Friday, July 04, 2008

Prayer-v-Moment of Silence


I had a nice chat with Matt Dillahunty this evening. He's a busy man: host of a podcast called the Non-Prophets, a host of the Atheist Experience (a public access show), and a member of the Atheist Community of Austin. On top of this, he's become a good friend.

I'm going to be intentionally vague on some of the details because I don't want to violate his privacy (with regard to health issues). I will call him/her "Teacher Doe".



Anyway, a while back, I told him about an incident that happened at the school of two very cool little people (P1 and P2). Here's the scenario - a teacher at a junior high (for the foreign readers, this would be the American 6-8 grades, with kids 11-14) had to take an extended leave of absence after it was discovered he/she had cancer. A few weeks after starting treatment, Teacher Doe was told that the cancer was more aggressive than they had initially thought and, therefore, would be out for the rest of the school year. Both of my kids have had Teacher Doe and Teacher Doe's spouse. One of my kids was in Teacher Doe's class.



After it was discovered that the cancer was going to mean more downtime, the school delivered a message via the public address systems/intercoms in the classes. The message contained, but wasn't limited to, the following statement; "...if you'd like to help, we will take a moment of silence at the end of this announcement to pray for Teacher Doe's recovery." P2 remembered it a little differently and thinks the message was; "If you would like to help, we will take a moment at the end of the announcements to pray for his family or have a moment of silence."

Is this appropriate?
Is P2's version more appropriate than P1's or are they both unacceptable?
Why?

I can understand needing to make some sort of statement because it *is* a loss. The students lost a good teacher for the year. The family is a member of the community, too,...so, they're more than just teachers at the schools, they're also neighbors. Still...I have always had a problem with adults who suggest children pray for the recovery of people they love. It gives the child a sense that they have power to influence a situation when they have none. For example; when the Sago Mine collapsed last Christmas, there were parents telling kids to pray for the miners. When the false report came in that all the miners were alive, there was a clip of a grandmother holding a child (whose father was in the mine) and saying, "See! Your prayers worked! Your dad is alive because of your prayers." Of course, when the correction came out saying all of the miners, save one, were dead,...the miracle claims stopped and they showed this child again. Only, this time, he looked completely devastated. My heart broke for him. Not just because his father died, but also because he'd been treated as if his prayers were the reason his dad lived...what does it, then, say when your dad dies? I have to imagine that the child might think, in child logic, something like this...
"If I pray well, my dad will survive. He is dead, so I must not have prayed well."
In reality, his prayers did nothing one way or the other. But, I wonder if he'll carry that scar.

So, back to our situation,...I don't think the school was right in having the student body pray as if they had any power to change the situation. Would it not have been a better, and more powerful message, to *do* something for the family? What about organizing a car wash or bake sale? What about taking up donations to offset the expenses of Teacher Doe's care? What about collecting books or other stuff that the teacher could use while in recovery? Or, heck...what about having every student write a letter of support? Prayer just seems like a wasted effort, to me. Advocating it in a public school is hinky. What do you guys think?

20 comments:

bill said...

I think the "prayer or ..." option is fine, as long as it's silent prayer. It's not like kids P1 and P2's ages don't know what it is. Though I also agree that actually *doing* something is the much better option.

I think a good part of prayer is being able to feel like you are doing something when there is nothing you can really do. I know, if I've injured myself, and there is nothing I can do but wait for it to heal, I still feel the need to do something.

Maggie Rosethorn said...

I agree withyou, Pmomma, and bill that "doing" is better.

If you want to do the silence thing, than, in public, just say "a moment (minute, whatever) of silence to remember X in your thoughts. That allows all people to do whatever they believe in.

I hate "moments" that last for more than a minute, though. After 9/11, we had "11 minutes" of silence at work (worded as being for "remembering those who died and those still missing"...NOT prayer). That was way too long. I'd rather be doing SOMETHING than just sitting silently.

Ginger said...

The bit about "if you would like to help" makes me feel like they're implying that if you don't pray, then you don't want to help. I could be reading too much into it, though.

yanub said...

I hate moments of silence, even if they are just a moment. Thank you, but I'll think about the matter in my own time, in my own way. I do not feel some sort of magic connection just because an entire building-full, or nation-full, of people have been ordered to have a moment of silence for the same thing at the same time.

