I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

Over the past week I’ve heard several mentions of the breakout of prayer by students at a football game in Marianna, children-praying-in-school-300x300Florida.  The local TV station reported “Just before Friday night’s football game at Marianna High School, students, parents, and even the players went through with reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”  Further, a student is reported as saying “It just shows that with God anything’s possible, nothing can stop us.”  This is all in response to the fact that the local school board had decided that an organized prayer was problematic, something that has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.

Here is what I find odd about all this.  People keep acting as if the students and parents taking it upon themselves to pray is some kind of triumph over some movement to prevent that kind of thing from happening.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  No one has ever suggested that private individuals are not allowed to pray before football games, at graduations, or anything else.  That has never been the issue at hand.  What has been at issue is the idea of prayers organized by public school officials, and this is for a very simple reason.  It is both illegal and inappropriate for the government to endorse any particular religion.  And, of course, that’s what almost all parents, including those in Marianna, Florida, want, even if they are not aware of that fact.  I promise, the last thing any these people who recited the Lord’s Prayer want is for some school official to stand up and lead their children in a prayer a Hindu deity.  They would absolutely freak out.  But, of course, that’s the same kind of respect Hindus want as well.  They don’t want someone in power telling their kids to what god it is appropriate to pray.  And I doubt Protestants want a Catholic official leading students in a prayer to the Virgin Mary, and I can’t help but think that most Southern Baptists would be incredibly uncomfortable if the team coach broke out in Tongues before the big game.  I can come up with these examples all day long.  The only prayers people want their kids praying are prayers to their own god in their own way.  And that’s exactly the reason for not having public school officials lead the children in their charge in prayers in general.

But none of that has anything to do with individuals themselves saying prayers to whatever they want.  On the contrary, that right has been affirmed repeatedly by the courts and defended by that oft-maligned “liberal” group, the ACLU, the same group the report above says claims “it’s against the law for school administrators and teachers to either encourage or discourage [prayer].”  And that is exactly what they say, that school officials cannot encourage or discourage school prayer, but it is that last part that people so often seem to neglect.  There is this strange conviction held by many Christians that they are somehow persecuted, that some secret, nefarious, liberty-hating liberal (funny as that is) cabal within the government is desperate to prevent Christians from worshipping as they wish.  Their evidence of this is that others’ liberties are being protected, namely the liberty to not be coerced into worshipping any particular god at all.  But that is evidence of no such thing, and I am constantly puzzled and dumbfounded as to how anyone who is in control of their mental faculties could ever draw such a conclusion.

A group of Christians praying in public is no victory over anything.  No one is attempting to prevent Christians from practicing their religion.  The only thing at issue has been whether government officials should endorse a particular religion, and this is exemplified here by the idea of teachers leading children, who are told to do as their teachers say, in prayers to entities that may or may not be approved by the children’s parents.  That’s it.  Pray in public all you want.  But when you brag that you’ve somehow overcome prejudice and attempts to revoke your rights because you prayed to Jehovah, you just look foolish and show your own radical misunderstanding of how your own rights are being protected.

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The Problem of Silence

There is an activity popular amongst those who consider themselves tolerant or “enlightened” that occurs at meetings and gatherings both public and private.  This is is known as a “moment of silence.”  It takes place at the same time as what would traditionally be a prayer.  However, those demanding this moment of silence believe that a prayer to any particular god is an act of prejudice as there may well be those in attendance who worship a god other than the one to whom the majority would be praying.  In their benevolence and understanding, in their supreme tolerance of others, these people choose the moment of silence as a way to show their respect for all faiths.  I think this practice is at best foolish and at worst insulting.

This video should highlight the problem, but let me make it as clear as possible.  There is little in the way of “respect” shown to someone’s god when you 1) don’t let them say it’s name out loud, and 2) grant equal “respect” to other gods, you know, the ones who don’t exist for the believers.  All you can succeed in doing is belittling the beliefs of the devout, and this should not be surprising.  After all, how other than a veiled insult can someone take the suggestion that their god, the real one(s), is the same as all the false gods that adherents to other religions think exist?  It is ridiculous to think that anyone even could take such a situation any differently if they’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening.

Think about it.  Say that you’re a Muslim, and you believe Allah is the One True God.  What you have is a situation where the people leading the moment of silence saying both that it is appropriate for others to pray to false gods, to flaunt their status as an infidel in your face, and that you yourself should afford such behavior some measure of respect.  Who are these people to demand something so absurd of someone?  Of course, the same goes for an adherent to any religion that holds that it is wrong to worship false gods, that being most of them.  Certainly, Christianity is one of those religions, the first one, two, or three (depending on how you count them) of the Ten Commandments dealing with that very thing.  It is foolish to think that any Christian who takes the Ten Commandments seriously would be comfortable with this moment of silence that grants false gods the same respect as God.  I mean, duh.

Worse, the only people who might not be upset about this, the only people who might appreciate such a situation, are the very ones for whom such a demonstration of “respect” is wholly unnecessary.  That is, it is only those people who are comfortable with other people worshiping different gods, who take no offense at such activity, that would be okay with this generic “moment” in the first place.  I mean, if I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god, then I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god!  For that reason, this attempt at pacification and tolerance is pointless in relation to the only people for whom it might be acceptable.

