Dispatches from the Creation Wars

A New Meaning to Prayer in Schools

This is a strange story. The principal and several teachers from a school in Florida, apparently concerned that their kids weren’t prepared for a state assessment test, decided to go classroom to classroom saying a prayer for their students to do better. In the process, they “anointed” all of the desks with oil because, apparently, God is more likely to answer a prayer if it’s marinated in oil (presumably extra virgin oil, given His taste for virgins).

The principal, Mary LeDoux, reported it had been a difficult day with high levels of misbehavior, and the state’s standardized assessment test was scheduled to be administered the following week…

“It was staff members on their own time who said, ‘Do you mind if we say some prayers for the kids on the Friday night before FCAT, so the kids would do well?'” LeDoux told the Times.


Forget any church/state issues, there are several other questions that come immediately to mind. First, this whole notion of prayer is patently absurd. The only way the students will do well is if they know the material; either they know it or they don’t. The only way this prayer could be answered is by God artificially “zapping” the correct information into the brains of the students. So let’s think about that for a moment…

Rather than relying on good teaching to make sure their students are prepared for this test, these teachers and administrators choose instead to rely on supplications to supernatural beings to do what they, evidently, believe they themselves have failed to do. In essence, they are advocating divine cheating, asking God to make up for their failures as teachers and give students better marks than they actually deserve based on their own work. This is perverse.

Second, I would love to hear their reaction if a group of teachers decided to go classroom to classroom burning incense and sprinkling chicken blood in the doorway to achieve the same goal. No doubt they would go absolutely ballistic and would consider it defiling the classroom. But what is the difference between believing that supernatural beings respond positively to a few drops of chicken blood and believing that they respond positively to a few drops of olive oil, or to the smell of burning goat flesh? No doubt these good Christian folks would consider anyone who thought the test scores could be increased with chicken blood and incense to have a screw loose; somehow they think their silly superstitions don’t mean the same thing.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Anderson
    February 23, 2007

    Haven’t they read the studies that show prayer worsened outcomes for heart patients? This can only backfire.

  2. #2 Enigma
    February 23, 2007

    I agree that this is stupid from several different perspectves, but I don’t see how what they did, in and of itself could be construed as illegal or a violation of church/state. If nothing else, this sort of thing is good for the EVOO makers.

  3. #3 BG
    February 23, 2007

    I wonder if they used Wesson right out of the bottle, or if they got one of those special Pope shakers to disburse the oil in the preferred fashion. I would think if you used the Pope shaker, you’re more likely to get the attention of the Divine Creator. If you just use the Wesson, I think the message goes directly to Florence Henderson.

  4. #4 Chris F.
    February 23, 2007

    Dammit, BG! You got me singing “Wessonality” now! Grrr.

  5. #5 triviality
    February 23, 2007

    You know they ain’t mess’n when they show up with Wesson.

  6. #6 John B
    February 23, 2007

    Well at least they didn’t go around to other schools and lay a whammie on whoever’s been screwing up the curve.

  7. #7 llDayo
    February 23, 2007

    Didn’t some book at some time say something like “God helps those who help themselves”?

  8. #8 Dave
    February 23, 2007

    The reliance on magic is always worth a laugh, whether its a fake psychic, an athlete who played well (why don’t the one’s who lose ever blame god?) or silly teachers who can’t teach. But it really is annoying, as a teacher, to see those who (I bet) believe that they are role models essentially suggesting that success is beyond intellectual prowess and hard work. It so displaces responsibiity and abdicates agency…I thought it was these folks who want folks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps…Rush’s “rugged individualism” and all. I suppose when you don’t have much intelligence its better to blame bad luck than admit you just didn’t learn to think.

  9. #9 Sourpuss
    February 23, 2007

    A gambler blowing on the dice to ‘heat them up’ is silly, but so is a principal casting spells on the students’ desks. Why did she not cast spells on the children themselves? Or cast spells on their pencils so that they would get ghostly guidance and be able to mark only the correct answers?

