Martin Hannan: You’re praying a losing game

One of the more lasting traditions of public life in this city is the long- standing practice of inviting a cleric from a variety of religions, or sometimes a humanist, to address the city council at the start of its meetings.

The idea is that the minister, priest or whoever gives a few thoughts of his or her own, usually but not always inspired by a religious text, upon which the councillors can reflect.

It will not surprise you to learn that it is not always the best attended part of the meeting, not least because the cleric invariably calls upon God to bless the people of Edinburgh and impart wisdom to their civic leaders. Councillors do not like to be reminded that they are not the fount of all knowledge, while there are some who genuinely hold agnostic or atheist views.

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The point is that no-one is ever compelled to attend this part of the proceedings, but many councillors do, not least at meetings involving budgets or other thorny issues. Being Christians, some councillors seek divine intervention because that is just about the only thing left to get them out of the mess they land themselves in.

Certainly, it would need the combined wisdom of every God of every religion there has ever been to get Edinburgh City Council out of the many predicaments presently facing it. Indeed, there are times when I actually feel sorry for councillors, at least those who weren’t responsible for the trams fiasco. I wouldn’t quite do a Clarkson and have that lot shot, but I’m sure the good citizens of Edinburgh would love to see the tram proponents spend a couple of hours in medieval stocks in the High Street with a plentiful supply of rotten fruit and veg to hand.

Prayers, reflections, thoughts of the day or whatever they are called are supposed to be moments when politicians are asked to consider the greater purpose of what they do. The fact that too many politicians are amoral self-serving chancers is evidence that such prayers are perhaps not efficacious.

But the holding of prayers is a democratic thing – councils can and do vote to discontinue the practice, as Gloucestershire County Council recently did.

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Yet the National Secular Society is backing the court case brought by a former councillor in Bideford who wants prayers banned by law because his “human rights” were breached by his council who insisted on having prayers.

The Secular Society says on its website that it believes “supernaturalism is based upon ignorance and assails it as the historic enemy of progress”. So now it is turning to the law to ban council prayers – how progressive is that?

Fair enough, they are entitled to their view, but I fear the secular taliban will not cease until they have driven religion from all public life. No doubt they will be offended by me calling them taliban, but isn’t the eradication of the opposing point of view exactly what the Taliban do?

In the case of Britain’s secular taliban, the attacks on religion also target faith schools while, like the Bideford councillor, they constantly deploy the human rights argument to argue that somehow their freedom to be agnostic or atheist is under threat.

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What completely fatuous nonsense – no-one’s freedom of conscience is impinged upon by the presence of religion in British public life because no-one is forced to comply, no-one is dragged into council or parliamentary prayers, and no parent is compelled to send their child to a faith school.

Banning religion, which is what the secularists really want though they always deny it in mealy-mouthed fashion, is explicitly against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which also guarantees the right to faith schools. Check it out online at Articles 18 and 26 (3) are well worth reading.

Religion, like atheism or secularism, in this country is still a matter of choice. That is why the unholy bedfellows who are against gays being allowed the right to marry are missing the point – in the Scottish Government’s proposals, no church will be compelled to carry out marriage of gay people.

Their opposition to gay marriage, to be blunt, is based on the usual virulent homophobia that permeates the upper echelons of certain religions in this country. And while I’m at it, the Catholic Church in particular has no moral authority in this country while it continues to shelter abusers of children.

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That horrendous denial of Christ’s commandments by God’s supposed anointed and widespread religious homophobia are two of many reasons why religion and its practitioners are far from perfect, but you do not have to be a religionist to see that denying its place in public life is to ignore the history and traditions of this country.

Again, I make the point – the holding of prayers is a democratic choice and no-one has to take part or listen to anything any cleric ever says.

But if prayers are silenced simply by legal decree, then one more element of freedom in this country will be eroded. Indeed, democracy itself will be defeated.

That is why I say parliaments and councils should continue to have the right to hear prayers, as long as the majority of members agree. God knows, we know, our politicians need every bit of help they can get.