Day of Reason
In 2020 and 2021, the COVID pandemic has prevented Minnesota Atheists from holding a Day of Reason event at the capitol in Saint Paul. Prior to this, we had not missed a year since we began in 2006, and we intend to return when it’s possible to safely do so.
While the National Day of Reason began as a counter to the National Day of Prayer, our events have also become an opportunity to make common cause with our secularist legislators, whether religious or not, and to affirm our secular values and their place in governance.
Recap of the First Minnesota Day of Reason
Statements and Readings from the MNA Event at the State Capitol on May 4, 2006
On Thursday, May 4th, 2006, Minnesota Atheists celebrated the National Day of Reason in the Rotunda at the Minnesota State Capitol. From noon-1:30 p.m. we presented speakers who quoted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Mark Twain and others in support of separation of state and church. Also featured was a review of scientific studies demonstrating the ineffectiveness of prayer.
The May 4th edition of MNA’s Atheists Talk television program featured some Day of Reason speakers reprising their readings. Video downloads can be found here, and audio only can be downloaded here (look for the program titled “Day of Reason 2006”). If you’d like to see or hear more episodes of Atheist Talk as they become available, subscribe by using our podcast page (no iPod is required).
Transcripts of some of the speeches and readings from the Day of Reason are offered below. The speech by Cynthia Egli, “A Proposal for a National Day of Reason,” and the excerpts from James Madison’s “Detached Memorandum” are available in this form only.
A Proposal for a National Day of Reason
by Cynthia Egli, copyright 2006
In 1952 the federal government designated a National Day of Prayer. Since 1988 the Day of Prayer has had a permanent home on the first Thursday of May.
I speak for Minnesota Atheists and for many other religious and non-religious people who would prefer that our government live within the limits defined by our constitution and the bill of rights and refrain from making religious proclamations and sponsoring religious events such as the National Day of Prayer.
Our Founding Father’s decision to separate state and church was very deliberate. It was debated intensively and chosen through democratic processes.
The constitution was written without any references to the authority of god. Its only reference to religion specifies that there shall be no religious test for any office in the governance of our country.
The Oath or Affirmation of Office is specified in the Constitution and does not make any reference to god or the bible.
Only the First Amendment makes any specific statement about the relationship between religion and the government, and that is, that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Almost since the day the Constitution was ratified there have been efforts to “fix” the constitution by putting god and religion into it. This effort has frequently taken the form of requests for religious proclamations and days of prayer or fasting.
From the beginning our greatest leaders have resisted these efforts. In 1808 a minister asked Thomas Jefferson to issue one of these proclamations and he responded with the following,
“I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.…. I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises.
Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it…. [E]very one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
James Madison, who caved in to the requests for such proclamations, especially during war, commented regretfully that,
“The members of a Government as such can in no sense be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people.”
He also criticized such proclamations because, “They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
Our seventh President, Andrew Jackson, declined to proclaim a day of prayer and fasting in response to a cholera epidemic. Later he explained,
“I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.”
Ironically, in more recent history, separation of church and state was one area where leading Democrats and Republicans were in agreement.
During his presidential campaign John F. Kennedy responded to concerns that his presidency would be run by the Vatican with the following statement,
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials…”
I doubt that our current Republican leadership would have understood Senator Barry Goldwater, an icon of conservative republicanism, when he stated in 1981,
“By maintaining the separation of church and state, the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars…. Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state?”
Since that time the only change one would make to his statement would be to add or substitute a different set of countries.
He later wrote the following,
“I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state.”
The importance of this principle is clearly demonstrated by the current implementation of the National Day of Prayer.
Most events relating to this day have been promoted and organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force. This is a private, non-profit group headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson. It operates from the headquarters of Focus on the Family. The Task Force claims that the National Day of Prayer, “belongs to all Americans”, but its events are organized exclusively for Christians. Its volunteers and speakers are required to “have a personal relationship with Christ.”
Surely, as James Madison said, this seems, “to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
The Day of Prayer is being used as an opportunity to claim, with the support of our current President, that this particular form of Christianity is the common religion of our nation.
It is not.
It has been claimed that it is a unifying event.
It is not.
We are a nation of many faiths. We are Jewish, we are Muslim, we are Buddhist, we are Hindu, we are animist, and we are Wiccan. We are Daoist, Confucian, and Shinto. Each Native American nation has its own beliefs. The Christians of our nation are by no means unified behind Dobson’s version of Christianity.
