Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
I must not have been clear enough in last week’s column. Some commenters on the subject of prayer at city council meetings seem to believe that such prayer is good because it creates some occasion for hope that the world can be a better place, or at least that city council members will benefit from prayer. Others seem to think that I oppose only Christian prayers before city council meetings. Others suggest that I oppose religious prayers at public events. Let me try to set the record straight about my position.
Back in 1963, when I was a sophomore in college, I attended an international ecumenical event in Ohio during the Christmas break. Its purpose was to find common ground on which people of all faiths could join together to improve the world – a hope-filled idea to say the least. At the time, I gave no thought to the fact that the conference was directed to Christians. It omitted Islam, Judaism, and religions with multiple deities and those with no deity. It also omitted nonbelievers.
I suspect that nonbelievers were omitted because of the widespread and erroneous assumption that to do good in the world – to be moral – comes only from religion. This assumption doesn’t square with my experience, nor with reason.
Most adherents of religions believe that their morality comes from following the teachings in their sacred texts. What we find in the Old Testament are many proscriptions and prescriptions about our conduct, but no actual framework for morality.
As explained by a former evangelical preacher, Dan Barker, in his book godless, we have two versions of the Ten Commandments, but only the one recorded in Exodus 34 is referred to in the Bible as “The Ten Commandments.” Only three of the ten commands are related to moral behavior as that is referenced in our laws: no homicide, no theft, no perjury. The first four commandments are not related to moral or ethical behavior. They concern having “no other gods,” no “graven images,” not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and remembering the Sabbath. These are religious edicts, not moral guidelines.
The commandment to “honor thy father and mother” sounds like a good moral guideline, but it is far from explicit enough to serve that function. Does it mean that we should obey our father and mother in all things? If so, it is doubtful that any human being has ever succeeded in following this commandment. And given the behavior of fathers and mothers that I have seen as an attorney for the last thirty-plus years, some parents should seldom be honored or obeyed.
Not committing adultery is a good moral precept, but it is not criminal behavior (at least in the US), and it is violated by a substantial part of the married public in this country.
Finally, not coveting thy neighbor’s house, etc., as Barker points out, would create the collapse of the free enterprise system. He concludes that “the Ten Commandments are composed of four religious edicts that have nothing to do with ethics, three one-dimensional prohibitions that are irrelevant to modern law, and three shallow absolutes that are useful but certainly not unique to the Judeo-Christian system.”
Perhaps the most oft-cited moral prescription found in the New Testament has been termed “the Golden Rule.” Matthew 7:12 provides that Jesus said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Luke stated it a bit differently, but before Jesus’ birth, Rabbi Hillel provided the same idea; Hindus knew this precept maybe 1500 years before Jesus’ time; Buddhists, too, had a similar precept, as did Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, as well as other traditions, all before the time of Jesus.
A popular modern statement of the Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is fine unless you are a Christian Scientist and don’t believe in modern medicine, or you enjoy being preached at or prayed for while others don’t like those behaviors. Barker believes, as do I, that a precept that provides positive guidance is preferable, like, “Do kind things, peaceful things, compassionate things to others” and that the essence of any moral system is to minimize harm to others. Harm is the real dilemma in all moral decisions.
Of course, for at least a couple of thousand years, people have argued about the meaning of the commandments and moral precepts found in the Bible. The fact that there are thousands of different groups of Christians and Jews makes clear that there is no universally-accepted way to interpret these ideas, as well as the thousands of other teachings found in the Bible. When some minister or preacher is called by our city government to offer a prayer on behalf of all of San Marcos’s citizens, he or she cannot possibly reflect everyone’s religious beliefs. San Marcos residents do not make up a religiously homogenous group, which is one practical reason why our city government should not promote any religion through prayer. For these reasons, to me, prayer based on one religious group’s notion of morality creates confusion and tension, not hope.
As a citizen and as a lawyer, I recognize that prayer at public events does not necessarily create a constitutional problem. When I was president of the board of the San Marcos Area Food Bank in the early 1990s, we always had a prayer at the beginning of our annual meeting, which anyone could attend. The food bank was and is a private nonprofit entity. There are no constitutional issues concerned with its promotion of religious ideas, though I found the prayer practice discourteous, given the range of religious belief represented at the meetings.
But when it comes to the government – the City Council – promoting the religious practice of sectarian praying during each of its regular meetings, the Constitution should be obeyed. To be clear, I don’t oppose prayers at public events, only at government-sponsored events. I oppose not only Christian prayers at government functions, but all prayers, no matter what sect is being promoted. I have found nothing in all such prayers that I have heard that gives me hope that they will make the world a better place. They serve only to divide, ostracizing those with different religious views, and placing enormous public pressure on everyone in attendance to conform to the narrow sectarian beliefs that are propounded as though everyone in the room and those watching on cable television must subscribe to the same beliefs.
It is a disgusting spectacle when governments compel others to adhere or appear to adhere to another’s religious dogma. Any religion that wants or needs the government to promote it must be weak to the point of irrelevance. A civil government would do the civilized thing and stop promoting religion.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print