Then we have the issue of non-believers and those who might believe in a god but just don’t like him.  For atheists, the demand that they take a moment to show respect for nothing is just strange.  What could the point of that be?  Surely it can’t be to show respect for gods they don’t think exist.  How insulting, how patronizing and condescending, it would be for an atheist to pat someone on the back and say, “You go ahead and pray to your imaginary friend.”  Even worse, if that’s possible, would be for the individual who believes but refuses to give respect to the deity.  Imagine someone who looks at the world with its various catastrophes, e.g. the floods, hurricanes, genocide, raping of babies, and the burying of women up to their necks in the sand for the purpose of crushing her skull with rocks until she is dead, out of “respect” for a god no less, and has concluded that no amount of evil could exist without a designer, an infinitely powerful fiend whose sole desire is to torment and cause suffering.  That person almost certainly has no desire to show respect for that god, and yet this is exactly what this moment of silence demands of her.  That’s absurdity of cosmic levels.

This demand for a moment of silence can only be made by those who are woefully ignorant or just jerks who don’t care about or respect the actual beliefs of others.  Let’s cut this crap out.

*Lest there is any confusion, I do not have in mind here anything like the similarly-called “moment of silence” used as an opportunity to remember the dead at funerals and memorial services or anything of that nature.

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The Problem of Spiritual Consolation

The Washington Post has been running a series of essays by religious authorities in response to the recent earthquake in Haiti.  The idea of the series is to examine how people of different faiths explain the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.  I would like to say something about this tragedy as well, but I approach the issue from almost exactly the opposite perspective.   I do not believe that there is any good answer to the question of why terrible things happen, but I do believe that it is insensitive to explain away such calamities with fables or myths.  Moreover, I think that "spiritual consolation" becomes offensive when it implies that suffering could have been prevented through alternative thinking, praying, or other "spiritual" practices.

If you believe that God has a Plan or that there is a "cosmic order" to the universe then you necessarily believe that awful things happen for a reason.  This applies not only to natural disasters but also to diseases, acts of malice, and personal tragedies.  Of course, you may believe that particular events are exacerbated by evil human intent (or corruption) and that those who knowingly do wrong things ought to be punished, but this does not get you out of the deeper metaphysical problem of evil.

Let us start with the idea of God’s Plan.  If it is the case that God is omniscient, then God Knows that some priests are going to rape some alter boys.  It is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the gift of free will that God allows such acts to occur, just as it is a part of God’s Plan that every day thousands of people will die in accidents, epidemics, and massacres.  From a philosophical perspective, I do not find this position to be particularly problematic because I can accept that God could be omniscient and omnipotent but that His omnibenevolence is so far from what we imagine (usually some kind of cosmic Santa Claus) that it can contain atrocities and still be, ultimately, Good.   What puzzles me is why anyone would take comfort in believing in a god like that.  Moreover, the idea that praying to a god who already has a set plan will make any difference in the course of future events is both absurd and borderline offensive.  After all, if I accept that the same God that allows earthquakes and child rape occasionally answers prayers, then it looks as though I must accept that people who suffer devastation may, in fact, be responsible for their own suffering.  If prayer works, and some people still suffer and die from things God could have prevented, then they must not have prayed or prayed the right way.

So, to recap, the two religious alternatives appear to be that 1) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan, and can’t be helped or 2) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan but can be helped by prayer, so if you continue to suffer even after prayer, then it is your own fault.  In light of this, I can see why the not-religious might seek out some alternative form of consolation.  I expect that the appeal of New-Age self-help programs like "Heal Your Life" and "The Secret" has a lot to do with this.  The idea behind New Age thought seems to be that we can explain away our old suffering in terms of a cosmic order (usually something like Karma, but it varies) that we didn’t understand before, and that we can prevent new suffering by understanding this cosmic order and harnessing  "positive thinking" or "positive energy" in our lives.  On the surface, New Age thought seems appealing because it offers up all the reassurances of religion (ultimate meaning, a purpose-driven life, etc.) without a nasty god who may hold you accountable for all of the bad things you did in your miserable life.  Unfortunately, the "cosmic order" view doesn’t offer any insightful explanation for why bad things happen, and it is even more conducive to a blame-the-victim conclusion than the "God’s Plan" view.

What virtually every New Age system holds in common is the belief that "non-physical" aspects of people such as "positive" or "negative" beliefs, "auras", or "spiritual energy" have an effect upon the physical world such that they determine the health of the body as well as events in a person’s life.  For example, the New Age self-help guru Louise Hay claims that she cured her cancer without drugs or surgery through "an intensive program of affirmations, visualization, nutritional cleansing, and psychotherapy."  In other words, Louise Hay claims that she cured cancer by thinking differently.  Leaving aside the obvious empirical problems with this claim (and the serious philosophical problems, and the fact that she is lying), what is troubling about Louise Hay is that her program implies that those who suffer and die of illnesses such as cancer could have chosen to do otherwise (by thinking differently!)  and that, for this reason, they are ultimately responsible for their fate.   The same implication follows from the principle of the self-help documentary "The Secret" which suggests that economic success is not the result of mere fortune and labor but is instead the result of a mysterious "Law of Attraction" whereby individuals attract fortunate events and interactions through positive thinking.  Thus, people who live in poverty could have done otherwise and those who remain in poverty have failed to take available measures to improve their luck.

I understand that most people who offer up their prayers, thoughts, meditations, and/or "positive energy" to those who suffer do so with honest intentions and good will, but this is no excuse for promoting a position that blames the victim.  The people of Haiti did not make a deal with the Devil nor tip the Karmic scales so as to necessitate an earthquake, and no amount of prayer or positive thought could have changed their circumstances.  Consolations based upon spiritual conjecture are an insult to their injury.

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