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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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)