April 18th, 2013
10:45 AM ET

My Take: Godless in Boston mourn, too

Editor’s note: Greg M. Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of the New York Times best-seller "Good Without God." He directs the Humanist Community Project, a national think tank helping to study and build communities for the nonreligious.

By Greg M. Epstein, Special to CNN

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) — After two days of holding back my own feelings to focus on the needs of a community in mourning, what finally split my heart in two was scrolling through the list of donations to the fund-raising page for Celeste and Sydney Corcoran, a mother and daughter among the tragically injured at the Boston Marathon.

Celeste, the mother, has volunteered for my congregation. She’s basically an aunt to a senior member of our staff. So I cried for the two-sidedness: A member of our community lost her legs below the knees, and nearly lost her daughter. And, in one day, nearly 4,000 people donated more than $250,000 to support them. They seemed to be saying, through their gifts, “Please do this for me too if anything should ever happen to me or my family.”

AC360: Mother lost legs, daughter nearly died in bombing

As a chaplain, I’m struggling to make sense of this tragedy just like any other member of the clergy. And like faith communities across the country, the thousands of people I work with are doing what needs to be done when tragedy strikes close to home. We’re offering one another comfort. We’re calling around to the point of exhaustion, trying to figure out who needs help and how we can provide it.

The only difference is, we are a community of atheists — a congregation of Humanists.

You’ve probably read the statistics: With 18% of the nation’s population now nonreligious, America is less religious today than ever before. This especially applies to young Americans, up to a third of whom now have no religion. That number may be closer to half on many of the college campuses throughout Boston, like the one where I work.

What you may not have noticed, however, is that in addition to the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones” as sociologists have taken to calling them, a new and very significant group of Americans has been emerging — the nonreligiously affiliated. Relatively quietly, many thousands of mostly young Americans who identify as atheists and agnostics have been coming together to form civically active, thoughtful secular community groups that now dot nearly our whole nation.

Sometimes you hear about the debates these groups hold with religious leaders. But while Richard Dawkins and the like are eloquent and controversial speakers on behalf of atheism, most such debates are actually organized by religious organizations. The vast majority of what Humanist and secular communities do is positive, uncontroversial and entirely American. We serve. We meet throughout the year. We help one another raise good kids. We celebrate life, and we grieve death.

So I don’t relish the opportunity — or the need — to say that right now, our community is grieving too, just like any other Boston-area congregation. Boston, in fact, is home to one of the biggest secular/Humanist/atheist/nonreligious communities in the world. (Sure, we don’t know what to call ourselves. But then again neither does the LGBT — or is it GLBT? — or LGBTQ? — community, and that hasn’t stopped them from thriving.) We meet every week. We’re getting ready to open up a large community center. We sponsor service programs where we invite interfaith groups to help us package thousands of meals for hungry kids. You can even join us this Sunday: We’ll be marking our losses together in a memorial gathering.

What is so disappointing to see people do, then, is blame the horrific and traumatizing events of this Monday on the godless, or on godlessness, as way too many on Twitter and elsewhere have been doing. As one young woman in our community said to me, “It’s hard enough to deal with senseless grief, but when people write things like 'Why do people have to be so godless to want to kill innocent people?' it makes me feel like I’m not safe either, like we’re being singled out for prejudice.”

Obviously when people say “I’ll pray for you” or “May God grant you strength,” they’re only expressing their own sincere convictions. But while not everyone holds those same beliefs, we all want to be acknowledged in a way that feels right to us.

And when political leaders like Gov. Deval Patrick or President Obama try to make sense of these moments by assembling interfaith services, it is admirable — far better for a politician to bring different religions together than to only recognize one religion’s view of loss as valid. But for goodness' sake, must the nonreligious continue to be excluded from such gatherings? I’ve seen Humanists knock on the door recently at the interfaith celebrations of political conventions, or after tragedies like Hurricane Sandy or Newtown. We wanted to help and were turned away. I hope this is where people realize: We are part of the community too. We care and want to offer our support just as much as anyone. We, too, are in shock and grief.

