Zain Ali: Rail against school prayers hints at draconianism

Martin Luther King jnr.
Martin Luther King jnr.

I am a theist. I believe in God. I have also prayed to God.

Contrary to the claims of your columnist Rodney Hide last weekend, the self-described anti-theist, I don't believe prayer to be hocus-pocus.

Sure, there have been bloody conflicts in the name of religion, and there have been savage acts of violence by those who believe in and pray to God. These acts reveal a terribly warped mindset, but such acts do not prove the non-existence of God.

Think of it in these terms: there are a number of athletes who have resorted to performance-enhancing drugs to boost their chances of excellence.

These athletes, once exposed, are deemed to be drug cheats.

Should we abandon the pursuit of athletic or sporting excellence because there are drugs cheats?

No, we continue with the pursuit of excellence and we do our best to weed out the cheats. We do this because we know that the pursuit of excellence need not involve drug use.

Similarly, we can distinguish between the mere belief that God exists and the actions of those who carry out savage acts of violence in the name of God.

The important point here is that religious belief need not involve violence, just think of figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King jnr. With Gandhi and King, we observe that religion serves as an inspiration for non-violence, and it also provides the drive to seek out social justice.

What then of prayer?

Well, there is considerable scientific evidence that suggests that those who regularly engage in prayer and meditation live longer, healthier and happier lives. This doesn't prove that God exists, of course.

Even if there were no correlation between prayer and health, we do have strong anecdotal evidence of the deep and profound effect that prayer can have.

A good example is Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, a Holocaust survivor, and author of the book Man's Search for Meaning. In his book, he recounts his experience of being in a concentration camp and of being systematically dehumanised.

There is a point in the book where he recounts the moment where he makes the decision to live, and not merely succumb to the evil and darkness that was ripping away at him.

It is his encounter with prayer that marks a turning point and his words are worth reflecting on: "I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at the Auschwitz railway station. I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael.

How should I have interpreted such a 'coincidence' other than as a challenge to live?"

Prayer, as experienced by Frankl, challenged him to affirm life and to resist the evil facing him.

This does not mean that prayer should be compulsory at schools, or that religion should have a position of privilege within our education system. I do, however, object when a demand is made to "keep prayer and religion out of schools" - this demand itself seems to be a mantra of sorts.

If we take a moment to consider the demand then we quickly see its draconian implications; the most serious implication would be in relation to our national anthem.

Our anthem acknowledges God and it ends with a request, a prayer, that God defend our nation.

If we took the 'no prayer, no religion' demand to heart then we would have to stop school children from singing our national anthem.

Does the anti-theist camp want the national anthem banned from being sung at schools or that its mention of God be removed?

If this is what it wants then it is not prayer that is hocus-pocus, rather it is the anti-theist attitude that needs to be challenged.

Dr Zain Ali is the Head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at the University of Auckland.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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