Religion 101

There seems to be a rather widespread misunderstanding regarding the actual underlying motivations of people who object to schools leading prayers and courts posting copies of the Ten Commandments, or who protest against “under God” being in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” being on our money, and so forth.

Lots of people seem to harbor the impression that such complainers are just bad sports who need to stop whining and get over it. They complain, in turn, that this country has gotten entirely too “P.C.” (“politically correct”), and that society has gone too far in worrying about not “offending” people — as if the primary objection to posting the Ten Commandments in schoolhouses and courthouses, teacher-led or administration-approved school prayer, and the like came down to just a matter of such things being potentially “offensive” to some thin-skinned types.

But to those who are doing the complaining and objecting to and protesting against such controversial matters, it has nothing to with potential for causing “offense,” and everything to do with not breaking the law or violating the U.S. Constitution.

Case in point: in the news just last week, an Arkansas school district recently cancelled its elementary schools’ sixth-grade graduation ceremonies in the wake of a controversy over prayers, which were to have been included in the official ceremonies.

An anonymous complaint from a parent objecting to the planned presence of prayer at the public school event resulted ultimately in the school board deciding to simply cancel the entire ceremony.

This story has been featured on a number of news websites, religion blogs, and elsewhere online, and reading some of the reader responses posted in the “Comments” sections which often follow such reporting is instructive.

Many irate readers reacted with anger and resentment at the very idea that one parent’s complaint could derail the will of the majority. Presumably most parents wanted the school-led prayer to be included at the elementary schools’ graduation ceremonies; why, many asked with considerable indignation, should one person’s protest outweigh or outvote the clear will of most of the townsfolk to go ahead with such prayers?

Since when, they wondered aloud, does a minority get to dictate its will to the majority? This is America, after all, and isn’t America supposed to be a democracy, where we get to vote on things, and the majority opinion — the “will of the people” — wins?

Not only that, many commentators went on, but what’s wrong with a little prayer at a public event, anyway? No one’s forcing you to pray; if you don’t like it, just stay home, or just don’t pray (or leave the country, some harshly suggested).

Many pointed out that, after all, this is a Christian-majority country (and presumably this was a Christian-majority Arkansas town), so why not have Christian prayers at the school graduation ceremony, if that’s what the majority wants? And isn’t this whole thing just an example of “political correctness” gone overboard? Isn’t it high time we stopped fretting over whether something as innocuous as a prayer might “offend” somebody?

Well, the problem, of course, is not that prayers at a school graduation might simply “offend” someone, or that banning such prayers is merely a preposterous manifestation of out-of-control “political correctness.” Rather, the problem is one of legality and constitutionality.

It is simply unconstitutional, and hence illegal, for a public school to conduct prayers.

Why? Because public schools, being taxpayer-funded and government-operated, are an arm of the state. And the U.S. Constitution effectively guarantees “separation of church and state,” as a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have repeatedly reinforced. A public school, being part of the state, simply cannot engage in conducting religious rituals, services, or functions (including prayers).

The graduation ceremonies in question are school-sponsored events, and as such for them to incorporate prayer would amount to state support, state sponsoring, or state endorsement of religion — a clear violation of constitutional principles.

The state (including its schools) is to remain officially neutral in matters of religion, neither privileging nor repressing religion.

It simply cannot, therefore, lead prayers. Not even if a majority of the parents whose children attend those schools want it to.

So, once again — and contrary to popular belief in some quarters — this is not a question of “political correctness,” or of bending over backward lest someone be “offended” by the presence of a prayer. It’s simply a matter of the U.S. Constitution, and of the constitutional principle of “separation of church and state.”




Documentary films relating to matters of religion and belief are always worth knowing about, and often worth checking out.

A new film entitled The Unbelievers, looking at the importance of reason and science — and casting a critical eye upon religious belief — has recently been released.

The film focuses upon noted biologist Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) and physicist Lawrence M. Krauss (author of A Universe From Nothing), following them as they team up for a global lecture tour in which they carry their message and make their case for the importance of both science and skepticism in the contemporary world, and in relation to contemporary issues.

The Unbelievers also features interview segments with a host of like-minded celebrities, including Ricky Gervais, Woody Allen, Stephen Hawking, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Eddie Izzard, Adam Savage, Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, Penn Jillette, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, James Randi, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Shermer (to name a few).

The film’s world premiere, in April at Toronto’s Canadian International Documentary Festival, sold out four screenings — and, according to a Twitter “tweet” from Ricky Gervais, got a standing ovation.

Being a documentary, distribution and screening of The Unbelievers at local cinemas may be limited. Check your local listings, especially of indie movie houses that feature indie films and documentaries. (Or wait for the film to be released on DVD.)

The trailer for The Unbelievers can be viewed at the film’s official website, at





Today (as I write, Sunday, May 5, 2013), Orthodox Christians worldwide are observing Easter Sunday.

Christianity, like other religions, subdivides into a number of major branches. Catholics are the single largest such major branch or subdivision within Christianity, accounting for about 50% of the total global Christian populace. The second largest major branch is that of the Protestants (who themselves are very diverse, ranging from mainline denominations to non-denominational evangelicals), accounting for around 37% of Christians worldwide.

The third largest such major branch, accounting for some 12% of the Christian populace, is the Orthodox branch, sometimes also known as Eastern Orthodoxy. The Eastern church broke apart from the Western (Catholic) church over a number of theological and other differences in a divisive split referred to as “the Great Schism” way back in the 11th century. Today, Orthodox (or Eastern Orthodox) churches are organized largely along national lines: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and a number of others.

Most Eastern Orthodox churches traditionally use a different sort of calendar than the Western or “Gregorian” calendar widely employed today by most Catholics and Protestants. This alternate way of calculating and counting the months, known as the “Julian” calendar, has the effect of determining dates for holidays which differ from their corresponding dates on the Gregorian or Western calendar.

So, whereas the Gregorian or Western calendar for 2013 has Easter falling upon Sunday, March 31, the Julian or Eastern calendar for 2013 has Easter instead falling upon Sunday, May 5.

Depending upon the year, the Eastern Easter can be on the same date as the Western Easter, or as much as more than a month later.

Regardless of its precise date, Easter Sunday commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Christians of every sort (Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox) believe to have occurred on a Sunday.

The precise year in which the crucifixion and death of Jesus occurred is uncertain, but is estimated by many to have been circa 33 AD (or 33 CE).

The traditional Christian religious view is that Jesus Christ, understood by Christians to be the Son of God and a divine Savior, voluntarily died a self-sacrificial death in order to pay for, or atone for, all human sin. The New Testament gospel accounts paint a picture of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders sentencing Jesus to death for the religious crime of blasphemy (for claiming to be divine).

Secular historians, by contrast, tend instead to view Jesus’s execution primarily as inflicted upon him by Jerusalem’s Roman overlords for the capital political crimes of treason and sedition. Death by crucifixion was Rome’s standard, and deliberately tortuous and humiliating, means of ridding itself of (and making examples of) troublesome political enemies and potential rabble-rousers — which is essentially how the Roman authorities viewed Jesus.

A traditionally upbeat and joyous holiday characterized by themes of triumph and renewal, Christians observe Easter Sunday in various ways, which may include prayer, special church services, family meals, and of course the traditional colorful decorating of Easter eggs (symbolic of renewal, and dyed red to represent Christ’s shed blood).

So, to all my Orthodox Christian friends and readers, may I today wish you all a Happy Easter!