Secular people place our faith in the human ability to value life over death. We believe in committing ourselves to love and care and help as indiscriminately as possible, because that is what makes our lives worthwhile. We try our best, despite our doubt, to ensure that the good will that comes from tragedy will ultimately exceed the bad.

All that said, I don’t have a clue what Celeste’s beliefs are, and I don’t care. I just hope she and Sydney and everyone else injured get well. After all, would you believe for a second that every Christian pastor knows whether or not every visitor to his or her congregation truly believes in the Ascension? Nor should they. The point of a congregation, to me, is just to care about the people in it, and better yet, to help bring people together to care about one another. Our community is including everyone, religious or not, in our thoughts and hopes at this tough time. It would mean a lot to us if others do the same.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized

soundoff (3,411 Responses)
  1. tim

    Apparently Salero hasn't met Westboro.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Field Guide

      Ah, the animal referred to as "Salero21" is one of nature's most primitive-minded creatures.

      We have, finally been able to identify this common animal:

      Class: Mammalia
      Order: Rodentia
      Family: Cricetidae
      Subfamily: Arvicolinae
      Tribe: Lemmini

      April 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  2. Theseus

    What do ya know, the non-religious are human beings too. Christians are going to like that.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • John

      Even the non-religious without a persecution complex are human beings. Bet that rotarians, Muslims, and professional cricket players like that too.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  3. CosmicC

    I'm an atheist and I'm a Unitarian Universalist (no, that's not contradictory). The atheist/agnostic/humanist group at our congregation has been discussing our role during tragedies. We need to be present for fellow atheists; being comforted by a chaplain from faith that believes in an afterlife can be fairly harmful. We also need to find a way to support those that do not share our beliefs. This is the hard part; how do we be there for someone who believes in god in a way that supports them while remaining true to our own beliefs?

    April 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Al

      This is the hard part; how do we be there for someone who believes in god in a way that supports them while remaining true to our own beliefs?

      Simply reassure them that the invisible thingy will comfort and protect them.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Dan

      I have found that simply listening, or letting them know that you are willing to help in any way possible, helps tremendously. I've done it numerous times, including for my neighbor who is deeply Christian and lost her husband.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Dan

      Good point Al. Personally I think it's low to undermine someone's faith, even if unknowingly put in that uncomfortable position, during a time of mourning. I play it by ear. At the same time, I find that there are plenty of others that will reinforce their beliefs, so I usually don't have to.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  4. tim

    If you sayso...

    What agenda are you speaking, the agenda of inclusion of those not of your mindset?

    What a horrible agenda.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |

      It is not matter of an agenda, but of human, or not of human.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  5. Salero21

    OK, so atheists are a base, brutish, rash, foolish people. Strangely enough they can be very conniving just like Herod whom Jesus called a Fox. Now, many of them [atheists] are "educated", "trained", "lectured" that's a given. However their "education" does not prevents them from acting and behaving in some of the most stupid ways mankind has ever seen. Classic examples of them were in their days, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot among others. That's why the proverbial phrase an a$$ with a Diploma.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Atheists have been shown in many studies to achieve higher grades and better wages, while simultaneously committing less crimes and being less likely to display psychological illness. All around, it's a much healthier mindset to live with.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Troglodytes Entertaining All

      The difference, of course, is the Stalin, Lenin etc. committed their atrocities because they had too much power (and power corrupts)... It had nothing to do with the fact that they were atheists... When religious leaders commit their atrocities, it's in the name of 'God'.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      You are doing more to make new atheists than new Christians, keep doing what you are doing.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Thinker...

