Obama, Prayer, and Reason

I appreciate most of President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on February 3, and at the Maryland mosque the day before. I agree with the president's call to respect the right of every American to practice his or her religion, and his observation that we can live happier and more productive lives by overcoming blanket, unfounded fear of others. I also agree with the comments he made at the mosque, saying that we all have a responsibility to speak up when any religious group is unfairly targeted.

However, in both venues President Obama ignored the growing elephant in our country, those of us who have no need for prayers. Though he claimed to be inclusive, he said nothing about the millions of non-religious American who call ourselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, skeptics and "nones." All of us know that it's easy to be good without a belief in God--just as President Obama's own humanist mother was. And yes, there is some unwarranted discrimination against Muslims in this country. But when people are asked if they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who belongs to a particular group, only atheists are viewed more unfavorably than Muslims.

My wife and I are atheists and secular humanists, and we strongly support the rights of others to peacefully practice their religion. We recently visited a local mosque to tell those present how pleased we are to live in the same community with Muslims. We felt inspired to do so after hearing Donald Trump's inflammatory anti-Muslim speech on the aircraft carrier Yorktown near our home in Charleston, South Carolina. Our neighbor Muslims appreciated our visit, and the imam was very surprised to receive such support from atheists, one of whom is also a Jew.

I had another problem with President Obama's speech: his claim that faith is the great cure for fear. To the contrary, there is abundant evidence that religious faith often creates fear, including fear of outsiders, fear of hell, and fear that people of other faiths or none are evil. There are better cures for fear than faith: evidence, education, experience, knowledge, and rational thought. I'm wary, and sometimes fearful, of people in power who claim to have a faith that is based on blind acceptance of something for which there is no factual evidence.

When President Obama said at the prayer breakfast, "My faith tells me that I need not fear death, that acceptance of Christ promises everlasting life and the washing away of sins," I thought of the ISIS "soldiers" who also have no fear of death because they believe that their faith and brutal actions will bring them an everlasting life of bliss. I'm more comfortable with people who prefer to live long and productive lives.

Nevertheless, there might be a positive takeaway from President Obama's overlooking secular Americans. He spoke at the mosque in part to support Muslims who might help counter extremist Islamic groups like ISIS. He spoke at the prayer breakfast about the need for people of all religious faiths to cooperate instead of fighting wars with each other. There is no fear of this kind of trouble from secular groups. We do disagree with religious faiths, and sometimes with one another, but our weapons of choice are pens, not swords.

In view of President Obama's recent and past ecumenical activities, I hope he will pay more attention to our secular community, perhaps by attending the Reason Rally on the National Mall in DC on June 4 or the 75th annual conference in Chicago of the American Humanist Association. So if you happen to be talking to the president anytime soon, please put a word in for the Americans he forgot to mention in his presidential outreach.