Should an atheist stand for governmental prayer?

Yesterday, I visited the PA state capitol building in Harrisburg mainly to protest a school voucher rally organized by Christians. Before the voucher rally, though, fellow atheist Carl Silverman and I wanted to watch ‘government in action’ and wanted to know whether the session would be led by prayer. We saw a sign that mentioned inter-faith prayer and asked for persons to stand for it before we entered the room and wondered about which prayer would be given and by whom.

The session started with the speaker telling persons to stand for an opening prayer and the pledge. Carl and I refused to stand for the prayer. Carl and I were listening very closely to what was being said and I was writing some items mentioned in the prayer such as ‘the apostle Paul,’ ‘heavenly father,’ ‘Jesus Christ,’ and much more. During the prayer and while I was writing in my notebook while remaining seated, an armed guard approached Carl and me.

He said, “Are you going to stand?”

Carl shook his head no and I said nothing thinking he would perhaps go away. I was wondering why I was being approached by a government official and whether there would be some sort of consequence if I did not stand. I felt very intimidated and bothered by this approach. I was thinking that I couldn’t possibly be kicked out, so I remained seated.

“Are you going to stand,” the guard asked again.

I told the guard I was not religious and he said, “Please stand to show respect” and asked “Are you going to stand for the pledge.”

I said maybe, Carl gestured maybe with his hand.

When we said the pledge, we ‘plowed through it’ and said “one nation indivisible” instead of the “one nation under God, indivisible” in ‘protest’ (after all, that was added in 1954 and doesn’t represent all Americans).

Afterwards, Carl approached the guard and informed him that it is not right for persons to be approached by government officials if they do not wish to stand for prayer. Further, we noted that standing for the prayer would be showing respect and we don’t want to respect a sectarian prayer in a government building.

***

This matter seems quite obvious to me.

Sectarian prayer should not be present in governmental proceedings.

Atheists (or anyone else) should be be approached by government officials when they do not wish to stand.

Despite this, some detractors on my Facebook page (who happen to be atheists) feel that I was “disrespectful” and that I should have stood for the prayer.

Here are the points, one by one, and why they fail to make a compelling case:

So…if a gathering of atheists occurred and the speaker wanted people to stand in respect to veterans or something, would you still keep your butt seated? Really, it’s the same thing.

This isn’t the same thing at all because words said to commemorate veterans in a secular manner are not similar to a sectarian prayer. I would have no problem standing for this and would also have no problem with people who wished to remain seated. I believe that the ‘decision’ to remain seated or stand should be left to the individual and that there should be no ramifications for remaining seated.

Christians have their prayers, or moments of silence, or something. Showing respect is something that everyone should do universally, whether they’re atheists, Christians, etc.

I don’t understand why I should show respect toward sectarian prayer in a government building that starts a government function.

Showing respect doesn’t mean you believe in what they’re doing or who they are. It may (or may not) be seen as showing respect for the religion–but does it really matter?

I didn’t want to stand because I absolutely refuse to show respect toward a sectarian prayer. This really does matter. These prayers are probably unconstitutional and do not belong in the halls of government. Why are we wasting time with prayer, anyway?

People choose whatever they wish to choose in terms of religion–do you not respect people’s freedom of choice? And no, that’s not the same as your choice to remain seated.

Remaining seated does not convey a message that I fail to respect freedom of choice. This simply isn’t the issue here. People can believe what they wish from a legal standpoint, but these beliefs should not be converted into sectarian prayer.

At least show some respect or even more people will come to hate you and your lack of respect for the way people are.

On my blog, I constantly mention respecting persons and not ideas. Have you missed this time and time again? Failing to stand for a prayer should not be, in any way, construed as being disrespectful of individuals. If persons are going to hate me because I don’t stand for a prayer, it seems to be the case that they’re being quite irrational, bigoted, and are showing they are very uninformed.

You know I’m an atheist, and I still show respect for people of other religions.

I do too, but I’m not going to stand for a sectarian prayer.

I don’t understand what the problem is here. No one should feel compelled to stand for a sectarian prayer (or really anything) in a governmental building. Additionally, sectarian prayer should not be included in governmental proceedings. I think everyone should remain seated in protest to convey the message that sectarian prayer should not be featured in governmental proceedings.

I didn’t make noise during the prayer, was not disruptive, and did nothing to interrupt the prayer (although, perhaps, it may have been interesting to yell “This is unconstitutional!” or something similar like atheists have done in the past…

Perhaps I could understand standing for a prayer ‘when in Rome.’ For instance, I visited a mosque months ago and was asked to remove my shoes before entering a prayer room. I had no problem doing this. This, though, is much different than sectarian governmental prayer. In the mosque situation, the prayer was appropriate and I was a guest with the intention of wanting to visit the mosque, learn something, and watch the prayer ritual. In the case of the governmental proceeding, the prayer was not appropriate and my intention was not to pray.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • You should kneel in protest.

  • Seems like one-sided respect whenever you are dealing with the religious.

  • GCT

    Jenn nailed it.It is a one-sided request and part of the theistic cultural privilege that pervades our society. If you don’t go out of your way to “respect” the religion and give deference to it, then you are rude and out of line. The real offense here, though, should be the fact that the religious are trying to force all others to do what they want. That’s what’s really disrespectful…and in this case it’s actually against the law.

  • Charles

    I’m a very well educated Christian, board certified in ER medicine, knowledgeable in mathematics and all the sciences, also the Bible, Koran, and Biblical eschatology. How does one contact you? Your arguments regarding the non existence of God are untrue and simplistic. Do you know anything about codes? Do you know anything about the truth of assumptions? As you know the heart of atheism is the existence of evil. Evil as defined as anything bad that happens in the universe. Why would God allow evil into being? Evil sullies His existence. In eternity if He existed he was complete. Why would he shatter that completeness by allowing evil into existence? This is the core question for which no theistic system has answer. Evil exists therefore God does not exist. All other arguments pale in comparison. Don’t want to monopolize the blog or change the subject. My email is csr-dsr@msn.com

  • I don’t know why you are posting this on this blog post…Anyway, there are several ways to reach me: justinvacula@kings.edu, justinvacula@gmail.com, jvacula@nepafreethought.org, http://www.facebook.com/justinvacula