Eds and op-eds are popping over the Supreme Court decision to allow sectarian prayer at Greece, New York town council meetings. Some citizens complained that the prayers made them feel disrespected and excluded. Who hasn’t from time to time? I’m no advocate of government-sponsored religion, but I do wonder how we can live in a society in which the mere mention of God offends some as much as the “f word” offends others. Are we, perchance, getting a little thin-skinned? After several long years of neo-con rule, we have learned that opposition is a form of treason, and that conflicting opinions cannot coexist. As an erstwhile teacher of religion, the implications make me shiver. Isn’t the point of learning about religion to train people in toleration? If I sued every time I was offended, I’d be the richest man in the country.
Ironically, the United States is one of the rare cases of a developed, “first world” nation where skirmishes over religion often and vocally take center stage. We have, as a society, dismantled the apparatus of dispassionate, scholarly discussion of religion (“no need for it,” “budget can’t afford it,” “superstition and nonsense”) and wonder why it always brings us to verbal blows. Religion is that which we can’t define, but we can surely fight about. We’re offended by public prayers, the wearing of hijab, and idols to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Religion, like sex, is relegated to private places only, but for diametrically opposed reasons. What are we so afraid of?
We have no trouble when someone with private money spends it to introduce religion into the public sphere. You can walk down the street in Manhattan and see crosses outside churches and “Jesus saves” scrawled in the cement of well-trod sidewalks. Nobody seems to be offended. Finding practitioners of the “exotic” religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Vodou, Theosophy, and Scientology is hardly a challenge in a city of millions. Over what is there anything to be offended? I’m offended by those with too much money keeping everyone else below them because the law says that they can. I’m offended by those who pollute our common environment because they can afford lawyers to find loopholes. I’m offended by those who use their religion to oppress women and non-believers. Those who want to pray to a god, any god, before a civil meeting, as long as that god demands nothing from non-believers, aren’t hurting anyone but those who never learned to agree to disagree.