      @Troglodytes Entertaining All

      I would say that religious leaders who commit atrocities do so to further the power of their position. Anyone with a bent toward domination of others will rationalize their actions through ideoligical means. Whether they are religious or not only changes the ideology they use to support their power. Stalin used Communism to support his power. OBL used Islam to support his. The British (and Spanish, and French and basically any imperial power of the times including the USA) used Christianity as an excuse to destroy and dominate native cultures around the world.

      The only constants are power and control. Ideology is only the tool that lets them think their actions are acceptable.

      April 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  6. sayso

    This... this article is really inappropriate. Using a tragedy to push your own religious values has always been very tasteless. No less here.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • uos_spo6

      The original Canannites agree!

      April 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      Unfortunately for your argument, no religious values are being pushed here.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  7. tim

    I don't think people understand that while atheism isn't a religion, it falls under the legal classification of Religion: non-religious. It is a category, just like saying non-Christian, non-Islam, non-FSM.

    Lack of Religion still falls under the 1st Ammendment scope.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |

      Religions are not recognized by consti tution of USA, they have no consti tutional standing, nor protection by any means, but truth absolute, defined as GOD, foundation of American const tution.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • CosmicC

      Non-FSM? Who doesn't believe in his noodly goodness? They should be cursed to only have generic mac & cheese and store-brand spaghetti-o's!

      April 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  8. Harold

    As someone with close ties to many Unitarian Universalists let me assure everyone that theists, atheists and humanists can and do work well together when they choose to do so.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Dan

      Always best to hear it from the horse's mouth. Thanks. Very true, as a government employee, regardless of faith, members of my organization also frequently gathers to sponsor some type of charity event or effort.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Harold

      last thought:
      from: Edwin Markham:

      He drew a circle that shut me out —
      Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
      But Love and I had the wit to win:
      We drew a circle that took him in.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  9. Vicente

    Sartre had it right about Enlightenment philosophers who deny the existence of God. Who decides what the moral code is once you remove God? Kant is pure cant if you will. Admittedly, Sartre did not believe in God but he also did not believe there was some pre-existing moral code. This was liberating but also a source of despair.
    They can call themselves "spiritual but not religious" but what it really comes down to is "if it feels good, do it". I will stop short of saying "when you worship humanity, you worship the devil" but it is really a tad much to have a congregation of atheists. Only in Cambridge MA, where I lived for close to ten years, could you have something like this.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Andy

      Perhaps you should read the recent article "Where Do Morals Come From/":


      April 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Jeebusss

      Ah the tired old "you have to have a pretend person in the sky for morality to exist" argument. Boring, and shallow, and laughable.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jim

      It is pure folly to think that without traditional religion there would be no societal norms or moral guides. People have governed themselves since the beginning of time. In less enlightened time, religious beliefs dictated a great deal of these laws. As people became more enlightened and intelligent about the world the influence of religion has waned and governing for the collective benefit of society has increased. The beauty of our principle of separation of church and state underscores our acknowledgement over 200 years ago that religious codes are arbitrary and discriminatory.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Morals are merely tribal customs, and they always have been.
      What is proper amongst your own tribesmen may not be proper to another.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  10. Jonus Grumby

    I pray for atheists.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • JJ

      Atheists think for you.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Roy Hinckle

      Muslims and Hindus and Jews pray for misguided Christians.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • uos_spo6

      I prey on believers.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • agnositicandproud


      April 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  11. Matthew

    If all religions are equal, then, what is a point of belonging to one's religion?

    April 18, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Matthew: sound like you're buying into the old "elephant & the blind men" story...

