A response to a Christian’s misunderstanding about MLQ v Saguenay

Caleb, a grade 8 student from Brooks, Alberta, left a comment on the post about the Supreme Court ruling against opening municipal council meetings with a prayer. He asks why prayer “offends” atheists.

Caleb is asking the wrong question, of course, but it’s probably the same question a lot of Christians are asking following the ruling. I decided this would be a good opportunity to clear the air on what the ruling was really about, and what it means for Canadian atheists and Christians.

What follows is Caleb’s comment, followed by my response.

I’m responding to your blog entry, to present another perspective on the value of prayer before council meetings in Canada. As a grade 8 student in Brooks Alberta I attend a faith based school, and I think that if Atheists do not believe in prayer then prayer should not offend them. I don’t actually think that when religious people pray before council meetings, it doesn’t literally offend any Atheists who are attending the meeting. But if that truly is the case, it makes absolutely no sense that someone who believes prayer between a human being and God or a god would

Canadian heritage comes from religion, not just from the first Europeans to settle in Canada, but also the First Nations! Because Atheists don’t believe in the Christian God and are offended by Christian prayer then they must be offended by any religious prayer…

If any Atheist wants to tell me why prayer offends you, it would be great to know. Because I have a very hard time understanding why something like prayer offends you if you don’t believe that prayer doesn’t have an effect either way.

I’m afraid you have misunderstood why atheists object to prayer before council meetings. It has nothing to do with being “offended” by prayer.

Our argument is quite simple. Canada is a diverse, multicultural country. It is not a Christian country. A third of Canadians reject Christianity, as the last “census” shows.

When the Canadian government – at any level – does its business, it should not give any signs of favouritism to any group: not to Christians, not to Europeans, not to Anglophones, not to white people, not to men. It should try to represent all Canadians.

The moment a representative of the Canadian government stands up in their official capacity and starts saying a Christian prayer, they have failed to fairly represent all Canadians. They have failed to fairly represent Muslims. They have failed to fairly represent Sikhs. They have failed to fairly represent atheists. And that’s plain wrong.

For a representative of Canadian government to stand up in their official capacity and promote Christianity over other faiths (or no faith) is no different than if they stood up in their official capacity and promoted white people over people of colour, Europeans over Aboriginals, or cis males over all other genders. It is unnecessary, it is exclusionary, and it is wrong.

I am not “offended by prayer”. I don’t care if you pray or not. In fact, if someone tried to tell you that you couldn’t pray in private, I would fight for your right to do it.

But I am offended when a government that is supposed to represent all Canadians decides to pick and choose which Canadians are more worthy of representation than others. I am offended when a government representative says one subgroup of Canadians – whether it’s men, white people, Anglophones, Europeans, or Christians – is “special” over and above others, and gives them special privileges. All Canadians are equal in my idea of what Canada stands for. I am disappointed that is not also true in yours.

Arguing that Canada has a “Christian heritage” is very unwise. It requires a very selective memory of the history of Canada – one that conveniently forgets that the First Nations were here first (hence the name), and that the reason Christianity is so popular among them these days is due to brutality and acts of genocide committed by Christians in the very recent past. Forcing Christianity on people may be our heritage, but I’m not sure it’s something we should be proud of, or trying to continue.

Arguing that government prayer is “traditional” in Canada is also very unwise. It was also traditional for MLAs to swear on the Christian Bible when taking the oath – in 1807 a Jewish man named Ezekiel Hart was elected, but he insisted on swearing in on the Jewish Bible, and ended up expelled. In fact, antisemitism in general is a Canadian tradition – did you know that we wouldn’t even allow Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust into Canada? Racism is a Canadian tradition, too – just ask the Japanese who were victimized by laws that prevented them from working, then finally rounded up, stripped of everything they owned (including their citizenship), and thrown into internment camps. Misogyny is also a Canadian tradition – just like the council prayer case, it took a Supreme Court case to recognize women as equal “persons” in Canada. Canada is a better country now because we have cast aside traditions that are bigoted, exclusionary, and unnecessary. Casting aside the tradition of government prayer is just the latest bit of progress.

And finally, arguing that Canada is a “Christian country” because Christians are (currently) the majority – and thus, they should be able to make the rules – is very unwise. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but the future does not look all that bright for Christianity, demographically speaking. Insisting that might makes right may be working for you now… but it won’t work in the future. The smart thing to do is to insist that everyone should be treated fairly and equally, regardless of religion. That may mean giving up a bit of undeserved privilege today… but when Christianity becomes a minority religion, you’ll be thankful for it.

