May 12, 2014

Opting Out of the Implicit Prayer Agreement

Silence
Silence (Photo credit: Mara ~earth light~)
Nearly all of the atheists I have known do something similar when faced with public prayer: they politely feign respect for it. I'm not being accusatory here; I do exactly the same thing. When I am in a meeting of some sort at work, a social situation with people I don't know terribly well (e.g., eating a meal at a restaurant), or even a setting where public prayer is quite inappropriate (e.g., jury duty or some other official government proceeding) and someone launches into inappropriate sectarian prayer, I typically hold my tongue and wait for it to be over. I don't close my eyes or bow my head, but I clam up and wait the thing out. Why? To be polite and not to call attention to myself I suppose.

When it comes to public prayer in the United States, atheists and Christians appear to have reached an implicit arrangement: when they pray, we sit there in silence. The benefits of this arrangement to Christians are clear. They get to pray whenever and wherever they want. They do not need to stop to consider the effect of their public prayer on others. What do we atheists get out of the arrangement? I'm still trying to figure that out.

In the aftermath of Supreme Court's Greece v. Galloway ruling, I had an interesting thought. What if we atheists who are opposed to sectarian prayer in government meetings (or opposed to public prayer more generally) decided to opt out of this implicit arrangement? We might stand up and move around or even walk out while the praying was going on. We might continue to speak to whoever we were speaking to before the praying started, yawn loudly, or use it as an opportunity to make a phone call. We might, at least in some circumstances, speak out against the public prayer (e.g., "You can't be serious! Can we please get on with the meeting?").

This all seems horribly rude, doesn't it? Many of us have been trained to regard this as rude. Is it any more rude than the act of engaging in public prayer in a setting where it is inappropriate to do so? Do those praying seriously expect people who do not share their superstitious worldview to bow their heads and hold their tongues out of respect to it? How is this not rude? This seems like another case of Christian privilege where our rudeness gets the spotlight while theirs is ignored. Perhaps these Christians should consult what their own bible has to say on the subject of public prayer.

What if we atheists thought of opting out of this silent endurance of prayer not as rudeness for the sake of being rude but as a form of civil disobedience? Would that make it more palatable?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we all go out tomorrow and start doing this. I readily admit that I have not taken much time to think through all the potential negative consequences we would likely face for doing so. I've also not given enough thought to whether this would be effective in changing the behavior of Christians. All I am suggesting here is that we might consider the potential merits of such an approach, at least in some circumstances.

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