Shawna received a $1,000 cash scholarship from FFRF.
By Shawna Scott
At my 2010 convocation (or “graduation”) for my B.A. at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, all attendees were asked to stand in prayer. This was unexpected to me because this is a public university. Also, the concept of a God had otherwise been absent from our learning experiences.
This was the prayer:
“Eternal God, the source of all goodness, discipline, and knowledge: We pray you to bless this assembly, gather to recognize achievement and celebrate life. Bless this and all universities in their quest for excellence. Be with teachers and students everywhere, that an unending search for truth and justice may be awakened in them. Inspire all researchers, philosophers and writers to provide resources for searching minds. Enable all who discern truth to make the wholeness of human kind their life’s goal. Amen.”
Being asked to stand in prayer to acknowledge a God I did not believe in made me feel excluded and disrespected. The ideals mentioned in the prayer did not fit with me or with many other students, so why were we all asked to pay lip service? Why was I not given the freedom to acknowledge the unique factors that helped me in my own personal achievement?
I consulted with members of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society. With their encouragement, I wrote an email to university administrative staff to address my concerns and asked that the prayer be replaced with a moment of reflection. I did not receive a reply. I tried again a year later but again received no response.
I attended a Secular Student Alliance conference in July 2012 with several club members. During a presentation, I found myself seated next to Annie Laurie Gaylor. Afterward, I asked her for her recommendations about the prayer at convocation issue. She showed a great deal of passion for supporting our cause.
I jotted down some key phrases that she advised me to include in another letter to the University. I felt empowered to be persistent in advocating for change. Our club membership increased significantly around that time, and I knew that I would have support from club members as well. I decided that I was not going to give up and would try a slightly different approach.
In September 2012, I wrote a third email to the university. We asked that a group prayer would no longer be dictated to us. We urged the university to offer a moment of reflection which would allow convocation attendees to make their own decision as to whether they want to pray, reflect, think about people who helped them along the way, and/or remember their experiences at the university.
A faculty member recommended I also send it to the Office of Human Rights, Equity and Accessibility. Within one month, I was informed by OHREA that our request was being discussed at the presidential level. Within a few days, it was announced that the convocation prayer would be permanently replaced by a moment of reflection:
“This day marks a new beginning, particularly for those about to celebrate their graduation. It is only fitting that we come together to recognize your achievements and commemorate your successes as you continue to your lifelong quest for knowledge and excellence. I ask that you take a moment to reflect on those who guided you along your path of learning, to appreciate our families, our teachers, our peers, the world in which we live, and all that inspires us.”
Secularism prevailed, and I could not have been more relieved. I received my M.A. at the October 2012 convocation, which was the first time in the school’s history that prayer was absent. What did I think about during the moment of reflection?
I thought about the wonderful professors, teaching assistants and staff who helped me along the way. I thought about my family, classmates and friends. During the moment of reflection, each convocation attendee was granted the space to be true to his or her own conscience.
The prayer removal was well-received by students and faculty. Many described the change as “long overdue.” But a local newspaper received some letters criticizing the change. Some people were upset that the atheists “win” again.
What they failed to recognize is that no atheist will be approaching the podium to present a statement about his or her lack of belief in god(s). With a moment of reflection, nothing is being imposed on anyone and neutrality is maintained.
Some argued that the prayer should not have been removed because it is part of a tradition. But with our ever-changing student population, it is imperative that the university continue its dedication to celebrating diversity.
Other critics have argued that the “minorities” have no right to speak out. Similarly, one woman wrote to a newspaper that I “could have simply stayed away from the convocation ceremonies and collected [my] diploma at the office.”
Those individuals seemingly support segregation, and that is alarming. The concept of “majority rules” can lead to an abuse of power, violating the basic and inalienable rights of nondominant groups. How much power should the majority have over the minority in the public realm?
Clearly, my journey had its ups and downs, but it was entirely worthwhile. I learned a lot about myself, how to work with others and how to create change. I learned that if you want to make change, you definitely need these two ingredients: a plan and perseverance.
In creating the plan, it is important to consult and network with others. I found it helpful to discuss my plan with club members, faculty members, other club leaders and Annie Laurie.
In being persistent, it is important to modify your approach as needed. In order for society to advance, we must harness our complaints, work together, and advocate for change.
Shawna Scott is a doctoral student in the child clinical psychology program at the University of Windsor. She has an M.A. in clinical psychology and is president and founder of the 220-member Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, which is is affiliated with Secular Student Alliance and Centre for Inquiry.