A fair number of governmental bodies have a minister say a prayer at the start of official meetings — an invocation. When criticized by those who favor a true separation of church and state, they often insist that the invocation is not really religious. So what happens when an atheist is invited to give an invocation? The officials sit in respectful silence, as they would insist an atheist should do when a Christian preacher gives the invocation, right? Yeah, sure. From True‘s 8 August 2004 issue:
Well By Golly
The City Council in Tampa, Fla., insisted having ministers say a prayer at their meetings was not an unconstitutional religious act, proudly noting that they even let Jews say the invocation from time to time. So Atheists of Florida chairman Ed Golly called their bluff: he offered to have someone from his group say the invocation. Councilman John Dingfelder agreed to let an atheist take a turn. But when Michael R. Harvey arrived to say the invocation as scheduled, Councilman Kevin White tried to deny him a chance to speak. “We have never had people of an atheist group represent Americans,” he said, “and I don’t think it is appropriate in this setting.” White walked out with fellow members Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita. Alvarez had previously gone on record that she “looked forward” to hearing the atheist’s invocation. “It’s a free country,” she said then. Alvarez was the only one to support White’s censorship attempt, but they were overruled by other council members. (AP) …Who better understand what living in “a free country” really means.
Quite a few readers, most particularly those who identified themselves as Christian, were interested to know what an atheist’s invocation* would be like. Here’s the text, according to the St. Petersburg Times:
An invocation is an appeal for guidance from a supernatural power, but it is not only that. It is also a call, a petition, to positive action on behalf of and for a diverse citizenry. On behalf of Atheists of Florida, I would like to express our gratitude in being invited to deliver today’s invocation.
We are committed to the separation of state and church as defined by the United States Constitution. It is the core value of that remarkable and visionary document to protect the human-derived rights of all people in the continuous struggle for equal opportunities to pursue a safe and decent quality of life.
When an invocation takes on the form of public prayer, it is also a violation of the very principles upon which our country and Constitution were founded. Although we are dismayed that the practice of public prayer by governing bodies charged with representing all citizens still continues in violation of the Constitution, we also recognize that this practice has become deeply embedded in the national psyche.
Elected and appointed leaders who wish to seek the guidance of a deity can do so in private, as is their right. But not in the public arena where the establishment of religion is an assured end-result.
History — that ever-unfolding, ever-flowering story of human civilization — teaches us that the rights and accomplishments of humanity are the results of its past struggles, and that the road less traveled is many times the highest path to human progress. We therefore invoke this council and all of our leaders to be guided and inspired by the invaluable lessons of history, the honest insights of science, the guileless wisdom of logic, and the heart and soul of our shared humanity — compassion and tolerance.
So rather than clasping your hands, bowing your heads and closing your eyes, open your arms to that which truly makes us strong — our diversity. Raise your heads and open your eyes to recognize and fully understand the problems before you and know that ultimately, solutions to human problems can come only from human beings.
–Michael R. Harvey
*“Invocation” is not synonomous with “prayer”. According to American Heritage, it is “The act or an instance of invoking, especially an appeal to a higher power for assistance” primarily. Secondarily: “A prayer or other formula used in invoking, as at the opening of a religious service” (emphasis added). Thirdly, it can be “The act of conjuring up a spirit by incantation, or an incantation used in conjuring.” A brief secular speech certainly meets the dictionary definition of “invocation”.
My Favorite Letter
My favorite letter in response to this story is from a Methodist Minister, the Rev. Billy of Texas, who writes:
How dare you! I have never been so appalled! I have never been so humiliated in all my life. To think that my fellow Christians would have to endure such harassment. Where is your sense of decency, man? How dare you throw such drivel in our face and remind us that as Christians the first thing we’re called to do is love our neighbor as ourselves, be merciful and seek to be peacemakers. How dare you remind us that we are called to love our enemies because if we just love our friends and those who are like us, we’re no different than the rest of the world.
How dare you challenge us to live what we believe instead of simply mouthing sacred platitudes and getting angry about anyone who disagrees with our version of the faith. What is this world coming to when someone the likes of you can challenge our faithfulness.
That’s it, I’ve had it, just because of that one story and all the furor it has caused, it looks like I’m finally going to have to upgrade to the Premium version of This Is True. I don’t want to miss any more challenges to my faith or miss another opportunity to rant about how awful you are for demanding that we Christians actually live out and practice what we say we believe.
True to his Word, Rev. Billy did upgrade to Premium.
A Few Other Letters
As usual, the comments from readers who actually think about their actions are interesting:
I thank you for pointing out the ‘log in (Christians’) eyes’. Such reporting helps me better to be aware of mistakes I myself might have made. I count myself fortunate to learn how our actions appear to others. –Rev. Dan, a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor in Pennsylvania
I am once again dismayed to hear that you received backlash against your perfectly fair story from the Christian population. I being not only a true subscriber (premium for 2 years), but a Youth Pastor and Seminary Student, am impressed with you for continuing to stand your ground against ignorant Christians who love their blinders. There has been more than a few times where I have taken your stories about hypocritical Christians straight off your e-zine and into my sermons. They have been a great help in teaching my young Christians (ages 13-18) what their faith should/shouldn’t look like. The only real question I had about the story was, how does an atheist pray? In all sincerity, I was very curious about what the atheist said at the invocation. –Brendan in California
Atheists, of course, don’t pray. They may say an invocation, however, which isn’t the same thing. See above.
I am also one of the Christian faith, but often find myself embarrassed by those who flaunt their Christianity as the only way of life. It has come to the point that I no longer identify myself as Christian, and am wary of those that do, for they tend to be the most apt to spout ‘better than thou’ dogma. Those secure in their choice of faith, for there are so many valid versions to choose from, will have no issue with you stating the obvious! I understand that it is frustrating when such insecurities translate into $$, but I am proud to be a part of (how ever small, as a subscriber), your newsletter that shines light on everyone who behaves as a righteous ASS! –Cathy in North Carolina
Indeed, as I’ve said before, that is the saddest part of this minority of self-identified “Christian” readers acting the way they do: they drive people away from their own faith, their churches, even their self identity (“I no longer identify myself as Christian, and am wary of those that do”). Jesus taught about the problems that hypocrisy brings; almost intent on proving that, some of His followers insist on giving an example as to why. Yet they accuse me of being the problem!? How very sad.
To end on an up note, I offer this last one:
I appreciate your words on Christians. But please make fun of us Jews too, and all the other religions for that matter. Religious people tend to be a bit stuffy and we can use a little ribbing. Oh, and one thing for sure comes through loud and clear from your stories: God definitely has a sense of humor. –Max in Missouri
Related Pages on this site include:
- My call for true religious freedom in the U.S.
- The infamous feng shui story and the resulting famous Get Out of Hell Free cards.
- Is This is True “anti-Christian“?
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