Five Arguments in Favor of School Prayer

by Tim Madigan

Brent Bowen, president of the newly-founded Free Inquirers of Northeast Ohio (FINO), recently asked me to address the group's inaugural meeting. The topic he chose was "school prayer". Since everyone attending was a Free Inquiry reader, there was no need for me to give an impassioned speech on the need for church/state separation - that would have been a real case of preaching to the deconverted. Instead, I decided to play "angel's advocate," and present five arguments why secular humanists should be in favor of organized prayer in public schools.

  1. The Pluralistic Argument. America is a nation comprised of people of untold numbers of cultures and traditions. What better way to show this than by allowing each and every one of the various religions found in the United States to have a moment at bat? Start the school day not with a bland "one size fits all" prayer, but rather with a specific incantation from an actual congregation - from the Adventists to the Zoroastrians. Let the school children of this country get a real sense of the rich and varied aspect of our religious nature. (One caveat: snake handlers must check their cobras at the door on the day they come to lead the class in prayer.) There are enough religions to give the children a different prayer for every day of their education, from kindergarten to senior year in high school.

  2. The Official Religion Argument. There are many folks today who want to declare the United States and official Christian nation, including a curious coalition of fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics (strange bedfellows indeed). Secular humanists have been in the forefront of fighting this movement. However, strategically, it might be in our interest to encourage it. The strongest humanist movements are in countries that have no church/state separation, such as Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands. Indeed, churches actually receive tax-funded financial support in these countries. The humanist groups there, while officially non-religious, have won the right to receive financial support as well, to fund their secular outreach programs. In addition, where there are official religions (Anglicanism in England, Lutheranism in Norway, Catholicism in Spain), people tend not to take them very seriously - unlike in the United States, where millions of people willingly get up on weekend mornings and go to the churches of their choice. Declaring America a Christian nation, and then letting people fight it out over which brand of Christianity should apply, might bring throngs of people into the humanist movement. And we could then be funded by tax dollars, too! Bringing organized prayer back into schools would be a good start.

  3. The Personal Argument. As someone who went through twelve years of parochial schooling, I know what it's like to start the school day with a "Hail Mary" and an "Our Father." Most of us mumbled our way through the incantations, without any sense of what we were staying. I remember one year we had as our homeroom teacher a priest who seemed straight out of Bob and Ray's old "Slow Talker of America" routine. How we resented the l-o-n-g time it took him to get through the morning ritual. Certainly in my case, the meaninglessness of organized prayer became evident at a very early age. Rather than increasing my sense of oneness with the Lord, this rigmarole only highlighted my alienation from the Almighty. It was all very well and good to sing His praises in the morning, but where was He in the afternoon when I humiliated myself by striking out at the gym class baseball game, or when the school bullies stole my lunch money? Again, if secular humanists want to increase membership, school prayer is a wonderful way of increasing religious doubts.

  4. The Empirical Argument. Preachers throughout the land decry the Supreme Court decision eliminating organized school prayer. As the Reverend Jeffery L. Osgood, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in Dover, wrote in the December 16 Delaware State News: "Back in 1962, when prayer was removed by the Supreme Court, something happened to America's soul and America's schools. Our nation became increasingly secular and less tolerant of moral standards and values. Since America became too proud to pray to the God of Heaven who created us, we have been reaping the rewards. Crime is way up. The family has broken up. The test scores of students have taken a submarine dive. It's time for a change!" Well, let's do a scientific test. Bring organized prayer back for five years, and let's see if the streets become safe, families unite, and test scores rise dramatically. And if not, then let's throw prayer out again. (By the way, since I was born in 1962, I like to think that it was my coming to Earth that brought about the complete dissolution of morality in the United States.)

  5. The "Forbidden" Argument. Those who oppose prayer in school have been put on the defensive. We're made to look like we're depriving poor little children of their right to bow their heads and talk to God. As Katha Pollitt, one of the Nation's best writers, put it in a December 26, 1994, editorial: "Right now religion has the romantic aura of the forbidden - Christ is cool. We need to bring it into the schools, which kids already hate, and associate it firmly with boredom, regulation, condescension, makework and de facto segregation ... Prayer in the schools will rid us of the bland no-offense ecumenism that is so infuriating to us anticlericals: Oh, so now you say Jews didn't kill Christ - a little on the late side, isn't it?" Pollitt, whose parents were nonreligious (her father was an agnostic Episcopalian, her mother and atheistic Jew), was nonetheless sent to a private Protestant school for girls, and had chapel every day - see my argument #3.

Well, there you have it. Can you imagine the uproar if secular humanists suddenly took the lead in demanding the return of prayer in school? It might even make the religious advocates think twice. As FINO member Rick Rickards pointed out at the meeting, those who believe in the literal truth of the bible might like to consult Matthew 6:6 - "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into they closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret." All we are saying is, hypocrites, come out of the closet.

From the Secular Humanist Bulletin, the associate members' newsletter of CODESH. Associate membership is available for $18/yr. Address inquiries to: CODESH Associate Membership, Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664.

This piece appeared in the Oct 95 issue of the Shreveport Humanist bulletin, 9476 Boxwood Dr, Shreveport LA 71118-4003.

See first and second articles in this prayer debate.

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This page was first created 27 Feb 1996, and was last modified 12 Jun 1999.

(NOTE: I didn't write this... I just posted it to the Web along with other articles from the Shreveport Humanist newsletter! I get lots of e-mail asking for more information about school prayer, often from people doing school projects on the subject, but I really don't have any. Sorry. --Dan)