Prayer without religion for public schools?

Photo by Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post Amidst the growing excitement these days about democracy breaking out all over the … Continued

Photo by Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post

Amidst the growing excitement these days about democracy breaking out all over the world, one might be tempted to call for greater respect for “the will of the people” right here at home. New polling by Rasmussen indicates that 65% of Americans favor prayer in our nation’s public schools. So why not give the people what they want?

The argument that whatever the majority wants, it should get, is a dangerous and misguided understanding of democracy — one which quickly leads to an ugly state of affairs in which the rights and dignity of minorities is readily ignored. Tocqueville called this phenomenon “tyranny of the majority”, but whatever it is called, it is a real problem when we fail to recall that terms like “will of the people” refer to both a collective people and also to all of the individuals who make up that collective.

While public policy cannot always reflect the desires of the latter, it must at least respect and protect them. Those advocating for the reintroduction of prayer in our public schools need to pause and reflect on how that would be accomplished if prayer were indeed to make such a return. That same poll by Rasmussen holds additional information which suggests one way that might be done.

I am not suggesting that now is the time to bring back prayer to our classrooms, but as one who prays, as one who sees that this issue isn’t going away, and as one living in a time when the reintegration of faith and public institutions is on everyone’s minds, I am suggesting that we might begin to think about this question in new ways.

Perhaps we should consider thinking about prayer without God, or at least without religion. Apparently that is what millions of us are already doing anyway. Rasmussen’s polling indicates that while 65% of Americans want prayer in public schools – higher than last year, a decreasing number of us see religion as playing an important roll in our lives.

In other words, we seem to value prayer more than religion, and that may be a really good thing. In fact, it may be that this seeming preference for prayer over religion indicates a kind of common sense or popular wisdom from which the policy makers and religious leaders who debate the place of prayer in our public schools, could learn a thing or two.

What would it mean to embrace the importance of expressing gratitude and hope, the substance of most prayers in virtually all traditions, without resorting to any specific tradition or prescribed form of expression? What might happen if students were given a moment of silence every day for such reflection? What if we were really daring and called such moments, moments which are already observed in classrooms for all kinds of events, moments of prayer?

A large percentage of Americans seem to have already figured this one out – embracing prayer with increasing enthusiasm while diminishing the role of particular religions. That may well be a threatening trend for some practitioners, but it might also be a way of thinking about an endlessly divisive issue in a way that respects the will of the majority while also respecting and protecting the equally valid and important will of the minority.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • WmarkW

    Amidst all the celebrating about the prospect for democracy in Egypt, there lies the very real possibility that they will use the ballot to vote themselves back to the Dark Ages. About 80% of Egyptian women are genitally mutilated, which is about the same fraction of the Egyptian people who favor things like stoning for adultery and death for apostasy.Favoring prayer in school without endorsing any view, is a mis-guided attempt to deal with a very real problem — cultural and political extremism. A society in which one side talks about “honoring the Constitution” and “following the prinicples of our founding fathers” while the other uses terms like “glass ceilings,” “white privilege,” “nativism,” and “Islamophobia” is talking past each other.People are fed up with a political process that consists primarily of pointing out how much worse the other side is. A choice between a party that takes money from the middle class to give to the idle rich, and one that gives it to the idle poor, is not satisfying to the majority of Americans.


    LET them do that (Pray in Public in Unison) in “CHURCH’s, aka Temples, Synagogues, Mosques etc.. NOt on STATEPATRIOTISM is Never RELIGIONISM.America, Needs LESS , Not MORE REligions , includes Places of Church Worships. No Abusive, Tax-Free, Rides Anymore. VOTE: Stop the [Funding] Building of Synagogues, Churches, Mosques etc.!Help REDUCE AMERICA’s DEFICIT!

  • usapdx

    In the U.S.A. as we know that everyone has a right to beleive in what ever religion they want just so they DO NOT force it on another by any means. KEEP ALL RELIGIONS OUT OF ALL U.S.A. PUBLIC SCHOOLS. If you want a religion in school, then go to a PRIVATE SCHOOL.

  • Rongoklunk

    What a disgusting idea. It’s in your interest to get schools to indoctrinate children into believing in a supernatural God – it keeps you employed.Be religious if it must – but keep it out of schools. It is the oldest scam of them all, and the greatest of lies.

  • drwycw

    Anyone who wants to pray can pray on their own time. Religion is controversial and divisive and should be kept out of public schools. Lets continue to keep religion and state separate.

  • areyousaying

    Let’s just let people pray separately with their own and respect the First Amendment.Evangelical Christians apparently don’t have the corner on theocon designs for America.

