Friday, November 2, 2012

How To Talk To A Christian: Debating School Sanctioned Prayer


It is rare that I get to discuss religious issues with true believing theists in the secular metropolis of New York, but every once in a while I come across one. A few weeks ago at a student discussion group for atheists, a young-Earth creationist Christian name Daniel Mann joined in and as you can imagine, some debate ensued over religion's role in the public school system. We exchanged information and we soon began debating my blog post regarding school sanctioned prayer in public school. 

In my blog I think I laid out my point of view pretty clear. School sanctioned prayer violates the Constitution, because it violates the separation of religion and government. So Daniel then disagrees with my definition of religion. Religion to me is defined as the belief in and worship of a deity. But he defines religion as any set of beliefs at all. This would include humanism, Dawinism, socialism, capitalism, and just about every other "ism" or belief one can think of. So an organization that thinks the Yankees are the best baseball team in the world as their core beliefs, would be defined as a religion according to him. Go figure. It became apparent when dealing with theists like Gareth Bryant and Daniel that they assume everyone else's beliefs are just as religious as theirs because they are so religious themselves.  

So I am then forced to point out the obvious problem this would cause, which is that teachers wouldn't be able to teach anything if all beliefs were banned. But the issue is clear, the Constitution does not prohibit these "isms" from being mentioned or taught, but it doesn't prohibit the establishment of religion, which school sanctioned prayer would violate. But this theist and theologian, stubbornly holds his ground, motivated by his emotional dislike of secularism, while completely not addressing the legal issue at the heart of the argument. 

I cannot deny by pleasure in arguing with theists because it exposes their way of thinking which often becomes so evidently absurd. For example, Daniel actually said to me in person that we should bring back stoning to death adulterers now in the twenty first century because it would be an effective way to discourage adultery. Need I say more? People like him want to legislate their religion onto everyone else, while they accuse secularists like me of trying to do the same. What they fail to realize, is that we live in a secular democracy, with a secular constitution, and our nation's founding fathers enshrined this system into our founding documents because they were well aware of the problems that occur when one religious group wants to make their faith-based beliefs into law. 

Below is a transcript of our debate. His blog post is also linked below along with my original blog post that started the discussion.

Our debate:

The ThinkerOctober 28, 2012 8:03 PM
The issue here is whether school sanctioned prayer is constitutional, not whether your personal dislike of certain "isms" can be mentioned in public school. Nowhere in our founding documents does it say that socialism cannot be taught or any other non-religious ideology. Only religion is specifically mentioned because we live in a secular democracy. 

You said "Materialism makes the counter-factual assumption that our material world is all that there is". How is this counter-factual when all that we can test exists in the material world and every other realm is mere subjective speculation?

Mere "consensus" doesn't hold the moral fabric of a culture together. It was the consensus that slavery was moral for many years that allowed it to exist in the U.S. for so long. Diversity in race and religion, united under secularism, that is necessary in order to prevent one religion becoming officialized and imposed onto others is what makes our country so great. That is why the secular model is being followed by more and more countries around the world. So secularism is far from dead, it is on the winning end as it rightfully should.

Manns WordOctober 29, 2012 12:35 AM
You have sidestepped my entire argument. Instead of dealing with my philosophical challenge, you are pleading the Constitution. However, I don’t think that the Constitution will deal kindly with your argument. It says nothing to prohibit school prayer. The First Amendment merely prohibits a State supported religion. In fact, the Founding Fathers did so much to promote the Christian faith, even those whose Christian faith was in question.

George Washington had stated:
• "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity religion and morality are indispensable supports."
• "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for benefits, and humbly to implore His protection, aid, and favors."
• "Without a humble imitation of the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, we can never hope to be a happy nation."
John Adams, our second president and a Unitarian, stated:
• "The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and Humanity."
• "It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted."
In fact, if the intention of the Constitution was to prohibit prayer, it would have been prohibited in Congress, which it wasn’t!
In order to bring the discussion back to its underlying philosophical underpinning, about the religious identity of our beliefs, I’d like to quote you:
• Diversity in race and religion, united under secularism, that is necessary in order to prevent one religion becoming officialized and imposed onto others

Today’s secularism is a religion itself. It isn’t the secularism of the Founding Fathers that guaranteed everyone a place at the table. The secularism of today is the opposite. It guarantees that only those who play by its rules have a seat at the table. It has enshrined its own religion – Materialism, Naturalism, Multi-Culturalism, Moral Relativity, and Secular Humanism, none of which have anything to do with facts. Secularism has become “officialized.” It has become a state-supported religion.

