Replacing public prayers

For many of us the imposition of Christian prayers in public situations is a problem. I personally feel offended whenever this is imposed on me. In this day and age, and in this multicultural, ideologically diverse society, such offensive actions should not be tolerated. If we can refuse to tolerate smoking in public places (while still accepting it in the privacy of one’s own personal environment) why can’t we refuse to tolerate the imposition of public prayers.

This is an issue in our Parliament and for some local body councils. Therefore I was interested to see this report in Te Korowai Whakapono. This is the newsletter of the Interfaith Network which is facilitated by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

Affirmation to open council meetings

The Hurunui District Council has voted to do away with its prayer at the start of meetings. Council meetings always began with the CEO reading out the following prayer:

Eternal God,

We ask you to bless those present and grant through our discussions and decisions we may solve our problems effectively, and act with integrity

and courage to enhance the well being of our district.

Councillors voted 5-4 to do away with the prayer and replace it with a non-religious affirmation, followed by a period of silence for prayer or reflection by councillors. The decision followed a complaint by Cr Russell Black in October to the Human Rights Commission. He said he would withdraw his complaint to the Human Rights Commission if a “tolerant and respectful” solution could be found. Black said he had tolerated the prayer for several years out of respect but had felt uncomfortable. “We swear an oath at the start of our term and abide by it. We do not need to reinforce it monthly,” he said.

Cr Judy Meikle said she could “live with a pledge”, but it would be with regret. Cr Andrew Smart said he was saddened at the time taken to resolve the issue when there were pressing needs for district residents such as the drought. He sought a change of wording in the prayer but said he would support an affirmation. Cr Michael Malthus said he was a religious man but could live with an affirmation, provided there was a period of silence for him to give thanks to “whoever”. Cr Wendy Doody sought to retain the prayer.

It is all about toleration and respect.

And it is about time.

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Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
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10 responses to “Replacing public prayers

  1. I think that move is a positive thing.

    I have to take issue with the likening of prayer to smoking though.

    If we can refuse to tolerate smoking in public places (while still accepting it in the privacy of one’s own personal environment) why can’t we refuse to tolerate the imposition of public prayers.

    Are you serious? Smoking creates serious health risks to people’s physical/material lives whereas prayer merely provides an uncomfortable inconvenience for some. The two aren’t in the same ball park.


  2. I take your point about objection to smoking on health grounds being somewhat different. However, I do want to stress that for some (many?) of us this situation is much more than an “uncomfortable inconvenience.” I do actually feel offended by it – it’s probably the inherent assumption about my beliefs that the imposition implies. In a sense its a bit like a smoker assuming I am happy about her smoke, quite apart from the health issues.

    I’m quite happy to voluntary go into situations where religious ceremonies are performed. I enjoy Russian Orthodox chants. Verdi’s Requiem and Brahms German Requiem of amongst my favourite music. So it’s not the ceremony itself which offends me.

    For me, imposition shows complete lack of respect. Interestingly I have found Muslim acquaintances to be respectful when they leave the group to attend to their prayers and would be very happy if Christian acquaintances could do the same. Maybe they usually do. But in recent years I have has this situation imposed by an employer and by organisers of a school reunion – no choice was available to me and my emotional reaction was quite strong. It did feel like the same ball park as smoking to me.

    I always feel I should protest in these situations – but it’s not always possible (it seems easier to object to smokers). And, I am sure there are always better, more respectful, ways of providing inclusive ceremonies when they are required.


  3. This issues is always interesting.

    All kinds of levels of formality or informality, and all kinds of expectations and/or assumptions are involved with all kinds of ceremonies (gatherings, parties, reunions, dinners, etc.)…

    I truly do think that (for example) a Christian should not want to or seek to offend anyone by any means (by publicly praying or other means), but I still find the extreme language of ‘imposition’ to be too strong, Ken.

