Essay:Why I don't support classroom prayer
Classroom prayer in state-funded schools seems to be one constant mantras of the religious right in the USA. It isn't even enough for them to have a communal act of worship at the beginning of the day, there must be a prayer at the beginning of each and every class. Personally, I think this is a complete non-issue that is only raised by the craziest of the crazy religious zealots, and that classroom prayer would be a waste of time for both teachers and students. This essay outlines why I hold that view, or rather it is a series of questions unanswered by those demanding classroom prayer, the probable answers to which would tend to contraindicate the continuous, ritual use of prayer in class.
What is the purpose of classroom prayer?
One thing I've noted is that not once has any advocate of classroom prayer ever explains what the content of the prayers should be. I'm personally an atheist, but was raised in a Church of England family, so I have some experience of prayer. In my experience, prayers to the Christian god (and to most other deities with which I am familiar) fall in to two broad categories. Those are prayers of thanksgiving (and general worship) and prayers asking for some blessing either for your self or for others (See Intercessory prayer.)
So what is going to be the focus of classroom prayer? Are we to give thanks to god for the education we are about to receive? Are we to ask for some god-given power of concentration and knowledge retention, or special insight in to the material presented not accessible by mortal means alone? Both seem pointless to me.
The former it seems to me is better felt than said. Thanking god in spoken prayer smacks of vanity to me. It is a common theme of most religions that the gods have some degree of omniscience, that is they know what is in your heart and mind. It should merely be enough to be thankful, there seems little need to actively announce that thanks to the world at large. The protestant churches from which most of the fundamentalists who espouse the doctrine of classroom prayer are drawn should realise this more than any other faith. After all, protestant churches are all about moving from the highly ritualised catholic church back to a purer interpretation of the Christian faith.
The later type of prayer would seem to have somewhat more point, but I fail to see why one would need to ask for god's intervention before each and every lesson begins. I can't figure out what blessing could possibly be bestowed on a student that can't be generalised to fit a broad curriculum. As I suggested earlier, a student might wish to humbly ask god for greater powers of concentration and retention to aid them throughout the whole school day. This blessing seems generally applicable to all lessons, and I don't see a particular need to ask for it at hourly intervals. Is god not capable of fulfilling your wishes for more than a few minutes at a time? The alternative, I suppose, is that you might pray directly for additional knowledge of the subject being studied. A student, for example, attending a physics lecture might ask for some divine inspiration as to the nature of fundamental particles. However, it doesn't seem to be the style of gods to grant such requests, so asking seems rather fruitless.
If anyone were to convince me that classroom prayer was a good and necessary thing, then a fundamental question to answer is just what exactly should be prayed for, and what the expected outcome is. I don't believe that even most advocates of classroom prayer know the answer to this. It is also my belief that for the ones that do know the answer, the answer in fact has nothing to do with any deity but is all about indoctrinating students, that is getting them so used to the ritual of a religion that they don't seek to question it. Classroom prayer is a great positive reinforcement technique, such that students learn to associate the act of worship with the praise the teacher gives them when they comprehend the material being taught, and start to infer that the hand of god is guiding them to correct behaviour.
What form of prayer should be used?
We live in a society that has free exercise of religion as one of its fundamental values. This is enshrined in both the US constitution and the European declaration of human rights, and is variously respected in a large proportion of the rest of the world too. One of the implications of freedom to practice any religion is that any given society consists of a large number of religious groups that must all be treated equally. So, in a school that is not allowed to discriminate based on faith what form of prayer will be used? This is made even more difficult when you take in to account that different sects inside a given religion all conduct prayer in a different manner. For example, within Christianity all practitioners notionally worship the same god, but do so in radically different style. Anabaptists will largely conduct prayer in silence, while in Catholicism prayer will most often be lead by a priest. Because of the doctrine involved, an Anabaptist may find the Catholic method of prayer distasteful.
There are as many, if not more, styles of prayer as there are religions. A person following the Shinto religion may wish first to clap their hands before prayer to attract the attentions of the gods. A practitioner of Vaishnavism might wish to chant Hare Krishna. A Muslim might wish to perform ritual ablutions, and make use of a prayer mat. These are just some of the great many variations that exist in worship, a list of all currently practised variations could be the subject of an entire wiki by itself. Some practices are such that others would find them deeply offensive, such as animal sacrifice.
So in a class with a number of students following different religions or sects, which method of prayer is to be followed? In my opinion there are only two non-discriminatory answers to this question. One is to conduct a prayer for each religion in turn, involving only the students that follow that religion and inviting others to leave the room while it is conducted if they so wish. The other is to simply not have class prayer at all. It is clear to me that having classroom prayer while at the same time maintaining fairness is an unattainable goal. It would simply take up too much time to be practical.
However, having said that, it is my observation that proponents of classroom prayer have no wish whatsoever to be fair in their application of it. They are convinced that their religion, usually fundamentalist Christianity, is one true and correct faith and that the style of classroom prayer should be solely protestant Christian. This is never overtly stated, but it is the only logical assumption that is at all practical. Of course, this runs completely counter to the free exercise of religion that our culture holds dear and in a state-sponsored setting, creates what amounts to a state religion.
