Inevitably after major disasters, particularly those involving the senseless loss of life such as last week's Boston Marathon bombing, an interfaith service of some type will take shape, where various religious groups will come together to mourn and heal. This happened in Boston last week, with a high-profile service that included religious leaders from various faith communities: Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions.
In a modern pluralistic society such as ours, it not only seems natural, but arguably even healthy, that various religious groups could come together in a time of crisis. Indeed, considering that these groups have historically justified bloodshed against one another based on their theological differences, their coming together for an interfaith service, recognizing the importance of our common humanity, can only be seen as a positive development.
Nevertheless, to humanists and other nonbelievers, such interfaith services are often problematic. Though the "interfaith" concept is perhaps commendable, the specifics of how interfaith services are often conducted and presented are not. That is, most interfaith services are quite exclusive, not at all inclusive, yet they are perceived by the media and the public as representing virtually all citizens. Interfaith services are generally accepted as a forum where "everyone" comes together, but in fact they usually represent an exclusive club.
Exacerbating the misunderstanding is the fact that interfaith services often become a platform not just for various religious leaders, but for politicians. The Boston service, for example, included speeches by both President Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, adding a decidedly civic element to a religious service.
The inclusion of governmental leaders in an interfaith religious ceremony such as this adds to the misperception that the event is a reflection of the entire community. Even the word "interfaith" misleadingly conveys a sense of community unanimity, and the addition of key secular leaders to the event - leaders who, unlike the religious leaders, are indeed supposed to represent all citizens - magnifies that falsehood.
The entire exercise leaves nonbelievers with a mix of emotions and opinions. Some complain about their exclusion, saying that any interfaith ceremony should include humanist celebrants or atheist representatives. But others, uncomfortable with the word "faith" and wanting no part in an interfaith service, complain not of their exclusion, but only of the participation of government officials.