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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 followed.

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 did that.

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 personal courage.

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 beyond measure.

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 nonbelief?

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 Humanism.  

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