The ThinkerOctober 29, 2012 1:27 AM
Yes the Constitution doesn't specifically prohibit school prayer, neither does it prohibit jay walking. It also doesn't allow school prayer. If the law says that a state has the right to allow school teachers to lead sanctioned prayers during school hours, it would be a "law respecting an establishment of religion" because the "establishment" here is the public school, run by the government, that is unconstitutional. 

Secularism is as much of a religion as not skiing is a sport. You simply don't have an argument here. A religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a deity. Secularism has no deity or sacred dogmatic texts. The problem I have found debating extremely religious people like you, is that you all think everything is a religion because you are so religious yourselves. So socialism is a religion, science is a religion, sports is a religion. But what you don't realize is that not everyone thinks so dogmatic like you. We live in a secular democracy, and I don't care about the religious statements made by some founding fathers. In those days you could be killed for professing anti-Christian beliefs. 

Secularism already is "officialized" and this is enshrined in our Constitution. We already argued in person about moral relativism and I told you that the liberal secular left, is not actually practicing moral relativism but a more universal appeal of human rights, that's why the outcry from the left was just as loud as the right over atrocities in other countries. It is actually in Christianity itself that moral relativism exists, since some morals apply to some people, some of the time. That is relativism. 

Are you seriously going to claim that naturalism and materialism have nothing at all to do with "facts" or have you ran out of serious arguments? Where is your evidence for the spiritual dimension?

Manns WordOctober 29, 2012 8:54 AM
Even though I don’t agree with your definition of religion, I’m glad you attempted to define it:
• A religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a deity. Secularism has no deity or sacred dogmatic texts.

Many people define religion differently, even your own secular humanists. Here’s several older examples:

• THE FIRST HUMANIST MANIFESTO (Paul Kurtz, 1933): “Humanism is a philosophical, religious, and moral point of view.”
• JOHN DEWEY, WHO SIGNED THE MANIFESTO: “Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class or race…It remains to make it explicit and militant.”
• THE US SUPREME COURT (Torasco v. Watkins – 1961): “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

So how should we define religion? Do you think it fair to impose your religion on our schools simply because yours lacks a single deity? Must my children be indoctrinated by your secular values which hold instead that humankind, not one supreme deity, is the highest form of life? If you are unwilling to admit that this is grossly unfair, I don’t see how we can continue this dialogue.

You claim that you aren’t a moral-relativist, but this raises two very serious problems:
1. Whether you are a moral relativist or absolutist, both are still values-orientations, worldviews – religions.
2. Maintaining that there are moral absolutes is inconsistent with your presuppositions.

I am willing to pursue this conversation a little longer, but I do not have the time to pursue multiple threads with you.

The ThinkerOctober 29, 2012 3:28 PM
If you dilute the definition of religion, so that it can mean virtually anything, (capitalism, sports, science, philosophy, politics) then you we will not be able to mention anything in a public school. I suppose we shouldn't even teach science since to people like you it is a "religion". Let's have future generations of American kids fall behind in science while India and China continue to whip our asses. Do you honestly think any set of beliefs is a religion? If so, should every institution be given tax-exempt status that stands for any belief?

But you are not willing to address the central issue without making a big fuss about a bunch of other non-related issues. 

The issue is school prayer lead by government employees. Are you telling me that you want school sanctioned prayer for all faiths, or just Christianity? Even if I was a believer in god and religious, I wouldn't want schools leading prayer for several reasons: 

1. Many people have different interpretations of religion even within the same sects, and unlike a church that I am not in anyway obligated to go to, school is mandatory for children in the U.S. and I don't want to have to home school them.
2. I wouldn't want people of other religions inculcating my kids with their faith in a public institution.
3. Spending time on religion in public schools I see as a waste of time, since time spent on math and science and reading is more important. 

Finally, if you want your kids to have a religious education, why not simply send them to a religious school? I mean this argument we are having now is ridiculous don't you think? Public schools should not be inculcating religion, period. That is a parent's job. School is responsible for giving you the basic education one needs: math, science, reading, writing, history, phys ed. 

I am more than willing to keep this dialogue going perhaps in another format.

