By Tim Earl
In the fall of 2011, after hearing one too many invocations praising Jesus at our City Council meeting in Portage, Mich., I decided to do something about it.
I was still thinking about it when Dan Barker spoke at a Center for Inquiry event in Grand Rapids. Afterward, as Dan was signing my copy of Godless, I mentioned it to him. He encouraged me to address the issue with the council.
When I said that I had tried without success to find a “secular leader” to give a secular invocation, Dan suggested that I offer to do it myself. So, in my letter to the council, I did make that offer. They did not address it at the next meeting, but it was on the agenda for the one after that, but unfortunately I was out of town on business and couldn’t attend.
I watched the video later and was told by the city clerk that I would be scheduled to give a secular invocation at a later date. (In November, I received a copy of the 2012 invocation schedule which included my name for a July meeting, with a form letter thanking me for serving the community by participating in the process).
When I attended the next meeting and thanked them for considering the matter, one council member came up to thank me for bringing it up, saying she thought on occasion that the invocations went too far.
It was interesting to watch the video of the council’s discussion about my letter. The city attorney said that he felt the council was not violating any law. One council member asked if there were invocation guidelines given to people, for example, to avoid overly sectarian language. The attorney advised the council against doing that, fearing it would become de facto policy and open the city up to a lawsuit for violating it later.
Here is the text of my invocation:
“I represent no congregation or denomination. But I appreciate the invitation to give this invocation on behalf of the nonbelievers in our city, which includes those who do not subscribe to any particular religious sect and those who deny the existence of a god altogether.
It can be easy to forget or pretend that we don’t exist because we are a small minority, but we are a rapidly growing minority, so we do appreciate the chance to get our seat at the table.
We include doctors, lawyers, teachers and people of all walks of life who live moral lives and contribute to the welfare of our community. As a veteran, I can even assure you that there are indeed atheists in foxholes. With that said, thank you again for the opportunity.
And so, while I would prefer that the practice of invocations be discontinued, I recognize that that is unlikely to happen here in the near future, so I thank you again for this opportunity to represent a minority viewpoint.
And so, without appealing to a higher power which I do not believe exists, I ask each one of you to put forth your best effort to listen intently, resolve differences, find common ground and advance the progress and prosperity of our community.
Because with or without prayer, that’s what needs to be done, and prayers don’t pay the bills, or maintain the roads, or do any of the work that this council and our city manager do so effectively on our behalf. As human beings, all we can do is use the talents and wisdom which nature, our education and experience have given us to overcome the challenges we face.
And when the task before you is difficult, I ask that you not to look upward for guidance from some higher power which is most likely an outgrowth of our own fear of mortality, but instead look inward to your own sense of morality and reason, and also look outward to the members of this community who come forward to lend their support and assistance.
Only through a spirit of cooperation and unity can we continue to make the city of Portage such a wonderful place to live, work, and raise our families.
In closing, it’s important to remember that you don’t need a god to hope, to care, to love or to live. And we don’t need one to help conduct city business.
During the meeting, the council approved four churches as polling places (out of 21 precincts). I told the council I opposed “forcing citizens to enter a house of worship to exercise their most cherished democratic right.” I noted studies that have shown a link between how people vote and where they vote.
After the meeting, a council members thanked me for coming and said she was going to share the video with her atheist friend. She asked about alternative voting locations. The mayor and others joined in and we had a nice discussion. They gently suggested that, having brought it up, I should be willing to help find a solution. I’m still working on that.
Two interesting things happened at the next meeting two weeks later. Before the meeting, the mayor took the Catholic priest scheduled to give the invocation aside and appeared to ask him to avoid sectarian language (which he avoided). I’m not sure if the mayor did that because he saw me there or not, but I found it encouraging.
Then, as I was leaving, a man asked to speak with me. (He was a police detective, I learned during the conversation. City policy is to have at least one officer at every meeting.) He said he found my invocation at the previous meeting offensive. He felt that I had insulted religion in general and Christianity in particular.
We had an interesting discussion, which brought out all the same tired old arguments like “the minority forcing the majority to accept their position.” I shot them all down. After about 10 minutes, he said we would never agree but said he felt better talking about it.
FFRF member Tim Earl was born and raised in Detroit by a non-practicing Protestant father and a “pre-Vatican II” Catholic mother and attended Catholic schools K-12, including an all-male Christian Brothers high school. He served in the Navy from 1996 to 2004, including service as chief engineer of the destroyer USS Fletcher in the opening months of the 2003 Iraq War.
“Part of what finally pushed me over the edge to nonbelief was being exposed to Islam firsthand while in the Middle East. Seeing how passionate these people were about their beliefs, I started thinking about the mutual exclusivity of the world’s major religions. I finally finished this journey of self-discovery when I read The God Delusion. I realized that I was indeed an atheist and that there was nothing wrong with that. When I told my wife, a secular Jew who had never really discussed religion with me, she said, “It’s about time. Welcome to the club.” We now raise our two daughters, ages 4 and 7, with no religious tradition.