No Room for Non-Theists at Boston Interfaith Service

A quick review of Greg Epstein’s Facebook page and Twitter feed shows the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University responding to the needs of his community during a tragedy—providing pastoral care and other services customarily performed by chaplains.

On these pages one can find information about vigils, as well as emergency contact information for those students stranded during the city lockdown in the course of the manhunt for the two bombing suspects. Epstein’s Facebook profile picture has been changed to a photograph of Celeste Corcoran and her 18-year-old daughter, Sydney. (Celeste, close friend to a senior member of Epstein’s staff, lost both her legs at the knees in one of the bomb blasts, and her daughter suffered severe injuries after being hit by shrapnel.)

A press release issued by the Secular Coalition of America (SCA) documented that to date, the Humanist Community at Harvard has played a significant role in raising nearly $281,837 for a fund established to help the Corcorans. Also, at the time of this writing, WeAreAtheism.com, the Boston Atheists, the Humanist Community at Harvard, and the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts have raised $26,856 to assist victims. 

But though Epstein has considerable experience organizing memorial vigils—and has addressed over 45,000 people in attendance at these events during his decade of service as a humanist chaplain—he was not invited or included to participate in “Healing Our City.” This interfaith memorial event, held at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on Wednesday, April 18, was attended by President Obama along with representatives from the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.

Epstein notes,

“We weren’t asking to speak and would have been more than content with simply an invitation to sit in an official capacity or have the non-theistic community mentioned, as we have been recognized in other instances by Obama.” 

According to Lauren Anderson Youngblood, Communications Manager for the SCA, they had been working since Tuesday to make sure that the non-theist community was a part of the service. “We were consistently given the run-around, relayed to other people, told we would be called back, and so forth.” The White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships stated they were not responsible for the planning of the event and directed them to call the local organizers. Youngblood recounts their efforts: 

We reached out to the Office of Community Affairs in the Governor’s office, the Archdiocese of Boston, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Office of the Mayor and the Boston City Council. We spent the entire day doing this and were repeatedly brushed off by each person we called. Our lobbyist, Kelly Damerow, called the Governor’s office every hour yesterday, and was still trying this morning, before the event, at which point we finally realized it wasn’t going to happen.

“I choose my words carefully here: We were blown off,” Epstein states.  

Zachary W. Bos, Co-chair, Secular Coalition for Massachusetts adds,

“We made it exceedingly easy for the Governor’s staff to find us and include us, but they chose not to do so. The exclusion of non-theists today no doubt deepened the hurt the people in the non-theist community are feeling. What principle was served by our exclusion, I don’t begin to understand.”

Assistant Humanist chaplain Chris Stedman cites the need for non-theists to participate in interfaith memorial services, because a community event like “Healing Our City,” designed to unify the community and express solidarity should reflect the diverse ways that people make meaning and process tragedies. Despite this exclusion, Stedman has been encouraged by the outpouring from religious leaders who want non-theists present at such gatherings.

A reflection from Valarie Kaur, an interfaith leader from the Sikh tradition, expresses her disappointment at the exclusion of non-theists:

In the wake of the Boston bombing, I’ve been inspired by the sense of community and resilience among people across many different faiths and moral convictions, including my atheist friends. That’s why I was disappointed to see that Humanists were not included in today’s interfaith service.

Eboo Patel, Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core offered these comments:

Atheists and secular humanists should absolutely be included in interfaith memorial ceremonies. They represent 20% of the population, and they grieve and hope with the same intensity that believers do. Furthermore, institutions like the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard are shaping language and pastoral models that can contribute to our nation’s healing after attacks and tragedies like what we witnessed in Boston. This is just common sense to me: interfaith memorial services are meant to strengthen our bonds, not widen divides.

Also, Nathan Lean, Editor-In-Chief of Aslan Media, reflected on the role of humanists in responding to crisis situations:

Goodness is not associated with God or religion exclusively. Atheists, like people of faith, come in all stripes and the large majority espouse the values of love, kindness, compassion, and pluralism. At a time when our nation grieves those lives lost in the Boston attacks, their voices can be an important part of our collective healing process. Regardless of our particular beliefs, the common bond of humanity that binds us all together as one people should be emphasized.

Despite the exclusion of non-theists from “Healing Our City,” the Secular Coalition’s Zachary Bos does not feel this slight will discourage them from taking care of each other, raising money for the victims, and working to improve the relationships between Bostonians of every philosophy.

The Humanist Community at Harvard is hosting a vigil, in partnership with the Secular Coalition of Massachusetts, on April 21.

bgthedoor@aol.com'

Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Washington Post's On Faith section, The Guardian, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Killing the Buddha, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams' Little Book of Virtues (2013), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Jossey-Bass, 2006).