Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes

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What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

Crosswhite’s comment opened up all manner of questions for the online skeptics: did the prayer stop the tornado? Did it suddenly disappear and not take the lives of 24 people, or destroy a huge swath of this bedroom community? Did it spare the Christians and punish only the non-believers, the heretics and the Democrats?

Of course not.

Prayer doesn’t heal illness, doesn’t stop natural disasters, doesn’t bring back the dead. It may feel good to the person praying, but if prayer worked to grant personal requests and favours, we’d all win the lottery, every week. But the religious right always ignore that inconvenient fact, and used Crosswhite’s statement as a wake-up call to resurrect their demand that schools force their particular form of Christian prayer and belief on children.

Now just to be clear, the issue of prayer in schools is complex, and involves some heady concepts like the separation of church and state, which raises all sorts of legal, constitutional, moral and ethical issues. Most Americans seem baffled by the concept, despite living in a nation that was founded on that very notion (NOT as some claim, on Judeo-Christian principles).

America’s founding fathers were very keenly aware of the danger of allowing religion to mix with politics. Their wisdom is largely forgotten today, at least by conservatives. The awkward and inconvenient truths about the secular, humanist and even atheist founders of the nation are best ignored when writing polemics.

Within minutes of posting the image above, the religious right was commenting on returning prayer in schools and how it would save America. The tornado became an icon of liberal, secular evil and only the return of prayer in public schools could save the nation from more disasters. Like another Democrat in the White House.


Here are some of the 11,000+ comments (by my last count; the page seems to have been closed on Facebook since yesterday) on that first image (spelling and grammar from the originals retained):

* Hopefully, laws will change and we will bring back prayer to schools. This is a perfect example of when, as we say sometimes, “Rules are made to be broken.”

* God bless you Rhonda for doing what He was calling you to do. I pray this spurs a change in how prayer in schools is viewed, but most of all, I pray all who were attacked by the storms will heal, recover and show that God blesses those that believe in Him.

* Never stop praying,we live in America,it’s time to take back our rights!we need to pray,now more than ever!

* Let’s put prayer back in school for good along with the 10 Commandments. God would love it.

* It would only take less than 30 seconds to say a prayer in homeroom. What you don’t believe a little God in school would be a good thing? Prayers are coming your way whether you have Him in your life or not.

* God Bless you, Mrs. Crosswhite, for all you did to protect your children and all you do to teach them. And for those of you who are condemning her for it the bible clearly says EVERY KNEE shall bow and EVERY TONGUE confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and I pray on that day he finds mercy on your soul. I pray that even before then he would place someone in front of you that can truly show you the Love of God and the hope that endures forever!

* To everyone saying God doesn’t exist have at it you argue your theology and see if that beats testimony. Our God is not dead he is surely alive. Thank you Jesus for the power of prayer!!

* God is good and our children should have the right to prayer in school. This country was brought about by God and we should teach our children about him.

* Love!!!! So thankful for Godly teachers in our public schools.

* The ones who perished, their time was up. Their time on Earth was complete and God called them home. Having faith and praying in crisis allows comfort and calms the mind and soul. It allowed those teachers to think straight, He gave them the strength to know what to do next.

* I saw this interview,.& I shouted at the, TV. I said “that’s right lady, you pray! Nothing wrong with that att all?”

* I would be really upset if my kids were in that situation and someone did not pray with them. Prayer belongs in school. I remember in my elementary school every morning MRS Baron read the bible, we said pledge of allegiance and then she le us in prayer.

* This is one of the best things to come out of Oklahoma. It makes me want to say to hell with the atheists, secular humanists and politically correct. They’re already headed down that path anyway. Pray, pray, pray and not just when the four walls are collapsing. Teachers are supposed to pray and so are their children. Bring back prayer in school today!

* Don’t let Obammy find out she prayed they’ll take prayers out of disasters because some idiot will get offended!

* If Mrs. Crosswhite ( and by the way, love your last name ) gets in trouble or gets fired for doing what she did , in a public school . Then good for her . And shame on the school system . I don’t believe that , Mrs. Crosswhite will have any trouble finding a job . I’m sure that , GOD has her ” COVERED .” GOD BLESS YOU , MRS. WHITECROSS .