Manns WordOctober 29, 2012 5:05 PM
Religion can be defined in many different ways. However, I want to find a definition that will facilitate discussion. The question is this: “Which values, worldviews (religions) shall be promoted in the public sector, namely within our schools?” 

We can’t get away from the issue of indoctrination. Let’s be honest – We all seek to influence our children, the future leaders of this country. While I think that we would both agree that the facts are the facts, and that education has be about facts. However, education isn’t only about facts. It’s also about values. 

Neutrality is an impossibility. Certainly, our selection of which facts will be taught and how defies neutrality. It enters into a question of values, and values are inseparable from our religions. If this is the case, then banning religion from the public sector means banning values, and this isn’t possible.

Ok, let’s use the example of school prayer. I can certainly accept that this constitutes an illegitimate form of coercion for you, even if the prayers are voluntary. However, you seem to be unwilling to admit that many things that other students are subjected to are equally an affront to them and their families.
Science has now been defined in terms of naturalism. Thus, the only form of explanation that is now allowable is a naturalistic one. Any talk of ID is forbidden as the Dover case has most recently demonstrated. 

If naturalism was a matter of fact, then you would have a legitimate case. However, there is not one fact or finding to suggest that causation is natural, undersigned and unintelligent. Instead, there are many lines of reasoning that support the idea that our laws of science are transcendent. Nevertheless, the dogma of naturalism has stealthfully co-opted the public school.

Would you agree that moral relativism has also co-opted the classroom? Are you unwilling to acknowledge that this philosophy is not factually supportable but yet reigns supreme? There is almost no talk in the schools about absolute principles of right and wrong, especially when it comes to sexuality.

You complain that “I wouldn't want people of other religions inculcating my kids with their faith in a public institution.” However, this is exactly what is happening. However, the secular humanists aren’t objecting to this, because this is THEIR religion which predominates. 

While you object to being exposed to a Christian influence, you are oblivious to our grievances about being exposed to your prevailing secular influence. For this dialogue to go anywhere, I think that you need to recognize this double-standard.

The ThinkerOctober 30, 2012 12:42 AM
Well from reading your response, I honestly think that you still are not understanding my point of view, or you are not willing to.

First, clearly "the belief in and worship of a deity" would fall under the definition of religious. For that reason, school personnel should not be leading prayer sessions while in school. That is the main issue here that I wrote about and you are not addressing it directly. The issue is whether it is constitutional or not, not what your personal opinion of it is.

Banning school lead prayer/worship does not ban values. Most religions and humanist philosophy agrees on the same very basic moral principles of right and wrong. Teaching the fundamental core values that virtually no one would disagree with does not require religion. 

With regards to other objectionable "things" kids and families are subjected to in public school, no system can make everyone happy. The bottom line is this: we have a secular democracy, so secularism wins. Period. My side wins. Send your kids to a Christian school if you object, or go move to a Christian theocracy. No one is taking away your right to do this. 

But I suspect this option is not enough for you. No. You want ID/creationism and Christian prayer in public school. This we are not having, and your side will lose this battle, because ID it is not science (as the Dover case illustrated) and school-sanctioned prayer violates the Constitution as I mentioned before. Teaching facts and values within a secular and non-religious framework is completely constitutional and that is why it is the standard today. Refer to the last sentence in my previous paragraph if you have a problem with this. 

When it comes to science, of course it is natural. As you must be aware, science was called "natural philosophy", not supernatural philosophy. Science is the systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. Since we cannot ever test and experiment with the supernatural world, it is not included within science. This argument is over.

Finally, on morality, I agree that we face many issues related to a lack of morality being practiced by many areas in society, particularly in business. How do you define moral relativism? This depends on how I respond here. 

I will agree that there is a liberal bias on social issues in most public institutions as we discussed before. This is because, as I explained, the conservative position is almost always on the wrong side of history and morality: slavery, civil rights, racism and today I guess equality for homosexuals would be one of the major issues. The conservative position was wrong on each and every one of these issues.

Now I definitely want to discuss this in greater detail, but I will say this: in a secular democracy we use the best modern science has to offer to guide our philosophical and moral beliefs. There is no credible scientific evidence that suggests homosexuality is a choice. Since it is not a choice, humanists see no objection to consenting adult homosexuals having sexual relationships, and enjoying equal civil rights under our constitution. In fact many of us see it as a universal human right. I'm sure you disagree, but that's part of the fun. However know this: my side of the argument will win because we have science on our side.

