It’s funny how people interpret things in different ways. Especially when it involves religion, and even more so when it comes to the challenging of religious privileges. A quick trip over to the National Secular Society’s website, presents us with this line:
“The National Secular Society works towards a society in which all citizens, regardless of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, can live together fairly and cohesively. We campaign for a secular democracy with a separation of religion and state, where everyone’s Human Rights are respected equally.”
– Now – as a secular humanist – I interpret the above as a declaration of the principle that all are to be considered equal, regardless of belief. A post-Enlightenment World has no fairer way to organise a system, than one that privileges none, and protects all equally. Thomas Jefferson once noted that the our civil rights & civil society have no more dependence on our religious beliefs, as our opinions in geometry. The NSS reaffirms that understanding. But that’s not how Reverend John Whittaker interprets the work of the NSS. Reverend Whittaker –
having a tantrum writing for The Hinckley Times – is convinced that a state that offers no special privileges to his particular religion, and does not allow religion to creep back into the institutions of state, can only be imagined as a terrible apocalyptic state in which no one gives to charity, and the sex trafficking industry is left unopposed. It’s an odd link to make, but let’s humour him. In response to the National Secular Society’s campaign to prevent council meetings opening with prayers – because council meetings aren’t churches – Whittaker said:
“And just in case anyone wants to make a point that religion has no place in public life, lets recall some of the facts of how faith interacts with and contributes to the common good in this country.”
– Are you ready for the “facts of how faith interacts….“. Facts, according to Whittaker:
“If religion were to hide in a corner as per the secularist’s fantasy world, 1.4 million Christian volunteers would drop out of community based work (that’s over and above the work to support the life of church communities and look after the largest number of listed buildings in the country). Foodbanks would cease, Street Pastors, with their sober, caring presence in so many of our city and town centres late at night would evaporate away. Mums and toddlers groups, homeless projects, work with ex-offenders, women in the sex industry, asylum seekers, vulnerable children, addicts and those who self-harm would all see a dropping away of sustained, tangible support. Air brush Christianity out of public engagement and around 114 million volunteer hours would need to be found to maintain the community work done by churches worth about £2.4 billion a year in addition to the use of buildings and direct financial contributions.”
– That’s right! If the state does not grant special privileges to Whittaker’s religion in turning secular council meetings into a Church service, charities will collapse, foodbanks will collapse, people would starve, work with vulnerable children and addicts would cease to exist, the homeless would be left to starve in the street, and the country would lose billions of pounds. It’s an odd charge, because those same council meetings also do not begin with Islamic prayers, or Hindu prayers, or any other prayers or dedications to a particular God, and yet, believers in those faiths still manage to give to charity and help the most vulnerable. Council meetings work fine without prayers from every other faith, it is simply bizarre to expect the World to stop turning if Christians are brought down to the same level as the rest of us in state affairs.
Secondly, it is probably worth noting that secularists do not want “religion to hide in the corner“, in the same way that we don’t wish liberalism, or communism, or capitalism, or conservatism, to hide in a corner. All ideas are to be treated equally, with no constitutional state recognition of any single one above any others. This implies that no single idea, is to be hidden away in a corner. To do so, would of course be oppressive. The operation of state is to be open to all, on an equal level. Leveling the playing field, and privileging no religion is not the same as oppressing those who believe.
Thirdly, as far as I’m aware, the National Secular Society is not attempting to prevent Christians undertaking charity work in any way. The suggestion that opposing state privileges for religion, as being synonymous with preventing charitable work, is a massively false, fear-based, and manipulative strategy on the part of the Reverend. A council meeting is the representative discussion of work required within the community. That’s a community that represents all who live in it, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or belief. We do not offer special privileges to a single ethnicity, nor should we offer special privileges to a single religious belief.
And finally, the title of Whittaker’s piece – like the rest of it – is horribly misleading: “Not The Final Word: To pray or not to pray?” It’s like claiming oppression because a library wont allow you to play the drums. The right to pray and to believe according to one’s own conscience is not under threat by ensuring that a council meeting is not religious in nature. If Councillors wish to pray, they have every right to go to Church prior to a council meeting, and pray. They can pray until they can’t physically pray any more. They can join hands and pray together. There is no “to pray or not to pray” dichotomy here. They have every right to pray. They do not have a right to enshrine their particular brand of God, into the institution of state. A council meeting itself is an institution of state, not an institution of religion.
It becomes clear that when religions lose their traditional privileges and power over the lives of others, they tend to lash out in the most absurd ways. Reverend Whittaker has done just that with his bizarre apocalyptic portrait of a secular state he just doesn’t understand.