      "In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant… the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. What this means then is that there is an appearance of humility and a protestation that the truth is much greater than anyone of us can grasp. But if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth, it is in fact an arrogant claim with the kind of knowledge which is superior that you have just said, no religion has."
      – Lesslie Newbigin

      April 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  12. Skalamoosh

    Whether you believe in eternal life after death with God, or empty nothingness but death, you are right. If God doesn't exist and I just end up dying into nothingness.. then I lived a good life, loved all, found true peace and happiness in my life.
    If God does exist, then thanks to His mercy and grace I will live eternally with Him and others in peace and harmony without the pain and struggles of this world. I choose to not mess around with Eternity from my short vanishing mist of a life here on Earth. That's my choice and yours too. I respect your choice to believe that, but am saddened by the thought of your abysmal outlook on life and its soon end.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Accepting that this life is all we get is not "abysmal" or depressing. It should make one value the time we have even more and drive us to do all the good we can while we're here.

      And don't forget that there are countless ideas about what happens after death.
      Perhaps you'll be reincarnated with your next form determined by how you live in this one.
      Maybe you need to die gloriously in battle, bathed in the blood of your enemies so you can get to Valhalla.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • G to the T

      And since when is living your life based on a fear of death considered a healthy outlook?

      April 18, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  13. amanda

    Greg, I am a christian and I morn with you. You have the right to morn in any way you see fit. I love you as a fellow human being. When I see tragedy I never think "is that person a christian, a jew, a muslim, an athiest?" I think "how can I help them?" I would cry for you as I would a member of my own church if you were hurt or killed because you are a person too.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      I cry for your English teacher.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Dan

      Thank you Amanda for getting it.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Ron M.


      Very well stted. Thnk you.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • G to the T

      While I believe in your compassion, I'd be willing to bet you just assume most people are christian until you hear otherwise. I know I did when I was a christian.

      April 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • amanda

      well dark frenchman, lets see how well you type when you have been up all night with a baby!!! but im sure you always write perfectly no matter how tired you are. And G to the T I will admit that yes I usually do because I live in rual North Carolina so most people are however I do have muslim and jewish friends as well as those that do not belive in god at all.

      April 18, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  14. gf

    Oh my, Greg. I hope you are just as quick to stand up and defend Islam and religious beliefs when some terrorists kill in the name of Allah. Or do you not care then? Do you jump in the fray and cast your same accusations? I hope not, that would be very prejudicial of you.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      And your solution is preconceptual accusations.


      April 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Trying to figure out this comment's relevance to the topic at hand is making my brain hurt.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • grist

      This makes no sense. You are somehow implyng that the men who planted the bombs were atheists and Epstein was defending them.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • hammer

      So, because he defends himself and his group, he now has and obligation to defend any group that is ever singled out for something due to prejudice? Nice logic. You and all of your friends are morons. There, a prejudiced statement has been made against you. You'd better not defend yourself unless you're prepared to defend all muslims, christians, and the non-religious. Not doing do would make you a hypocrite...

      April 18, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  15. Dan

    Very good article. It's a shame that some people don't realize that human qualities, such as sypmathy and mourning, are not only restricted to the religious. Help is help, all should be welcome and we should bond under the commonality of being human.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Matthew

      this is what makes us weak and this is why criminals and terrorist are winning

      April 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • TAJW

      I'm just curious, where did you get the idea that people believe that non-religious don't care or help?

      I've never seen ANYONE make that claim.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  16. Roger Wilco

    Very nice of you to use this tragedy to promote your atheism ... Militant atheists are just like the religious militants. Same tricks, same methods ... and very nice touch to cast yourself as the victim of the Boston tragedy :

    "What is so disappointing to see people do, then, is blame the horrific and traumatizing events of this Monday on the godless, or on godlessness, as way too many on Twitter and elsewhere have been doing"

    Beautiful ...

    April 18, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Becuase nothing screams "militant" more than organizing relief efforts for the victims of tragedy.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  17. JanetMermaid

    Two things: 1. This article is worthwhile because it rightly points out that religious belief has nothing to do with compassion. 2. The mere fact that it is necessary to even explain Thing 1 is sad and disappointing.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • G to the T

      Agreed. Couldn't have said it better.

