What Do Atheists Want?

(short answer:  Heck if I know, there are so many kinds!)

Ignorance seems contagious, doesn’t it?  Currently here in “God’s Country”/the only “Christian Nation” on earth (sure, you know it’s true), we have the bizarre “honor” of having a Panderer (and philanderer) in Chief who does not have a political party but “followers”–true believers.  Somehow (and don’t ask me how this is possible) these Disciples of The Don (I still think “Deplorable” describes many of the flock) believe every nutty thing that emerges from his smirking mouth.  Almost like they worship the guy and his nonsense.  I actually think he’s very dangerous.

Anyway … his latest stuck-on-crazy claim is that he’s going to put prayer back into public schools.  Brilliant.  Except … prayers were never removed, and couldn’t be.  Administrators and teachers can’t instigate or lead prayers, but students can pray anytime they like, as long as it’s not disruptive to … hang on … the purpose of school:  ah, um, duh … Education!

So, here’s a little essay I wrote last year addressing the ignorant and imagined fears that somehow someone is taking prayer or the bible or god or religion or anything out of schools (of course, these folks also believe–I almost said “think”–that more guns in schools goes hand in hand with more God in schools … another topic).

See what you think.

“Why do atheists want God out of schools, and everyplace else?”

Simple answer: they don’t.

I read yet another published letter claiming that prayer, the bible and even God were all “taken out of public schools.” Therefore, they argue [fill in all the terrible things that happen]. It continues to mystify me that so many people still believe the irrational and illogical notion that students can’t pray or read a bible in school, that a cross can’t be seen in public and the ten commandments can’t be displayed on someone’s lawn. How many Decembers have we read about the “war on Christmas” with the claim that “secular people want to take our Christmas and our Christ away.”

Do atheists want to “take God” out of someplace or “take faith away” from anyone? No, they don’t believe there is a God, so there’s nothing to take away. To my knowledge most nonbelievers aren’t particularly bothered by religious faith, as long as it isn’t pushed at them. And we have a very pushy culture of religion.

In my public high school, those of us who were “followers of Jesus” carried our bibles, wore buttons, stuck Jesus stickers on doors, taking every opportunity to “share the good news” with classmates, teachers and everyone else. We held bible studies and prayer circles in a classroom before school. Please note: none of these activities were led by teachers or administrators. As long as we weren’t disruptive of the purpose of school—to learn—the adults seemed fine.

So why do we have organizations so intent on “attacking faith” in the public square?

They aren’t. Well, some might be, but most non-religious people don’t care what others believe, as long as those beliefs aren’t forced on anyone else.

Sorry to say, but no surprise, a large part of the problem lies in certain Christian circles. Ask who is behind the latest campaign to get schoolkids to pray or hand out scriptures in schools (not Jews or Sikhs). Ask who is demanding their exclusive message gets to be proclaimed in every public space while the voices of others are restricted (not Buddhists or Wiccans).

I’ve been impressed with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) which was directed for many years by an ordained minister (Rev. Barry Lynn; AU’s current president is Rachel Laser, a Reform Jew). AU explains their “big tent” view this way,

“We envision an America where everyone can freely choose a faith and support it voluntarily, or follow no religious or spiritual path at all, and where the government does not promote religion over non-religion or favor one faith over another.”

That’s a pretty good guideline. It’s not about restricting anyone’s faith or “removing faith” or “taking God” out of society. It’s about freedom for all, faith or no faith.

As a jail chaplain it was my privilege to bring in other ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders to meet with inmates. These gatherings became known by prisoners and jailers simply as “Interfaith.” Deputies would yell down the cellblock: “INTERFAITH!” while opening each cell for those who had signed up to (freely) attend.

I also had a very good rapport with a Catholic priest who came in to lead mass and especially good collegial relationship with a Catholic lay leader who was known as “Sister Dorothy” though she wasn’t a nun. Good people who never felt there was any competition with interfaith services. In fact, there was mutual support and I would often refer inmates to Dorothy or Father John, the priest—and vice versa.

Several evangelical churches held services inside too. Some were friendly enough to me, as the only “officially recognized” chaplain. Others not so much. They came in to preach and convert. Many a weekday afternoon I would listen to inmates tell me how they felt to be preached at in that way, some admitting they went to services (including mine) just to get out of their cell for an hour. Understandable.

Did that county jail want to “keep God out”? Of course not. Detained people have the right of access to religious support. Yet, respect for individual beliefs (or non beliefs) should be kept in mind, especially when jails (or shelters, streets, schools, etc) are seen as mission-fields to “bring God” in (I’ve always thought that was a strange view of God—is God portable, in one place but not another?  And, btw, how small is someone’s god anyway, that their god could be denied entry or expelled somewhere?).

Prisoners are literally a captive audience, so I grew to be very protective of the “congregation inside.” I wanted them to know that not every religious person is after them for their heart and soul.  That might be a good lesson for schools too.

If it was up to me, I admit, I might have asked some preachers to stay home. But as a supporter of freedom of conscience and choice, I think we need to keep fair and open access to ideas, even those we don’t care for.

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