National Day of Actually DOING Something

People working together, like this barn raising, is more effective than praying about itToday is the National Day of Prayer. How about a National Day of Actually Doing Something instead?

The president issued the obligatory proclamation today: “Let us pray for all the citizens of our great Nation, particularly those who are sick, mourning, or without hope, and ask God for the sustenance to meet the challenges we face as a Nation” and blah, blah, blah.

We’ve had a National Day of Prayer since 1952. What good has it done? In 1952, the world had 50 million cases of smallpox each year. Today, zero. Guinea worm and polio should soon follow. Computers? Cell phones? The internet? Science delivers, not God.

I can appreciate that praying to Jesus can help someone feel better, but so can praying to Shiva or Quetzalcoatl or whatever god they’ve been raised with. In terms of actual results, praying to Jesus is as effective as praying to a jug of milk.

I understand how the National Day of Prayer helps politicians get right with Christians. But how it coexists with the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), I can’t imagine.

My own departure from Christianity was pretty gentle, and I learned a lot from the painful road taken by Julia Sweeney (creator of “Letting Go of God”). As she gradually fell away from first Catholicism, then Christianity, and finally religion, she realized with a shock how ineffective prayer had been. Prayer lets you imagine that you’re doing something when you’re actually doing absolutely nothing. All that prayer that had helped her feel like she was helping people—whether the person on hard times down the street or the city devastated by natural disaster around the world—had been worthless.

In fact, not only does prayer do nothing in cases like this, but it is actually harmful. The pain that people naturally feel when they hear of disaster—that emotion that could be the motivator for action—is drained away by prayer. Why bother doing something yourself when God is so much more capable?

Prayer becomes an abdication of responsibility, and atheism can open the doors to action.

Sweeney’s conclusion: if you want to help the victims of the tsunami in Haiti (or whatever the latest disaster is), you need to do something since God clearly isn’t doing anything. Contribute to a charity that will help, or demand that the federal government spend more to help and demand the tax increase to pay for it. If it’s a sick friend, Jesus isn’t going to take them soup and cheer them up … but you can.

Prayer doesn’t “work” like other things work.  Electricity works.  An antibiotic works.  Prayer doesn’t.  As the bumper sticker says, Nothing Fails Like Prayer.

Even televangelists make clear that prayer is useless. Their shows are just long infomercials that end with a direct appeal in two parts: please pray for us, and send lots and lots of cash. But what possible value could my $20 be compared to what the almighty Creator of the universe could do?

Televangelists’ appeals for money make clear that they know what I know: that praying is like waiting for the Great Pumpkin. People can reliably deliver money, but prayer doesn’t deliver anything.

Instead of a National Day of Prayer, how about a National Day of Actually Doing Something? Many local United Way offices organize a Day of Caring—what about something like that on a national level?

Doing something makes you feel good, just like prayer, but it actually delivers the results.

Prayer is like masturbation.
It makes you feel good but it doesn’t change the world.
Don Baker

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “National Day of Prayer,” Wikipedia.
  • Elizabeth Tenety, “Do we need a National Day of Prayer?” Washington Post, 5/5/11.

Maybe it Works Better in German

A text-only box written in mock-German demands that people leave the First Amendment alone.

You’d think the reasons would be obvious, but maybe a warning in a severe font will encourage meddling Christians to respect the First Amendment.

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The Declaration of Independence—A Christian Document?

Does God exist?  Weak Christian apologetics don't make much of an argument.Is America a Christian nation? Some Christians eagerly point to the word “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence (1776) as evidence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Who is this “Creator”? Is it Yahweh, the Christian god? Is it a placeholder into which you can imagine any god so that Muslims can imagine Allah or Hindus can imagine Brahma?

No—the opening sentence clarifies: it’s not Yahweh but “Nature’s God.” At the time, this phrase was understood as the deist god of Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza and Voltaire. Deism was popular in Revolutionary America, and Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and other founding fathers were either deists or inspired by the movement. Deism imagines a hands-off god, a creator who, once the clock is built and wound up, leaves it to tick by itself.

