All Floridians can now breathe a sigh of relief as the legislative session has come to an end, and we will not have to fight against any more crazy laws for a while. However, before concluding their work, the Florida Legislature passed a law authorizing prayer in the public schools of Florida. This law is unnecessary, since as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school. What makes this law pernicious, is that it was instigated by evangelical Christians who seek to convert our schools into battle grounds for religion, by authorizing student-led public prayer. Our students will now be subject not only to toddlers claiming that my daddy is better than your daddy, but the spectacle of older students claiming that their imaginary father in heaven is greater than your imaginary father.
An expression of gratitude for all we have is certainly a good thing, and is a central theme of Judaism. A plea for divine intervention is also part of the Jewish tradition, but should remain a vestige of our past, not part of our future. Elie Wiesel faulted his own parents and many other Jews for relying on divine intervention to save them from the Nazis, which tragically never arrived, rather than take the necessary action to save themselves.
When I served in the Florida Legislature, I joined others in protesting against the National Day of Prayer, which was celebrated in Tallahassee with legislators imploring their god to bless our state. A more blatant violation of the separation of Church and State is hard to imagine. Now our legislature is inviting students to participate in the same orgy of religious ostentation, in which all students must be subjected to the irrational beliefs of others. If a student belongs to a minority religion, or is an atheist, he or she will most likely be ostracized, or pressured into silence. Imagine if a student got up and said I am inspired by reason, and find the whole notion of God and religion offensive and dangerous. Do you think the faculty, school board and other students would listen respectfully? Most likely if someone did have the courage to say this, or to champion a minority religion, it would touch off a divisive battle of ideologies, and only serve to promote conflict in our schools. Reason on the other hand can unite our populous and should be championed in our schools.
To counter the National Day of Prayer, the Center for Inquiry and other science based groups, began to celebrate an annual day of reason, which is observed in the month of May. It would have been much wiser for the Legislature to pass a law celebrating reason, rather than reliance on divine beings. The great scientist Neil De Grasse Tyson said “Ignorance is a virus. Once it starts spreading it can only be cured by reason. For the sake of humanity, we must be that cure.”
Nowhere is this sage advice more evident than in our battle with radical Islam. For over 15 years we have engaged in battle in Afghanistan sending our best and our bravest to die and be maimed, while spending a fortune. In all this time, our nation has failed to acknowledge the obvious, that we are not just in a military struggle but a battle of ideologies. And the way to counteract radical Islam is not just with weapons, although this is certainly an important part of the struggle, and not with competing irrational ideologies like fundamentalist Christianity, but with reason. School prayer takes us in the opposite direction and teaches our children to think irrationally and to ignore the marvelous gift of the human mind.
The public schools of the United States are the great equalizer, providing an opportunity for all children, regardless of income to obtain an education and the ability to make the American dream a reality. As our founding fathers observed, in order to protect religion and government, it is necessary to establish a wall of separation between the two. And in order to protect the precious minds of our children, the walls of our public school system must be impenetrable from those who seek not to educate, but to indoctrinate our children with religious ideology. Since the survival and prosperity of our land depends upon the wisdom of future generations, it is essential that children be taught to rely on intellect and reason, rather than imaginary saviors in the sky, to solve problems. Otherwise, with prayer in our schools, we won’t have a prayer as future generations will be ill-equipped to face the radical ideologies and daunting challenges that threaten our world today, as well as new threats that they are sure to encounter in the future.
(Written by Rabbi Barry Silver April 25, 2017)