Manns WordOctober 30, 2012 12:54 PM
I think that I’ve made it clear that you are using a discriminatory definition of “religion” to marginalize those who believe in a God, while permitting free access for your own religion or values orientation. According to your definition, you are free to advocate any position you want – abortion, free sex… - while I can’t because my opinion is deemed “religious” and yours isn’t! It means that only your views can be expressed! How convenient! This represents the height of discrimination and bias.

While you claim that I am unwilling to understand your position, I think that I understand it clearly, but I don’t like what I understand. However, it is you who are unwilling to grapple with my position by hiding behind a prejudicial definition of “religion.”

However, I do think that you understand my position. This is why you have abdicated reason in favor of might-makes-right:

• The bottom line is this: we have a secular democracy, so secularism wins. Period. My side wins. Send your kids to a Christian school if you object, or go move to a Christian theocracy. No one is taking away your right to do this.

In light of your entrenched triumphalism, there seems to be no place for this discussion to go.

The ThinkerOctober 30, 2012 3:32 PM
Well I mentioned earlier that if we dilute the definition of religion to include various "isms" then we will not be able to teach anything. This will hurt education in general. A line has to be drawn somewhere, and allowing god or religion taught in the classroom is clearly not on the inside of it.

No one is saying that you cannot argue your positions on abortion and free sex, you just have to do it within a secular framework with no appeal to religion. In other words you must use science to back up your argument. If you cannot make that argument without appeal to religion, then your argument rest entirely on faith, in which case it is unconstitutional for it to be taught in public school.

Now I don't know if you went to public school, but I did. I was never indoctrinated with any thoughts on abortion, or gay marriage etc - they were simply never discussed. My thoughts on these matters came from outside of school.

I am not an advocate of might makes right. I happen to truly believe that a secular system free of religious dogma, where government and religion are separate, is the best system to have. That is why the world's governments are gravitating towards it. It also happens to be enshrined in our constitution, which is what makes American so great. Get over it!

You also mentioned Religious-pluralism. I suspect that you deep down inside want the U.S. to be officially a Christian theocracy or democracy so that you can legislate your theology and have teachers across the nation leading prayer sessions according to your faith.

I understand your anger at the way the system works, I really do. There are teachers in the U.S. who are religious who tell their students hurricanes are god's punishment for sin, that gays are evil, that abortion is murder, that say all those who don't except Christ deserve hell, that are racist, and that express political beliefs I don't hold.

So what can we do about this? If neutrality isn't an option, what's the best compromise? If no religion is allowed, then all teachers will also have to objectively teach the curriculum as to have no personal religious or political bias what so ever. Why don't we forbid such topics as abortion and gay marriage altogether? Sexuality should neither be promoted nor denied; kids will just be given the facts about reproduction. History will be taught as neutral as possible; so kids will learn that the Nazis were neither good nor bad, they just were. Teachers will even teach the holocaust denial argument so they aren't too one-sided. Is this the kind of system that you want?

I don't like politics being shoved down kids throats in school myself, and although it isn't unconstitutional, I feel that any teacher with some strong political ideology should not be brainwashing kids one way or another. So I'm willing to make some compromise at least, what compromise are you willing to make?

Manns WordOctober 31, 2012 7:27 AM

I really appreciate your response. It acknowledges that we have a genuine problem(s) and that there are no easy solutions, and there aren’t. However, we do need to compromise, but what those compromises should be so that we can all live together – and we must find a way to live together – I am not sure. But at least we have to respect one another enough to hear and understand their concerns. Communication is the first step.

I do agree with many of the things that you’ve written. One part of the compromise might require us Christians to not hurl any Bible verses at others who can’t understand them. (If you’ll notice, in our conversation, I didn’t use any Scripture. I tried to talk in a language that would be amenable to you.) Perhaps our social problems might require decentralization instead of the increasing march towards centralization and more federal control – and this has had a dangerous polarizing effect. This would allow each school district to vote for their own curriculum and standards. (And a little extra competition wouldn’t hurt??)

However, I am pessimistic about the future of the West.

The ThinkerOctober 31, 2012 5:39 PM
Like you, I too share some pessimism about the future of the West, but probably for different reasons. To me the primary moral issues affecting the West today, which can lead to its downfall, is the lack of compassion in our economic system, particularly in the financial system.

