Can Atheists Please Be Represented in the Boston Interfaith Service on Thursday?

I just heard on the news that President Obama will attend an interfaith service for the Boston bombing victims and their families on Thursday, April 18th. My thoughts immediately went to the Newtown interfaith service shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre there, and how humanists, atheists, and freethinkers were not represented. I haven’t been able to find out if that was because no group asked to be included, or if they did ask but were turned away.

Nevertheless, I think it would be a very good thing for a Boston-based secular group to at least ask to be included to make some remarks, so that we nonbelievers can add our voice to the support of those who have been harmed. This happens to fall on National Ask an Atheist Day, so it seems to me to be all the more appropriate that nonbelievers be included.

At the very least — and I sincerely hope it does not happen — if they are turned away from speaking at the service, then atheists can say that we wanted to participate, but we were not welcomed. I was frustrated by opportunistic atheist haters who decried our absence in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, despite the fact that several atheist and humanist groups quickly raised substantial funds in support of the grieving families.

We are people. We feel grief, outrage, helplessness, frustration, confusion, and resolve just as much as any believing person does when horrific things happen to our fellow humans. We want to lend our voice as well as our hands to the well-being of those in need. We are a legitimate part of the world community and a legitimate part of the Boston community. We should be permitted to participate fully in our communities in times of happiness and times of pain.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Tom Farrell

    I have been wishing there was some kind of secular gathering I could go to. Some local churches held candlelight vigils etc, but I haven’t heard about anything secular.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    The problem I have with attending any event like this is that the “cults of the imaginary gawds” have pretty much cornered the market on public commentary that serves only further their agenda of proselytism and ego stroking. Our community should focus upon substantive action. Without the implications of proselytizing. Our actions will speak louder than words. We have been represented perfectly well by the leaders of our community, anymore is really unnecessary. In the end we will be remember for how and what we did to respond to this crisis verses standing around emoting over how the crisis could be coped with by empty condolences and symbolic gestures.

  • A3Kr0n

    I’m not sure how I feel on that one. Until I do I’ll say secular groups should stay away from religious gatherings, even if they include the president.

  • m6wg4bxw

    Maybe I’m quibbling over semantics, but why can’t it simply be a gathering of concerned citizens instead of an interfaith service? That seems sufficiently inclusive.

    I don’t belong at an interfaith event. I’m not interfaith.

  • jonas

    Boston based Atheist / Humanist groups immediately responded to the Boston Tradgedy — including official statements from Zackary Bos – of Boston Atheists & Ellery Shemp of the Secular Coalition for Mass.

    Zack suggests these ways to help :: in his first letter -

    DISTRIBUTE WIDELY – How to help:
    1. Offer to babysit for friends or neighbors who because of today’s
    events would be helped by such support

    2. Sign up for aid appeals from the Red Cross at

    3. The Boston Police Department asks anyone with information about
    today’s events to call 1-800-494-TIPS

    4. To access a public spreadsheet of people who were in Boston for the
    Marathon and now need a place to stay:

    Zack has recently posted a meetup of a Vigil at Harvard’s Memorial Church

    Also he is partnering with — ‘We Are Atheism’

    The fund page is online at

    IF YOU DONATE as a member of the Boston Atheists, please let me know
    so I can keep track of how close we are to our mark.

  • Zachary_Bos

    There were many members of our local secular groups at tonight’s vigil at Harvard… by the power of their presence, the event was inter-communal — nontheistic as well as theistic. And by that virtue of that fact, it become an ethical and a civic event, rather than a religious one. Which is, I have to say, a state of affairs desirable to me.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I will respectfully disagree. If we want a non-theistic viewpoint represented, and want to ‘normalize’ non-belief in the public eye, and want a voice in public issues, it is probably best to be included (rather than just complaining here to each other).

    Interfaith can mean it includes those of differing religious viewpoints, and I submit that this can be broad enough to include those of us with a viewpoint that we value humanity (more than deities), that we value helping (rather than praying), and that we value secular morality (rather than ancient superstitious rules). [Not that our public speeches would mention the parenthetic parts!]

  • Shane

    I don’t collect stamps. I therefore go to stamp collecting events regularly

  • Jonathan Figdor

    From my understanding, the Harvard Humanists and Boston Atheists are doing their best to get Humanist messages into all the Boston interfaith events.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    I think that getting a practical and pragmatic Humanist message into the midst of prayers and proselytizing will make us come off as the people actually concerned with the welfare of folks on the ground. If the Humanists make their message about what we can and should do, instead of offering further prayers and propitiations to a god who doesn’t care, I think that message will be very appealing.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    Someday I hope it can be just a concerned citizens event. For right now, interfaith, for better or worse, is the best we’ve got.