      April 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  18. lionlylamb

    Seek not the God but rather seek out God's kingdom domain of which is written of within the KJVB. Mathew 6:33 "But seek ye first the kingdom of God."

    Without knowing the whereabouts of God's kingdom domain, how can one truly know about God? Where do you say God's kingdom domain is?

    April 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      Are you not the gentleman with a "special" relationship with his brother?

      April 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Well, if you're speaking of the creator of the garden of Eden, then we're talking about El, his wife Eliat, and their 70 god-children the Elohim. According to the oldest versions of Genesis, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and Uugaritic mythology, they lived on a mountain top where they had cleared trees and dammed a river with their own hands. This location is often referred to in egyptian as "On High", which most christians misunderstand to mean some cloudy place in the sky or another dimension. But originally your gods' kingdom was right here on earth, overlooking the people he ruled.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      Would this by chance, kind sir, be a reference to the fabled Mount Olympus?

      April 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      I have a 'loving' relationship with my' brother. We live out our Life together in loving memories for our parents' concerns. Our parents have passed on and brother and I are living Life the best way we know how to which is together. Social indifferences about me and my brother dares deranging concernments of derision within societal harkening of steadfast bitterness meant as insidious reminders of ages long past. I love my brother and he loves me. I'll always love him and he me.

      Let Us Love.
      Lettuce Love.
      Love Let Us.
      Love Lettuce.


      April 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      The Kingdom Domains of God are not of this world for the kingdom of God lays upon Life's insides.

      Luke 17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

      1Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  19. Dave

    No matter what you believe, not everyone will agree with you. Are you Sure there is no hereafter?–those cowardly followers of Christ sure changed their tune after they met the risen Christ–they were willing to die for what they personally witnessed. There is a 100% chance of dying–the kicker, it may be today. Jesus said, (John 11:25) "I am the resurrection and the life-whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." I believe in Jesus.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      You have obviously missed the book of Matthew where your hero claims the time of his return within the lifespan of his disciples. I do not understand this continued fascination with belief in something that none of its follows have tortured themselves with reading.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Placing all your faith in the fictional character from a 2000yr old mystery play is a bit reckless. There are easier, more honest ways to build a philosophy.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • dumbasfock

      Go read Matthew again. You are incorrect. There is something thats going to occur within OUR lifetime but its in Revelation and it concerns 1948. Hint, look into Daniels 70 weeks and be aware that the 70th week is about to start very soon. 1948 + 70 = 2018. Good luck with your journey.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      There's a 100% of living. And it is today.

      I'd rather live by what I believe to be true, than chose to lie to myself out of fear of what MIGHT happen after death. You should do the same – live by what you believe to be true. But to suggest I should change my beliefs out of fear, rather than because of what I believe to be the truth – that's nonsense.

      Perhaps you should live by your words – the Norse were just as certain and ready to die for their beliefs, shouldn't you be ready for Valhallah, and sacrifice a goat or so, just to be sure?

      April 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  20. The Dark Frenchman

    "I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV" is actually "Mark from Middle River." He can't be trusted.

    April 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @The Dark Frenchman,

      what paranoid delusion causes you to make that assertion? While "Mark from Middle River" and I may occasionally agree, more frequently we have opposing opinions.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • The Dark Frenchman

      It is finely detailed in your passive aggressive attitude, your deliberately constant sentence structure and mildly opaque gravity of racism.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @The Dark Frenchman

      Occam's Razor would suggest that my own sentence structure is constant because it is the way I write, and is not deliberately studied.

      If your observation is that MFMR and I have similar sentence structure, therefore we must be one person, then you are really reaching.

      As for being passive aggressive, perhaps I am just trying to be polite when I might rather scream at the stupidity here?

      I don't care what paranoid delusions you want to construe as reality, but I have never posted as "Mark from Middle River" nor any other handle. There have certainly been several times when people have misappropriated my handle – presumably to give the appearance of stupid or contrary words coming from me.

      April 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.