One of the hottest issues currently affecting the status of separation between religion and government concerns school prayer. Advocates insist that the rights of god-believing students are being deprived or violated when these students are not allowed to pray out loud to their god during school time. They imagine a gigantic secular conspiracy at work which seeks to deny them of their freedom to worship. Of course, all children have the right to pray to whatever gods their imaginations can conjure up; no atheist, school board member, or politician can deprive them of that. To the devout, this is irrelevant; their purpose is to force all students to listen to their particular type of prayer, whether they want to or not. The fact that other students may be of a different religious persuasion, or have no religion at all, will not dissuade them in their attempts to force prayer rituals on everyone.
School prayer advocates deny all this, insisting that all they want is a “non-sectarian” prayer. This is impossible; no one can write a prayer that will not contradict the teachings of another religion or sect. Moreover, it completely ignores the wishes of those who simply do not want to participate in any kind of religious ritual. All prayers have theological and theistic presumptions and implications for each particular creed. Any legislative effort to make these prayers public not only violates the principle between church and state, it is also a formula for creating prejudice against those who do not share the majority faith.
Aside from the Constitutional problems, the push for public prayer in the schools ignores a fundamental question that must be raised: If forced prayer is not a vehicle for enforcing conformity of thought on religion, what is the point? Any child can pray at any time during the school day; no one is going to stop him/her from doing so. Is forced prayer supposed to have some sort of physical effect on the child or on the classroom? More to the point, is there any validity to prayer in the first place? Do students who pray regularly do better on math tests? If so, then what is the point of studying? If public schools are supposed to teach students to think and reason, then the efficacy of prayer should be objectively demonstrable. If believers insist on the power of prayer, let them demonstrate how it actually works. If prayer is superior to effort, if religious mythology is superior to science, if astrology is superior to astronomy, if alchemy is superior to chemistry, and if faith is superior to reason, let the believers supply the objective evidence to this effect. The fact that they make no effort to do so is telling. What are they afraid of?
Here is a simple test that should solve the problem once and for all. If the believers are intellectually honest, they should jump at the chance to objectively prove how prayer works, and silence their critics once and for all.
Since terrorism is incompatible with the traditional notions of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing god, let those who believe in this god agree to pray for an end to terrorism on a certain day, a day of their choice. Certainly, they can have no objection to this, if they really believe prayer will solve the terrorist problem. if they don’t think so, then what is the point of prayer in the first place? Believers cannot have it both ways; if prayer works, here is their chance to prove it. If they refuse to take the challenge, then something other than intellectual honesty is at work. Believers want to believe their god listens; they will shy away from any kind of test that either proves or disproves the efficacy of prayer.
Of course, even if terror was to suddenly cease on the appointed day, this would not necessarily mean that a deity were involved; more likely, the warring groups, aware of the special day, would stop their terrorist activities of their own accord. Other factors, wholly of secular origin, could also be the reason. Nonetheless, the coinciding of the day of prayer with the halting of terrorist activities would be a powerful propaganda weapon for the religious.
If believers cry out, as they surely will, that “you cannot test god,” then they are tacitly admitting that belief in god and the power of prayer is purely subjective. And, if their beliefs cannot be objectified then they have no place in the school curriculum, since they are no more provable or intellectually justifiable than belief in witches, fairies, ghosts, or other supernatural agencies. The school curriculum is properly based not on wishful thinking, but on objective reality. While people have every right to believe in such things, they do not have the right to insist that everyone else participate in their nonsense. Why should serious students give up their valuable learning time beseeching a non-existing god to help them?
Believers will also trot out the old “free will” rationalization. They will claim that since we humans have free will, anything bad that happens to us is our own fault, or the result of our innate depravity; Christians love to point out the allegedly “sinful” nature of human beings. This rationalization is a classic religious red herring. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have free will; god is still supposed to care for his children and stop evil when it is occurring. What kind of parents would fail to stop their children from doing evil if they knew in advance they were going to do it? Shouldn’t believers hold their god to the same high standards? After all, isn’t god’s morality supposed to be superior to ours?
Moreover, how does the believer account for the countless natural evils that occur daily? Earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, famines, diseases, and other causes of extreme pain and suffering should warrant the attention of an all-powerful god, if indeed he cares at all about us. To see the foolishness of god belief, all one has to do is visit any children’s hospital to see the many suffering and deformed babies that their god created. Would they insist that these babies’ suffering was due to their own sin? Their parent’s sin? Only those who have divested themselves of all human sentiment could argue in this way. Yet, that is exactly where the free will rationalization must lead.
Whenever their efforts to force a Christian prayer on everyone fail, believers then try to mask their intentions by suggesting a “moment of silence” in the schools. They insist that their children have the “right” to pray in school, ignoring the fact that all children already have that right and have always had it. No one should be misled by their dishonesty. Even so, right-wing politicians have picked up on this and other religious issues and are attempting to legislate their version of fundamentalist religion into everyone’s life. The issue has become a political football; no matter how many times voters reject this type of legislation, politicians insist on wasting their time and taxpayers money to force religion on everyone.
Prayer advocates insist that no one is compelled to pray and those who do not wish to do so are free to leave. This ignores the fact that very few children possess the internal fortitude and courage to leave. Forced prayer also creates an “us vs. them” type of mentality in school; there are numerous cases of students (and their families) who have been ostracized and bullied simply for not participating in the upper bronze age ritual of prayer. Prayer advocates conveniently ignore the suffering of those who disagree with them while endlessly harping on how they are being deprived of their “right” to pray. But nobody seeks to prevent individual students from praying to any deity their imagination can conjure up. The real issue is the parents who want to force their beliefs on everyone else. This is not just rude, it is downright un-American; whether they like it or not, we are a pluralistic society in which universal adherence to a single religious creed can never be enforced. The goal of the religious right wing is simply to drag the unwilling United States by the scruff of the neck back to the time of the Christian Dark Ages when faith reigned supreme and fear ruled the land.
One defining characteristic of recent Republican legislative endeavors has been to cloak their agenda in positive sounding words. One of the best-known examples of this tactic was seen in the efforts of Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Oklahoma) who in 1998 introduced the “Religious Freedom Amendment.” Despite this agreeable title, the amendment ignored the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which already guarantees freedom of and from religion. Despite its obvious unconstitutionality, the measure received a 224-203 majority in Congress; fortunately a two-thirds majority is necessary to pass legislation. What is scary is that 224 members of Congress do not even know the Constitution they have sworn to uphold!
Since that time, there have been countless other examples of such constitutional transgressions, many of which are dutifully covered in Church and State magazine. This is not the place for a listing of all these. It merely needs to be pointed out that the results of such legislation, if successful, would be an infringement on the rights of those who do not share the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of the litigants. It would also create hostility and animosity between different religious groups and encourage them fighting among themselves for governmental largesse. This is what the Founding Fathers in their wisdom sought to avoid, and is why the concept of separation between church and state is of such vital importance today.
The Christian prayer issue is nothing more than a concerted effort by religious extremists to force everyone else to listen to their particular prayers to their particular god. The “moment of silence” they offer instead is simply a means for them to introduce their real agenda in an underhanded, sub-rosa manner.
God believers have a right to believe in any god they choose, and to follow any faith they desire. Those much-maligned atheists have never introduced any legislation attempting to take this away from them. Fundamentalists do not have the right to force everyone else to listen to their religious claptrap. They must be exposed at all cost, for what they are doing is more than a rude imposition of their particular beliefs on others: it is downright un-American.
By: Jon Nelson