Before now, I've written two previous posts offering, and soliciting, advice for atheist readers who've found themselves in difficult situations. With today's post, I'm thinking I ought to make it a regular series.
I was contacted by a reader with the following dilemma:
As part of my job, I am often expected to attend and participate in public meetings that are put on either by my employer or by community councils that are affiliated with it. My Canadian employer is considered to be a public organization and the council members are voted in by their respective communities. None are government bodies and none have any religious affiliation or mandate. However, most of these meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer for which all in attendance are asked to stand. Most participants also close their eyes and bow their heads during the prayer which is typically given by an elder in attendance at the meeting and which often asks for guidance from God for the various decisions and discussions undertaken at the meeting.
I am an atheist and although this may be a small matter to many people, being asked to participate in prayer is not something I feel at all comfortable or happy about and am thankful that my regular duties and staff meetings do not include them. I don't believe that supernatural guidance is necessary or is imparted in order to carry out our responsibilities at these meetings and I resent feeling coerced into an implicit agreement with this belief by participating in these prayers.
Certainly, no one is forcing me to stand or to be present for these prayers but by declining to participate at all, I must choose to centre myself out (and my nonparticipation in the prayer) either by remaining seated or by leaving the room. Although to date, I have participated by only standing and not bowing my head, I feel that even this is a compromise of my own principles. I am annoyed by the procedure, although I know that the prayers are benign and no one intends to give offence.
This isn't a daily event and it isn't a huge imposition but it has bothered me enough that I have written this. I am not sure that making a fuss is worth it, particularly given that I live in a small community and the ramifications of any overt action may be farther reaching than I would like. However, I also think that those responsible for leading these meetings need to consider that not all in attendance may wish to pray to the Christian god or indeed, pray at all and that conducting prayers in this way is coercive. What makes this situation also unique is that my organization and these councils were created specifically for the benefit of an aboriginal First Nation and hence many who attend these meetings would be sensitive to any criticism that would be seen to impose upon their cultural practises, particularly given the history of religious indoctrination imposed upon Canadian aboriginals in the past by government education policies.
I'd be grateful for any thoughtful advice you or your readers could give me.
And in a followup e-mail:
...As another example of how religious my home community is and how prevalent the prayer-before-a-meeting procedure is, a few nights ago our community began a debate with our local candidates for a federal election (!) with a Christian prayer, for which all were asked to rise. A woman beside me muttered to me before the prayer that this was something she never gets used to and is continually surprised by. Nonetheless, we both rose and stood silently along with everyone else in the room during the prayer which in usual style, asked for God's guidance, assistance and oversight for all during the proceedings.
As always, context is everything when giving advice in situations like this. Much depends on how the prayer is viewed by the council members. Is this prayer just a formality that they carry on for the sake of tradition, or is it something they genuinely believe in and consider meaningful? (Granted, different council members may take different views about this.)
If it's the former, you may have a chance at stopping it without causing a public scene. You described the situation by saying that no one there intends to give offense and that they may not realize that all attendees are Christian. Would it be possible for you to convey that to them? I'd advise starting with one particular council member - whichever one you think is most likely to be sympathetic to your views. You could approach them in private, state the fact that you're not Christian and that you don't feel comfortable being asked to take part in a prayer session for a religion in which you don't believe. This approach could be adjusted depending on how you expect it to be received. If you're concerned about a hostile response, your contact could be in the form of an anonymous letter. On the other side of the equation, you might make more of an impression if you could come, not just representing yourself, but with a signed petition from other attendees who are also opposed to the prayer. (It sounds though you're not the only one.)
If you make your case and the council isn't sympathetic, or if you elect not to take that route, the situation becomes tougher. I fully understand why you wouldn't want to take part, or even give the impression that you're taking part, in a religious ceremony. I feel the same way. To me, it would feel as if I'm going against my own principles to stand for prayer. Politeness is one thing, but being polite does not require that you give the appearance of assent.
On the occasions when politeness compels me to attend church, such as a wedding or a funeral, I follow a basic principle: I'll sit quietly and politely, but that's all. I don't stand when the congregation stands, nor kneel if they kneel. I feel this strikes a good balance between attending the ceremony, not making a scene, but making it clear that I come as an outsider, not a member of the faith. I won't interfere with people's religious rituals, but neither will I participate. Perhaps this is a plan you could consider adopting, assuming the council isn't willing to make things easier for you.
What do you say, readers? Can you improve on my advice?