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Monday, May 13, 2013

Counterfeit Pluralism

I just came back from a graduation ceremony and sat through the requisite public display of piety officiated by the university chaplain. This service was clearly influenced by the interfaith movement, although it was not billed as such. The chaplain acknowledged the diverse faith traditions present and addressed his prayer to Eternal God. The interfaith model that influenced the service was not the pluralistic kind that reaches out to non-believers. No, it was as the old theonormative variety that the nomenclature implies--the counterfeit pluralism that reaches out to believers of diverse faiths but no further.

As if the prayer to Eternal God were not enough, the chaplain read a poem that affirmed that we all find our purpose in God's will. Not only were non-believers co-opted into reverent silence that implies consent to public indoctrination, we were insulted in the bargain. We were told that our lives have no meaning. Assuming a representative sample, there is every reason estimate that one in five were religiously unaffiliated. Whether conferring or receiving diplomas or congratulating loved ones, we came together in celebration and were insulted for our efforts.

I have reached out to the chaplain to ask for a copy of the prayer. I hope to engage him on how he might craft a more inclusive message. A friend suggested that the proper course of action would be to appeal to the university administration to disallow clerical invocations. I do object to clergy being invited to give invocations in deference to their professional credentials alone and I will follow up with the administration if the chaplain is indifferent to my complaints. I wouldn't object to a poet giving an invocation--even one who happens to be a chaplain. The problem is the assumption that a chaplain's credentials on their own are considered universally relevant to those assembled.

Maybe I'll recommend that the chaplain read Faitheist and consider making outreach to atheists a goal of the campus ministry office. Not only do you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you sometimes get an unlikely ally for a secular student group. As much as I abhor the obscurantism that atheist interfaith activism implies, incremental change is still change. Moreover, there's no guarantee that the university administration would risk alienating benefactors among the faithful with a secular invocation. Ultimately, the sense of entitlement to a religious invocation will need to be challenged.

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