Any time you see a story on religion in the papers these days, chances are it will be about how some government is “oppressing” religious practitioners. The latest case in point can be found in todays/yesterdays (depending on where you are) Washington Post, in an article entitled “Public prayer stirs culture war in Britain”. Now admittedly, I have not been religiously following this debacle (pun intended), but this story is not much different from any religious-culture war story that has erupted in the past year.

Quick break down: Clive Bone, a local lawmaker who happens to be an atheist, challenged the longstanding tradition of opening public meetings in the English town of Bideford with blessings by Christian clergy. After losing two council votes to ban the prayer, he took it to the courts and won a ruling last month that said the government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer. It all started on a holiday in 2007 when Bone and four other council members who objected to public prayer were forced to wait outside while other council members and the town clerk with the keys were attending an official prayer service down the street. Bone and the council members who objected to public prayer put forward two motions to ban it, with both measures failing. Bone has since given up his seat on the council; only two of the five local lawmakers who proposed the ban are still on the town council.

Two competing quotes within the Washington Post piece give a neat overview of the current debate: Reverend Alan Glover, the curate at St Mary’s in Bideford is quoted as saying “What a load of rubbish this all is, I’d never imagined tat anyone could be offended by a kind prayer. If you don’t like it, side with tolerance and don’t listen”, on the other hand, Bone is quoted as saying “This isn’t about freedom of religion. I will defend their right to pray in their churches to my dying breath. Just don’t make us listen to it anymore. It is a backwards tradition that alienates people in this country”.

So there it is, nicely summed up. The Christian Reverend would all those who are not religious, or who may have competing faiths, to just sit there and nicely listen to the Christian prayers. Bone on the other hand, would like everyone’s religious views to be respected by requiring that religion be removed from the public sphere and practiced in private. This debate about perfectly sums up the conflict between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

Every major religion in Britain, including Christianity, is an imported religion. None of them are indigenous. Therefore, none of them should be given place above another, regardless of whether a majority practices it or not. In this case, as Bone has said, no one is trying to stop Christians praying. No one is trying to promote atheism as a counter religion. What they are trying to achieve is a public sphere where everyone is comfortable. Where everyone can go and not feel as if they are an outsider. Where everyone’s religion is held as a personal decision, and where no religion is given place above another.

But what makes this particular debate even more ridiculous is that it is a fight over prayer. Unlike other aspects of religion such as ridiculously loud calls to prayer, or the building of gaudy monstrosities, prayer is something that can easily be done in private. In fact, I would argue it is something that should be done in private, as a personal communication between a believer and their creator/saviour. I grew up in a deeply Christian household, and I have read the bible. As far as I can remember, and I have also queried my Grandmother, there is nothing in the bible about prayers having more impact when they are uttered aloud or conducted publicly with many attendees. A Christian’s prayer is as important to god whether it is done inside ones head, under ones breath, or by a minister at the opening of a public meeting. Therefore, it is just as effective if at the start of every public meeting, each Christian (or another other religious practitioner present) utter a prayer to themselves.

If there is no theological reason to hold a prayer in public, i.e. a public prayer is somehow more “powerful” or taken more seriously by god, then the only reasons to do it is for show, and to mark your religion is more important. Shoving your religion in someone else’s face is not what people should be fighting for. Freedom of religion is important. However, freedom from religion is important too.