Philosophy with Attitude

This is a series of Letters to the Editor that appeared in the Keene Sentinel (of Keene, NH) in the summer of 1993 (while I was home from school). I wrote the first one; then the following day, another appeared from one of my former high-school classmates, to which I simply had to respond. I was 19 at the time.

To the Sentinel,

I would like to start with a simple premise: mandatory, instructor-led prayers should be kept out of public schools. Already I have no doubt raised some hackles -- but before you skip this letter and go on to the comics, let me justify this statement.

First, the scholarship argument: it has been quoted many times that since mandatory prayer was removed from public schools, SAT scores have dropped, rates of teenage pregnancy have gone up, and morality itself is at an alleged all-time low. To blame this on the fact that teachers no longer have to force their students to mumble an "Our Father" or somesuch is ludicrous. How is a single, mandatory prayer supposed to teach children better study habits in preparation for a test? Will it automatically endow them with the ability to make better choices where sexuality is concerned? Can this so-called prayer really purge the public schools of all evil? I doubt it.

But then, can a mandatory prayer even be considered a legitimate prayer? It is my understanding that the Christian god was more appreciative of voluntary, spontaneous prayer than of mechanical recitations -- and, indeed, that he prefers it to be private, as is quoted in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:5-8): "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Emphasis added.) It doesn't seem that Jesus was mincing any words: to force children to recite a so-called prayer would go against even what he said -- and what true Christian would wish to do that?

Then, of course, there is the obvious point that not all schoolchildren are even Christians. To say that all of them must recite a prayer directed at a Christian deity, using Christian references, no matter what faith or lack thereof they practice at home, would be a fundamental deprivation of their civil rights -- not to mention a humiliating experience for those who choose not to pray, for whatever reasons. Children can be ever so cruel to those who do not conform -- and Jesus didn't want that either. Does "Love the sinner, hate the sin" ring a bell to anyone? Most children aren't yet familiar with it, and would be just as happy to hate the "sinner"` for his or her nonconformity.

A proposition to offer a so-called "ecumenical" prayer -- one that takes a more general view of religion, so that the children who say it could be praying to Jehovah, Zeus, Shiva, Allah, or any of the hundreds of other deities of mankind -- is to defeat its very purpose. Prayer's intention is to give glory to the specific deity to which it is offered, and perhaps to ask a favour of him or her; an ecumenical prayer does none of these, and how can it? If no specific deity is named, no true faith is involved. Is that what mandatory prayer-in-schools supporters really want?

It would seem, then, that the most appropriate solution is to allow children to pray when, if, and what they want to pray. That would encourage true faith, and for those who are interested in such things, give the other children a chance to see what true faith is all about. Can I tell you a secret now? Voluntary prayer is allowed in school. It always has been, ever since the drafters of the Constitution included "freedom of religion" in its First Amendment. No teacher can stop your child from praying -- quietly and non-disruptively, at least -- whenever he or she wants to -- but the teacher cannot force others to join in the same prayer. The same amendment that gives you freedom of religion gives the rest of us freedom from religion; we deserve the same respect for not praying as you do for it.

For those who claim that voluntary prayer is not enough and that prayers must be mandatory in the public schools, let me ask you this: how strong is your religion if it must depend on the government to spread and uphold its tenets? Is your church not enough to teach your children morality? Then teach them morality at home. Your unwillingness to do so does not mean that the government should or must; take the responsibility for caring for your own children's spiritual health, and let the rest of us take care of ours. Morality does not belong in the hands of the government -- that was the principle our nation was founded upon. (Remember the Puritans? Ask yourself what they were fleeing from, and you'll see my point.)

I hope that no one will interpret this as an attack on religion; it was not meant in any form to be one. And if you should feel it necessary to respond in a way other than rational and polite discourse, I would ask you to recall some of the other words of the Sermon on the Mount, among them, "Love you enemies," and "Do not judge, or you too will be judged; for in the same way you judge others, you will be judged." Thank you.

XX Xxxxxxxxxx Lane
X. Xxxxxxx, NH XXXXX


"Put prayer back into the public schools"; Keene Sentinel, Wednesday, 14 July 1993

"To the Sentinel:

"I am 17 and would like to see prayer put back in the public schools.

"I believe America would begin to pull herself together if students and school faculty started praying before the school day begins.

"I also believe that an older student or a teacher should be appointed to say grace before lunch is served.

"Perhaps by bringing prayer back in the schools, we can bring God back to His rightful place in America. By that, I mean putting God first in our hearts, our thoughts, in the workplace, and in the home.

"Not only that, but I strongly believe God should most definitely be put first in government movements. Instead of the president making decisions based on what he thinks is right for this country, he should be praying about that decision and asking for guidance that he might do the right thing. Unfortunately, that is not what occurs when our presidents make important decisions these days.

