After Boston Bombs, Atheists Denied Healing

After Boston Bombs, Atheists Denied Healing April 18, 2013

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.

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