August 18, 2014

Frequently Asked Questions: Why do atheists care about prayer in public?

This weekend, I was reading an article on the Huffington Post about a Georgia lawmaker's thoughts on the recent legal action by the American Humanist Association against a Georgia high school football program that is excessively religious. The action was brought by a member of the community, who has chosen to remain anonymous--and I don't blame them.

What struck me, however, were the comments on the post. People had a lot of questions about atheists. Here's a few of the most common, and some answers.

Note: Those of you that are astute may be saying, "Hey! Humanists and atheists aren't the same thing! And you are right. But for the purposes of this post, we're going to address atheists, because the lawmaker did and the majority of the confusion in the comments centered around them.

Q: Why do atheists care if people pray to a being they do not believe in?

Great question! Why do they care? The simple answer is that atheists believe, strongly, that the separation of church and state is critical to protecting everyone's right to believe and worship--or not--as they please.

It's not offensive that the act occurs, but it does indicate a certain disregard for the Constitution. As a minority worldview, atheists are particularly dogged about protecting the rights of minorities. This may seem almost legalistic at times, and to an extent, it is--but the general feeling is that it's important to safeguard public spaces--which are by nature secular--so that everyone is comfortable and free to engage in those places.

Q: Why are atheists so angry at something they do not believe in?

This is actually a fairly common stereotype, and a relatively offensive one, truthfully. But nonetheless, let's talk about it.

Why are atheists angry? Well, most of them aren't. I meet very few angry atheists, and I am an atheist who engages with a wide variety of atheist communities online and hopefully soon in person. The vast majority are happy, content, and peaceful.

The angry atheist trope tends to get thrown any time an atheist points out the idea that religion could be--and often is--harmful, especially when it is institutionalized. It does not matter how kindly these objections are stated, they are ridiculed as the result of an angry atheist's hatred of god.

Atheists do have times that they tend to bristle, but these times are not unlike those that raise the ire of believers also. Consider these scenarios:

  • Someone tries to make laws based on a belief that you do not share.
  • Being subjected to someone else's beliefs without any consideration for your own. 
  • Having your belief/nonbelief used to attribute characteristics to you blindly, without taking time to get to know you.

Both believers and nonbelievers would be angry in these situations. The angry atheist and the angry believer are not that different.

Q: Why do atheisst want to rewrite history? American was founded by Christians and atheists came later.

I truly hope that this is a trolling attempt, but we will address it on the off-chance that there are those who truly blindly accept historical revisionism without questioning.

Consider this: If the United States was intended as a Christian nation, why is Christianity not mentioned once in the Constitution? Among other notable missing words--"God", "Creator", "Jesus Christ", or "Divine". Not even Divine Will makes an appearance, which one would think would be an important note if they were founding a Christian nation.

Puritans are often cited as examples--and yet, not only did they help kill of native tribes, but they also pushed the same religious persecution they had suffered on the people that did not believe as they did in their new homes. Is that truly the founding of our nation? I'd like to think not.

The Treaty of Tripoli is an excellent example. Ratified on June 7, 1797, and signed on June 10 by President John Adams, the version ratified by Congress and signed by the president has the following text:
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
Even Abraham Lincoln has been revised retroactively, and yet, his compatriots of the time consistently questioned whether he was a devout believer--or a believer at all, for that matter. 

Q: Why are atheists still fighting this? The Supreme Court ruled that it isn't a violation!

Actually, that's not true. They did rule that in certain circumstances, prayer is not a violation. Per decisions in Engel v Vitale and Abington School District v Schempp, prayer in schools must pass a litmus test: It must serve a secular purpose, it must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and must not result in excessive entanglement between religion and government.

If the facts that have been presented in the case do not pass this litmus test, the practice can be challenged. So this may or may not be constitutional, and saying that the Supreme Court has already ruled on it is an oversimplification of the potential legal situation.

Q: Why don't atheists ever go after Muslims?

The answer to this question is threefold.

