All Prayers are Sectarian

May 6, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mark Muesse

It is a fallacy to think that there are such things as nonsectarian prayers. Even if “ceremonial” prayers make no mention of the distinctive appellations of particular religions (such as Jesus Christ for Christians, al-Lah for Muslims, or Adonai for Jews), all prayers are addressed to a personal deity, which most English-speakers call “god.” However, not all people—not even all religious people—believe in a personal deity. Hence, not all people—including religious people—pray. Prayers are performed by theists, those who imagine absolute reality to be human-like and amenable to personal appeal. But not all people—including religious people—are theists. Theism is a pervasive form of religious belief, to be sure, but it is not the only form. Thus, to make prayer of any sort acceptable on government-sponsored occasions is to show preference for one form of religious expression to the exclusion of others. And the preferential treatment of any particular religious form—even if that form is as widely held as theism—violates the spirit of the separation of church and state.