A swath of local religious leaders joined President Barack Obama and Governor Deval Patrick at an interfaith prayer service at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross this morning (watch video highlights). Cardinal Sean O’Malley welcomed participants to his home church, and other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders led prayers, offered reflections, and expressed hope for peace and resilience.

But one group feels excluded from this morning’s service.

The Secular Coalition for America posted a statement on its website that it was disappointed that non-theists weren’t represented, noting that at least two of the victim’s on Monday’s bombing were non-believers.

Why do non-believers want to be involved in a religious service filled with hymns, scripture readings, prayers, and references to God?

Chris Stedman

For some insight, I reached out to Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious and a chaplain at Harvard.

He told me that he was “glad to see interfaith efforts such as the service in Boston today, because they can help us collectively process tragedies” but lamented that it wasn’t “fully inclusive” and that it failed to reflect the “various ways Bostonians make meaning and respond to tragedy–not just theists.”

I asked him what role a non-theist might play in such a service. He said that he’s participated in some himself, and that he might read a passage from Carl Sagan about “the significance of life from someone who sees it as something we only get to do once.”

Would religious people feel comfortable worshipping alongside nonbelievers, given the friction that sometimes exists between the two groups, I asked. He said that he’s “been extremely heartened to see many religious individuals and interfaith activists already speaking up to express their desire to see nonreligious people represented” and “stand alongside those who do not [pray].”


Categories: Beliefs, Culture

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Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin writes about religion and politics from Washington, D.C., paying close attention to the role of the Catholic Church in public life. His writing has appeared in Religion & Politics, the Jesuit magazine America, on BustedHalo.com, and in Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership.


  1. I don’t get it. It is an interfaith program, so people of faith will be represented. Atheism is not a faith. Atheism can’t be represented at an interfaith program because, by definition, it doesn’t work.

    Nothing says that atheists can’t have their own ceremony.

    • If the use of the word “interfaith” is the problem, the obvious solution is to choose a different word. Perhaps simply call it a “Community Memorial Service” or something like that.

      The problem with assuming that “well, they’re atheists, they wouldn’t want to be here anyway,” is that it ignores the common humanity of all people — believers and non-believers — and their desire to draw together in times of pain and crisis, as well as in times of celebration. Regardless of beliefs, we should be able to cry, laugh, and cheer together and support one another.

      I, for one, would find it completely appropriate to have a piece such as Sagan’s read alongside more traditional religious texts at a memorial. We are all on this journey together.

    • “Nothing says that atheists can’t have their own ceremony.”

      But why divide people in times of tragedy? Everyone – believers and nonbelievers alike – mourn and seek comfort. There should have been a ceremony in Boston where everyone could have felt welcomed.

  2. Interfaith is one of those warm and fuzzy words that sounds good but really represents nothing more than similarly deluded people getting together with the hope they’ll somehow feel better by invoking a pretend deity, as it’s “interfaith” all deities were welcome and sadly a lack of faith keeps atheists and the like out of the loop.

  3. “Interfaith” is an oxymoron. The Qur’an teaches that belief that Jesus is the Son of God is the unforgivable sin. The Bible teaches that those who do not acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God are antichrists. How can this be reconciled? This event was blasphemous and sacrilegious.

    God does not approve of “interfaith” memorials:

    2 Corinthians 6:14-17
    Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,” says the Lord. “AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; And I will welcome you.”

  4. I’m glad we were not allowed at the interfaih ceremony. Atheists and Humanists had no business being there. The President and the other public officials should not have been there either. I agree with Westie a community memorial service, open to all, would have been more appropiate. We should have our own service and demand the president and all the officials that were at the interfaith service attend ours. They did it for the god-worshippers, they can do it for us.

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