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Opening Exercises: A time for Hal, not God, to welcome frosh

As a non-believer, I found the University's inter-faith Opening Exercises church service both off-putting and exclusionary. Given the diversity of religious traditions on this campus, not to mention the strong minority of non-believers, an overtly religious ceremony is not an appropriate way to welcome each new freshman class to Princeton.

Though the University included a prayer from the Qu'ran and a litany by Rabbi Diamond, the service did essentially nothing to incorporate people coming from a religious tradition not ultimately based in the Old Testament. Moreover, the overt religious themes of the service were in no way welcoming to those of us who lack religious faith.


Requiring freshmen to attend a religious service puts the University in the position of foisting a particular set of religious beliefs on a group of people who do not necessarily adhere to that faith — or any faith for that matter.

Though I appreciate people's desire to join together in faith-based communities, religion is a manifestly personal matter, and individuals deserve the right to choose their faith and practices, or lack thereof. While I laud the University for providing services and discussion groups for people from dozens of different religious traditions, the current Opening Exercises go too far in shoving certain religious viewpoints onto people who do not hold them.

Many people of faith will doubtless say that I am overreacting to what should be a minor issue. People may suggest that those of us who do not believe in the Bible can sit quietly while the service proceeds around us.

But surely we would think it wrong for our purportedly secular University to mandate that a newly admitted Jew attend a fundamentalist Christian service, or that a devout Protestant worship in a mosque.

Doing so would quickly build Princeton's reputation as a University welcoming only to those from certain backgrounds. The same respect we have for people of different religions should be extended to those of us without one.

From my own personal experience, and having discussed the matter with several other atheists and members of differing faiths, I can attest that the Opening Exercises placed many of us in an extremely uncomfortable position. Being told to participate in a ceremony that refers to and supports the existence of God is no way for the University to welcome its incoming students.


I would have no problem with Princeton offering a religious ceremony during Freshman Week, and I do not take umbrage with the services offered every Sunday in our chapel. But our University should not require freshmen to attend Judeo-Christian services.

If we wish to continue our tradition of a mandatory Opening Exercises, we should secularize it to make it acceptable to all. A speech by President Shapiro, welcomings from several of the deans and a presentation of academic awards would provide a suitable start to the year without evoking the perils inherent in a religious ceremony.

A recent poll published in The New York Times reported that though well over 90 percent of American voters were willing to choose a qualified Jew, Catholic or African American for president, just under half would be willing to cast votes for a non-believer.

I suspect that those of us who lack religious faith will be excluded in many circumstances after graduation. I simply ask that the University not ostracize some of its members from the very ceremony meant to welcome them. Peter Harrell is a politics major from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at

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