Prayer in College Classrooms

Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century pop...
Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century popular image of penitence painted by Ary Scheffer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An early version of this post appeared at Atheist Revolution back in 2005. It has been revised and expanded.

We hear an awful lot about the dire consequences of not allowing prayer in school from Christians who must not realize that prayer in school is alive and well. There has been prayer in school as long as there have been schools. Unless religious believers stop attending school, I think we can be confident that there will continue to be prayer in school. And there's nothing wrong with that.

At three different universities (two state universities and one private liberal arts school), I have witnessed college students praying during class. Despite claims from conservative Christians about liberal college professors attempting to destroy the faith of their precious children, the reality is that prayer thrives in these environments.

I have observed college students praying in many contexts (e.g., prayer meetings in the dorms, religious functions on campus, before meals in the dining hall), but the most common one seems to take place in a classroom right before an examination. It typically happens while the professor is preparing to distribute exams to the class. And I have yet to see any praying student face any negative consequences for praying.

Most of the pre-exam prayers I have witnessed are silent. I inferred that prayer was taking place from the bowing of the head, the position of the hands, and the mouthing of "amen" at the end. Other times, the prayers were at least partially audible. Much less common were the few instances I have seen in which the prayers were entirely audible and delivered in a histrionic manner so that other students and the professor could easily hear what was being said.

The students who did not pray (which was the majority in every case) either ignored the praying student(s) or seemed mildly amused by them. I think it would be safe to say that some seemed to regard it as silly as I did, but nobody ever objected. Nobody ever said "You can't do that here" or anything of the sort.

I have seen students praying before an exam often enough that I am not surprised by it. It barely gets my attention unless it is loud enough to be disruptive. And in those cases, I marvel at the arrogance that would lead someone to believe one of their gods would intervene by helping them do better on an exam while ignoring so many of the daily atrocities others endure.