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So I just registered to a 5 day long academic conference in my field (North America). I looked at the agenda; and there is a 15 min Opening Prayer in the schedule during the first day, and a Closing one at the end the last day. Conference size is somewhat small enough that most participants will know ~50% of the attendees.

I went to tons of conferences on 3 continents (America, Europe, Asia) and never went through this before.

I am not sure what this means in the context of an academic conference, what is the relevance, what is expected from participants. Never heard that this was happening before. Any idea as how it is now a 'thing' ?

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    This seems utterly bizarre to me. Is there anything peculiar about the field or the host institution that would explain this?
    – Arno
    Mar 15 at 18:56
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    In the United States, some institutions are religiously affiliated, such as Fordham, BYU, Providence College, St. John's, Yeshiva University, etc. It's possible the conference is located at such a venue. I would imagine nothing is expected of participants besides quietly observing the opening prayer (i.e., the same expectation as an 'opening statement').
    – Gauss
    Mar 15 at 19:33
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    If you do ask the organizers avoid terms like "bizarre" of course. "Unusual" or "unexpected" might serve.
    – Buffy
    Mar 15 at 22:00
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    Please let us know if you find out! Mistake? Prank? Performance art? Flying spaghetti monster? The possibilities are endless. Mar 15 at 23:14
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    @marsisalie you should feel confident that asking for more information on the prayer services is in no way rude. To the contrary, there are some who would feel that being expected to attend a prayer in a religion that isn't their own, or representing one religion over others, is rude. So I think that asking for more information in a neutral way is completely reasonable and should be expected in a situation like this.
    – psithurism
    Mar 15 at 23:16

1 Answer 1

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I think you can be reassured by the reaction here in the comments that your confusion is a very normal response. You're almost certainly not the only attendee with questions. If you feel comfortable, I think you can certainly ask the organizers, perhaps referencing that it was not a component of a previous year - it doesn't seem rude to me at all to ask, at least not more rude than placing an undefined prayer on the schedule.

It does not seem typical anywhere in North America that an academic conference would open with a prayer. There may be exceptions with certain topics depending on the intended audience - for example, I would not find it unusual for a rabbi to speak at a conference focused on the Holocaust (and most likely give a fairly secular "prayer"). Even most private schools in the US with religious affiliations keep their academic work secular, outside of specific programs in religious studies, though you've excluded that as an explanation for this case.

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  • I did some googling, and found hints that some conferences around the international development and aid sectors may have both religious aspects (sponsors?) and university involvement sufficient to meet the description. But it does seem very odd
    – Chris H
    Mar 16 at 16:53
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    @ChrisH Yeah, in some fields I could imagine a tie-in, beyond the one example I gave. I think OP's guess that it could be an indigenous/First Nations sort of prayer also makes some sense - I know at my US institution there's been an increase in acknowledgement that the land grant that made the founding of the institution possible was dependent on land effectively stolen from tribes. That sort of prayer would likely be more cultural and touch on environmental stewardship issues that have a more secular bent than a prayer by a priest/pastor from a Christian faith.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 16 at 17:18
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    Interesting the bias that a prayer for/by an "indigenous" religion gets a pass, but one from a Christian faith gets your hackles up. If you're offended by religion, shouldn't you be offended by all of them?
    – FreeMan
    Mar 16 at 18:31
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    @FreeMan As I wrote, "that sort of prayer would likely be more cultural and touch on environmental stewardship issues". If that is what is meant here, I would not have called it a prayer, though I can understand why it would get that label. Personally, I'm offended neither by the existence of religion nor by religious people, but I am offended by religions that insert themselves forcefully into the lives of others through the power of the state or other authority.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 16 at 18:41

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