  • YEAL9

    Is not prayer just a waste of time?The subject of prayer relates directly to the subject of religions and their foundations. And what has history, scriptural text reviews and archeology taught us about these foundations?1. Abraham is the reported founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Based on all we know now, Abraham was at best a combination of three separate individuals with 1.5 million Conservative Jews no longer believing he existed at all. (ditto for Moses and Noah)references: National Georgraphic review on Abraham, David and 2. The founders of Christianity and Islam were both illiterate. i.e. neither one proof read or approved the NT or the koran so we are taking the word of scribes and embellishers with their own agendas?references: NT exegetes from the last two hundred years, Christianity is based on the whim of Pilate, the false prophecy of the imminent second coming, and the sword of Constantine. references: NT exegetes and their conclusions/books from the last two hundred yearsConclusion: Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers have very little foundation to rely on.

  • FreetoThink

    Students are already free to “express gratitude and hope” to whomever they imagine is listening. Many do.Faculty and staff, government employees, may not organize or lead these exercises. Let’s leave things this way, Brad.

  • areyousaying

    The Rasmussen Poll? Really, Rabbi?Who are you going to quote next? Fox News?

  • Carstonio

    “Perhaps we should consider thinking about prayer without God, or at least without religion.”There’s no such thing. All prayer is inherently sectarian. Even a prayer that mentions “God” only endorses monotheism at the expense of polytheism and animism and other types of religion. To be clear, “prayer in school” means teachers or administrators leading mandatory prayer, and when they do so they endorse some religions over others. That’s why it’s unconstitutional. “Prayer in school” does not mean students praying on their own, something they have the right to do. There’s nothing wrong in principle with Hirschfield’s idea of a moment of silence. In practice, however, there would have to be strict guidelines on its implementation. Otherwise, some school officials and board members may hijack the idea to push their religious beliefs on students.

  • ITs-TIME

    .Ommmmmmm..Aummmmmm..Vahhhhhhhhh… AND now SingEKLAHhhhht-iON.. 2) Exhale ‘KLAH’ (use ‘t’ for stop-gap in ‘time’) pause in a Mini Second, THEN 3) Inhale ‘i’ (sounds like hiii). Try “IT”.PEACE, PAZ, SHALOM, SALAAM, MIR, ZHINGYU, AHIMSA, SHANTi, ONKAR…

  • Sajanas

    Having public, mandated prayer in schools, no matter what slant you put on it, is oppression. Students, as they are now, are perfectly free to pray when and where they wish, as long as they aren’t disruptive. Why is there a need to take this and impose it on everyone else? Why are people such busy bodies that it matters to them not just that they pray, but that everyone else *must* pray. And do you really think for a moment that mandating a moment of prayer, however non-religious it might seem if you excise mention of God, or Gods, or Satan, or whatever, is not license for the teacher or principal to impose their own religious views? There is no good that comes out of enforcing some spiritual idea on children. Frankly, I don’t think even parents have that right. Let the kids decide for themselves. You cannot enforce religion, and forcing any sort of thing just results in people’s rights being violated.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    A moment of silence will not work for all the many reasons put forward in numerous venues.The Constitution is there for a reason. We tend too frequently to honor it in the breach, already. Enough, frankly, is enough.The more serious problems concern removing the RCC from the Congress, along with the Evangelicals.Next, prohibit lobbying by organized religion.Finally, end nonprofit status for all religious institutions.Pray as you will, where you will, but not in violation of the Establishment Clause.And what of certain other groups?Etc.

  • DrRP1

    Hmmm.. 65% of people favor prayer in public schools, but a decreased number say religion is playing an important roll in our lives. The conclusion is that here is something wrong with the polling in that 65% number.Perhaps “favor” actually means “wouldn’t strongly object to”.

  • Camille7

    Perhaps prayer can help the world. May the most Sacred Heart of Jesus be praised, honored, adored, glorified, loved and preserved throughtout the world now and forever. Amen Sacred Heart of Jesus, pray for us. St Judes, worker of miracles, pray for us. St. Jude help of the hopeless, pray for us. Repeat 9 times a day for nine days and publish and your request will be granted. MCK

  • patmatthews

    Prayer without hard work is nothing more than a WISH. Teaching children to depend on wishes is ignorant. As a Buddhist, I wish the schools would allow children to form a Buddhist prayer. In Buddhism, you must answer your own prayers through hard work alone.Making a prayer to some external deity just teaches about failure, not success. Praying to yourself to develop and answer your own prayers teaches success in life and faith, and laves nothing for others to do for you, just do for yourself.I notice Christian’s, Catholics, and Jewish, demand I pray with them, but they have NEVER offered to pray with me, with my prayers.SELFISH GROUP CHRISTIANS are by their actions against others.I taught my children to be aware of those that are selfish and care only for themselves and care nothing for others. I put my Children through Catholic school and told the priests and nuns, I would take care of their faith, while the school should focus on education alone. They agreed, as I paid the bills. I put them their because they were beat up and bullied in public schools.

  • WmarkW

    Header:”New polling by Rasmussen indicates that 65% of Americans favor prayer in our nation’s public schools. So why not give the people what they want?”For the same reason the people of Alabama can’t have segregated schools, like their constitution mandates. It violates the rights of the individual as protected by the federal constitution.

