Why Would Atheists Want To Attend an Interfaith Service?

In the aftermath of the bombs which recently tore through Boston, the governor’s office organized an interfaith service to attempt to begin the healing process of the city. In my last post I detailed how representation for Humanists and atheists in the service was denied – a fact which has generally been decried by the Humanist and atheist community of Boston. Not all commentators have understood our desire to be included in the service, however: some Christians have joined with some atheists to question whether such participation 1) represents genuine exclusion and 2) would be desirable in any case. The question they raise can be summed-up simply: why would atheists want to attend an interfaith service, anyway?

Skipping over the ironies involved in having to reply to an alliance of  atheists and (predominantly) Christians who often seem quite disparaging of atheists, I’d like to address this question: not just because it is topical, but because I believe the discussion which the atheist community is currently engaged in over this issue goes to the heart of what we want our community to stand for, and what we consider to be our most important values. So, first, some facts:

The Service was both Religious and Civil

The service on Thursday of last week was an officially-endorsed, government organized response to the attacks on the city of Boston (this is a fact which Dave Niose’s otherwise-excellent article on this topic does not sufficiently recognize). It was not organized by the cathedral: the speakers were chosen by the governor’s office (both the MA Council of Churches and the governor’s office itself were quite clear about that). So far as I am aware this was the only public ceremonial response of that scale, and it included multiple levels of government: the mayor of the city, the governor of the state, and the President of the country. The official state seal adorned the program and the governor’s website promoted the event specifically as an attempt to bring the community together in healing. I trust that even the most dogmatic follower of a religion is capable of recognizing the need for all people to be represented in an official civic ceremony in response to an attack on an American city – and that atheists are people worthy of dignity and respect. For civic representatives to pick and choose who speaks and who doesn’t at such a time seems to me profoundly wrong: the civic nature of the event means that the exclusion of atheist was genuinely problematic, not just a case of “hurt feelings” or “taking offense”.

At the same time, the event was also an interfaith service, involving representatives of a narrow band of religions, held in a cathedral, suffused with religious imagery and prayer. I hope that even the staunchest critics of our position among atheists recognize that our decision to push for inclusion was fully cognizant of the religious nature of the ceremony, and that we are not (as it has disparagingly and, I think, heartlessly been termed by some) “begging” for inclusion, but rather taking a principled stance in a way we believe consistent with our deepest values – despite the tensions inherent in that approach.

It is therefore incorrect to say, as some atheist critics have said, that the service was “a religious service” and leave it at that. It is also wrong to say, as some Christian critics have said, that this was “a civil ceremony” and leave it at that. Clearly it was both: with all the problems that implies. Any response which ignores the dual nature of this event is avoiding the facts.

A Truly Secular Service Would Have Been Preferable

It would have been much better had the governor’s office not chosen to respond to these events with an interfaith service at all. Holding an interfaith service immediately raises a number of questions which a government should not be involved with: who should be invited? Which traditions (of hundreds and thousands of faiths) should be allowed to speak? What can be done for those of no faith? A secular service, with elected representatives speaking in their official capacity, in a secular space, would have avoided the tensions inevitably caused by the government promotion of an interfaith event, without excluding religious people in any way.

Those who equate a “secular” service with an “atheist” one are entirely mistaken (and confused about the nature of secularism as a political ideal): individuals in a secular ceremony are at liberty to express their personal religious beliefs as long as it is clear that the service is officially non-religious and open to all regardless of religious belief. The USA holds countless of essentially secular ceremonies throughout the year and religious people are not excluded from them. Nor, I think, do they feel excluded from them because no one expresses an official endorsement of faith. Secularism is good for religious and non-religious alike, keeping the government out of the messy business of choosing among (and therefore expressing preference for) one faith over another. The decision to respond to these attacks with an interfaith service, instead of a simple memorial service, was a mistake, and was not in keeping with the responsibilities of a secular government.

We Held a Secular Event Ourselves

Some of the responses to this issue have suggested we simply hold our own secular event open to the whole community. We did this: it occurred on Sunday and by all accounts was extremely moving (the ability to host such an event is one of the benefits, incidentally, of congregational communities for Humanists). But the fact that we (and any other community) had the option of hosting our own response to the attacks does not remove the dilemma (as some seem to think): the question of whose voices would be heard by the nation, in front of the President, still remained. This civic-religious service watched by the nation was still going to happen, and we needed to make a decision as to what to do about it.

The Interfaith Service was Going to Happen With or Without Us

This service was going to happen: believe me when I say we had absolutely no chance of stopping it. Perhaps when an atheist is elected as governor of MA we will wield more political clout, but until then, we have to live with the reality that this interfaith service would be the chance for communities to be officially represented in response to this atrocity. To directly protest the service (say, by standing outside with placards) would have, as well as being extraordinarily crass and unsympathetic, have been fantastically damaging to the cause of greater acceptance of atheists in the USA – I assume no one is recommending such a course of action.

