A new Mississippi law requires public schools to develop policies to allow students to pray over school intercoms and at assemblies and sporting events. The law permits students to pray publicly with a disclaimer from school administration. I imagine the disclaimer will be read at super warp speed as at the end of commercials for financial planners and prescription drugs.
In supporting the new law, the New York Times reports that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said: “We are about making sure that we protect the religious freedoms of all students and adults whenever we can.”
What Bryant means to protect is not the freedom to practice one’s own religion, but the freedom to practice it in public. He forgets that much like tobacco smoking, overtly public religious expressions create a kind of second-hand smoke that bother others, especially when those praying use AV systems and especially in public schools.
Mississippi is just the latest of the southern states to try to get around the basic constitutional separation of religion and state. The Times notes that last year Florida approved a bill to allow students to read inspirational messages at assemblies and sporting events. Also last year, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that gives residents the right to “pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools,” and a similar amendment was introduced in Virginia this year. South Carolina legislators introduced a bill last year that would allow for prayer during a mandatory minute of silence at the start of the school day, provided that students who do not want to hear the prayer can leave the classroom.
For more than 30 years, we have seen a concerted encroachment on public spaces. The first wave—starting with Reagan and continuing today—consisted of reducing funding for public spaces, facilities and institutions, be it parks, schools, public universities, libraries or mass transit. In trying to assert the right of religious expression in a public place, proponents of bringing prayer into schools represent a second wave, in which conservatives seek to put public space to private use.
Most frightening to me is the rationale that former Arkansas Governor and religious right-wing nut Mike Huckabee gives for prayer in schools: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?”
When Huckabee says that putting religion in schools will make schools less prone to violence, he is ignoring the violent histories of many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. He forgets the countless religious wars and the countless other wars in which religion was a thin veil for an economic, dynastic or national struggle. In fact for most of recorded history, rulers and generals have firmly stated that “god is on our side in our war against the unbeliever.” They’ve done it in Europe and in Asia, they’ve done it in the United States and Russia. Even the defenders of the foul institution of slavery in the Confederate States of America claimed that god was on their side.
I would assert that bringing more religion into schools might actually increase violence. It’s not the fact that religion so often advocates violence that concerns me. It’s the permission that religion gives people to engage in violent acts. Those who believe in a life after death must by definition be more prone to engage in violence because they think they will survive into another life and therefore are more willing to take the risks associated with violent behavior. No atheist believes in a life after death. Only those who believe in a personal god believe that a conscious part of us survives this life Instead of risking life, believers in life after death think they are risking only this life. Thus believing in a religion makes one more likely to be ready to commit a violent act. That religion also gives people a motive—god wants me to kill the enemy—also feeds the psychology of violence.
Now inciting people to violence is appropriate in certain contexts—the military for example. So it’s not surprising that soldiers tend to be more religious than the general public. For example, the most recent Pew Foundation study on religious affiliation found that 39.2% of all Americans are either atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation. By contrast, the most recent poll of military personnel by The Military Times finds that only 28.68% of our fighting men and women are atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation.
But a public school is not the military. It’s only half-facetiously that I write that putting religion in public schools could be the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire.
Yet even if religion decreased violence, that would still be no reason to bring it into public schools. In the United States, religion is supposed to be a private matter. Those wishing to turn our public spaces into celebrations of their own religious beliefs are about as un-American as one could possibly be.