Christianity and atheism are two sides of the same coin
Those of us with no faith have a lot to learn about the value of halting the normal rhythms of life and stopping to reflect
- Matthew Engelke
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 27 June 2013
Earlier this week I attended the national parliamentary prayer breakfast, which takes place each June in the magnificent surrounds of Westminster Hall. As usual, there were hundreds of guests, including church leaders, community activists, diplomats and politicians. All for a 7.30am start. It was my third time, but my first as a speaker at one of the post-breakfast seminars – perhaps notable above all because I am not a Christian or otherwise religious.
I wasn’t the only non-religious person there, although it is definitely a Christian occasion. On the event’s website, Stephen Timms MP is quoted in a promotional video as saying the breakfast captures “a very important movement, across Britain today, of people whose starting point is faith in Jesus”. Nicky Morgan MP says she’s in parliament not only for her constituents, but “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.
At the breakfast we recited the Lord’s prayer. We sang a hymn and we listened to a gospel reading. There were other prayers too: one for the government (delivered by a Labour MP, who joked about the irony), one for parliament and one for the nation.
Many secularists go apoplectic about this kind of public religion, but I’m struck by how little attention these events garner at large. I’m sure most Britons don’t even know the breakfast takes place, and I suspect most wouldn’t care one way or the other. It’s not funded by taxpayers, which removes one bone of contention.
It’s public religion with very limited publicity, but God is being done like this day in and day out in the public square, even if it often takes a form very different from, say, my native land of America.
Faith or no faith, and whether you’re enthusiastic, indifferent or apoplectic, the breakfast is a brilliant example of why public ritual matters. Those of us with no faith have a lot to learn about the value of halting the normal rhythms of life and stopping to reflect. We could all benefit from prayer breakfasts, or at least something akin to such a metaphysical break.
Jesus was, without doubt, the frame. And yet staunch secularists, humanists, and atheists might have taken comfort from the fact that they were not forgotten, either in the prayers or the programme. In fact, it’s arguable that while Jesus was the message, new atheism was the medium.
The core of the hour-long programme belonged not to God but to Richard Dawkins, as did one of the post-breakfast seminars. In his 25-minute keynote address, Dawkins’ fellow Oxonian, the mathematician John Lennox, set out to rebut new atheism, arguing that science and religion are complementary rather than antithetical, and that faith and knowledge are both central to who and what we are as humans.
Lennox’s position is part of a longstanding tradition, and he brought it to life with a passion not always associated with mathematicians. As an anthropologist, though, what struck me was a social dynamic that often defines the clash of world views: how they come to be mutually constitutive, and how they become meaningful in relation to each other.
Christianity and atheism are two sides of the same coin. At the moment, their relationship to one another is often antagonistic, but for unbelievers the sentiment – if not the sacral nature – of the prayer breakfast should be taken seriously. In some quarters it is. In 2008, the British Humanist Association started something of a tradition like this. You can guess what it’s called, right? The no prayer breakfast.
- Parliamentary prayer breakfast dismisses ‘fairy tale’ of atheism (blasphemieblog2.wordpress.com)