Why Should Atheists Be Included in Interfaith Services?

As soon as I posted about today’s Interfaith event in Boston at which atheists were excluded, I knew people would argue that we didn’t belong there, that we shouldn’t have been invited, and we shouldn’t have even tried to get representation there. It’s an interfaith event, so why would we have been included in the first place?

For one, if the President and Governor are attending this event in their official capacities, this should be a secular event, not a religious one. I understand that religion will be invoked by the officials — they’re Christians — but there’s no reason for the event itself to be only for the religious. Even the media is billing this as the “official” memorial service, so the more inclusive, the better.

Also, this is a memorial service for the victims, not a Christmas or Easter service for churchgoers. All of us grieve in different ways. To suggest that the victims were all of one faith — or that the community only mourns them in particular religious ways is ignorant and unfair. Obviously, not every religious group can be represented. But the major groups — Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews — will all have a person representing them up on stage. There’s no good reason that a Humanist couldn’t have given a message of hope, loss, and love without invoking God.

And while the word “interfaith” seems to, by definition, exclude people without faith, that’s a problem with the word, not the idea behind it, which is to come together despite our religious differences.

Considering that Gallup found nearly 50% of Boston to be non-religious, that’s a serious oversight.

Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein just wrote a piece for CNN about how the godless mourn, too, and it’s a must-read:

So I don’t relish the opportunity — or the need — to say that right now, our community is grieving too, just like any other Boston-area congregation. Boston, in fact, is home to one of the biggest secular/Humanist/atheist/nonreligious communities in the world. (Sure, we don’t know what to call ourselves. But then again neither does the LGBT — or is it GLBT? — or LGBTQ? — community, and that hasn’t stopped them from thriving.) We meet every week. We’re getting ready to open up a large community center. We sponsor service programs where we invite interfaith groups to help us package thousands of meals for hungry kids. You can even join us this Sunday: We’ll be marking our losses together in a memorial gathering.

And when political leaders like Gov. Deval Patrick or President Obama try to make sense of these moments by assembling interfaith services, it is admirable — far better for a politician to bring different religions together than to only recognize one religion’s view of loss as valid. But for goodness’ sake, must the nonreligious continue to be excluded from such gatherings? I’ve seen Humanists knock on the door recently at the interfaith celebrations of political conventions, or after tragedies like Hurricane Sandy or Newtown. We wanted to help and were turned away. I hope this is where people realize: We are part of the community too. We care and want to offer our support just as much as anyone. We, too, are in shock and grief.

We should be included in the mix. It’s disappointing that, once again, the organizers of an interfaith event felt that the non-religious had no reason to be part of such a gathering.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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