I spent some time at home from school for the weekend, and got into a pleasantly civil discussion with my extremely Catholic brother about prayer in schools. Basically, he wanted to know why atheists tend to oppose it. After all, isn’t preventing prayer violating freedom of religion? In the process of answering him, I thought, well, that’s a good topic for a blog post too. Here’s as brief of an explanation as I can muster.
I used to think that preventing prayer in schools (and it must be pointed out that the prayer that is being “prevented” in my country is nearly always Christian), was a terrible idea. After all, God is watching over us, and it can be very important for religious people–students and teachers alike–to acknowledge Him as they start their day, and ask for his blessings and guidance. Now I’m going to say something surprising. I don’t have a problem with people praying. I used to do it all the time, and when I was stressed out, nervous, or afraid, it brought me comfort, and I’m sure it does the same for most believers.
As far as I am aware, the United States has laws against teacher-led prayer in public schools. (They don’t apply to schools with religious affiliations as far as I am aware. I briefly attended a Catholic High School, and we prayed the Hail Mary in some form before most of our classes. They do, however, apply to public institutions, which are not supposed to have teacher-led prayer in the classroom.) If praying isn’t a problem for me, why do I think this rule is important to uphold in public schools?
Because while praying isn’t a problem, forcing people who don’t believe or who worship a different deity than you to pray to your deity is. Imagine you are a Christian student attending school in an Islamic nation, and Muslim prayers to Allah are a mandatory part of your school day. How do you feel? These are not your prayers. This is not your faith. If they are mandatory, then you have no choice but to participate in them, regularly. One can argue that this could be seen as worshiping “false Gods,” something that certainly violates freedom of religion.
Let’s say that prayer isn’t mandatory, and you do have a choice. The school is still choosing one religion over all others, and promoting practice of that one religion among the student body. What about other faiths? If prayer for one religion is to be allowed, shouldn’t prayer for all faiths be encouraged in this way? To do this in a truly inclusive way in a religiously diverse school would eat away at precious class time trying to hold prayers that would appease the people of different faiths. Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone involved if prayer were simply a private matter, which students (and teachers) were of course welcomed to do, but which was not squeezed in to the school’s already tight schedule? This would avoid, at a bare minimum, alienating people of different faiths, and in religiously diverse schools would prevent large chunks of students’ time being devoted to appeasing multiple faiths.
I realize that to some, this may sound like an effort to be too inclusive. Why do these people of other religions deserve to be treated this way? They’re not the majority. A Jewish student who doesn’t want to pray to Jesus is certainly less common in the United States as a whole than the Christian student who wants to. But that doesn’t mean that we should alienate that student in favor of the majority. It’s for reasons like this that our government isn’t a straight democracy. Sometimes what the majority wants actually hurts minorities and limits their freedoms. As an atheist, were I still in high school, I would feel very uncomfortable in my former Catholic school, because those prayers are part of the day, and to pray them would be a lie for me. Even if I did have faith, I would feel the same way as a Muslim, Jew, or Hindu.
Regardless of whether or not you think that this country was founded on “Christian” values, it was largely colonized originally by people seeking freedom of religion, often fleeing persecution in their homelands. There have been plenty of cries for “religious freedom” by the Christian majority, and I support their right to demand it. However, it’s ridiculous to cry “persecution” and demand religious freedom for your own majority without also ensuring that other groups are extended that same freedom. In the nature of fairness, the best way for schools to create an environment friendly to students of all faiths, is to promote none, and allow students to practice them as they see fit. Students in public schools are not forbidden to pray. Saying grace in the cafeteria or praying “Dear God, help me with this test,” will not get you suspended. But that freedom is extended to students of all faiths, and has to be, in order for these schools to be truly religiously “free.”