For the first time in its 200-year history, Colby College held an entirely secular commencement ceremony last Sunday. No chaplain blessed the start of graduation with a formal prayer of invocation, and instead of a concluding benediction, there was a “sending,” which avoided any reference to the divinity.

And, as near as I can tell, almost no one noticed.

The omission went unremarked in news accounts. Not one of the students I spoke with afterward mentioned it, and to the extent that my colleagues on the faculty noticed any difference, I suspect that most preferred it this way.

My first reactions were incredulity and sorrow. Incredulity, because Colby owes its origin and continued existence to the faith of the devout Baptists who secured its charter and who provided vital financial support in its early years. Surely, I thought, the least we can do to keep alive the memory of their contributions is to preserve some connection to the faith that inspired the building of this institution.

Sorrow, because I still regularly attend church and try to keep the Christian faith. The termination of the traditional commencement prayers felt like a public declaration that people like me no longer belong at Colby. Even when our ceremonial prayers were not Christian, at least they were public expressions of faith in a transcendent divinity and an acknowledgment that religion still holds an important place in the hearts and — if I may still use the word, the souls — of other people in my community.

But as a simple matter of demographics, it is true that I am an outlier on a liberal arts college campus. Our students are, for the most part, secular and almost totally indifferent to religion; few know much at all about the Bible or even basic points of Christian belief. I have known only a small handful of openly devout Christian students in almost 20 years of teaching here. Nor do many faculty members speak publicly about their religious beliefs.

Now, from the latest Pew Research Center report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” comes confirmation that religious affiliation continues to decline across the country, and that the millennials are the most secular generation. Although a majority of them still profess Christianity (56 percent), more than a third of millennials have no religious affiliation, and roughly a third of these happily describe themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic.”

Conversely, Pew reports that among those of any religious faith, there is a bit more diversity: while Christians have been declining in number, somewhat larger numbers now identify as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and with other faiths, collectively, these non-Christian faithful constitute 5.9 percent of the population.

In an earlier time, when virtually all were Christians (or felt obliged to say they were) and most of the rest were Jews, the public practice of a kind of ceremonial monotheism seemed like the appropriate way to reconcile the majority’s desire for public prayers with the fact of religious diversity. The idea was to find the common elements of the dominant faiths and to draw upon these to use a form of prayer that the vast majority would find meaningful. The majority in favor of prayer was presumed to be so large that it seemed reasonable to ask the nonbelievers or the dissenting believers to respect the views of the majority.

Although I have personally appreciated the ecumenical spirit of this public, ceremonial monotheism, and I miss it now that it is gone, there is a sense in which to try to lead a prayer appropriate for everyone in general really means leading a prayer appropriate for no one in particular. I have been sufficiently influenced by the Reformation to believe that any prayer that one cannot enter into with one’s whole heart and whole soul is no prayer at all.

Perhaps, too, there is a kind of blasphemy in going through the motions and pretending to honor old traditions that have ceased to have any meaning. In that case, putting an end to the dead tradition does a service to us all.

Moreover, my faith teaches that death is not the end, but the prelude to resurrection. That leads me to hope that the dying of ceremonial monotheism may inspire a revival of faith among those who continue to practice Christianity as a soon-to-be minority faith in a secular age and may one day lead, with the help of the Spirit, to a new era of evangelization.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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