“Try Praying”, says the sign outside a church, hoping no doubt to capture the attention of someone in need of help. Part of a publicity campaign to reach those without religious belief, the Try Praying initiative was rolled out across Scotland five years ago, with banners at church gates, and adverts on the sides of buses. Market research showed that 32% who had seen the slogan had subsequently tried praying. What they prayed for, and whether their petitions were answered is not, sadly, recorded.

In the long history of prayer, this was a tiny initiative, and yet it was significant. People’s willingness to give it a try all point to the age-old belief - in which billions world-wide still trust - that there is a deity, an all-powerful force, on whose assistance we can call by praying.

In the minds of believers, in other words, prayer is a powerful force. No doubt this explains the outrage of those whose vigils outside abortion clinics in Scotland are soon to be banned. A crucial part of these Christian protesters’ armoury is prayer, both silent and vocal.

The Herald: A vigil outside an Edinburgh abortion clinic A vigil outside an Edinburgh abortion clinic (Image: free)

Soon, however, proposed new laws will criminalise religious acts including praying audibly, silent vigils and religious preaching within 200 metres of abortion clinics. This will allow women going for treatment to enter the building without running a gauntlet of moral condemnation by groups of Christians hoping to change their minds. I’m assuming - certainly hoping - that carrying placards with images of foetuses or emblazoned with words like murder fall under the same prohibition.

It's not only the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland that is appalled at this proposed new law, which it decries as “completely unjust and an affront to democratic values”. Countless anti-abortion activists are up in arms at the thought that something as seemingly inoffensive as praying will soon be regarded as a criminal act. To paraphrase a Herald letter-writer, what is the country coming to when saying the rosary is punishable by law?

In ordinary circumstances I would be the first to agree. Freedom of religious expression is essential, and stretches from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or Christopher Hitchins’s polemic God is Not Great to proponents of flat earth theology. But these are not ordinary circumstances.

The Scottish Government acknowledges that this step impacts on the European Convention of Human Rights, but says it is “proportionate in the achievement of a legitimate aim”. That aim is to prevent the harassment and intimidation of women entering hospital premises for an entirely legal procedure.

Can you imagine the additional stress such demonstrations must add to those going for such an appointment? The vast majority of women who have abortions do not do so lightly. Even in circumstances where the mother’s life is in danger, it is a painful decision, and often heart-wrenching. To be faced with a group praying for the life of your unborn child is to add untold distress to an already upsetting and emotional experience.

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No matter how meek or unthreatening those at the frontline of pro-life protest might appear – and the majority are elderly men and women of the type often found handing custard creams around at church coffee-mornings – they are there for a very specific and serious purpose.

In this context, to claim that publicly conducted prayers or vigils cannot possibly alarm or intimidate anyone is disingenuous. It is no different from Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering at the hospital doors to condemn the use of blood transfusions, and asking patients to reconsider having life-saving surgery at the eleventh hour.

After all, if prayer is as effective as some believe, it is a force to be reckoned with. To have a line of strangers praying that you reverse your decision while you walk past them is a definition of unnerving. To those pro-lifers who say they are being discriminated against for not being allowed to voice their protest in the most appropriate location, I would argue that they clearly care less for the welfare of the women involved than for the chance to parade their own inflexible ethical convictions.

Added to which, surely Holyrood is a far more effective place to make their case than a medical centre, where staff as well as patients feel vulnerable and exposed. What is that other than bullying?

With a rising tide of anti-abortion feeling in the USA seeping over here, this is not an issue that is going to fade away soon. In light of what is happening in America, emotions over the subject are going to grow more heated, not less.

What we must guard against, however, is allowing faith groups to put pressure on governments and influence decision-making. Religious leaders and their flocks are entitled to their own beliefs. But for that to spill into public life and alter how others live is unacceptable.

The Herald: Christopher Hitchens wrote: 'Religion has run out of justifications'Christopher Hitchens wrote: 'Religion has run out of justifications' (Image: free)

That archbishops and bishops automatically earn a place in the House of Lords is to me as archaic and daft a practice as believing that the bones of a saint have healing powers. What right do they have to pontificate on how the country is run?

In a secular society, which is what we are, religion should carry no special authority. The coronation of King Charles, with the flummery of anointing oil, robes, conical hats and all the other paraphernalia of the Anglican Church and royalty at show felt utterly ridiculous: far from adding to the solemnity of the occasion, it made it look like a theatre production, run by people whose careers have been made by believing in something nobody can prove, for which there is not a scrap of tangible evidence.

I’m with Christopher Hitchens when he writes: “Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard – or try to turn back – the measurable advances that we have made.”

Pregnancy tests and safe, swift abortions, are among those advances. People who wish this were not the case are free to petition and pray on behalf of the unborn child in any neutral location they like. Yet since distance is no obstacle to prayer, and if they truly have no intention of intimidating others, why can’t they just do it at home?