Why on earth, or any other planet, would a secular, humanist, freethinking, non-religious atheist attend a prayer breakfast? Good question. Deserves a good answer.
Well, that attendee was me. And yes, that may raise the hackles of all heretic hackers out there, but allow me to explain.
First, my wife, a progressive Protestant minister, was an invited speaker, along with a Hindu woman and woman rabbi. I emphasize the gender of the speakers because, as you will see, it makes a difference.
Second, I knew many of the people who attended the breakfast from my years as a chaplain doing interfaith work. There were representatives of a variety of faiths as well as non-believers. I emphasize this because it also makes a difference.
Third, I’d already eaten my breakfast, so I attended during lunch (E.S.T.)
Fourth, as you can guess, it was a virtual gathering.
As for the “prayers,” did I join in? Not exactly. I listened. I heard Sanskrit chants, Hebrew phrases, Christian thoughts. I listened, but what did I hear? Musical expressions, reflections, experiences of sharing from particular traditions. Nothing offensive to a non-Hindu, non-Jewish, non-Christian, non-believing fellow.
This Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, offered by the Marin Interfaith Council, is held annually in May on the day before the actual “Day of Prayer” (my wife was an organizer for years). The “National Prayer Breakfast,” held in February, was founded in 1953 by Billy Graham and Co., now organized by something called The Fellowship Foundation. This has spawned prayer breakfasts across the country for years. The President and many in Congress participate in this event in Washington, D.C. that is organized, sponsored, attended and led primarily by representatives of one conservative branch of one faith, and primarily one gender … can you guess which ones?
As Donald Trump said at the prayer breakfast in February (he mostly talked about himself, derided Democrats, sounding like a campaign speech):
“All of us here today reaffirm these timeless truths: Faith keeps us free. Prayer makes us strong. And God alone is the author of life and the giver of grace.”
“This morning, let us ask Father in Heaven to guide our steps, protect our children, and bless our families. And with all of our heart, let us forever embrace the eternal truth that every child is made equal by the hand of Almighty God.”
A president said that, not a preacher.
Is that America? Is it even Christian? Or the delusion of Christian Nationalism?
Look Frederick Douglass in the face. Read his words. He was addressing the nation with another view of religion, Christianity, and the meaning of faith.
Many of those attending virtually with me the other day would stand with secular citizens like me on the side of Frederick Douglass’ kind of Christianity. A “Christianity of Christ” that matures in human rights, social justice, equality, compassion and inclusion. That doesn’t make anyone, or everyone, a “Christian.” It just invites and encourages us to be better human beings, faith or not.
I heard reasonable voices from most who were online with me the other day. Not sectarian, nor partisan, not nationalistic, nor exclusive, the strong and loving words I heard at the virtual prayer breakfast (or lunch in my case) spoke to the essence of living a humanistic life, here, now, present for each other.
I didn’t pray along with them all. Yet, I was a participant in something that transcends prayer or any religious rituals or beliefs: a common search for cooperative community. I saw it, felt it, and welcomed it.
And, in my own secular way, I could bow, wave, blow kisses and throw a peace sign to friends at the conclusion, appreciating their smiling faces and gestures of peace.
I might even say Amen.
Note: Douglass was not an atheist. But probably not the kind of Christian who would “fit” in most Christian communities today. Too radical. Too freethinking.