Saturday, April 20, 2013

Atheist inclusion in official memorials: some issues

Ophelia Benson relays a request from Dave Muscato of American Atheists concerning the exclusion of atheists and humanists from public memorials. This is an extremely important issue to me, and I think it’s great that it’s being taken on. This will be a positive-critical post. I have some criticisms of Muscato’s procedure, and I have some praise for this broader effort which, unavoidably in this case, takes the form of criticism of the Harvard Humanist Chaplai, uh, Community Project.

Muscato’s request seems clearly to be meant for the leaders and representatives of established organizations. They’re asked to submit statements, including information about the group they represent, some of which might be given by Greg Epstein to “public officials” (we’re not told who) in a private meeting. They’re then encouraged, almost as an afterthought, to solicit remarks from others, some of which might also be passed along.

This seems a strangely and unnecessarily layered process, when much more direct means of seeking the contributions of the members of the community are readily at hand. (Even if some of these organizations didn’t have a sorry recent history of failing to engage, consult with, or respond to the criticisms of their supporters and people in the community generally, this would seem less than ideal.) A less hierarchical, more direct and open approach might also help to alert the community that there’s movement on the issue and get them active. Even if a private meeting with government officials is involved, that certainly doesn’t mean that grassroots public efforts and actions shouldn’t surround it. It can be about educating public officials while also being about educating everyone else, and there’s no reason the latter can’t supplement and accelerate the former.

That said, I’m pleased as punch that this is being raised as a key issue. As Muscato says:
Atheists are hurting from this news as much as anyone else, and part of the grieving process for atheists affected includes things such as representation at the official memorial service and in the community response. When memorial services include exclusively religious language, and especially when public officials use terms such as “godless” as a slur to describe these attacks, atheists who are affected are excluded and shut out from the community.
More than that, it casts grief and mourning as a religious, and not a fundamentally human, experience. For me, it’s not so much a matter of inclusion as it is of this aspect of monopolization. I think what we should have are secular community memorials in which religious groups can participate.

Which brings me to my criticism of the Harvard Humanists. Epstein’s response to the exclusion from the Boston memorial was consistent with the organization’s position in the past:
“The point of today was inclusion,” Epstein lamented. “All they had to do was say one word, or allow one official guest, and they didn’t. I can’t speak to their motivation. I hope it was a matter of ignorance.”
The HH have consistently attempted to identify and join with the “interfaith” community, and I’ve considered that approach unsound for a number of reasons. Epstein is plainly wrong here: the point of an interfaith event is by definition not inclusion. It’s inclusive only of faith (and, let’s be clear, not of all faiths by a long shot). The point is exclusion, both of people and organizations and more seriously of challenges to their monopolization of human experience and public rituals. That shouldn’t be brushed aside or minimized.

Epstein appears to be quietly asking for a seat at the faith table. I don’t think atheists should be included in official interfaith memorials. I don’t think there should be official, or officially endorsed, interfaith memorials. I don’t want us to have standing alongside faiths; I don’t want faiths to have that standing in the first place. There’s no more reason for us to accept religious public memorials than there is for us to accept religious public celebrations or religious public education.

(This is another problem with the procedure here: People might be unsure of whether to contribute statements or express support for this meeting since we don’t know how Epstein will be presenting the atheist position, and some of us have reason to suspect that it might not be in a manner we would support. I wouldn’t expect him to pass along my sentiments, but then this process doesn’t provide a meaningful space for me to air them.)

You could of course argue that this is a step in the right direction - that inclusion will lead to education and understanding and eventually to more or fully secular events. But I won’t accept, even tactically, an inclusion that requires styling atheism or humanism as some form of faith or respecting the conflation of religion and human experience.


  1. Thanks. That helped me clarify my uneasiness with 'interfaith' (other than the obvious fact that it normally only includes the xian faiths).

    I wonder if some of the 'deep rifts' in the atheist community are because atheism is a 'faith' position for some people -- mostly a faith that they are members of the smart kids club it would appear. Seeing atheism as a 'faith' would also explain some of the weirdness with the Harvard 'chaplain' and some others. That is very different than not having faith, i.e., believing things only on the basis of reason and evidence rather than faith.

  2. As I posted on Ophelia's blog, I read Muscato's request as addressed to the leadership of atheist, secular and humanist organizations. His last paragraph

    Greg Epstein from the Humanist Community at Harvard is meeting with public officials to discuss this issue and would like to pass on responses from our community’s leaders. We also encourage you to solicit responses from members of your communities (if you run a blog, your readers; if you have a TV show, your viewers, etc) that he can include as well.

    definitely gives the impression that the leaders' comments are what's important and the hoi polloi's responses might be useful to bulk out the sheaf of paper the public officials can ignore.

  3. I think it's doubtful that we'll come to agree on the central point, but I would like to voice support for your criticisms of the wording of the call for responses. It does sound unnecessarily like we are more interested in group representatives' views, when in fact I'm sure Dave is interested in hearing from everyone who has a stake in this question, whatever their position.

    On the issue of inclusion, we at HCH were put in a very difficult position at very short notice: the state organized an official response to the attacks, and decided to make it an interfaith service. In my view that was an inappropriate decision, and I certainly agree that a secular response would have been more appropriate. I agree, too, that we could certainly host our own secular response - which we did yesterday and which was a very moving event for all involved.

    However, at the same time, we felt t would be appropriate for Humanists and the nonreligious to have some representation at the official civic response to the attacks, which is why we pressed for inclusion. The idea of the service was certainly for it to be inclusive: it was billed as such by the governor's office. And so there is a tension between that expressed desire and the decision to host an interfaith service.

    I don't think there is an easy way to resolve all the tensions here, but I think a Humanist voice would have been welcomed by many at the service and in the wider community, who were looking for someone to say what they were feeling. To me, to accept exclusion by default would be to fail to stand up for the importance of Humanist values at a time when representing and promoting them is especially critical, which is something I am not willing to do.

    This may be a case in which values genuinely clash, and each person has to decide for themselves how to prioritize values. I just hope you can understand that we have a community of Humanists who were harmed in these attacks and who wanted to be represented in the official governmental response to those attacks. As a member of that community I'm happy that the person who represents us pushed for that inclusion.