After Boston Bombs, Atheists Denied Healing

After bombs which recently struck Boston (my adopted city, where I’ve lived for almost six years now), the community seeks to heal. Bombs like that cause more than physical wounds: they tear at the psychological fabric of society. I grew up in London during the tail-end of the IRA’s campaign, and remember how my commute to school was disrupted more than once due to bomb threats against the bridge I crossed almost every day (one – the largest Semtex bomb ever discovered on mainland Britain - didn’t go off, while another smaller device did).

It’s scary to walk around a city which has recently been bombed. The increased presence of police on the streets, the army personnel in camouflaged fatigues and rifles in their hands, doesn’t make me feel much safer. Rather, they serve as a reminder that, were you somewhere not so far from where you were you could be lying in a hospital with your legs blown off, or cold and rotting in a morgue. Walking near the area of the explosions on Tuesday morning the city itself seemed dazed, hurt. After shock and pain like this people need something to set the world aright again, and it’s natural that they should look to a ritual of healing to make them feel just a little bit safer.

At times such as this, when a spirit of solidarity and mutual support is essential, it is critical that any publicly-sanctioned expression of grief, any public ritual to heal the psychic wounds of terror, be completely inclusive of all people. Any public response which privileges one religious view above any other, or which excludes anybody due to their beliefs, could add insult to injury, making them feel other, not part of the society which is struggling to put itself together again. The genius of the One London campaign (developed in response to the bombings of  2005, another set I lived through) was that it was entirely secular, expressing the solidarity of Londoners with no reference to creed or belief, bringing all 7 million or so Londoners together in a simple expression of solidarity. While there were the standard (and understandable) religious responses to those attacks, it is that campaign which sticks with me the most – it seemed to speak to me, to include me, and it made me feel a little better.

But there is no excuse – no excuse whatsoever - for the divisive, exclusive, and insulting “interfaith” service which President Obama today attended alongside the dignitaries of Boston at Holy Cross Cathedral. The program (see below) is almost exclusively Christian, with nods given to Jewish and Muslim representatives. All the readings are from the Judeo-Christian tradition. There are prayers aplenty. The Processional is Praise to the Lord, Almighty.

I am not one of those atheists who is allergic to religion. In fact I often find religious ceremonies moving and powerful. Often, I am happy to attend. But this is a publicly-sanctioned, widely-reported service advertised by the State as “an opportunity for the community to come together in the wake of the tragic events at the Boston Marathon”. It is being attended by the Governor and the President himself. It is the symbolic response to the attacks: the seal of the state adorns the program, and the service is called “Healing Our City”. Yet it completely excludes many Bostonians: those who are not religious, and those whose religions are not represented in the program. This is not a service I would choose to attend even given my love of ritual and ceremony, and my deep need to process what has just happened: I wouldn’t feel safe there. I wouldn’t feel respected. Nothing on that program speaks to me, makes me feel I’m wanted as part of this society. Am I not a resident of this city? Am I to be denied healing?

I entirely support the right (indeed the responsibility) of congregational leaders to respond to the needs of their community by speaking from within their religious tradition, and I am not opposed to private ceremonies of any sort which include few or even one religious perspective. Also, I understand it is common for politicians to rush to attend religious services after atrocities like this, and that often to refuse to do so would be political suicide. But this event, which was organized by the Massachusetts Governor’s Office itself (I spoke with the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the Governor’s Office today and received confirmation that the Governor’s Office was responsible for the final selection of participants), has become the public response to the attacks, and therefore must be representative of all the public – including people like me and members of my Humanist community. The program presented above is not: it is divisive, it is exclusionary, it is hurtful. It is particularly hurtful because secular organizations in Boston explicitly requested representation in this service: Zachary Bos of the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts went in person to meet with representatives of the Governor’s Office to request participation in a public “interfaith” response to terrorism yesterday, and was promised a response by the end of the day, which he did not receive. It is heartbreaking because people involved with my own Humanist community have been gravely affected by the bombings.