First, atheists do, in fact, challenge Islam. There is a rich history of doubt within Islam itself. Indeed, the Islamic world kept Western thought alive during the darker periods of our history--those who fled the persecution of intellectuals in the West found refuge in the Islamic world--and several notable atheists have come out of the religious tradition to be vocal against it even today.

Salman Rushdie once said: "God, Satan, Paradise, and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith." He then went and had his first ham sandwich, and while he acknowledged that it was not the best sandwich, it was glorious--it was the taste of freedom. Ibn al-Rawandi and Ibn Warraq are also two strong voices, borrowing their pseudonyms from the history of Islamic doubt.

We have previously discussed Taslima Nasrin, but her quotes bear revisiting.
"I criticized fundamentalists as well as religion in general. I don't find any differences between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove fundamentalism, and keep religion, then one day or another, fundamentalism will grow again. I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn't permit democracy and it violates human rights. And because Islam itself is causing injustices, so it is our duty to make people alert. It is our responsibility to wake people up, to make them understand that religious scriptures come from a particular period in time and a particular place."
So there are atheists speaking out, loudly and proudly, about the problems with Islam. This ties in closely to our second point.

That point is, when you are looking at American atheists, and Western atheism as a whole, the major religion that we come in contact with, the one that is most likely to insert itself into our lives, is Christianity. It far outnumbers any other religion in our sphere, and so, most of the criticisms are rightfully leveraged at it. It's the one that is the most dominant.

And the third point is just one of general clarification: Atheists are not "going after" any religion. The challenges to religion are a fairly normal part of freethinking--we question everything. Nothing is sacred, and legitimate ideals have nothing to fear from questioning. As Thomas Jefferson said:
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
So really, we are just carrying on in the tradition of our founding fathers. We are honoring the tradition of questioning everything.

Q: Are we forcing you to believe or pray? Why force us not to?

Well, this is another of those questions with a multi-part answer.

Let's start with this: You may not anymore, but you did. The Inquisition documents repeated attempts to discover why people didn't believe and the punishments exacted on them.

But beyond that, no one is forcing anyone not to exercise their religion. What we are saying is that secular venues should be safe for everyone, regardless of belief. It's not just atheists or humanists that are protected by this idea. It's any religious minority. It could as easily be a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Shinto or any other that was overwhelmed by a Christian majority. All of these minorities deserve a voice in our pluralistic secular society. All of them deserve to feel comfortable in secular spaces.

And even further beyond, no one is forcing anyone not to believe or pray. Teenagers are still welcome to pray, and coaches are still welcome to pray--school officials just aren't welcome to lead a prayer in a secular situation. It's much like the argument that there is no prayer in school--that's ridiculous. If you want prayer in school, teach your children to bring it with them. It's a constitutional right.

I'd also argue that Christians should be thankful to nonbelievers that are standing up to public prayer. After all, it's a biblical principle, from Christ himself. From Matthew 6 (NIV):
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 
6 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.

Q: What's the difference between humanists and atheists?

Humanism is a viewpoint that holds that humans are best able to understand the world around them. They may or may not believe in the divine or supernatural,  although they reject the idea of infallible revelation and reject notions that conflict with science and human rights.

Atheism is the assertion that there are no gods.

Atheists can be humanists (and many are) and humanists can be atheists (and many are). But the two terms do not mean the same thing.


The world could do with a lot less assumption and a lot more conversation.

The easiest way to get to know nonbelievers is to talk to nonbelievers. Leave aside the prayers and blessings and "Only a fool says there is no God" and really talk to them. Consider their questions, and ask your own. And put yourself in the shoes of the religious minorities around you--instead of accepting that everyone wants to hear your prayers, ask yourself: How does the pagan feel? How do my fellow citizens who are Muslims feel? How would I feel if one of them were doing this to me? And be honest. Be truthful. Truly look at the heart of the matter.

A pluralistic secular world is the safest place for all of us, for every single person who wants to believe--and every single person that doesn't.

That's a future we should all be working towards.


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