    Why not skip the tests altogether and use dowsing rods on the students to divine their correct scores?

  10. #10 Lynn
    February 23, 2007

    I hate it when people credit God for every good thing that happens. They just never seem to think about the implications!

    So family #1 thanks God for the fact that their husband/father survived the mine shaft collapse that killed 20 other men.

    What about the people who contributed their sweat and efforts to rescue that man? Don’t *they* deserve the credit? What the heck did any *god* do, other than file its nails while all those people worked frantically in their rescue efforts.

    And what about the other 20 men? If God saved Man #1, did he then decide he wanted the other 20 to die? If you hold him responsible for the one, you have to make him responsible for the other.

    Some people just never *think* about what they believe.

  11. #11 Russell Claus
    February 23, 2007

    I’m glad the good people of the Great State of Florida can depend on the honorable public education system to sprinkle their kids with voodoo witchcraft to help them remember what year the Magna Carta was signed.

    Whatever happened to pneumonic devices, or…I don’t know…say general competency?

  12. #12 ck
    February 23, 2007

    llDayo: Maybe, but it wasn’t the Bible, if that’s what you’re implying…though that’s a common misperception. Running around in circles blowing trumpets, however, is one way that god’s help was enlisted in the Bible.

    They could have tried that instead.

  13. #13 Foxy
    February 23, 2007

    God helps those who help themselves is actually one of the most popular and most quoted versus of the bible.

    Unfortunately, it’s not actually in the bible.

  14. #14 SharonB
    February 23, 2007

    I can see praying that the students would have good recall of the material they have been taught, or that distractions and misbehavior be at a minimum.

    But actually marching around with Mazola? Hoping for a miracle?

    That’s just plain silly. Silly!

  15. #15 Tulle
    February 23, 2007

    If you added a bit of Prego with the olive oil maybe His Noodley Appendage would help guide the hands of the children.

  16. #16 Chuck C
    February 23, 2007

    If you added a bit of Prego with the olive oil maybe His Noodley Appendage would help guide the hands of the children.

    Ramen!

    But he’s an impish little deity, and might mess the answers up just to be contrary.

    Especially since the teachers weren’t in full pirate regalia…

  17. #17 Chuck C
    February 23, 2007

    One thing, though: there was recently a story (covered in this blog, I believe) about a group of people who exorcised/anointed/marinated a co-worker’s cubicle the banish teh gay from them or something. I realise in that incident there was some sort of prior confrontation between the head vodun and the person who’s cube it was, but still, this seems awfully simillar.

  18. #18 tacitus
    February 23, 2007

    I’ve always wondered what the God-to-brain interface is supposed to be like. Does God tickle the appropriate neurons to cause someone to act in a different manner than they otherwise would? Many believers who deny that “big miracles” happen today, don’t seem to think that tweaking the neurons in someone’s head is essentially the same thing except on a much smaller–and less provable–scale.

    I think that’s why many people still believe that the mind has a supernatural component by which these “messages from God” are received. (Of course, modern research into the brain all but proves that the brain requires no such component.) At first blush, that seems to squash awkward questions about the God-interface by moving it to the supernatural realm, but you still have the problem of getting from the supernatural into the wholly natural brain.

  19. #19 jba
    February 23, 2007

    Lynn said: “Some people just never *think* about what they believe.”

    And thats the kicker. Its like I was told once when I asked a question about a family members religion, I got the response “You dont have to understand it, you just have to DO it.” Summed it up pretty well Id say.

  20. #20 Rufus
    February 23, 2007

    God clearly didn’t intervene in the holocaust or the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Why do those teachers think god will make any effort to help their students pass a spelling test?

  21. #21 James
    February 23, 2007

    That’s pretty silly, but since I come from a country where public buildings are blessed by a Kaumatua (traditional Maori holy man) and a proposed road was diverted to avoid a Taniwha (mythological Maori creature) I really shouldn’t talk.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    February 23, 2007

    Rufus wrote:

    God clearly didn’t intervene in the holocaust or the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Why do those teachers think god will make any effort to help their students pass a spelling test?

