Main Site

This is Gem Newman's blog. Return to the main site.


10 May 2012

Prayer at City Hall

On Tuesday, I was contacted by a producer with Radio-Canada (the French division of CBC) for an interview. They were putting together a téléjournal (television news) piece about prayer in Winnipeg City Council meetings, and were hoping for comment from the Winnipeg Skeptics. I agreed to speak with them, and also attempted to put them in contact with Jeff Olsson of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba and Robert McGregor of the Winnipeg Secularists (who, I informed them, had put together a petition on precisely this subject).

Robert McGregor speaks to Catherine Dulude. Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Winnipeg City Council generally starts the day with a prayer—see, for example, the minutes from the City Council meeting on 25 April 2012. (The minutes of all City Council meetings can be found here.)

There were several points that I stressed in the interview, which I'll summarize here.

First of all, while the Winnipeg Skeptics has no official position with regard to any particular religious claim (except for those that relate to science, such as creationism), the organisation is supportive of secular government over sectarian government.

It is true that Canada doesn't have a constitutional separation of church and state; indeed, while we have no official religion, our head of state is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That said, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.

I have no problem with members of City Council praying privately. I would never ask a politician to "check their religion at the door". But when religious observance is carried out by an elected body that is meant to represent the people, that religious observance is effectively being carried out on behalf of the people. Canada's government is committed (nominally, at least) to multiculturalism and religious pluralism. It seems to me that, in such a nation, governmental entanglement with religious practice (such as prayer) should be minimized.

Even the most benign, vague, and seemingly inoffensive prayers can be divisive. A simple prayer to "God" may be offensive to a deist, who may not believe in an interventionist god, or to a Hindu, who may believe in many. Members of minority religious or cultural groups may see governmental prayer as another way in which they are marginalized.

As is to be expected, the five-minute discussion that I had with the journalist was cut down to a single soundbite—but one that accurately represented my position—while Robert McGregor was (appropriately) given a more extensive interview. I thought that the finished piece (which is a distinctly Manitoban combination of French and English) was very good, and you can view it here.

Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Less good was the online article summarizing the téléjournal piece, which identified me as the organiser of the Winnipeg Secularists and seemed generally convinced that Robert and I were the same person. This has since been corrected, but until about an hour ago still listed my name as "Greg".

If you don't read French, feel free to have Google translate the article for you. Alternatively, there is a similar article (bereft of any reference to yours truly) on CBC. The usual caveats against reading the comments section apply, of course.


  1. Thanks for the support, Greg!

  2. This position is rather untenable, isn't it, as to a religionist it would be equally inconceivable and indeed offensive to undertake any public work without the invocation of the relevant God or gods?

    Likewise, however, such an invocation would offend an atheist, and even, as you say, a non-interventionist deist (somehow: I'm not quite convinced that the atheist and the non-interventionist shouldn't just view it as a meaningless exercise that's more than a little humourous and leave it at that. I'm not sure where the offence really lies).

    In light of that, doesn't it make the most sense to allow for a state in which the views (and I'm not suggesting this obtains presently in Canada, bear in mind) of the overwhelming majority (say a really, really Catholic country like, oh, Vatican City) are enshrined in law and practiced not simply on a private basis but in civil society and government functions, but which tolerates the freedom of conscience/thought &c. of all the citizens as private citizens?

    It just seems unfair to assert that the lack of prayer, the secular position, is somehow the neutral course here, by which no one could be offended. Most well-developed moral casuistry will have some notion of peccatum omissionis, and certainly it would be thought "omiss" and grossly offensive by most of the citizenry for a state comprised mostly, but not exclusively, of religionists to neglect its God or gods at important functions of state.

    1. You'll find a response to some of your criticisms here.