Friday, October 31, 2008

Beyond Ridiculous

Intellectual dishonesty at the very heart of push to "secularize" U of A convocation ceremony

On Monday, October 27th, the University of Alberta General Faculties Council held a special meeting regarding recent demands by a number of U of A-affiliated atheists to remove the a reference to God from the U of A's convocation ceremony.

In the convocation speech, graduates are directed to use their degrees "for the glory of God and the honour of your country."

The line has endured for 100 years since the University's establishment. Now, in the University's centenary year, a small group of atheists wants to purge the line from the speech. This group insists that they're doing so in the name of secularism, rationalism, and diversity.

The truth is very different.

Sadly, there's very little rational thought at the core of this campaign, and more than their fair share of intellectual dishonesty.

“I would feel unwelcome at the current convocation ceremonies,” complained Ian Bushfield, the president of the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics. “By charging me to use my degree to the glory of God, I feel that my belief system, which does not include beliefs in any form of deity, is being ignored by this University’s administration.”

“If the argument for tradition is to be held over all rational discourse, then this University shall never achieve its goal of becoming a top 20 university by 2020,” Bushfield insisted.

Which is a rather bizarre claim. If a passing reference to God in a convocation speech is enough to be a millstone around the University's neck in terms of University rankings, then there is something severely wrong with those rankings.

Of course, Bushfield's rhetoric barely holds a candle to that of John Crookshanks, a political science student who is also working to push the UAAA's agenda.

“This is a public, non-creedal university with a diverse, multicultural student, faculty, and staff community, and so appeals to the will of the religious majority are misleading. They, like many others, believe that for the University to be arbiter of what is the correct faith for all students is completely inappropriate,” added Crookshanks.

Readers may cue rolling eyes at their leisure. After all, a ceremonial charge falls significantly short of instructing graduates on what their religion should be. For Crooksthank, however, the irrational ravings only get better.

“This is a public university, whose mission statements, goals, and even the 'Dare to Deliver' plan have no religious mandate. Convocation then is neither the place nor the time to invoke any one religion to the exclusion of all others,” he continued.

Of course, Bushfield may want to rethink that last claim. After all, the God reference in the convocation speech doesn't merely apply to one religion. Considering that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same god -- merely disagreeing on the subject of Messiahs and prophecy -- this god charge actually refers to no less than three separate religions. Adding Sikhism, this can easily be expanded to four religions when one considers the ambiguity of the God reference in the speech.

For Crookshank, however, a clear strategy is at play here: there is no secrets that Christians have, increasingly, become politically vulnerable. A broad portion of Canadian society, recognizing that Christians still remain the majority in Canada, don't consider it politically incorrect to attack Christians.

Crookshank's particular attitude seems very self-explanatory: it's OK to screw with religious people so long as it looks as if you're only screwing with Christians.

Sadly, the reality underlying the issue is very different. Crookshank's use of the notion of the U of A being a public University as a rationale for this campaign is also a little more than alarming.

As Benjamin Barber notes, while individual religious beliefs very much are a largely private matter, religion itself is actually a public good. The vast majority of places of worship remain public places. To try and displace religion from the public sphere into the private sphere, individuals like Busfhield, Crookshank and their compatriots would compromise the ability of religious believers to congregate in communities of belief.

Not to mention that it's impossible to believe that the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics,whose membership numbers 180 members -- accounting for nearly the entirety of the 189 signatures on their petition -- are merely doing this in the name of secularism.

Rather, they're doing it in the name of atheism. As such, all their petition would really accomplish is displacing no less than three other religions from the convocation speech in favour of their own religion -- atheism -- by default.

That's an odd definition of "inclusiveness".

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