  • Nate Frein

    I don’t think we can start making the shift from “interfaith group” to “concerned citizens group” without horning in and demanding our stake.

  • Zachary_Bos

    I intend to make sure that no opportunity will be missed for Atheists to feel included in Thursday’s program. That entails working with local church and state contacts, and national organizations, so that all parties involved don’t fail to be fully and genuinely inclusive, by oversight or omission.
    Zachary Bos, Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    I agree but only as long as it is a Humanist Minister. An Atheist standing on the podium would generate to much controversy.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered


  • Baby_Raptor

    So you’re saying that only people who believe in a god should be allowed to go to these types of events?

    Why? Believing in a god doesn’t make you any better than someone who doesn’t believe. It doesn’t make you more empathetic, more likely to hurt/be hurt, or more likely to give aid to people who need it.

  • Ernest Valdemar

    Seems like this event is tailor-made for Harvard’s Humanist chaplaincy.

  • Larry Meredith

    I hope Pastafarians will be represented too.

  • Feminerd

    Shane’s referencing a saying that gets bandied about quite a bit. “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.” I unfortunately do not know the source, but it’s a very pithy way of getting across that atheism is not a religion.

  • Michelle

    I’m mostly annoyed at the part where it’s called interfaith. Because you know, atheism is not a faith. It’s a lack of it.

    If you’re calling it interfaith you’re leaving atheism out by default.

  • SeekerLancer

    Good luck and thank you for the effort.

  • Frank

    Speak for yourself, Richard. I don’t need a bunch of superstitious clergy, or even the president of the United States, to validate my membership in a community. Holding religious services is what religious people do for themselves, and if it helps them deal with something like this, yay for them. But it is not what we do. It is not our community. If atheists in Boston feel the need to gather themselves to address what happened, they can do that. But it is a fundamental premise of our country that when a town/city/state/country comes together, we do it under a secular banner, not an interfaith one. When an interfaith banner is waived, it is by a private group, a church of set of churches, of which atheists are properly not members. We should not feel improperly excluded from such an event, nor should we seek to be included in it. It is simply not Boston coming together, it is religious Boston (and really only a part of that) doing what religious people do, nothing more. It is not our place.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    99% of anything called ‘interfaith’ is actually implemented exclusively as variations of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions. They’re willing to acknowledge each other’s existence, but one-and-only-God forbid they legitimize any other religions, much less nonreligious people. Looks like this was the same ol’ Christians-Jews-and-Muslims routine:

  • TCC

    But the problem is that “interfaith” is often seen as the default, to the exclusion of secular voices. That’s why Richard is suggesting that the service needs to be more inclusive, since it will essentially be seen as representing those who are grieving over the attacks.

  • Frank

    The default for what? Seen as representing all those grieving over the attacks by whom? If people see this service as representing all grieving people, that is the problem and requires some kind of education campaign by us, not our inclusion in an interfaith service. Putting a humanist on the stage sends the worst possible message, it sends the message that a religious service can include everyone, when in fact it can’t no matter who is on the stage. Different people grieve in different ways, no one event will cover it all.

  • baal

    I am sure that if a clearly labeled atheist or humanist is listed in the interfaith agenda, it will help folks to know that we exist and are not ashamed to appear in public on a platform. We can be egomaniacal about purity later – once we’re more present in the public sphere.

  • J

    I don’t think he is saying they shouldn’t be “allowed” to go to these events. I don’t think not collecting stamps, means you’re not allowed to attend a stamp collecting event. He is supposing that the interfaith meeting with be a discussion of the Boston tragedy, and faith. If you want to go an empathize while hearing about God, Allah, Zeus, Thor and Jesus you should be allowed to, but as someone who ‘doesn’t collect stamps’, why not use the time to have a discussion about how people can move forward from this event without imaginary characters. While the interfaith meeting is happening, find other ways to be proactive. Give blood, do a donation drive for those people seriously injured,

    Also, being a stamp collector doesn’t make you better than a person who doesn’t collect stamps either, nor is he saying that it makes them more empathetic. As I just mentioned, as people are having their personal religious grief time, show your empathy through a productive and secular way.. unless going to a rally and hearing about Gods is your cup of tea.. but don’t expect to hear a productive secular solution there.

  • J

    I don’t think he is saying they shouldn’t be “allowed” to go to these events. I don’t think not collecting stamps, means you’re not allowed to attend a stamp collecting event. He is supposing that the interfaith meeting with be a discussion of the Boston tragedy, and faith. If you want to go an empathize while hearing about God, Allah, Zeus, Thor and Jesus you should be allowed to, but as someone who ‘doesn’t collect stamps’, why not use the time to have a discussion about how people can move forward from this event without imaginary characters. While the interfaith meeting is happening, find other ways to be proactive. Give blood, do a donation drive for those people seriously injured,

    Also, being a stamp collector doesn’t make you better than a person who doesn’t collect stamps either, nor is he saying that it makes them more empathetic. As I just mentioned, as people are having their personal religious grief time, show your empathy through a productive and secular way.. unless going to a rally and hearing about Gods is your cup of tea.. but don’t expect to hear a productive secular solution there.