"It is quite apparent that God has been forgotten in the lives of many U.S. citizens and that is the reason this country is going to pot. By pushing God out of the picture, we lose our rights, our freedom, our sense of morale [sic]; most tragic of all, this won't be America anymore, but another form of the old Soviet Union.

"Wake up, people. Is that what you really want?

"All thoughout history, any country that has pushed God out of the way destroyed itself somehow or another and that is exactly what will happen to us if we don't change our ways soon. I hope and pray that what befell other countries in the past does not happen to us, but we are headed in that direction for sure.

"True Americans stand up for what is right, even in the face of humiliation. True Americans do it for the Lord's sake. Would you?"

Deanna Woodbury
XXX Xxxxxx Xxxx Road
X. Xxxxxxx, NH


To the Sentinel,

I would like to direct this letter to the Deanna Woodburys of the region, those who believe that putting prayer back in schools will miraculously (as it were) cure all of society's ills. First, I would direct them to my previous letter in the Monday, July 12 edition of the Sentinel, "Can mandatory prayer be considered legitimate?" as it focuses on the theological reasons that public, mandatory prayer is wrong (at least according to Christianity). However, Ms. Woodbury's letter brought up some new arguments, so here we go again.

Why is it always insisted that a single prayer -- and not even a voluntary one, at that -- will solve everything? How will it pull America together? Well, I suppose it might unite most of us against the measure: the fact is, most reasonable adults agree that a mandatory prayer is a bad idea. I wish Ms. Woodbury had enlightened us as to which god we would be saying this mass prayer; was it Christ, Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Eris, PÈlÈ, or one of the thousands of others? What form would this prayer take -- an incantation, a stanza of verse, a moment of silence, a live sacrifice, or a battle cry? I ask you, Ms. Woodbury, because you claim to know -- which deity is the one for the American people? Shall it be the Roman Catholic version of God, the Protestant one, the Jewish one, the Islamic one... and are we allowed to pick "none of the above," or would you force those of us who lay claim to no faith at all to say this prayer -- one of the most hypocritical acts I can imagine. There are hundreds, even thousands of religions in the world, and though the United States is predominantly Christian, that is certainly not the only religion practiced here; to force all others to pray to the Christian god is not only a violation of the basic civil rights that we enjoy here, it is sacrilege.

Religion belongs in the home and the church. It does not in any form belong in the hands of the government. I find it ironic that Ms. Woodbury cites the former Soviet Union as an example; its so-called "noble experiment" failed in part because the government took morality into its own hands, by dictating that no one should worship anything but the state. (And if she would care to open her Bible, she would find that the early Christians -- Christ and his disciples -- practiced the purest form of communism: they shared their housing and resources, and if anything was needed by the group, one of its members would sell his or her possessions for its benefit. That is communism, not the watered-down, hard-boiled Marxism practiced in the ex-USSR) Ms. Woodbury seems to think that enforcing the Christian faith as a state religion is all right, but has she given any thought to the minority religions that would be persecuted under such a rule? A good historian would note that Christianity was for a very long time the minority religion, and still is; worldwide, Hinduism claims the most followers. The United States was established to protect minorities, not to subdue them as she proposes to do -- and that is what follows logically from her arguments, after all.

President Clinton is a strong Baptist, and as such I am sure that he does ask for divine guidance when making important decisions. Whether he does so or not, however, is his own priority -- or are you also proposing a religious test for public office? To the many Jews in office now, as well as to the other non-Christian office holders, that would be a grave offense -- as well as depriving this nation of some of its brightest political thinkers.

The lack of prayer in the public sector is not the reason that "this country is going to pot." Morality is the responsibility of the individual (after all, Christ wanted people to come to him willingly, not at the point of a sword or an arrest warrant); if religion truly is the cure-all, its remedy may be found in churches and mosques and synagogues all across the country. If your religion is so weak that it needs the State to spread it, perhaps it is time to look more closely at that religion. Right now, Christianity is not at that point; I doubt that it ever will be with the resources it claims.

The United States will never become "another form of the old Soviet Union" as long as its citizens are willing to stand up for the Constitution that protects it from the abuses of the majority. Only with the freedom to think and believe and live as we wish are we truly free; by imposing a religion -- any religion -- on the population, you are not taking a step away from the totalitarianism of the old USSR, but one towards it. Your god (whomever he or she may be) will protect you, and him/herself, as s/he sees fit; that is the way of faith.

Yes, "true Americans stand up for what is right, even in the face of humiliation." That is what atheists like myself do every day, to protect all of us from the tyranny of mandatory religion. What is right, America, is the freedom to choose one's own religion or lack thereof, and for your sake, I hope you can understand that.

XX Xxxxxxxxxx Lane
X. Xxxxxxx, NH XXXXX

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