  • cecilg

    Brad: This is a well written and thought provoking piece. It has evoked a number of responses, mostly somewhat negative and some angrily negative. However, three responds that I though were good were from CARSTONI, from FREETHINKER, and from SAJANA’S.My position oncerning prayer or meditation in the public schools is that we leave things as they are. However, you are absolutely right about one thing, i.e. this issue is not going away. To wit:I have some relatives and acquaintances who raise their voices stridently and often, proclaiming that prayer has been banned from the public schools. When I tell these fundamentalist types that students are free to pray within a public school, always have been, and probably in this country always will be, these people seem to go deaf.When I support my claim by pointing out that in 2003 the Sec. of Education prepared and distributed guidelines on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools, guidelines intended to insure students right to free speech, including prayer — when I tell these fundamentalists this, they not only go deaf, they often become angry.The issue is not likely to go away, but for right now, let us leave it alone. People, make this a good day.

  • acebojangles

    I suspect this 65% statistic reflects a common misconception. A lot of people seem to think that students are not allowed to pray in schools, which isn’t true. Schools and school officials can’t lead prayer, but students can pray at appropriate times. I bet a large number of those 65% just want kids to be able to pray in school, which they can.

  • Rongoklunk

    A very good reason to keep prayers OUT of schools is that prayers do not work. To pretend otherwise is ignoring the evidence; many studies have shown this – including one recent study that cost two million dollars and reported in most newspapers including the New York Times.Besides – history has many examples of attempts to save the lives of Kings or dictators where priests have organized mass prayer groups praying all day and all night to cure maladies and prevent death.

  • eezmamata

    A friend of mine, let’s call him Bob, married a woman who is a devout baptist. Bob’s mother and father on the other hand are third-generation seventh day adventists, totally devout.Bob’s mother and his wife are constantly fighting over Bob’s soul, his mother convinced his wife is taking him to hell along with all of her family .. why? Because they celebrate the sabbath on different days.They can’t even be in the same room with each other before they start screaming about it.So sure, let the christians put prayer back in school, they all want it. But how long will it be before they start fighting with each other over prayers that are too catholic, too lutheran, too … whatever?Eventually they’ll agree, no prayer in school if they have to put up with [catholic or pentacostal or sevent day adventist or whatever] prayers being taught to their children.You religious types never seem to understand, keeping prayer out of schools wasn’t just a way to keep the atheists happy, it’s a way to keep you freaking morons from killing each other over the wrong kind of christianity.

  • lepidopteryx

    If we bring back set-aside time for prayer in school, can children for whom prayer involves burning incense pray in school?What about children for whom prayer is not silent, but chanted? Will they be allowed to pray in school?Or will only those children for whom silent prayer with no accoutrements is the norm be allowed to pray?

  • cecilg

    Farnaz2: You and I seem to be on the same page. It is nice to hear from someone who actually agrees with me.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks, CecilG. The people who “seem to go deaf” when told that students can pray on their own in public schools are generally the same ones who become indignant during December when store clerks wish them Happy Holidays. In both cases, they seem to define religious freedom not as individuals worshiping on their own as they choose, but as society and its institutions regarding Christianity as the default or normal religion.

  • biblecommentator

    In the UK kids pray every day. It is a statutory requirement to have a daily act of collective worship in school. All faiths are respected, but acts of worship are to be broadly or mainly Christain in nature. There is an individual right of withdrawl. As a Christian minister, I have led Christian worship in a school that is 90% Moslem, without a problem. The children and parents are happy to learn about other faiths, especially the faith of the country in which they live. I’ve not seen any riots in the streets about it, here. Only the most millitant athiest groups seem to have a problem with this system. Well, let them use their right of withdrawl. Its sad that America is taking opportunity away from its children, for whatever reason. Prayer in schools is not about what the majority want; it’s about giving kids a chance to experience worship and form their own opinions about God, the world etc. Maybe in the States worship and prayer should not be compulsory, but at least it should no longer be BANNED!

  • Carstonio

    BibleCommentator, not only would that statutory requirement be unconstitutional in the US, it’s also deeply offensive to the concept of individual religious conscience. “Giving kids a chance to experience worship and form their own opinions about God” is disingenuous because the exercise is biased in favor of one religion. Faith is a personal matter, not a national or societal matter. The US was founded by people who rightly rejected the commingling of religion and nationalism that you describe. In fact, the state where I live began as a haven for members of a specific Christian sect, one in which membership was considered treasonous in the UK for centuries.

  • Kingofkings1

    There is a difference between requiring prayer and allowing prayer. And what if the pupils prayed prior to coming to school: to God, Jesus, Ram, Buddha? Is it possible that the founding fathers (of US) had it right: the State should not engage in preferring one religion (or any religion)?

  • schnauzer21

    There cannot be prayer without religion. Praying is a purely religious act. even if it does not explicitly mention god or jesus ot whoever. It is still asking a higher power to act in some way. Those of nor religious following and those whose religions to not beleive in or use prayer would be forced. No one is preventing a religious individual from taking a few moments just about any time of day to pray in line with their belief structure.