* Good for her. We need to pray and have the freedom to pray always. Not just in an emergency.

* If only more christians were so bold to publicly declare that they prayed! It’s time we stand up and profess our faith openly! America needs revival and it will come through prayer and standing up for Christ no matter what the cost! Thank God for her faith!

* feel sorry for those who don’t have Jesus in their lives!!they literally have No HOPE!

*  It is a shame that we as americans have to change the way we have been doing things, and this is my opinion, because of all these foriegners and their beliefs if you don’t like the way we do things here in america go back to your own damn country prayer belongs in schools, maybe if it our children were learning prayers and about religion in school they wouldn’t be learning it later in life in jails and prisons~~~I commend this teacher~~well done!!

* I strongly agree that prayer needs to be brought back to our schools, workplaces, communities. Its a shame that people only pray and call on God when tragedy occurs, but we need to meditate on him daily to keep ourselves afloat. I challenge you for 30 straight days to pray to God and ask him to help you , give you understanding, open doors of ooprtunity, help you with mending a relationship, something. And you will see what he can do for you.

* Our schools were a lot safer when God was allowed in them!

*  It’s time we as Americans stand up to get prayer back in schools I remember as a child I used to love that…

* imagine if teachers prayed out loud everyday in schools across America……..the miracles that would happen… hearts would be changed……..

And so on. Of course, I am not repeating the skeptical or critical comments and challenges or the invective. Many people debated and argued the effectiveness of prayer, and whether it belonged in schools through the commentary back-and-forth. Some angry, some conciliatory, many fervent and zealous.

Many of the pro-prayer posts were barely literate, but that’s another topic.

One man asked, “What if she weren’t a christian (sic), but a Wiccan or a follower of Islam? Would you still be okay with their prayers?” To which a woman answered, “I would hope she wouldn’t have been hired!”

Ah, religious tolerance. Can’t you feel the love?

This is not by any measure the first shot in the movement to turn public schools into churches by enforced prayer – or return them to their pre-1962 state. There is a petition at that opens:

We, The People Of The UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, have a dire need to restore prayer back in schools as a basic right regardless of denomonation of religion. This country was founded on freedom of  speech prayer is freedom of speech. When prayer was allowed in schools we had less problems with our children . Those who do not wish to participate do not need to , it should be free will , as freedom of choice and freedom as a basic right but should be allowed. Restore sanity back to our country for the good of all. We should not allow evil to prevail.. As Christians we should be willing to fight for what is right to up hold the the Blood Stain Banner. Jesus died that we all maybe  Saved  from sin, Shed his Blood for all who wish to receive him. The least  we all can do is fight for his message to Prevail around the World .Let Us Pray!

At the self-described Free Republic forum, posters took a 2000 comment by Obama (“I’m strongly opposed to school prayer, but not prayer. Public schools are not the appropriate place. … It goes beyond separation of church and state and goes to the heart of what we believe in.”) and turned it into the standard Tea Party diatribe against him for election 2012*. The discussion on this more-than-decade-old comment included these nuggets of rightist nonsense:

* You can put a beard on anything….Obama believes the sweetest sound is the morning call to prayer…
* If schools had prayer rugs and bowing to Islam 5x a day, Obama and the pro-alQaeda DNC would be all over it.
* Obama is Anti Christian period. So are Clinton`s, Gore`s,Kerry`s and virtually ALL Democrats for that matter Obama is against God/Christ so of course he is against prayer. Supporting abortion in any way shape or form on it`s own is a disqualification from Christian faith, not to mention homosexuality etc etc

The US Supreme Court made teacher-led prayer illegal in two decisions: 1962 and 1963, ruling that “official state-school prayer stood in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.” It had nothing to do with Obama (who was one year old at the time of the first decision). But the right, if not always blaming him for prayer’s demise, blames him for not restoring prayer and Bible reading, as this letter writer said:

This year’s anniversary will go by with nary a whimper. Engel, for the uninformed, essentially kicked prayer out of public schools and Abington declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional. Together, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was expelled from American public schools.

