Donald Andrew Henson II

Secularist Prayer

In American Society, Current events, Secular Humanism on November 21, 2015 at 6:39 pm


I’ve felt a heavy sadness this week that I fear is only bound to intensify in the coming weeks. Events in Paris in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks continue to dominate the news cycle. When there is a break in the coverage, it seems it’s only to introduce another tragedy unfolding elsewhere in the world. Syrian refugees are still  washing up to shore, both dead and alive. At least 27 are dead in the Mali massacre. Kidnappings continue in the Philippines. Palestinians and Israelis are still killing each other on a daily basis. 

Closer to my current home in China, Uighyr separatists, unable to procure guns, rampage through train stations, slashing passengers with long knives. Chinese authorities are accused of retaliating indiscriminately, shooting dead anyone even remotely associated with the attacks.

More violence promised by all parties. 

Even if terrorism didn’t exist, we would still have a 24/7 news stream of police violence, child abductions, grisly murders, school shootings, and other mass killings to look forward to. No need to wait for the evening news or even look for a television – headlines are pushed to our phones round the clock. Videos so gruesomely violent they’d make Dante puke appear in our Facebook newsfeed. Anyone trying to change their profile photo to show solidarity with victims of extremism would need to log on hourly. 

It is clear that secularism – a worldview that espouses the furtherance of human welfare through rational solutions – is, if not altogether dead, certainly mortally wounded. Every time a terrorist or religious zealot takes a life, he emboldens others to join the madness, and elicits vows of revenge from those who worship a slightly different god. Even those who might in other times consider themselves moderates are found shouting threats at city hall or proposing internment camps. 

It’s enough to make a secular humanist cry. I’m sitting at an airport in Beijing, waiting to board a plane home for the holidays, yet my heart is heavy. With all the terrible things happening in the world, even the Pope is having a hard time enjoying the season. How can we sing ‘Peace on Earth’ when it seems the world is on fire? What can we do in this time of troubles?

We can pray.

I’ve heard it said that an agnostic is someone who has a nostalgia for God, and I know I am guilty of this sentiment. I’ve explored the topic before, and I’ve decided that it is difficult to escape the old ways of thinking. I’ve been criticized for posting #prayforparis and #prayforsyria on my blog and other sites. So be it. 

However, perhaps I do need to clarify what kind of prayer I’m talking about. It is not the prayer of the zealot – the one who shouts ‘God is Great’ as he guns down the innocent. I do not propose a fatalist’s prayer, the sort of ‘God’s will be done’ sentiment so prevalent in our major religions. I am certainly not in favor of the Samsonite prayer – let me kill all my enemies even if it’s the last thing I do. And I long ago abandoned the wishful prayer, the one that expects a magic man in the sky – so oblivious to our sufferings thus far – to suddenly make everything ok. 

Instead, what I suggest is to keep these events close to our hearts and uppermost in our thoughts. When I say ‘prayers’ for someone,  it means my heart goes out for them, that I want things to work out for them. I can’t look at someone with stage IV cancer who’s asked me to pray for them and say, “I don’t believe in prayer,” even if I don’t in the conventional sense of the word. 

There is enough heartlessness in the world. I know there is no God – because even a fallible human such as I would stop these heinous events if I could – how could a perfect being do otherwise?

Obviously we must do more than pray – we have to punish those who’ve broken the law, root out those who fan the flames of hatred, and – if we can – eliminate the causes of such mindless violence. But while we’re stunned, hurting, at a loss for words let alone solutions – could it hurt to pray?

Dear Congress – Sincerely, A Mass Shooting Survivor

In American Society, Current events on October 7, 2015 at 12:18 pm

As a mass-shooting survivor, Laurie Works writes an open letter to Congress. With her permission, I’ve reposted – American Secularist

Dear Congress,

I write you today upon hearing the grave news that another heinous mass shooting has happened, this time in Roseburg, Oregon. We learned today that at least 10 people have lost their lives, and at least 7 have been injured.

