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Religion at Purdue’s Graduation

Hey everyone. First I’d like to thank all of you for your well wishes. I’m still feeling crappy, but my fever is gone so that’s a giant relief. I want to apologize ahead of time if my posts for the next couple of days aren’t as well written/coherent/witty as normal. I’ve been writing emails and IMing friends, and after I reread what I wrote I think “What the hell does that even mean?” Or worse, I’ll be in the middle of writing something and I’ll just end up blankly staring at the screen for a while. I guess these drugs are just that good.

Anyway, onto atheisty stuff. So, Purdue’s graduation ceremony (“commencement” technically) has many religious elements that our student organization is going to try to take care of. I have been to graduation for a friend and heard many identical reports from others, so that’s where I’m getting my information. Purdue actually has four separate commencements divided by schools since we have way too many people to fit in Elliot Hall of Music. Each of these contain these general elements:

- A talk by a religious leader from the community. There’s a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim. Sounds like a set up for a bad joke, eh? Anyway, each commencement gets one of these, not all four at one commencement. I’ll get back to this.
- Following the talk is a “moment of reflection.” Aka, prayer by another name – the vast majority of the audience prays during this time. But hey, maybe it’s not meant to be religious, right?
- Following this the choir breaks out into song singing “Amen” over and over again for a couple minutes while the backdrop screen shows clouds serenely floating by. Whoops. Guess it is meant to be religious.
- Other songs the choir sings are hymns (a friend had to point this out to me, since I wasn’t really listening to what they were singing).

Back to the religious leaders. The one I saw (the Muslim) wasn’t too overtly religious. He did mention God a couple times at the end though and finished with “Amen” (I guess my standards for “overtly religious” are pretty low). I’ve been told the other speakers were similar. I haven’t seen them myself – Purdue streams its commencement live online, but I could never get the stupid codec for it to work.

They’re obviously picking four different faiths to try to be diverse and inclusive, but this ultimately fails. The day you graduate depends on your school, not your religion – what if you’re a Muslim stuck listening to the Catholic? A Jew listening to the Muslim? I hope this wouldn’t matter, but when you’re trying to seem all inclusive, it doesn’t help when the people actually attending only see one. More importantly, how about the students who aren’t represented? It’s not just atheists – I know Purdue has a fairly significant Hindu community thanks to the Engineering program. What about them? Conveniently they’ve chosen all the Abrahamic religions…

Though honestly, I don’t think it’s worth the fight to get rid of the religious leaders all together. One, knowing Purdue this would be an impossible battle. But honestly I don’t mind having a religious person talk if they’re saying something intelligent. If we could just enforce a rule like not explicitly mentioning God or using religious terminology, I’d be okay with that compromise. If we had a local humanist chaplain I’d suggest having them talk, but unfortunately we don’t. My biggest beef is with all the “Amen” excessive singing and hymns business. That’s obviously completely inappropriate. Let people have their moment of reflection, but don’t beat us over the head with the message that we’re supposed to be praying.

Any advice on how to go about dealing with this? I’m basically thinking a petition or letters from students/staff/alumni about how graduation should remain secular, plus a long main letter from the club explaining why this is inappropriate at a public institution. Tips on successful petitions, who to talk to, what to include in the letter, etc would be greatly appreciated!