Monday 21 December 2009

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!


Andy DM said...

Thanks Kerry,

This is exactly the feeling that I had when I heard about this case. Hope Tom Harris sees it and thinks a bit more about the right of people not to be evangelised.

Charles said...

Isn't the issue more about why the parent felt the need to make a formal complaint which may result in the teacher losing her job?

Without knowing all the facts of the situation, one would assume that the offer was made politely. In this case, a simple "no thanks" should have been sufficient - and that seems to have been the first response of the parent - and the teacher didn't push the issue

So why the need to take it further?

Steven_L said...

I think it's a bit rich of a politican talking about a 'right not to be evangelised to'.

Our political system seems to pretty much consist of two groups of people, arguably of different mindsets but who all drink together in subsidised bars, making out they hate one another and trying to convince us all that they are the 'good' ones and that the 'other lot' are part of some evil conspiracy.

I sincerely doubt that very many non-believers would find it offensive if someone prayed for them or if a member of the clergy visited them in hospital. Those that do have probably taken to thinking that religion is some kind of evil organised conspiracy.

I wonder how they learned to think in such basic, crude stereotypes.

Kerry said...

Charles, I think the story says that the teacher brought up religion on a couple of occasions, and presumably therefore didn't respond to a polite no thanks.

Kerry said...

Steven... been thinking how best to explain this. I'm a vegan. Do you accept that I might find it offensive if someone kept saying, 'here, try this delicious bacon sandwich?'

Alan Douglas said...

If I think something I could do would be of HELP, I would be remiss in not offering to do it - say, offering to escort a hesitant older person across a snowy road.

That that person could OBJECT to my offer is OK, that is their right, but that any "authority" deems my offer to be a reason for firing me is insane - where WOULD the good samaritan be in our folklore if such nonsense had pertained way back then.

If the action was enforced that would be a different matter, but still NOT a firing offense. At most a sorry requested.

Alan Douglas

TheBoilingFrog said...

I'm a vegan. Do you accept that I might find it offensive if someone kept saying, 'here, try this delicious bacon sandwich?'

Yes, and you have the right to voice your displeasure at such actions. You do not, however, have the right not to be offended.

Now, all this talk of bacon sandwiches has made me hungry...

Kerry said...

There's a bit of a difference between doing something that is universally accepted as help, and something you believe will help, as in the second instance you are imposing your beliefs on others. The woman was a teacher, she was there to teach maths... and according to the paper she has not been dismissed, she's just been called in for a chat. If she persists in trying to pray for pupils when she's been told not to, I do think at some point it would become a case for dismissal.

Liam Murray said...

Couple of quick points Kerry.

On the offence thing I think language is important. We often talk about people 'TAKING offence' (rather than 'BEING offended) because it's very rare for the phrase to come up in reference to hostile, aggressive and deeply personal remarks. If someone directly addressing you calls you all sorts of insulting and personal names then clearly you're the passive person in the exchange - you have a 'right' (tricky word hence the quotes) to be offended at that and quiet acquisence isn't really an option. On the other hand is someone says 'God bless you' or even offers to pray with / for you then their intent is clearly benign (even honourable by their terms) and a polite 'no thanks' is a reasonable response - if you're offended by that I think you can reasonably be said to have 'taken offence' by choice and I'd have little sympathy for such a reaction.

On the respect thing there's a similar dynamic at play. In my experience deeply religious people have their faith at the core of their character - it determines their outlook on life & their values, adds context to everything they do and is - this is the controversial point - more central to their person than atheism is to most atheist. Almost by definition atheism is a rejection of something rather than an embrace of something (and I say that as one myself).

For that reason I think it's reasonable to offer 'more respect' (& by that I mean tolerence really) to people's religious outlook than people with 'no faith' - if you tell me my atheism is a nonsense and I'm misguided I'm less likely to be bothered by that then telling someone with deep religious convictions the same thing.

