The Need for Secular Memorials

Last year, on September 30th, Atheists of Silicon Valley, cooperated with several other local atheist and humanist groups to host what we thought at the time was the first public, open-air secular memorial gathering for the victims of 9-11. I have since learned that something similar happened in Texas and a few other places and I can only be proud to have been part of a small trend. Since I was one of the quartet of folks providing the elbow grease for making this happen, I was not surprised to be asked to write something up for other groups who may be looking at the anniversary of September 11 and considering the possibility of hosting their own secular memorial. However, I was surprised to learn that my colleague, Lydia Rice, who was truly the heart & soul behind the memorial gathering was writing the "how-to" piece, while I, the "nuts&bolts person" was writing the motivational piece. This may not be quite as upside down and backwards as it appears at first glance. After all, the first question any group needs to answer is whether to have a secular memorial gathering and who better to lay out the arguments in favor than the skeptic who had to be convinced it was a good idea?

It shames me to admit that my first thought after seeing the unfolding tragedy was that the timing just couldn't have been worse --- I had a protest of the Promise Keepers planned for Saturday, after all. My next thought was to wonder how long it would take for all this to blow over so I could get back to protesting! I discovered to my horror that I had something in common with Pat Robertson. No matter what the disaster, Pat's one-track mind needed to steer the discussion back to his favorite topics: abortion, homosexuality and that blackest of all sheep: the ACLU. My mind similarly seems to run in one solo track and I was trying to figure out when it would be appropriate to get back to my favorite topic: separation of state & church. All I can say in my defense of my lack of empathy is that at least I didn't air my one-track mind on national TV. Temporarily derailed, so-to-speak, my only real comfort was a conversation with a fellow activist who commiserated that if I felt the climate had just become less tenable for atheist activists, it was several times worse for Palestinian justice activists.

It was into this mental quagmire that my friend and colleague, Lydia Rice, wandered when she suggested a secular memorial at one of our meetings. Originally from Boston, Lydia knew people in New York and felt personally affected by the unfolding horrors. As she began to describe the very human need she had for comfort, I was thinking, "A memorial? Didn't I leave church to get away from just this kind of stuffy pomp and circumstance?" While I'm sure that Lydia had many good arguments in favor of the memorial, and I encourage everyone to read her summary, there was really only one that managed to penetrate my mental fog.

"I am not the only one" - Lydia

I am not the only one. If Lydia was right (and of course she was), then there was a large un-addressed need, not only in our organized atheist community, but in the larger non-believing community as well. Let's listen to a couple of other atheists I've talked with.

"After September 11, I thought about going to church, but I wasn't sure if the distance I would feel on account of their god-talk would be so great that I would be left feeling even more alienated and alone, instead of comforted." - Janice

"I and others were offended when posters at our government worksite started popping up, saying that prayer is the only way our nation can heal. I have nothing against healing, but I thought there was supposed to be separation of church and state. I am offended because I feel they don't want to taint their day with other religious or secular modes of healing." - Lorrie

The very best reason to sponsor a secular memorial gathering is to meet the needs of real atheists and other non-believers in the community. Janice needs a place to grieve. The televised prayer services and their local equivalents were clearly not up to the task. Lorrie feels alienated by the exclusionary language and images presented of grief nationally. She needs to see herself reflected back in a way that acknowledges her as a part of America. And, of course, like Lydia, Janice & Lorrie aren't the only ones. Somewhere around 14% of the country is non-religious. They are non-religious for a reason. Religious services don't meet their needs. Where were they going to be acknowledged as a community and grieve collectively? If there is a charter for atheist organizations, it must be, at the very least, to meet the needs of the larger unbelieving community.

So we sponsored a secular memorial gathering. We invited the speakers and the mayors and the public. And then, a funny thing happened. I was moved. So was the guy who showed up with an anti-Bush protest sign and was convinced to hide it behind his chair. Perhaps in our zeal to distance ourselves from the stifling arms of religion, we had falsely convinced ourselves we didn't need any formal, collective ceremony. Perhaps we had convinced ourselves we didn't need grieving or acknowledgement, but we did. When Jim Heldberg, a veteran of the arms services, stood to lead the pre-1954 version of the pledge of allegiance, all of us felt a bit less alienated, more included --- more American, than we had before.

Nine months have passed since then and a lot has changed. Things didn't exactly blow over, but we were able to begin protesting charitable choice, abstinence-only sex education and other gems of the religious right again. In some ways, it is a great time to be an atheist. Although many of our concerns are still not reflected in proposed government policies, I've been seeing more editorials questioning the role of religion. Our local group has a number of new members who have decided they can't keep silent anymore. In the wake of September 11 and the growing crisis with pedophile priests, many people in this country are ready for a discussion of the damage religion can do. Even President Bush was heard to say that "Americans practice different faiths in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And many good people practice no faith at all."

Recently, a couple of our members have asked what we plan to do for the anniversary of September 11 and we're struggling with the same question many of you are. A lot has changed, but some things haven't. Should we hold an anniversary remembrance? I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but then, knowing atheists, you'd want to think for yourselves anyway, so perhaps it is better for me just to offer my perspective and walk you through my thought process regarding an anniversary memorial.

To me, it all goes back to Janice and Lorrie and the needs of real atheists. Every locality is different. Does your local community of unbelievers have unmet needs which could be addressed by an anniversary memorial?

If you've got Janices - or if you yourself are a Janice - then there's no question in my mind that a secular remembrance gathering would be appropriate. Of course, you've still got to decide how many Janices you have. Does your community need a large, public memorial, or would a small private memorial meet the community needs? And don't ignore the Lorries. We Lorries are angry enough to put some serious muscle behind getting things done and can be depended on to get the ball moving.

However, if you've got only Lorries and no Janices, perhaps you need to consider some alternatives. Lorries are less concerned with grieving and more concerned with being acknowledged as a part of the legitimate community. Lorries are viewing the anniversary of September 11 with apprehension. Will the outpouring of public religion once again leave us feeling alienated and angry? One of the original sponsors of last year's secular memorial is now talking about meeting with various mayors to see if there is any kind of official anniversary remembrance and getting ourselves invited to participate in it. If there isn't an official event, maybe there should be. What would happen if the local atheists got together with the local Wiccans, Scientologists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims and collectively sponsored a remembrance. Care would, of course, have to be taken to avoid overt proselytizing, but something along the lines of someone from each community giving a brief talk about their personal journey since September 11 --- their search for comfort and how they go on living in spite of their vulnerabilities and their fears--- could provide a powerful message to the community that we are all in this together.

In the end, then, every organization needs to decide what is best for them. Whatever you do, don't worry about not having the manpower or money to pull it off. We put together our memorial in 10 days with only 4 primary volunteers. While I don't recommend this compressed schedule, I want to emphasize that it only takes a few motivated people to organize an impressive event and money will follow (if you ask for it!).

I expect that secular memorials and anniversary remembrances will be as diverse and eclectic as our communities. As long as we keep our focus on the real needs of unbelievers, we can't go wrong.

Chris Lindstrom is the Secretary of Atheists of Silicon Valley, although her main obsession is recruiting and encouraging atheist volunteers. She welcomes feedback from other groups. If there is any advice or support you'd like to either give or receive, feel free to send her an email at