Atheist lawmaker Juan Mendez (D) offered this “prayer” on Tuesday at the opening of the Arizona House of Representatives:
Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask you not to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.
This room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.
Carl Sagan once wrote, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy— and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona.
I understand that your prayer was not addressed to me, but to humanity. Nevertheless, you invoked my name, and so I respond.
I would like, first of all, to thank you for noticing the “extraordinary experience” of human life. Life is quite beautiful, is it not? May I point out here that humanity has not yet discovered how to create even one electron, or how to assemble even one living cell? Please understand that I am not insulting your scientific progress. Indeed, it is impressive. While you have not discovered how to create life, I note that you have discovered how to destroy it quite efficiently. Your machines are now capable of eradicating all life in my universe in a matter of seconds.
This brings me to my next point. You rightly note that humans “have much more in common than [you] have differences.” But what you deduce from that observation is, I believe, rather incomplete. You state, “We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.” Is it not true that you also share the same spectrum of potential for cruelty, for destruction, and for hatred? You may have heard that about 2,000 years ago, I experienced the manifestation of that potential first hand.
As an educated man, you no doubt have some knowledge of human history. Do you find that your race is improving? Have education, science, technology, and even atheism made human beings more humane? Perhaps you have heard of the twentieth century?
You appeal in your prayer to love, and that, of course, is why I respond, for I am love. But I wonder, on what basis do you make such an appeal?
As an atheist, you are a materialist, and as a materialist, you believe that human beings are nothing more than an assemblage of elementary particles. As such, you maintain that the perception of free will is an illusion. Your thoughts, beliefs, and decisions – even your atheism – result only from the physical processes which have shaped the neural structures in your brain. Why then do you exhort your colleagues to choose love?
More importantly, even if your colleagues were capable of making such a choice, on what grounds could you convince them to do so? Perhaps if your Republican colleagues were more cooperative with your agenda, the world would indeed be a better place for their children’s children. But if, through such cooperation, these colleagues lose the support of their constituents and fail re-election, what then? Surely you see that selfishness can only go so far as a logical basis for altruism. You have yet to give your colleagues a scientific reason to choose the good of future generations over their own well-being.
You love humanity, and rightly so, for humanity was made in my image. But the divine image has been effaced in humanity, and you will not truly see the object of your love until you look upon the face of my Son. I suggest you read the small book written by your namesake. You will find it in the Bible, between Luke and Acts.