Hamish said...

My daughter chose not to be married in church because she thought it would be hypocritical.
When she was seriously ill in hospital at the time of the birth of her first child, she found one of the most helpful and supportive people was the hospital chaplain.
He used his experience and understanding to give practical advice, which was often more helpful than that of the medics.
Later, my daughter remarked "You know, he didn't mention God once".
Perhaps the evangelisers should heed the dictum: facta, non verba (deeds, not words).

Andrew Allison said...

When I first heard about this story, I was annoyed. I still think the action taken against the teacher was disproportionate. Perhaps a word in her ear would have been better?

Having said that, you have argued your case very well. My late father was a preacher and my Mum still attends her local Methodist Church. For 18 years, I was an organist in the Church of England. I was brought up in a Christian home, but I am not a religious person. I lost my faith (if I ever really had faith in the fist place) and I find it very uncomfortable when I see people in the street urging me to repent, or burn in the fires of hell. I don't want anyone to talk to me about religion, if their aim is to convert me.

If this teacher had spoken privately to the mother and said I am a Christian and I believe in the power of prayer, this would have been different. It is a teacher's job to teach. Period. But I do want to reiterate that I feel the punishment handed out to her was wrong. People from all sides of this debate have something to learn here I think.

Matt Wardman said...

>isn't there an equivalent right not to be evangelised to?

Do I have a right not be told somebody else's political opinions?

That seems to be something of a parallel.

Ben said...

I agree.

Whether the teacher's actions were appropriate or not depends on the facts and we don't have them all. We only really have one side of the story.

The offer of a prayer seems to me (an avowed atheist) to be fine. And if the teacher goes off and prays fervently for the child then what's the harm? But if the teacher continues to talk about religion in an effort to indoctrinate the child that's clearly unacceptable, just as it would be unacceptable for a teacher to attempt to indoctrinate the child to be a Labour supporter or a Muslim or a vegan or whatever else.

I also agree that atheistic belief is often not respected because it is (wrongly) seen as an absence of a view point. Would it be acceptable for a Christian to offer religious guidance to a child from a Jewish family? Or a Hindu family? Of course it would not be acceptable and the teacher surely would have known that.

Andy DM said...

Matt, I think you're exactly right. I work in the NHS. If I spent time not doing my work but trying to get patients and visitors to support the Labour Party I would expect my bosses to take me aside and tell me to stop it.

If I ignored them and carried on evangelising about Labour then very soon I would be up on a disciplinary and told to do my job. At the end of the line, I would be sacked. But I wouldn't be right to say that I'd been sacked for being a Labour supporter, I would have been sacked for refusing to do my job properly.

Likewise Olive Jones is employed as a Maths teacher, not to force sick children into prayer. It's that simple.

Anonymous said...

From the point of view of professionalism and courtesy, the family's views have to be paramount. Nor do I think the teacher did herself any favours running to the media.

Cases of this type come up every so often, though not so often as the Christian Institute would have you believe, which is why the papers can clear their front pages. From my experience of the employment tribunal system, usually they stem from an HR department being overly rigid in applying a policy, when a quiet discussion might have sorted things out. Linked to this is that people who aren't religious may find it difficult to understand people who are, and vice versa.

But then you get the agendas kicking in. As soon as something like this happens, you have the Christian Institute shouting "ZOMG! Christians are being persecuted!" followed by the Daily Mail shouting "ZOMG! It's PC gone mad!" followed by the National Secular Society shouting "ZOMG! The theocrats are on the march!" and so on, until the original case gets buried under the agendas.

The same thing would apply, of course, if the family were Christians and the teacher was an evangelical atheist. Only then you'd have quite different responses from the axe-grinders.

Kerry said...

I think you hit the nail on the head... imagine if an atheist teacher was caught telling the seriously ill daughter of devout Christians that Heaven does not exist and that prayers cannot save her, only doctors can.