  • Claude

    I agree that we atheists have no business at an interfaith service. Such events are for religionists.

  • chicago dyke

    there are other reasons to go to an interfaith rally or gathering, as a nonbeliever. as some have stated, one reason includes a public presence, one that shows (as richard said) we’re human, we grieve, we want to come together with our greater community, and we’re not ashamed of who we are nor do we believe there is no place for us here. that is a powerful message and this is an excellent time to get some believers to hear it.

    combined with activism and relief efforts, it’s a win-win all around. fwiw, “interfaith” at my divinity school always meant and included nonbelievers. ymmv

  • chicago dyke

    i’m surprised at the hostility to the idea i’m reading here. MA and boston both have large nonbelieving populations. they deserve a voice at any ceremony memorializing the tragic events. the idea here (as i understand it) is to come together as a community. i have no doubt that hindus and muslims and buddhists will be there. it’s logical for the nontheist community to be represented as well. like i said in another comment, at my Divinity school “interfaith” included “people of no faith.” it’s a catch all term that has evolved beyond its original roots, at least among scholars of religion.

    put another way: we don’t get our panties in a bunch when people say “atheist belief.” (it’s a little on the agnostic side, but we generally don’t object to the label) would you approve of humanists and atheists attending if it were described as an “interbelief” gathering?

  • GreyMan

    Seems weird to me to want to be apart of this as an atheist. We hate when people try to say atheism is a religion, so it seems counterproductive to be part of an interfaith event. It’d be much more poignant to just take some kind of beneficial action or hold a separate secular mourning event. When asked you could use the old “two hands working together….” line

  • Richard Wade

    I do speak for myself, Frank, just as you speak for yourself.

    And when you speak of “community,” you seem to be thinking of a much smaller thing than I am speaking of. You seem to define community by what it excludes, and I define community by what it includes. The words “community” and “commonality” have the same roots in our language, and they both speak of what people share, not how people differ.

    The word “ghetto” originally referred to a Jewish community that was walled off from the rest of a city. Atheists are walled off socially by some hateful and ignorant believers, but unfortunately some atheists are also busy helping to erect those walls. I will not live in a self-made prison and euphemistically call it my “community.” I’ll be out mixing with the rest of the people of the city, speaking of what we have in common.

    What we all have in common, our humanity, is huge compared to the differences in our beliefs about deities. Yet huge conflicts and suffering are caused by focusing on those small differences, and very little reconciliation, healing, and social progress are allowed because our huge commonalities are disregarded.

    We will never be accepted into the larger community of society as a whole unless we participate in it, and only if we are seen participating in its important events. Quietly doing practical and pragmatic things to help those in need like donating money, and blood and physical aid is very important, but the rest of the larger community pays very little, if any attention to us doing that. If we are not seen participating right up front, in the spotlight, people who have an investment in their hatred of us will continue to say that we are not interested, that we don’t care, that we are less than human, and that our exclusion should be continued. We must speak up when and where the public is listening, not just mutter to each other on blogs or in coffee shops.

    We must assert our place at the table. I invite you to come and help. If you don’t wish to, you’re still welcome to the benefits that I think participating in the larger community will bring to all of us.

  • Bill Haines

    Zachary, you may want to reach out to Greg Epstein specifically; Celeste Corcoran is one of the severely injured, and is a volunteer with the Humanist Community at Harvard:

  • Zachary_Bos

    Thank you, Bill; Greg and I know each other well, and are in frequent contact.

  • Mario Strada

    I am not sure how I feel about participating or not. I am yet to make up my mind. However, one thing should be available to those that find themselves victims of these events, either as direct participants or just as witnesses: A secular outreach program.

    WHat I mean is this: If I were one of the Newtown parents or a victim of the Boston bombing I probably would have been surrounded by clergy and religious well wishers trying to console me, and I probably would have been forced to accept some of their help and condolences while at the same time trying to cope with the events on my own.

    Is not that I couldn’t use someone to confide in or someone to help me grieve. I just could not find true help in a religious context.

    I think that having a small secular/humanist/atheist task force ready to fly to these tragedies to support eventual non religious victim(s) would be an excellent initiative that could also spotlight what we do as non believers should there be a need for it.

    When I was in the hospital waiting for a transplant, many times the chaplain came to try to talk to me, but unfortunately while well intentioned, he was a very dull and disinterested man. I am not above taking help from someone religious but in that case we were obviously talking past each other I am sure he found me as puzzling as I found him. If I had someone of the caliber of Richard Wade available it would have made my experience there much more bearable and I can easily project my situation in that hospital to a national tragedy like the Boston Bombings.

