A conservative argues for mandatory school prayer to stem the increase in nonbelief

Where else would you find a mushbrain argument like this except in The American Conservative? For it not only sees the decline in religiosity in America as a bad thing, but, importantly, blames it on the lack of mandatory prayer in schools, which, they say, makes religion seem “taboo” to kids and weans them from their faith.

Implicit in all this is that the First Amendment is a bad thing, at least insofar as it is held by the courts to apply in schools. Also implicit is the idea that religion is a good thing. The argument, also implicit, is that we should change the First Amendment, or at least the way it’s been interpreted, so that kids can not only pray in schools (which they can—on their own), but have organized prayer in schools.

So here is the argument:

1.) Religion has declined in America not because of increasing wealth, well being, education, but because of the increasing secularization of education. Author Helen Andrews gives two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute has a different explanation. “The most likely causes of declining religiosity are the increasingly intense role that more and more secularized educational institutions play in children’s lives,” author Lyman Stone writes, plus “the continuing delay and decline of marriage.” It is not education that makes people less religious, he argues, but specifically secular education.

There’s no further mention of marriage in the article, though it’s also supposed to contribute to America’s godlessness.

I haven’t read the report, and maybe they have real data about this, but I doubt it, for the “increasingly intense role” of secularized education simply means the banning of mandatory school prayers in American schools, which occurred in the Sixties. And, as the chart below shows, the real increase in “nones”—those lacking affiliation to a church or feeling that they have no religion—has occurred after 1970. When I went to secondary school in the sixties, there was already no school prayer, and yet since then the loss of religion has skyrocketed. If the author’s argument is correct, nonbelief should have begun increasing in the 1960s, not as late as 1975, and of course there would be no reason for a continual increase.


2.) In fact, the decline of religiosity is imputed almost solely to a “more secular schooling” rather than people becoming less religious because they either give up faith or were raised in a less religious home. The New Atheists take a hit:

That education would have something to do with secularization fits with what we know about when secularization happens. Contrary to the New Atheists’ heroic pose, the rise of the “nones” is not driven by the mature decisions of adults but by habits being formed (or not) in childhood. “The story of secularization in America is not mostly a story of lots of people who were raised religious leaving their religious faith as adults,” Stone explains. “It is a story of fewer people having a religious upbringing at all.”

Yes, but why are people having less religious upbringings? Even if this were the case, It must be a case of the priorities of the parents, not the absence of prayers in schools.

3.) Further evidence for the importance of religion in schools comes from—get this—countries where religious school systems shift to secular ones:

Stone points to test cases in France and Turkey where secularization followed not just from expanded access to education but from shifts from religious to secular schools. “If educational attainment drives secularization, then spending two more years in school should reduce religiosity, even if that school is a religious school,” he theorizes. In fact, longitudinal studies have found that attending a religious school is associated with greater religiosity later in life.

But of course when you’re immersed in religious education during the whole day, and that’s taken away, you’re not going to be as wedded to faith. But that’s different from having a two-minute school prayer once a day: the frequent drill in America in the Sixties.  In religious schools you’re marinated in delusion all day.

3.) Equally dubious is Andrews’s argument that if you can’t pray in school, kids see that as abnormal, a taboo. And that makes them less religious.

But if the AEI report is right, there is something irreplaceable about those hours between nine and three. The atheist’s knockdown argument against school prayer — that there are plenty of other hours in a day to pray in — was based on a fallacy. Society either teaches its children that religion is something normal or something taboo. Banning prayer from schools teaches them that religion is not normal.

Seriously? If there’s no mandatory prayer in school, people are going to think religion is taboo? I doubt they’d think of it at all. And if they asked “why can’t we pray in school”, they could get an answer from Andrew Seidel of the Freedom from Religion Foundation: you are allowed to pray in school on your own time; it just can’t be mandated. You can pray in the cafeteria, at recess, on the playground, and so on, and no teacher is going to stop you! In fact, they wouldn’t be allowed to stop you.

