An article published in the May 26, 2013 edition of The Times Leader pertains to the recently erected “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner which I — with help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation — was responsible for placing on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Reporter Joe O’Connoll wonderfully presented accurate reporting of events and provided selected quotes from his interview with me.
Below, the text of article, for archiving purposes, is reproduced:
WILKES-BARRE — One area grad student thinks the government has no place asking people to pray.
Justin Vacula, 24, a mental health counseling student at Marywood University, hung a banner that reads “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” on Public Square this week in response to the May 2 National Day of Prayer and the Circle the Square with Prayer events held by area churches at the same place.
Vacula, a member of the NEPA Freethought Society, said he knows the message might sound a little harsh, but does not intend for it to be a personal affront to Christians, rather a loud invitation to talk about reasons for praying. He took exception to the federally recognized day of prayer because people should be able to choose their own beliefs.
“I don’t think that’s the business of the government,” Vacula said. “People should make decisions on their own.”
A self-described atheist and a skeptic, Vacula said he has his beliefs — or lacks them — because he needs evidence first, something he hasn’t seen to validate his faith in a god.
He completed his undergraduate studies at King’s College and spent time with people of faith. He met people there who followed the Biblical mandate in 1 Peter 3:15, to defend beliefs with gentleness and respect, Vacula said.
“If all the religious people in the world were like the ministers and theologians at King’s, I’d have no problem,” Vacula said.
Vacula secured $50 from Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization of which he is a member, to pay Wilkes-Barre to hang his banner for the week. The foundation also supplied the banner.
The article references the recent National Day of Prayer and the “Circle the Square With Prayer” event in Wilkes-Barre [which I had protested]. I had contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation when I had discovered a banner promoting the National Day of Prayer and the “Circle the Square With Prayer” event and found it fitting to respond with a contrary message. The City of Wilkes-Barre, in allowing religious messages on Public Square, also must allow non-religious and anti-religious messages; if religious messages are permitted while anti-religious or non-religious messages are impermissible, the city is clearly discriminating according to point of view and may face legal action.
While Christians (and others) may claim that the “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” message is harsh, I find it important for them to — instead of claiming offense and being unwilling to ask why a message is perceived as offensive — analyze whether religious beliefs (such as the efficacy of prayer – whether a supernatural being, God, responds to requests from humans) reflect reality. The message is not designed to attack persons, but rather openly doubts the efficacy of prayer.
I believe the United States federal government (and other governments in the United States) should not become entangled with religion in advising its citizens to pray. The government ought to remain neutral and not got involved with citizens’ — at least as the Pennsylvania state constitution explains — freedom of conscience. Section three of the state constitution reads,
All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.
Within the article, the writer uses the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘skeptic’ as descriptions of my philosophical commitments. Atheist, as I consider it, is a label for someone who lacks belief in any gods – nothing more, nothing less. A skeptic is one who approaches claims with scrutiny – demanding reason, argument, and evidence to demonstrate that a proposition is true. Since I have not been met with good argument, reason, and evidence to warrant belief in any gods, I consider myself an atheist; applied skepticism to religious claims, as I see it, leads to atheism. Faith, much different than skepticism, is not a reliable epistemology (thought process); believing a claim because of a faith commitment — absent sufficient argument, evidence, and reason — leads to different conclusions ranging from Allah to Zeus.
During the interview, the reporter has asked me about varying approaches to prayer and whether I had a problem when considering people, if I recall correctly, who think of prayer as meditation or a calming experience. I had noted that my ‘problem with prayer’ is multi-faceted. Prayer, instead of, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation says, ‘getting off your knees and getting to work,’ may give people the false impression that they are helping others. Individuals who truly believe prayer may invoke the divine intervention of a god may forgo real-world action – especially, in the most extreme cases, providing medical treatment to children.
I had, in the article, said that if all religious people in the world were like ministers and theologians at King’s College — the university at which I had completed undergraduate studies — I would have no problem; there probably would not be a need to protest events and hang banners because the harm associated with religious belief would very likely significantly decrease. After all, not all Christians believe the same propositions – nor do they approach religious beliefs in the same way. If religious people throughout the world were like the ministers and theologians at King’s College, we may have philosophical quibbles, but the implications of belief in — for instance — law, indoctrinating children, and tax breaks would not be as significant.
As always, feel free to leave comments below.