Let us not pray: Religion News Service eyes the National Day of Reason -- but not closely

With the much-discussed Rise of the Nones has come a rise in demand for celebrations especially for them. Enter the National Day of Reason, championed since 2003 by the American Humanist Association and the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

That day fell on yesterday, according to the NDOR website; but the Religion News Service reports that its backers have been trying to get Congress to move it officially to May 4. Not coincidently, RNS notes, that's the National Day of Prayer, so declared by Congress and all presidents since 1952:

And that, says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, is the problem.
"This is government recognition of prayer and that is wrong, no matter how you look at it," Speckhardt said. "Having a National Day of Reason on the same day says this is an example of a day the government can endorse that doesn’t exclude people based on their answers to a religious question."

The story cleverly connects some dots suggesting that the NDOR movement may be gaining traction. Those dots include the three sponsors of this year's congressional resolution (though it's been tied up in committee).

Also mentioned are the three states -- Iowa, Nebraska and Delaware -- that proclaimed the day on May 4 last year, and Iowa scheduled another one this year.  And groups "from San Diego to Portland, Maine" have held National Day of Reason events since 2011. RNS even notes that President Obama's National Day of Prayer proclamation last year "acknowledged Americans who 'practice no faith at all.' " Nice enterprise reporting, all of it.

Less enterprising is the article's sharp left turn into International Darwin Day, Feb. 12, and how it has grown in popularity since its founding in the 1990s. Apparently, the reason for adding it here is to say the NDOR folks hope to emulate its success. But the story appears to err in branding Darwin an atheist. Several biographies, including this one, say he called himself an agnostic instead.
I half-liked where the RNS story asks, "does this country need a National Day of Reason? And why must it be on the same day as the National Day of Prayer, created by President Harry S. Truman and supported by religious groups of all stripes?"

The first answer is, of course, "Yes," as told by Matthew Bulger of American Humanist, though he seems less pro-reason, more anti-Day of Prayer. (Not that that's unusual in the movement, as shown on the NDOR website itself.) He recites the now-familiar numbers by the Pew Forum that 23 percent of Americans claim no affiliation with any religion, and 62 percent of those seldom or never pray.

Bulger also he hints at the political risks of flouting NDOR backers:

"That’s telling an entire segment of the population that its government supports certain religious values and is not concerned with the nontheistic views of a large portion of the American population," he said. "You are discouraging Americans from participating in the political process because they assume that their views will not be considered by their elected members of Congress."

So why did I only half-like the RNS question? Because it never gets anyone inside the movement to answer the second question: Why must the National Day of Reason land on the same day as the National Day of Prayer?

Closest is the answer of a critical voice:

Paul Djupe, co-editor of the journal Politics and Religion, characterized the AHA’s choice of the same day as the National Day of Prayer as more of a fundraising tactic and less than a serious intention.
"Religious people still compose the vast majority of Americans and so Congress, especially a Republican Congress, will have no truck with this proposal," Djupe said. "But, too, the nonreligious tend not to be motivated by these kinds of appeals unless they are squarely pitted against religion."

Yeowtch. That's pretty pejorative, and I wonder how the NDOR people would react? Unfortunately, this article doesn't let any of them answer.

Then again, Djupe may be right. The "Events" section of the NDOR website lists only three events this year (with a pancake breakfast in Boston, aside from the aforementioned Orlando and St. Paul). Last year, it listed six events; the year before, 15. Somebody isn't promoting.

Still, RNS should have allowed someone in the NDOR movement to reply.

Photo: National Day of Reason protest by atheists in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2010. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Thumbnail by FreeImages.com/Benito LeGrande.


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