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An Atheist's Favorite National Day of Prayer

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In 1952, Congress established the National Day of Prayer. It has been observed on every first Thursday in May since 1988, but this year's day of prayer celebration was my favorite--by default. It was the first I've attended, quite by accident.

Here's how that happened. On Thursday, May 1, a film crew from Holland's Humanist Broadcasting Foundation arrived at my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina to interview me about atheism in the Bible Belt. They planned to film me at an evening event called Reason Fest, sponsored by the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. When the film crew learned that the National Day of Prayer rally would also be taking place nearby, they wanted to film me at that prayer event, too.

Though I think a government-sponsored day of prayer should be unconstitutional because our government may not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion, I reluctantly agreed to attend.

In Charleston, this day intended to unite all who pray was more divisive than I had anticipated. The rally theme came from Romans 15:6: "So that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Rev. Gordon Cashwell led the rally and decried the mounting godlessness and prayerlessness in America, adding that our national government has called for a National Day of Christian Prayer!

Rally helpers handed out a "prayer list" that called for prayers asking God to send angels to our city to kick demons out (perhaps me); to defeat witchcraft, false prophets, and Baphomet (who is a devil, another deity, or whatever); to end secret societies; to save Muslims and close mosques; and to promote prayer in all schools and at government functions. A number of politicians were at the Charleston event to pray, but nobody quoted Matthew 6:5: "When you pray, be not like the hypocrites who love to be seen by others."

(I later discovered that the tone of the Charleston prayer event was by no means unique when I received an email from Faithful America requesting me to sign a petition to stop the religious right from hijacking the National Day of Prayer. While I sympathized with their concerns, I didn't sign for two reasons: first, I'm not an American of faith; second, faithful Americans from the religious right, left, or center should not hijack our secular country by enlisting government endorsement for any prayers.)

Though I stayed at the back of the crowd, several Christians who knew me came over to say hello. Perhaps they were curious about why I was there with a film crew or maybe they were worried that I might be disruptive. Republican state Senator Larry Grooms, a former calculus student of mine at the College of Charleston, said it was nice to see me at the event. I took the opportunity to tell him how he had recently outraged both religious and non-religious people at my college. He had called for a cut in funding by the state legislature because the college had chosen Fun Home, an award-winning book with a lesbian theme, for a freshman discussion. I told Grooms that it was unconscionable for him to promote his personal religious agenda at a state college and show a complete disregard for academic freedom. He didn't seem phased; perhaps he was pleased by the power he holds over an academic institution.

The next morning our local paper did not report the usual puff piece about such prayer events. Instead, the story began with the Dutch film crew and my presence. (I guess reporters must get bored writing the same annual story, so maybe we provided a different perspective.)

While at the rally, I also talked to Orthodox Rabbi Yossi Refson, with whom I had once been on a public panel to discuss Bill Maher's movie, Religulous. When Rabbi Refson told me he was scheduled shortly to offer a prayer at the rally (possibly as the token non-Christian), I asked if his congregation might be uncomfortable seeing a photo of him praying with a large cross in the background. He said he hadn't noticed the cross, and looked chagrined. As I was leaving, I invited him to our more inclusive Reason Fest event that was about to begin.

Why might some people observe a National Day of Reason, and on the same day as the National Day of Prayer? They really are connected. Whether or not people feel the need to pray with government assistance, we secularists rely on reason rather than prayer to solve problems. Unlike the National Day of Prayer, neither Congress nor the president recognizes a National Day of Reason. However, many secular communities hold special events in support of reason.

Some participants at our Reason Fest described their paths to reason, telling why and how they left religion. Stories from former Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, Mormons, and other "formers" were often moving and sometimes funny. Many had first questioned their faiths after learning about what seemed to be incredible doctrines of other faiths, and then recognized that their own made no more sense.

Rabbi Yossi Refson decided not to speak at the prayer rally and came, instead, to our Reason Fest. When our event ended, he told me how much he had enjoyed being with our group. He thanked me for pointing out the large cross under which he would have spoken, and said that my kindness had been a real mitzvah (a good deed).

My reasonable non-prayer for America is that we all treat every day as a National Day of Mitzvah.