How Interfaith Services Exclude Non-Believers

04/24/2013 08:19 EDT | Updated 06/24/2013 05:12 EDT
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US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama make their way across the South Lawn to board Marine One on April 18, 2013 at the White House in Washington, DC. Obama was headed to Boston for a memorial service honoring victims of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Interfaith services and groups have become a fairly common part of our culture. As David Niose points out in Psychology Today, "it not only seems natural, but arguably even healthy, that various religious groups could come together in a time of crisis."

He goes further to say that these services are part of a long-term reconciliation process among religions that have often reacted to each other violently in the past.

Agreed. However, as he also points out in the same article, such interfaith services are problematic for non-believers. By definition, they exclude people who do not share the faith of religious people.

In Canada, the practice of interfaith services is further enshrined (sorry about that) in such services as Remembrance Day and other celebrations of significant events.

Obviously there can be no objection to religious people coming together to remember, commiserate in tragedy or even celebrate events. However, when politicians take part and these interfaith events are presented as public and all-inclusive, credibility is strained.

How can an interfaith event in Canada be considered as inclusive when it automatically excludes up to 25 per cent of the population -- non-believers?

Of course, religious apologists will immediately claim that non-believers are welcome to attend and are therefore not excluded.

That claim fails to recognize the dilemma that attendance causes for non-believers. To attend, we must at least listen to the properly religious presentations one should expect at these faith events and stand quietly during hymns and prayers. To do anything else would be disrespectful.

We are welcome to participate, as long as we do not insist on actually participating.

I have never seen an interfaith service that so much as acknowledged that non-believers in the community share the sadness of loss or celebration of joy with the rest of the community. I have never seen a Humanist leader asked to speak on behalf of non-believers at any of these events.

The opportunity to voice Humanist concepts of remembering and celebrating the legacy of those lost in tragedies, for example, is never given to non-believers. They are, after all, not included in the interfaith organizations that set up these exclusive events.

Insult is added in injury when politicians are allowed score points with attendees with speeches at the microphone. Of course we want to hear that they share the grief or joy of the populace, and probably need reassurance that they are working to prevent a recurrence if the service is the result of a tragic event. However, to give them a further opportunity trumpet their adherence (convenient or sincere) to faith cheapens the event.

If all the religious people want to get together in times of grief or joy, they should be encouraged to do so.

But, their claim that such a gathering is all-inclusive is not acceptable.

A community meeting or service that truly includes all citizens and their leaders-believers or non-believers-would be far more acceptable and far more legitimate in these circumstances.

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