Thoughts for Atheists at Graduation

The following piece was written by Edwin Kagin for American Atheists Magazine (May/June 2008).

Edwin serves as both the National Legal Director for American Atheists as well as the Kentucky State Director for AA.

(I broke the piece up into several paragraphs for slightly easier reading — the original consisted of two long ones.)

Good evening Sinners.

At high school graduations throughout our country, it is customary for older people to tell younger people what the older people were told by older people, who are now probably dead people, at their own high school baccalaureates and graduations. This is usually some sad, emotional, and boring commentary on how the world and the future is yours, how you are the future, that we are leaving it to you, and that the speaker’s generation messed up the world, but the future is still full of limitless possibilities, and that it is up to you to straighten it all out for the generations to come, and that with hard work, faith, and god’s help it can all be done.

There, I have just summarized every known high school graduation speech.

When you are old you can tell the same rubbish to a new generation of bright-eyed graduates ready to go forth into the world to breed, grow old, and die. The problem with all of these far-too-long and whining baccalaureate and graduation speeches, or sermons, is that they usually call for more of what has caused the problems complained of. The baccalaureate talks are the worst. That is where educated adults, who should know better, pray to invisible imaginary friends for wished-for things that never happen. What is wonderful and different tonight is that this is an Atheist baccalaureate. And it may be the first such in the history of the United States. So you will go down in history. Some will say you will go to Hell.

As Atheists, you know that the world is not run by magic and magical thinking. Atheists do not bring up their children in a land of make believe. We have tried to teach you the principles of reason, critical thinking, logical fallacy, ethical behavior, and the methods of science and evidence. We want you to know that there is a big difference between “righteousness” and “self-righteousness.” We want you to know and understand the difference between belief and proof; between faith and fact.

We want you to know that you are part of a great historic tradition of bringing light unto darkness; that there is a difference between that which is ethical and that which is expedient; a difference between being truly moral and being a follower of religious rules. We want you to know that science is based on facts, not on fairy tales. That evolution is a fact and that “Creationism” is a fairy tale; that there is a difference between coincidence and causation; a difference between potential and actual; that an egg is not a chicken and that an acorn is not an oak tree.

At this rite of passage, we want you, our children who are our future, to understand that what happens to each of us, and to our world, is based on cause-and-effect, not on faith and miracles. We want you to know that behavior has consequences. If you run on a wet trail you can slip and be hurt. If you let fools be your rulers, you will be ruled by fools. We want you to live — not for life after death, but for life before death.

We all share the mystery of having been born human. As humans, we are many races, many nations, and many religions. We can learn to live together or we can destroy ourselves. No god is going to save us. We must save ourselves. For your own safety’s sake, we have tried to help you learn to distinguish between logic and fallacy; between science and superstition; between real and pretend; between the wonder of discovery and magical thinking. We want you to know the difference between doing and dogma; between imagination and mythology. And we want you to understand that learning never ends. We want you to know, as many do not, that life does not stop with high school graduation.

None of us know the limits of what you may yet learn and what you may yet become. There will also be some pain and some disappointments. It is all part of the deal. We did not make the rules. Most importantly, we want to help you, our children, who are now young adults, to be competent. You will be competent when you can survive, thrive, create, empathize, and interact justly with others, free of pain, fear, and guilt — without gods, without religion, and without us. If you can achieve, as we know you can, self-reliant adulthood, you will not need the gods or the religion, and you will not miss them. If we have done it right, you will not need us either.

But perhaps you will miss us. There is one thing we want. We want you, and your children, and your children’s children, to be able to live in a world where it is okay not to believe in god. To do otherwise is to defile the graves of our martyrs. May your future be better than your past, and may that measure of peace, justice, harmony and understanding that is denied to religion and its deities, be attained by you as mortals through the use of your minds; and may reason, science, curiosity, and discovery replace the fear, the guilt, the pain, and the ignorance of trembling in terror before capricious gods.

By the way, if you see any violation of church/state separation at graduations you attend this year, let Americans United know so they can take action.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Larry Huffman

    OK…so lets get real here for a moment: Did anything said at ANY of our graduations have ANY effect on us at all? Mine sure didn’t.