The implication is clear: somebody in the Governor’s Office of Massachusetts chose to prevent the participation of nonreligious people and their representatives in the very event which should have sought to help them heal. It may be that someone at the ceremony speaks up for us – perhaps some bone will be thrown from the table of religious privilege to those of us scrabbling, neglected, below. But at this moment it seems to me that our community has been insulted and rejected at a time when solidarity and care is the only humane response. And I’m sick of our community having to beg for participation in events like this, as if we don’t matter enough for someone to think of our needs before we bring them to the attention of the powerful. I’m furious - furious. And I’m not letting this go. I am expecting a response from the Governor’s Office, and I will tell you what that response is: until I get it, I won’t let up.

Atheists also deserve to heal.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Karen

    I know you are hurting and I’m truly sorry for that. We have a long way to go to overcome the narrow view people have of Humanism and Atheism. Keep the faith (as it were!) and know that there are many of us mourning with you, near and far.

  • Mkbell

    Thank you for expressing the anger that many of us feel.

  • Madelyn Reiter

    “The implication is clear: somebody in the Governor’s Office of Massachusetts chose to prevent the participation of nonreligious people and their representatives in the very event which should have sought to help them heal.”

    Until that person is identified, this is pure conjecture.

    I also note that, while Bos or his representatives claim to have visited the Governor’s Office, there appears to be zero paper trail. I send thank-you emails to companies I interview with, even if I don’t want the gig, so it strikes me as odd that there seems to be no written follow-up or specific person mentioned with whom Bos had a meeting.

    • James Croft

      “Until that person is identified, this is pure conjecture.”

      Not so. It would be true even if there had been no meeting. Think about it: the Governor’s Office decided to have an interfaith service. They decided who to include. They decided not to include Humanists. Therefore, somebody chose not to include the nonreligious in this service.

      Having said this, I know for a fact such meetings occurred: I know representatives of secular organizations were in direct contact with the Governor’s Office because I spoke with them today to confirm this.

    • Laura K

      Here is a link with several of direct quotes from humanists describing their attempts to be part of the service:
      I would expect that recording phone conversations with government officials or posting their emails publicly would be a sure way to be excluded from all future events, religious or not. As a fellow atheist, I need to ask how a thank you note for a meeting is proof of anything. By the way, thank you Madelyn for taking me to lunch yesterday. I had a wonderful time!

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    I agree with you 100% on this. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and it’s time for us to get angry, even if it’s the epitome of the “angry atheists”. We did some volunteer work at a secular (i.e. not religiously sponsored) food bank recently, and I got their newsletter listing the organizations who volunteered, and sure enough, there were a zillion churches, but our atheist organization was missing. We’ll give them one more chance, just in case we missed the deadline for inclusion in that edition.

  • J M Filipowicz

    I don’t understand why people are so afraid of atheists and humanists. What are we going to do? Logic them to death? Is it such a threat to grieve without mentioning Jesus? This is a huge snub.

    • James Croft


      Love it.

  • Angelo

    I think Governor Patricks speech came as close as any in highlighting the distinction between our “faith tradition” and our “civic tradition”. As a protestant minister, I was also listening for at least the nod to the non-religious and was disappointed not to hear it. I hope people don’t read into this article a desire to do away with the traditions and institutions that are inseparable to the DNA of this city, but rather an expression of hurt for not feeling included in current fabric of our community. I read the latter, not because I’m some how more noble than anyone else, but because I have been granted the opportunity to personally interact with members of the Humanist community in Boston in ways that have allowed me to see beyond the rhetoric, and in a small way sympathize, if not empathize with their journey as “the other”.

    • James Croft

      Quite right – a request for inclusion doesn’t mean that we want other people to be dis-included. But if there’s the feeling, as some express, that atheists cannot be included in an interfaith service, then the state cannot sanction one as an official response to the attacks.

