Is There Room for Nontheists at Interfaith Services?

Almost as soon as the bombs detonated during the Boston Marathon on April 15, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University began responding to the needs of their community by providing services customarily performed by chaplains. They planned vigils, provided emergency contact information, raised money for two members of their community who were seriously injured, and kept their doors open for anyone who needed pastoral care. Together, other nontheist groups such as, the Boston Atheists, and the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts raised over one million dollars to assist the two victims, one of whom lost her legs in the bombing.

Despite the efforts led by Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, coupled with his extensive experience organizing memorial vigils over the past decade, Epstein was denied the opportunity to attend the April 18 “Healing Our City” memorial in an official capacity. This Boston-based interfaith event included representatives from the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, and was attended by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama.

In an email exchange I had with Zachary W. Bos, the co-chair of the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts, he reflected on the exclusion of nontheists from the event, which was designed to bring about healing following a major tragedy.

We made it exceedingly easy for the governor’s staff to find us and include us, but they chose not to do so. The exclusion of nontheists today no doubt deepened the hurt the people in the nontheist community are feeling. What principle was served by our exclusion, I don’t begin to understand.

The secular communities of Boston and Cambridge received considerable support from local and national religious leaders who expressed a desire that nontheists be included in events designed to bring all people together. Scott Campbell, a United Methodist minister and president of the Harvard Chaplains, offered this reflection:

I think that the important loss in failing to be as comprehensively inclusive as possible is that whenever we fail to grasp an open, helping hand, extended in love and goodwill, we are the lesser for it. Not a single victim of Monday’s horrific events stopped to ask the faith orientation of those who stopped to serve them in their hour of need. Acts of heroism and compassion were accepted without question and lives were saved as a result. The service on Thursday was a time to acknowledge gratefully the basic decency that made such a difference on Monday. No tradition has a corner on compassion. It was not a time to be drawing theological distinctions, but rather was a time to be thankful for the greater goodness that unites us as human beings. To the extent that we failed to do that, we failed to live up to the best that was in us.

Finally, Nathan Lean, editor-in-chief of Aslan Media, cited the role of humanists in responding to crisis situations.

Goodness is not associated with God or religion exclusively. Atheists, like people of faith, come in all stripes and the large majority espouse the values of love, kindness, compassion, and pluralism. At a time when our nation grieves those lives lost in the Boston attacks, their voices can be an important part of our collective healing process. Regardless of our particular beliefs, the common bond of humanity that binds us all together as one people should be emphasized.

With one in five Americans now claiming no religious affiliation, one cannot claim to host an event that claims to be representative of all voices while denying a sizable segment of the population a place at the table. Moving forward, one hopes that nontheist leaders will be included in future gatherings designed to offer hope and healing.