15 April 2013: Boston Marathon bombing kills 3
17 April 2013: Texas fertilizer plant explosion kills 14
20 April 2013: earthquake in China’s Sichuan province kills 179
21 April 2013: “Mommy, what’s wrong with the world?!” That was the first thing my nine year old son Evan blurted after hearing about the devastating earthquake in China that occurred the day before. When asked what he meant, he reminded us that there seemed to be a lot of death and destruction lately, and the news keep getting worse.
While the causes of the deadly events of the week of 15 – 20 April were completely different and unrelated—a deliberate act of domestic terrorism, an industrial accident possibly caused by operator negligence, a naturally occurring geological phenomenon—one could forgive a child being spooked by the clustering of such incidents in a span of less than a week. Even for an adult like me, it was as though I barely had time to process emotionally the sadness and solemn sentiments of one event when the next struck me in the gut.
Though we live in Utah, far from the epicenters of these tragedies, Evan’s words show that we still feel some of the pain and despair that people involved with or closer to the events must have experienced. The emotional impact of so many deaths and injuries is somewhat diluted by distance but nonetheless can be felt by people across the globe. Maybe for a moment, this empathy binds us all together in compassion and grief.
So it is in this spirit of shared humanity that I call attention to a point of contention that might be seen as petty compared to the genuine pain suffered by the victims of these events, but deserves notice as an example of why Brights should press for participation and equality in civic affairs.
A story that has been running in several online U.S. humanist and secularist media concerns the Interfaith Service held on 18 April at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. This memorial service for the victims and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing was organized by the Massachusetts Governor’s Office as a public event to help the community to heal by sharing in the grief and achieving some sense of emotional closure. Government officials such as President Obama, Massachusetts Governor Patrick, and Boston Mayor Menino spoke at the service, as well as representatives from various faiths including the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions.
According to the stories in the secularist media, requests were repeatedly made to the organizers of the service to include representation of the non-religious residents and citizens of Boston, but these appeals were ignored. The snub was viewed as deliberate by some writers: “Humanists excluded from Boston Marathon Interfaith Service” raged Michael Stone of examiner.com; “After Boston Bombs, Atheists Denied Healing” declared James Croft on patheos.com; “Atheists barred from Boston bombing memorial attended by President Obama” blogged Stephen Best on volconvo.com.
Actually, atheists, humanists and secularists were not barred from attending the service and many did, so the more extreme headlines misrepresent the facts. But as Stephen C. Webster writes on The Raw Story, the lobbying office of the Secular Coalition for America (an advocacy group for the nontheistic in the U.S.) contacted multiple times the senior members of the governor’s staff who organized the vigil but their appeals were rejected.
This was particularly painful for Boston’s atheists because one of the victims of the bomb blasts was a respected volunteer of the Harvard Humanist Community; both her legs were amputated and her daughter was injured in the bombing. Inviting a representative of Boston’s secular/humanist/atheist community would have helped achieve the service’s goal of inclusiveness and bringing everyone together to start the healing process.
I do not expect that every minority group could or should be represented in such official memorial services. My wife’s faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was not represented, and she didn’t complain (though her foundational Christian religion was VERY WELL represented). And some comments on the secular media sites expressed the notion that, since this was an interfaith service, there shouldn’t be a problem if people without faith aren’t represented.
But as many others have argued, this was an officially sanctioned event, organized by the staff of elected government representatives and meant to be THE official public memorial service that brings all communities together, and was attended by the mayor, the governor and the president. So even if every minority group could not be officially recognized, couldn’t there be at least an acknowledgement that people without faith also grieve and need to heal without feeling like the only way to do so is outside the larger community?
How should Brights respond? Do we demand inclusion, representation and acknowledgement of people with a naturalistic worldview in all such government sponsored events? Or do we insist that such events honor the U.S. Constitution by being completely secular, so as not to give any religion or faith official sanction? In any case, it seems clear that it will take many more voices demanding inclusion before we are heard as full members of the larger community.