‘Militant secularism’: Prayers were one of the few things I enjoyed about being a councillor

February 14, 2012 by
Filed under: Adam Lent 

The battle between faith and secularism in public life is hotting up.  Today Baroness Warsi has called for Christianity to play a bigger role.  And this follows the court victory by the National Secular Society which may force local councils to review whether they hold prayers before formal meetings.

I would not be suprised if there was a backlash against what Warsi calls “militant secularisation” simply because the New Atheist bunch led by Richard Dawkins were often so shallow and ill-informed in their criticism of what religion means to billions of people around the world that they may as well have written ‘straw man’ across their foreheads and begged to be knocked down.  There are many people who while not disagreeing with the New Atheists’ general trajectory find the approach grating and often obsessively self-promotional. 

I was particularly struck by the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ a few years back which aimed to counter the trend for evangelical posters on the sides of buses.  It was run by the British Humanist Association and had Dawkins’ financial backing. 

The slogan that this campaign plastered across double deckers was: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The phrase seems to capture for me the corroding banality risked by secularism in a world characterised by tough moral choices, suffering, and human frailty.  It is often said that the hardest philosophical question facing those who believe in God is: why is there evil and suffering in the world if God is good and loves humankind?  But I think the hardest question facing secularism is:  in what daily practice and in what values can I root my encounter with my own and other’s frailty and suffering if not religion.  In other words, whether you beieve in God or not, you would have to be wilfully ignorant or chauvinistic not to recognise that religion is of enormous value to very large numbers of people adding a profundity and meaning to their life that might otherwise be absent.  What has secularism got to put in the place of this produndity and meaning?  It surely can’t just be “stop worrying and enjoy yourself”, can it?

Which brings me back to council prayers.  I was a councillor for four years.  I can’t say I always enjoyed it.  It made me realise that I was by nature unsuited to elected office. One element I particularly disliked was full council meetings. These were supposed to be the highpoint of the council calendar – the very apotheosis of local democracy in action.  In fact, they were nothing of the sort.  The majority group had decided behind closed doors how every item was to be voted on and had created such a culture of conformity amongst its members that the outcome of every vote was absolutely clear.  Despite this there were plenty of lengthy speeches for and against each motion.  One budget-setting meeting lasted four and a half hours with nearly every one of the sixty-three councillors speaking despite the fact that the differences between the majority group’s proposal and the opposition’s was minisicule and everyone knew that the former would get through.

In short, these full council meetings struck me as theatrical events displaying all the ego, faux conflict and bombast one expects of dull and predictable melodrama.  By contrast, the prayers said at the beginning of each council meeting offered an opportunity, however short, to pause, step outside this world of human frailty and connect with something higher that lurks within all of us. 

I honestly don’t think ditching that opportunity will add anything of benefit to public life. In fact, if it replaces the possibility of contemplation and reflection with nothing more than a rapid, unthinking plunge into the theatre of everyday human life, it may stand as an accurate metaphor for the problems of secularism.


  • Jonathanrowson

    Hi Adam, interesting timing- I just posted this- similar argument from a very different angle: http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2012/socialbrain/read-belief/

    • Adam Lent

      Yes. In fact, the last three blog posts all share a similar theme.  Spirituality is clearly in the air!

  • Adwhiting

    “in what daily practice and in what values can I root my encounter with my own and other’s frailty and suffering if not religion”
    Human frailty is nothing to be baulked at – it is why life is so precious… and as for values, well they are clearly innate in us all otherwise we wouldn’t have even got so far as to conceive of a celestial dictator.

    I suggest basing yourself in reality, and valuing logic and reason above all.

    • Adam Lent

      I don’t believe in a “celestial dictator” and nor do many religious people (although a fair proportion do). As Karen Armstrong has shown, that notion of God is actually a post-Enlightenment concept that had more to with science than theology. This is the major mistake of the new atheists: the assumption that religious belief is always a factual assertion about the world rather than a set of practices, struggles and moral values.

  • David

    I want to help you change your mind. You have an incomplete picture of the human brain, and you’re not aware (or you choose to be ignorant) of the horrific damage that religion can do.
    I, like many others, believe that religion is fundamentally destructive to society itself. It needs to be torn down and *replaced* with mindfulness, philosophy, and a faith in science and humanity itself.

    “But I think the hardest question facing secularism is: in what daily practice and in what values can I root my encounter with my own and other’s frailty and suffering if not religion.” – this isn’t a hard question at all. Meaning and values can be found in understanding. The understanding of ourselves, each other, and the human condition itself.

    You seem to be implying that my perspective of reality is somehow “incomplete” in comparison to someone who is ‘spiritually fulfilled’.
    To those who have discovered spiritual enlightenment in the vast complexity of reality and consciousness – religion itself is empty, devoid of any true meaning, and is tainted by the past, and on-going, atrocities committed in the name of religion.

    I really hate to sound vindictive, but you shouldn’t be posting this rubbish on this blog. This is not ’21st century enlightenment’.

    I fully support the ban of prayer before council meetings.

    • Adam Lent

      I know perfectly well the damage religion does. But I also know that religious destruction is always intertwined in complex ways with national identity, economic class, culture, history, geo-politics and all sorts of personal ambitions and inclinations. To suggest that by removing religion the world would somehow be an automatically better place is absurdly simplistic.

      I think the fact you don’t find my question to secularism hard to answer reinforces my point about banality. How can knowing what practices and values to base your life on be easy?

