Saturday, March 6, 2010

What's Wrong With Prayer?

Actually, there's nothing wrong with prayer, in and of itself. It's a very personal communion between a person and the supreme being(s) one believes in. No, I have no problem with prayer. However, I do have an issue with the seemingly overwhelming desire some people of faith have to proclaim their particular brand of religion to everyone around them.  I was listening to the radio on the way to work last week and heard a quick snippet of a story about a brouhaha in Forsyth County, NC.

Apparently several years ago the county Board of Commissioners began to invite ministers to lead a brief prayer or invocation to 'solemnize' the proceedings. Well, not too long afterward someone attending one of these meetings apparently wasn't thrilled about the invocation of Jesus at a county government meeting.  The ACLU was contacted and legal hijinks ensued. Recently a Federal judge ruled that sectarian prayer be abolished during these meetings. You can imagine how this ruling was greeted by the theologically inclined in Forsyth county.

As I mentioned earlier, prayer is a uniquely personal choice. Not to put to fine a point on it, but one person's solemn invocation is another's act of heresy. What I am most amazed about is that between those who are in favor and those who are not, nobody seems to have considered the blindingly simple solution. A moment of silence. Those who want to pray can do so, silently to themselves. Those who don't can just take this bit of quiet time to clear their mind of the day's events, take a few deep breaths and focus on the coming meeting. Problem solved! This allows any Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Wiccan to pray as they feel is correct and allows those who don't to sit quietly and prepare for the proceedings.

Unfortunately I doubt this common sense solution would ever really solve the issue. Not because it doesn't allow for maximum inclusion with zero exclusion, but because the pro prayer individuals involved will take it as some sort of affront that they can't have a big, overt mass prayer. As if it's their right to subject a captive audience to a Christian worship service. They won't even have considered, before this issue arose, that some people might not want to hear about their version of faith. That those present might not care or may even find it offensive in some way. Proponents will see even my simple proposal as some sort of muffler on their religious freedom. This is, of course, absurd. All that's being muffled is their ability to push their form of faith on every single person present at a secular gathering.

I fully admit that I have issues with those who are particularly vocal about their own religious ideas. I'm not talking about a belief that comes up in conversation, because it can be enlightening to hear various points of view. I'm referring to the invasive evangelical style where a person of faith feels compelled to bring Jesus into every conversation. Or even more irritating, when someone decides to try and save the poor, misguided 'nonbeliever'. There seems to be this idea that freedom of religion grants those of faith, Christians especially,  carte blanche to shoe-horn overt prayer into all sorts of venues. Usually in a very vocal and intrusive manner. This seems normal and correct to them, of course, because they are very open about it and they can't quite embrace the fact that not everyone thinks of God in the same way.  It's a huge blind spot in their thinking. Some denominations seem to even feel it's a duty of some kind to 'save' the unbelievers among them by making a big sales pitch for God. I doubt many of the faith-full ever really stop to ponder how everyone else feels about this. In America, and I'm sure other places as well, there is this assumption that 'everyone' is a Christian. This assumption is blindingly false. We are most certainly not all Christian. Not to mention that some of us have zero interest in being a passive audience to someone else's beliefs. This doesn't mean I expect all signs of faith removed and hidden. It doesn't mean that I am enraged by a pre meal prayer. That would be stupid. What I do object to is the assumption of 'rightness' about squeezing Jesus or God into other's lives.

As I see it, the place for group prayer services is in a Church, Synagogue, Mosque or other house of worship as well as private gatherings composed of those of like faith. Or even one or a few in a quiet moment in the park. There is no place for it in a public, secular gathering and even less in a governmental setting like a local council meeting. These occasions bring groups of people together whose reason for attending is anything but religious. I know many will rise to the bait and point out that prayers are lead in the houses of Congress. So what? Doesn't make it right. This is a traditional holdover from a time when most everyone in a governmental position of power in the US was either a flavor of Christian or a very quiet atheist or agnostic. I suspect that down the road a bit, this bit of tradition will fall away as it's challenged by those members who don't fit into that 'Christian' mold.

The bottom line is that religion in general and prayer specifically is like a private conversation with your deity, and as such, I don't need or want to listen in. I also don't think it's polite to make a big show of your particular form of faith to a captive, and in more than a few cases, uninterested audience. There's also a level of arrogance involved in the assumption that everyone wants to pray to Jesus at the drop of a hat. Remember that old saying about not talking about religion or politics in mixed company? Company doesn't get any more mixed than a public meeting in America! Then there's my favorite phrase, separation of church and state. This certainly applies to a local government setting like this. Lets all just keep in mind that we live in a nation that's made up of all sorts of beliefs, and we'll all get along much better if we play our Faith a little closer to the vest.

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