An Atheistic Invocation

Pharyngula has a great find:

Cobb County, Georgia is infamous for its efforts a few years ago to slap a warning sticker on biology textbooks, which might have given the impression that it’s full of southern yahoos. However, intelligent people and godless people are everywhere, including Cobb County, and they now have another claim to fame: a local atheist, Edward Buckner, used the opening invocation of a county board meeting to deliver a godless homily. It’s not bad; you can hear it online.

Of course some people were annoyed.

County board of commissioners chairman Sam Olens, reached by phone Wednesday night, said he was offended by Buckner’s actions.

“Did I find his comments repugnant and insulting? Yes,” Olens said. “He abused the process by giving an opinion … rather than providing inspiration.”

Below I have transcribed a brief clip of his introduction and then the full invocation for the record and then provided a brief remark of my own on this:

Mr. Buckner has stated that there is no need to stand for his comments.

Thank you and certainly anybody can stand if they wish.  For any of you who are bowing your heads, I’d respectfully recommend against doing that as well.  I’m Ed Buckner, a Cobb County resident and taxpayer, and the national president of American Atheists.  According to my dictionary, an invocation is done to call on a higher power and since we all know that the only supreme power in Cobb County is the citizenry, I speak  now in the name of the 700,000 people who live in this county, especially the majority (and yes, I do mean over half) of those 700,000 who are not members of any church, mosque, temple, or other religious organization.

And even more especially, I speak in the name of the overwhelming majority, including anyone I’ve ever met who do not want their government to decide for them regarding anything regarding religion or any gods.  I speak as well for those political leaders who despair that success in politics cannot be achieved without hypocritical piety from politicians and who would prefer to run for office and to govern based on competence and political philosophy rather than on beliefs, real or pretended, in any supernatural beings.

I speak, oddly enough, on behalf of Southern Baptists who know their own faith and message which declares in chapter 17 that Church and State should be separate and that the church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work.  I speak in the name of all Americans who know our history and who know for example that in 1797, the US Senate voted unanimously in favor of, and that President John Adams then signed, a treaty with Trippoli that specified that the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

I invoke all of these people to urge Chairman Samuel S.  Olens, Commissioner Helen Golen, Bob Ott, even though he is not here, and my own commissioner, Woody Thompson, and the thousands of dedicated employees to work hard ethically, and honestly, on our behealf, to represent us well, [in] all things unrelated to religion of course. And to please avoid the arrogance of thinking you can or ever should express any religious beliefs other than your own.  For any of you who are made uncomfortable by my remarks, who think this is more a provocation than an invocation, who would prefer not to hear such comments at a meeting you came to expecting government, instead of religion and philosophy, please join me in urging that the Cobb County commissioners and planning commissioners cease to open their meetings with public religious invocations of any kind. For Christians such exercises are a plain violation of Matthew 6:5-6 and, more importantly, they are for all of us an insult to our right to choose our own religion and religious representatives for ourselves, if we want any at all.  And these invocations are a violation of the letter and intent of the Contitution of the state of Georgia, of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and of the 14th Amendment, ratified exactly 141 years ago today. Go and sin no more.  Thank you.

I love his invocation, not because it was made on behalf of secularism but for its sophistication and eloquence as a philosophical argument in the form of an invocation.

But what I most like is his request at the start that not everyone should stand up to hear what he has to say and his recommendation that no one bow their heads.  My view on public prayers and religious invocations is that the very nature of them forces all present into prayer by proxy.  When one prays on behalf of a group, the entire group is taken to participate in the prayer.  That’s why it seems so inappropriate to me to have public prayers in public institutions (like in governmental halls or schools).

What I think should be fine, however, is that a religious person be able to say as part of his or her speech things like “I pray for those here that.”  That’s their right to free speech.  I can even imagine, say, a valedictorian or a congressman deciding that they will personally pray IN FRONT of us during their speech.  But it crosses what should be a firm line of separation of church and state to in any way give the pretense of leading us in prayer or otherwise assuming our acquiescence and agreement in the prayer.
So, not only did I love that Mr. Buckner challenged the appropriateness of group prayers in public institutions but that he explicitly freed the consciences of those who listened to him from being implicated in agreeing in his remarks by not demanding they stand and acknowledge him as speaking for them or authoritatively to them.  And then when he kept with the form of an invocation and invoked authority, he invoked the full citizenry by itemizing which of his positions each segment of the citizenry would agree to and support, sometimes by way of invoking the logic of people’s own positions when it is possible they might have theoretically seen themselves as opposing him.

All these decisions to carefully delineate on whose behalf he did and did not speak (rather than presume to speak on behalf of God or the crowd assembled, or to God (on behalf of those assembled) or to those assembled (on behalf of God) were the most admirable and principled touches of his speech.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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