Prayer at City Hall

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

On Tuesday, I was contacted by a producer with Radio-Canada (the French division of CBC) for an interview. They were putting together a téléjournal (television news) piece about prayer in Winnipeg City Council meetings, and were hoping for comment from the Winnipeg Skeptics. I agreed to speak with them, and also attempted to put them in contact with Jeff Olsson of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba and Robert McGregor of the Winnipeg Secularists (who, I informed them, had put together a petition on precisely this subject).

Robert McGregor speaks to Catherine Dulude. Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Winnipeg City Council generally starts the day with a prayer—see, for example, the minutes from the City Council meeting on 25 April 2012. (The minutes of all City Council meetings can be found here.)

There were several points that I stressed in the interview, which I’ll summarize here.

First of all, while the Winnipeg Skeptics has no official position with regard to any particular religious claim (except for those that relate to science, such as creationism), the organisation is supportive of secular government over sectarian government.

It is true that Canada doesn’t have a constitutional separation of church and state; indeed, while we have no official religion, our head of state is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That said, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.

I have no problem with members of City Council praying privately. I would never ask a politician to “check their religion at the door”. But when religious observance is carried out by an elected body that is meant to represent the people, that religious observance is effectively being carried out on behalf of the people. Canada’s government is committed (nominally, at least) to multiculturalism and religious pluralism. It seems to me that, in such a nation, governmental entanglement with religious practice (such as prayer) should be minimized.

Even the most benign, vague, and seemingly inoffensive prayers can be divisive. A simple prayer to “God” may be offensive to a deist, who may not believe in an interventionist god, or to a Hindu, who may believe in many. Members of minority religious or cultural groups may see governmental prayer as another way in which they are marginalized.

As is to be expected, the five-minute discussion that I had with the journalist was cut down to a single soundbite—but one that accurately represented my position—while Robert McGregor was (appropriately) given a more extensive interview. I thought that the finished piece (which is a distinctly Manitoban combination of French and English) was very good, and you can view it here.

Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Less good was the online article summarizing the téléjournal piece, which identified me as the organiser of the Winnipeg Secularists and seemed generally convinced that Robert and I were the same person. This has since been corrected, but until about an hour ago still listed my name as “Greg”.

If you don’t read French, feel free to have Google translate the article for you. Alternatively, there is a similar article (bereft of any reference to yours truly) on CBC. The usual caveats against reading the comments section apply, of course.

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Prayer in Manitoba’s Public Schools: Here to learn, except when you’re not

Cross-posted from Subspecies

The Free Press (why do I read the paper?) is reporting that numerous schools in Manitoba still have students recite the Lord’s Prayer. This makes me especially sad as many of the schools listed are ones that myself or my brother have attended. I have no recollection of this, to be honest, with the exception of at J.A. Cuddy in Sanford. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t always been the case, but I’m sincerely confused because I attended Oak Bluff for a few years, and don’t ever remember doing it. Perhaps it blended so seamlessly into my expectations that I never thought it notable enough to remember.

In any case, everyone knows the entertainment in news stories comes from the comments. There are plenty of people spewing venom at this devious, atheist lawyer who is asking the schools to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are a few main themes for this objection:

