Monday, May 14, 2012

The National Day of Reason

This past May 3rd was the 59th annual National Day of Prayer (NDP). The National Day of Reason (NDR) started in 2003 in response to the NDP. Because of these two competing and contradictory days, there has been a lot of media attention and coverage of the so-called “culture wars.” The clash of the religious right and the nonbelievers (includes atheists, agnostics, non-theist and secular humanists) continues to rage and has been particularly charged lately in this past election cycle.

It is not news to anyone that we are in the midst of a culture war. I however, do not like to call it a culture war. I call it for what it actually is: a religious war. I label it in this way because the issues of this “culture war” are religious in nature! They are defined by religion, and fought with its corresponding passion and sense of urgency and arrogance. These issues revolve around but are in no way limited to: prayer in public schools, public display of religious symbols such as the ten commandments, homosexuality and domestic partnerships and their corresponding civil rights, abortion, birth control and the so-called evolution/creationism debate. The conversation however, underneath these surface manifestations, has deeper foundations. It is based in a struggle for power and influence in the public square. It goes so deep as to touch on subtle assumptions about human nature and the basis of human morality. In order to stay focused and avoid these complications, however interesting and necessary to discuss they are, I will stick to the surface manifestations, discussing this debate between the NDP and the NDR with only slight injections of their deeper complications.

Lets start with the NDP, then move to the NDR and finish with various voices on both sides on the debate.

All of the information I have gathered is directly from the NDP website: The NDP was enacted to “encourage personal repentance and righteousness in the culture.” It is observed in respect of “all people, regardless of gender, race, socio-economic status or creed.” Throughout the website, particularly on the sites “about” and “mission” pages, scriptures are listed as reason and justification for this day. They quote Romans 12, Matthew 18, Deuteronomy 6, Proverbs 14, Psalm 133, First Timothy 2 and Mark 12 among many others. But the NDP is not an exclusively Christian event. They claim, “This government-proclaimed day is offered to all American, regardless of religion, to celebrate their faith through prayer. However the efforts of the NDP Task Force are executed specifically in accordance with its Judeo-Christian beliefs.” This day is centered on public acknowledgment of “the need for personal repentance and prayer…”

On their website, they make the common claim from the religious right that the United States is a Christian nation, or at least was “birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible.” This is used as a justification for having a federally recognized day of prayer.

The NDP has also received criticism that they are affiliated with Focus on the Family and Family Talk. They deny this claim, saying “Though Mrs. Dobson [chairman of the NDP] is married to Focus on the Family and Family Talk founder Dr. James Dobson, the NDP Task Force is a separate organizations. It was housed at the Focus on the Family headquarters from 1991 to 2009 and is currently located at an independent office in Colorado Spring, CO. Its business affairs have always remained separate and Focus on the Family was compensated fro services rendered. However, between 1991 and 1993, Focus on the Family did provide grants in support of the NDP Task Force. Since then, the Task Force has been completely self-supported.” If you are not familiar with Focus on the Family, Family Talk and Dr. James Dobson, then I suggest you do some research or crawl out of the cave you have been living in. I will not discuss it here past the fact that Focus on the Family advocates for prayer in public schools, is anti-gay in every respect, pro-life, anti-pornography, any pre-marital and extramarital sexual activity and is highly political in nature (Dobson met or spoke with George W. Bush, during his presidency, almost weekly). This should not be surprising that the NDP is an intimate reflection of the religious right and their agenda for dominance in public life. As they say, “Since 1952, the NDP has been a powerful reminder of our need to kneel before God’s throne in the public sphere.”

The National Day of Reason (NDR) started in 2003 as a response to the “persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.” One of the fundamental points of opposition of these two groups can be summed up thusly: That religion and religious liberty and freedom is a private affair. It has no place in public policy or in the governance of a pluralistic populace consisting of many faiths and a growing number of those with no faith.

