Sunday, February 12, 2012

Is An Atheist's Rights Violated in the Case of Mandatory Prayer?

Let's imagine a ridiculous situation - suddenly, some town somewhere makes it mandatory that each class day begin with a communal prayer. All students must recite this prayer. For fun, let's make it Catholic - the Hail Mary.

Would the protestants have reason to be upset? Sure they would, since (at least for most protestants - maybe there are some exceptions) a prayer asking Mary to pray for us would violate their beliefs.

Muslims? Absolutely, for similar reasons.

Atheists? The instinctual response, I think, is 'absolutely' - along the same lines as the muslim or the protestant. But I don't think this works at all. In fact, at least insofar as we're considering the atheist as an atheist, the answer seems to be 'not at all'. If the atheist is going to have reason to complain, it's not going to be owing to being an atheist.

After all, atheism is pretty thin on belief content. If we play the game where atheism is the mere lack of a belief, then clearly 'lack of a belief' isn't going to motivate one to be offended by or unwilling to partake in a prayer. At worst, it's some kind of busywork.

Let's go with the stronger, and more accurate definition of atheism: belief that God does not exist. Okay, that's sturdier. But it still doesn't help. So they believe God doesn't exist - that isn't enough to make reciting a prayer noxious or offensive. Pointless, perhaps. Or maybe not. It could even be something they enjoy. Maybe they'll find the idea conveyed in the prayer beautiful even if they don't think it's "doing anything" or reaching anyone.

But the atheist, as an atheist, doesn't seem to have reason to complain. Maybe not even legal standing.

Now, that's not to say you couldn't come up with an atheist who would argue, properly, that the prayer is offensive to them. Say, they have a belief that prayers are stupid or... etc, etc, and that belief is being violated. But it seems to me it would actually have to be a lot more developed than merely "I'm an atheist!" or even "I'm a naturalist!" What would be necessary is an appeal to some kind of belief system they subscribe to - or, I suppose, something merely emotional. "I don't like praying, and that's that!"

I don't have some major aim or goal with pointing this out. It's interesting to note the situation, which I think can be parleyed further - an atheist as an atheist wouldn't necessarily have a problem even with a full-blown theocracy. In principle, they may even be in favor of one. Actually, I'd love to see an atheist complainant defending their complaint in a court of law. It's easy to picture the muslim appealing to their religious beliefs, the protestant appealing to his religious beliefs. The atheist? I could just picture the lawyer inquiring as to just what religious beliefs of theirs were being offended. What the violation of conscience was in the case of an atheist compelled to pray. I'm sure they could give one, but seeing it justified in that context would just have some potential for fun.


Cuttlefish said...

Read the judge's decision in the Cranston prayer banner case; it pretty much lays out, point by point, the point you are missing.

Crude said...

Yeah, the ruling pretty much backs up my argument entirely since - insofar as questions of her standing went - it relied on the merely emotional. In this case, "I feel ostracized and out of place -- because prayer!" The ruling even mentions the lack of offense, so I imagine it was thought through and realized how awkward that would have been to get into.

The talk of the 'secular nature' of a public school is another issue entirely.

Syllabus said...

I almost wish such a case were to come about, simply so we could get that silly charade of "Our belief is not a belief, but a lack of belief." It's bloody frustrating. A case like that would bring that stupidity into the light with much more exposure than currently exist.

Crude said...


Well, if you want to read the text of the Cranston ruling:

As I said, Ahlquist doesn't make the 'offensive' move, or the 'violation of my beliefs' move as near as I can tell. What does the heavy lifting here is emotion: the presence of the banner "made her feel ostracized and out of place". That's what gave her standing, and really, that's pretty thin gruel. But the standing allowed the investigation into whether the prayer banner was violating Church-state boundaries.

Admittedly, it would have been a lot more interesting if her claim was that it violated her (naturalistic, say) beliefs and philosophy. But considering who came in to advise her, I suspect that was pulled off the table immediately because of how funny the result would have been, no matter what the case result was.

I don't even find that dodge frustrating anymore, mostly because it's obvious to all parties that it's bull. That some don't want to admit it isn't much of a concern, and really, it ends up being ripe for mockery.

Tom R said...

Yes, it's interesting how American atheists seem to be constantly vulnerable to a risk of ritual impurity to a degree that Jains or Hasidic Jews might find thin-skinned...

Crude said...

I admit, the "I fell ostracized and out of place because of that prayer" thing seems like such BS. Unfortunately, it's exactly the sort of BS courts love to rely on at times. And, since it's all subjective (literally), it becomes a quagmire if someone tries to argue the point.

Syllabus said...

If they feel ostracised or whatever... well, there are always co-ed dorms wherein they can drown their tears in the arms of some inebriated freshman. It's not like they've got anybody holding them back, right?

Brian Barrington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Barrington said...

I basically agree with Crude's argument here. I'm an atheist and I don't really object to mandatory prayers. On the "theocracy" question, I don't even necessarily object to established religion. This is because I think that most people are by nature religious, even though I myself am an atheist.