Andrews is making a desperation argument based on the unstoppable secularization of America. But she’s not going to get her school prayer, and the “nones” will continue to increase. So it goes.

h/t: Barry


  1. mallardbrad
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Religious/Conservative Bovine Nitrogenous Excrement; why would one expect anything else?

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Interesting point by Seidel.

    I suppose the author of the dumb piece thinks along the lines that kids don’t like math, but we know it’s important, so we impose it on kids. Likewise, some think religion is important, so those “some” figure the same thing done for math education obviously needs to be done for religion.

  3. Colin
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Prayer has no place in public school, just like facts have no place in organized religion.

  4. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Classes in Islam everyday, with prayers 5 times a day!

    Oh wait, by religion they mean Christianity, don’t they. Sorry, no specific religion gets preferential treatment. That would be unfair, and unfair is un-American.

  5. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The graph shows that “Nones” started their
    unstoppable increase in 1981, obviously too late to be explained by the abolition of school prayer in the 60s. What happened in 1980 to explain this? The obvious answer is: the eruption of Mount St. Helens. It follows that the appropriate mandatory prayer should take the form a Shinto offering to the kami of the mountains and the earth.

    • ploubere
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I attribute it to 80s music, specifically the success of Wham!, clearly showing that there is no god.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        I’ve heard these things blamed on Heavy Metal and on 90s’ bands like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails.

        But it seems some people here can’t let poor George Michael rest in peace. 🙂

        • ploubere
          Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          Come on, would a just and merciful god allow us to be inflicted by “Wake me up before you go go”?

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted May 16, 2020 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

            Okay, you got me there. Point conceded.

            • ploubere
              Posted May 16, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink


    • Mark R.
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      It could be that Ronald Reagan was actually the anti-Christ. 😉

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Didn’t Scripture prophesy that the false messiah would appear in the form of a B-actor outta the west? Well, it shoulda.

        • Doug
          Posted May 16, 2020 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

          I was in college when Ron was elected. People were pointing out that his full name was Ronald Wilson Reagan…3 words of 6 letters each: 666!

          I added that the possessed girl in “The Exorcist” was named Regan–and the story takes place in Washington DC! Coincidence? I think not.

  6. JezGrove
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Sadly, religion still has too much of a grip in the US, where two-thirds of believers think the virus is a message from god: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/15/us-coronavirus-message-god-poll-results

  7. Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Well, in the UK, we actually *have* compulsory prayer and religious worship in schools, mandated by law. (Yes, really!)

    And it hasn’t prevented the population getting much less religious over time. Indeed, it could be acting a bit like a vaccine. Dollops of forced worship seem to put the kids off religion, and they turn out as secular adults.

    • Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Good point! I didn’t know the UK had COMPULSORY prayers. OY!

      • JezGrove
        Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        You can opt out (or rather, your parents can ask that you be excluded). I can only remember two kids in my year of about 100 doing so – one who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and one who was a Sikh. Of course, they suffered for standing out from the crowd because kids are horrible – even when they forcibly receive religious indoctrination.

      • Graham Martin-Royle
        Posted May 16, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        Yep, it’s the law and it’s also the law that the assembly must be mainly xtian in nature.

        • Frank Bath
          Posted May 16, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          It was during mandatory morning assembly I first heard the word ‘ineffable’, along with reams of mumbo-jumbo contained in the hymns we sang. It was years before I learned what it really meant.

      • kevind
        Posted May 16, 2020 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        The compulsory prayer is treated as more of a guideline than a rule by many schools.
        Even the Catholic school I went to didnt bother until the final year when a complete bible basher took over. Just had church services 2-3 times a year. Cant remember why and most of us snoozed through them.

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Separation of church and state has been something to fight for since the days of Madison and Jefferson in America. It was the one thing they got right and it was very apparent in the Constitution later even without the Bill of Rights. The colonies were collecting taxes to issue out to the preferred religion but Jefferson and Madison saw this as wrong for both church and state. The view that combining the two is very bad for both is so obvious we should not have to remind people almost daily, but we do. The fact that religion never gives up trying to insert itself into the schools is the only reason needed to keep them out. The idea of religion in schools makes about as much sense as having Democratic schools and Republican schools.