The role of this “Creator” is clarified in the Declaration:

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In other words, the Creator has no role at all in government. We’ve turned our back on the divine right of kings, where the king was God’s representative who served at God’s pleasure. God isn’t the foundation on which authority rests. No—it’s the consent of the governed. The buck stops here, which is very empowering.

Remember that the purpose of the Declaration was to inform Britain that the colonies wanted to become independent. When government becomes abusive, the recourse isn’t to appeal to God:

Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Again, we see that the government rules at the pleasure of the people, not God.

While the Declaration of Independence doesn’t give Christians what they may imagine it does—an acknowledgement of the existence of the Christian god and his sovereignty over this country—this exercise is largely irrelevant. The Declaration isn’t the supreme law of the United States. That is the Constitution, and it’s secular. Watch out for Christian revisionist historians bringing up the Declaration. That’s the white flag of surrender because they know that they have nothing where it really counts—the Constitution.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Does the Christian Care About the Poor or Not?

A novel about Christian apologetics and atheist counter-apologetics

The New Testament is brimming with demands that the Christian care for the poor and needy.  Think of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31–46), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), or the story of Jesus and the rich young man (Luke 18:18–30).

How some politicians and religious leaders can juggle the hypocrisy is beyond me.  I’ll grant that the Bible can be picked apart and made to say just about anything, but isn’t charity a prime demand?

[Jesus said:] Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)

[John the Baptist said:] Anyone who has two coats should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. (Luke 3:11)

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17–18)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

The U.S. Constitution is 100 Percent Secular—or Is It?

A novel focused on atheism and Christian apologeticsIn other blog posts, I’ve made the point that the secular U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from getting involved with religion, which makes the best environment for both atheists and Christians. However, on several occasions, I’ve gotten pushback that the Constitution isn’t secular.

Let’s first consider a historic document that is easily seen to be religious, the Mayflower Compact (1620). It’s quite short, and the majority of the body is here:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.

This is one of the documents that David Barton likes to use while bending history to take on his preconception of America as a Christian nation. There are also several federal Thanksgiving declarations that acknowledge the Christian god. For example, George Washington in 1789 created the first national Thanksgiving Day with this statement:

[Congress requests that the president] recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.

The constitution of the Confederate States (1861) was adopted with few changes from the U.S. Constitution, one being the addition of “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in the preamble.

When we read the U.S. Constitution, this overtly Christian language isn’t there. Neither is the vaguely deist language, as was present in the Declaration of Independence. It’s 100% secular. It’s not God making this constitution; it begins, in big letters, We the People. In fact, Article 6 says in part, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

But is it secular? Some Christians assert that it’s not. The first example is from Article 1:

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law.

In other words, it recognized Sunday as a holiday. The second example is the wrapup in Article 7:

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.

In other words, it replaces AD (Anno Domini—“in the year of our Lord”) with its English translation.

That’s it?? Those are the powerful counterexamples? Compare this to the Mayflower Compact—a constitution with some balls that not only acknowledged God’s existence but said that the entire project was for his glory.

That Sunday was a holiday simply acknowledges the custom of the people of the time. Spelling out AD and saying that this acknowledges Yahweh is like saying that the use of the names Thursday, Friday, and Saturday acknowledges the gods Thor, Frigg, and Saturn, respectively. Or that the use of the names May and June acknowledges the Roman goddesses Maia and Juno. “AD” is just another part of the same calendar.

The final irony is that “in the year of our Lord” isn’t even correct from a Christian standpoint. The few clues we have of Jesus’s birth in the gospels make clear that he wasn’t born in the year 1 but probably around 5 BCE.

