Several years ago when I was working as a counselor in a group home for adults with mental illness, one of the clients (whom I will refer to as “Joe”) came into my office to complain about something. The exchange went something like this:
Joe: I want y’all to tell Brian to take down that cross on his door.
[“Brian” was a devout Catholic]
Joe: Well, that’s not my religion. And I have to walk by his room every day on my way out and seeing the cross offends me.
Me: Are you paying Brian’s rent?
Joe: What? No, of course not.
Me: Right. Brian is paying Brian’s rent, just as you are paying your rent. And his rent entitles him to a private room, just as your rent entitles you to a private room. And Brian is entitled to decorate his room as he sees fit, as long as there is no pornography or demeaning material on the walls and doors; just like you can do in your room. If he tries to hang a cross on your door or in the living room, then you’ve got something to complain about. Otherwise, he can express his beliefs just as you can express yours.
Joe: [While storming out of the office] Muther^&*$ers! I’m moving out of here!
As you may have guessed from this exchange, I’m a big proponent of reality-based therapy. Now Joe threatened to move out about once a week over something or the other. However, I find myself thinking about this exchange more and more every time I read about a convergence of religious matters and public life.
Proving once again that petulance, hyper-sensitivity, and self-centeredness are not the provenance of any one demographic group, some students at the University of Washington have started an uproar over a prayer that was given in a political science class.
Of course, context is everything, and the excerpt below sheds a little more light on the incident (such as it is):
During the time set aside for one-minute extra credit morning speeches, a student used the opportunity to lead a brief prayer in associate professor John D. Wilkerson’s political science class. The class, Political Science 353, a legislative simulation of the U.S. Congress, would soon be enveloped in heated debate.
Two outraged students, who described themselves as atheists, sent their objections in an e-mail to Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Cauce passed the message along to Stephen Majeski, chair of the political science department.
Faculty members and administrators met with Wilkerson to discuss the issue in an informational meeting last Thursday.
The context of the prayer adds a layer of complexity. Wilkerson described the prayer as nondenominational, much like the prayer that is performed when the U.S. Congress begins a day of work.
As his class is a simulation of the United States Congress, incorporating the prayer was consistent with the class’s learning goals, Wilkerson said.
“That’s why the prayer was allowed in the first place,” Wilkerson said. “It’s the first time anybody has suggested that they do a morning prayer and I thought it was a creative idea.”
Their issue is with a student, not a professor, using a time period designated for free speech, leading a prayer emulating the prayers given in Congress on a regular basis in a class whose purpose is to emulate Congress. Priceless.
Even better are some of the quotes from the offended students:
The students who objected to the prayer were upset that the activity began without warning. If there is to be a prayer, it should be included on the class syllabus, they said.
“I wouldn’t take the class if prayer was in the syllabus,” said one of the students, who also wished to remain anonymous.
Apparently, this student does not believe in God but does believe in precognitive abilities, as he/she thought that the professor should have somehow foreseen that a student might pray during free speech time and warned all potential attendees in the syllabus. Such thinking gives remarkable credence to the value of a college education. Still, some of the comments on the story provide glowing examples of all that edumacation at work:
The preservation of the secular state is vital to a free society where the individual citizen is free to choose their own religion. But just as we have checks and balances in our government we have them in public discourse. Religion is not above criticism and atheists will not remain silent when facing the tyranny of the majority.
One student praying, without university sanction, constitutes a tyranny of the majority?
Second of all, this is a free country and people are allowed to complain, no matter what, so I suggest that you respect that right, rather than telling people to deal with it. Would you tell black people that during the civil rights movement? Oh just sit down, its okay that your rights are being taken away from you. No I don’t think so. How about we all be TOLERANT!
Anyone who compares the state of atheists in our society today to the pre-civil rights state of black people in our society should be hit with a blivet. Repeatedly.
Separation of church and state people…end of discussion
The Christians need to be put in their place. Having prayer in school shows total disregard for the separation of church and state. So what if the real congress prays each day. They shouldn’t be allowed to. There is no place for religion on public property or in our government.
I am completely offended by how some student can impose their religion on my education.
Is UW now requiring church attendance and theology courses to graduate? If not, then nobody’s religion is being “imposed.”
The attitudes reflected in the comments both in and on the story demonstrate one of the fundamental flaws of democracy: it requires people to be responsible for themselves and respectful of others, which apparently is too much work for many of us.