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Be thankful our country allows all beliefs on prayer

Fresno Bee

November 15, 2013

George Washington declared that a Thursday in November should be directed to “the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” President Obama reaffirmed this last year, declaring that Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to “be mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God.”

Where does that leave nonreligious Americans? The issue of nonreligious prayer came up recently as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case where citizens protested the use of prayer in public meetings in a New York town. During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” That pregnant question was left unanswered by the court.

To pursue this matter, I contacted professor Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, a prominent defender of humanism. Dennett explained in an email, “In silent soliloquy or public pronouncement we can resolve to ourselves to do better, to suppress our bad habits and natures, and we can express, silently or aloud, our allegiance to some cause or institution or group. We can ask for forgiveness, make promises, declare love. All these highly important — maximally important or sacred — themes can be laundered of all religious overtones and remain as solemn, life-defining speech acts.”

Dennett is right. Nonreligious people can make public affirmations and engage in silent soliloquy. They can make solemn, life-defining pronouncements. But are these nonreligious speech acts really prayers?

A prayer is a petition to the deity, usually soliciting a blessing. To pray means literally to ask, beg, request or plead. Prayers can also express admiration, worshipful awe and thanksgiving. Prayers can be shared in public. They can also be unspoken and private.

Whether spoken or silent, religious prayer has an intended recipient. Prayerful words are directed toward a deity, who is presumably powerful enough to hear even our silent supplications. This divinity is supposed to respond to our entreaties and to appreciate adulation. Religious people from different faiths may disagree about who is being petitioned, thanked or worshiped. But they agree that there is someone out there to whom their prayers are addressed.

And that is where the nonreligious will shake their heads instead of bowing them. Atheists do not think there is a divine recipient of prayerful words. Although atheists can appreciate tacit reflection and benefit from public reminders of key values, atheists deny that a divinity can hear our prayers.

Humanistic atheists may be grateful to be alive. They may admire the complexity of the universe. They may have a sense of appreciation and awe. They may see the psychological benefit of guided meditation. They may even enjoy the poetic force of devotional words. But they won’t accept the metaphysics of prayer.

An atheist can whisper to herself before an exam, “I hope I do well on this test.” A team of atheists could affirm before a match, “Let’s work hard and do our best.” But it would be nonsensical for atheists to ask for God’s assistance in these endeavors.

There is a fundamental conflict here. This topic will inevitably offend somebody. There is no way to resolve a dispute in which one person’s deepest convictions are viewed by others as nonsense.

The best we can do is agree to disagree. Let’s admit that Scalia is right to suggest that nonreligious prayer is an oxymoron. But that’s exactly why, in our diverse society, we ought to be careful with public prayer.

On this issue, Thomas Jefferson may be a better guide than Washington or Obama. Jefferson refused to declare a public day of prayer when he was president. In a letter from 1808, he explained that the Constitution prevented him from meddling with religious exercises. He also explained that religious sects have an interest in this protection, since the right to decide about prayer should remain in the hands of citizens and not be foisted upon them by the government.

Thankfully, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides this protection to religious and nonreligious people. The government should not prohibit private prayer. Nor should it tell us when or how to pray (or not pray). Americans should be grateful for that protection, even though we will fundamentally disagree about the ultimate question of whom we ought to thank for the rest of our blessings.


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It’s fall and there’s a spirit of debate in the air

Fresno Bee

November 1, 2013

The changes of autumn prompt metaphysical speculation. The leaves turn colors, as if by magic. The mists linger in chill hollows like ghosts. Living things hibernate and die. It’s a good time to wonder about spiritual things.

The pagan Celts called this time of year Samhain. Christians focus on Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and Dia de los Muertos. Some think the living and the dead intermingle in the transition from autumnal equinox to winter solstice, the midpoint between life and death.

Scientific materialists will see this as mere silliness. The change of seasons is determined by astronomical events. The cycle of life involves dormancy and death. But the dead do not return. We miss them. But they cannot harm us. And we cannot communicate with them.

Skeptical materialists will note that ghostly metaphysics don’t work out. How can a spirit being interact with the material world? If ghosts can pass through walls, then they cannot grasp and move material objects, make sounds, or be seen. Movement, sight and sound occur in the world of matter, light and sound waves. Immaterial entities cannot be seen, heard or felt. There can be no trace of the existence of a ghost in our material world.

Despite this common-sense objection, quite a few people still believe in ghosts. Some of this may be merely for fun. Ghost stories provoke a thrill — especially at this time of year. But some people are quite sincere in saying they’ve experienced a haunting.

According to the Pew Center, nearly one-third of Americans say they have been in touch with the dead. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll reports that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts. A report from Public Policy Polling claims that half of Americans believe in demonic possession. And in an interview in October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that the devil is real and that demonic possession can occur.

We might think that people are entitled to believe what they want about these things. But materialists might be reluctant to trust judges and other public servants who affirm spiritual nonsense. And spiritualists may not trust authorities who deny that the world is enchanted and visited by spiritual forces.

Skeptics and spiritualists are often living in quite different worlds. For the believers, the world is a mysterious place haunted by things unseen. In a spooky and uncanny universe, magic may be required to manipulate spectral forces — in the form of talismans and good-luck charms to ward off evil. Some believe in the power of sacrifices, offerings, prayers and exorcisms. Others will invoke demonic powers to explain bad behavior, accidents and natural disasters.

Skeptics will see such magical thinking as ridiculous and dangerous. David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, argued that superstition developed out of weakness, fear, melancholy and ignorance. Hume also suggested that superstition empowered priestly authorities who say they possess the ability to manipulate the spirit world. And he thought this undermined the liberty of superstitious individuals who submit to the magical maneuvers of the priests.

Skeptics also will point out that there is no way to figure out which account of ghosts and demons is the right one. There is no agreement about pneumatology (a fancy word for the study of spiritual beings). Is the Catholic account affirmed by Scalia true? But what about shamanistic spiritualism? What about Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other beliefs? Unlike in the material sciences, pneumatology is unable to produce consensus.

It’s a good thing that we no longer burn witches. We generally agree to disagree about ghosts, demons, and magic. It is possible for spiritualists and skeptics to coexist, so long as we don’t try to impose our beliefs on one another.

Our ability to coexist may indicate that these metaphysical disputes are not really that important.

Spiritualists and skeptics must each rake the autumn leaves and mourn their dead.

But on the other hand, nothing is more important than the meaning we give to these activities. Whether we affirm magic or materialism, we want to make sense of a world of change and death.

We all share the deeply human project of making meaning in a mysterious world.

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