Would classroom prayer yield any tangible benefits?
Prayer of a variety of religions that ask for some tangible blessing from the deity in question have been subjected to controlled double blind trials repeatedly, and none has ever proven to measurably deliver on the thing being asked for. For example, there is no known correlation between praying for the recovery of someone who is sick and the incidence of the patient recovering. People who have faith in a god however, often talk of intangible things that their god grants them, such as the resolve to complete some feat of endurance or the will to beat cancer. It is not possible to scientifically measure such intangible gifts, but personally I don't entirely see that as a reason to discount them from any cost-benefit evaluation.
However, what I would suggest is that such intangible benefits can be gained from private acts of faith and worship far better than they could from any ritualised act imposed upon students at the beginning of every lesson a school. Certainly, I know of no such claims of intangible benefits stemming in whole or in part from informal acts of worship lead by laypeople. They seem to stem mostly either from ritual acts of worship in a formal setting, complete with ritual objects and led by a religious professional, or perhaps more usually from the individual's personal, private exercise of their faith.
So much for the benefits stemming from divine intervention, but perhaps there are purely human social benefits stemming from the exercise of religion in schools? I must admit, I have not encountered any studies either confirming or denying this link. I would suspect if I asked a proponent of school prayer, they would affirm that there are benefits in terms of behavioural and social interactions in younger students stemming from the exercise of religion. I further suspect they would attempt to back this claim with anecdotal evidence. To some extent I think they might be right on this point. It is my suspicion too that organised religion helps social cohesion, and would cut down the incidence of misbehaviour. However, it is also my belief that fostering conformism in this manner runs counter to what schools are, or at least should be attempting to achieve.
It is my belief that the end product of education should not be an adult who can recite facts by rote, but an adult equipped with the mental tools to evaluate evidence and form conclusions for themselves. This together with an intellectual curiosity that comes naturally to most humans, if not crushed by the weight of an indoctrinating and stifling parental and governmental education system, equips a person to learn anything what they need for themselves. This is certainly the way my own education was conducted, in primary education we learned the skills such as reading, writing and mathematics that I would need to continue the learning process. Secondary education from English Literature and History through to the Sciences was all about learning to draw conclusions based on evidence, though as young students we were largely guided to the conclusions by the narrow scope of the evidence presented. In tertiary and continuing education at University, we were finally asked to reason entirely for ourselves without guidance. This seems to me the natural progression of a child's development, though admittedly I may only think this because it is the system I have been raised in.
Since this is my philosophy of education, it seems to me that any attempt to inflict conformism on children, while it may be convenient for teachers, is firmly in 'cost' column of any possible cost-benefit analysis. Certainly, I do not believe asking a child in the classroom to put their faith in something which is not tangible or measurable achieves anything worthwhile when your aim is to create an adult who is equipped to rationally evaluate empirical evidence, and draw appropriate conclusions. I also believe there are much better ways of minimising disruption in the classroom, such as teaching children appropriately by ability.
Would classroom prayer be sincere for any of the parties involved?
For many religions, it is not merely enough to ask for something and conduct the appropriate ritual and the deities to whom you are praying will always grant the request. Some religions demand that you are sincere in your heart when you make the request. This is not always the case, there are many documented instances in the folklore of numerous religions of gods granting insincere and in some cases, downright selfish or dangerous requests. This is often in the context of a test of faith or punishment. However, sincerity of belief is a fundamental tenet in enough of the widely practised theistic religions today that it it is a question worth asking, would classroom prayer be sincere on any the part of any of the parties involved?
It is my belief that highly ritualised acts of worship run directly counter to actual sincerity involved in the act. If a student in class were asked every day to mouth the words of some generalised plea for a blessing, then I don't believe at all that this would be at all conducive to the student sincerely wishing for that thing. It is certainly my experience from having attended a Church of England school that had a morning act of worship every day that not once did I sincerely believe in the words that I was speaking. In fact, I believe that the distinct lack of any actual religious grounding in the tenets of the Christian faith, but merely being put through ritualised acts of worship was a big contribution to me becoming an atheist. I could not see any direct result of all the ritual and ceremony, the whole affair was as empty as a the ramblings of the insane talking to invisible people and yet nobody was calling the people conducting the church service or prayer insane. It was clear to me even as a child there was a deep double standard here.
Classroom prayer would be just as hollow as the morning prayer that I was subjected to, only dramatically increased in volume. It seems to me that the cause of any particular religion can be far better served by educating children in the doctrine and practice of a religion, and then allowing them to conduct their own relationship with the deity in question. Of course, almost every religion has its own rituals that need to be followed, and of course worshippers should be encouraged to comply with those, but I know of no religion that requires ritual prayer to be conducted before a lesson can commence.
Right to reply
This essay is a work in progress, I plan to add a couple more questions to it. However, if any supporter of classroom prayer or indeed anyone else would like to offer alternative answers to the questions raised here, please feel free to do so on the talk page. I would ask one thing though, if you wish to offer alternative answers then please respond to every question, with either and answer or a reason why it is not a useful question to ask. Please don't choose an individual question to answer on its own. [[Link title]]