School Prayer by Barbara Walker (October 1995)

Prayer in schools has become a public issue again.

During my school years, no one was granted any right to overt dissent. Academic prayer was not an issue. It was just always there. God was incessantly called upon to bless assemblies, school ceremonies, even sporting events. Educational authorities seemed to claim the power to compel God’s attention whenever they wished, or to change his mind for him in case he hadn’t been planning to bless their occasion in the first place. They gave–and apparently enjoyed giving–the impression that they had God’s ear at all times.

This very impression is one of the hidden motives of school-prayer advocates. They feel that children should be made aware of adults’ apparently direct line to the mind of God: a small step up from the old threat, “I’ll tell your father on you!” They feel also that children must learn to address God on occasions of personal incompetence. Whether you had carelessly failed to study for a test, or your little brother had rheumatic fever and was not expected to live, God was supposed to change fate in your favor if addressed in sufficiently abject and flattering terms.

I was always somewhat bemused by the implication that God was so malleable, so open to manipulation by mere humans. Along with Omar Khayyam, I wondered: “Who art thou to teach, and he to learn?” If God had made up his mind to do things one way–for example, to lead us into temptation on this particular day, or not to bless this particular school assembly–why, who were we to talk him into reversing his decisions? Was he so weak and vacillating that a mere word or two from some insignificant humans could change his intentions? And if he was not, then what in the world was the point of all the prayer?

In my case, school prayer served little purpose other than to bore me, and to turn my mind to its own inchoate meditations in order to pass the time until the period of prayer came to its always welcome end. With something akin to pity I remember those sonorous academic voices calling upon God to listen to them, as if the speakers were trying to convince themselves that they were heard by someone other than a captive audience of itchy, impatient, largely indifferent children.

Of course, as churchmen throughout the ages have known, God must be presented and presented and presented ad nauseam to children in their formative years, if they are to become adult believers. What sinks into the child mind even through boredom can become fixed, so the adult never really understands where the concept came from, but thinks it somehow self-evident. The issue of school prayer is really an issue of belief manipulation. Advocates think children ought to see and hear grown-ups expressing belief in God, so they will accept it just as they also accept what they are told in classrooms. It is brainwashing of a sort, since god-concepts can never be demonstrated on the basis of reason and must be transmitted by rote and repetition.

Separation of church and state was one of the best ideas put forth by the founding fathers of this nation, historically near as they were to the centuries of horror perpetrated by European theocracy. Unfortunately, much of this nation today has forgotten how evil a dominant, domineering, legislated religion can be.

Children need to be protected from forced belief instead of having their innocent noses rubbed in it at every opportunity. Instead of teaching them to call upon an outmoded emotional construct, we should let them learn to trust their own foresight and responsibility, to change what they can change and accept what they can’t–and, naturally, teach them the wisdom to know the difference.

Barbara G. Walker is the author of The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and The Skeptical Feminist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation