MIT doctoral student Aaron Scheinberg.

MIT doctoral student Aaron Scheinberg. Photo by Frank Centinello, courtesty Scheinberg.

Unlike previous years, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2014 commencement—happening this Friday, June 6—will not include an official prayer.

In April 2014, Aaron Scheinberg—a doctoral student in planetary science at MIT and founder of the school’s Secular Society student group—wrote an opinion piece for MIT’s student newspaper about the long-running tradition of a prayer at graduation, kicking off a campus-wide discussion.

Less than a month later, it was announced that the prayer would be replaced by an “inclusive, secular invocation.”

With the prayer removed, Scheinberg and the Secular Society are already on to their next project: Launching MIT’s first Humanist chaplaincy.

Below, Scheinberg explains how the prayer was removed, why a secular invocation is more inclusive of both religious and nonreligious students than a prayer, and why the graduation prayer campaign convinced him to create a Humanist chaplaincy.

Chris Stedman: You wrote an opinion piece for the Tech calling for the official prayer to be removed from MIT’s graduation celebration, arguing for a more inclusive approach. What moved you to write this piece?

Aaron Scheinberg: When I first heard about the prayer after last year’s commencement, I felt that the practice, though unfair, was innocuous enough that we should choose our battles and leave it be. But I mentioned the prayer in passing at a Secular Society meeting and was struck by how many students not only felt it was unfair in theory, but were also genuinely upset that they were being excluded in this way.

I realized it was a very personal issue to many students and friends, rather than just a matter of theoretical justice. On top of that, not a single student I asked even knew about the prayer. So I decided to write to the Tech with the goal of informing everyone about the prayer and of arguing for its removal in a way that wouldn’t alienate religious students.

CS: How did things progress from you publishing a piece to the policy changing?

AS: First, I got a flood of email responses from undergrads, grads, alumni and faculty thanking me for taking up the issue. That feedback convinced me I wasn’t overreacting—up until then I had only discussed it within our group, which was hardly a representative sample opinion. And I read the negative comments, which for me drove home the privilege some feel their religious practices deserve.

A week after publishing my opinion piece, I engaged with the commencement committee and they responded immediately and respectfully. I was impressed. In preparation for a meeting between the committee, student leadership, and us, the student government decided to survey the entire undergraduate population.

The response was overwhelming. Over 600 overworked students—15 percent of undergrads—took the time to respond. What really amazed everyone involved was that these weren’t just yes or no answers—they were long paragraphs on personal values.

It was a fascinating read. One thing that struck me was the frequent juxtaposition of an atheist saying they felt excluded and a theist saying they just couldn’t grasp why an atheist would feel excluded. It makes me believe there is a communication gap—a trouble with relating that we can all work to improve.

The committee had gained the evidence they needed: This was truly an important and personal issue to many. A couple weeks later, they announced their decision to make the invocation religiously neutral.

CS: Why do you think it is in everyone’s best interest that MIT’s commencement be religiously neutral?

AS: For some religious students, a prayer at graduation is meaningful. They’ve lost something of value to them, and there’s no getting around that—though other theists argued that the generic prayer to an Abrahamic God was not personally meaningful to them anyway.

So what do we offer in return? A campus where different worldviews are respected and all students are treated equally by the administration regardless of religious preference; where we’ll stand up for your religious group if you are being discriminated against. The peace of mind that everyone will feel welcome at their graduation. And the lesson that their religion doesn’t need to be imposed from above, as it were, to be personally meaningful. It took a lifetime to ingrain in theists and atheists alike that Christianity deserves special deference, and it takes time to find that equal treatment will not affect anyone adversely.

CS: The Secular Society at MIT is now working to create MIT’s first Humanist Chaplaincy. Why? How will this help MIT students?

AS: My experience this semester brought home the value of organization. People will keep quiet about an issue if they think no one shares their concerns. Without the Secular Society, I would not have decided to pursue the prayer’s removal. I wouldn’t have received nearly as much encouragement or strategic support. And I might have been taken less seriously if I had been alone rather than a representative of a larger student group.

Sadly, due to leadership turnover, student workload, and the natural skepticism of many atheists towards organized nonreligion, our group’s existence has been sporadic over the years. The best way to ensure continuity and direction within the group is to establish a chaplaincy. Long-term committed leadership will help the community grow and help expand our community service and interfaith activities.

