George Washington declared that a Thursday in November should be directed to "the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." President Obama reaffirmed this last year, declaring that Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to "be mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God."
Where does that leave nonreligious Americans? The issue of nonreligious prayer came up recently as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case where citizens protested the use of prayer in public meetings in a New York town. During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, "What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?" That pregnant question was left unanswered by the court.
To pursue this matter, I contacted professor Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, a prominent defender of humanism. Dennett explained in an email, "In silent soliloquy or public pronouncement we can resolve to ourselves to do better, to suppress our bad habits and natures, and we can express, silently or aloud, our allegiance to some cause or institution or group. We can ask for forgiveness, make promises, declare love. All these highly important — maximally important or sacred — themes can be laundered of all religious overtones and remain as solemn, life-defining speech acts."
Dennett is right. Nonreligious people can make public affirmations and engage in silent soliloquy. They can make solemn, life-defining pronouncements. But are these nonreligious speech acts really prayers?
A prayer is a petition to the deity, usually soliciting a blessing. To pray means literally to ask, beg, request or plead. Prayers can also express admiration, worshipful awe and thanksgiving. Prayers can be shared in public. They can also be unspoken and private.
Whether spoken or silent, religious prayer has an intended recipient. Prayerful words are directed toward a deity, who is presumably powerful enough to hear even our silent supplications. This divinity is supposed to respond to our entreaties and to appreciate adulation. Religious people from different faiths may disagree about who is being petitioned, thanked or worshiped. But they agree that there is someone out there to whom their prayers are addressed.
And that is where the nonreligious will shake their heads instead of bowing them. Atheists do not think there is a divine recipient of prayerful words. Although atheists can appreciate tacit reflection and benefit from public reminders of key values, atheists deny that a divinity can hear our prayers.
Humanistic atheists may be grateful to be alive. They may admire the complexity of the universe. They may have a sense of appreciation and awe. They may see the psychological benefit of guided meditation. They may even enjoy the poetic force of devotional words. But they won't accept the metaphysics of prayer.
An atheist can whisper to herself before an exam, "I hope I do well on this test." A team of atheists could affirm before a match, "Let's work hard and do our best." But it would be nonsensical for atheists to ask for God's assistance in these endeavors.
There is a fundamental conflict here. This topic will inevitably offend somebody. There is no way to resolve a dispute in which one person's deepest convictions are viewed by others as nonsense.
The best we can do is agree to disagree. Let's admit that Scalia is right to suggest that nonreligious prayer is an oxymoron. But that's exactly why, in our diverse society, we ought to be careful with public prayer.
On this issue, Thomas Jefferson may be a better guide than Washington or Obama. Jefferson refused to declare a public day of prayer when he was president. In a letter from 1808, he explained that the Constitution prevented him from meddling with religious exercises. He also explained that religious sects have an interest in this protection, since the right to decide about prayer should remain in the hands of citizens and not be foisted upon them by the government.
Thankfully, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides this protection to religious and nonreligious people. The government should not prohibit private prayer. Nor should it tell us when or how to pray (or not pray). Americans should be grateful for that protection, even though we will fundamentally disagree about the ultimate question of whom we ought to thank for the rest of our blessings.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.