  • Dave C

    Do you have any sources as to what they secular organizations told you? I’m not calling you a lying. I’d just like to see what they said in their own words. And as a good atheist, I’d like proof ;)

    • James Croft

      Yes: my source is myself and the individuals involved. I called them while I was writing this article and confirmed their account of events.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    All Christian with a token rabbi and an imam or other Muslim in there for that great feeling of being all open-minded and inclusive. No Hindu, no atheist, no Buddhist … just the unholy trinity of 100% mid-eastern patriarchal religions.

  • Tom

    I understand your dismay.

    As a UU, I was shocked and disappointed that Boston, the home of Unitarian Universalism and the city which still holds the UUA’s headquarters, did not include any of our esteemed leadership (the UUA President, Rev. Peter Morales, who was in the audience, or the Rev. Sue Phillips whose beautiful words are captured in this YouTube video: or the ministers of any of the UU churches so close to the finish line: First Church on Marlborough Street, Arlington Street Church by the Public Garden, King’s Chapel…)

    Many UUs, such as myself, are non-theistic–some are atheist/humanist while others hold theistic beliefs–but ultimately, we are a very inclusive faith community with long, strong, proud roots here in Boston.

    I was very disappointed that there was no UU presence.

    And so I can sympathize with you that there was no clear Humanist inclusion.

    We can do better.

    • James Croft

      That surprised me too.

    • Larry Carter Center

      Faiths and fact can stand together. We Atheists can sing & solemnly communicate in times of grief, sorrow and loss with any faith tradition, as long as belief or alleged deity names are not excluding others. Believers and Atheists must institutionalize in inclusive ways, establish patterns and traditions together. Perhaps a Buddhist, a HIndu and a Shinto leader can join with an Atheist leader with the purpose of creating habits of inclusivity. Letting a priest, rabbi and preacher dictate and exclude Imams or Atheists is proof of the problem: the false presumption of Christian rule doling out to acceptable minorities. We should do this in every state capital and every city council WHEN EVER PRAYER IS BEING foisted upon official attendees to any public meeting or legislative body. 843-926-1750 @AtheistVet

  • Desertphile

    I agree with the sentiment.

    I have two minor points however, secondary to your message. (1) The USA Army is not allowed to deploy in any USA city: I suspect you saw the National Guard, not the Army. And (2) there is no such thing as a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” There are the Jewish traditions, and there are the Christian traditions— both are vastly different, and greatly opposite.

    When President Obama was elected the first time he managed that by catering to the educated and intelligent; he is now catering to the stupid and ignorant. Anyone who is surprised by this ought to shut up and go back to sleep.

    • James Croft

      I take your point regarding the army. The term “Judeo-Christian” is commonly used in the sorts of contexts I describe here – I think I’ll keep it for the sake of readability.

  • Melissa

    If the Secular/Humanist/Atheist groups had been given the opportunity to participate, what specifically would they have contributed? This particular event seemed geared entirely toward a religious expression of grief and healing. I didn’t watch much of it because it was so one sided and definitely didn’t speak to my beliefs or lack there of.

    Had the program been more interfaith (not just “Abrahamic religions”) I could see a place for the SHA groups, but in this one it seems it would have been in stark contrast. Could that be why participation was denied?
    It isn’t an excuse, just my pondering the possible reasons for the exclusion. Obviously the better choice would have been a less religious event inclusive of all Bostonians.

    • James Croft

      Right – if there is going to be an interfaith event at all it has to cater for all people. If an interfaith event is incapable of so doing, there cannot be a state-sanctioned interfaith event at a time such as this. Something more secular must be done instead.

  • joe

    the problem is that this was an interfaith event, as in judeo-christian-islamo, and as you said, just jewish and muslim in a cursory way. this was in no way meant to be an inclusive memorial or rally event for the city of boston, though it might have been billed that way. it is a problem of leadership. it is a problem of political leaders not recognizing the secularism of their government and enforcing that. their own personal religious beliefs are appropriate for another, non-state sponsored venue. this would have been a perfect opportunity to make it an all-inclusive event, but it was probably more politically expedient to bring religion into it. our politics needs to be changed, from the inside, to be religiously neutral.