A secular chaplain would also provide a type of counseling that is currently lacking for nonreligious students. Where a religious student might seek a priest’s guidance on existential, ethical or even social matters, to whom can the rest of us turn? The benefits of a Humanist chaplain would not be limited to secular students—everyone benefits when other community members are happier. Further, just as I can reach out to the Catholic chaplain for a nuanced and accurate view of Catholicism, so too will our chaplain be a resource for anyone interested in a fair view of the atheist perspective.

To support their chaplaincy efforts, email ssomit@mit.edu.

10 Comments

  1. This is curious. Is the goal to not offend? Or to be inclusive? Or to respect others? What if those who are from Musilm, Christian, Jewish traditions are offended by the “inclusive, secular invocation”? Wouldn’t a more just solution been to have both traditions present instead of dropping the one that probably represents more of the students? (I am asking this in all seriousness, not mockery.)

    • Dorothy –

      The point is that the inclusive prayer is a neutral prayer to include everyone, not that the inclusive prayer is an Atheist prayer. Thus, the inclusive prayer represents the most students – all of them.

      Your question reminds me of how things went in my family a few years ago.

      At Thanksgiving, our diverse family would sit down to dinner. In the past, grace was a short “thank you, Amen” type of grace. However, a new marriage in the family brought in someone who wanted to say the grace. When he did, it was a long fire and brimstone, Jesus this, Jesus that type graces, clearly excluded many of us.

      I mentioned to my father in law that we should use an inclusive grace. He responded that it wouldn’t be fair to just go completely in the direction of my family, and that maybe we could compromise by having a few less Jesuses in the grace. I pointed out to him that I *was* suggesting a compromise, and that going “completely in my direction” would give a grace like this:

      “We give thanks today for those many people who gave their lives helping us see that we can be free from harmful, false ideas like Hell or a jealous, petty, punishing god. We celebrate our ability to live our lives for the benefit of all humanity, which is still recovering from the slavery, bigotry, wars and hatred caused by Christianity. Let us enjoy this food in appreciation to those who made it.”

      It was only then that he realized how it felt to be excluded by grace, and that I don’t want my kids exposed to that, just as our fundamentalist family members wouldn’t want to have the above grace used.

      The same goes for the graduation invocation. The inclusive grace is for everyone. It is a compromise already. This discussion shows how easy it is for us to miss the Christian Privilege around us every day.

    • Adam Rodriguez

      Because it doesn’t actually represent more of the students; I believe that a survey of the joint undergraduate and graduate communities yielded fewer than 50% of each cohort (each undergrad year, plus a supersenior cohort and a graduate cohort) who actually believed in a god. With the exception of freshmen (at 48% belief) all cohorts surveyed indicated rates of belief in a small-g god between 38 and 43%; this would presumably include Hindus (many small-g gods) as well as other non-Abrahamic religious traditions. Quite simply, we have more students here who are likely to be offended by an Abrahamic invocation than are likely to take comfort in it.

      I’m still not entirely sure how you could have two separate invocations in the manner that you’re describing without turning the resulting ceremony into a bit of a farce, and I feel like the secular invocation is better than no invocation at all, better than two (series or parallel) invocations, and definitely better than leaving the religious one as is.

      If there turns out to be a major issue with people feeling uncomfortable or excluded or whatever word people want to use, then perhaps post-graduation receptions for people who want to commemorate the occasion with the deity of their choice?

  2. This is really sad. Just another article showing how another part of our society is turning their back on God. There needs to be more prayer, not to just anybody but to God. I am glad we honor our soldiers who serve and died for our freedom. Why do we not honor Jesus who was sinless and died and rose from the dead? Because of him we have freedom from the bondage of sin and have hope in eternal life with Jesus. People need to study the Bible and not religion. John 14:6 says: “Jesus answered, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Romans 3:23 says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Acts 4:12 says: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” The world offers us no hope. Ask yourself a question, if you were to die today are you 100% certain you will spend eternity in heaven? Please visit AreYouSavedNow.com.

    • If something doesn’t represent EVERY student, then it has no place at a graduation at all. Secular by its nature is neutral, compromised, inclusive, safe.

      Your version of God is not the only one worthy of consideration. Insulting or excluding people on the basis of believing differently from you is Unamerican, yet very Christian.

      There is no need for you to put the “tramp stamp” of your religious belief on everything in public view. Nobody else has to fill your need for constant praise of God. Religious freedom means I never have to care what you think God is saying.

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