    I should hate to think that any event which has any kind of organisation to it would have to be burdened with the task of taking a survey as to the leanings of each person present to decide whether a prayer is appropriate or if a ‘non-religious affirmation’ or silence would be more appropriate… Gee whiz… 🙂 Many times, I suspect, ‘imposition’ has nothing to do with it – rather tradition. No one’s forcing you to agree with or say the prayer. Just don’t say ‘amen’. 🙂 Heck, I do this all the time when I don’t particularly agree with a prayer being given… 🙂

    Interesting to note that the early Christians under the Roman Empire (think Domitian and Nero) suffered ‘imposition’ in the real sense of the word – being forced to give allegiance to Caesar. I truly don’t mean to say that our contemporary concerns about public ceremonies and peoples feelings don’t matter at all (because I truly do think everything matters), but maybe a little perspective is always helpful? Perhaps, when a prayer is being ‘imposed’ on you, Ken, you could just think of those early Christians (themselves called ‘atheists’ for denying the reality of the Greek pantheon of ‘gods’), and say to yourself, “Well, at least I’m not being fed to the lions for not saying ‘Amen.'”




  4. Dale, you find the “imposition” too strong. But as the one being imposed on I find it appropriate – it all depends on one’s perspective. These incidents initiate very strong feelings for me. I think if we want to promote understanding and respect we have to listen to victim in these cases. Otherwise we remove all possibility of being respectful. And it is disrespectful to expect victims to clench their teeth and bear it – to say “at least I’m not being fed to the lions.” Its a refusal to recognise the possibility of different beliefs.

    I disagree – these issues are not burdensome. Obviously group ceremonies are appropriate within the group. Outside the group it is only respectful to recognise that they are inappropriate and act accordingly (even if the the “group” feels it is in a majority)- as the Hurunui District Council seems to have done.

    Let’s face it – it’s only recently that smokers have become aware of their causing offense. For them it was a matter of tradition rather than imposition.

    I agree that many (if not most) Christians do not want to offend. I think they recognise that many people don’t accept their beliefs and traditions. That is respectful. And this is probably why this problem is not as common as it once was. However, I think there are some (perhaps a minority) who feel they have the right to impose and do not recognise the rights of others. I have heard it justified as them having the right to “tell us the good news” – to proselytize.

    I can’t respect that.


  5. I hear ya, Ken, but I think being respectful is hard work – it’s not so simple…

    Let me try a question (which will hopefully at least hint at the complexity of the issue).

    What do you think it is that specifically initiates ‘very strong feelings’ in you? Is it because you feel judged, singled out, or ignored?

    A further question:
    Surely the following prayer examples would create different feelings for you, right?
    1. “God, we thank you for this food, for those who have prepared it and for this chance to enjoy eachother’s fellowship and friendship.”
    2. “Lord, thank you for helping us pass ‘xyz’ law(s), which will help this nation be better…” etc.
    3. “Jesus, thank you that we know you and please help any here that don’t know you to come to know you…” etc.



  6. “What do you think it is that specifically initiates ‘very strong feelings’ in you? Is it because you feel judged, singled out, or ignored?” None of these. As I have said before “it’s probably the inherent assumption about my beliefs that the imposition implies.” The assumption causes the offense.

    Imagine being in a group where the MC assumes we were all communists and proposed a toast to Lenin; assumes we were Maoists and proposes a toast to Mao; assumes we were all Nazis and proposed a toast to Hitler; assumes we were all members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and gave a prayer to the FSM. It is the assumption about me which offends me – even though I may have the choice of not participating in the toast or prayer itself.

    That’s not hard work. I am constantly aware when in groups that others don’t necessarily share my views and I never assume that they do – nor do I impose my own views or ceremonies on them. That aspect of respect is surely not hard work.

    Basically the three choices provoke the same reaction about assumption of my beliefs. However, with No. 1 I think we can all agree to thank the cook, hosts, and suppliers of the food. With No. 2 it is good manners to thank the lawmakers and petitioners for their part in making the laws possible. (Often these prayers do ignore the people who are really responsible and should really be thanked). We don’t, in any of these have to impose an assumption (except about good manners)- enabling us to toast Lenin for making the political struggle possible or the FSM for anything.


