Why school led prayer is wrong

This post comes from my perspective as an educator, and also as a frequent unwilling participant in publicly led prayers. There are two simple reasons why institutionally directed prayer is wrong: equal rights and individual privacy. We often hear about the equal rights aspect, but I think the invasion of privacy is more powerful and more troubling. When Kevin Lowery, principle of Lebanon High School in Missouri, led a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, he did more than alienate a few non-Christian students and parents. He faced those students and their parents with an awkward choice: they could either bow their heads in grudging compliance with Mr. Lowery’s religious exercise and join in the subsequent applause, or they could stand visibly apart from the crowd and thereby out themselves as detractors. This presents the non-Christians (or non-participating Christians) with a crisis in which they must either go against their consciences, or be spotlighted as outsiders. That is coercive and it is wrong.

Suppose that instead of praying, Mr. Lowery had asked all the Christians in the room to stand. Suppose he had asked all the non-Christians to stand. How about just they Muslims or the Jews? How about all the Atheists? These would be pretty intrusive requests, but leading a prayer from the pulpit is no different. It is extremely easy to sort out who is from who isn’t by watching what people do when the praying starts. It may be the case that many evangelical Christians enjoy having their religious views exposed as publicly as possible, but most people prefer to keep their views and affiliations quiet, and they shouldn’t need to give any reason for exercising their own privacy.

Atheist advocate Jerry Coyne has been heavily pursuing this matter at Lebanon high school, and has received many responses from people on “both” sides of the issue. One of the first responses Coyne received was from a school board member, Mr. Kim Light, who asked: “My question is whether or not this is funded and/or supported by the University of Chicago and is this YouTube viewing conducted using university resources and conducted during time that could be used for instructional or research time.”

Mr. Light’s “question” was in fact a thinly veiled threat, probing at the blurry line that separates academic freedom from (potentially) objectionable outside interests. Mr. Kim’s threatening stance is not uncommon coming from those who want to constrain the speech of university professors. Here is my response to that kind of threat: I am knowingly and deliberately writing this post during “business hours” from my university office, using my university computer while sitting on my university chair. The purpose of this post is to give a message to any of my students or colleagues who may be reading: I respect your religious privacy and autonomy. I will not ever force you to publicly expose your religious views in any university function. I will not ever impose a religious exercise on you or on the members of any captive audience. If you have special needs associated with your religious views, I will make an effort (within reason) to discretely accommodate those needs.

I feel it is important for all educators to acknowledge that their students and peers comprise a diverse population, and we have a professional obligation to be neutral in all respects except for scholarly performance and professional conduct. If a student wants to approach me about religion, then we can have a free discussion. If a student wants to say a quiet personal prayer before an exam, that’s their prerogative (luckily I’m an Atheist or else I might consider that to be cheating). But I understand it is not my place to corner people into a religiously themed exercise.

This isn’t a hard concept at all.

Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

ImageSummary: PZ Myers has created a “rude” environment on his blog, where the emphasis on ridicule and insult can obscure the nuances that separate good scholarship from pseudo-scholarship.

[EDIT– It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that some of my generalizations in this post are unfair. I agree with the assessment. My comments below are motivated by a particularly bad experience in which I was heckled by a few participants, one of whom trotted out some literature from a holocaust denial publisher, which left me somewhat enraged. In this specific experience, constructive discussion was simply unable to gain a foothold amidst the cacophony. This does not change my critique of Pharyngula’s general style as a community, which echoes (and amplifies) the style of denunciation and ridicule that appears in PZ’s own writing. I don’t think this style is a good representation of science and it interferes with the mission of public understanding.]
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The perrenial in-fighting of secular factions

In this post, I present a bit of history that helps illuminate the importance of a broad humanist outlook among free-thinkers and Atheists. I hope it may also help us view the current in-fighting among secularist groups within the context of a much bigger picture.

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The loose-knit community of humanists, free-thinkers, Atheists and skeptics has blown its thermometer over the feminist agenda introduced by “Atheism Plus” and its supporters. Many have weighed in their opinions that humanist excursions — especially feminism — are outside the scope of the Atheist and secular movement. Meanwhile dissenting users on all sides complain of being misrepresented, shamed, harassed, demonized, banned and deleted. Lousy Canuck asks, glumly, “Is the Skeptic Empire dying?” Don’t worry, Canuck, the Cult of Reason has been around for a long, long time. It never dies, it just divides. I’d now like to highlight the story of one secular movement that devoured itself and the society around it.

Here’s the short version: Following the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionary government began taking steps to strip the Catholic Church of its power. A program of systematic de-Christianization ensued, and by 1792 certain revolutionary factions were authorized to convert churches and cathedrals into “temples of reason,” administered by an atheistic Cult of Reason.  By 1793, a revolutionary leader named Robsepierre came to power. Although Robespierre supported the de-Christianization of France, he preferred a Deistic version of the Cult of Reason. To achieve this, he sent the Atheist leaders to the guillotine. In 1794, Robespierre and the Deists also visited the guillotine, and by 1801 France established a new normal in which it returned to being a more-or-less Catholic nation.

All of this happened amidst a bloody revolutionary backdrop, and all of the head-chopping was motivated by more than just philosophical differences. Nevertheless, this history offers a bit of symbolism (if exaggerated) relating to recent events in the secular community: the secularists had their moment, and all they did was destroy each other. This story has been passed around by religious apologists for well over a century, as a reason why secularism is dangerous. And they are right about one thing: reason alone is not enough, because reasonable people reach different conclusions. It seems to me that an Atheist must either be some kind of Humanist or some kind of sociopath. I think the AtheismPlus folks are right about something very important: Atheism as a belief system is just an empty box. Atheism as a movement requires something more, something better.

Bring out the crazies

Sigh. Immediately following the Newtown tragedy, all varieties of media lit up with critiques about groups who might try to capitalize on the event to serve their own political motives. These critiques were initially directed at gun-control activists. But now a growing variety of crazies — some of them in positions of influence — are using Newtown as a backdrop to air their own fringe viewpoints. Among the more popular fringe ideas are coming from the prayer-in-school and anti-evolution camps, who are circulating messages like this one, titled “Darwin at fault for massacre,” that appeared in my local paper. According to the letter’s author, Geoff Vongermeten:

Not until Darwin goes away and in the view of humanity being specially created by God in his image can we ever hope to stem the tide of mass murder and war. Cain started it. Darwin legitimized it. Who’s going to stop it? The tools are not the problem. The philosophy is the problem!

While my local paper is known for attracting cave-dwelling weirdos, PZ Myers has assembled a round-up of comments that commanded substantial influence during the past week. The most common viewpoint seems to be that Newtown was divine punishment. A popular poem has been circulating which insinuates that Jesus wanted to “take back his schools,” i.e. Jesus had the Newtown children assassinated so that he could open an elementary school in heaven. These ideas are completely zany, but they are echoed by people like James Dobson who command a large national audience.

Conservative Christians seem to blame all tragic events on modernity, on science or secularism, or because of gays or other groups who they think aren’t receiving enough hate from our culture. I suppose it shouldn’t be too shocking that might see Newtown as a divine act, since the God of the Bible so often orders or permits infanticide. Even the first Christmas was marked by an act of mass infanticide. So that isn’t shocking. But what is shocking is that people of the 21st century still believe that this is a good model for a just and moral society. That’s plain nuts.

Massacre of the Innocents