    Well maybe the Jews in Europe and the victims of the tsunami forgot to splash a little Mazola around? I hear that makes all the difference.

  23. #23 dogmeatIB
    February 23, 2007

    A guy is stranded on the roof of his house during a torrential downpour and flood. Along comes a canoe, and the lady in the canoe offers to give him a ride to the shore.

    “No thank you, God will provide for me.”

    An hour or so later, the water is getting higher, when a rowboat shows up. The guy in the rowboat offers to take him to the shore.

    “No thank you, God will provide for me.”

    Still later, the guy is standing on what is left of the roof of his house, at the very peak. Water is lapping around his shoes when a Coast Guard helicopter shows up and attempts to rescue him.

    “No thank you, God will provide for me.”

    Eventually the guy is washed away downstream where he drowns. When he arrives at the pearly gates he is furious.

    “I thought you would provide for me!” He demanded of God.

    “Who do you think sent the canoe, rowboat, and Coast Guard?”

  24. #24 Sastra
    February 23, 2007

    If only these Christians would realize that they’re practicing a simplistic, silly, superstitious, straw-man version of Christianity which was constructed by atheists in order to make up a target which is easy to attack and ridicule. No Christians really believe this. It’s ritual metaphor.

  25. #25 Grumpy
    February 23, 2007

    “It was staff members on their own time who said, ‘Do you mind if we say some prayers for the kids on the Friday night before FCAT, so the kids would do well?'”

    This doesn’t make sense. Why would they even have to ask? Or rather, the principal should have said, “Why ask me? It’s a free country.” So either the principal isn’t being honest about the extent of the preparations, or the teachers weren’t.

  26. #26 Todd Sayre
    February 23, 2007

    …asking God to make up for their failures as teachers and give students better marks than they actually deserve based on their own work. This is perverse.

    Or this is the founding of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Education.

    Coming soon to an (unbalanced) budget near you!

  27. #27 llewelly
    February 23, 2007

    I’ve always wondered what the God-to-brain interface is supposed to be like. Does God tickle the appropriate neurons to cause someone to act in a different manner than they otherwise would?

    Frankly, when I think about this in terms of the observed behavior of those who claim most loudly to be inspired by God, I can’t help but compare God’s meddling with the mental machinery to be akin to the work of an automotive mechanic, who replaces the brake fluid with olive oil, and later takes a tire-iron to the hood when the brakes act funny …

  28. #28 decrepitoldfool
    February 23, 2007

    Clearly, the methodology of classroom annointing should be studied. It could be a project for a science class with the cooperation of the principal and teachers. Before the big tests, some of the classes are annointed by actual praying teachers and principals, and others by atheist volunteers with unblessed oil from the grocery store (and without any religious intention). Refine the protocol and submit it for peer review, and subject the outcome to rigorous statistical analysis. ‘Spoze the god-shouters would subject their program to that?

    Of course, if it turns out the prayed-over desks had higher scores, then the whole study becomes unethical. Sort of a Stanford Experiment for kids’ academic paths.

  29. #29 mark
    February 23, 2007

    They would probably get better results if they used chicken blood. If high scores are critical, they really ought to sacrifice a child in each room.

  30. #30 Hank Fox
    February 23, 2007

    Forgive me for cross-posting this:

    Jesus Mystery Oil

  31. #31 raj
    February 24, 2007

    Maybe the principal believed that her little escapade would help her keep her job after it was learned that she was a failure at running a school.

    Regarding anointments, recall that John Ashcroft, the former US Atty General, had himself anointed–with Crisco oil, not the proper extra-virgin olive oil–after he won an election. And that was before he was anointed–er, appointed–Atty General. There are wackos even in high places.

  32. #32 Ginger Yellow
    February 24, 2007

    That’s twice you’ve agreed with PZ in a week!

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    February 24, 2007

    Ginger Yellow: “That’s twice you’ve agreed with PZ in a week!”

