Statement by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
While President Obama was counseling "faith in the Almighty" and prayer in the wake of the devastating Oklahoma tornado (to his credit, promising to "back up those prayers with deeds"), a brave secular survivor of that tornado has become a social network phenomenon.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday asked Rebecca Vitsmun, a young mother holding her 19-month-old son Anders amid the rubble left in the tornado's wake, whether "she thanked the Lord" for her survival. He seemed pretty surprised as she, laughingly, forthrightly replied, "I'm actually an atheist."
Comedian Ricky Gervais, by the way, tweeted these words in response to the religious reaction to the disaster: "Beyonce, Rihanna & Katy Perry send prayers to Oklahoma. I feel like an idiot now. . . I only sent money."
Gervais later added, "Praying for something but not doing anything to make it happen has the same effect as writing to Santa and not letting mummy read the letter.
"The best way to help the disaster victims is to donate at redcross.org or text REDCROSS to 90999."
Also this week, another brave nonbeliever, Arizona state lawmaker Juan Mendez, acknowledged that he is an atheist as he gave an unusual House invocation Tuesday at the statehouse in Phoenix. Mendez urged legislators to look at each other, rather than bow their heads, and "celebrate our shared humanness."
Mendez' secular invocation reads:
"Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask you not to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.
"This room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.
"Carl Sagan once wrote, 'For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.' There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy – and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona."
State Rep. Steve Smith chastised Mendez yesterday, asking other members to join him in a second daily prayer in "repentence" for Mendez's secular words.
Mendez replied: "If my lack of religion doesn't give me the same opportunity to engage in this platform then I feel kind of disenfranchised. So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view on what's going on."
State Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, a traditional Navajo who represents a district on the Navajo reservation, took offense at Smith's chastisement as well, noting "I want to remind the House and my colleagues and everybody here that several of us here are not Christianized."
All of this illustrates what the Freedom From Religion Foundation invokes daily in formal letters of complaint to public officials who mix religion and government: Religion is divisive, and government prayer is one of the most divisive of the chronic state/church entanglements. We receive complaints nearly every day from someone around the country encountering coercive government prayer.
Inappropriate government devotionals are the topic of a case just accepted this week by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court will hear an appeal by a Religious Right group that had lost a case in which an appeals court ruled it is unconstitutional to host mostly Christian prayers to open government meetings.
This legal development is an opportunity to educate the high court on the harm and inappropriateness of prayer and religious ritual hosted and imposed on citizens as part of a government function. FFRF has already agreed to submit an amicus brief in this case.
We've offered Rep. Mendez our Emperor Has No Clothes Award reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. We're making inquiries to reach the young atheist mother in Oklahoma who told it like it is about religion. Freethinkers have been waiting a long time for newsmakers to utter such rational statements.
Finally, we leave parting words to President Obama: Prayer without deeds would be meaningless indeed.
We'd rather "invoke" the wise words of this country's first secular lobbyist, Annie Royall, who fought religion in government in the 1820s and 1830s and whose motto was: "Good works instead of long prayers."