Kids today are worse than they used to be! This is because they took prayer out of schools! Umm, I’m pretty sure the point of this article is that prayer is still in schools even though it’s not supposed to be. Most likely, you have a nostalgia bias, and remember things better than they were, and any real decline in good behaviour at school is due to other factors.
This country was built on Christian values! WTF, really? First of all, the argument from tradition is one of the worst fallacies. Second of all, this country has committed numerous atrocities based on those same Christian values. Xenophobia, racism and superiority lead to residential schools, Japanese internment camps, anti-Semitism, lack of women’s rights, etc. If those are the sort of values you think we should value and that Christianity promotes, you freaking suck, and Christianity sucks harder.
If you don’t like it, you should go to a country that doesn’t believe in God. Um no, first of all, a country cannot believe in God, only its people can. Furthermore, this particular country enforces the freedom of religious belief, INCLUDING atheism, agnosticism, and all other religions. There are very specific rules for how religion can enter public schools, and it is not allowed to be on school time. If you would prefer a country that does enforce such things, as pointed out by another commenter, I hear Iran is really nice for religious fundamentalism this type of year.
The Lord’s Prayer says nice things that all children should hear, regardless of their religion. First of all, no it doesn’t say anything that is worth saying. Talking about heaven on earth and being forgiven are explicitly Christian sentiments which are not universal. As for the bits about not doing or suffering from evil, isn’t that a given? Why do we need to teach our children, using religious doctrine, not to do evil? Do we need them to pray to an invisible man when someone has done wrong to them, or should we be encouraging them to actually do something about it?
“Who is Chris Tait? Who is he to dictate to others that they can’t pray in school? So schools are [sic] suppose to drop the Lord’s Prayer because some atheist lawyer says so?” No, schools are not supposed to use the Lord’s Prayer because our CHARTER says so. It is the law, the lawyer is reminding them of it!
“Heaven forbid, no pun intended, that the kids of today start their day being thankful, by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s not have them learn about empathy either. However, if a dissident from an obscure tribe wanted part of their ritual ackowledged or believes read that would be ok, right.” Honestly, I don’t read any part of being thankful in there. I hear praise to God, which is quite different than, golly gee whiz, I’m sure thankful I am a Canadian kid who has rights and laws protecting me like freedom of speech and education! Furthermore, the law is quite clear, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are not allowed to promote religion in school. True, we do teach kids about Native history (grade 6, I think) but I also distinctly remember learning about the Reformation during European History in grade 7. It’s okay to learn about such things for the purposes of knowledge. Just because we made bannock in grade 5 doesn’t mean that the school division is promoting being a Voyageur! There is a difference between knowledge and promotion.
If we don’t allow God in our schools, where will he be when things go wrong? We do not need God to deal with our problems. We deal with problems. If someone is about to be raped, are you going to stand there and let God intervene, or are you going to call the cops?
A Christian agenda teaches love and forgiveness! No, a Christian agenda is a Christian agenda, and as such you cannot teach it in public schools. What is so difficult about this? Can someone seriously argue with me that you cannot teach someone what love is without talking about God? That it is impossible to forgive someone for a wrong without them pleading their case before a man in the sky first? Seriously?
Why don’t people deal with more important issues? This is irrelevant! While it may be true that there are serious issues that require attention, that doesn’t negate the fact that the law is being broken. Should we ignore drunk drivers because there’s a serial rapist? Should all the police in the city work in the North End, because it has some major crime issues, and ignore the rest? Just because X is not as popular as Y doesn’t mean it deserves to be ignored. A similar issue is happening in research. A lot of women get breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need money for Parkinson’s Disease or Huntington’s.
This is an atheist deception! What? How? What? Saying atheists are deceiving you, and then listing a bunch of bad things that happen (including in schools that have 100% compliance with the prayer!) is not an argument, it’s a non sequitir.
Children in schools have to hear pro-choice, pro-homosexuality and pro-evoution lectures! This is infringing on our religious freedoms just as much!! No, the charter guarantees that everyone will be treated equally and fairly. Imposing your religious beliefs on everyone is very different than being provided with information that disagrees with your bigoted religious beliefs. The Charter does not protect your right to be an asshole.

Sorry, WFP commenters. If fallacies and false equivalences are all you’ve got for me, I remain unconvinced. Kids go to school to learn information and to learn how to think critically. They spend all day saying, here kids, figure this out! Then they say, okay, now shut off your minds, and talk out loud to a man in the sky. It’s not learning, it’s brainwashing. Don’t get me wrong, if it’s your kid, that’s your own choice, but if you want to brainwash for Jesus, there are plenty of schools that are more than willing to oblige you.