  • vydar

    Was there confusion in the term “interfaith”?

    It has some basic appeal of faith in a higher power. If that isn’t your baseline why try to be part of it?
    you are correct, it doesn’t speak to you.

    Have a rally for unity. Have a marathon tomorrow to stand and continue to run strong. Let an interfaith service be just that.

    • James Croft

      This would put nonreligious people in a position of having to organize their own event to compete with the officially government-sponsored one. That’s completely unacceptable, no?

  • Evan Clark

    Thank you for writing this!

  • Jon Bronson

    Well said. Thank you for speaking for so many of us.

  • David Philip Norris

    The message being conveyed by this is that atheists have nothing of value to contribute to the healing process, and don’t need healing themselves — and if we want it, then we’d better come in, sit down, shut up and dutifully pay lip service just like everyone else. It’s saying we’re second-class residents and second-class citizens for not believing in God or religion, ignoring the constitutional quandary that this whole state-sponsored event was.

    And you’re right, James, it’s insulting that we have to beg to be included when other community leaders are simply invited.

  • eric socrates

    yes, thank you for speaking for us. onward to the next battle for equality.

  • Agnes

    Thank you for your eloquent words, but I’m so sad that you had a reason to write this. Learning that Humanists and Atheists were excluded from this event truly adds insult to injury for all nonbelievers whose hearts ache for the people of Boston and those who were affected this tragedy.

    (And as another commenter mentioned, I’m also disappointed to see that Unitarian Universalists were among the several faiths that were excluded, especially since UUs could have given a voice to nontheists.)

  • Andrew Lucas

    An eloquent and thoughtful response. I was going to paste a link to this as a Facebook post, but then I realised that this interfaith service was one of those “only in America” issues. But thanks for the post, I admire your passion.

  • Frank Bellamy

    I’m furious that a governor’s office organized a religious service at all. But I’d be more furious if they included a humanist/secular representative in it. We don’t need either religious clergy or government officials to tell us how to heal, or to validate our experiences, and for either James Croft or the Governor to suggest that we do is offensive. I don’t heal through religious services. Most of the secular community doesn’t. And for anyone to stand up on a stage like that and pretend to represent us, to be facilitating our healing through a religious service, is an insult to us, and a serious misrepresentation of the secular community to all those in attendance or viewing the service. And I am outraged that the Secular Coalition for America chose to support these people in trying to get a humanist representative in the service. It is supposed to be the Secular Coalition, to fight to keep government out of the religion business, not to validate government organizing of prayer on behalf of the atheist community. It is turning in to the religious humanist coalition, and that is not ok.

    • James Croft

      I wrote a much angrier response to this, but suffice to say: obviously I disagree. I think your objections are completely misconstrued, but I am not minded to engage in a drawn out discussion on the topic at this time.

  • Paul Creeden

    This is well expressed, James. God, guns and nationalism…all go together. As we see today in a militarist lockdown of an entire city, violence is a two-way street. On the upside, the Arlington Street Church (UU) did provide room for everyone in a candlelight vigil on Tuesday, I believe.

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  • Paul S. Jenkins

    James, I apologize for tagging you in my Facebook discussion about this blogpost, and thereby pitching you into the firestorm….

  • linford86

    This was very well written James! Keep up the good fight; I think it is absolutely deplorable that this happened and in Boston of all places.

  • Nancy

    Oh my Goodness – don’t people (such as the author) ever get tired of searching for stuff to be insulted about. It must be so exhausting….it sure as heck is exhausting listening to it.

    • Colin

      No one’s forcing you to read his posts.

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  • Nancy

    Interesting – do you only post laudatory comments?

    • James Croft

      Contrary to the beliefs of some, I in fact have a life outside blogging which sometimes precludes me from approving comments the very instant they are posted.

      You will see I approved your comment, for what it’s worth. Thank you for an erudite, thoughtful and enlightening addition to this discussion.