As for the efficacy of prayer, I think Elizabeth McClung, who is a believer, did a great job of explaining just how useless offers of prayer are http://elizabethmcclung.blogspot.com/2008/05/thoughts-about-praying-for-me-and.html. It's the feel-good way of not actually caring!

I think some strong words to the little Possums' school are in order. You have some great ideas for actually helping the teacher, starting with taking five minutes for students to write letters of support and thanks.

Enshoku said...

"...if you'd like to help, we will take a moment of silence at the end of this announcement to perform a traditional Honduran shaman life dance for Teacher Doe's recovery." P2 remembered it a little differently and thinks the message was; "If you would like to help, we will take a moment at the end of the announcements to sacrifice our extra energy to appease the gods for his family or have a moment of silence."

Is this appropriate?
Is P2's version more appropriate than P1's or are they both unacceptable?
Why?


inappropriate.
both equally inappropriate.
doing dances and trying to weaken yourself just to frelling attempt to appease some divine being is stupid. It only wastes time, and serves to alienate the minority in the group who of wasn't raised with shaman/animalistic beliefs.

Cari said...

I think it doesn't matter what you believe, that a moment of silence (not called "prayer") is a gesture of respect to the person ill, missing or dead. It's a demonstration that things don't just carry on as usual without them.

However, real "helping" is not prayer... it's DOING something to help.

Poodles said...

I totally agree that it is cruel to make children especiall think that they can help just by "praying". It does nothing. Our society would be a much better place if people would stop praying and start DOING SOMETHING.

Mary K. Goddard said...

How about: "a moment to reflect on how much Teacher Doe means to us, and think of ways we might be able to provide support and encouragement for him and his family. If you have ideas of how we, as a group, could do something to help put a note in the suggestion box and include your name if you'd like to help with the effort."?

Katie said...

I agree with Ginger on this one that it is inappropriate since you are technically still asking the kids to pray a la moment of silence or not. I feel the moment of silence thing is a bunch of crud but that's for another day and time.

Asking for ways to make physical contributions either by acting appropriate in the teacher's room/or just helping the long term sub in anyway possible or by helping to organize an event to help off set the costs of the treatment would have been much more appropriate. Even asking the entire student body to behave in a much more civilized manner to help their teachers who are coping with this event would have been much better and more appropriate which be also more apt to allow everyone to participate then asking for a moment or silence or prayer at that time.

Joe said...

I agree with enshouko. They're both inappropriate in a school setting. The school leaders could have just as easily had the students make a big card to give to the teacher, which would have had more of a positive impact than "silence" or "prayer", both of which does nothing for the teacher and is purely a "feel good" for the school and kids. "Look at me, I'm doing something" when you're actually doing nothing, well, meh.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Good answer, Mary.

Enshoku said...

joe, I hate you and your an asshat, and I damn you to hell. Now I dare someone else to spell my name wrong.

On the more serious note, taking time to pray, dance, sacrifice things, or have a moment of silence on her behalf is useless. So many things are much more constructive to do, you could:

a) make a get well soon mural with all of the kids signatures on it and send it to him
b)have an art class session where each student draws a picture of whatever they wish for him and they compile the images into one big book.
c)save up money to buy a necklace or something for him. In addition to the funds from the students and faculty some jewelers will cut you some slack on the pricing if you tell them the story.
d)Have the classes rehearse a song for him and video tape and send them to him
e) save up money and buy him a bag of coke, he will appreciate it, as it does get very lonely and boring inside that place...and weed too, he needs lots of weed.

By the way, even if her cancer went away, there is over a 50% chance that it will come back even more aggressively than before. That little side effect killed my grandpa, great grandpa, and my grandma's heart, tell teacher doe to watch his self.

Enkidu said...

You won't find a more liberal atheist than me, and I happen to be a teacher as well.

I'd cut them some slack. This doesn't sound like a policy, it's people trying as best they can to deal with a difficult situation. They may be losing a friend and responding as they were taught.

They were wrong, but I'd let it slide.

yanub said...

