In an ideological conflict not seen since the great Jesus/Darwin fish wars, the faithful and faithless are battling it out over how we should spend our first Thursday in May.
The annual National Day of Prayer takes place on May 2 this year. Created by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress amid the anti-Communism paranoia of the early 1950s, the event is an official day of observance in which Americans of all faiths are encouraged to pray for the nation. The constitutionality of the Day of Prayer has been challenged by secular groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argues that the federal statute is tantamount to a state endorsement of religion -- a violation of the First Amendment. In 2011, a federal appeals court threw out the foundation's challenge, after which the group announced that it would seek a rehearing.
In the meantime, other godless groups are battling the Day of Prayer in the court of public opinion. The American Humanist Association and the Washington Area Secular Humanists created the National Day of Reason, a counter-observance to “inspire the secular community to be visible and active” and to “set the right example for how to effect positive change.” Like its religious counterpart, the Day of Reason -- which turns 10 this year -- is also held on the first Thursday in May, only instead of prayer, the observance encourages participants to show their support for the idea that government and religion should be separate.
And support among the ranks of elected officials (read: Democrats) is growing. On Tuesday, the humanist association announced that two members of Congress are offering encouragement to those taking part in the observance. Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., both issued statements of support.
“The National Day of Reason celebrates the application of reason and the positive impact it has had on humanity,” said Honda in the Congressional record. “It is also an opportunity to reaffirm the Constitutional separation of religion and government.”
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Added Norton in a statement: “I encourage all citizens to join in observing this day and focusing upon the employment of reason, critical thought, the scientific method, and free inquiry to the resolution of human problems for the welfare of humanity.”
By law, the sitting U.S. president must declare a National Day of Prayer each year, but Barack Obama so far hasn’t thrown his support behind the Day of Reason, despite a petition launched by the American Humanist Association urging him to do so.
Founded in 1941, the humanist association advocates for nontheistic views such as atheism, agnosticism and secularism. The group says state-endorsed prayer observances are exclusionary to the growing number of Americans who either don’t practice religion or don’t believe in god. According to the 2012 Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism -- a survey conducted in 57 countries -- religiosity is declining around the world, with 13 percent of the population now identifying as atheists. The decline is particularly pronounced in the U.S., where the population is 13 percent less religious than it was in 2005, according to the index.
But whether you like to pray or ponder, at least you’ll have something to do on Thursday. Or you could just skip them both and watch “The Vampire Diaries.”