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An Atheist Invocation and Its Aftermath

The story began when a number of local organizations held a "Meet the Candidates" forum prior to the last Charleston City Council election. Each sponsoring organization was allowed to ask one question of the candidates on the panel.
The organization to which I belong, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, asked this: "As you know, the City Council starts meetings with a prayer. Since you will represent all your constituents, not just those who are religious believers, will you consider periodically allowing nonbelievers to give the invocation?"
Kwadjo Campbell was the only candidate who agreed. After winning the election, he invited me to give the invocation at the council meeting on March 25. (See sidebar.)
An invocation is usually, but not always, a prayer. So why would an atheist like me want to give an invocation at a City Council meeting? Certainly not because I wanted to offend religious council members--in fact, I prepared an inclusive invocation that I hoped all would appreciate. I looked forward to the presentation with the hope it would encourage more tolerance toward everyone in the community.
As Mayor Riley introduced me, I was startled to see several City Council members leave the room. When I finished the invocation, council members Bleecker, Gallant, George, Gilliard, Lewis, Waring and Campbell (who had arrived late to the meeting) walked back in, just in time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Two of the councilmen who left, Wendell Gilliard and Robert George, later stated their reasons in a March 27 Post and Courier article. Councilman Gilliard said an atheist giving an invocation is an affront to our troops, who are "fighting for our principles, based on God." I guess Gilliard apparently believes our troops are involved in a holy war. However, we are not the Taliban.
Each is free to base his or her principles for going to war or objecting to it on the dictates of personal conscience. The principles of our country, on the other hand, are based on our secular Constitution, which makes no mention of God. That same Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to be represented and not shunned by their elected officials, regardless of the religious beliefs of those officials.
Councilman George said he "would not have been comfortable had he stayed." He then gratuitously said about me, "He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I'm not going to be around when he does it." Perhaps Councilman George does not realize that many of us who stand politely for religious invocations believe that praying to a god makes no more sense than praying to a chicken.
In trying to understand the walkout, I contacted some of the council members who had participated. Councilman Gallant gave me a biblical justification from Psalm 14:1: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is not one who does good." He went on to tell me, as did other council members, that the walkout was not personal.
I knew the walkout was not personal, because those who left did not know me personally. I knew they could not have left because of the words in my invocation, since they did not stay to hear them. Frankly, I would have been less upset had the walkout been personal.
My goal was not so much to be liked by council members as for them to listen to one more segment of the community they represent.
In recent years, Charleston has taken steps to become a progressive city that celebrates, rather than fears, its diversity. The walkout, however, vividly shows that we are still engaged in one of the last civil rights struggles in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior. Of course, bigotry exists everywhere, but it is especially lamentable when public acts of intolerance at government functions are later defended in the media by government officials.
As one who tries to turn lemons into lemonade, I have noticed some positive results stemming from this incident. The Associated Press distributed the story of the walkout to newspapers around the country. I have heard from Christians in many places, including Charleston County, who repudiated what they called the "unChristian" behavior of the council members. I've made some new friends from such encounters. A Christian Forum website posted nearly 200 messages on the walkout.
People sent me a number of scriptural passages both for and against the action taken by council members. One argument for the walkout is in II Corinthians 6:14-15. "Believers must not commune with unbelievers. What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, light with darkness, believers with infidels?" I also received citations from Christians opposed to opening the council meetings with a prayer. They sent me this, from Matthew 6:5-6. "When you pray, be not like the hypocrites who love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. When you pray, enter into the closet, shut the door, and pray to thy Father in secret."
Please permit an atheist to give an interpretation of this last biblical passage. I think it distinguishes between vertical and horizontal prayer. Vertical prayer is directed upward and can be done silently. Horizontal prayer must be audible because it is meant to be heard by other humans. May I suggest a way for Charleston City Council to become more inclusive without offending anyone? Start each meeting with a moment of silence.
South Carolina Foundation Life Member Herb Silverman is a College of Charleston professor and president of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. This was adapted from an article appearing in the Charleston Post and Courier on April 14, 2003.

My Atheist Invocation
by Herb Silverman
Thank you for this opportunity to "invoke" a minority point of view. Each of us is a minority in some way. It might be race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other aspect in which we may be regarded as different. Each of us is also part of some majority. It is when we wear our majority hats that we need to be most mindful of how we treat others. We must pledge our best efforts to help one another, and to defend the rights of all of our citizens and residents.
What divides us is not so much our religious differences in this diverse country, but the degree of commitment we have to equal freedom of conscience for all people.
We are gathered today, both religious and secular members of our community, with the shared belief that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect and dignity.
In this invocation, I don't ask you to close your eyes, but to keep your eyes constantly open to the serious problems that city government can solve or improve. I don't ask you to bow your heads, but to look up at what you can accomplish by applying your considerable talents and experience to the issues that confront us.
As you work together on behalf of all who live in this city, may you draw strength and sustenance from one another through reason and compassion.
I'd like to close in a bipartisan manner by quoting from two presidents I greatly admire--one a Republican and the other a Democrat.
First, the Republican:
When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.--Abraham Lincoln
And now, the Democrat:
It's remarkable how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.--Harry S. Truman

Atheist Invocation Upheld in Utah
The Utah Supreme Court, in a 4-1 ruling on April 11, blessed the right of an atheist to deliver the invocation before the city council in Murray, a suburb of Salt Lake City.
Tom Snyder, 71, had filed suit in state court in 1999 when the council refused him equal access to deliver the pre-Council prayer. The court cited a 1993 decision upholding Salt Lake City's right to hold prayers during official events, as long as the opportunity to deliver the prayer was "nondiscriminatory."
Snyder's "prayer" follows:
"Our mother, who art in heaven (if, indeed, there is a heaven and if there is a god that takes a woman's form) hallowed be thy name, we ask for thy blessing for and guidance of those that will participate in this meeting and for those mortals that govern the state of Utah;
"We fervently ask that you guide the leaders of this city, Salt Lake County and the state of Utah so that they may see the wisdom of separating church and state and so that they will never again perform demeaning religious ceremonies as part of official government functions;
"We pray that you prevent self-righteous politicians from misusing the name of God in conducting government meetings; and, that you lead them away from the hypocritical and blasphemous deception of the public, attempting to make the people believe that bureaucrats' decisions and actions have thy stamp of approval if prayers are offered at the beginning of government meetings;
"We ask that you grant Utah's leaders and politicians enough courage and discernment to understand that religion is a private matter between every individual and his or her deity; we beseech thee to educate government leaders that religious beliefs should not be broadcast and revealed for the purpose of impressing others; we pray that you strike down those that misuse your name and those that cheapen the institution of prayer by using it for their own selfish political gains;
"We ask that the people of the state of Utah will some day learn the wisdom of the separation of church and state; we ask that you will teach the people of Utah that government should not participate in religion; we pray that you smite those government officials that would attempt to censor or control prayers made by anyone to you or to any other of our gods;
"We ask that you deliver us from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people of the state of Utah by the actions of misguided, weak and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness;
"All of this we ask in thy name and the name of thy son (if in fact you had a son that visited Earth) for the eternal betterment of all of us who populate the great state of Utah.
"Amen."

Additional Info

  • byline: Herb Silverman

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