Enkidu, I am going to disagree with you on letting it slide. And not because the announcement encouraged the students to pray. Instead, because they missed an opportunity to teach the children how to respond in a meaningful way to sorrow and need. I have lately had the chance to talk with a young woman who grew up in a very religious family, and finds herself at a loss in dealing with others because rather than teach social skills, her parents taught prayer. Every child hopes to be a gracious, considerate, useful adult, but that doesn't happen by prayer. It happens by knowing when and how to take action. It's a gross failure on the part of adults not to teach social skills.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Enkido said...I'd cut them some slack. This doesn't sound like a policy, it's people trying as best they can to deal with a difficult situation. They may be losing a friend and responding as they were taught.
I don't think it's a policy, either. And, I really *did* let it slide (in the sense that I didn't say anything to the school or talk about it for a few months). But, all the kids are dealing with this loss. Not just the Christian kids. I'm not going to pursue it, but I just feel like asking for the prayer excludes some of the kids and might not be healthy for the kids' mental health. I mean, kids shouldn't have to fail like their lack of action may have caused their teacher to get worse or die.

Yanub said...Every child hopes to be a gracious, considerate, useful adult, but that doesn't happen by prayer. It happens by knowing when and how to take action. It's a gross failure
I agree. I will say that the family involved is very proud and may not accept help, but...I guess I would've handled it differently. For one, this person's children go to this school. Maybe the prayer moment made them feel better...or maybe it just made their safe zone, where they could get away from the illness in their home, a little less comfortable.

P2 is great friends with one of the children and when he found out this teacher was ill (his teacher, the father of his friend, his third grade teacher's significant other)...he decided he was going to make sure that his friend was never alone. P2 said he wanted this child's days to be funny and upbeat because P2 knows what it's like to have a sick parent.
THAT is the sort of stuff schools should encourage. Not prayer.
(And, yes...I am very proud of my boy.)

Jason said...

I'm going to agree that the schools shouldn't be telling kids to pray, this is a matter to be handled by parents and how they choose to raise their kids. A moment of silence is what it is, or is what you make of it I suppose; if there are no pretense attached to it I don’t see any problem with it. I also agree as a Catholic that while private prayer for a person in a bad situation is necessary and good to do, you should also be doing something. This follows the whole faith and works issue that often causes a lot of heated discussions on theist boards but I won't get into that here.

Here is an interesting thing about prayer that I’ve noticed; a lot of people have a different understanding of prayer than what the Catholic Church teaches.

The following is from the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

2559 "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God."

The Church teaches that God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want him to. This misnomer that God will always grant us what we ask comes from the recent advent of the prosperity gospel and if you believe in God he will make everything good for you. This just isn’t the case and if people would look at the lives of some of the great saints of the Church they’d see that a lot of times their lives and the things they had to deal with were not all sunshine and roses. Just my two cents, flame away if you feel the need. :)

Milo Johnson said...

If it actually was innocuous, it wouldn't be an issue, but the simple fact is that the "moment of silence" is the tip of yet another wedge that the religionists use to surreptitiously inject their nonsense into people, and it is shameful that they use this tactic at a time of emotional distress and elevated vulnerability. After all, what does a "moment of silence" accomplish? If you want to respect somebody's memory and honor the positive contributions they made to the universe, how does a "moment of silence" do that? It is nothing more than a religious Trojan Horse.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Just my two cents, flame away if you feel the need. :)
I don't see any reason to flame you. You have given your honest opinion in a respectful manner. I would like to discuss a few things you said, though.

I'm going to agree that the schools shouldn't be telling kids to pray, this is a matter to be handled by parents and how they choose to raise their kids.
Agreed. Not only is it not the job of the school, but it takes time from academics and is potentially divisive.
A moment of silence is what it is, or is what you make of it I suppose; if there are no pretense attached to it I don’t see any problem with it.
I think you're correct in that it is what you make it. I'm just not sure that there is a purpose for it at school. And, not because it usually denotes a religious Trojan Horse. I think it's a wasted opportunity. What lessons are taught by having a moment of silence? If schools are supposed to educate, then why not teach compassion and empathy and civic mindedness or humanism?
I also agree as a Catholic that while private prayer for a person in a bad situation is necessary and good to do, you should also be doing something.
I don't know how far back you read in this journal, but I used to be a Catholic. You're right in that we should do something. But, I don't think there's any necessity to prayer since it's an empty gesture. Is it "good to do"? Maybe. I think that depends on the situation.