    He hasn’t totally agreed. PZ Myers used the occasion to preach, “This is what religion does, it rips up your brain and infuses it with credulity and sloppy thinking”, something which Brayton thinks is an overgeneralization, judging from what I’ve read of him before. Offhand, I think Myers has things backwards. Humans are cognitive misers by nature, and this naturally tends to lead to sloppy thinking, which leads to beliefs in stupid things. The absurdities displayed by the various religions are just a manifestation of this.

  34. #34 Ed Brayton
    February 24, 2007

    I agree with PZ quite often, actually. We probably agree on 90%, but then I think he just goes that one step too many. This is actually an excellent example of that. He writes in response to this situation:

    Face it, everyone. Religion is not a source of moral behavior. It’s a source of tribalism and obedience to authority, which sometimes coincides with respectable morality, but isn’t necessarily associated with it. We have to find our virtue in one true thing, our common humanity, and these ancient superstitions actually interfere with instruction in how to be good by encrusting it with nonsense.

    And here again, as usual, I actually do agree with most of this. No question that religion is a source of tribalism and obedience to authority. I do agree that we have to find our virtue in our common humanity, and I also agree that wrapping the teaching of morality up in a bunch of nonsensical claims undermines the credibility of the moral arguments as well. But the first sentence goes too far in claiming that religion does not also motivate moral behavior. It simply isn’t an either/or, where religion either motivates all bad behavior or all good behavior. Religion can and does motivate both, sometimes even in the same person. Of course religion leads some people to kill abortion doctors and fly buildings into airplanes; it also leads other people to found orphanages and hospitals, to feed the poor and comfort the sick and much more that is unquestionably good (none of which has anything to do with whether it’s true, of course). It simply isn’t a logical argument to cite religion as a source of someone’s awful behavior and then conclude “therefore, religion is not a source of good behavior.” That is a non sequitur. Indeed, it is quite illogical to believe that religion can be a source of behavior but then claim that it can only be a source of bad behavior. One can argue over whether it is a source of more bad behavior than good behavior, of course, but that is a very different statement.

    That’s the way it often is with PZ and me; I agree with him right up until he goes that one step too far into illogical overgeneralization. And of course, when it comes to strictly science, we agree nearly 100% and I often cite his work in that regard (and I loved his shredding of Wells’ Haeckel nonsense and would love to see him put it all together into one article for publication; perhaps Seed would print it? I certainly think they should).

  35. #35 Alan Kellogg
    February 25, 2007

    In my case when I think of doing something dumb God’s advice is, “Are you sure you want to piss Me off?”

    If I actually do something stupid it’s, “We are having such a long talk when you die.”

    Some people would rather listen to what they want to hear, than to what they need to hear.

  36. #36 raj
    February 25, 2007

    Ed Brayton | February 24, 2007 12:07 PM

    But the first sentence goes too far in claiming that religion does not also motivate moral behavior.

    Ed, you misunderstand, and possibly, so does PZ. Establishments of religion (which is what you two are really referring to), motivate moral behavior within the religious group–which actually correlated and still largely correlates to the political group. One example should make that obvious is the “thou shalt not kill” commandment. It is perfectly ok to kill people outside the religio/political group (when the leaders say so) but it is not ok to kill people within the religio/political group. That should be an obviuos indication that it is the religio/political separation of one group from it neighbors that drives the dichotomy:

    It is forbidden to kill someone within the group, but

    It is OK to kill someone outside the group, provided the pharasees tell me it’s OK to do so. Wow.

    It really is fairly evident.

    Religion doesn’t motivate moral behavior, it inhibits it, via the “channeling” mechanism. If you are not a member of my tribe, I don’t owe you anything, and if my religion authorizes me to kill you and your children and defile your women I can do so, without any semblance of moral blame. I wish I was being sarcastic, but I am not. And, of course, it would never happen. Of course not. It never does.

    /rant.

    Yee gads, religion is a moral rot on the human soul. Better to make use of the neutron bomb on the derelicts of the human detritus so that intelligent people might have a chance to take over.

