The prayers of atheists have been answered by the University of Windsor with the removal of Christian prayer from convocation ceremonies in favour of a personal moment of reflection.
Holly Ward, chief communications officer for the university, confirmed the change. “It’s definitely a tradition of the University of Windsor to use a prayer, as it has been a tradition to use prayers at most universities nationwide,” she said. “Having a moment of reflection is not unusual. It’s changed because we have a changing campus. We have a lot of diversity on our campus … we want to make sure you feel included.”
“The decision was made at the president [Alan Wildeman’s] level because concerns had come to his office,” Ward added.
Shawna Scott, student and president of the Windsor-Essex County Atheist Society, was in favour of removing the prayer and feels validated by recent decision. “I’m really proud of the university for making this change,” she said.
Scott challenged the line of the convocation prayer, which refers to an “eternal God” as “the source of all goodness, discipline and knowledge,” explaining that, “The end result of us graduating is a product of our hard work, support from our family and friends and everyone working really hard to build our own success. To us, it doesn’t come from a deity … it makes it really awkward to be there and feel excluded like that.”
Scott founded the atheist group in 2010. Its 170 members fundraise for charities and provide a network of non-believers with resources and support.
“The sentiment of a prayer is a beautiful one,” said Paul Anderson, a member of the atheist society. “However, it’s impossible to write it in such a way that can accommodate all faiths, including those who don’t believe in god.”
“Or even those who believe in more than one god,” Scott added.
Scott first expressed concerns about the prayer following her undergraduate graduation in 2010 and again in 2011 in formal letters to university. She never received a reply from administration. In preparation for the fall 2012 convocation ceremony, where Scott would be recognized for obtaining her master’s degree, she wrote the university once more, suggesting a moment of personal reflection as an alternative to the traditional prayer.
A month after the letter was sent, Ward confirmed the change to The Lance.
According to the new script, Reverend Mary Templer of the University Community Church will ask the graduates to, “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.”
“There’s another piece that people miss,” pointed out Kaye Johnson, director of the university’s human rights office. “There is a lot of diversity within Christianity and the type of prayer is not reflective of all of Christianity. There was discomfort that’s not only within people who have a different faith, but also of Christian faith.”
“The thing with public prayer in a context like that, it also imposes words onto people,” Johnson said, explaining that even those who wish to pray at convocation cannot choose what is being prayed to and why.
Jordan Legg of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship is not troubled by the change. “I’m more concerned about people actually engaging with who Jesus is and loving him completely with their words and actions rather than giving him lip service at a convocation ceremony,” he said.
Legg explained that his group talks about Christianity with students on campus, and for him “teaching others to love Jesus” is more important than maintaining a campus tradition.