Heretics Club Debates Merit of Public Prayer

Jessica Benmen

Should Colgate’s public ceremonies contain prayers? This was the question that University Chaplain and Catholic Campus Minister Mark Shiner posed to the members of Heretics Club on Thursday, March 27. From hockey banquets to convocations, Shiner has led prayers at numerous public events throughout his years at Colgate, which has proved to be a complicated responsibility.

“The more pluralistic we become, the more difficult it becomes to figure out how to pray and how to justify praying, and we have to start looking at the reasons we do it in a more critical way,” Shiner said.

As such, Shiner called in members from the Colgate Debate Team to tackle the issue. The question was framed as whether or not Colgate should ban public prayer from all formal ceremonies, with first-year Michael Chavinda opposing prayer and sophomore Madeline Allen supporting it.

“Given that you accept that diversity is a good thing, you must foster an environment that promotes diversity. Public prayer stymies diversity,” Chavinda said in his statement.

Chavinda argued that the inclusion of public prayer is a political assertion, and claimed that it would necessarily alienate members of the Colgate community. He contended that the invocation of any prayer is exclusionary toward those who do not affiliate with the ideology it describes, and, as such, prayer is antithetical to the diverse, pluralistic

community that Colgate seeks to cultivate. Chavinda acknowledged that Colgate (rightfully) endorses the private practice of religion, but that ultimately prayer is exclusive, and thus people should not be subjected to it.

“But what harm is actually done by public prayer?” Allen asked in her opposition. Citing Shiner’s Convocation benediction, Allen asserted that it was just a blessing toward the future, referencing a nonspecific God and promoting religious diversity. She claimed that listening to public prayer was a limited burden for nonbelievers, that they were in no way obligated to participate and that Colgate, as a private university, couldn’t really be considered a public sphere anyway. Furthermore, Allen said, the inclusion of prayer in Colgate’s ceremonies demonstrates that Colgate is a tolerant, inclusive space for religious members of the community. Finally, the addition of prayer hearkens back to Colgate’s roots and ceremonially bonds current students with those who came before.

In the ensuing discussion, one of the predominant questions that emerged was that of the supposed impartiality of secularism. Members of the Heretics Club debated whether the elimination of prayer would be a neutral move, or whether it would actually reveal a bias against religious people. The last word of the discussion went to junior Annie Hoefler, who suggested an interfaith benediction featuring

representatives from all faiths. 

Heretics Lunch is a weekly brown bag that takes place in the chapel basement every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. This semester’s theme is “The ______ that changed my life.” Next week will feature Office Manager of the Max A. Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE) Colleen Nassimos giving the talk, “The Job That Changed My Life.”

Contact Jessica Benmen at [email protected]