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!


  1. says

    I’m about a week away from graduating from the University of Delaware. So far as I know there is nothing religious in our commencement ceremony, though I have no intention of attending for reasons that have nothing to do with religion (I dislike large crowds). If it were me I would take an even stronger position than it sounds like you want to. Your university isn’t just inviting people who happen to be religious leaders, it is inviting them because they are religious leaders, and that in itself I would find insulting, regardless of what they chose to say. In inviting religious leaders your university is taking the position that religion is something positive, something to be looked up to, that these are people you should be listening to. I don’t know if your school is supposed to be secular or not, but if it is, then what the hell? Our goal shouldn’t be to insert humanists into these sorts of situations where religious leaders are ceremonially put forward as people to be looked up to, it should be to remove the religious leaders. Anyway, that’s my two cents, and I obviously don’t know anything about the particulars of your situation. Whatever strategy you choose to take, you have my support!

  2. says

    Yes, Purdue is a major public university in Indiana, so it is theoretically supposed to be secular. I agree that it would be best removing the religious leader segment all together, even just for the fact that it gets a bit ridiculous trying to incorporate a speaker for EVERYONE. What about the mormons, the buddhists, the pagans, etc etc. I guess the only reason I’m scared of that is because I’m fairly certain Purdue will pull the “tradition” card and not be willing to compromise. It’s a very conservative university.Of course, if they were willing to make some sort of compromise, it may be better to start with our goals high. That way we can at least accomplish a little bit.Congrats on graduating =)

  3. Anonymous says

    Perhaps you could suggest that they remove the semi-religious parts of the official ceremony and organise religious speakers separate from the main ceremony.

  4. Anonymous says

    I watched the reflections speech give at each of the 4 commencements available online at The first commencement had a Catholic priest, the second and third commencement had the same Methodist pastor giving the same speech at each and the last one had another Catholic priest. What I heard were talks about making the world a better place and peace. They all seemed to avoid religion. I did not hear any say the word God but did hear one say the lord. Wouldn’t a Muslim have used the word Allah instead of God. If you choose to pursue this then I would make sure you have your facts straight and request that a non religious speaker be included.

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