New York Times: where were the humanists after Newtown?

A short piece from Friday’s New York Times, “In a crisis, humanists seem absent,” deserves a read and a bit of thought.  It’s basically a bit of hand-wringing about why humanists and secularists weren’t visible and providing consolation after the Newtown massacre. The question the article poses is this: why weren’t secularists able to fulfill people’s needs in time of grief?

The funerals and burials over the past two weeks have taken place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon and United Methodist houses of worship, among others. They have been held in Protestant megachurches and in a Jewish cemetery. A black Christian youth group traveled from Alabama to perform “Amazing Grace” at several of the services.

This illustration of religious belief in action, of faith expressed in extremis, an example at once so heart-rending and so affirming, has left behind one prickly question: Where were the humanists? At a time when the percentage of Americans without religious affiliation is growing rapidly, why did the “nones,” as they are colloquially known, seem so absent?

To raise these queries is not to play gotcha, or to be judgmental in a dire time. In fact, some leaders within the humanist movement — an umbrella term for those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers, among other terms — are ruefully and self-critically saying the same thing themselves.

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.

“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

To be fair, the paper does note that “the families of each Newtown victim chose religious funerals”, and that the interfaith service perforce excluded humanists.  It adds that humanist groups did raise money for the Newtown victims and organized gun-control rallies. Nevertheless, the tenor of the article is that somehow humanism has failed:

Still, when it comes to the pastoral version of “boots on the ground” — a continuing presence in communities, a commitment to tactile rather than virtual engagement with people who are hurting — the example of Newtown shows how humanists continue to lag.

That lag persists despite significant growth in the number of nonbelievers. A recent national study by the Pew Research Center found the share of “nones” had risen to about 20 percent of Americans from 15 percent in just five years. The humanist movement of the last decade has had eloquent public intellectuals in Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Yet, in the view of internal critics like Mr. Epstein and Dr. Ray, humanism suffers in certain ways for its valorization of the individual. The inside joke is that creating a humanist group is like “herding cats.”

“You can’t just be talking about cowboy individualists anymore,” Dr. Ray said. “We have to get out of this mentality we’ve been in over the past 50 years of just saying how stupid religion is. We have to create our own infrastructure.”

I think this is unfair in several ways.  It is indeed true that religion fulfills some people’s needs, including that of consolation after death. Nobody denies that. What we question is whether those needs can be fulfilled without the superstition that accompanies religion (a superstition that has innumerable bad side effects), and without offering the false hope that those who die will live again in heaven—or fry in hell. I say “yes we can,” pointing to the example of Scandinavia, where people’s needs seem to be met without superstition. Yes, many Scandinavians adhere to the rituals of faith, getting married, going to memorial services, and other such things, in church.  Yet, according to Phil Zuckerman, most of those Scandinavians who sporadically enter a church are embarrassed by talk of the supernatural.

It would be interesting to look at the aftermath of the Norway shootings last year, when 69 people were killed in an attack on a summer camp, and eight more in a car bombing, with both attacks coming in a single day.  Norway is populated largely by atheists and agnostics (according to Wikipedia, only 32% believe in God, though another 47% profess belief in a “spirit or life force”; and Phil Zuckerman estimates the proportion of atheists to be between 31% and 72%).  How did areligious Norway deal with a comparable tragedy? Did they have faith meetings and assert that the dead were being “brought home?”  Or did they find solace in more secular ways? Did Norwegians wind up not handling the tragedy as well as Americans because Norwegians aren’t believers? I doubt it, but perhaps some Norwegians can weigh in.

At any rate, we have to remember that secularists were not asked to help with the public ceremonies and consolation, and that, since over 90% of Americans believe in God, most of the parents, friends, and relatives of the Newtown victims wanted religious consolation, not some damn humanist who didn’t mention the afterlife. Before there can be secular help with this, people must be prepared to receive it.

I think that’s where the Times gets the “j’accuse” part backwards.  The humanists weren’t there because they weren’t wanted, and because people are too religious to consider any kind of consolation that doesn’t invoke God or the afterlife.  Only after religion wanes can humanists operate more effectively in providing solace.

