CNN might wish to rename its show "This Week in Politics" as "This Week in God"; it’s getting that bad. Just in the days between May 1 and May 7, for example, the Seventh-Day Adventist evolution-denier Ben Carson announced his intention to seek the 2016 Republican nomination, as did the Southern Baptist and onetime pastor Mike Huckabee. The Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic Jeb Bush has puzzlingly refrained from following in their footsteps, but that he gave this year’s commencement address at that stronghold of unreason and superstitious darkness, the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, the site of the Southern Baptist Ted Cruz’s announcement in late March, augurs ill for rationalists and other sane folk. Bush will announce, it’s just a question of when.
I note the religious affiliations of these potential contenders for the presidency because all are flaunting their faith, rather than keeping it a private matter of conscience, which in any other developed country it would be. The gist is, unless you profess a piety befitting the mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, things are going to get much, much more unpleasant for you before one or another God-coddler enters the White House in January 2017 to replace President Obama.
But I won’t deal with the faith-imbued cretinism of the Republicans in this essay. What concerns me now is what President Obama has just wrought to insult that most aggrieved (yet steadfastly growing) American minority, the advocates of reason, those who insist on evidence before accepting the truth of a given proposition, especially grand propositions about the origins of the universe and our species. On Wednesday, President Obama marked the deeply pathetic traditional outrage to rationalism that is the National Day of Prayer (since 1988 the first Thursday of May) with a proclamation bearing the stark, yet somehow comically august, title “A PROCLAMATION.” Ecumenically irrationalist, he urges us to pause and immerse ourselves in incantations addressed to a magical celestial despot, be He Judaic, Christian or, presumably, even Muslim, and thank Him for the fruits of our labor and for fortuitous events that have proved conducive to our contentment.
Actually, I’ve just translated Obama’s words into rationalese. In the original his verbiage sounds mostly like boilerplate pol-speak and preacher-talk, but it is troubling nonetheless, and merits attention, if not for the reasons he intended.
After a bland preface, Obama reminds us that we Americans “cherish” religious liberty at home, and exhorts us to “recommit to standing up for religious freedom around the world.”
I have no problem with these words per se. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the precepts of the Enlightenment endorse it as fostering comity among nations. Centuries of faith-fueled warfare and persecution in Europe convinced the Founding Fathers that a batty belief in an invisible “divine” Tyrant (and attendant, equally batty, equally invisible “Sons” and spirits and prophets and so forth) deserved no place in our government; it would be too divisive and subject to exploitation as a tool of repression. Hence the First Amendment.
But there is a contradiction inherent in Obama’s act of “proclaiming” from the White House on National Day of Prayer; namely, that such a day should not exist, but since it does, the president should not avail himself of it to militate for the cause of faith. In 1952, in the depths of the Cold War confrontation with the atheist Soviet Union, Congress birthed the noisome basilisk of a law establishing the NDOP, which the Freedom From Religion Foundation valiantly (but unsuccessfully, of course) challenged in 2008 on (obvious) First Amendment grounds. Fresh challenges should be mounted until the NDOP goes the way of Jim Crow. To do my part in the fight for true secularism, I hereby contest the constitutionality of Obama’s issuance of Lord-positive declarations from his podium as the chief officer of our officially godless republic, if only because such declarations menace the mental health and intellectual development of children. After all, in 1962 the Supreme Court decided against allowing prayer in public schools, so how is it that the president can use his office as a platform to call on us to beseech the “Almighty”? Children might be exposed to such corrupting speech and suffer the same retardation religion has historically inflicted on science and education. If nothing else, the White House Web page displaying the Proclamation should carry the warning "CONTAINS RELIGIOUS SPEECH -- NOT SUITABLE FOR MINORS."
The Proclamation’s subsequent palaver provides opportunities for parody, head-shaking and outright guffaws that no rationalist in need of levity can pass up. “For many of us,” Obama declares, prayer is “an essential act of worship and a daily discipline that allows reflection, provides guidance, and offers solace.” In what sense does murmuring petitions to a fictitious heavenly autocrat in the hope of procuring favorable outcomes constitute a “discipline”? Science is a discipline, the study of philosophy is a discipline, judo is a discipline, even meditation is a discipline. Appealing to an inexistent supernatural being is not a discipline, but, rather, an apotropaic ritual worthy of study by anthropologists and mental-health professionals. Moreover, any “guidance” received as the apparent result of such dark conjuring should cause grave alarm and prompt a visit to the local psychiatric ward. And any “solace” bestowed by such behavior is based on a false premise, and may provoke, ultimately, a crisis when and if the conjurors awaken from their self-induced trance, or just grow up.
Obama then informs us that prayer “gives us the strength to do God's work: to feed the hungry, care for the poor, comfort the afflicted, and make peace where there is strife.” Tell that to secular aid organizations such as Oxfam, USAID and the United Way (for more, see here), where, incidentally, no one spends donor money on proselytizing pamphlets or other venues for indoctrinating vulnerable people in occult dogmas. No need to drag mysticism into humanitarian work. Moreover, it is indisputable that religion (and especially Catholicism and Islam) does much to ensure the persistence of poverty and hunger across the globe. The Catholic Church, in forbidding condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa, among other places, has helped bring about 11 million orphans. The Islamist aversion to educating women deprives entire populations of the intellectual potential of half their inhabitants, which hinders their societies’ rise out of poverty through the one proven effective way -- the empowerment of women, as the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss has observed.
As for religion’s “making peace where there is strife,” Obama has it exactly backward. Mass conversion to atheism would serve us all better than atavistic attachment to polarizing dogmas and macabre fables inscribed in ancient books. Look at those stoking the world’s most lethal conflicts today -- ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaida and its many affiliates. They slaughter on a sectarian basis. One magic book isn’t better than another. All are injurious to the commonweal. To solve our problems, we need to reason out solutions and work together, not obey dictates found in antiquated texts.
