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Two BS Prayers

Entry 1944, on 2018-11-01 at 20:45:03 (Rating 4, Religion)

Many people would say that the New Zealand government needs all the help it can get, and praying might be a reasonable option, since it is often something people do when they have no real ideas available to them. But on the other hand, it does seem rather archaic that parliamentary sessions, in a modern country like ours, still start with a prayer.

But at least the current prayer doesn't mention any particular god, prophet, or other religious character, so it is a more generic plea for help to whatever forces might or might not exist. In fact, this is a recent change, and the main subject of this post. And, judging from the general performance of Parliament in the past, there is little sign that the particular god previously favoured was helping much, so maybe the change is actually irrelevant.

So enough of these snide comments denigrating both religion and politics (they're such easy subjects to ridicule). What exactly has happened and what are my thoughts on the subject?

Trevor Mallard, who is the Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, has changed the official prayer used when opening Parliament. Previously it was specifically Christian, and mentioned Jesus, but now it is more generic and doesn't mention any particular religious figures. The idea was to make the prayer more inclusive of the increasing diversity of religious views in New Zealand.

Needless to say, some Christians are not happy with the change, and a recent protest involving around 100 people (not a bad turn out for a New Zealand protest in bad weather) made this indignation clear to the relevant figures in our government.

The protestors want mentions of Jesus and the Christian god returned to the prayer for a variety of reasons. So let's look at these reasons and see how much sense they make...

First, they think we should return to the old, Christian prayer because New Zealand was traditionally a Christian country. Well yes, fair enough, this is true. But Christianity's dominance here is now over, because over half of the population are not religious, and only about a third are Christian.

These statistics come from research reported in a document "Faith and Belief in New Zealand" commissioned by the Wilberforce Foundation, a faith based (and I suspect primarily Christian) organisation. So this seems fairly credible, especially since the official New Zealand census has shown a consistent change towards less support for religion which trended towards this result.

So it seems that, based on current beliefs, we really shouldn't have a Christian prayer since, currently in New Zealand, there are twice as many people who aren't Christian as those who are.

In fact, it is worse than that, because, of the 33% who profess to be Christian, only 9% are "active" and only 16% go to church at least once per month. So I suspect many people report themselves as Christian even though by any reasonable measure they are non-religious.

As Christianity, and religion in general, becomes more irrelevant to the people you could make a case to say that it should have less relevance to the country's leaders too. But, to be fair, that wasn't what the protestors really said. They said it was important in the past, which is true. The only question is: now that it isn't so important, should our previous practices change to reflect that? I would say yes, but a contrary case could be made.

But now on to the second reason. The protestors claim that the principles and values of the country are based on "Christian-Judeo" roots.

Again, a case could be made both ways on this point. It is difficult to argue that Christianity, which was so dominant in every facet of life in the past, could not have had significant impact on our values. But equally, many of our founding principles don't come from Christianity, and many that do are equally prevalent in other beliefs, often in those that pre-date it.

For example, democracy itself originates primarily in Greek thought, not Christian. In fact, the Bible is a rather anti-democratic document in many ways. If we really did follow the principles there, I think our society would be very different. Note that this is a difficult claim to objectively evaluate because the Bible has so much contradictory material that completely contrary views can be equally well supported.

So again, there is some truth in the idea, but it is not a particularly compelling argument. And even if it was accepted that some principles were based on religious thinking, how does that lead to the need for a prayer today?

The third claim is that other religions want Jesus' name left in, and people want to know what god are we talking about in the prayer.

It's hard to say how useful this statement is, since it's just an opinion presented by a person at a protest with an obvious extreme view. If there were any real stats on this it would be more interesting. My anecdote is that most people would either want the prayer thrown out altogether or changed to a more generic form like we now have, out of the principles of inclusivity and fairness.

So this claim really doesn't have much going for it, although if there was any real data on the idea it could be very relevant.

The fourth claim is that the speaker has no authority to make this change, and that the protestor (and by implication most other people) don't share his atheism.

There are so many problems with this that it is hard to know where to start. But firstly, it looks like the Speaker might have the authority to do this (although that is debated) because he is in charge of the administration of the House. Secondly, how can having a prayer lead to him being called an atheist? Presumably an atheist wouldn't want any prayer. And thirdly, I haven't seen any information to indicate what religious beliefs Mallard actually has, and I would hope he would make decisions independently of those anyway.

So there seems little merit in this claim, although an argument could be made (and is made by Winston Peters) that a vote by the members of the House would have been a better way to decide the matter.

Finally, there is this: the new prayer should have been authorised by a referendum, this is the land of freedom, we need to acknowledge choice, and that our choice was taken away. This is quite a claim, so let's start at the beginning.

Referenda are extremely expensive to run and are generally used to decide on (or at least get an indication of, because they aren't usually binding) matters which affect everyone. The new prayer only directly affects the members of Parliament. Why would the whole of the country want to vote on such a minor matter, and how could the expense be justified?

Anyone who offers rhetorical points like "this is the land of freedom" should be treated with a good deal of skepticism. Is it? And even if it is, doesn't a prayer which is more inclusive grant more people the freedom not to be affected by a prayer which is only meaningful to a minority? It seems that the protestors want to decrease freedom by imposing their views on everyone.

Then there is this: we need to acknowledge choice. Well yes, we do. People should have the choice not to participate in a ritual belonging to an increasingly irrelevant religion. Again, the protestors seem to be contradicting their own points here.

And finally: the choice was taken away. What choice? There was no choice because there was only one prayer which belonged to a minority group. Another contradiction. Even by the standards of most religious people this argument looks very irrational.

But there was some rationality at the protest too, because outside Parliament grounds, a small counter-protest of 15 atheists heckled the Christian protesters. Dave Seyb - presumably a Pastafarian because he was wearing a colander on his head - yelled "Equal rights for all mythical creatures." Seems fair.

The last time this issue arose (in January this year, shortly after the new prayer was introduced) an informal poll (by news source, Stuff) revealed and exact 50/50 split between those who wanted the old prayer reinstated and those who either preferred the new one or wanted no prayer at all, so this clearly a difficult issue.

But, all that aside, maybe you would like to decide for yourself. So here are the two prayers...

The previous prayer:

Almighty God, humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquility of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The new prayer:

Almighty God, we give thanks for the blessings which have been bestowed on us. Laying aside all personal interests, we acknowledge the Queen and pray for guidance in our deliberations, that we may conduct the affairs of this House with wisdom, justice, mercy, and humility for the welfare and peace of New Zealand. Amen.

I mean, they're really both the most atrocious BS, so who really cares?


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