But it can be so different. So here’s the plan: As the king of Nineveh responded to the preaching of Jonah, President Obama should publically repent (putting on sackcloth – the clothes of a poor person – would help, to show his genuine humility) for the sins of the nation he leads, especially the sin of turning away from Him. Then, he should declare June 17th to be a day of national repentance. Then, he should announce that, if Congress doesn’t act first by then, he will sign an executive order allowing prayer and Bible reading back into our schools.

Never mind that no president since 1962 – including beloved Republicans like Nixon, Regan and two Bushes – attempted to change the Constitution to restore prayer to schools. Blame Obama. Blame liberals.

In late 2012, Blaze magazine conducted a poll on how Americans felt about prayer in schools. Fifty-four percent of respondents believed that it is appropriate for public school teachers to lead prayer in the classroom. Eighty-two percent believed it is “sometimes pertinent” for prayer in public schools. Tellingly, the poll didn’t ask what sort of prayer was pertinent or appropriate. Wonder what the result would have been had it been asked.

In another, related poll, Blaze found 91 percent of respondents believed that “the USA is a Christian nation founded under Christian beliefs.” That’s a very large percentage of respondents ignorant of their own nation’s history.

Talk of religious “freedom,” prayer and Bible readings by the religious right almost universally translates into a fairly narrow range of Protestant Christian terms. No one among the religious right is asking for equal time for Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Scientology or Wiccan prayer or scriptural reading. Not even Catholics. Even liberal Christians aren’t welcome at this party.

By freedom the religious right means the “freedom” to worship as they do, to pray to their particular Protestant gods, and to read only their approved scriptures. Even “other” Christian beliefs – Mormonism, Catholicism, Christian Science – are looked upon with distrust and fear.

The irony here is that prayer isn’t banned or forbidden in schools. Only mandatory prayer. As Real Clear Religion notes:

“Section 9524 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, requires the Secretary to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. In addition, Section 9524 requires that, as a condition of receiving ESEA funds, a local educational agency (“LEA”) must certify in writing to its State educational agency (“SEA”) that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as set forth in this guidance.”

So what’s prohibited? Mandatory prayers. Prayers during instructional time or official school events and led by a teacher or other school official. Prayers during classes or school events that are officially sanctioned by the school or school officials. Any proselyting by teachers, school officials, or other adults brought in by school officials during the school day or during official school events. No posting for “moral guidance” of the Ten Commandments (or passages from the Bhagavad Gita, for that matter).

So the whole argument is basically hyperbole, misinformation and misdirection by the right.

In fact, the Christian majority in America is not persecuted or under attack. They cannot truthfully claim that their religious beliefs are not protected, respected and allowed because they set the rules.

Atheists, on the other hand, do not get the same respect as the fringe Westboro Baptist lunatics get (the Westboro fanatics blame the Oklahoma disaster on a gay NBA payer who recently admitted his sexual orientation, and their leaders subsequently praised the destruction and deaths).

In the afterword of his book, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), bestselling author Sam Harris wrote:

I have no doubt that many Christians find great consolation in their faith. But faith is not the best source of consolation. Faith is like a pickpocket who loans a person his own money on generous terms. The victim’s gratitude is perfectly understandable, but absolutely misplaced. We are the source of the love that our priests and pastors attribute to God (how else can we feel it?). Your own consciousness is the cause and substance of any experience you might want to deem “spiritual” or “mystical.” Realizing this, what possible need is there to pretend to be certain about ancient miracles?

What possible need, indeed.


* According to this site, Obama’s opponent in the election campaign, Mitt Romney wanted MORE prayer in schools:

Romney told the audience at an Iowa plant that he believed there should be more prayer in schools and more “religious ornamentation” in the public square.

“I’m not looking for teachers to have prayer every day in the classroom but I do think at special ceremonies – graduation, football games and the like, that calling on our creator is a good idea,” he said.

Republicans were not eager to repeat this quote from Obama taken from the 2008 campaign because it would have derailed their conspiracy theories about the man:

“A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I certainly didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups using school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats.”

Republican wingnut and contender, Rick Perry, said in a campaign ad playing on the religious right’s inherent paranoia and poor appreciation of history:

“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.

“As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.

“Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”

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