University of Alberta considers excising God from convocation speech

University’s Atheists and Agnostics association petitions university to get with the times and be more inclusive.

Ian Bushfield wants God off the program when University of Alberta students line up in caps and gowns next spring to get their degrees.

On Monday he gets to make his case.

Bushfield is the head of the university’s Atheists and Agnostics association, which has petitioned the University of Alberta to remove the reference to God in the traditional convocation speech delivered by the chancellor to new graduates.

In the speech, the chancellor urges those in mortar boards to use their newly granted parchments for “the glory of God and the honour of your country.”

Bushfield said the reference is outdated and not reflective of recent national surveys that suggest one twenty-something in three doesn’t believe in God.

“We want an inclusive convocation where everyone feels welcome and able to participate,” said Bushfield.

“A lot of schools have moved away from these references. We want to have our school match what the University of Toronto and University of Calgary have already done.”

On Monday, the executive committee of the General Faculties Council will hear arguments for and against removing the words. Christian groups on campus are expected to make representation.

The issue is then expected to be debated by the full council and eventually voted on, but not in time to make any changes to the November convocation.

Paul Tan of the University of Alberta Navigators, a campus Bible study group, said he would be OK with the change.
“In all reality this is a secular campus and to remove that (reference) doesn’t impinge on the honour of God in any way,” said Tan.

But he said he’s keeping his eye on the bigger picture to make sure a God-free convocation address doesn’t “open the floodgates to restrict us in our practices on campus and the right for us to share our beliefs with others.”

Pastor Dennis Varty of the Christian group Campus Alpha declined to be interviewed, but said in an email that to remove the God reference is to interpret its meaning very narrowly.

“It fails to recognize the value of such a statement to the lives of graduating students. This is not religious rhetoric but a statement of purpose. We are commending students to live their lives at a higher level,” said Varty.

The issue began brewing in the summer, when Bushfield asked university officials to make the change. When he was rebuffed, he wrote an opinion column in the university student newspaper The Gateway, which ignited a war of conflicting opinions in print letters and online.

“Wow, time for a thicker skin,” wrote one student, Colin. “If you secularists are going to go off pouting every time God is mentioned, you are quickly going to lose what little traction you have in the culture.”

Michaela disagreed: “I’d be happy to agree to use my degree for the glory of Zeus. At least it shows acceptance of something broader than the cut-and-dried automatically-assumed Christianity of the masses.”

Online writer Kris added: “Imagine if they told us to use our degrees to the glory of His Noodleness, the flying spaghetti monster. It makes just as much sense to me.”

It’s not the first time Bushfield has publicly poked a stick at organized religion, nor the first time his association has been targeted.

In his Gateway opinion piece he angered religious devotees when he said the God referred to in the chancellor’s speech is the “big-G God,” that “Jews, Christians and Muslims live in fear of.”

Last month, an Agnostic association banner hanging in the student-hub Central Academic Building was vandalized. The words “Jesus is Coming. God Loves You” were scrawled in black felt marker above and below the groups’s signature scarlet-A logo.

Bushfield said the defaced banner won’t deter him.

“I’m trying to work for something I believe in, and if I didn’t do something just because I was afraid, that wouldn’t speak too well to my commitment.”

– The Canadian Press