Within the law of course. I would not have Aztecs perform human sacrifices before every council meeting (soon there might nog be any need for a council).

    People have different ideas about justice, human rights, animal treatment, climate change and everything. Poorly defined concepts have so far never hampered communication, quite the contrary.

    Yes, in a multicultural society, definitely. Not on Cape Athos.

  12. ojb42
    August 19, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Still sounds it might get a bit farcical if too many people partook in too many different activities (even without the sacrifices). Would it not be easier just to say to people that they should carry out these personal rituals in their own time?

    There’s a wide range in the extent these ideas are defined. I know very few where even the basic subject is defined as poorly as religion. When we talk about climate change, for example, everyone knows fairly well what is being discussed. I thought that was the case with religion too but clearly you have a much broader definition than me.

    All societies are multicultural now, I would have thought. Sorry I don’t quite get the reference to “Cape Athos”.

  13. shirhashirim
    August 20, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Of course it would become a mess if too many different cultural traditions would partake without compromise, but usually people tend to compromise, e.g. find some formula that covers the convictions of many. Abolishing all and agreeing to do this in your own time is a viable option when things get really complicated (and a much simpler one).

    Cape Athos is a monastery in Greece on a peninsula. Only single, male, Greek, orthodox people live there (monks). Anything else is not admitted (even female animals). Life is much simpler there, prayers before meetings-wise.

    • ojb42
      August 20, 2009 at 10:24 am

      OK, so I think we sort of agree on this. Seems to me people should be able to follow any belief in their own time, and shouldn’t be exposed to one other groups rituals and beliefs unnecessarily. I’m fairly sure that was the point all along.

  14. shirhashirim
    August 20, 2009 at 11:29 am

    On the first part, yes. On the second part, definitely not. I think people should be exposed to as many group rituals as possible!

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