27 June 2007

Dartmouth baccalaureate service: almost all-inclusive

Two weeks have passed since my graduation from Dartmouth College. Life goes on swimmingly, though I must admit it's disconcerting to no longer be classified as a "student." I think the official technical term for my current state of affairs is "unemployed."

As a bit of parting commentary on Dartmouth, I'd like to say a little bit about the baccalaureate sermon held the day before Commencement. Though Dartmouth is committed to promoting diversity in the student body, little attention seems to be paid to atheists, and never have I personally felt more alienated at Dartmouth than at the baccalaureate service.

Perhaps it seems odd that I would feel excluded by a religious service; certainly I should have expected nothing else. But paradoxically, it was the sermon's attempt at inclusiveness and diversity that put me off. The American baccalaureate sermon has historically been a Christian tradition, and coming from a Christian family, I was actually somewhat looking forward to sharing a bit of ceremony with my family. But ever eager to promote diversity, Dartmouth opens its baccalaureate service to include all religions. The program included a traditional Navajo prayer, a reading from the Bhagavad Gita, a reading from Isaiah, and a reading from a Tibetan poem.

As inclusive as the College tried to be, the atmosphere was to the express exclusion of atheism. Speakers at the event were eager to quote the oft-lionized Presidents William Jewett Tucker and John Sloan Dickey, whose comments essentially boil down to, "It doesn't matter what religion you subscribe to, just as long as you're religious."

I wouldn't have a problem if they kept baccalaureate as a traditional Christian service, endorsed solely by the campus Christian community. Nor would I have a problem if the College wanted to endorse a ceremony inclusive of every student on campus. But the College abandoned the former in a failed attempt at the latter.

It hurt, because it felt like the College was reaching out to everybody but me.

To be fair, the speakers were relatively light on theology, preferring instead to speak about the importance of morality and conscience. The keynote address by Reverend Fred Berthold Jr. actually started off with a nod to science that was on the whole positive apart from some errors of fact and characterization*. He then spoke about how all of the major religions share similar codes of morality (and invited us to pick up a handout after the service listing those codes). This is, of course, a dubious claim. The main similarities between the lists are "Don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, and don't commit adultery;" beyond that, there's quite a bit of divergence on the specifics. Furthermore, the moral codes of any specific religion are not static over the course of history (consider attitudes toward slavery, for instance). Rev. Berthold also included a (highly dissatisfying, actually) list of moral rules from a "modern philosopher," philosophy professor Bernard Gert (under whom I studied Human Nature my sophomore summer, and from whom I learned little about human nature but a lot about language). But as close as I came to appreciating Rev. Berthold for his nod to science and his comments on the importance of morality in our post-graduation lives, he lost me entirely with his closing remarks, which featured the stale old First Cause argument for God's existence**.

That piece of theology put the whole affair in context. If it were all about morality, then there's no reason an atheist shouldn't have been invited to give his or her perspective. No, the implication is that morality only comes from a supernatural authority (no matter what your specific understanding of that authority amounts to). Berthold didn't go so far as to say atheists are all immoral (presumably God is working through us without our knowing it), but the idea that morality comes from religion is the same misconception that leads many to demonize atheists.

So if baccalaureate is supposed to be about God, then let it be about God and not a grab-bag of miscellaneous supernatural belief systems. If instead you want it to be about lessons in morality, then religious affiliation or lack thereof should be irrelevant, as we're all children of our moral Zeitgeist.

There was one aspect of the service that I really enjoyed. For the Recessional, the organist played Widor's "Toccata" from his Fifth Symphony, the same song used as the Recessional every year for the Easter service back home. Of course, it's a million times better at Easter with the addition of brass and tympani, but I still love a good pipe organ, and Mom and I were at least able to mime the cymbals at the appropriate times.

* He referenced some recent news article in astronomy that supposedly proves Newton's laws of motion wrong. First of all, any new findings won't make Newton wrong; his laws are still accurate at the scale to which they apply. Any new theory of gravitation, for instance, still has to reduce to F= -GMm/r^2 for two bodies under proper approximations. Second, we've already known that Newton's laws were incomplete on astronomical scales; see Einstein's theory of general relativity. But I don't blame Rev. Berthold for his mis-characterization so much as I blame sensationalist science reporting.

** The First Cause argument is the one that goes something like, "Something had to start the Big Bang, right?" Wrong, actually. I won't get into details here, but very roughly, common conceptions of causation break down at a singularity, such as that which is thought to have originated the Big Bang.


Robin said...

Wow, I'm just impressed you managed to pay attention through the whole thing. I've been singing at that service for three years, and this year's was the most rambling, incoherent, awkwardly-timed one yet. So I just quietly melted and thought about lunch.

...I don't leave very insightful comments, do I.

Ben said...

The thing that got me was really how easy it would have been - and still is - to have a secular chapel service. Instead of "even though we all have different faiths, we all look to some kind of higher truth for meaning" all you have to do is replace it with "despite our varying backgrounds, we all share in common a basic desire for doing good for others, respecting each other, and living in harmony. We all derive our motivation from different sources, but isn't it great that we all agree to be nice to each other?"

It's the same wishy-washy feel-good tripe as before - but at least it's inclusive tripe.

On another note, I desperately wonder what the Baccalaureate service would have been like if they had asked Hans Penner instead. Penner is, along with Berthold, the other major grandfather of the Dartmouth department of religion. For the duration of their respective tenures, I am told that the two were locked in a silent war over whether or not a person with religious convictions had any business teaching the religious sciences. Now, I have nothing against Fred - he's the most agreeable kind of Xian there is - but I have to say I'm in Penner's court. And I bet his Baccalaureate speech would have been to die for.