    Of course, I don’t have the resources or the knowledge to start something like that, but maybe someone out there does and it could be a first step to humanist outreach being offered at the next tragedy.

  • @circlereason

    @devalpatrick, Nones are among the dead &
    injured Bostonians: Insist Humanist/Atheist speaker join Apr 18
    Interfaith Service. Please RT

  • @circlereason

    And we know who that speaker should be: Harvard Humanist/Atheist Chaplain and “Faitheist” author, Chris Stedman.

  • Zachary_Bos

    I’d actually suggest Greg Epstein, the Chaplain (as against an assistant chaplain). Though Chris does great work.

    And suggest Greg is what we’ve been doing all day.

  • Zachary_Bos

    It would be helpful for this kind of Tweet *not* to go out until we have a better sense of the outcome of today’s work to get a secular representative at the Boston vigil.

  • Zachary_Bos

    We’ve been making every possible to make sure secular people are represented in tomorrow’s event. I very much agree with your reasoning; whatever the shortcomings of the word “interfaith”, it’s evolved past its original meaning and, in lieu of a better term, it’ll do to describe the coming together of members of communities distinguished by their differing philosophical and ethical commitments.

  • Louise

    I don’t like the use of the word “faith” to describe theists. I don’t believe in god… but I have faith in my friends, family, nature, humanity – etc. I am faithful to my daughter and partner…. etc. Being religious means you believe or follow a specific religion (doesn’t mean you are a faithful person…..). Being described as someone who lacks faith sounds negative / pessimistic.

  • @circlereason (Frank H Burton)

    A legitimate request, as your group is on site in Boston; but The Circle of Reason (a pluralistic rationalist society, which also has Boston and greater Massachusetts members) would suggest that external pressure be applied from multiple sources independent sources on behalf of the non-theists who were injured in the bombing.

    Also, for your consideration in advancing your request: A similar 2011 request that a humanist/atheist/secular speaker be allowed to participate in the Minnesota State Capitol’s 10th Anniversary 9/11 Interfaith Prayer Service was refused, because 1) an organizer was unmoved, replying, “Each of our faith leaders has been asked to bring a prayer from their tradition. Help me understand what prayer an atheist would bring. I’m not trying to be snarky here.” and 2) the sponsoring interfaith organization was generally concerned about religion and/or faith being criticized by a secular speaker. Hence, in your efforts, we’d suggest you consider recommending participation by a positive-atheist (like Chris Stedman, who has a record of non-confrontational outreach and dialogue with interfaith groups). Best of luck. — Frank Burton, Exec. Dir., The Circle of Reason

  • Zachary_Bos

    Give me a call, won’t you? I can explain the sutuation: 617-935-4951.

  • @circlereason (Frank H Burton)

    Good talk. Thanks for updating us pluralistic rationalists on your efforts to increase secular speaker participation in interfaith services; the more that Nones participate in “interfaith” events, the likelier these events’ organizers will welcome them, broadening the role of these memorials to include all the people who need to be remembered and cared for, whether theist or atheist.

  • Zachary_Bos

    Thanks very much for the call, and for the perspective of your experience. Let’s be in touch more often.

  • Paul T. McCain

    Sorry, but if you are an A-THEIST this means you are a person who does not believe in the existence of a Supreme Being therefore, no, you are not welcome at an interfaith service where people are praying to a Supreme Being.

    You can, of course, have your own “Atheist Ceremony” and do whatever you want there.

  • Richard Wade

    Mr. McCain, I am unaware of YOU having any authority to grant or deny atheists attendance or participation at any interfaith ceremony or interfaith gathering of any kind.

    In fact, I am an active member of my local interfaith council, and I sit on the planning board. I speak at public discussion panels alongside representatives of the Protestant, Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist congregations in our community. They don’t have whatever problem you have in recognizing and welcoming my participation and input, which is always positive and constructive.

    Perhaps you should take a hard, honest look at your attitude of exclusion and dismissal, and ask yourself if it really reflects the best teachings of your faith.

  • Paul T. McCain

    Mr. Wade, I’m unaware of YOU having any authority to tell me what I can, or can not, believe, say, or do when it comes to excluding Atheists from an interfaith service. Get over yourself.

  • Michelle

    Sorry for the extremely late reply (I wish I’d check more often), but is what you describe faith… Or trust? You have seen your loved ones act, you know they can do it, you saw their will, you saw their strength. You trust them. Faith is more of a blind thing. You’re not blindly thinking they can do it. You trust they can.

    Trust, in my humble opinion, is worth more than faith because you have proof of what you trust.