  9. ploubere
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    There’s no reasoning with these people.

    • Doug
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
      -Martin Luther.

  10. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Also implicit is the idea that religion is a good thing.

    You disagree, I disagree, and Steven Weinberg disagrees:
    I think that on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful. Facing Up, p. 240

    And the idea that making something taboo causes kids to turn *away* from it is laughable in the extreme.

    As well-stated by mallardbrad, this whole article is Religious/Conservative Bovine Nitrogenous Excrement.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      And the idea that making something taboo causes kids to turn *away* from it is laughable in the extreme.

      I dunno, look how well it worked when adults forbade their children from listening to Elvis. 🙂

      • Posted May 16, 2020 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        And, look how well it worked when Adam and Eve were told not to eat from a certain tree in the garden.

  11. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Ask yourself why would people spend 10 or 12 thousand bucks a year to seed their kid to religious school, when they can send them to public school for free. Because they want religion to stick in their children’s mind. To help insure this the propaganda must continue all through the growing years. In the Midwest where Lutheran Schools are popular and have been for many years, the parents send the kids to these schools up through the 8th grade. After that they may go to public school for high school. The total indoctrination is completed by the age of 14 or so.

    • mdeschane
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Is it religion or; (a) Status, “Look at me I can afford to send my kids to private school”; or (b) Private school is a better option, if you can afford it, where the public school system is broken (as it is in many school districts)?

  12. Historian
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I am not convinced that the secularization of America is unstoppable if by that is meant that a large percent of the population will have abandoned adherence to supernatural beliefs or, at a minimum, will not allow supernatural beliefs guide its everyday lives or determine attitudes toward public policies. I say this for several reasons. The first is that the degree of religiosity in American history has been cyclical. For example, during the Revolutionary War period religious belief was on the decline only to rebound in the 1830s and 1840s. The second is that while adherence to the Abrahamic faiths may significantly decline, it is not impossible that other forms of supernatural adherence may emerge. The third is if, in fact, secularization is correlated with a society’s wealth, well being, and education, the current pandemic illustrates that wealth, well being and education can decline precipitously and quickly. Finally, the religious right will not go down without a fight. Its domination of the Supreme Court could allow prayer back in schools as well as grant many religious exemptions from many public policies, such as requiring insurers to cover contraceptive health. This could result in religious indoctrination for a new generation of Americans.

    If the secularization of the United States, and, indeed, the world continues apace, this would be remarkable in human history because the rejection of the supernatural by a large majority of the population over a long period of time would be unprecedented (as far as I know). Perhaps this time will be different (I certainly hope so), but I am not as optimistic as some others.

    • Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but 400 years ago 100% of the population was religious. There’s been a remarkable change since then. I don’t see why the further increase would be too remarkable to envision. The world CAN change permanently, and it has, at least if you agree with Pinker’s thesis in “Better Angels.”

    • Posted May 16, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Throughout history, rather than secularization becoming more common, incorporation of elements from different religions seems to have taken place when people of differing religions encountered new ideas. Insofar as I have read, no religion has maintained its’ original set of beliefs unchanged. And, there have been periods of time in certain cultures in which freedom of religion was practiced. As to the history of secularization, the lack of documentation may stem more from an extreme case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Jesus H. Christ, Madalyn Murray O’Hair stuck a stake through the heart of this BS going on 60 years ago.

    The American Conservative is the voice of what’s left of the old paleoconservative, Pat Buchanan-ite wing of the Republican Party, the worst elements of which eventually morphed into Trumpism.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      You’d think so, and some of the articles are pure gussied up Trump apologia, but I had a look at the comments and was pleasantly surprised. Seems to be mostly a melange of moderate conservatives and centre left liberals, most of whom despise Trump and aren’t shy about it. Much like WEIT really, although more conservative.

      I was wondering where the sane American conservatives congregate; seems to be at the AC. The quality of the discussion is excellent too.