There is no reason that councillors or council meeting attendees who are Christian can’t pray at home before they come to the meeting, or in the car just outside. The same is true for people of other faiths. There is no reason that anyone has to be forced to sit through prayers by other religions.

The only purpose for making Christian prayers part of council meetings is to stick it to everyone who isn’t Christian, and remind them that Christianity holds more power. That’s not only unfair, it’s un-Christian. I know the Bible quite well, you see, and I seem to recall Jesus himself saying something like this:

Matthew 6:5–6 (KJV)
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

But I shouldn’t have to quote Jesus at you. You should be smart enough to understand that bullying others into observing your religion just because you are the majority is wrong. All it takes is a little bit of empathy and understanding, to see things from the perspective of people different from you.

I think the question you should be asking isn’t about what “offends” atheists. I think the question you should be asking is why you are not offended that your religion is being used as a club to beat minority groups down. Why are you not offended that there are people who want to use their positions of power in the government as a bully pulpit to force everyone to acknowledge Christianity? Why are you not offended to see people being forced to pay lip service to your religion just so they can do business with their municipal government? Isn’t that embarrassing? Do you feel proud as a Christian to see people forced to sit through your prayers even when they don’t share your faith, just so they can talk to the mayor about zoning laws? Doesn’t that bother you?

Surely you wouldn’t like it if your Member of Parliament forced you to say “hail, Satan” or sit through a prayer to Allah just to present them with a petition for lower taxes. So why is it wrong for them to force their faith on you, but not on me? Do you believe that anyone who isn’t Christian just… doesn’t matter all that much?

I’m going to assume you’re a good person, and that you would never force your religion on someone else at gunpoint. But I have to ask: If you understand that using the power of a gun to force your religion on others is wrong… why would you think using the power of government to do the same is okay? Why would you support the politicians that abuse your faith this way?

Why aren’t you offended that we had to go to court to get treated fairly by our own government?

This is not just about Christianity. I don’t think any representative of government should be able to force any religious beliefs or practices on anyone. It doesn’t matter to me whether they want to force me to take part in a Christian prayer, or a Sikh prayer, or a Scientology auditing session. It would even be wrong if they tried to force everyone to listen to a speech about why God doesn’t exist. None of that belongs in government. Canadian government must represent all Canadians… not just Canadians with certain religious beliefs.

You have probably been told all your life by your faith leaders and Christian writers in general that atheists are “angry” people who hate Christianity – either because it “hurt” us in the past, or just because we want to sin and don’t like Christians telling us we can’t. You have probably been told we get emotionally upset when we see people praying, or preaching, or otherwise showing signs of their faith – that it bothers us because it makes us feel guilty for shunning the secret faith we have inside us. You have probably been told that we have some kind of “agenda” to force Christianity underground, so believers would have to practice in secret for fear of persecution.

There is probably no way I can shake you of these silly and bigoted notions in a single essay. Nevertheless, the simple reality is that all atheists want is to be treated fairly and equally before the Canadian government, and under Canadian law. That’s all we’ve ever wanted. We’re Canadians, too. Why should we be treated like second-class citizens just because we don’t worship the “right” god?

Nothing about the ruling against prayer in government meetings prevents you from being a Christian, or from practising your faith. If it did, I wouldn’t support it – I would defend your faith, even though I don’t share it. The only thing it prevents is using the government to force others to acknowledge your faith. Does that seem so bad? Do you really need the government to force people to take part in Christian prayer? Are you really that insecure about your faith?

You shouldn’t be. You have the right as a Canadian to practice what you believe, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others. And you have the right to not have other people’s faith forced on you. You have the right to be treated as a citizen of Canada, equal to all Canadians before law and government – regardless of what your faith is. And if anyone tries to take those rights away from you, you will find atheists standing by your side, as allies, to fight for those rights.

All we atheists want – all we’ve ever wanted – are the same rights.

We are not asking to be treated equally because we are “offended” by praying. We are asking to be treated equally because we want to be treated equally. Nothing more. And certainly nothing less.

7 thoughts on “A response to a Christian’s misunderstanding about MLQ v Saguenay

  1. Well stated.

    I disagree with one part

    “I’m going to assume you’re a good person, and that you would never force your religion on someone else at gunpoint. But I have to ask: If you understand that using the power of a gun to force your religion on others is wrong… why would you think using the power of government to do the same is okay? Why would you support the politicians that abuse your faith this way?”

