I have dear Christian friends and family members whom I try hard not to offend when I post on social media – the main reason I created the American Secularist Facebook page is so that I could share ideas and posts with like-minded individuals without worry that I’d alienate someone I care about. Since I’m not trying to force my opinions upon anyone, I guess I should expect that there would be quite a few people I’m connected to who may not know that I’ve become one of the ‘unconverted’ over the years, becoming much more comfortable with an agnostic worldview and very uncomfortable with the suggestion that we need more God in our government. That means that most days I’ll see a post somewhere that looks like this one:
Dear Atheist, if you do not believe that God exists, why do you care if I pray to him?
Most of the time, these don’t bother me much – I put them in the same category as those invitations to play Candy Crush or whatever the latest game is. If I start getting a half-dozen a day from the same person, I just ‘hide’ their posts for a few days until they calm down about whatever it is that’s got them wound up. There are probably a couple of people who are so far to the right that I need to block them until election season is over. But basically no harm done as those who agree ‘like’ the post and others can just keep moving down the page.
But this particular one hit a few hot buttons – and I think it requires a response.
Let’s first dispel the common misconception this photo promotes – that it is illegal for anyone to pray in an American school. This is simply untrue, no matter how many preachers or Fox News commentators say otherwise. No one has ever ‘taken prayer out of our schools’ at any time. Students can pray in school whenever they like, so long as such activity isn’t disruptive in nature. Teachers and administrators can pray as well, although it must be clear that they are exercising their personal beliefs and that the school is not endorsing any religion or requiring that anyone participate.
Basically, no teacher or administrator can prohibit a student from the free exercise of his or her beliefs – they just can’t lead students in prayer as was often done in the past. The Lemon Test doesn’t say people can’t pray, it only says that the state should not be promoting prayer. The Supreme Court ruled that school activities – and indeed government activities of any kind – should have a secular purpose.
Don’t forget too that almost everyone in favor of school prayer is in favor of their own particular brand of prayer. I don’t think the people passing this photo around would be happy if everyone got to pray they way they wanted to pray – young Sufis whirling around in circles or Japanese Shintos running through the hallways with huge penises held high in the air.
In fact, the legislation that stopped teacher-led prayer in school didn’t come about because some atheist was annoyed by it – it started because a Jewish man didn’t like seeing his son saying Christian prayers. Going back to the way things were in the 1950s would only re-open the old debates about whether a Catholic or Jew (and we’d have to add Muslim today) should be included in Protestant prayers – or should the prayer be watered down to be so general as to be meaningless. Few are satisfied with universalist prayers.
I think what I find particularly annoying about this photo is that it is presented as an honest question from a child – scrawled innocently on a notepad, out of the mouth of babes, as it were. Finished off with a rather smug-looking smiley face for good measure. Of course, this is a misrepresentation. It is clearly the opinion of an adult who wants to force kids to pray to his god. He wouldn’t phrase it that way, I’m sure, but that’s what the outcome would be.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like to hear children being referred to as “Christian children”, “Jewish children”, or any other religious designation. Children do not choose their religious affiliation. No parent tells a child about Jesus, Mohammed, Rama, and Buddha, then leaves it up to that child to decide which one they want to believe in. Instead, children are indoctrinated. At an age and developmental stage in which fantasy and reality are hard to separate, children are presented only one set of religious myths, told to them as truth.
This is why keeping religion out of the schools is so important. Schools have the huge task of educating our children, dispelling ignorance, and creating and nurturing inquisitive minds. Propping up tired old ideas based on the 2000-year-old writings of mostly unlearned men should not be on the agenda. Teachers who encourage children to ask a magic man in the sky for personal favors instead of showing them the math and science behind how the universe works should not be employed by public schools. Education is about learning that which can be proven.
Why do I care? Even though children are legally allowed to pray in school, I’m not sure that they should. I think it’s dangerous to encourage children to believe in fantasy and fatalism, to teach as real things which have no proof. A lot of what’s wrong in America today is caused by believing there’s something out there that will magically solve all of our ills. God will come back before we destroy ourselves through wars or environmental destruction. Cut taxes for rich people and the economic woes will somehow right themselves. Carpet-bombing and drone attacks are somehow going to reduce terrorism around the world.
Perhaps our children should be learning that only they, themselves, can change the world for the better. Arguing about which imaginary friend we should be allowed to talk to is a serious waste of time.