If your university is like mine, your graduation ceremony includes a compulsory public prayer. I teach at a private university, but the ceremony is open to an international, multicultural community that is highly motivated to attend out of a sense of solidarity with the graduates and their families. It's not like a government-sponsored prayer, in which nonparticipants risk losing favor with the elected officials whose sympathy they cannot afford to alienate. I understand that I’m not expected to pray, only to lend my polite silence to the fiction that we are praying together as a community.
A growing number of my colleagues oppose these prayers. Whether we are religious, anti-religious, or indifferent to religion, we agree that compulsory public prayer is contrary to the principle of pluralism. There is no such thing as a nonsectarian prayer. Even if there were, it would resonate only with the religious. There are many things that appeal to our universal humanity and honor our collective, secular accomplishments. Prayer isn't one of them. To insist that it's the only way to achieve the state of solemnity that the occasion demands is to deny that nonbelievers are full members of our community.
In The Nature of the Gods—a dialogue with a young Cicero, a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Skeptic—Cicero says, "It is conceivable that, if reverence for the gods is removed, trust and the social bond between men and the uniquely pre-eminent virtue of justice will disappear." Many people still harbor these same reservations about a world without religion, despite evidence from prosperous, progressive secular democracies. But Cicero said "conceivable," not "inevitable." He was making a preemptive concession that the Stoics could be right about divine providence. The larger context is that official religious observances—like consulting oracles before going to war—raise the question of whether the gods take an interest in human affairs.
Cicero goes on to entertain the possibility that the Epicureans may be right—that the gods are indifferent.
But if the gods […] pay no attention to our activities […] what reason have we for addressing any acts of worship or honors or prayers to the immortal gods? If such activities are a mere facade of feigned pretense, they can contain no true devotion, nor indeed any other virtue, and without devotion to the gods all sense of the holy and of religious obligation is also lost.The Skeptics described both the Epicureans and the Stoics as "dogmatic" for the claims they made about the nature of the gods. Epicureans claimed that the gods take human form but are indifferent to human activity. Stoics claimed that the universe is a living intelligence that takes an interest in human affairs. I take the position of the Skeptic. For the sake of arguing against compulsory public prayer, it is sufficient to establish that no position on the nature or existence of the gods is self-evident. Compulsory public prayer to a nonbeliever is just as Cicero characterizes it—a "mere facade of feigned pretense" that contains "no true devotion, nor indeed any other virtue."
The author of the Book of Matthew, representing Jesus, also cautions believers against public prayer.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6, NIV)Jesus is for Christians the very incarnation of divine intervention. The message of this passage attributed to him is clear: sincere belief needs no public affirmation. The author calls public prayer hypocritical presumably because the purpose is not "to be seen by others." We must ask ourselves an important question with respect to compulsory public prayer at non-religious occasions; if it makes hypocrites out of believers and nonbelievers, who benefits?
I’m often asked why the issue matters so much to me. I hesitate to suggest that everyone who values prayer would put compliance ahead of conviction, but I'd like to put the question to the people who would. Why does it matter so much to them? I would like to think that most believers are just as happy to pray without compelling others to join them. They too are acquiescing to their more authoritarian coreligionists, although perhaps more cheerfully than some of the rest of us. As long as we all participate in the polite fiction of communal prayer, only the motives of dissenters will ever be questioned. The authoritarian motives of the minority will go unchallenged. Why would they step forward when our compliance is such a reliable smokescreen?
In The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius attributes a pertinent passage to Epicurus.
Most people embellish their notions of the gods with false beliefs. They credit the gods for delivering rewards and punishments because they commend those who share their own ways and condemn those who do not. Rejecting the popular myths does not make one impious; preaching them is what demonstrates impiety.When piety becomes a litmus test for community membership, it quickly becomes an opportunity to root out dissent—as exemplified by the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and McCarthyism.
In The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies, by Phil Zuckerman, Luke W. Galen, Frank L. Pasquale (2016), the authors explain the conflict.
Secular individuals (by definition) believe that the sphere of religion should be separated from venues where there is a potential for the coercive effects of institutional endorsement (e.g., courts or schools). However, that does not mean that seculars believe that religion has no “role in the public square,” if that means that religious institutions or private individuals are kept from exercising religious rights in public. Rather, the nonreligious tend to support religious speech as long as it is separate from governmental endorsement. One-third of the unaffiliated agree that churches should express views on politics. The key line for seculars is the use of institutions to proselytize or espouse religious views to a captive audience. (p. 188)Religious freedom is not the freedom to insinuate religion on a captive audience. The Interfaith movement can only aspire to promote harmony among the religious. If we want to promote harmony between the religious and the nonreligious, compulsory public prayer at a non religious event is absolutely the worst way to go about it.
If character is what you do when no one is looking, compulsory public prayer teaches the wrong lesson. It's time to embrace pluralism and end this divisive practice. We lose nothing by confining prayer to situations in which people are free to opt in, so that no one risks public public disapproval by opting out. What we gain is the right to say that we do not honor forms of religion that demand conformity without regard for conviction—the kind that would make hypocrites of us all.