That’s a dill-pickillial of a peccadillo, if you’ll pardon my Ned Flanderism. I’m referring to the issue of the Supreme Court dealing with public prayer. Again. In a recent Chicago Tribune story, prayer before town board meetings in Greece, New York have led to accusations of violation of citizens’ rights. In a similar, but unrelated, situation, a friend asked me what I thought about religious symbols on public property. He asked the basic question that if atheism relies on no symbols, isn’t the absence of symbolism tacit approval of atheism. These issues are very difficult to resolve for a number of reasons. The first non-partisan elephant in the room is the fact that we do not have an acceptable definition of religion. Universities shy away from hiring specialists in religion and we, as a society, and, more restrictively, as an academy, can’t agree on what religion is. Is atheism a religious belief system? Some would argue that it is, and that it shouldn’t be the default stance—that would favor one religion. From what neuroscience seems to tell us, atheists aren’t born, they’re made. Religion, of some description, is normal human thinking.
A further issue involves both symbols and prayers. A symbol means nothing without interpretation. As I told my friend, unintentional crosses are ubiquitous. You might have to look a bit harder to find unintentional stars of David or yin-yangs, but I’m certain they exist. Without the Christian eye, however, those unintentional crosses are just architectural features or natural spaces between corners. The same applies to prayer. If I decide to speak, it is a matter of interpretation whether my words are prayers, a guy talking to himself, or, increasingly, somebody chatting on their blue tooth phone as they walk past a church. Intention, a specific aspect of interpretation, certainly plays into the sometimes coercive power of a symbol or a prayer. Do those Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn just represent a nice piece of art, or do they bear an intended message? Do intended messages not attempt to persuade others that they are true?
Smart folk like Supreme Court justices have difficulty with this issue every time. I’m not surprised. We don’t know how to quantify religion, even though most of us are pretty sure of it when we see it. Some would argue that many eastern religions are in fact philosophies. Some would claim that atheism is the opposite of religion. Atheism is not so very far from some strains of Buddhism, however. And like it or not, people are all subject to belief. We seem to like forging ahead in the darkness on this issue. State universities hide their religious studies programs like embarrassing warts. What rational person would want to waste time studying such superstition? The Supreme Court of the United States, I might point out, just for one.