Sunday, January 15, 2012

School Prayer and the Secret Ballot

I have written several posts on the subject of school prayer because I know it embodies so many of the ills of religion and reveals so much of the oppressive, totalitarian intent in the religious mind.  One point I have made repeatedly is that the school prayer scenario is inherently coercive, and it is precisely for this reason that the religious are so insistent upon it.

One tactic that non-believers can employ when this topic comes up is to compare it to other situations where coercion would not be acceptable--even to the religious.  (I must admit that as I write those last few words, it occurs to me that there are those among the religious who would find no level of coercion to be unacceptable.  One need only read accounts of life in John Calvin's Geneva to see a well-documented example of this.)

A key to dealing with the self-centered is to help them with their lack of empathy by positing analogous situations that would cause them to feel imposed upon.  The vast majority of people in modern, democratic societies would be aghast at the suggestion that the secret ballot be abolished.  They understand perfectly well that if they were to be forced to vote publicly there would be negative consequences.  They could lose friends or even their livelihood.  Elections would soon be controlled by those with the clout and resources to impose punishments on those who didn't vote as requested and give rewards to those who did.

In fact, before the implementation of the secret ballot, this is precisely the sort of thing that happened.  The secret ballot was adopted specifically to ensure that voters record sincere choices by forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery.  The explicit purpose of the system is to achieve the goal of political privacy.  Provisions are made at the polling place for the voters to record their preferences in secret.  The ballots are specifically designed to eliminate bias and to prevent anyone from linking voter to ballot.  Partisans are forbidden from engaging in "campaign activities" in or near the voting place for the same reasons.

The secret ballot is a comparatively recent innovation (as, indeed, is the widespread popularity of democracy).  In the United States, most states moved to secret ballots in the only last years of the 19th Century.  The first President of the United States elected completely by secret ballot was president Grover Cleveland in 1892.  Yet, the secret ballot is such an obvious necessity for the proper functioning of democracy that most people are quite surprised when they first learn that it is of recent origin.

Because of its obvious necessity for the proper functioning of democracy, the secret ballot has become sacrosanct in most countries and in the minds of virtually every person in the sphere of Western Civilization's influence.  A politician who campaigned on a platform of doing away with the secret ballot would be lucky to attract any supporters outside of his or her immediate family.  One might as well campaign against democracy itself.

Yet, this is precisely the type of thing that politicians are doing when they campaign on a platform supporting prayer in public schools.  Organized prayer sessions in public schools force students to publicly declare their religious affiliation in most cases.  Non-believers and those in minority religions cannot participate without violating their religious conscience.  In other words, it is precisely those most in need of the law's protection who are forced to publicly declare their minority status by organized school prayer.  Their only alternative is to allow their religious freedom to be violated and conform to the expectations of the majority.

So, the next time the topic of school prayer comes up, make the point that religious preferences, like political preferences, are private and must remain so if we are to truly have freedom and democracy.  Point out that the purposes of the secret ballot, which the religious person almost certainly understands and supports, apply with equal validity to prayer.

Allowing the state to publicly point out members of religious minorities to the peers with whom they must spend every day is analogous to the state posting copies of each voter's ballot (with the voter's name on it) in his or her place of work.  It is an extreme invasion of privacy and clearly has no purpose except to use mob violence (or the threat thereof) to coerce conformity.

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