June 25, 2014

The Point of Atheist Invocations

Invocation by Gustave Doré.
Invocation by Gustave Doré. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We have seen the following scenario countless times. The Christians who run a local government decide to erect a nativity scene in a public building. They do not expect to encounter any problems, and thanks to Christian privilege, they rarely do. But this time, a group of atheists lobby to add a non-religious display of their own. The government officials now have to decide whether to take down their display or allow those from other groups.

What is the point of the atheist group asking to add their display to the public building? It isn't that the atheist group feels left out and wants to participate in cluttering up the public building with another display, is it? I've always thought that the point was to discourage the Christians in power from continuing to erect sectarian displays. The atheists' aim is to have the government officials decide to eliminate future displays. If they refuse to do so, the atheists will contribute one of their own and hope that many other groups do as well (e.g., Satanists). While this second outcome solves the church-state violation, it is the less desirable of the two. Again, what the atheist group would prefer would be for the officials to decide that there would be no more displays.

When atheists deliver non-religious invocations at government meetings following Greece v. Galloway, isn't their thinking the same? If so, I wish that reports about atheists delivering invocations at local government meetings (see Atheist to offer invocation in N.Y. town at the center of public prayer case for an example) would explain why atheists are doing such a thing.

I think that the reason that atheists would deliver such invocations is that they object to the Greece v. Galloway decision and hope that having to sit through these invocations might convince the Christians who run their local governments to stop with the invocations altogether. That is, these atheist invocations have a particular point. They are a form of activism.

Maybe I'm wrong about this. Maybe there are atheists who truly want to do these invocations for other reasons. I hope that isn't the case because I think invocations of any sort are quite silly. But I acknowledge the possibility that I may indeed be wrong to suggest that most atheists who give them are doing so for the reason I mentioned above.

When Kimberly Winston, author of the Religion News Service post, writes, "If Christians can pray in the name of Jesus and Muslims in the name of Allah, then atheists plan to offer invocations of their own," this makes it sound like atheists just want to get in on the routine. But this strikes me as inaccurate. I think - I hope - that atheists who give these invocations are doing so as a form of protest. I hope that they are doing so to encourage the Christians in charge to end the practice.

Ms. Winston writes:
While many secularists were unhappy that the court upheld prayers at public meetings, they are embracing the decision as best they can.
Are they? Are they really embracing the practice of invocations at government meetings, or are they trying to stop them?

Ms. Winston quotes Hemant Mehta as saying, “I wish the invocations were eliminated altogether, but until that happens, might as well add our names to the list.” This seems like an odd statement. Yes, we do want the invocations eliminated. Isn't the entire point of us giving our own an effort to make that happen? Isn't this about trying to get the invocations and other church-state violations eliminated?

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