The essay below provides context for a petition currently being circulated by the Groundswell Movement. Please consider visiting Groundswell's site to sign it.
When the Boston Marathon bombings took place, many of us in the local Humanist/secular/nontheistic community realized almost immediately that our community would be affected profoundly. And indeed it was.
So by that same Monday April 15, in the early evening, we had already begun the exhausting but worthwhile process that any healthy community undertakes in such instances: calling around endlessly to check on members to see who needed what kind of help, and contacting officials at our local municipalities and universities and to offer our assistance in any way it was needed. Thus, when Harvard University and the City of Cambridge held candlelight vigils on April 16 and 17, respectively, we were there, grateful to be a part of those dignified memorials.
Having worked in a Humanist campus community leadership capacity since before Sept. 11, 2001, I have all too much experience speaking at and organizing interfaith memorials and vigils. So as soon as I heard there would indeed be an "official" one with the Governor in attendance (the President's involvement was announced later) I contacted the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) about it, and together we worked from Tuesday through Thursday morning to secure some inclusion for the secular community. To document and amplify that effort, I published this essay at CNN.com on Thursday morning. Even after it was submitted to CNN's religion editors that morning, the SCA's senior staff and advisors were contacting officials at the Governor's office for the umpteenth time, respectfully requesting that a single seat be officially reserved at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross. I can't express how honored I would have felt that morning to be able to simply sit in the same intercommunity congregation with you, representative of our entire broader nontheistic community.
A seat was not granted. The nonreligious community went entirely unmentioned at and excluded from the service.
This was despite the fact that President Obama has graciously mentioned us at numerous other important moments, including his first inaugural address. It happened despite the fact numerous thorough studies show America is now the least religious it has ever been in its history. According to Gallup, 46.5 percent of the Massachusetts population is now nonreligious; and Boston-Cambridge-Quincy is among the ten least religious of all the 189 metro areas studied by Gallup, as of 2013.
In short, we were shocked. We could only hope that it was ignorance that led the Governor's office and the other event organizers to reject our pleas for inclusion, and so we began to tell our story publicly, as you can see, for example, here, and here.
We held our own spontaneous memorial, attended by many dozens; if you're wondering what tone we struck, find a video here. As you can see 32 minutes into the video, the Reverend Scott Campbell, current President of the Harvard Chaplains, attended and apologized on behalf of the theistic community, stating,
"Friends, I would just like to extend a word of apology to the Humanist community, on behalf of my colleagues in the theistic--the religious community...for there not to be an inclusion of all those who wanted to express their sadness, their horror, their grief, and their compassion, reaching out in love to one another, is inexcusable."
Also at our vigil, we stood in solidarity with Muslim, Sikh, Arab, South Asian and other communities that might be at a higher risk of being discriminated against at times like these. As you can see at the end of our video, we celebrated that Nuri Friedlander, Associate Chaplain for the Harvard Islamic Society, also attended.
And so, because this exclusion added confusion and pain to the grief of many-- the SCA has already gathered letters from at least 1000 people expressing as much-- we will continue to tell our story so that this needless pain need never be caused again. We will do so as the wide range of communities that make up the SCA, representing-- at the very least-- hundreds of thousands of Americans. And we will do so alongside admired and respected religious allies, like Dr. Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and member of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Rev. Brian McLaren, New York Times bestselling author; religion scholar Diana Butler Bass; and Groundswell founder Valarie Kaur. We will tell our story for the first responders among our community, like Humanist leader Jennifer Brauer, an EMT for the FDNY on 9-11, or like the atheists and Humanist veterans who have served in our nation's armed forces with distinction in every conflict and inter-conflict period dating back to World War II.
This issue is too important to too many of us to let drop. It affects too many Americans, too many Bostonians. True unity is what will bring true healing. And we cannot fully heal until we are heard. After all, what message do we want to send to the confused and heartbroken students of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the diverse high school next door to Harvard from which the two Marathon attackers emerged? That they must be religious in order to count, and that only some religions count? Or that everyone counts, everyone matters, all communities are celebrated, and that we live in one Boston, one USA, one world?
Governor Patrick, Ms. Rodgers, you have enormous power to bring about positive healing and unity by simply educating yourselves and your colleagues that we are a community of positive values and that we count too. We would never ask you to change your beliefs. We would never want you to change who you are. Including the nonreligious in interfaith ceremonies doesn't have any negative impact on religious communities, any more than allowing gay marriage has a negative impact on straight marriage. It's not about anything other than inclusion in America. Let's make that happen for the good of all.
On behalf of the Secular Coalition for America and our diverse and beloved allies in Boston and beyond, we ask you to please meet with us by June 15, or within two months of the attacks that affected us all.
Greg M. Epstein
Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University