Separate But Equal? Why “Freedom of Worship” Makes Religious People Sit at Back of the (Church) Bus


In light of my earlier post advancing a secular, empirical argument for the value of public prayer, I’ve been engaged in an interesting discussion with a couple of atheist bloggers at Patheos on what religious freedom really entails (Note: the discussion occurred on a private forum and I don’t have permission to share their thoughts so I will refrain from naming  or quoting them or the other participants).   I realize that politics is outside the usual purview of this blog, but I thought this was important enough an issue to post here.

In the course of our conversation my atheist colleagues pointed out that several theist bloggers, who had also joined the discussion, were also opposed to so-called, “civic deist” prayer (i.e., public prayer that does not require adherence to any particular god, religion, or dogma).  I observed that the two theist bloggers in question, who both felt that people should be allowed to pray in church or “in their heart” but not at a school board meeting, of congress,  for instance,  demonstrated the common and dangerous misunderstanding that freedom of religion is limited to freedom of worship.   (It’s understandable.  The President shares this confusion.  Hence the HHS Mandate)

Freedom of Worship V. Freedom of Religion:  What’s the Difference?

A society that limits freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship is a society in which religious persons are considered separate but equal. It is a society that says, “You can only pray in these (communion) lines and at this (baptismal) water fountain.”  Freedom of worship requires religious people to check expressions of their faith at their church door (or the door of their hearts).

Freedom of religion, by contrast, is broader. It is akin to freedom of speech. If I have freedom of speech, I may speak my mind wherever I am and whomever I am with. I may even give offense as long as I don’t directly endanger others. In the same way, true freedom of religion allows me to live, speak, and act upon my religious beliefs in whatever context I find myself–even if doing so gives offense to others–as long as doing so doesn’t represent a direct endangerment to others. 

Freedom of Worship Tells Religious People to Sit At the Back of the (Church) Bus

If I am only free to speak my thoughts “in my heart” or in this section of the (church) bus, I do not have true freedom of speech. Yes, many religious people been socialized by our present culture to believe that they must settle for freedom of worship instead of a robust freedom of religion,  but just because some African Americans were content to sit in the back of the bus prior to Rosa Parks’ brave protest doesn’t mean segregation was right or just.

A Call for True Pluralism

Freedom of religion is really about the free expression of belief in the public square. A truly pluralistic, democratic society doesn’t require that we listen to and/or accept what one another has to say, but it at least prevents us from trying to silence each other. 

A truly religiously pluralistic society allows me to pray publicly and you to scowl disapprovingly at me while I do it or, vice versa,  allows you to hold a meeting where you make fun of prayer while I scowl disapprovingly at you  for doing it,  and then encourages us to all go out for drinks after. People who want to limit freedom of religion to freedom of worship don’t want true pluralism.  Rather, they want religious segregation where religious people may be free…as long as they stay in their parish ghettos.

If that’s what passes for the secular/atheist vision of tolerance. You’ll understand if I take a pass.

Prayer Works: A Psychological Case for Public Prayer and Graceful Governance


On the Patheos Atheist Channel, Jeffrey Jay Lowder posted an article titled, “Question for Theists:  Why Is It Important to Begin Governmental Meetings with Prayer?”  I appreciated the honest and respectful attempt to engage believers on this controversial issue–especially in light of Canada’s high court ruling that such prayer is impermissible— so I thought I would attempt a purely secular, non-theist, research-based response to the question.   There actually is a purely psychological argument for the benefits of public prayer. To start, we need to look at some research on a surprisingly powerful strategy for resolving marital conflict.

The Marriage Hack

A team of resaerchers led by Eli Finkel at the University of Chicago recently identified a conflict resolution strategy Finkel calls, “The Marriage Hack.”  (You can watch his TED talk here.)  The short version is that researchers asked couples who were in conflict to imagine what a third party, who loved them both and wished the best for both of them, would advise them to do about their conflict.  This simple intervention had two surprisingly powerful results.

First, when compared to the control group who did not use this strategy, this technique enabled couples to stop being so concerned with their own agendas and made them more willing to seek mutually satisfying solutions. Second, and again, compared to the control group, couples who used this strategy were able to experience significantly more harmony in the relationship over time, actually arresting the normal decline in relationship satisfaction most couples normally experience as the years go by.

The Marriage Hack and Prayer

I would suggest that prayer serves a similar psychological function.   There is, after all, considerable evidence that couple-prayer bears tremendous fruit both in terms of relationship happiness and stability.   Even if we were–for the sake of argument–ignore any effect that grace might have, simply taking a moment to reflect, in prayer, on what God–the person who loves each of us and desires the best for all of us–would have us do before a conversation allows us to be more generous toward others, more accommodating of other’s agendas, and more egalitarian than we might otherwise prefer to be.

The Significance of Public Prayer

Would this benefit extend to public prayer at government meetings?  I would suggest that it does.  Again, for the sake of argument, leaving out any potential supernatural benefit of prayer, even simple civic deism (i.e.  pro forma displays of public spirituality that do not necessarily represent a specific belief in any doctrine or creed) causes the people praying to pause and reflect on how God–as the participants understand that concept–would want them to behave in a more pro-social manner than they might otherwise choose to behave if they were solely focused on their own agendas.  Whether the person believes in Jesus Christ, Allah, the Bab, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is, for the sake of this argument, irrelevant.  The simple act of reflecting upon how a being that loved us all and wished the best for us has been shown to promote pro-social behavior.  Believers, of course, call this activity “prayer.”

I would suggest that people naturally intuit the social benefits of even pro-forma prayer which is why they feel so passionately about doing it in the first place.  A basic principle of evolutionary psychology argues that customs don’t develop in the absence of a perceived benefit.  My suspicion is that people’s experience tells them that prayer works, not just because of wishful thinking, but because even without considering the power of grace, the simple act of pausing to reflect what a loving, benevolent, third-party would wish us to do makes us more agreeable and helps us get things done in a more–*ahem*— graceful manner.

An Atheist Alternative

I suppose you could theoretically argue that you could get a similar benefit to civic deist prayer by simply asking the participants of a meeting to, “Please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave”  but I’m not really sure how that would be different than what civic deist prayer already is and does.

A friend of mine, Patheos blogger, Mark Shea, often remarks that society could do with a bit of insensitivity training.  That is, we could all benefit from indulging in a little less of a tendency to actively seek out opportunities to feel offended, slighted, and put out, and instead look for ways to be generous in our interpretations of the behavior of those around us.  Considering this, perhaps a modest suggestion for those who are offended by civic deist prayers could simply pause and imagine what a third party who loved them and all the others in the room would wish from them?

But I’m not sure if we really have a prayer of that happening.