The Church teaches that God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want him to.
Do you not find that a convenient argument? I would counter that he doesn't grant prayers because he does not exist. The logic baffles me because if something good happens, then you'll attribute it to God. If something bad happens, it's to teach you a lesson about following the will of the deity. It's hind-sight perfection. Saying that God doesn't always answer prayers the way you want Him to is a justification for any outcome.
This misnomer that God will always grant us what we ask comes from the recent advent of the prosperity gospel...
I have to say that I've never heard a christian say that god would grant them what they want...because, like you, they argue that every action is in harmony with God's will. You can't always get what you want...but, your God can.
and if you believe in God he will make everything good for you.

I've never heard this from any religious person I know.
This just isn’t the case and if people would look at the lives of some of the great saints of the Church they’d see that a lot of times their lives and the things they had to deal with were not all sunshine and roses.
And? Even by Catholic doctrine, the saints were human. Not divine. Never in life were they divine. It was only after their death and the attribution of a miracle or three that they were given the title "saint". How does their suffering prove that God exists? You're starting out with the presumption that God exists. That's not the default position.

Jason said...

Agreed. Not only is it not the job of the school, but it takes time from academics and is potentially divisive.

Agreed

I think you're correct in that it is what you make it. I'm just not sure that there is a purpose for it at school. And, not because it usually denotes a religious Trojan Horse. I think it's a wasted opportunity. What lessons are taught by having a moment of silence? If schools are supposed to educate, then why not teach compassion and empathy and civic mindedness or humanism?

Agreed again, I would assume the people running the school feel the need to interject what they are feeling and how they are dealing with the situation onto the children. Again this isn’t the schools job, but the jobs of parents.

I don't know how far back you read in this journal, but I used to be a Catholic. You're right in that we should do something. But, I don't think there's any necessity to prayer since it's an empty gesture. Is it "good to do"? Maybe. I think that depends on the situation.

To you prayer is an empty gesture. To me it’s not…potato patato

Do you not find that a convenient argument? I would counter that he doesn't grant prayers because he does not exist. The logic baffles me because if something good happens, then you'll attribute it to God. If something bad happens, it's to teach you a lesson about following the will of the deity. It's hind-sight perfection. Saying that God doesn't always answer prayers the way you want Him to is a justification for any outcome.

You call it hind-sight perfection, I call it the Will of God. I will grant you that it does sound like a convenient argument but I can look back on different times of my life where I really wanted something and prayed and prayed about it but it didn’t come to pass. The answer to the prayer was “no, I have something else planned for you” and looking back I’m ok and very happy about that. Please understand I’m not trying to “prove” anything either just giving my point of view.

I have to say that I've never heard a christian say that god would grant them what they want...because, like you, they argue that every action is in harmony with God's will. You can't always get what you want...but, your God can.
I've never heard this from any religious person I know.


This kind of teaching is called Prosperity theology and is the teaching that an authentic religious belief and behaviour in a person will result in their material prosperity. That is, the doctrine holds that material prosperity, particularly financial prosperity and success in business and personal life, is to be expected as external evidence of God's favor. This favor may be preordained, or granted in return for efficacious prayer, merit-making and/or appropriate faith. People like the televangelists Joel Osteen preach this theology.

And? Even by Catholic doctrine, the saints were human. Not divine. Never in life were they divine. It was only after their death and the attribution of a miracle or three that they were given the title "saint". How does their suffering prove that God exists? You're starting out with the presumption that God exists. That's not the default position.

I think you misunderstood where I was going with that last statement. I simply meant that people who the Church claims were holy and pious still suffered, so the Prosperity theology of pray and you will get it doesn’t hold water. Their suffering doesn’t prove that God exist, it simply shows their love for God since most Saints spent a good part of their lives doing good in the name of God and asking little or nothing in return.

Humanist Mama said...

Hey possummomma,

I think it would have been much better for the school to try to do something to help rather than have a prayer or moment of silence. The kids could have come up with a project to do and they would have been thinking about this teacher while they were doing the project.

I have a question for you. I recently blogged about my daughter's teacher. At the end of the year she wrote us a thank you note that had a Bible verse on it and "God Bless" at the end. I thought this was out of line for a school teacher. So, I wrote her a note to let her know that not everyone shares her beliefs.

Now, I'm getting some comments on my blog from Christians that say I was way out of line. I feel that I should be able to express concerns to my daughter's teachers....but maybe I'm biased:)

I was hoping to get your opinion on this. My kids are young and this was my second year of dealing with public schools. You might have a different perspective since your kids are older. I don't want to dismiss these other comments simply because they are coming from Christians, but I need to get someone elses perspective.