Republished: There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

This was the first article I wrote for a student newspaper and in a way it’s somewhat historic. In 2008, the University of Alberta Atheists & Agnostics started campaigning for a secular convocation charge. When our initial request was ignored, I raised the issue with the student newspaper, The Gateway, and they recommend I write an editorial to push the story forward. This is that editorial.

There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

Originally published in The Gateway, 16th September 2008

Upon the gruelling end of a 4-5-6 or even 7 year journey, students embark across a stage for the chance to experience their high school graduation on steroids. This event is known as convocation, and despite the movement toward inclusiveness and tolerance, this is one stage that keeps the flame of intolerance burning bright.

When new graduates cross the stage at their convocation, they are presented with a charge by the University’s Chancellor. He issues an Admission where he states: “I charge you to use them [the powers, rights, and privileges of University degrees] for the glory of God.” It is commonly understood that big-G God here is some variant of the monotheistic Abrahamic God (or the one Jews, Christians and Muslims live in fear of).

A recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests that around 36% of Canadians under 25 do not believe in a god. This means that when the Chancellor issues his charge, he is denying the existence of students who disagree with the idea of living in fear of a deity. He also offends the sense of the majority who believe that a public institution should have no stance on religious issues. This is the idea of separation of church and state, or secularism, that founded the United States, but is exemplified by Canada’s modern governments.

Upon hearing about this issue from several of its members, the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics drafted a letter which was sent to the President’s Office on July 14. Hope for a quick move to inclusiveness was dashed when nearly a month later we received a brief response stating their office had heard of the issue earlier and decided against doing anything. We were disappointed to hear that this University wishes to remain in its dark-aged roots, however, seeing as we received no reason for their decision not to change the charge, we requested the minutes from the meeting where they decided this. Continuing to drag its feet, the President’s Office has decided this is an issue that requires a FOIPP request.

Now, almost two month’s after the UAAA made a request to make our convocation more tolerant of the diversity of all students, we still don’t have an official reason why the President’s Office won’t respect our wishes. We also have over a hundred signatures of students who are outraged by this break in secular values and the separation of church and state. Finally, we have a Facebook group for people to get more information about this issue. We have had tremendous support not just from atheists and humanists but from students, alumni, and faculty of diverse backgrounds, including people who deeply believe in God but who support the separation of Church and state and recognize that this is a public, not private, university.

This push is also not without precedence. The University of Calgary’s admission is to grant degrees to those who have "earned" them and give them the "rights and privileges, powers and responsibilities pertaining to those degrees."  The University of Toronto secularized its convocation several years ago as well. Cleary the U of A can look to be as progressive as the U of T and U of C.

Many will assume this is a frivolous attempt to push militant atheism. However, we are not requesting the charge to say "use your glory to disprove god and vilify religion", we just want to feel welcome in a ceremony we have all equally earned. Further, members of our group do not wish to define "god" in some way that it makes them happy as some would suggest. We do not arbitrarily interpret words differently to get through the day. Interpreting an F on your transcript as "Fantastic" doesn’t make it so. The University’s charge comes from the charge from Oxford University, which has a clearly Christian foundation.

It shouldn’t be unreasonable for a group of students who pay upwards of $25,000 to get a degree to ask to be included in a celebration of their achievements. The President’s disregard for our wishes is abhorrent and intolerant.  We stand united for a secular convocation at the University of Alberta.

By the end of the school year, we’d managed to win a concession from the university and the convocation charge was changed.