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Godlessness: Commencement’s missing rite

Next Thursday, the graduating class of 2011 will shuffle into Comcast Center. They will don overpriced (and recyclable) graduation gowns. They will hear speeches from their peers, university President Wallace Loh and the latest member of a long list of disappointingly lackluster commencement speakers. But before all of that pomp and nauseating congratulatory hooey, students will hear a prayer.

Commencement prayers have been a tradition since churches railed against the sin of interracial marriage and contraception. For years, the university’s 14 chaplains, who represent faiths as encompassing as Christian Science and Judaism and Hinduism, have alternated who leads the mumble toward the heavens. And for just as long, those who live their life without faith in superstition sit patiently waiting for them to get on with it.

There’s been an ever-increasing number of nonbelievers in this country in recent years. The American Religious Identification study, which was last conducted in 2008, found that the number of nonbelievers rose from 8 to 15 percent since 1990. Perhaps this is due to falling church attendance, but more than likely it is because of increasing societal acceptance and a greater willingness for nonbelievers to openly identify as such.

However, that is not to say nonbelievers are in any way the current rage. Although they are no longer burned at the stake, atheists and agnostics still face greater discrimination than perhaps any other minority. Indeed, a 2006 study by the University of Minnesota found atheists are more distrusted in this country than gay people, Muslims and immigrants, with many respondents equating atheism to criminal behavior, rampant materialism and cultural elitism. How nice.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that nonbelievers are subjected, year after year, to the echoing word of God throughout the rafters of Comcast Center. That said, this practice has come under fire before. In 2009, the University Senate voted 42-14 to scrap the invocation, with every single student senator voting in favor of the motion. But former university President Dan Mote vetoed the decision after outrage from the university community. What a tizzy those who believe in preaching moral authority get in when their hegemony is threatened. Do they think we will suddenly forget 3,000 years of Abrahamic religions without a hearty amen?

It is interesting to consider what would happen if the tables were turned. What if instead of a Baptist or a Muslim, we had an atheist deliver the invocation? Instead of giving thanks to God for the accomplishments our evolved brains have achieved, we had a scurrilous nonbeliever stand at the podium, look out at the crowd and say, “That God stuff, it’s all bullshit, you know. No higher being helped you get here today. You did it on your own, and that’s something to truly be proud of.”

Some will claim that to be far too offensive. But would it be any more offensive than the alternative? Why is it taboo to question or criticize one’s religious beliefs, but not for believers to bloviate their beliefs to those who live a fulfilling secular life? In fact, it seems almost accepted as polite to do so. In the words of writer Christopher Hitchens, “f— that.”

But so it goes. At this commencement, with a different university president, the “tradition” will continue. Nonbelievers will sit quietly, knowing, and perhaps contently so, that if their counterparts were in the same position, they would squeal offense.

And so I say to my fellow graduates this: When those in that stadium bow their heads in prayer, reflect not on the man in the sky, but how you got to that chair you’re sitting in. It wasn’t because of a supernatural being or his guiding hand. He didn’t help you pass CORE. It was because of the parents, professors, friends and even enemies who implanted the desire to excel and pushed you forward. Thank those in this life, not the next.

Justin Snow is a senior history major. He can be reached at snow at umdbk dot com.

Originally published in The Diamondback.

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