We Also Grieve; We Also Serve
by Katherine Bourdonnay
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 2.
I am an American, a native New Yorker, cousin of a fire fighter and - an
atheist. The first three pull me intimately into the circle of grief and horror
that still surrounds September 11th. The fourth seems to exclude me from most,
if not all, forums of public expression of sympathy and patriotism that have
The President declares not just a Day of Remembrance but a Day of Prayer and
Remembrance. Memorial services include religious worship of every ilk: Catholic,
Moslem, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist… but not one word of loving sympathy for
those who died who had no religious belief. The only acknowledgement came from
British Prime Minister Tony Blair who said, "This atrocity is an attack on
us all, on people of all faiths and on people of none."
So I grieve in private.
But I won't be private about the shocking verbal attacks on atheists, as if
we somehow were the ones who flew the planes into those buildings. It was not
the non-religious, but rather people of the most dedicated religious beliefs who
In an amazing example of displaced hostility, a national newspaper ran a
vitriolic piece stating, "One can't help notice the silence of atheists
these days…There are no atheists in foxholes, we've always known."
Remarks like those insult not only my belief system, they directly impugn my
I doubt I have the extraordinary courage exhibited by the firefighters and
police officers in New York. But I have served my country and was awarded a
Civilian Service Medal for 18 months in Viet Nam. I drove over bridges where
explosives were rumored to have been placed…sat in a plane that came under
enemy fire…looked out the window of my vehicle to see the ground being
pockmarked by bullets…and woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of
incoming mortar and debris hitting the tin roof above my head wondering if it
was harmless dirt or penetrating shrapnel.
Never once did I seek the protection of some god figure. To suggest that
mortal danger causes atheists to abandon their heartfelt beliefs is insulting
I would never think of belittling people of religious belief if they find
solace in their religion, especially at this sensitive time. So why, I wonder,
do these same righteous people feel they have the right to attack me for my
This is not the time to make the approximately 10% of the population who are
atheists, agnostics or secular humanists scapegoats just because we approach
life differently than the majority. Our philosophy is, after all, relatively
benign. We believe life is full of random chance events - some good, some bad.
We believe that human beings ought to take full responsibility for their
actions. We have humanitarian impulses because we believe people should not
suffer in this life. To quote from the ancient Greeks, we believe that "Man
is the measure of all things," whether that be for good or ill.
This commentary aired on National Public Radio's Morning
Edition on December 27, 2001, as "A Grieving Atheist."
Katherine Bourdonnay is communications director for the Council for Secular