College Atheist Tries to End Invocation Prayer at Graduation Ceremony

The George Washington University, like many other schools, has an invocation prayer during graduation ceremonies. Of course, there’s no reason for prayers to be said by school officials at a public school ceremony.

John Beers, an atheist at the school, tried to put an end to that:

Beers spoke up during last week’s SA senate meeting, saying he finds the University’s practice of conducting an invocation and benediction during Commencement “extremely disheartening.”

“It doesn’t seem right to me to be inserting something [religious],” said Beers, a senior. “We’re brought together for a common goal, not to pray.”

Beers is also the president of SKEPTIC, a student organization that serves as a home for atheists and agnostics on campus.

“It’s supposed to be inclusive of the entire student body, and that includes people of faith and not of faith,” Beers said. “They say ‘We don’t mean to exclude anyone,’ but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”

The University Marshal, Jill Kasle, has said the invocation prayer will continue as scheduled.

Her reason for it is pathetic:

“It is our custom to invoke God’s blessing on the graduating class on their last day at GW as they go onto the world,” Kasle said. “It is a tradition of long standing, and we are simply following the protocol of the event.”

Custom and tradition — Poor reasons for carrying on with many unnecessary activities.

Kudos to John for speaking up. If more students had the guts to do what he did, surely the prayers would disappear from more graduation ceremonies.

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  • skinman

    Perhaps John should find another way to show his disapproval. Something that is obvious without being disruptive. Maybe standing up and turning away during the invocation and benediction. You’ve got to start somewhere.

  • That’s actually the first thing that my atheist club did, a few years back. We actively fought to get rid of the silly prayers for our graduations. We figured that we were the ones who had worked so hard for 4 years, not God, so he really shouldn’t get the credit. We wrote letters, had meetings with chaplins, showed up very well prepared at board governing meetings, wrote articles in school newspapers.

    And we won. At first, they changed it to be a “non-demominational” god but we refused to back down for that, saying that by doing so, you are still excluding the significant number of atheists. And eventually, they agreed and eliminated the prayer all together. I graduated the next year without a single mention of god. It is possible to win and it is worth fighting for.

  • Purdue does the same thing. I wish there was some sort of form letter American Atheists or the SSA had to send to colleges about why this is a bad idea, explained more eloquently than I can possibly do and citing more court cases than I have time to look up >_> Because honestly, the laziness factor is a big (and unfortunate) issue.

  • Erp

    I’m not so upset about the invocation/benediction but then Stanford’s have not been obviously Christian (having one of them by a rabbi in Hebrew in part helps). However I would draw a distinction between private universities and state universities about what is allowed. What about baccalaureate services?

  • HP

    I find myself of two minds about efforts to eliminate PDRs (public displays of religion). On the one hand, there’s a strong danger of violating the establishment clause, and as cheerfulatheist suggests, it’s a slap in the face to real humans making real human accomplishments.

    On the other hand, there’s an unintended, implicit acknowledgment that this kind of ritual language has some sort of power. The average monotheist, in my experience, would object to a polytheistic or animist invocation not because of the establishment clause or anything like that, but because of the fear of invoking demons. I mean, imagine how a Christian would react if a public event invoked the protection of Ganesh or Papa Legba or Coyote or Guan Yin. They’re not objecting to religion per se, or even to non-Christian religion; they’re objecting to the raising of demons (or evil djinns, in the case of Muslims).

    When atheists make a big fuss over public prayers, or “under God,” or “in God we trust,” theists don’t hear it as a plea for reason; they hear it as a fear of their magic words. It reinforces their sense of power and the efficacy of their faith. I’m not sure how to get around that, except to be cheerful and patient, like you would be with children and their imaginary friends.

    Sometimes people who know I’m an atheist seem surprised when I say things like “Bless you,” or “Oh, sweet baby Jesus and Mary, you have got to be fucking kidding.” To which I usually reply, “There are no magic words.”

