2014 National Day of Prayer protest experience

Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event
Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event

I recount my experiences protesting the 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre commemorating the National Day of Prayer.

Due to the unprominent and late placement of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner, this piece recounting my experiences — namely discussions — at the Circle the Square With Prayer event commemorating the National Day of Prayer was delayed.

I spoke with a newspaper reporter about my protest with members of the NEPA Freethought Society (read about the published article and my other, unpublished thoughts here). Thanks to NEPA Freethought Society members Rodney Collins and Erik Dickerson for accompanying me at this event.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight
Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

I approached the Circle the Square With Prayer event with a foamboard sign and, rather than engaging people in discussion, allowed people to engage me. The first person who engaged me in a discussion told me she believed the Christian god exists because she prevailed through depression. She explained that ‘nothing else worked,’ but after she prayed to God she was cured. It’s too bad that she won’t take personal credit for her improved health.

I asked the woman if she had a support system of family and friends to help her. She explained that a support system, medication (she voluntarily disclosed this without my asking, and ‘everything else’ did not work. I asked her, then, how non-religious persons prevail through mental health issues and she didn’t provide an answer to this. I also noted that people of different religious beliefs prevail through mental health issues [and claim that deities they exist helped them].

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Belief in specific deities cannot be warranted through religious experiences – at least when people claiming different things about different gods are using similar thought processes to arrive at different claims. The Christian who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that God exists faces the Hindu who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that Ganesh, for instance, exists. Both Ganesh and God cannot exist.

At least three individuals engaged in the ‘people would not die for a lie’ reasoning – pointing to martyrdom and people willing to die for Christian belief as evidence for the truth-value for Christianity. I explained that people of many different religious orientations are willing to die for their beliefs and indeed die for their beliefs. The fact that someone dies or would die holding a belief does not demonstrate that the belief is true, but rather shows that a person likely feels sincere and fervent. Read more of my thoughts on this here.frontsign

One person told me that compassion is not consistent with the atheistic worldview – that an atheist has no reason to treat others with compassion [and only in a Christian worldview may compassion be logical]. After explaining that atheism is not a worldview (it is a label for someone who lacks belief in any gods – nothing less, nothing more), I explained that there are many reasons people exercise compassion including a want to help others; the benefit of feeling happy after engaging in good deeds; and a realization that other humans are like us and have similar wants, needs, and desires. A god belief is not required for one to exercise or explain compassion.

A man speaking at-length about the Shroud of Turin was arguing that since the image on the Shroud of Turin cannot be [re]created by humans, and there is no natural explanation for the Shroud of Turin, the Shroud of Turin is proof for God. Taking advantage of my smartphone after identifying the ‘mystery therefore magic’ fallacy, I found an article from Nature explaining that the shroud was a medieval forgery and another article reporting on an Italian scientist recreating the shroud. After the man said something like ‘you cannot trust what scientists say because they are lying to you about evolution’ I exited the conversation.

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 - days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event
Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 – days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

One person told me I have faith just like Christian have faith in God because when I turn on a lightswitch I have faith that a light will turn on. I explained that my belief isn’t like Christian faith because I have, throughout my life, seen lights turn on when I turn on a switch. When the light did not turn on, I modified my belief and reasoned that something was wrong. I have a justified true belief, then, that lights will turn on when I flip lightswitches that I have seen work before.

Pascal’s Wager also propped its head into discussions…

Overall, I was not impressed with the level of conversation at the event because it was not very challenging or thoughtful. One pastor at the event — someone who asked to lay his hands on me in prayer (watch the video below) — however, brought more thoughtful discussion and offered to have a conversation following the event. We’re currently having an e-mail exchange after speaking on the telephone about the possibility of a future live, open-to-the-public discussion similar to the discussion I had with Pastor Dan Nichols.

Thankfully, although Pastor Michael Brewster was arguing that my hanging of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner [was seen as] offensive and disrespectful (I will respond to this in a future piece), almost everyone I had conversation with was respectful. I plan to protest and hang a banner in response to the 2015 Wilkes-Barre National Day of Prayer event.

At the end of the day, people were educated on matters of atheism and separation of church and state (although most people didn’t want to talk about separation of church and state). Throughout the event, people — most of them Christians — told me that they have read my content, listened to my discussions with pastors, and thought that I was respectful and well-educated. It’s nice to leave a positive impression on people and dispel the notion that atheists are cynical curmudgeons.  This is a success.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and hosts 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 pursuing a degree in Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and formerly worked for 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 and plays at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.