      Your penultimate sentence is sadly characteristic of too much atheist thought, I’m afraid. You’re obviously unaware that the original Enlightenment had its roots buried deep in the learning and will to understand of religion and the religious impulse.

      • David

        Good response, counter-arguments as follows:

        “To suggest that by removing religion the world would somehow be an automatically better place is absurdly simplistic.”
        While civilisation and science work to bring the world together, religion segregates it. This is a fundamental flaw with religion, one that we need to fix.

        If there was only one “true” religion, this would be fine. But that isn’t the case, there’s many different conflicting religions, and you can’t expect them all to get along fine unless they all choose to abandon their complete faith and treat religious texts exactly how they should be treated. (the philosophical words of wise men, not of gods)

        “How can knowing what practices and values to base your life on be easy?” My morals and ethics aren’t as a result of  religion. They came from self-reflection, philosophy and a heightened understanding of the human condition itself. This is a deeper morality than what might be imposed by religion, because I find my own reasons.
        I should also note that religion itself is fundamentally philosophy. Like Buddhism, many of my own reasonings are contrived from Buddhism philosophy, yet I’d never actually consider myself to be a Buddhist, because it’s a religious label, which I believe to be damaging.

        “You’re obviously unaware that the original Enlightenment had its roots
        buried deep in the learning and will to understand of religion and the
        religious impulse.” – that isn’t true, I’m very aware of this.
        Religions were our first attempts at science and philosophy. They were works of metaphor and art – a linguistic expression, explanation and guide to the reality that we live in.
        Over the dark ages, many religions lost their way to corruption, and when that happened, reasonable/rational thinkers began to break away from religion itself.

        To see the good in religion, is to be ignorant of the bad.

  • Greg Engel

    Theists seem to espouse a monopolistic claim on faith and inspiration, which is wholly false.  One can have faith in and celebrate humanity, its relationship with nature and the cosmos, it’s upper spirit (not of the holy ghost variety) and potential; this is a humanist.  To demagogue atheists as spiritless curmudgeons is a gross mis-characterisation.  It’s either based on ignorance or deliberate mis-information.  I’ll let you take your pick.

    I would rather focus on and celebrate our humanness and humanity at its greatest, whilst also recognising our frailties and difficulties, than people tripping over differences that arise when one creates belief systems under the name of some omnipotent imaginary being.  The Church of England may be more enlightened in these matters, relatively speaking, but it’s still rooted in a lot of outmoded thinking.

    It’s time to start over, a faith/enlightenment 2.0, without the moralising imaginary being created by humans (almost without exception men – but that’s a topic for another day), and a mine is more correct than yours xenophobia (and then marching off to interfaith tolerance sessions singing Kumbayah).  Until then, do not ask or expect me to be subjected to what I consider, as a highly intelligent and compassionate individual, the airing of largely misinformed, outdated and exclusionary beliefs in government/public forums.

  • Anonymous

    I think what frustrates me about some atheists is that they label Christians as being unquestioning, closed-minded, often ignoring evidence, basing their beliefs purely on a book without anything in reality to back it up, never willing to change their views from the ones they currently hold, irrelevant of what experiences they encounter along the way.

    Then you come to the Healing on the Streets debate. Time and time again in recent weeks people have said “you can’t say that God can heal because there isn’t any evidence”. This is usually presumed, based on the views this individual currently holds, which may or may not have been tested and/or well informed. A Christian might then retort “but I know somebody who’d been living with [condition X], who’d had it for years, who received prayer and was healed there any then and haven’t relapsed”. The response though this is then often “you are clearly an idiot if you believe that. Clearly God is like the flying spaghetti monster and they weren’t ill in the first place or it was a psychological thing or they lied.” (Obviously this isn’t all atheists, but it’s not a rare occurrence).

    These people don’t seem to see the irony:
    1) They’ve formed an opinion without really investigating the claims in the first place (often preferring to test some other claims that are wrongly-presumed as being the beliefs of the people they criticise (as you allude to in your blog in the comment about the enlightenment transition)).
    2) When presented with a suggestion counter to that opinion, they instantly dismiss it without consideration, sometimes labelling the other individual as intellectually deficient.
    3) Rather than asking for evidence, they stick to their presumptions.
    4) If they do ask for evidence, they then dismiss the offered evidence without due consideration.

    I think this irony needs to be recognised, and that these particular atheists must see that just because SOME Christians might make the same mistakes, doesn’t mean that gives them reason to do it, and more importantly (for the benefit of their intellectual credentials) one would hope that they could see themselves falling into this way of thinking in the first place and steer out of it.

    And this is without mentioning the other irony of criticising the way some Christians unthinkingly accept ideas based solely on the Bible and what they were taught as a child, when 95% of people (I would expect, from experience) who believe in evolution (regardless, for this point, of whether it is actually reality) do so because they read it in a book and were taught it as a kid.

    My point isn’t about whether healing from God occurs or about whether evolution is real, my point is that the criticisms aimed at Christians about how they process and evaluate things could often easily be turned back on the atheist making these allegations.

    (Apologies for the size of this post!)

    • David

      So what you’re saying, is that there are idiots out there, and that religious beliefs have nothing to do with this.

      Or do they? There have been studies showing that the prevalence of atheism directly correlates to IQ.

      • Tim

        Where can I see results of these studies? Would be fascinating to see all the varying factors like class, education, culture etc. and how they influence these results! I have a reasonably high IQ but am not an atheist so what room is there in these results that allow that?