      Maybe I just saw it on a good day, but I was impressed. The actual articles are frequently nauseating, but they seem to get a lot of pushback from the readership BTL, especially if they lick Trump’s jackboots.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted May 16, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        *”especially if they lick Trump’s jackboots”

        …I’m referring to the writers of the articles there, not the people BTL. That was unclear.

        It’s late, my mind is tripping over its own feet. And now I’m imagining a mind with feet.

  14. Posted May 16, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I went to parochial schools and taught at a Catholic school. There is no correlation to prayer in school and being secular. Most of the kids I knew hated prayers or thought they were boring. If anything kids see right thought the BS.

    Education and science are insecticide for religion. If religious people want to keep their children in religion, my advice is homeschool and keep them ignorant of evolutionary and cosmological sciences.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      But there is a much better chance of having a secular child if the parents are not pounding the religion at him or her and forcing them to church. The kid could still find religion if they are looking for it but the percentages change a bit.

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    you are allowed to pray in school on your own time; it just can’t be mandated.

    As some wag said at the time of SCOTUS’s school-prayer decisions, kids would continue to do so, as long as there were math tests.

  16. Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I would allow that banning mandatory school prayer added some ‘lift’ to the rise of secularism.

    Anyway, it is amusing to see that if the various christians were to convert to judaism, then religiosity would be in far better shape since that religion seems pretty immune to decline, according to the graph.

    • JezGrove
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, the graph shows the number of evangelicals has increased slightly.

  17. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what acolytes of the “1619 project” make of the separation of church and state in American law and practice. Have they devised an argument by which the 1st amendment was somehow written in order to defend the institution of slavery?

    The growth of secularism must have diverse and complex causes, in which the church-state relationship is ambiguous. The most secular societies—Sweden, Denmark, the UK–all have state churches. The US, with no state church and the 1st amendment, has a much larger proportion of religious believers. Go figure!

  18. Posted May 16, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    There are some nice Tee-shirt slogans here:

    “Born Secularized!”

    “Religion is not normal!”

  19. Roger
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Implicit in all this is that the First Amendment is a bad thing, at least insofar as it is held by the courts to apply in schools.

    Thanks for that second clause there after the comma. Often your typical keyboard warrior wingnuts don’t get jurisprudence and will say something like “I don’t see no stinkin thingy about no prayer in schools in the 1st Amendment.” Also I’m not much of a fan of “Constitution shaming”. It’s in the Constitution, how dare you hate America like that. People are allowed to not agree with the Constitution. It’s not like it’s handed down by God. Even if it was, who elected God as the last word on anything anyway.

  20. rickflick
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    But, why would anyone want to “stem the increase in nonbelief”. It is, after all, nonbelief that keeps them angry and filled with enough grievance to raise funding for their cause.

  21. Posted May 16, 2020 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Mandating prayer in schools would seem to be a sure-fire way of growing the ranks of atheists :

    Pray for x – x doesn’t happen = THERE’S NO ONE LISTENING!


  22. rickflick
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Since school prayer isn’t banned, the whole thesis of this piece is just dumb. Let’s be honest. What they want is brainwashing.

  23. Hempenstein
    Posted May 16, 2020 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Yep, just like the mind-numbing recitation of the Plege of Allegiance every day in gradeschool, at civic meetings and so forth made me more patriotic.

  24. KD
    Posted May 18, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    No doubt that Spain is so religious now because all those decades of Fracoist rule made everyone a devout Catholic. Further, Ireland is so religious as well.

    In reality, a State Church probably is good for non-religion. First, you can lower your taxes by dis-affiliating. Second, it makes it boring and square. Third, you have all the nasty politics in who gets to be Bishop and the rest in play, bringing greater public awareness of how the sausage is made. Just make sure they aren’t burning witches or throwing gays off roof tops.

    • KD
      Posted May 18, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      My guess is non-religion is probably screwed in the long run because of demographics, unless you see new ways of making babies.

      Its more a question of religion-management, and trying to preserve the mean and avoid the extremes.

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