A Secular Interfaith Sermon for Boston

04/25/2013 10:19 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

The unfortunate but unavoidable reality is that some things simply don't make sense. There's a large and fast-growing demographic in the United States -- possibly 60 million or more -- who accept the reality and finality of death and, in troubling times, simply need community, upon whom they can lean without someone meekly attempting to explain an event in the context of a powerful entity who, apparently, could have prevented the whole catastrophe.

It's saddening to me and to these countless millions, that as much as half of the Massachusetts population was left out of last week's memorial service that involved all levels of government.

Though the speakers did so with the best of intentions, quoting from a Bible is as comforting to an atheist as quoting from Mein Kampf might be to a Christian. In the Boston interfaith service, though there were some words of comfort that dispensed with religious phrasing, a secular humanist could be forgiven for being distracted and put off by the repeated invocations to the Abrahamic god.

The mayor's speech, for the record, was an inspiring speech about love which only made a brief, opening allusion to a biblical verse. Interestingly, and perhaps deliberately, he didn't mention that the quote was from a Bible.

But all other speakers assumed that everyone listening was not only religious, but monotheistic. Perhaps the most obviously exclusionary were the words of Roberto Miranda, who stated fairly bluntly that it was only the people of faith who can prevent evil from "achieving victory."

If we could not gravitate to that dimension, where infinite good sits on his throne ... then perhaps evil would have achieved the victory that it sought ... But we are people of faith...

Events such as the one that graced us on that bright Monday afternoon just a couple of days ago, remind us that we inhabit a mysterious world, where a loving, sovereign god sometimes allows a flash of dark energy to penetrate our domain, but only to ennoble us...

This crucifixion has released much good ... In our diversity, we have been united. In our perplexity, we have been led again to run to God ... able to find true hope and solace only in the bosom of our father.

Yahweh "graced" us with this event. These three people were "crucified" for our benefit. To "ennoble" us. Is it really so difficult to see why millions find such alleged words of comfort to be nothing of the kind? Do you think the non-religious population wants, in their time of grief, to be told that the only way they can find hope or solace is by converting?

Chinese people, for the most part, aren't religious. If they are, it's odds-on that they're Taoists or Buddhists. And for all the world to hear, before the (likely) atheistic family and friends of Lingzi Lu, Mr Miranda proclaimed that the "crucifixion" of their daughter was, in the long run, good for us all.

Listening from hospital were Celeste Corcoran, who lost both her legs below the knee, and her daughter Sydney, also injured in the blasts, both active members of the Humanist Community at Harvard*. For their ears, Miranda declared that Yahweh's chosen method of having everyone unite under the Abrahamic banner was to hospitalise the two of them and dozens more besides.

Nobody, atheistic or otherwise, begrudges a prayer service for the religious. But when the mayor, the governor and the president all attend a memorial service for the whole community, is it not reasonable that the whole community be involved?

Greg Epstein is a best-selling author and Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. Did nobody at local, state or federal levels of government think to ask him to say a few comforting words for that other half of the community?

In the (perhaps naïve) hope of convincing readers and viewers that a secular speech is not about whether Yahweh or Jesus or Allah exist but rather about praising human actions and human resilience, I've spliced together a brief example (from the video above) of just how easy it would have been to include every member of society at the service. I ask all officials to, please, think about it for next time.

The gifted columnist Anna Quindlen wrote, "Grief remains one of the few things that has the power to silence us. It is a whisper in the world and a clamour within. The landscapes of all our lives become as full of craters as the surface of the moon."

This past Monday, a day rich with symbolism, a horrific act of terrorism wounded the heart and soul of our city and our nation.

This is what I saw that day: I saw people run toward, not away from, toward the explosions. Toward the chaos, the mayhem. Toward the danger. The generous and courageous response of so many, assures us that there resides in people's hearts a goodness that is incredibly selfless. We saw that when summoned by great events, we can be remarkably committed to the well-being of others; even total strangers.

I want to salute everyone who ran towards the victims, despite risk to themselves. Everyone who gave blood, everyone who volunteered shelter for stranded runners. I want to salute the members of law-enforcement who are protecting us as we speak. I'm thankful for the medical professionals, from the doctors and trauma nurses, to the housekeeping staff, to the surgeon who finished the marathon and kept on running to his operating room, all of whom performed at their very best.

From their beds, some are surely watching us gather here today, and if you are, know this: As you begin this long journey of recovery, your city is with you, your commonwealth is with you, your country is with you. We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and yes, run again. Of that, I have no doubt, you will run again. Because that's what the people of Boston are made of.

Massachusetts invented America. And America is not organised the way countries are usually organised. We're not organised around a common language or religion or even culture. We're organised around a handful of civic ideals and we have defined those ideals over time and through struggle, as equality, opportunity, freedom and fair-play.

If they sought to intimidate us, to terrorise us, to shake us from those values that Deval described, the values that make us who we are as Americans, well, it should be pretty clear by now that they picked the wrong city to do it. We will find you, we will hold you accountable, but more than that, our fidelity to our way of life, to our free and open society, will only grow stronger.

And this time next year, on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever and to cheer even louder for the 118th Boston marathon.

Bet on it!

*Correction: Celeste has volunteered for the Humanist Community at Harvard; the Corcorans are part of HCH's extended family.