There is an almost religious (dare I say it) worship of profit over everything else, that when taken to its extreme results in people and the environment being exploited. We are raping the finite resources that the Earth can produce, exploiting cheap expendable labor to fashion it into products that we largely do not need, and we are creating insurmountable levels of pollution in the process. This cannot go on forever, and this destruction is being spearheaded mostly by the leaders of industry in the West. This is not only going to spell the downfall of the West, but the down fall of us all, and I see it as the largest moral issue facing us today.

Now I understand your moral concerns perhaps differ. A liberal moral framework, allowing free and open sexuality among consenting adults, and certain other practices deemed "sinful" by many religions, certainly can result in more complexity. Having choice and the freedom to make choices introduces complexity. For example, it would be easier to make decisions if we had only one or two choices given to us, but having the freedom to make many more choices, destroys the simplicity.

I do not recommend limiting one's choices by any sort of big government enforcement of laws created by religious-based rules. In the West we have the freedom to make choices, it is up to you to do what you want.

I truly think, that if we can curb our greed along with some other things, and practice more compassion towards all things, the West can continue to be the shining beacon of hope and leader in the world against oppression, and that will sustain us for generations to come.

Manns WordOctober 31, 2012 6:01 PM
"There is an almost religious (dare I say it) worship of profit over everything else, that when taken to its extreme results in people and the environment being exploited."

I think that a religious problem requires a religious solution - a recognition of evil and the need for virtue!

Nevertheless, even though real change is accomplished by changed hearts, I still believe that there is a place for punitive laws - to curb both sexual and economic exploitation.

The ThinkerNovember 1, 2012 3:37 AM

Well we can recognize evil and emphasize virtue very well without religion, and that is one of my goals. Using religion to fight religion, is like using more heroine to fight having too much heroine. It is not the solution.

We certainly need a culture practicing strong morals, but to think that practicing morality requires religion, considering all the baggage religion brings, is like asking one to accept all of communism for a few good collectivist principles.

We will never agree perhaps on how best to cure the ills of society but I can tell you that some of the core basic lessons learned in Christian morality are universal, and they can be taught without reference to theology. This is what you call secularism, and I believe that in a religious and culturally plural society like ours, it is the best and most fair system, and that is why our founding fathers used it.

Manns WordNovember 1, 2012 1:40 PM

To respond to part of what you had written, I just posted a new essay on modern secularism.

Although you are correct that we don't need religion to tell us right from wrong, we do need the belief in the Biblical God to provide an adequate supporting rationale.

This is an area where we will disagree. While we both believe that there is an adequate ontological basis for unchanging and universal absolutes, I believe that only God can provide such a basis.



The idea that secularism is a religion, when it stands for separating religion from government, is absurd. If Daniel were right, secularism would be a religion to impose limits on religion! This is exemplary of how nonsensical the religious mind sometimes thinks.  

Now I wouldn't personally be thrilled with the idea of teachers inculcating politics to their students. Even though politics isn't a religion, it doesn't seem to be the role of a public school teacher to influence students with their political opinions. Might we opt for some neutrality then on matters of controversy?

I will not concede maintaining secularism as our standard model of government and public education, and will never allow religion and theism into our public classrooms. The liberal view on social issues is almost always on the right side of history, whereas the conservative view is almost always on the wrong side. That is why we have a liberal bias in our public institutions. Extremely religious conservatives like Daniel Mann are just sad because they're on the losing side of history, and they're trying to desperately hold on to their last ditch efforts to maintain and impose on others the theistic ways in which many of them were raised. 

Lastly, I do not want to give the impression that I look upon all my intellectual enemies with such utter disdain to the point where compromise and collaboration becomes impossible. Certainly there is a time to be polemic, and a time not to be. I would certainly be willing to work together with anyone who shares the same moral concerns that I do, even if we disagree on others. Life is a collaborative effort, and we've all got to work together where it matters and sometimes that means setting aside our differences. 


  1. Michael,

    Not a bad job at all! I have found you more reasonable and fair-minded than the vast majority of atheists with whom I've dialogued.

    Well, here's my summary: Whether we call secularism a religion or not is almost immaterial. We are still locked into a battle of conflicting goals and values, and any resolution is going to require understanding and civility!

    1. Daniel, the problem is not any battle of conflicting goals and values. The problem is the assumption of privilege you assume for your own values and goals, and your inability to justify this assumption (also your inability to justify your goals and values as being reasonable).
      You do not seem to want to work together, but rather to simply impose your values upon others. You see anything preventing you from doing this as a form of oppression.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...