Jim Sillars: Let us pray, even if we no longer believe

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My cards on the table. I am an agnostic – I have no proof that there is no God, just as religions can offer no proof there is one. Their belief is a matter of faith. I have none.

For all practical purposes, I am an atheist; and as such it would seem an obvious supporter of the National Secular Society’s efforts to bring to Scotland, through our courts, a ban on Christian or any other religious prayers in our council chambers, as has happened in England.

I am, however, at one with Councillor Ewan Aitken, a Christian minister, in defending the right of councils to engage in a prayer as a formal part of a full council meeting. I have taken part in many occasions where Christian prayers were said, including the House of Commons, where I had the manners to stand and not sit as do some non-believer MPs today, and worked in an Arab company where prayers were said wherever my Muslim colleagues could find space to lay down a prayer mat. I wasn’t even upset when a close Muslim friend told me that, as a non-believer, I was bound for hell. Hell as described in the Koran really is the worst version you could imagine.

I have never felt embarrassed or felt my human rights abused by being present when Christians prayed, as the atheist complainant in England asserted in his case. Words of prayer have no meaning for me, but are important to those who find guidance, comfort and inspiration from them. Recently, I was the speaker at two Rotary Club meetings, where a prayer was said at the start. I felt no need to ask my hosts to excuse me from that part of the meeting. I was in a Christian setting, and it fell to me to respect the beliefs of those around me. It would have been crass to have, at any point, injected my atheist views as a counter-point to the acts of worship.

While it is true that today’s Christian churches are no longer inhabited by a majority of people, as in my father’s time, there does exist a vibrant Christian community, and a larger passive one who, in times of personal or national trouble, turn to their respective denominations for help and assurance. Just look at the higher, although temporary, church attendances after 9/11 and the London bombings for proof of that.

The last census showed 65 per cent of Scots registering as Christian, and most people still think this is a Christian country. They will be, in a real sense, correct, because it is our Christian past that created the ethical and moral standards by which we all continue to live. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, with its emphasis on love and compassion against the savagery of an eye for an eye, and its condemnation of resolving issues by force, remains a guidance to the community at large, and to this atheist. Christian belief is the source from which our common law and sense of what is just was drawn; we all share its cultural heritage of magnificent music, spellbinding art, and inspiring architecture.

It is, of course, easy to attack organised Protestant and Catholic religions, whose history is marked by the stench of burnt flesh and rivers of martyrs’ blood. To circumvent Christ’s admonition to turn the other cheek, theologians had to invent the Just War, so that killing on a grand scale could continue throughout the centuries AD. The most dangerous people on earth are those who believe they are acting as God’s agents, able to commit the most appalling atrocities in His name.

Yet, for all its bloody history, its contradictions of conduct opposed to founding ideals, that high ethical and moral message of the sermon has prevailed as the norm by which all of us, including atheists, judge our society. We live still in a milieu infused with Christian ideas and ideals, and we surely owe it to those of that faith, to respect their desire to adhere to the traditions that go along with it.

Of course it’s true you don’t need to be a believer in a God to be a good person. But for us all, atheists included, our moral compass has been set by our country’s history, and that history is dominated by Christian ethical standards. This isn’t a matter of atheists tolerating Christians, as though the latter‘s belief is a matter for mockery. It is a matter of respect for those whose conduct in this age seeks the public good by reference to the ideals of Christ’s sermon. Both the tradition and meaning of prayers before a council meeting matter to Christians, so let them pray unmolested by the law and militant atheism. I do have differences with our churches on issues, but not on their right to pray.

Militant atheism needs a bit of humility given its own bloody history, when its chief proponent murdered millions. His name was Joe Stalin, destroyer of churches, and the place was the Soviet Union.