  • Nancy

    I perfectly understand your meaning and intent in your reply. Think a moment however about my intent – one can and does choose how to respond to statements and actions. Being “offended” is a choice and also takes a fair amount of energy. It is a negative energy, and yet a choice that is made over and over and over again. We are swimming in offenses takens, wounds being nursed, grudges being caressed. A waste of time, in my humble view. Thank you for taking the time to read my reply.

  • ctcss

    For what it’s worth, I think that getting angry is a mistake. I agree that persistence is necessary for Atheists and Humanists and non-believers and different believers to be somehow acknowledged or included in efforts like this. But being angry at the powers that be will just serve to cloud one’s judgement and perception IMO. Healing is needed, so adopting a healing thought would be more helpful, rather than adopting an angry and combative thought. (Let’s not forget that an angry and combative thought, festering and unrestrained by any sense of human justice and kindness, was responsible for causing this tragedy in the first place. Would that the bombers had been exposed to a healing and loving thought to undo whatever sickness convinced them to carry out this horrific act against their fellow humans in the first place!)

    Although it might be very difficult (even impossible at the moment) for you to do this, you might want to consider persistently loving the powers that be and reaching out to help them understand why what was requested of them is so important for the health and healing of everyone. A lot of what is done against non-believers and different believers is done through fear and ignorance. If you can help to heal that fear and ignorance, you will achieve something a lot more important than simply redress for being snubbed at this event.

    You might also want to consider that they may have made the mistake because of a combination of time constraints and unfamiliarity with what your groups ethos was, and thus, how to helpfully include you in the program. (My church was not included either. I daresay many religious views and voices were not made room for.) You also might want to give serious consideration to the fact that a great deal of what is behind a lot of this violence is centered around Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a world-wide, political sense. Therefore it might have made a whole lot more sense to the organizers to help show unity between those (often) warring factions helping to illustrate that those same groups can come together for healing of differences, rather than just to spout renewed, jingoistic calls for further harm and destruction, thus perpetuating a continual tit for tat approach to inter group (as in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) relations.

    I’d be interested to hear you response about these ideas.

  • MNb

    Excellent article. You perfectly describe why I don’t give a Surinamese dollarcent for the whole God = love thing. When it matters, like in this case, those who pretend trying to put that principle in practice way too often fail.
    As penance I recommend that all christian organizers write an essay about the Merciful Samatarian parable.

  • Melanie

    Speaking as an atheist, I agree with the poster that said this was for people with faith, so I don’t understand why some atheists are upset they weren’t invited.
    1. the fact that atheists even exist probably didn’t even occur to the organizers
    2. if it did the organizers probably thought since this is an “interfaith” service, atheists would not want to be involved.

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  • Agnes

    For those sharing the author’s concern, American Atheists is responding by educating public officials about atheists’ desire and need to be included. Here is a request they shared on facebook
    We are seeking submissions from all members of the atheist community in America. We request a short paragraph from each of you—just 3 sentences—telling us:

    1) your name & affiliation (e.g. if you are a member of a local atheist group, if you are an atheist blogger, if you are a member of American Atheists, if you are just an atheist living in the USA, etc—your title as it relates to atheism)

    2) Why you are upset about not having an atheist/humanist representative at the official memorial service following the Boston bombings at which President Obama and representatives from several religions spoke, and

    3) What you propose as a solution

    Please send your short paragraphs to

    Here is an example:

    “I am Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director for American Atheists. I am upset about not being represented at the Boston bombing memorial because atheists are grieving just as much as everyone else and we deserve a place at the table, too. Just because we don’t believe in gods doesn’t mean we aren’t feeling pain and heartbreak over the death of members of our community. If something tragic like this happens in the future, we expect and demand that someone representative of the atheist community be given a place alongside other community leaders to represent the 1 in 5 members of the population living in the United States today who claim no religious affiliation.”

    We would like your submissions by the evening of Tuesday, April 23rd.

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  • Mick

    Christians will never (officially) rub shoulders with atheists. As a famous man once said, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

    Matthew 12:30