Thursday, April 18, 2013

On why we couldn't have been invited to the Boston Marathon interfaith service

This week a secular event in a very secular city was visited by a terrible human tragedy. And in response to this nationally significant event a service was coordinated; a service where the representatives of many different belief systems would be given the chance to speak to their own people and on behalf of their perspective. At this service the non-theistic perspective was not given voice. And I think it is our responsibility to fix what made this outcome inevitable.

It should be noted that the representatives of the secular perspective did every bit of outreach they could have to get us a seat at the table. I know personally several of the people who worked on this and there is no additional amount of leg work that could have made a difference. What we (as non-theists) needed was to have had different relationship with the country at large. And there are two things that I think we need in place for next time.

First we need to have a creed that outsiders can understand. I mean creed here like mission statement, not an object of faith. We need a few sentences that sound nice that can be “what we are about”. These few sentences would be public relations and not gospel. It would be important to get them right, to have them be something that we feel comfortable supporting, but not something that needed to be perfect. It would serve as the greeting card from atheism to the country; something to help us introducing ourselves to people who still just think that we are satanic communists.

Secondly we need representatives. We need people that our community has endorsed, who speak for us and to us in times of tragedy and celebration.  Again we can’t wait for the perfect person who everyone got along with about everything, but someone to say what many of us are thinking, so that we can feel that we are heard. These representatives would not be telling the world what we as individuals think, we the represented would not be obliged to agree with, believe, or follow what is said. But like having a politician you voted for speak, they would be our stand in for the public conversation.

Having such a public persona and publicly understood mission statement would have made our representation at the upcoming interfaith service possible.  Without establishing our public presence in a “day in day out” way, any time we want to be included is going to look like a shocking introduction that will make our inclusion about us “suddenly” being included. We need to be talked about as just another identity of Americans in an ongoing basis so that people get used to us being out and proud. And having a recognizable secular persona who isn’t known for confrontation would make that person’s inclusion in an interfaith service make sense. Someone needs to be out there talking about our community’s perspective in a way that gives us voice without making us look like bomb throwers. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are great and have done great things for the Atheist position, but I’m not sure they have done much good for the atheist community. We have enough debaters; I think we need a communicator.

So what I am suggesting here is that we start to put ourselves forward in a positive way. I am not saying that we forcibly retire Dawkins, or cease to criticize where criticism is necessary. Just that we also start to engage with the majority of our country, which is religious. Religions and religious people are here to stay, but so are we. And when tragedy strikes, it would help if we were already seen as the important part of the American fabric that we already are.

Josiah van Vliet
President Boston Atheists


  1. Can you create a draft of such a mission statement that others could comment on, improve upon?

  2. We have all these things already, especially in Boston!

  3. I'm sorry, I disagree here. You've spent a long time creating a community that is based around 'facts not faith' and now, when there's a gathering of people who don't share your vision, you're pissed that you "didn't get a seat at the table". Why should you? You've chosen to live without a god in your life -- and many people find that commendable -- but to expect people who have chosen to live with some form of god in their life to make room for you is like walking into a vegetarian restaurant and demanding they cook you a steak.

    The humanist community has a lot to offer, and there are going to be candle-light vigils, memorial services, charity projects, and all manner of private and public events which you can contribute to or even create. Look at the other side of the coin: the Humanist community organizes a "Day of Healing" event in the next few weeks at The Boston Public Library -- as close to a secular church as you can come. A few days before the event, a Roman Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and an Imam walk into your office and ask to speak at your gathering. Your response would be "Is this a joke?".

    As spokesman for the atheist community it's your duty to create an environment or an event that is equal in power to the event created by the theist community, not to crash their party because it's better than yours.

  4. I don't think we are talking about crashing a party here. The point is we are at the party, every minute of every day. We just looking to be handed the mic to say a few words at critical times like these, because there is a unique and important view that we have to offer. Solace and comfort is not solely the purview of those that need the promise of eternal life and the threat of eternal damnation in order to be thoughtful, caring human beings.

  5. @Ellen, thanks for taking this seriously, it means a lot from you, and yes, I can work on that.
    @James, I think we sort of have these things in Boston, and perhaps if not for the president being there we would have been invited.
    @Alex, I'm always glad when you contribute to these conversations, your perspective is locally heterodox which can be very helpful. And I think you have a solid point, but the question of whether we would be crashing or not hinges on the meaning of interfaith. If interfaith includes no faith at all then we could have rated a seat at the table (although to reiterate I don't think we've earned the stature to have been invited this morning even if interfaith means what I want it to). I for example would have never thought that we should be invited to a catholic service, or a jewish service, but the interfaith service where the president spoke might have had a place for us.

  6. I attended a lecture at Radcliffe this afternoon by Lawrence M. Krauss, on cosmology. He attended the interfaith service this morning and said he was offended by the religious tone imposed by many of the speakers. I listened to the service and was quite moved by speeches of our President, our Governor, and even our Mayor. I would have quite liked to hear Dr. Krauss as well.
    President Obama has repeatedly gone out of his way to include atheists as legitimate Americans in speeches he has made. I don't see why the other attendees could not have been as inclusive.

  7. Do you really want humanists/atheists to speak at Holy Cross Cathedral where Cardinal Bernard Law gave many a mass even as he was shuffling pedophile priests in and out of parishes, and later picketed by SNAP members? (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

  8. Do you really want humanists/atheists to speak at Holy Cross Cathedral where Cardinal Bernard Law gave many a mass even as he was shuffling pedophile priests in and out of parishes, and later picketed by SNAP members? (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

  9. I don't see the problem with speaking in the same space, unless the abuse of institutional power is contagious.

  10. This event, even though it is one of national prominence, seems to have been organized around local religious representatives. Perhaps a previous, functioning relationship with the major players in Boston area interfaith is what would have been required to secure a seat at the table. Figuring out the exact extent to which a secular humanist or atheist group can ethically work within an interfaith context can be difficult. Do you sign on to jointly issued interfaith statements that call for prayers in the wake of tragedy, even if such language is buried deep inside a lot of very good sounding ideas? I am interested in such questions as I am now involved in interfaith efforts here in Rhode Island and threading the needle of being a nonbeliever working in interfaith can be disconcerting, especially if you're engaged in divisive culture issues such as LGBT rights and reproductive freedom. I am very interested in this discussion and always seeking ideas.

  11. Human values are universal. It costs the religious nothing to come together around human values and defer prayer to a more appropriate time and place. Multiple versions of sectarianism is just taking turns having your grief co-opted by someone who has nothing to say that resonates with you. It's wrong to ask people to listen politely while we indulge clerical privilege instead of giving them real comfort.

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