By: Robin Murray-o'hair Re: Problem with Prayer Proje +quot;PROBLEM WITH PRAYER PROJECT''

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By: Robin Murray-o'hair Re: Problem with Prayer Proje "PROBLEM WITH PRAYER PROJECT'' NEARS DEADLINE Accounts Of Those Forced To Pray In School Reflect A Wide Range Of Experiences. by Conrad F. Goeringer In the debate over prayer in schools, one group of people is inevitably left out -- those who were compelled to pray when such a practice was legal, before 1963, and didn't like it. While prayer is now touted as the cure-all for a range of social ills from illegitimate pregnancy to drug abuse, there are those who maintain that prayer did them little good, and often resulted in harm Their writings are now being gathered in the "Problem With Prayer Project" sponsored by American Atheists, an organization founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a plaintiff in the famous U.S. Supreme Court suit which abolished mandatory prayer and Bible recitation in public schools. Now her daughter, Robin Murray-O'Hair, is heading up the Project, which was inaugurated on May 4. The date is significant -- that day was declared by Presidential proclamation as the National Day of Prayer. The goal is to assemble the first-person accounts of those who say they experienced the negative effects of school-sponsored religion, a gathering of "personal, true narratives of Atheists and nonbelievers." The final essays will be printed in bound volumes, and submitted to the U.S. Congress following the return from the July 4 recess. Eventually, copies will also be sent to members of state legislatures which may be considering prayer laws. The July 4 date is significant as well. Independence Day, 1995, is also the target for presenting the "Religious Equality Amendment," a major goal for Evangelical religious activists such as the Christian Coalition. Descriptions of the proposed amendment talk about "voluntary" prayer and "returning religion to America's school." The Problem With Prayer Project, though, suggests that "voluntary" or student-initiated prayer may violate the rights of those students who do not wish to pray and end up facing ostracism, criticism, even violence. The responses and testimonies received by the Problem With Prayer Project reflect a wide range of reactions. One writer suggested that prayer in school "all seemed like a waste of time to me." Later, "As an adult I resent the whole concept of both education and religion where children have to undergo these forms of regimentation and indoctrination. I resent pressure to force me into any kind of conformity." In this case, prayer in the classroom helped to shape the mind and attitude of a future Atheist. One writer told the Project that "Although my own parents were only nominally religious, my early childhood was spent fending off religious nuts who were continuously trying to force their particular opinions upon me." Still another wrote of the experience of recently graduating from high school. During the graduation ceremony, the principle said "I invite you all to join with me now as we make our invocation." The writer "became angry when a reverend from a local church walked up to the podium. I felt extremely out of place as my fellow students stood silent, listening to the prayer. I was not forced to stand, but I was certainly forced to listen." Fear of recrimination for not praying, and certainly for possibly questioning such a practice, runs throughout many of the documents coming into the Project archives. "If I had spoken out at this time (against a public prayer), I would probably have been ejected from the ceremony." Another theme in many letters is the notion of being a "good person" despite not praying, or not believing in a god. One Project contributor said that "the lack of prayers in school didn't seem to hurt me as I grew up. I made good grades, and stayed out of trouble. I am now an ethical and law-abiding Atheist citizen." Still others feel an ongoing discrimination at not being religious. A writer from Illinois recounted his experiences at questioning the existence of angels back in kindergarten. The teacher "grabbed my arm and marched me to the principal's office so fast, my legs were dragging on the floor half the way." Social ostracism resulted in this writer actually repeating the kindergarten the following year, "but I had to take a test to prove I was not retarded. The teacher claimed that I had 'brain damage'." He closed his Project essay, saying that "government-sponsored prayer in public schools is not an issue of the right to pray but an attempt to influence children of (the) existence of a god." The Problem With Prayer Project focuses on those who were or are public school students, or parents and those connected with the school system. All accounts "must be from your own personal experience." The bulk of the writings submitted thus far are highly personalized narratives. Although many writers seem to have experienced traumatic incidents in their early years connected with prayer and religious belief, one detects a certain pride in their contentions that they "survived" the experiences and became successful in later life. Still, there is an element of catharsis in the accounts. One senses that THIS part of their lives, while shaping so much of what they were to eventually become, was rarely if ever expressed in words. And getting people to sit down and recall experiences of this nature is no simple accomplishment. The Project certainly breaks new ground in this respect. We live in a culture where "religious testimony" assumes dimensions of being assertive, haughty, at times even grotesque. One thinks of the glaring television screen, and the imagery of a screaming televangelist promising salvation, peddling guilt, and asking for money. While many may make a public statement of their religiosity, though, there are those for whom religion -- and specifically government-sponsored prayer -- became the basis of social ostracism, fear, and eventually intellectual skepticism. Their thoughts and recollections may serve as a warning to those who would return prayer to schools. And the Problem With Prayer Project, in helping to prevent that violation of the First Amendment, may also play the role of helping its participants and contributors come to grips with their own early fears and beginnings. ************************* (The deadline for submissions to the Problem With Prayer Project is June 17, 1995 -- the 32nd Anniversary of the famous "School Prayer Decision," Murray v. Curlett, which ended prayer and bible recitation in the public schools. Submission guidelines and forms are available from American Atheists, P O Box 140195, Austin, TX 788714-0195, Phone: 512-458-1244, FAX: 512-467-9525. For an electronic form, E-mail


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