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One thing that I have noted come up a few times in presentations in the US in the last few years has been that some speakers—usually graduate students and postdocs, rather than more established career professionals—have included religious invocations at the end of presentations in entirely secular venues. One presenter went so far as to have an entire slide devoted to it, complete with quotations to spiritual texts and illustration.

Is there any sort of protocol about when such sorts of invocations are considered appropriate? (For instance, at a student's doctoral defense, but not at a public seminar?)

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Things like "Jesus that was a difficult problem, but by God our algorithm solve it"? –  Dave Clarke Apr 21 '14 at 16:40
I find them to be always awkward, although I respect the presenter's beliefs. To me it's like thanking your mother, I understand it after a thesis defense but would find it inappropriate in a conference or seminar. Never heard of any protocol regarding this though. –  Cape Code Apr 21 '14 at 17:18
Could you give an example? I have never seen religious references in presentations in Europe or US conferences so far. Is this really a thing in the US? –  xLeitix Apr 21 '14 at 18:56
An example, suppressing actual sectarian content: "And finally, I would like to recognize the almighty [Deity X], whose [wonderful and miraculous attributes] allow us all to [do other amazing thing Y]." Again, this has happened only a few times in many hundreds of presentations (mainly in the US), but the sample space is not zero. –  aeismail Apr 21 '14 at 19:03
Btw if the "wonderful and miraculous attributes" are "noodly appendages" then it's a joke. At least, I hope it is. –  Steve Jessop Apr 21 '14 at 20:44

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I think this is a good question.

Let me propose some guidelines:

1) A religious invocation should occur at the beginning of the talk or the end of the talk, but not in the middle of the talk.

People often begin talks with material that is unrelated to the topic of the talk itself, e.g. thanks to various organizers; comments about the weather, the venue or the town; jokes; and so forth. It seems to be clearly asking too much for someone to speak only about their scientific field during the entirety of their talk. However, at a certain point you get down to business and the "talk itself" in the narrower sense begins. One should not (of course this is an opinion, but a strongly held and easily defensible one) mix religion with the material of the talk itself.

2) A scientific talk is not an occasion for proselytization.

To me whether religious material is appropriate depends a lot on the purpose one has in bringing it up. If you include religious material as an attempt to convert audience members to your religion, I think that is really problematic and unethical. If you include religious material for other promotional reasons, then I still have a problem with it, just as I would be with someone promoting their not wholly scientific company or product. (Even wholly scientific promotion might not be so great, but that's a different answer.)

On the other hand, it is a totally standard thing to have the last slide of a talk give thanks to various people and institutions. If you feel deeply grateful or thankful in the religious sense, then it seems natural to want to express those feelings, given that other speakers are thanking people and things (e.g. the US government) that, in your sincere opinion, have not helped you out as deeply or fundamentally. At any rate, it does not bother me if someone ends a talk by thanking some theological entity.

3) One should not express religious sentiments in a scientific talk in a way that encroaches on anyone else's religious sentiments or lack thereof, nor which implicitly or explicitly invites or requires participation or complicity from the audience.

Thus "Alhamdulillah" is probably okay; "Now Thank We All Our God" is probably not.

In general, in (e.g.!) an academic context, one should be respectful of others' beliefs and views, and one should not be controversial or exclusionary in anything without a specific intellectual purpose for doing so. One should also be respectful of others' time and realize that speaking in front of a group is a privilege. On the other hand, academics are human beings and can choose to say things which are not strictly necessary. In my calculus class last week, I had students identify a quote about mathematics being someone's worst subject followed by a careful and insightful consideration of the reasons for this. The quote turned out to be from Malcolm X. What calculus reason could I possibly have to quote Malcolm X? None. But I thought it was interesting and perhaps important in its own way. I enjoy my freedom to do that, so it is not a hard sell for me to give leeway to those who want to make some kinds of religious statements, so long as they are in line with the above guidelines.

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Now I wonder if there are people who consistently say, "We will prove Lemma 3 later, insha'Allah". Not that I think it would be inappropriate to do so, and it's less intrusive than "Lord willing and the creek don't rise". –  Steve Jessop Apr 21 '14 at 20:49
So why was math Malcolm X's worst subject? –  Olivier Apr 23 '14 at 9:16
@Olivier: See goodreads.com/quotes/…. This is taken from his autobiography (which I am reading), where it appears in context of a description of the high level of academic success he had in his seventh grade class. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 23 '14 at 10:42

As evidence that it's not appropriate, note the comment by xLeitix stating that s/he has never seen such a thing, and several upvotes agreeing. The reason we don't see it happen is because it's inappropriate.

However, it's not inappropriate behavior of the greatest magnitude. It's probably comparable to wearing shorts and sandals, or to lighting up an e-cigarette during the talk. Most people are going to care more about the content of the talk than about about such minor issues, but some people will choose to be annoyed.

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I agree. Personally, I would find the example of @aeismail mildly awkward / a little inappropriate. Not that I think researchers are not allowed to have their faith, but I don't see how this is in any way related to the topic at hand. Back in my Austrian university, not even our (for our standards) pretty devout Pakistanian PhD student was mentioning any deity in any of his talks. –  xLeitix Apr 21 '14 at 20:22
What's wrong with shorts and sandals? –  Mark Meckes Apr 22 '14 at 11:21
@MarkMeckes: For some people, they are the clothing equivalent to using Comic Sans as a font. (I disagree though and think that a worn-down clown costume is this equivalent. I also usually use this analogy the other way round.) –  Wrzlprmft Apr 22 '14 at 12:36
"The reason we don't see it happen is because it's inappropriate." Is this the same reason why we haven't seen a P =/= NP proof happen? Because it's inappropriate? (I don't buy the core logic of something being inappropriate simply because it is not generally seen.) Likewise, "note the comment by xLeitix stating that s/he has never seen such a thing, and several upvotes agreeing"; this reinforces that it is uncommon, not that it is "inappropriate". –  badroit Apr 22 '14 at 14:30
@badroit The appropriateness of P =/= NP is literally a nonsense question. P vs. NP is not a candidate for being appropriate. This answer(and question) has an implicit premise that this is a social situation, and has to do with the things that you CAN say. You simply built a strawman. –  Cruncher Apr 22 '14 at 14:47

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