So, yes, the Constitution does reflect the customs and calendar of the people of the time. But it’s still obviously and boldly secular. And isn’t that the best for everyone who is governed by it?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Marriage vs. Religious Freedom

Black and white hands, claspedCatholic League president Bill Donohue hates the idea of same-sex marriage:

There is no world religion that embraces the bizarre idea that two men can get married, and there is no state in the nation where the people have directly chosen to approve it. Yet because of some judges and state lawmakers, the prospect of same-sex marriage looms.

In fact, the Seattle Times reports about my own state, “The state Senate is just two votes shy of making Washington the seventh state to approve gay marriage.” No, that wouldn’t be by a referendum of the voters, but so what?

Donohue is pleased, however, by “Marriage and Religious Freedom” a document recently signed by a number of conservative U.S. religious leaders that predictably rejects same-sex marriage.

The letter declares that ministers forced to conduct same-sex weddings is a manufactured fear, and it trusts in the First Amendment to rule out this possibility. The real problem, it says, is same-sex married couples imposing on religion. For example:

  • Religious adoption services couldn’t discriminate against same-sex married couples.
  • Marriage counselors couldn’t reject same-sex clients simply because they’re homosexual.
  • Religious employers couldn’t discriminate when giving health benefits to employees’ spouses.
  • Nor could they demote, reassign, or fire anyone for a same-sex marriage.

I’m not swept away with concern for the church. Here’s why:

However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country.

That is part of the opinion of the Supreme Court in Davis v. Beason (1890), which effectively made polygamy illegal in the U.S. In other words, when the state conflicts with religion on the definition of marriage, the state can prevail.

Another important Supreme Court case is Loving v. Virginia (1967), which overturned anti-miscegeny laws (that is, laws that prohibited mixed-race marriages) in 17 states. Time declared this one of the “Top 10 Landmark Supreme Court Cases.”

Today’s fight over same-sex marriage closely parallels this fight over mixed-race marriage. Let’s consider the facts in this case. In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple, were convicted by a Virginia court for the crime of being married. The judge used Christian justification for the decision:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Do you see the parallels? Here’s another comparison. First, consider this proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution from 1912:

Intermarriage between negroes or persons of color and Caucasians or any other character of persons within the United States or any territory under their jurisdiction, is forever prohibited.

Compare this to Proposition 8, a 2008 amendment to the California Constitution:

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

If the first restriction is outrageous, why allow the second?

After listing some of the problems between religious organizations and same-sex couples, the “Marriage and Religious Freedom” manifesto says,

The refusal of these religious organizations to treat a same-sex sexual relationship as if it were a marriage marked them and their members as bigots, subjecting them to the full arsenal of government punishments and pressures reserved for racists.

Bingo! Now you’re seeing the parallels.

Imagine if the manifesto whined about restrictions on religious organizations because of the legalization of not same-sex marriage but mixed-race marriage. Adoption agencies couldn’t reject mixed-race couples who wanted to adopt. Marriage counselors would have to accept mixed-race couples as clients. Religious employers would be forced to give health benefits to (if you can believe it!) a “spouse” of another race. And they would be barred from taking any kind of punitive action against an employee who married outside their race.

It’s amazing that the signatories to this document are high-level leaders within the Christian church. Aren’t they supposed to be the enlightened, compassionate ones? Aren’t they supposed to be the ones encouraging society onto the correct moral path? Why is it the other way around?

I’m optimistic that the parallels between prohibitions on mixed-race marriage and same-sex marriage are too close for them to not eventually be treated the same. But take note of the status quo. Remember these religious arguments against same-sex marriage, because in 20 or 30 years, when same-sex marriage is as uncontroversial as mixed-race marriage, conservative Christians will be shocked that their leaders ever rejected it.

We’ll need to remind them of the harm that religious thinking can cause.

Photo credit: WolfSoul

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Christopher Shay, “Loving Day,” Time, 6/11/10.
  • “Time for Washington Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage” Seattle Times editorial, 11/14/11.