    I’ve commented on this before here, but public prayers are a great opportunity to meet fellow atheists. When everyone else bows their heads, you get to scan the room for anyone else looking around. I usually smile and wave at at least two or three people in any decent-sized crowd. Seriously, if you’ve never done the atheist-scan during public prayers, you’re missing out on great fun.

  • bill

    does this mean they’re going to continue they’re tradition of sacrificing a lamb and smearing every student with its blood as they’re handed their diplomas? i’d hate to see that one go in the name inclusiveness….

  • godfrey

    In my personal estimation, god does not exist. I think, NOW, that Julian Jaynes is right, with the Bicameral Mind interpretation. That was not my position in college, I was still a believer, then. I would have disagreed with a protester, then. I have to say that Hemant’s “Friendly Atheist” approach is a good one. Intelligent, rational discourse is preferable to me. I “outed” myself to a devout xtian at work, and fortunately he had known me for awhile, but he still said he was “Looking for horns on my head”, when I admitted it.

  • Also in the DC area, the University of Maryland senate voted to end the tradition of having a prayer at graduation ceremonies.

    The university president overruled the senate, also on the grounds of maintaining tradition.

  • HP:
    On the other hand, there’s an unintended, implicit acknowledgment that this kind of ritual language has some sort of power.

    I think it does. To be sure, it’s more like Pratchett’s “headology” than voodoo magic, but the fact is that we’re a social species, and we’re affected by what the people around us do. We are subject to peer pressure.

    Having a prayer as an official part of a college graduation ceremony, I think, sends the message that “this is what you’re supposed to do”; that while you’re free to worship the god of your choice, there’s something wrong if you choose not to.

  • Wendy

    Good on ya, John! Keep fighting the good fight!

  • When atheists make a big fuss over public prayers, or “under God,” or “in God we trust,” theists don’t hear it as a plea for reason; they hear it as a fear of their magic words. It reinforces their sense of power and the efficacy of their faith.

    I agree, and I’m really not sure the best way to proceed. Maybe a better course of action would be to encourage diversity, at least at first? Maybe have a Catholic say a prayer one year, then a Jew, then a Protestant, then a Muslim, then a Buddhist, then maybe a a Humanist speak, etc.

  • Time to contact the many separation of church and state organizations that will gladly help out!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “It is a tradition of long standing, and we are simply following the protocol of the event.”

    An empty defense which could be used for any tradition, including slavery and baby sacrifice.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I think it is important to note that George Washington is a private university. Separation of church and state does not apply in this case. I’m not saying that I support keeping the invocation at graduation there, but it really is up to the students to work it out.

    The University of Maryland is public, of course, and it is ludicrous for them to have an invocation. I don’t recall there being an invocation at the public university I graduated from in California, and I don’t recall anyone complaining either. Religious students may have their own religious graduation ceremonies all they wish. On their own time! My family didn’t travel halfway across the state to hear a prayer.

  • @James – That is actually what they do but that practice always excludes someone.

  • Thank you Hemant for posting this! It has been a crazy couple weeks. Everything happened in such a short amount of time.

    I’d actually prefer if people would see my op-ed that was in the same issue of the paper as that article. I think the article was a bit misleading. The angle at which I was shot, the way I was posed, etc. in the picture didn’t help too much either. I certainly don’t look like I belong in the Friendly Atheist Club.

    I don’t think I’ll be doing anything disruptive during the commencement. That’s not really my style. I’m just going to keep moving forward, sending the formal letter Jill Kasle wants for the review of the tradition next year, and getting a bill on the agenda of our University Senate. I think I’m going to try HP’s atheist-scan 🙂

    Students at UMD are going to be protesting their president’s action in overruling the University Congress sometime in early May. Part of the problem there is they were just under a lot of heat for showing pornography. You can imagine, “Pornography over Prayer” articles were all over the place last week.

    Thanks again everyone for the support!