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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Compassion Denied


On Thursday, President Obama and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick attended an interfaith memorial service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in memory in response to the bomb blast at the Boston Marathon. Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein and the Secular Coalition for America vigorously lobbied the White House and the governor in advance of the service for acknowledgement of grieving non-believers, but were rebuffed.

Epstein was cited in a piece from The Raw Story, "Harvard atheists shocked at exclusion from Boston bombing memorial service."
“We gave the White House an opportunity to exert a little more influence to help include us, and I’m disappointed that didn't happen,” Epstein added. “We spoke to high ranking members of the governor’s staff multiple times — people we know for a fact were involved in organizing the vigil — in fact we called them every hour on the hour. And when I say we, I don’t mean me: I mean our lobbying office, the Secular Coalition for America.”
Celeste Corcoran, a volunteer for Epstein's congregation, lost both her legs below the knees and nearly lost her daughter, Sydney. In "My Take: Godless in Boston mourn too," Epstein wrote the following about the implicit exclusion of atheists from the interfaith service:
I don’t have a clue what Celeste’s beliefs are, and I don’t care. I just hope she and Sydney and everyone else injured get well. After all, would you believe for a second that every Christian pastor knows whether or not every visitor to his or her congregation truly believes in the Ascension? Nor should they. The point of a congregation, to me, is just to care about the people in it, and better yet, to help bring people together to care about one another.
Epstein's message that faith should not be a barrier to compassion is key. But his example of the Christian pastor points to another problem with "interfaith" nomenclature. Faith is not only alien to avowed atheists and secular humanists, it is also alien to covert heretics in moderate religious communities. Why should people profess what they don't believe in order to belong? Is that not a form of coercion? Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism "'Interfaith' and Inclusion: Another View," Tom Flynn wrote:
On my view, those of us in the movement who are not comfortable with the "religious humanist" identifier should not be seeking entry to interfaith events. Instead, we should be boycotting them, then demanding something more inclusive in their place.
Both Epstein and Flynn challenge the conventional wisdom that interfaith is inclusive enough. Epstein's approach is fine for religious humanists, but some of us, understandably, do not want to show up for interfaith events only to be insulted. Flynn's advise applies only to those who are uncomfortable with the "religious humanist" identifier.

Epstein pays the requisite backhanded tribute to "Richard Dawkins and the like." Antitheists like Dawkins maintain that it does matter what you believe, that the encroachment of religion extends to the normalization of debilitating habits of mind. The fact that this message doesn't resonate with believers doesn't make is less valid. This is not an esoteric matter of ideological purity. It's cynical and self-defeating to tailor our message to religious sensibilities.

If the truth matters, how can we afford to be as cavalier as Epstein is about religious obscurantism? Socrates was put to death for impiety and corrupting the youth. Religion had grown increasingly rationalistic, but religious observance was taken as a sign of community solidarity. As the now infamous West Cranston prayer banner demonstrates, religious obscurantism still causes real harm. If you don't believe me, watch the YouTube footage of the public school board hearings.

On the other hand, Epstein's approach is proactive. Should we just boycott interfaith events until our demand for something more inclusive is met, or should we intervene in the moment to avert exclusion? Justice delayed is justice denied. Doesn't the same apply to compassion? But if it's obscurantist for an atheist to infiltrate interfaith, isn't it inconsistent to applaud someone who'll do it for you?

"Interfaith" is the new "ecumenical." Ecumenicism is inclusive only of Christians. Interfaith is a step in the right direction in that includes all people of faith. It's time to vigorously challenge the notion that interfaith is inclusive enough. Maybe they could start by calling themselves "Interface." It evokes "interfaith" (and "in your face") but the word itself speaks to inclusion.

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