This put our community in a difficult position at short notice: either we decide to accede to exclusion from the service because of its religious nature, or press for inclusion based on its civic character. Neither decision leads to a perfect outcome: if we were included we would perhaps be seen to endorse the idea of this sort of state-sponsored religious response, and if we accepted de facto exclusion we would have to allow the voice of our community to go unheard, and miss an opportunity to speak to the many Humanists and atheists who were affected in some way by the attacks. We needed to decide whether we were to accept exclusion or push for inclusion, and there are profound problems with both decisions.

The Importance of Balancing Values

The question, therefore, is one of balancing different values, weighing them one against another, and making a judgment between two non-ideal situations (this is the character of many of our most important ethical dilemmas). On the one hand we have the legitimate desire to speak out the pain of our community in an official civic event. On the other we have our commitment to secularism and the fear that participation in the service might jeopardize that cause.

I come down firmly in favor of pushing for Humanist participation in such an event. The benefits seem to me to clearly outweigh the hazards. Were we invited to participate:

  • We would be able to give a voice to the many nonreligious people who were affected by the attacks, who otherwise would feel completely unrepresented. This doesn’t mean every nonreligious person would feel comforted by such participation, but I am certain (from my experience speaking at interfaith events before) that there were many in the crowd who were secretly hoping for a Humanist message and were disappointed not to receive one. Thee people matter, and we had a chance to cater to their needs.
  • We would be able to demonstrate, in front of a national audience, that nonreligious people have something significant to say in times of crisis and despair. It is an oft-repeated canard that atheistic worldviews have nothing to offer, particularly at the darkest moments of human existence. This was a chance to conclusively prove those naysayers wrong, and to change he public’s mind about the nonreligious, thereby challenging the de facto monopoly religious organizations have on public expressions of values.
  • Our presence would make a powerful statement that the nonreligious community is significant and worth listening to, and it would cause politicians to prick up their ears and attend more closely to what we have to say.
  • We would cause some religious individuals in the audience to rethink their assumptions about nonreligious people.
  • We would demonstrate our sense of responsibility to the community – especially given we could have spoken of the difficulty such services cause for nonreligious people.
  • The fight for participation is itself a news story which highlights nonbelievers in a positive way, as demonstrated by the national news articles which have referenced our exclusion.

All these seem like very strong reasons to participate. On the other side of the ledger are generally presented rather abstract concerns:

  • The conviction that there shouldn’t be such services sponsored by the government at all (agreed, but what does staying away do to stop this from happening? Nothing. The world came calling, and we had to meet it where it was)
  • The fear that we would be seen to endorse  government-sponsored religious services (easily countered by saying the opposite)
  • The fear that people would come to see Humanism/atheism as a religion (again, we could simply have said otherwise, and in any case I hardly find anyone makes this error in actuality)
  • The point that any given Humanist representative will not represent all Humanists, and definitely not all atheists (a problem with literally any community which has either official or unofficial spokespeople. The leaders of some atheist and Humanist organizations frequently do not represent my views even when speaking in their official capacity as leaders of organizations of which I am myself a member. I find a way to deal  with this)

I am sympathetic to all these points, but it seems to me these concerns are far outweighed by the potential benefits. To say this is absolutely not to abandon the principle of secularism, but rather to affirm that secularism is one important value among many, and that on occasion a responsible ethical person will have to prioritize other concerns. My worry is that some of those atheists who oppose our community pressing for inclusion in this service are prioritizing one value – a commitment to separation of church and state – above all others, at a time of crisis when a more nuanced and, I believe, a more humane response is required.

Freethinkers: Let’s Bury Our Idols

This is not an uncommon problem in the freethought community. Like the dogmatic religious communities we define ourselves against we, I am sad to say, have our little idols, our shibboleths which cannot be questioned. At the moment, our commitment to secularism and our obsession with not being religious  has become something of an idol: all other ethical considerations must bow to the questions “How does this affect separation of church and state?” and “If we do this (sing together, light a candle, express our values passionately, encourage other people to be Humanists, speak at an interfaith event) will anyone think we are religious?”

In all honesty, I’m getting tired of this. I want to be a member of a thoughtful, considerate, thoroughly non-dogmatic movement which is fully engaged in the world. I don’t want to be part of a movement which insists that the world conform to our every desire before we engage with it, or which is paralyzed by fear of what others might think. I want to be part of a movement which recognizes that the world is imperfect, that many of our actions within it will, despite our best efforts, conflict with one of our ideals – and that it’s OK to work for “better” even if “better” is not “perfect”. I want to be part of a proud, forceful Humanist movement which works toward the betterment of human experience in all its fullness, rather than focusing myopically on a narrow slice of issues, subsuming all other concerns.

Humanist participation in last Thursday’s service would, I firmly believe, have made the world better for some people, and worse for very, very few if any. It would have done so in a way entirely consistent with Humanist values – and for that reason I support it.

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