Bombs do not discriminate. We know that the people wounded or killed from the Boston Marathon explosions were of all ages, all colors, and all beliefs. Yet, people without faith were explicitly excluded from the interfaith service attended by the president over a week ago. In a city where nearly half the population seldom or never attends religious services, organizers of the event didn’t invite a single representative from the vibrant non-religious community to say a few words in mourning. Such a speech would not have been anti-God; it would simply have been without God, because it is, in fact, possible to grieve over lost loved ones without invoking the supernatural.
You may argue that the word “interfaith,” by definition, excludes those without faith, but the event was billed as an all-inclusive memorial service and that is the spirit in which the atheists saw it. Because of the snub, local humanists were forced to create a makeshift memorial service at a later date and create an online petition urging government officials to meet with them in coming weeks to hear their stories and ensure that “healing and unity will include everyone” in the future. Atheists online also donated more than $28,000 to various local charities in a matter of days, all without much publicity or fanfare, to help those (of all backgrounds) who suffered because of the attacks.
But the organizers of the memorial event weren’t the only people leaving atheists in the dust. When the Boy Scouts of America announced last week that they may finally allow gay scouts in their ranks, the loudest reactions came from progressives who were (rightfully) upset that gay leaders would still be banned. (Apparently, you can be a gay scout until you become an adult… at which point they kick you right back out.) However, the ensuing controversy all-but-ignored the fact that, even if the change allowed gay people of all ages, atheists would still be forbidden from becoming scouts because they are neither “reverent” to God (as required by scout law) nor able to do their “duty to God” (as required by the scout oath). In other words, an organization that prides itself on building character and developing responsible citizens does not believe atheists are capable of holding those values. One of the reasons for this continuing form of discrimination was brought up by the New Yorker‘s Richard Socarides: “Catholic and Mormon church hierarchies… sponsor and fund much of the Boy Scouts’ activities.” While the BSA may cave in to outside (and even inside) pressure to allow some gay people into their ranks, their religious landlords still prevent them from accept scouts who may not believe in a higher power.
This exclusion isn’t limited to the United States, either. Atheists Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have been renting out space in a de-consecrated church in London owned by the Church of England to host what they’re calling The Sunday Assembly (better known in the media as “The Atheist Church”). The Sunday morning gatherings occur once a month and are marked by inspirational songs, guest speakers and joyous community, all without paying any homage to the supernatural — their motto is “Live better, help often and wonder more.” The events have become so popular, in fact, that two services now take place to hold the growing “godless congregation” and the founders are looking for a larger space.
Unfortunately, they may have to find permanent space sooner than they expected. Trustees from the Steiner School (housed in the same church) have kicked them out of the building. While the trustees cited safety reasons (too many people in the building), Jones contends there’s a less benevolent reason for the eviction. He said that some of the trustees found The Sunday Assembly to be “antithetical to their own ethos.” You can decide for yourself whether it was the living better, helping often, or wondering more that upset them the most.
In fact, The Sunday Assembly has complied with all safety regulations, including turning people away at the door if the crowds were getting too large.
In all of these instances, kind, well-intentioned atheists were excluded on the basis of their beliefs, by people who often claim their faith makes them more moral, more noble, and more generous than those who don’t possess it. Indeed, we are finding that faith is not a virtue. If it were, you would not see atheists being banned from an interfaith (or, to phrase it more accurately, interthought) event meant to honor people of all backgrounds and beliefs. You would not see atheists kicked out of the Boy Scouts of America when scouting organizations around the world (not to mention the Girl Scouts of the USA) have accepted atheists in their ranks without a problem. And I doubt you would see church groups renege on their contract at the last second if they were dealing with another religious group.
Why is healing, helping and honoring fellow citizens so alarming when it’s atheists who want to do it? Why are religious groups opposing inclusion and equality? There’s simply no good reason atheists should be left out in these particular cases. The fact that they are suggests prejudice built up over the course of several decades — a belief that the atheists would ruin the event, offend religious sensibilities, or make organizers look bad. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The atheists here are not arguing theology or debating religion; there’s a time and place for that, well beyond these particular instances. They are just asking for the same treatment all other groups receive. We’re left wondering why atheists are held in such low esteem by people who claim that their faith makes them better people. Right now, their faith serves only as an obstacle to common sense.
Hemant Mehta blogs at the Friendly Atheist.