Thursday, February 14, 2008


I've never much liked public prayer, other than in church (and similar intentional gatherings).

When I was growing up, the Lord's Prayer was still said at the start of the school day. In elementary school, the whole class had to say it together, so entire generations grew up being able to recite it (along with the words to O Canada) forwards, backwards, sideways and in their sleep (the last being pretty close to the state most of were in while performing this morning ritual). As the child of agnostics, I went through the motions. My parents could have had me excused, but for some reason did not.

In high school the Prayer was read over the PA system, and we no longer had to recite it. Also about that time, I became a fundamentalist Christian.

And I still didn't like starting the school day with the Lord's Prayer, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I knew that many of my classmates weren't Christians (OK, some of this was according to the fundamentalist conceit that they are the only Real Christians -- but lots of them really weren't Christian, even by non-bigoted definitions). I thought it was stupid to expect people to stand up for some ritual they found meaningless. For that matter, even I found the whole thing pretty meaningless. I was perfectly capable of praying my own prayers on my own schedule, thank you very much, and hearing the same prayer at the same time -- sandwiched between the bustle of coat-removal and the taking of attendance -- really didn't do it for me. To me, sincere faith and authentic expression thereof were what was important, and enforced group participation in a perfunctory rote observance was a travesty.

Now as an atheist, I consider this sort of thing at best an irrelevant waste of time, and at worst an improper intrusion of a particular religion into our common public life. Which brings us to....

....the Ontario Legislature where, ever since 1969, each day's sitting has opened with the Lord's Prayer. However, current Premier Dalton McGuinty proposes changing that custom, and has asked for an all-party committee to study ways of becoming more inclusive. Said McGuinty:
"We're much more than just Protestants and Catholics today. We have all the world's faiths represented here. If they're represented outside the legislature, I think we ought to find a way to ensure that diversity is reflected inside the legislature as well."
There are, of course, some detractors:

NDP House Leader Peter Kormos agreed with the idea of an all-party committee reviewing the use of the Lord's Prayer, but warned Mr. McGuinty that he may face pressure to drop prayers altogether.

“The Premier is trying to show how pluralistic that he's prepared to be when it comes to faith communities,” Mr. Kormos said.

“But I think he'd better be careful because there are going to be folks from the humanist perspective who are going to argue that if you open that box, then let's not have any prayer at all.”

Gosh, Peter: you say that like it would be a Bad Thing. And the humanists might have opinions on it! Hide the children! And I'd always thought the NDP was progressive -- silly me. Anyways, I've got bad news for him -- the nasssty humanists didn't wait for Dalton to "open that box" before commencing their War On Ceremonial Prayer.

Is Kormos (who, according to Wikipedia, is an Eastern-Rite Catholic) cool with Baptist, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, First Nation and Muslim prayers? How about Wiccan? They're all about equally not his religion. Does he really prefer to participate in other people's prayers than none at all?

As I see it, there are only two ways to resolve this in a way that doesn't leave the government implicitly endorsing and/or denigrating somebody's religious views. Either:
  1. Have no prayer at all (or at most a "moment of silence" when members can silently pray or meditate or do whatever gets them properly psyched for the serious business of taunting each other during question period and falling asleep during bill-readings).
  2. A roster of prayers from any and every faith (possibly delivered by invited clergy) -- but only if said roster includes the occasional reading or meditation from an atheist or humanist source. If everyone else gets represented, then so do I, damnit!
I have some preference for #1, but could live with #2.

And who knows? The MPPs might even like hearing something different every day, instead of the same old same old.


Winter Toad said...

You know, going through elementary school in the 1970s in Quebec, we never had prayers in any form. None in assembly, none in class, nothing over the PA system. I wonder if that has to do with the fact that a good 1/3 of the students in the (English language) school were Jewish. I do have vague memories of some "bible" lectures in class, Old Testament stories enacted on a piece of felt leaned up against the blackboard, but that seems to have been unusual, it happened a few times with one teacher, then never again.

We didn't sing the national anthem, either. I learned that at baseball games. Of course, at events like that, it started in English, and switched to French halfway through, so that's the only way I know to sing it. At least I have suppressed the automatic urge to append "Play ball!" to the end of the song.

I remember going to see a movie in Ottawa, and they played the national anthem before the show. Wargames, so that would have been 1983. My brother and I were quite surprised, we'd never heard that at movies in Quebec.

John Pieret said...

You have been viciously and unprovokedly memed.

King Aardvark said...

Wow, I don't remember any official religious stuff in my elementary school (child of the '80s) in Ontario (highschool was a different matter - went to a Catholic school). I agree with your theist perspective - forcing people to do it during announcements makes a mockery of what prayer is supposed to be.

I, for one, am still amazed and flabbergasted that our province still opens up gov't meetings with the Lord's Prayer. How archaic is that?

WT: My brother can't remember the words to O Canada in English, just in French.