My political thought of the day:
On Thursday the president attended a memorial in Boston, billed as interfaith. But according to some of my secularist FB friends this service is actually quite insulting, because atheists and other non-religious groups were not represented. This in spite of the fact that many of the seriously injured identified as atheists, agnostics, secularists, etc., and in spite of the fact that Harvard has a humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, who could have helped them include his community in the public memorial.
I don’t know why the secular people were excluded from this memorial. It may have been intentional. It may also have been an oversight, or perhaps someone thought secularists wouldn’t have been interested in participating – that label interfaith, with its connection to theism, does lead to that kind of misunderstanding. I honestly don’t have enough information to know what happened. But even if it was an innocent mistake as opposed to something malicious, that doesn’t make the oversight okay.
After a city-wide loss like this we need to be focusing on what binds us. Memorials should be about, well, memorializing, but also about collectively encouraging our neighbors, reaffirming that we will get through this. And the atheists and other secularists I’ve known do have values. In fact, many of their values are *my* values. Not all –we do have serious disagreements– but on many points we do agree. I can make the case for perseverance, joy, community, altruism, and friendship using religious language without thinking this is the only way of showing support for these ideals. That’s one of the reasons I have been so supportive of Dan’s and Libby Anne’s Forward Thinking project: it’s brought both atheists and religious people together, got them talking about the same topic, and shown that we can have a meaningful dialogue because, even though we may use distinct vocabularies and have metaphysical disagreements, we are both still progressives. If an atheist wants to use poetry or beautiful literature to talk about perseverance that doesn’t take away from the depth of my own statement when I quote Jesus or Paul or Moses or Augustine or Tillich or Buber or Rumi or… you get the picture.
Community-wide memorials are one way we allow whole communities to grieve together. It’s right and fitting that *all* people in those communities feel they can attend and that their viewpoints are represented. It’s also good that individual *sub*-communities –including individual churches and the religious subcommunity as a whole– do their own work of ministering to their groups. The thing is, when you do this, it’s not a community-wide event. It’s like the baccalaureate services my town on the Sunday before the high school graduation: meaningful and worthwhile, but no replacement for the real graduation. Back when NYC had a dedication service for the 9/11 memorial, I was a bit offended that no clergy were invited. At the time I felt like an important part of experience –my experience– was being blocked out from an event that shouldn’t be doing that.
We can talk about whether I’m right to be upset in that circumstance. But if I’m prepared to oppose the exclusion of religion, I should be just as quick to oppose things like this. Atheists and other non-religious types do have positive values they can talk about (I mean, the movement goes beyond “God doesn’t exist”), they do mourn and feel the existential angst we all did after that attack — and people who have this worldview have just as much right to feel welcomed and represented at our community remembrances.