We are also a nation with a large population that declares no religious beliefs.
Each of us has the right and the ability to pray, or not to pray, at any time, in any place, in any way we wish, as long as we do not violate the laws which apply to all of us. Religious people do not need help from government to express their heartfelt beliefs.
As an atheist, a person without a belief in any kind of supernatural entity, I nevertheless support the rights of all persons to their own beliefs. I will however, resist any effort to place the religious beliefs of the few into the laws of the many.
I seek peace, the peace that is so easily understood, the peace that comes when we refrain from imposing our religious beliefs on others. The quality of family and social gatherings is greatly improved by this restraint. The quality of our public discourse will benefit from this restraint as well.
Today we face conflict through the world which threatens to cause massive destruction anywhere in the world at any time. Religion is deeply embedded in this conflict. Even when it is benevolent, the existing suspicions undermine remediation by religious organizations. Our only recourse is Reason.
The use of reason, of the scientific method to determine what is real, of open discourse, of cooperation and compassionate understanding, is the only way to untangle the knots that strangle our hopes for international peace and prosperity.
In New York people gave blood on the Day of Prayer; a rational gift that makes a real difference.
I suggest that our government, at all levels, encourage the use of reason to resolve our issues. To indicate the importance and value of reason, and to remove prayer from governmental practices, I propose that we change the Day of Prayer to one that can involve and unite all of our citizens…to a Day of Reason.
Excerpts from James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance”
We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined. We remonstrate against the said Bill,
1. Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
2. Because the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.
3. Because experience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
4. Because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government. If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government only as it is a means of supporting Religion, and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former. If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.
5. Because the proposed establishment is a departure from the generous policy, which, offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country, and an accession to the number of its citizens. What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance. The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scourge in foreign Regions, must view the Bill as a Beacon on our Coast, warning him to seek some other haven, where liberty and philanthropy in their due extent, may offer a more certain respose from his Troubles.
6. Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been split in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious disscord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assauge the disease. The American Theatre has exhibited proofs that equal and compleat liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State. If with the salutary effects of this system under our own eyes, we begin to contract the bounds of Religious freedom, we know no name that will too severely reproach our folly. At least let warning be taken at the first fruits of the threatened innovation. The very appearance of the Bill has transformed “that Christian forbearance, love and chairty,” which of late mutually prevailed, into animosities and jeolousies, which may not soon be appeased. What mischiefs may not be dreaded, should this enemy to the public quiet be armed with the force of a law?
7. Because attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to so great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case, where it is deemed invalid and dangerous? And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government, on its general authority?
8. Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of Government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis. Either the, we must say, that the Will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and that in the plenitude of this authority, they may sweep away all our fundamental rights; or, that they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred: Either we must say, that they may control the freedom of the press, may abolish the Trial by Jury, may swallow up the Executive and Judiciary Powers of the State; nay that they may despoil us of our very right of suffrage, and erect themselves into an independent and hereditary Assembly or, we must say, that they have no authority to enact into the law the Bill under consideration.
Quotes from Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson
“Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal… In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning. Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.
“Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away for two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh–not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.”
Mark Twain knew that if we allowed various religions to take over our government, this country would quickly become embroiled in violent conflict—as we see in the Middle East today.
A quote from Thomas Jefferson Letter to the Danbury Baptists:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith, or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions. I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Excerpts from James Madison’s “Detached Memorandum”
The following is from a memorandum by James Madison, our fourth president. He also has been referred to as “the father of the constitution,” and authored the Bill of Rights, the first amendment of which prohibits the government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion. These are his words:
“Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”
Madison then notes the failed attempt by Patrick Henry in 1784 for the sponsorship of Christianity in Virginia by the government. President Madison recounts that:
“When the Legislature assembled, the number of copies & signatures prescribed displayed such an overwhelming opposition of the people that the proposed plan of a general assessment was crushed under it.”
Madison also makes specific mention of the practice of appointing Chaplains for the legislature:
“Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?
“In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?
“The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected shut the door of worship against the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.”
Later, Madison gives this appraisal of religious proclamations made by the government, specifically Presidents and Governors:
“Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.
“Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.
“The objections to them are
“1. that Governments ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms.
“2. The members of a Government as such can in no sense be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate.
“3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. The idea [just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Christianity], is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea.”
(Let there be no mistake that the word “imposing” in Madison’s usage describes an unwelcome force.)
Again, these words were written by the author of the first amendment and can leave no doubt as to its intended meaning.