On Saturday morning, National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday reported on a most unusual art installation in Manhattan – prayer booths, which look like little phone booths, but come decorated with a kneeler and hands folded in prayer. NPR sent reporter Margot Adler – the pagan witch – to address this issue, and she just happened to stumble across the New York City Atheists as she opened the story:
MARGOT ADLER: You couldn't find a place less conducive to meditation than this corner of 60th Street where cars are streaming east toward the 59th Street Bridge or down 2nd Avenue. And yet there are two prayer booths here a block apart. I'm surprised to see Ken Bronstein, the president of New York City Atheists, checking them out.
(To Bronstein): So you just happened to be walking by at this very moment.
KEN BRONSTEIN: I just happened to be walking by at this exact moment. But I always keep my eyes and ears open.
ADLER: And what Bronstein says is "art-schmart," this is prayer in a public place.
BRONSTEIN: As an atheist, when you talk about prayer, you're talking to a supernatural situation, and we say there is no supernatural. So that definitely puts it in a religious category. That to me is the line. You know, if they want to put it on private property, that's where it should go -- but not in public space.
No one in the story suggests that the atheist has a funny idea of religious freedom, that there is no room for religious speech or action in "public space." But it's hard for most listeners to buy the argument that Bronstein "just happened to be walking by." If Adler didn't contact him beforehand, it's possible he doesn't just walk by, but monitors or protests the prayer booths.
There's no spokesman for "organized religion" in the prayer-as-art story, but the booths are an art project, not a church activity. A religious spokesman might have pointed out to NPR that praying to grab earthly attention doesn't count so much. Adler reported after observing the booth for an hour, "no one prays," but she found a woman and then a seven-year-old boy (whose pet gerbil died) who reported praying there. Then she spoke with the artist:
ADLER: The artist, Dylan Mortimer, who says he is a person of faith, designed these prayer booths as part of the city's Arts in the Park program to start a dialogue about public prayer.
DYLAN MORTIMER: The piece sparks a wide range of reactions from people loving it, to people hating it, to people threatening me and to people -- I mean, it's kind of all over the board.
ADLER: He says prayer is a really difficult topic, especially in a city like New York. It's a loaded topic, causes divisions. But let's face it, he says, people could be praying anywhere, sitting down, standing up, or walking or running. And of course it's true all you have to do is ride the New York City subways to see Jewish men davening over prayer books, Catholic women saying the rosary, and lots of people doing who knows what, eyes closed, hands folded. As Dylan Mortimer puts it...
MORTIMER: Perhaps a scary reality is there could be people praying all around you. And that's sort of the point.
If prayer is a "scary reality," then you must be an atheist, someone who's opposed to prayer as an act of nonsense. Adler ended her report by repeating the worldview of the atheist protesters: "Although, others would argue that what people do privately is not the same thing as having something out there in public, even if it's art. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York."
And yet others would argue that it's offensive for religious believers to fork over their tax dollars to a public radio news division that mocks or objects to their faith.
Mortimer's exhibit: Titled "Ble$$ed," the show "explores hip-hop as liberation theology in the transition from poverty to wealth," Mortimer said. Featured works include a diamond-covered crown of thorns and a bulletproof preacher's robe.
—Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center