The problem with [this line of] thinking, and [that] of the majority of Christians, is they forget the feelings of the people in minority religions. If we are not Christians, or if we are non-believers, and a prayer is being led by a Christian, it seems the prayer almost always ends with the words “in Jesus’ name, Amen.” When we are at an event where we are a captive audience, such as a school graduation, how can we not be offended that our feelings are excluded?
The foregoing is an excerpt from a letter to the editor of my local paper. For whatever reason, there has been a series of letters recently about the extent to which it is okay for people to pray in public, particularly at public gatherings where people of many faiths might be gathered, for example, at a graduation ceremony.
Let me address the letter writer’s question. She asks, “How can we not be offended that our feelings are excluded?” My first reaction – and this is as an atheist myself – is to ask, with equal mystification – “How can you be offended by this?”
I’ve never been of the expectation that my feelings would be included in the public pronouncements of other people who, after all, might not share my feelings. I do not expect that wherever I go, the person at the podium will say, “And of course, for the Republican atheist professors in the room, we should all take a moment to consider their feelings at this time.” I’m trying to make this sound as ludicrous as possible because the expectation would be, after all, ludicrous.
When did the threshold for taking offense drop so low? (Hint: when leftists began abusing the word at every opportunity.) I can imagine myself being offended. If I were to go to a graduation ceremony, and there was a prayer, and the prayer was led by a Christian who saw fit to include a screed against non-believers, suggesting that any atheists graduating today didn’t deserve their degrees and were likely to sow evil in the world, I’d be offended.
That’s not, of course, what the letter writer is talking about, because neither I nor she has ever been in that situation. The most offensive words she was able to cite was “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” In other words, she listened to a benediction (Latin for “good words”) which was carefully crafted to touch on themes everyone in the audience would appreciate. Wishes for the goodness and success of the graduating seniors, reminders of the comforts of friendship and family, calls for humility and genuineness. Indeed, in my experience, Christians are so conscious of the feelings of the minority that the prayer becomes very much stripped of its Christianocentric orientation. Perhaps a prophet is quoted or a Bible verse is paraphrased, but the benediction is a long way removed from a Sunday sermon.
The defiant atheist in the audience – desperate for something to complain about these sanctimonious Christians – is finally given a reprieve at the end, when Jesus is mentioned. At last, the opportunity to feel a sense of righteousness (irony intended).
And why are we offended? The statement “In Jesus’ name, Amen” sullies the soundscape for all of two and a half seconds. Is the atheist offended that she has had that disgusting word run through her own mental thought stream? (The dirty word, Jesus, refers to a man – legendary or real – who taught tolerance, taking care of others, and doing unto others as you would have them to unto you. He also has a very important place in the hearts of the majority of people gathered at graduation ceremonies or any other public event in the United States of America.)
Does the letter writer actually believe there should be a rule banning the speaking of the name “Jesus” in a public place? Is she so mentally fragile that she can’t bear even to hear the word, or recite it silently in her own head, without feeling like some latter day Spanish Inquisition is now coming for her?
I used to believe as she does. When I was 18 and attending my own high school graduation, I was offended. Maybe I was offended at my college graduation too. But then I grew up. I matured. I realized it was my job to control what offended me and what didn’t. I recognized that as a citizen, as a member of my neighborhood and my community, what was really necessary was that everyone meet each other halfway. I would appreciate it if my Christian neighbors didn’t tell me I was going to suffer eternal damnation as a result of my heresy, and in exchange I promised not to have a mental breakdown if they said, “Merry Christmas” or ended a prayer with “In the name of Almighty God.”
The freedom of religion does not mean the freedom from religion. The freedom of speech is more important than the freedom from discomfort when spoken to.
As I’ve written before, atheists will continue to gain increasing acceptance in society as it becomes clear that many of them share values that Christians do. When they show they are tolerant, caring, and do unto others as they would have others do unto them. My fellow atheist who penned this letter to the editor is not helping. If there’s one thing that offends me, it is immature, intolerant atheists. They give the rest of us a bad name.