  37. #37 Wobert
    February 25, 2007

    Err,Ed,um I haven’t seen to many buildings fly into airplanes.I suppose it has happened in cyclones/hurricanes,or when buildings just get bored with standing around.

  38. #38 Wes
    February 25, 2007

    As long as these teachers didn’t in some way impose this stuff on the students, I don’t see why it would be a church/state issue. If they blessed the desks while the students weren’t in the classroom, it shouldn’t be illegal.

    It’s still really dumb, though. If there is a God, I’m sure he’s laughing at us. How could you not laugh at the tiny little hairless monkeys scurrying around on a speck of dust in a tiny corner of the universe convinced that every little thing they do has enormous cosmic implications.

    Kinda sad, really.

  39. #39 raj
    February 25, 2007

    Wobert | February 25, 2007 04:13 AM

    Err,Ed,um I haven’t seen to many buildings fly into airplanes.

    According to Einstein, it’s all relative.

    /tic

  40. #40 J. J. Ramsey
    February 26, 2007

    raj: “It is forbidden to kill someone within the group, but

    “It is OK to kill someone outside the group, provided the pharasees tell me it’s OK to do so.”

    A common misconception, but not true. From “The Question of Uniqueness in the Teaching of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders {pp. 12-13}:

    “Still worse, some scholars say that Jesus surpasses Jewish ethics because Lev. 19.18 confines ‘love’ to the ‘neighbour’, that is, fellow Jews, while Jesus would go beyond that. This results from not reading Lev. 19 far enough, down to v. 34, which commands love of foreigners, from ignoring the epigram (‘do not do to other people’), which explicitly includes both, from not noting the meaning of philanthrōpia in Greek-writing Jewish authors, from ignoring the commandment of both koinōnia (treatment of other Jews) and philanthrōpia (treatment of one and all, including especially Gentiles) in Philo and Josephus and from relying on Billerbeck for knowledge of rabbinic literature.”

  41. #41 David Blomstrom
    March 3, 2007

    I haven’t reviewed all the posts on this thread, but I’d like to throw in my two cents.

    Many, if not most (virtually all?) people characterize the conservative drive to force religion into public schools as a grassroots movement. I bet to differ. I think it’s driven by corporate America.

    They want to keep the taxpayers divided by pitting conservative against liberal. So they brainwash stupid conservatives into believing that our institutions are threatened by Godless liberals, then they brainwash stupid liberals (there’s no other kind here in Seattle) into believing that the biggest problem in our schools is an army of religious kooks.

    I witnessed the brazen introduction of religion into a Seattle elementary school I worked at shortly after 9/11. I’ve also documented rather widespread corruption in a number of “liberal” Seattle churches.

    The moral of the story: Religion is just another clue that what were once public schools have effectively been privatized. I can’t think of any other major socio-political issue about which Americans – conservative and liberal alike – are so utterly clueless. Frankly, I think it’s time for another revolution.

    David Blomstrom

    Seattle Mafia

  42. #42 Dolan
    March 19, 2007

    Rufus wrote:

    God clearly didn’t intervene in the holocaust or the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Why do those teachers think god will make any effort to help their students pass a spelling test?
    ——————————————————-
    Maybe the Hebrew God was punishing the people who belong
    to other gods in those particular situations. It’s stated
    that 80% of jews are athiest. If you don’t believe in your
    own god, don’t you think he’s going to get pissed off and
    cook you in an oven? What is the definition of hell?
    Those that aren’t the property of the Most High God who
    don’t believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized in his name
    will meet that definition. (I’m just throwing that out for
    free.) One Nation Under God. Which Race, which God?
    America has that on it’s currency. It was founded by white
    Christian Europeans who claimed that statement. So tell me,
    how does that make you feel? If you don’t like that state-
    ment, then maybe you should leave! You can bitch and moan,
    but if you don’t get with the program, it’s the big oven
    for you. (I’m just telling you what is said.)

    Can a scientist ever be able to measure and assess the
    boundaries of hell? lol. That’s kind of funny.
    Good luck trying.

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