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This guest editorial was published in the Raleigh, N.C. News and Observer on February 10, 1987.
The current conflict over school prayer is no more than a whirlwind of hot air churning up clouds of dust in a desert, for the genuine issue is not school prayer but religion.
Religions arose in human history as means to goals. They are not and never have been ends in themselves. Religion for religion's sake never has been the marching motto of the religious. Paganism, for instance, arose in primitive societies because people felt the need for spiritual help in their efforts to attain specific goals. The ancient Greeks found their own unaided efforts to overcome the obstacles of life undependable and called upon nature's spirits (gods) for help. In return for this help, they pledged to perform specific acts (rituals) to propitiate these spirits.
Likewise, Abraham and God entered into a covenant that required that the Hebrews perform specific acts in order to receive God's promised gifts. And Christ's promise of salvation to Christians requires Christian action for its fulfillment.
A bountiful hunt, children, victory in battle, the reception of God's gifts and salvation are goals, and religions are means of attaining them.
No religion consists of merely a belief in the existence of God. A religion is made up of such a belief and a theology, a compendium of beliefs and specific acts, the fulfillment of which enables believers to attain a goal. As such, religion is a social institution, and religion as theology deserves to be studied. And anything deserving of study should be able to find a place in the schools.
Whether prayer should find a place there is another question, however, for a student who prays without knowing the theological foundation for his prayer will get no closer to the goal the prayer is meant to produce than the student who doesn't pray at all, for such a prayer is an empty, meaningless formality.
Unfortunately, the advocates of school prayer are not advocates of religious studies, and it is not difficult to see why. Today's American youth would scoff at most theology.
For instance, Roman Catholic theology lists seven deadly sins to be avoided by believers: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. How many of today's students could be convinced that all seven of these are to be repudiated and their opposites—humility, charity, chastity, care, moderation, gratitude, and industriousness—be accepted?
Likewise, how many of today's students who nominally belong to Calvinist Protestantism could be convinced that God has predestined only some of them for salvation and has damned the rest?
Should prayer then have a place in the schools? Only if genuine religious study has a place there, for abstract prayer, prayer lacking the content of concrete acts, is no more effective than silence.
But, someone is sure to ask, why should a society made up of believers in different religions and even non-believers pay for religious studies? And the answer is it shouldn't. But this does not mean that religious studies cannot have a place in the schools, for the churches within a school district that desired to have religious studies in the schools could pay the bill easily.
After all, they willingly pay for the religious teaching carried on by missionaries sent to foreign cultures. Is the need to religiously educate foreigners greater than the need to educate the youth of our own society? I fear that it is only the fear that today's youth would repudiate religion entirely if it were taught theologically by teachers who had to meet the same kind of educational standards that other teachers in the schools have to meet that prevents this solution to the problem of school prayer. Lacking faith in the substance of their own theologies, today's advocates of school prayer advocate a meaningless, empty, formal, ineffective ritual instead of substantive concrete belief. The significance of this advocacy is so meager that it is not worth taking seriously.
So let the advocates of school prayer get serious, replace their talk with money and fund genuine objective religious instruction in the schools or become silent, for mere prayer no more enhances genuine religious belief and concrete religious action than wishing does.
The advocates of school prayer believe that the only solid foundation of morality is religion and that the loss of religious fervor in our society has led to its moral decline. History does not verify this thesis, however, for even during the Reformation—a period of deep religious conviction—Luther himself confessed that "under the Papacy people were charitable and gave gladly, but under the dispensation of the Gospel, nobody gives any longer; everybody fleeces everybody else."
All of the sins of our century were to be found in the 16th when religious fervor was at a peak. Religion did not make people better then. Why should it make people better now? This is the question the advocates of school prayer need to answer before this debate can be taken seriously.