God is at your graduation
The case for removing official prayer from MIT’s graduation ceremony
Did you know that at your graduation, you will be asked to pray to a god, whether you believe in one or not? Chances are that you didn’t, and that’s the peculiar thing about graduation — you don’t know anything about it until it’s over, and after that you’d be hard-pressed to care. Now, you may recognize there are bigger problems out there, and ask, “Who cares about some words?”
I agree that this is a small concern. But it irks me when such a trivial problem has an equally trivial and amenable solution, and when slights, however minor, could be so easily corrected but are not.
Last graduation, a friend expressed his distaste and frustration to me regarding the prayer. Like many students, he overcame tremendous odds to arrive and succeed at MIT. Distanced from the religious pressure of his community back home, he eventually left religion entirely — a transition he viewed with pride, as another accomplishment facilitated by the intellectually open atmosphere of MIT.
This is not atypical — 28 percent of seniors surveyed by The Tech expressed that they had lost or diminished their religious faith during their time here. For him and for many students, graduation was perhaps the most significant life milestone up until then. The ceremony is meant to celebrate everyone’s perseverance, accomplishment, growth, and bright future. And yet in order to attend this ceremony, he had to accept that he would be asked to go against his convictions by praying to a god and subject himself to the invocation of a belief system from which he had proudly divorced himself after sincere intellectual struggle. Except that like most students, he didn’t know about it in advance. And for what?
A graduation prayer is an exclusive ceremony directed toward those who believe in a god — some 40 percent of the student body, according to the 2012 survey by The Tech (although about 20 percent stated neither belief nor lack thereof). The rest of graduation is broadly accessible and intended to have meaning for all students.
In the 2013 convocation prayer, Chaplain Bob Randolph invoked “God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed” to include religious minorities. After all, imagine you are a Christian. Something might not sit well if you were asked, at an event whose purpose is to mark an important personal milestone, to pray to Allah. Now, you wouldn’t make a fuss — it only lasted a minute, you tuned it out — but something would certainly feel inappropriate. It would be excluding you.
Abraham and Mohammed were mentioned so that the approximately three percent and two percent of the MIT population that practice theistic Judaism and Islam, respectively, would feel included, and I support that intention. But why bother including these groups if you are excluding the 40 percent of MIT students who do not believe in gods at all?
We rightly feel instant sympathy for religious minorities who might have to stand around awkwardly while a Christian ceremony is inserted into their graduation, but it somehow feels acceptable to make nonbelievers do the same. Why is it necessary to avoid subjecting disciples of other religions to Christianity, but atheists just have to tough it out? Meanwhile, the prayer’s message is always universal — wishing well toward humanity, wishing us wisdom, resolve, and other virtues. It would be so easy — embarrassingly easy — to extend that message to 100 percent of students by simply not invoking religion.
Before MIT, I attended the University of Texas. Although open nonbelievers are a small minority there, no official UT ceremonies feature a prayer. Now, you and I both know why — public institutions cannot endorse a religion thanks to our First Amendment. Federal courts have long ruled that prayer at graduation constitutes an endorsement of religion. So by legal standards, leading an official prayer to God at graduation means that MIT is endorsing theism. It’s free to do that, but I wonder who desires it. MIT is an established safe haven for ideas and spirited discussion, and I doubt anyone feels it’s appropriate for it to adopt an official position on religious truth.
Of course, my first thought was, “Why remove a tradition when it’s not hurting anybody?” But based on the above consideration, damage is done. I often defend the importance of tradition. It links us to one another and to the same moment in years, decades, and centuries past. But what does this graduation prayer provide? You only do it once. No one seems aware in advance that it will happen, so no students would note its absence.
Standing at graduation, I will feel a connection to all the past MIT graduates in whose footsteps I follow. But is it the prayer that facilitates that connection? Maybe I’ll feel solidarity with those who found it equally distasteful but were resigned to its continuation because it wasn’t worth challenging. Sometimes traditions should end, and I believe this tradition of exclusion has run its course.
Another objection is that some people would like the ceremony to be less religious while others would like it to be more religious, and it is the administration’s duty to find a happy medium. But how many students, accustomed to the pluralism and mutual respect of MIT, really feel it is right and important to inject their own religion into a ceremony that is supposed to bear deep significance for all their nonreligious peers as well?
If the administration wants to accommodate everyone, it should minimize exclusion, not average presumed personal preferences. Simply not mentioning God would exclude no one. Choosing neutrality would just be like all the other days when MIT doesn’t endorse a religion. If religious students would like an additional ceremony to celebrate graduation in a distinctly theistic way, that can happen separately. The main ceremony, however, is a banner of our entire community’s values. Let us not so needlessly inflict hypocrisy on the Institute’s dedication to inclusivity.
The Founding Fathers wisely disconnected government from religion to keep the latter from acting as a divisive force. Likewise, graduation should be a great celebration of unity among MIT students — a celebration not just of our individual accomplishments, but also of our collaboration, commiseration, and common values. The ceremony should unite us. Every segment and speaker in it should make an effort to ensure the ceremony belongs to each and every one of us.
Aaron Scheinberg is a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.