    Graduation speeches are designed to make those giving them feel good. The people listening…well, the students are thinking about the big picture and where the after-grad party will be…or how fun gad-night will be. The parents and family members are looking for their kid, looking for their kid;s friends and worrying about the food at the pot-luck that will take place afterwards.

    Graduation ceremonies are quiant and traditional…but they are in no way monumental or of any real importance. Just someone’s opinion of couched in their perspective given authoritatively because of the nature of the ceremony..

    My son graduated last year…and my daughter will graduate next year. They have been taught…by me…to think for themselves. I told them that the only thing they needed HAD to learn from me was that. Everything else they could take with a grain of salt (as that would take care of itself had they learned the lesson anyway…lol). Following that view…why would i care what was said at their graduation? When the speaker waxes religious, both I and my graduating child will listen and form our own conclusions.

    Prayers and calls to god at times like this should be ignored by those of us who claim logic and rational thought as our stand. Why? Well, any reasonable person will tell you that what is said there stops there, and is sledom listened to, let alone taken to heart. So let the person call on god if it makes them feel better. At the very least, smile to yourself knowing that your future will not be filled with trust in a sky-fairy as the speakers is.

    I think that as atheists we need to pick our battles. Removing god from everything is just not going to happen, at least not like that. We should focus on removing god from official areas, not speeches made by people at an emmotional time when of course their spirituality is going to come out. Especially speeches like graduation speeches…as your kid was not listening, he was thinking about grad-night at Disneyland.

  • Milena

    Aw, that would make a great graduation speech. It really gives some sound advice. I doubt anything will be said about religion at my graduation, though, unless one of the student speakers decides to thank god for graduating. Which is why I hope to make valedictorian this year, so I can thank reason, critical thinking, and my teachers instead. ;)

  • Caroline

    I wish I heard that speech at the graduation I attended. Instead the superintendent talked about the GPS system in his car and how it guides him on where to go, making the comparison that the people in your life are your GPS systems. And of course the greatest GPS system of all is God. *sigh* Imagine that, religious talk at a non-religious school! Not like I can do anything about it though. I’m sure I’d be the only one complaining. =/

  • Siamang

    Instead the superintendent talked about the GPS system in his car and how it guides him on where to go, making the comparison that the people in your life are your GPS systems. And of course the greatest GPS system of all is God.

    Apparently this system isn’t able to steer one away from insipid analogies.

  • http://feste.stumbleupon.com Feste

    I gave the class farewell at my HS graduation, and I mentioned atheism once and God not at all, and the reaction in my heavily Lutheran/Catholic town was just fine.

    I still have the text file – I’d share it if I had a good way too.

    Come to think of it, neither the very Christian Valedictorian nor the equally Christian Salutatorian mentioned anything religious, and they both gave wonderful speeches. Our Vice President, too, spoke beautifully.

    I’m afraid that I haven’t as good a reason to feel as cynical or slighted as most, it seems, but that’s all for the better :D

  • Polly

    I graduated from HS, but I have no recollection whatsoever of the event, much less the content of the speech. Or, speeches?
    Oh well.

    a difference between potential and actual; that an egg is not a chicken and that an acorn is not an oak tree.

    What the hell does an abortion argument have to do with atheism?
    I don’t see any other relevance for this statement.

    The speech was OK. Mostly, though, it was just a (slightly too redundant) litany of the contrasts between faith and Reason, ending with the typical boilerplate hopes for the future generation with the added novelty of being tailored more specifically to non-belief as it relates to a better society.

  • Daniel

    I stopped reading after “good evening Sinners”. I’m really getting tired of the snarky tongue in cheek attitude in a lot of atheist writing.

  • Josha

    I just graduated from college and our commencement speaker gave quite a unique speech which ended with us blowing kisses to our families.

    He made us hold hands and meditate about all of the starving children in the world and how we are all connected by water molecules. He said when he drinks water he thinks, “Maybe Mother Theresa touched this water.” He told us to suspend thinking because we are in a “paralysis of analysis”.

    He also talked about conversing with angels. At that point I was laughing so hard I didn’t hear the rest of what he was saying.


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