Atheist Groups Embrace Legislative Prayer

on May 8, 2014

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, many Christian leaders are hailing the Court’s affirmation of the constitutionality of legislative prayers. But perhaps the most unexpected response came from two atheist advocacy groups. The American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation each put out press releases announcing that they would support speakers who gave atheistic or Humanist legislative prayers.

The American Humanist Association announced an invocation program, designed to give speakers the resources they need to give invocations without any religious content. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was bit nastier. They announced the “Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award,” a monetary award given to whoever gives the best secular invocation each year. The implied purpose of the award is to “flood” local meetings until citizens simply decide to do away with legislative prayers entirely.

So one way or another, atheist invocations are coming to legislative functions. How are Christians to respond? Some angry Christians have stated that an atheist taking part in a legislative prayer session is patently absurd, and legislatures would well within their rights to exclude them. But seeking to stop or exclude atheists would be unwise, unconstitutional, and un-Christian.

Legally, there is no basis for excluding atheists or secularists from giving legislative prayers or invocations. Some might dispute whether or not Humanism or atheism is a proper “religion.” But some forms (though not all) of Universal Unitarianism, Buddhism, and Wiccanism are atheistic or agnostic, yet all are clearly “religions.” But more important than philosophical definitions is that fact that belief in a god or supernatural elements has never been the legal definition of what a “religion” is. Clearly, atheists are well within their rights to demand equal access to give invocations.

The purpose of legislative prayer, as articulated by the Supreme Court, is manifold: it “lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.” The religious do not hold a monopoly on these values. So long as atheistic ‘prayers’ uphold these values, they are perfectly legal.

Consider the following invocation, given by an atheist member of the Arizona House of Representatives last year:

Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you to take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.

This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love…

Rep. Juan Mendez’s invocation was no different than any other, in that it trumpeted universal values and was informed by his religious tradition. There was a shadow of his anti-religious beliefs in his remarks that some might bristle at, but no more than a Hindu might disagree with a Christian prayer. Justice Kennedy rightly observes that the entire institution of legislative prayers relies on the assumption “that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

So given that atheist invocations and prayers are clearly legal, how should Christians react? With love, first and foremost. If non-Christians can tolerate Christian prayers before a town meeting, it is only right that we respect invocations from other traditions. We need not endorse or participate such prayers, but there is certainly nothing Christian about shouting them down, protesting in some fashion, or otherwise disrespecting an individual for their religious beliefs.

It may well be the case that some of the coming invocations will be mocking, derogatory, or filled with falsehoods. If so, responding with kindness and fairness will only make them look sillier. If there is a pattern of mean-spirited invocations, Christians need only point to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision, which stipulated that prayers cannot “denigrate” other religious faiths or urge conversion.

But I’d go even further, and say that Christian ought not to simply permit and respect invocations given by atheists and secularists. We ought to actively promote them, for the simple reason that such atheists end up looking utterly ridiculous and hypocritical.

Within just the past year, we’ve seen increased pushes for atheist chaplains, and an increasing number of atheist churches (atheist megachurches, even). Just this past week, the irreligious celebrated “National Day of Reason” on the same day as the National Day of Prayer. Last December, I detailed the somewhat bizarre Humanist holiday HumanLight, designed to mimic Christmas with secular hymns, cards, and a “holiday tree.” Increasingly, in an effort to compete with organized religion, irreligion is becoming one.

This is something Christians should see as a good thing. To begin with, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Hardcore atheists’ lines about the evils of organized religion are easy to rebut when increasingly atheism begins to ape religion. This new trend is essentially an affirmation of what religious people have claimed for centuries: organized religion provides stability, answers, and a sense of community to its adherents.

Furthermore, I suspect that if irreligion becomes increasingly centralized and organized, it will lose a great deal of its appeal. I hope atheists will forgive me when I say that I’ve often felt that much of atheism’s appeal is the sense of intellectual superiority it seems to afford. Obviously, not all atheists are smug jerks who think they’re better than people of faith. But there’s a reason Richard Dawkins and his followers go around calling themselves “The Brights.” And the common descriptor “freethinker,” seems to imply that those who don’t agree, well, we’re all just slaves to the system, man.

It’s partly for this reason that atheists or secularists are often hostile to the notion that their beliefs constitute a “religion.” Haven’t you heard that they’re above all that? But the more atheists and Humanists partake in activities set aside for the religious, and the more they insist on all the same privileges as the religious, the more atheism will be seen as just another religion. When you have atheist “prayers,” “churches,” “clergy,” and “holidays,” what’s so superior about that? The more irreligion apes religion, the more hollow, hypocritical, and ordinary it will become.

  1. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on May 8, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Good points all, Alexander.

    My concern is not so much that atheistic “invocations” will be disturbing or nonsensical but that provocateurs holding extremist or minority points of view will try, once again, to monopolize and tear down to the point that public prayers will be jettisoned altogether. After all, that has been the atheists’ goal all along, and they seem determined to achieve it using any means they deem necessary.

    More than ever in today’s culture the squeaky wheels—particularly on the left side of the political spectrum—get the grease. This is largely due to de facto substitution of legality for morality and the incessant legal maneuverings that result.

  2. Comment by Sharon D Graham on May 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Until the last 2 paragraphs, I was sincerely impressed by this essay. But the writer just had to get in his licks by calling into question the underlying motivation of those who choose not to be Christian. I am saddened by the lack of respect Christians give to so-called non-believers. I am a 65 year old middle class white woman who was a strong, deeply passionate Christian for the first 20-some years of my life. But as I entered adulthood and maturity, I realized so much of Christianity did not make sense for me personally. My philosophical and spiritual beliefs are not the result of my interest in being rebellious or contrary, but rather came about after years of introspection and consideration. My belief system now thoroughly satisfies my spirituality, sense of well-being, and curiosity, in that order. I don’t feel I am “above” or “superior to” Christians, or any other believers. Just the opposite: I deeply believe we are all one and equal in our existence. I feel sad that so many Christians feel they must denigrate those whose beliefs differ from theirs.

  3. Comment by Rover Serton on May 12, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Agree with Sharron. I was with you till you started the christian privilege whining. You lost credibility when you wrote “Obviously, not all atheists are smug jerks”.

    If you can waste my time with non government business. I think it only fair that I waste yours also. Better idea, Have your prayer meeting before or afterwards. No problem there and you won’t have to listen to us.

    Nascar has us stand for the flag to be brought in ,then, while your are up, here is the Christian prayer. Came for the race, not doing a church service, sitting down.

  4. Comment by Dennis Arashiro on May 12, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Because there might be a misunderstanding of the nature of Unitarian Universalism, let me explain the idea of “some forms” being atheistic or agnostic. There are as many forms of Unitarian Universalism as there are members, since each individual’s spiritual journey is respected. The destinations are many, including atheism, agnosticism, Wicca, Buddhism, and Christianity.

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