The NDR opposes the NDP on the following grounds:
1.     The NDP violates the First Amendment. It asks federal and local governments to “set aside tax dollar supported time and space to engage in religious ceremonies.” This is simply government support of religion over no religion.
2.     The NDP has sponsored thousands of events. As they hold these events of the NDP, government officials participate as if they are government endorsed. 
3.     The Supreme Court has stated that state sponsored prayer in schools is “inappropriately exclusionary.” The NDR asks, “Why is a nationally sponsored day of prayer and more inclusive?” A national effort geared toward a percentage of believers should be outside of the government’s abilities/duties/endorsements.
4.     A NDP has the effect of making those who don’t pray feel like second-class citizens. “Why set aside a national day that needlessly excludes?”
5.     Why do religious folk need a federally sponsored day to be reminded to pray? Why limit prayer to a single day in the first place? Government should simply have no voice in saying what Americans should do, especially if it is to engage in a religious practice.
6.     This NDP is focused on a certain form and manifestation of religious engagement. In this way, it gives preference and endorsement of this form of religion in opposition to other religious engagements and nonreligious engagements that may deserve more public support such as civil rights, social justice, peace activism etc.
7.     Many religious groups disagree with public prayer. This state sponsored public display of prayer is thus “a direct affront to such teachings and disrespects countless religious Americans” who do keep their religious life private.
8.     The freedoms of religion and expression are given to all Americans. We can choose to pray or not to pray as we wish. We do not need any government-endorsed program to influence one way or another. There is simply no need for the NDP.

Secular Humanists and all nonbelievers should be generally concerned with the religious right and their political agenda. The NDP is a manifestation of their desire for Christian cultural dominance in public life. It reflects an agenda that transcends this one manifestation. Other areas of concern include, support of faith-based initiatives which “proselytize and employ discriminatory hiring practices”, restricting important scientific research on the basis of religious and so-called moral objections, attempts to include creationism (including “intelligent design”) into public education, the appointment of judges who render decisions on the basis of their private religious beliefs, and lately the religiously motivated restrictions on reproductive rights and information as well as gay marriage, domestic partnership and corresponding civil rights.

Ken Ham, President and CEO of Answers in Genesis USA, is a perfect example of the threat of the religious right. He recently published an article responding to president Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. His response, I think, embodies the threat the religious right poses in these and other areas. Ham is a “Young-Earth” Creationist. He believes in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and denies evolution.

Obama said his view on gay marriage has “evolved”. For Ham, and many religious people, morals do not evolve or change. Morals are absolute and are given by God. Of course, this means the Christian God. Naturally. This idea is a really interesting and dangerous idea that I have written about extensively, especially in previous blog posts concerning Richard Dawkins, Rodney Stark and Ken Wilber. If you do not believe in absolute morality, then what sort of moral reasoning or guidance can you possibly have? Or as Ham says, “how does an atheist or agnostic determine what is ‘good’”? Ham thinks there is only one way to determine what is “good” and that “is from the absolute authority who is all ‘good’ – God!” Despite the simple denial of the human-made nature of religion and the arrogance to presume to have exclusive knowledge of God and God’s will, as I discussed with Brian Kimball in a previous post, this position asserts that nonbelievers are morally inferior, and that those of other religious faiths are either morally misguided or morally wrong.

Ham’s worldview is black and white. If you abandon this Christian absolute standard of morality, “we will see people doing what is right in their own eyes.” This, he says, is what we are experiencing in U.S. public policy. He says, “The recent announcement by the president of the USA in support of ‘gay’ marriage is just one such example—he abandoned the absolute standard for what is ‘good’ and now is wanting to impose his subjective opinion on the nation.” There is no acknowledgement that his subjective religious version of absolute morality is not imposed on others. It can’t be because it’s not subjective. This is objective truth. And as such, is justified in being coerced onto others. God’s word, Ham says, is being replaced. It is being replaced with “man’s word.” Our national religion, he says, is changing “from Christianity to secular humanism.” Secular humanism, first of all, is not a religion. Secondly, he views it as being fundamentally at odds with his version of Christian values, which are of course, the only correct values to have. As such, these values must be the values that form the basis of public policy. These are the values that should guide our politicians. As the NDP website says, we must “mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.”

I’ll close with a quote from President Barak Obama. Speaking on the issue of contraceptives, he said, “No, you cants deny women their basic rights and pretend it’s about your ‘religious freedom’. If you don’t like birth control, don’t use it. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.” Likewise, a Christian majority, cannot force their version of morality onto others just because they think they have exclusive access to the absolute truth. No minority, especially nonbelievers should have their rights subject to the passions and sentiments of the majority. The NDP is a clear breach of the First Amendment and is a symbol of the religious rights war on anyone who disagrees with them. As such, I celebrate the National Day of Reason!

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