Thursday, April 18, 2013

On why we couldn't have been invited to the Boston Marathon interfaith service

A statement from Josiah Van Vliet, President of the Boston Atheists:

This week a secular event in a very secular city was visited by a terrible human tragedy. And in response to this nationally significant event a service was coordinated; a service where the representatives of many different belief systems would be given the chance to speak to their own people and on behalf of their perspective. At this service the non-theistic perspective was not given voice. And I think it is our responsibility to fix what made this outcome inevitable.

It should be noted that the representatives of the secular perspective did every bit of outreach they could have to get us a seat at the table. I know personally several of the people who worked on this and there is no additional amount of leg work that could have made a difference. What we (as non-theists) needed was to have had different relationship with the country at large. And there are two things that I think we need in place for next time.

First we need to have a creed that outsiders can understand. I mean creed here like mission statement, not an object of faith. We need a few sentences that sound nice that can be “what we are about”. These few sentences would be public relations and not gospel. It would be important to get them right, to have them be something that we feel comfortable supporting, but not something that needed to be perfect. It would serve as the greeting card from atheism to the country; something to help us introducing ourselves to people who still just think that we are satanic communists.

Secondly we need representatives. We need people that our community has endorsed, who speak for us and to us in times of tragedy and celebration. Again we can’t wait for the perfect person who everyone got along with about everything, but someone to say what many of us are thinking, so that we can feel that we are heard. These representatives would not be telling the world what we as individuals think, we the represented would not be obliged to agree with, believe, or follow what is said. But like having a politician you voted for speak, they would be our stand in for the public conversation

Having such a public persona and publicly understood mission statement would have made our representation at the upcoming interfaith service possible. Without establishing our public presence in a “day in day out” way, any time we want to be included is going to look like a shocking introduction that will make our inclusion about us “suddenly” being included. We need to be talked about as just another identity of Americans in an ongoing basis so that people get used to us being out and proud. And having a recognizable secular persona who isn’t known for confrontation would make that person’s inclusion in an interfaith service make sense. Someone needs to be out there talking about our community’s perspective in a way that gives us voice without making us look like bomb throwers. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are great and have done great things for the Atheist position, but I’m not sure they have done much good for the atheist community.

We have enough debaters; I think we need a communicator.

So what I am suggesting here is that we start to put ourselves forward in a positive way. I am not saying that we forcibly retire Dawkins, or cease to criticize where criticism is necessary. Just that we also start to engage with the majority of our country, which is religious. Religions and religious people are here to stay, but so are we. And when tragedy strikes, it would help if we were already seen as the important part of the American fabric that we already are.