Like a prayer

Top topic of conversation on local radio today – apart from the weather – and front page of the Bristol Evening Post is the story of the teacher who is being investigated after she offered to pray for a sick pupil, following a formal complaint from the child’s mother. The teacher is from Weston-super-Mare and is a close friend of the nurse from Weston who found herself in a similar situation early this year after offering to pray for a patient.

The best contribution on Radio Bristol was from the mother of a very sick child who’d been taught at home. A similar situation occurred, with a teacher trying to pray with the child, and both mother and child found it very distressing, not least because it alerted the little girl to the fact that she was, in truth, dying. It was very brave of the mother to call in.

Leaving aside the specifics though, this raises again the issue of how much respect you should show for other people’s beliefs when you don’t share them. And I don’t mean respect for the teacher’s Christianity, which is mostly what people have been talking about.

In my job I spend a fair amount of time meeting with faith groups, talking to people of faith, and doing some things – such as covering my head in a mosque or temple, or bowing my head during prayers in a church – as a sign of respect for that faith. If I’m honest I feel a little bit like I’m compromising my own beliefs in doing so, but I don’t want to offend people, so I will go along with it. And actually, as the years have gone by and I’ve mellowed from the militant atheism of my youth, I can appreciate that many of the people I most respect and admire are motivated by their religious faith. And I got bored after about chapter two of The God Delusion.

I would, however, like people to respect my atheism too. Obviously not if I’m at a memorial service in a church, or if I’m visiting a mosque, but in more general settings. In hospital for example, I would not want a nurse praying over me, or the hospital chaplain coming to visit. My father has been in and out of hospital in Ireland this year; he went ballistic when he came round after an operation to find a Catholic priest sitting by his bed. Scared the life out of him!

And likewide, if I had a sick child I would be horrified if a teacher came into my home and instead of teaching the child maths, as they were supposed to, started talking about religion and offering to say prayers. I would actually find it offensive.

I’m not sure Christians realise this, that someone of ‘no faith’ can be offended by overt displays of faith in the wrong setting. Indeed, many people seem to believe that with people of ‘no faith’ there is nothing there to show respect to, so the sensitivities of the person ‘with faith’ should take precedence. (Which is one of the reasons I don’t like the term, along with the implication that perhaps you simply haven’t discovered your faith yet; I much prefer ‘atheist’. It’s what I am).

Would it be acceptable for an atheist to start ‘preaching’ to a young child from a Christian household about the non-existence of God? No, I don’t think so, and I wouldn’t dream of doing this. But I would, once the child was of a certain age and only if the subject was brought up by them, tell the child that some people, including me, do not believe in God. I’m not sure if this would be disrespectful of the parents’ beliefs; I think it probably depends how you do it.

Father Christmas, however, would be a different matter. If a kid believes in Father Christmas let no-one cast any doubt on the matter, unless of course the kid is over the age of 10 and is really going to be ripped apart in the playground if his mates find out.

For a completely different take on this, have a look at Tom Harris’ blog. And I do like Tom, and I don’t care at all if he prays for me, though his efforts to date to protect me from evil-doers have been conspiciously unsuccessful! But I don’t agree with him on his last point, about evangelising… isn’t there an equivalent right not to be evangelised to? Anyway, I’ll be spending time over Christmas with a former CoE church warden (my mum), a Baptist deacon (my uncle), my staunchly Catholic grandmother, my Rastafarian sister… and my Jedi nephew. We’ll all get along just fine!

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