Though held annually on the same day, the first Thursday in May, there is a major difference—and not just in terms of reason vs. faith. Some government officials claim that the National Day of Prayer represents a broad interfaith coalition, which it does not. Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, heads the event. Together they promote conservative Christian causes. However, even if the event were religiously inclusive, it would still exclude millions of Americans who do not pray, and it marginalizes them as second-class citizens.
As a secular country with a secular Constitution, our government should not favor one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. But for those who truly want to be inclusive of all Americans, I have a solution: Have the government sponsor two separate days—a National Day of Prayer and a National Day of Non-Prayer, a day on which Christians might then appreciate how atheists and humanists feel about a government pushing prayer.
That said, I don’t need a president or anyone else telling me to set aside a special day to not pray, because I happily do not pray every day. On the other hand, those who wish to pray every day are free to do so without government urging. Our government should never tell its citizens when, how, or whether to pray.
It is truly disturbing that so many Americans now object to reason. Would these same individuals also complain about a National Day of Science? There was a time when Americans would feel embarrassed by their ignorance of science or their disdain of reason. Not so much, anymore. An article in the Christian Post described how the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America have joined forces to counter the National Day of Prayer by promoting a National Day of Reason. In the article, a Christian Coalition spokesperson, Billy McCormack, called the National Day of Reason “a blatant assault on Christianity.” One hopes that some Christians will be uncomfortable on learning that their fellow Christians describe “reason” as an assault on Christianity.
Perhaps a number of religious people will also support the proclamation sponsored by Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), which begins: “The National Day of Reason celebrates the application of reason and the positive impact it has had on humanity. It is also an opportunity to reaffirm the Constitutional separation of religion and government.” After all, our founders who wisely separated religion from government would be appalled by those who call for the separation of reason from government.
Here’s one final difference between the National Day of Prayer and a National Day of Reason. Many secular groups plan to observe the National Day of Reason by advocating and performing community service projects or other good works. Robert Ingersoll, a nineteenth-century Republican and humanist whom I greatly admire said, “The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray.” I wish more Republicans (and Democrats) today would share this view.
Herb Silverman, an On Faith panelist, is founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”