    Think ISIS, if the christians had the same power they
    would use guns and fire and whips and swords and the rack.

    There is no limit to the violence one group will use
    against another when they have the upper hand.

    His namesake in the middle east might be doing a photo op with a severed head as I write this.

    History tells us we are pityless monsters. There is no such thing as a good person, only when people are constrained by a social structure do they become good.

  2. A great response. I suppose the kid should also answer why he seems offended by people not wanting to pray.
    He writes, “Canadian heritage comes from religion, not just from the first Europeans to settle in Canada, but also the First Nations! Because Atheists don’t believe in the Christian God and are offended by Christian prayer then they must be offended by any religious prayer…” It is a very common tactic for advocates of Christian privilege to appeal to global religious rights, even those whose rights have been trampled by Christian privilege.

    Canadian Christians have been so offended by First Nations religion that many F. N. practices were outlawed, and kids forcefully taken from their parents to be “civilized” and “Christianized”.

    • Yeah, I was a little surprised and baffled by the way he brought up the First Nations. It’s not like they’ve been treated well by Christianity.

      It’s not exactly a new thing for Christians to “claim” groups that they tortured and dehumanized in the past, and forced Christianity on. But in this case we’re talking *very* recent history that’s still a hot topic of controversy. It struck me as more than just a little tone deaf to mention them in an argument about how the government forcing Christianity on people is a good thing.

  3. I think there is a major equivocation in a lot of peoples thinking regarding religion in general or abstract and a particular religion. People tend to associate their own tradition with “normative” religion.
    Here in Southern Alberta there is a big issue over a school in Taber reintroducing the Lord’s prayer for the upcoming semester. A lot of controversy of late. Two pro-prayer letters in the Lethbridge paper this morning, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/nvtpqcc and see the Taber Times for a letter from one of the parents involved in trying to stop the prayer: http://www.tabertimes.com/editorial/2015/05/27/reader-appalled-by-hsd-lords-prayer-decision/

    • I read both of those letters you linked, and I was struck by some of the differences between them.

      The first letter, by Gerty Heinen, never really makes much in the way of argument. All it does is whine about not getting her way, despite being in the majority, then claim she’s being bullied (which is ridiculous).

      The second letter by Audrey Swap, on the other hand, starts by making the obvious point that no one is losing their right to pray, touches on why rights should not be up for a vote, paints a picture of how the official prayer affects children, and finally wraps up by describing a reasonable solution for those who *really* want to pray at school (which is basically “go ahead and do it, just so long as it’s not part of the official routine”).

      There were a pair of quotes that really leaped out at me. The first was Heinen saying:

      > Are we no longer a society where the majority rules?

      Most of her letter is pretty empty on meaningful content; it’s just a string of rhetorical flag-waving and attempts to appeal to emotion. But when I read this line, I got a headache. How can anyone be so narrow-minded, short-sighted, and stupid? We have *NEVER* been a society of mob rule. We have *ALWAYS* been a society based on rule of law – that’s right at the top of our goddamn Constitution for fuck’s sake!

      Swap points out the wrongness of that beautifully:

      > The other misapprehension is that rights guaranteed in Canada’s Bill of Rights are a votable issue.

      What *really* struck me about the pair of letters, though, was that Heinen doesn’t show the *least* bit of concern for the kids, or anyone else for that matter. She doesn’t even *mention* them. It’s all about the *parents* being bullied. And it’s all *only* about parents who think like her… she never once even comes *close* to showing any kind of empathy for her opponents or their position. It’s all “me, me, me, I’m in the majority and should get privileges for it”.

      By contrast, Swap spends an entire third of her letter trying to offer the perspective of a child who is being affected by the decision. But she *also* considers the *teachers* who have to carry out the policy. *And* she even offers advice to help people on the other side of the argument – those who want to pray at school. It’s a *remarkable* difference compared to the selfishness on display in Heinen’s letter.

  4. Subscribing.

  5. Having recently taken an old friend to the Stock Car Seasonal Opening and being asked o rise for a prayer and then the anthem, I recently had the usual Freethinker’s emotional experience: staring at all the bowed, bare heads.
    This was the first time I ever arrived early, for several years, so I had forgotten.
    As a secular activist, of sorts, I understand the impulse to forcefully impose things that are deemed important.
    In the not too distant future I envisage a world where supporting secular practices will be paramount for immigration and civil service employment. Naturally multicultural advocates, advocating religious autonomy, will feel oppressed.
    It is time to oppress, or at least ignore, some of our inherited cultural diversities.

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