Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Religion and Politics

There is a double standard about politics and religion, seen quite frequently. When the state enacts laws which infringe on a religious group’s ability to do what they want, there are often charges that the state is interfering in religious matters. When a religion makes comments on political matters, even going so far as to tell their members they should vote a certain way, separation of church and state immediately becomes a non-issue for those religions. This is clear cut hypocrisy. Either the state and religion are separate or they are not.

A religious organisation or a person functioning in a religious role, whether official or unofficial, has no business making any suggestions to their members about political matters, and certainly should not be applying any kind of pressure to their members to have them support or not support a particular political issue. Telling their members they will be punished by their god for supporting abortion, for instance, as was done in Canada not so long ago, is a gross interference in the right of the state to govern and a blunt and clumsy attempt to make the state subject to religion. Wars have been fought over this issue in the past, and religion lost. The state is the supreme lawgiver in a democracy, not a religious group.

Since church and state should be separate, there should never be any need for a religious organisation to make representation to the state or to politicians except, perhaps, in the area of religious liberty or discrimination. Religions are made up of individuals and those individuals who are voters are quite capable of representing the views of the faith on any issue without any prompting from their leaders. If they choose not to press a particular viewpoint, even one that the religious organisation believes is important, that is their right as individuals. In any case, the representation of particular viewpoints will reflect the actual views of citizens and not the dogma of particular religious organisations. I stress that organisations do not have human rights and cannot be citizens. Only people, humans, have human rights and, for that reason, only people may participate in elections and vote and only people may express opinions.

Due to the historical involvement of religious influence in government, both overt and covert, many residual aspects remain. Some are innocuous, some are serious and some are just a plain irritation. In the last category is the prayer said in many parliaments at the start of each day’s proceedings. This is a holdover from a time when society held the opinion that legislators worked on god’s behalf and needed guidance. That opinion is no longer the dominant viewpoint. Legislators now work to provide a better society for citizens based on what they consider is best for society as a whole. Prayers are not needed to do that, and it is disrespectful to those who have no faith to daily ask for help from an entity whom they believe does not exist. Religion has no place in a secular government and the prayers should cease. It might also be noted that asking a daily blessing unconsciously implies that the political assembly is subordinate to faith, for why ask god to help otherwise? If individual legislators feel the need to pray, then they should do so in private and not in an environment in which they are representing the whole population, including numerous atheists, agnostics and others who reject faith as a basis for government decisions.

Attempts to involve politicians from all points on the political spectrum in religious activities are extremely frequent. Some politicians participate because of personal beliefs, of course, but others participate out of a desire not to offend their constituents or as a way of being involved in constituency activities. In the public sphere this should change. Certainly, a politician is entitled to practice a religion if they want, but it should not form part of their political life’s duties. Religious beliefs are a private, personal matter. It is as inappropriate for a politician to stand up and pray when acting as a people’s representative as it would be for a constituent to insist that the politician may not attend a private church service. The two should not overlap.

For that reason, I find the practice of opening the BC legislature each day with a prayer to be deplorable, even if it is non sectarian. Praying is a religious practice and has no place in public life. The only exception would be at a state funeral, when it would be appropriate for prayers of the kind used in the religious denomination followed by the deceased to be said, but even then they should be restricted to memorialising the deceased and not request improvements to the welfare of the country, or to changing its laws.

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