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Austin Cline

Comment of the Week: Outlawing Prayer in Public School

By June 8, 2010

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The religious obsession with mythology isn't limited to the myths contained in religious scripture; unfortunately, it also extends to creating myths (and fabrications) about the world around us right now. An important component of this is the construction of political myths: falsehoods and misrepresentations designed to inspire believers to work towards some political goal.

As if it weren't bad enough that believers are being exhorted to some political action based on a falsehood, it's also common for these falsehoods to include what amounts to defamatory statements about secularists, atheists, and skeptics. A great example is the myth that prayer has been banned or outlawed in public schools. I don't know which is worse: the dishonesty behind spreading the claims or the ignorance behind believing the claims.

Tracie H writes:

This is an important distinction--often conflated. I can't generally tell if the people voicing the confusion at the top levels are truly ignorant or flagrantly lying. But I can't express how many times I've heard or read the claim that secularists are trying to "outlaw" prayer in school. It's expressed in such a way that it sounds as though the person asserting it thinks if a child is "caught" praying between classes he'll be somehow punished. When the fact is that it's simply about not promoting organized school sponsored prayers in schools. It's night and day; but you sound more of a martyr, I supposed, more persecuted, if you say that someone wants to walk all over your religious freedoms--your "right" to pray. When in fact the issue speaks not at all to individual rights, but to government sponsored religious behavior.

And, of course, the people who are pushing for prayer in school seem oblivious to the reality that by promoting a prayer in the school, you are pushing a religion using the government--the same persecution many religious pilgrims left Europe to escape.

[original post]

Are they truly oblivious? I don't know. I suppose the most generous assumption about them is that they assume that it's somehow possible for the state to endorse a "non-sectarian but Christian" prayer that would be completely acceptable to all Christians... and who really cares what non-Christians think about it? In other words, they want to please the Christian majority at the expense of non-Christians who don't count anyway.

Even their best hopes here are wrong, though, because there is no such thing as a "generic Christian prayer" that all Christians would be happy with. Either it would include doctrines that some Christians would object to, or it would be so vague that some Christians would object to that. The inability to recognize this is the unsurprising product of decades of right-wing Christian propaganda that focuses on treating non-Christians as enemy outsiders and ignoring all the differences within the Christian community (in order to make it seem like they are a single united power and thus make it seem like they are more powerful than they really are).

I'm not sure how often this "most generous assumption" is really appropriate, however. I think that there are many cases where the people pushing for prayer in public school are fully aware of the fact that they are seeking the state's endorsement of prayers that would only appeal to a subset of Christians and, what's more, that this would entail government persecution of everyone else. I think that's what they want -- they regard everyone not like themselves, including adherents of the "wrong" sort of Christianity -- as so evil that they need to be removed from any position of power, authority, or influence. This is, after all, a large part of what's behind attempts to remove gays, atheists, humanists, Muslims, and others from teaching positions, scouting, political office, etc.

June 8, 2010 at 10:38 am
(1) P Smith says:

Whenever someone says, “I want prayer in schools and government!” what he really means is “I want MY prayer in schools and government, not yours!” The religious always lack the honesty to say what they’re really after.

In the above item:
Even their best hopes here are wrong, though, because there is no such thing as a “generic Christian prayer” that all Christians would be happy with. Either it would include doctrines that some Christians would object to, or it would be so vague that some Christians would object to that.

I’ve mentioned before the Texas High School Football case, the Santa Fe v Doe in 2000, but for those who didn’t see it or don’t recall, people sued to prevent organized or “spontaneous” prayers from being spoken at high school football games.

The plaintiffs were catholics and mormons, not atheists. It was less about “praying” than preying – the fundamentalist christians saying the “prayers” were targeting words at the catholics and mormons, words like “satanists”, “misguided”, “sinners”, et al. The fundies tried to portray the case as government banning prayer, but the plaintiffs wanted prayer removed to prevent such insults and invectives being aimed at them with school approval.

The shoe was on the other foot and the catholics and mormons didn’t like it. If they were the dominant group, you can bet it would have been a vastly different story.

The religious are all for prayer until they aren’t the ones who decide what is said.

June 8, 2010 at 8:28 pm
(2) Kyle S says:

I still wonder how much of that is derived from Jesus’ quote “Anyone not with me is against me”. That proponents would extrapolate from that the idea that all institutions, including the state, is either “pro-Jesus/pro-Christianity” or “anti-Jesus/anti-Christian”. I have heard some on the right state that a position of neutrality from the state on matters of religion is mathematically impossible.

Sometimes the objections we raise to what the Christian Right are met with “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Deal with it!”

Sometimes when we object to the divisiveness of Christianity’s core message, we’ll hear, of course, not in so many words “Damn right it is! Jesus’ message is exclusive. He said he came not to bring peace but a sword, and to set mother and father against son and daughter, etc. ‘Ya gotta problem with that?!”

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