  7. I don’t see what you mean about the ‘assumption’ of your beliefs.

    The leader or person praying probably isn’t assuming anything about any one specific person. That’s the way group activities work. Not every-one is going to like every-thing that is done. But we learn to cope with others that aren’t like us, and we learn (to give an example common with my church involvement) to cope with a church service that has bits you don’t enjoy or agree with – for example going to another church service from a different denomination where they do things such as ‘speaking in tongues’. I disagree with their view about ‘tongues’, but they are not imposing that on me.

    Similarly, a prayer thanking God and the preparers for the food will not be ideal for you, but you can at least -for example- join everyone in thanking the preparers…

    To be sure, I do think there are times where it is most respectful and right to sometimes not pray. But I still see the language of ‘imposition’ too strong…

    There’s a tension here, and I’ll use yet another illustration to explain: Public school lunch…

    a) To require all students to pray for their meals at lunch time would, I think, be to ‘impose’ prayer upon the students. This is not on.
    b) To require a student to leave the lunch-room in order to bless their food would be a different kind of ‘imposition’…

    You might say that in a), there is leadership (namely, leading the prayer) from the ‘front’, and that b) is better because there is no leadership; but actually there IS leadership in b), (namely leading the students to not give thanks for their meals in the same room as others)…

    And, of course, there are examples of this kind of thing where non-theists have been singled-out and ostercised, but that’s why I say it’s not an easy thing to do…

    Gotta run,



  8. I think the problem here, Dale, is one of different perspectives. You can’t appreciate my feelings because you are not in my position. A common problem – we have seen that with men who could not appreciate women’s feelings about their second-class status or Pakeha who don’t understand the feeling Maori have about the loss of their land. It’s sometimes hard to put ourselves in other’s shoes.

    However, from my perspective things are pretty clear. I have no interest in violating the rights of others – I just want others to respect my rights. In the vast majority of cases this happens for me – I had only one case at work, despite many of my colleagues being Christian. I imagine my Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist friends were also offended by that situation (and it was never repeated).

    All it takes is a respectful attitude.

    I would hope with children that this respect is encouraged. (I know it’s not always). In our multicultural, pluralistic society it’s important to promote respect and understanding at an early age.


  9. I’m going to ignore your equating me not ‘appreciating your feelings’ to sexism or racism… 🙂 By the way, though, it is possible for me to appreciate/recognise your feelings, while disagree on a point or two… 🙂

    “I have no interest in violating the rights of others – I just want others to respect my rights.”

    If we all lived individual lives completely disconnected from others, our individual rights would never be in danger. But, of course, we live overlapping lives, and we work at it. It’s hard…

    Two points:
    1. The idea of ‘individual human rights’ is one I value greatly, while realising that this idea (ideal?) only goes so far in terms of practical, every-day outworking. All I simply mean here is that all-too-often, one persons’ ‘rights’ conflict with another’s (i.e. – my right to smoke any where I durn-well please conflicts another’s right to breathe smoke-free air, etc.)… The language of ‘rights’ is not always helpfully used…

    2. We’re not really only talking about ‘rights’ and ‘feelings’; but also about public/group/social dynamics; i.e. – what kind of events is prayer appropriate at? Where do the rights of the individual end and the respect of others begin?

    Again, I think Christians are often showy, rude or inconsiderate of who is around when they choose to pray (or how to pray), but my general point is that it’s not a simple matter of ‘getting rid of prayer’…



  10. No one is proposing ‘getting rid of prayer.’ Far from it.

    And, I repeat it is simple. If my Muslim friends can respect me by not imposing their prayers on me (and I also experienced that respect from Muslims in a predominantly Muslim community in Malaysia too), then surely Christian friends and acquaintances can too.

    Sorry if you interpreted my comments as equating your attitudes to racism and sexism. My point was solely to communicate how people on different sides of a discrimination can see things differently – and to stress how important my perspective is to me.

    I agree that this may only arise because someone is being rude or inconsiderate. Unfortunately, this rudeness is sometimes incorporated into constitutional procedures – as in our parliament and some local bodies.


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