Obama then announces, and certainly without license from his rationalist constituency, that “In times of uncertainty or tragedy, Americans offer humble supplications for comfort for those who mourn, for healing for those who are sick, and for protection for those who are in harm's way. When we pray, we are reminded that we are not alone — our hope is a common hope, our pain is shared, and we are all children of God.”
It goes without saying that nonbelievers do not “offer humble supplications for comfort” to any fictitious deity, nor do we consider ourselves its offspring, nor would we resort to Voodoo liturgies to console mourners or heal the sick or save the imperiled. In any case, however much you wish to help the ill, don’t pray for them, or you risk actually doing them harm, as a well-known study has shown. And don’t bother praying for victims of repression, either. The escaped slave and abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass put it most trenchantly, in words that can be adapted to fit the circumstances: It would be “infinitely better to send them a pocket compass and a pistol." Those in dire straits require concrete assistance, not, again, Voodoo mumblings and the like.
Yet Obama is just warming to his soterial task. “Millions of individuals worldwide,” he says, “are subjected to discrimination, abuse, and sanctioned violence simply for exercising their religion or choosing not to claim a faith . . . . Communities are threatened with genocide and driven from their homelands because of who they are or how they pray.” That sectarianism may lead to genocide should prompt not more prayer, given that such supplications are futile, and, among the besieged themselves, only entrench insoluble differences between faith groups. Calls for peacemaking and attempts at reconciliation are in order.
“The United States,” Obama then tells us, “will . . . work to . . . protect religious freedom throughout the world,” and also “take every action within [its] power to secure” the release of “prisoners of conscience — who are held unjustly because of their faiths or beliefs.”
Well and good. So what action will the Obama administration take to free the brave, ailing blogger Raif Badawi, imprisoned by its longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia on charges of apostasy since 2012 and subject to public lashings? It should be noted that Badawi would hardly benefit if the brutal theocracy destroying his life became even more devout.
“Prayer," Obama says, “is a powerful force for peace, justice, and a brighter, more hopeful tomorrow.” On the basis of what evidence does he dare make this sweeping statement? There is none. It is pablum meant for those deluded souls disposed to waste their time on a fruitless ritual that makes them feel good, instead of actually doing something useful.
Winding down, Obama evokes our joining “together in fellowship,” and our efforts “to see our own reflection in the struggle of others, to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.” The unpleasant evangelical code word “fellowship” aside, these noble notions may be realized without recourse to intrinsically contentious ideologies. They are part of the morals that we evolved as clan-forming primates; without them, without cooperation, altruism, and empathy, we could not have survived as a species.
Then comes the jarring prelude to the peroration:
I, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 7, 2015, as a National Day of Prayer. I invite the citizens of our nation to give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I join all people of faith in asking for God's continued guidance, mercy, and protection as we seek a more just world.
There we have it: the president of our secular republic citing the Constitution as legal sanction for his promotion of religious activity. In case it’s unclear, “giving thanks” requires an addressee, which a reasonable individual would have to conclude is none other than the Lord Himself. “Blessings,” too, invokes God.
His closing lines elicit a sad, protracted bout of head-shaking:
“In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this sixth day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand fifteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-ninth.”
Whereof? Hereunto? Set my hand? The spelled-out numerals and the “year of our Lord?” Such turns of phrase suit the sermon of an 18th-century Puritan pulpiteer, or at best the ramblings of some pious, bien-pensant pedant, not a statement from the 21st-century commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful country. Such hokey “Olde English” speaks exactly to how inapposite his preceding godly musings sound nowadays, at least to rationalists, all the more so since they come from a Harvard-educated former lecturer in constitutional law. To modify the maxim of the physicist Steven Weinberg to fit the occasion: It takes religion to make serious people do ridiculous things.
One assumes some scribe in the White House press service composed the Proclamation, not Obama himself, but that does not matter; he signed his name to it, and thereby helped give another breath of life to a harmful, antiquated phenomenon that is slowly but surely fading away in the United States, just as it has diminished in Western Europe. Obama needs to get with the program, not pander to the superstitions of far too many of his fellow citizens.
Leadership here is crucial. Religion is not some metaphysical conceit concerning only those who profess it; it menaces our national well-being and is dumbing down our people. Faith has always stood on the wrong side of the quest for truth, starting most egregiously with Christian theologians objecting to “heresies” that posited nature following laws (an infringement on God’s “omnipotence”), the earth orbiting the sun, or humankind sharing kinship with other primates. The last two “heresies” are alive and well: one out of five Americans believe the sun circles the earth, four out of 10 think God created humankind less than 10,000 years ago, and only 28 percent of teachers consistently teach evolution. Surely a generation of heavily faith-polluted home-schooling plays into this, but so does God-friendly prattle proffered by politicians – including, of course, our Panderer-in-Chief and his Prayer Day Proclamation – an outrage to rationalists everywhere who expect the United States to set an example. As a purely practical matter, time spent puzzling over the Bible’s myriad obscurities would be better and far more gainfully employed doing almost anything else, from having (biblically uninhibited) sex, to reading Kant to enjoying Beethoven. Doing anything, in short, but trying to fathom the unfathomable idiocies of one or another Abrahamic religion.
It’s long past time for Obama, and the pack of faith-mongering pols clambering to replace him, to realize this, and help America join the rest of the civilized world.
H. L. Mencken once wrote of the “graveyard of the dead gods” and listed all those deities, from Resheph to Baal, Tezcatilpoca to Huitzilopochtli and dozens more, now forgotten. Yet in their day, “To doubt them was to die,” noted Mencken, “usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off.”
It’s time to dig one more grave – and fill it.