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