I write you this letter so that you can see the face of a survivor. I write you this letter as someone who saw with my own eyes the horror of a mass shooting, a shooting that took the lives of my twin and younger sister and injured my father at New Life Church in December 2007. And most importantly I write this letter to open a dialogue about the role that gun violence has played in our country.

I say specifically to open a dialogue, because I am not strictly anti-gun. I feel that I am in a unique place to address this issue. About 3 years ago, I took a class to obtain a conceal-carry permit. After having been a victim of gun violence once, I was terrified to face it again. I still have nightmares about shootings about once a month. The need to protect myself was strong. At the time I felt that a conceal carry permit was the only way to sufficiently do so.

However, once I finished the class, a thought began to pervade my mind. What if I had to actually do it, actually pull the trigger? What then? Could I? Should I?

I thought about seeing my twin Stephanie’s face just moments after she was shot. I thought about my sister Rachel who was gray when I passed her just outside our family car that day. And I knew in that moment I could never pull a trigger against another human. The human might be someone who did something horrific. Some think I might have been able to even stop the shooter who killed my sisters. But when it came down to it, I realized it didn’t matter how horrible the person was. They were human. They had a family – a brother or sister, parents, cousins. In retaliating with a gun, I would be inflicting the same violence on the shooter and his family, that the shooter inflicted on me the day he killed my sisters.

This changed my mind about getting a conceal carry permit. Since I could not personally take on the responsibility of another’s life, I chose not to carry at all. Many have argued that I don’t necessarily have to “kill” someone, or that I could use this permit while out on one of my many hikes to defend myself from animals. However to me, the potentiality is there for me to commit harm against a human, so I refuse to carry.

I do not share this story as a censure against conceal carry but rather to share my thought process. I am not against conceal carry as a whole. What I am against is the lack of foresight that goes into it, both from those who carry, and from our government. Our government in many instances does not background check either those who conceal carry or those who purchase guns.

Why? We know that these atrocities are committed on a regular basis. We know that guns especially can be used to commit violent and heinous crimes. And yet we have little system of checks and balances to prevent these crimes from occurring. Many who argue against gun control say that it is not the gun that is the problem, it is the person. But if we have no way of checking who the person is, the gun becomes the problem.

I must say again clearly, Congress, that too many people have not sufficiently thought through what gun ownership in this country entails. I address you as well as those people. You have not sufficiently thought about what the responsibility of owning a gun means. Therefore you do not regulate it sufficiently in our government system. Because you do not regulate it, others do not either. And we come to where we are today, where people have clearly said to me, “I conceal carry because I am afraid to be in a mass shooting and I need to protect myself.”

The role of a country is to protect its citizens. You have failed to do so and now citizens feel the need to protect themselves, not realizing that the cost of this may be in human lives.

I am appealing to you today not to repeal the 2nd amendment, not to take people’s guns, but to consider within yourselves your responsibility to your people. As I considered my own responsibility towards human dignity when I chose not to carry, I ask you now to consider your responsibility towards human dignity when it comes to guns in the United States. I ask you to bear the grave burden of human life on your shoulders and decide in yourselves what checks and balances can be made to sufficiently uphold its dignity.

I ask you to open a dialogue – to see the human faces of this issue. To see my face as a survivor. To see the faces of gun owners who feel the need to protect themselves. As the tradition of my childhood says in the Scriptures, “Come, let us reason together.” Let’s make this discussion human again.

Please, consider me, and all those who have survived. I ask you, please consider how to prevent these atrocities so that others will never have to say, “I survived seeing my friend, parent, sister, shot and killed.” Put yourself in my shoes, feel what it would be like to survive such terror. And ask yourselves what you can to do prevent this madness from continuing.


A Mass Shooting Survivor

Why Kids Shouldn’t Pray

In American Society, Religion and Education on June 22, 2015 at 10:57 pm


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.