Response to criticisms of my National Day of Prayer protest

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Protesting outside "Public Square Rosary Crusade" event holding FFRF "Nothing Fails Like Prayer" banner
Protesting outside “Public Square Rosary Crusade” event holding FFRF “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner

I respond to criticisms of my press release announcing a protest of a National Day of Prayer event.

Yesterday, I issued a press release on behalf of the NEPA Freethought Society announcing a protest of the upcoming May 1, 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre commemorating the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer.

Following my press release, I received criticism and questions not only from religious individuals, but also fellow atheists. Rather than commenting on individual criticism on Facebook threads, YouTube videos, etc. I will address some criticism and questions here. Your comments are again welcome (preferably here, keeping everything in one place and more organized).

Feedback ranged from ‘You are behaving just like the Westboro Baptist Church’ to the reasonable ‘With a message like Nothing Fails Like Prayer hanging above Public Square, religious people will not be receptive to your message.’ Before responding to individual criticisms, I will reiterate and further explain why I am protesting – expanding on a press release which is limited to one page.

I am protesting the National Day of Prayer event chiefly because of governmental entanglement with religion; since the United States federal government launched and promotes the National Day of Prayer, inviting citizens to pray, I find protest to be an appropriate response. I also object to beliefs surrounding the efficacy of prayer. My objection to Circle the Square with Prayer is two-pronged.

I wouldn’t protest any given prayer rally or prayer event (and I don’t), but rather save protests for special occasions dealing with issues of church/state separation. If the event were merely a prayer rally — having nothing to do with government involvement with religious matters — I would stay home and probably ignore the event. I might issue a response to specific claims being made about prayer at the rally and attend the rally myself, but I would very likely not protest.

To date — as far as I can remember — I protested a rally supporting a bill aiming to use government funds to support Catholic schools (see here); a rally spreading misinformation about secularism and encouraging political officials to make decisions based on Catholic theology (see here, here, and here); and the 2013 Circle the Square With Prayer event (see here).

My protests — often passive and always respectful — are, I think, a great way to initiate a conversation (both via the web and in-person), inspire people to think about important issues, and provide an example of reflective well-mannered discussion amidst a sea of disrespect [in online conversations] and the widely-held idea that disagreement is inherently disrespectful.

In fact, my 2013 protest of Circle the Square with Prayer was so effective that it lead to an open-to-the public debate, an open-to-the-public discussion, countless religious individuals telling me that their impressions of atheists (and of me) have changed for the better, and further discussion.

Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster
Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula
Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster

Admittedly, the message ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ can seem quite biting — responding to a cherished belief many religious people hold — but it is very much different than a personal attack and/or messages like ‘religious people are mentally ill,’ ‘religious people are unintelligent,’ or some other sentiments which I think would not be productive to conversation and would rightly be considered offensive.

It’s high time, though, that people cease conflating criticism of belief — in this case, responding to a claim that prayer, a plea for a divine being to intercede in human affairs, leads to divine interventions in human affairs and has real-world measurable effects — with attacks on individuals.

It’s high time to stop using the phrases ‘insulting beliefs’ or ‘disrespecting beliefs’ – again conflating criticism of belief with attacks on persons. People can be insulted and disrespected but beliefs — ideas people hold about the way the world is — may be not insulted. There exists a crucial difference.

Some atheists [who commented on my protest announcement] called my protest — all while telling me how to be civil — “a dick move,” “bullshit,” bashing people, “negative,” “confrontational,” “juvenile,” “an embarrassing insult,” and “stupid.” I was also charged with making non-theists look bad. Telling people how to be civil while in the process of hurling insults is simply unproductive. I don’t understand why people attach such negative connotations to my protesting. It’s easy to dismiss criticisms when people who are advising others to be civil are themselves uncivil.

No matter how ‘mild’ or diplomatic my message may be, I am sure that the mere fact that I speak up will be considered offensive, an attack, and disrespectful. In fact, this was the case in 2012 and 2013 when the County of Lackawanna Transit System rejected a bus advertisement I proposed — containing the word ‘atheists’ — which was slated to be the most inoffensive atheist bus advertisement ever; the advertisement was considered an attack on religion.

It may also be easy to dismiss various naysayers who criticize my methods of activism while said naysayers fail to engage in any activism of their own. Since 2009, when I first challenged the constitutionality of religious displays on county courthouse property, I was told that my methods were inferior and that I was making fellow atheists look bad.

To date, I have not seen these naysayers ‘showing me how it is done’ — engaging in activism of their own — or being involved in any way with atheist and church/state organizations. If you don’t like how I operate, please engage in your own brand of activism and show me how you think activism should be exercised. Rather than calling your methods ‘dick moves’ and attacking you, I will stand with you and support your activism. Until then, I continue to wait…

There is no perfect way to engage in activism. There is no single approach which will rally like-minded individuals, lead to societal change, modify peoples’ beliefs, or receive a positive reception from society-at-large. Diplomatic, confrontational, and many approaches in-between [I do not believe there are just two types of approaches] can be effective and connect with certain audiences. Barring illegal activity, tremendous disrespect, and some other caveats, I stand by the position that multiple approaches to activism can be effective and have their place.

Another general line of criticism is that I should ‘live and let live’ – allowing others to ‘believe what they want’ and ‘not interfering with others’ beliefs.’ I am happy to ‘live and let live,’ but unfortunately I cannot ‘live and let live’ when government involvement — particularly in Pennsylvania — with religious matters is rampant. Tell government officials to ‘live and let live’ instead of telling me to ‘live and let live.’ There is a reason why I focus on Christian belief while ignoring beliefs Pagans, for instance, hold.

As months go by, religion continues to creep into Pennsylvania’s government proceedings. Whether lawmakers attempt to mandate public schools display “In God We Trust,” mayors consider the free speech of atheists to be “unfortunate,” city councils initiate government-led prayer at council meetings, house representatives approve/introduce “The Year of the Bible” legislation, Prayer Month legislation, The Year of Religious Diversity legislation, an attempt to remove anonymity from individuals engaging in lawsuits seeking to uphold the separation of church and state, an attempt to criminalize “profane discourse” outside houses of worshipNational Fast Day legislation, or American Religious History Week legislation, Pennsylvania lawmakers continue to erode the wall separating church and state. The list sadly continues to grow.

I appreciate feedback. I welcome more of it below.

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