Nevertheless, many—most prominently Philip Kitcher and the less palatable Alain de Boton—have urged nonbelievers to contrive alternative, secularist ways to meet the needs now fulfilled by faith.  I’m not so sure that this is such a pressing issue; I think that religion will wane of its own accord, and that helping that along is our most pressing task.

And, as that happens, people will come naturally to ways of consolation without God.  I’m not sure what kind of program to propose. What I am sure of is that secularism can satisfy people’s deep needs, for it does so in Scandinavia and much of Europe.  And the way it’s done there is to replace religion with a society in which people and the government care about each other, where there is health care, more forms of social security, and a greater sense that everyone is in it together. The absence of an afterlife doesn’t seem so pressing when society rather than an invisible sky father helps you deal with your troubles.

Where were the humanists after Newtown? Keeping our heads down, as was meet, and trying to forge a more just society, which is the real way that people can find consolation without God.


  1. Uncle Ebeneezer
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    One of the things I dreaded most when my Mom passed away in August was the amount of prayers and faith comments that I assumed I would have to deal with from other people. Fortunately they were fairly minimal. Most people close to me know how “militant!” an atheist I am, so they were considerate (or scared) to bring God into the discussion with me. The few times it did surface:

    1.) My cousin posted something on my sister’s Facebook saying that now my Mom is with hers in Heaven. I just rolled my eyes and let it go (though if it were MY facebook account I may have responded.)

    2.) My Dad, at one point in the hospital while Mom was basically quickly fading, said he never had much in the way of religion and wondered if maybe he would have been better at dealing with things now if he did. My sister laughed and reminded him that in her experience alot of religious people seem to deal with tragedy even worse. Ie- religion probably doesn’t help as much as it is popularly believed.

    3.) My sister did pull one of those “we just don’t know” lines about an afterlife to me in private, and I argued that that was utter nonsense, wishful thinking, not born out by evidence, lazy reasoning and frankly a pretty weak defense for any argument. We quickly moved on to other topics.

    4.) Dad insisted on having a priest at the burial but more because he just wanted something to say something and none of us would have had the strength. The guy who performed the service was very kind and comforting and had exactly the type of social skills that are needed to help people in these situations. I had to roll my eyes at all the numerous mentions of Jesus and calls for us to accept/believe etc., but it was relatively painless.

    The other day I posted an article that Greta Christina wrote called “Humanism In A Shitstorm” on Facebook because it really captured the essence of how I’ve felt for the past couple months grieving from an atheist perspective and actually finding much comfort and hope in the solid foundation of my reality-based beliefs and knowing that it is better than lying to myself about an afterlife. I thought it would be a good perspective for my religious friends to see that the common misconception that tragedies prompt everyone to belief or that non-believers suffer some terrible void in dealing with loss, is just not true. I was a bit disappointed that nobody commented on it.

  2. Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I agree that non-religious people aren’t generally made welcome at these gatherings.
    We were also being very polite and sensitive to other peoples’ feelings, and refrained from calling mourners on their pronouncements that their lost loves had simply gone ahead to heaven to prepare the way, etc.

    I remember after 9-11, Richard Gere (a Buddhist) at the Academy Awards was imploring compassion and reason, at a time when people were out for knee-jerk revenge, and he was practically booed off the stage! So certain views are not welcome in the mainstream, at certain times.

    I do believe the humanist presence is always there in times of great tragedy and national or global disasters, for these are the people who will offer help and comfort along with words such as “you’re in my thoughts” without invoking god or prayers, etc. They don’t pretend to have some great inside track to a mystical force that will set everything right in due time. Sad to say, such pretentious practices and traditions have their roots in vanity and delusion, among other things.

  3. Rick Baker
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    I think this article is ridiculous with due respect and shows how prejudiced religion has made people. In times of tragedy people go wherever they feel comfortable to get solace. Churches appear to be a big part of Sandy Hook community life so it to be expected. To ask why some other group, eg humanists didn’t barge in like politicians trying to exploit a situation exposes a strange view of non believers. Athiests are not a homogeneous group who get together for community on a regular basis like a church congregation might do. They get on with life without religious social interaction and would individually offer comfort to their friends and associates if needed.
    If one of the families were atheists and active members of a chess club, you can be sure that other members and friends would have rallied around to provide support. To suggest that all other people who were not members of the chess club should get together and send a representative (ie to represent all non chess club members) is childish.
    A religious group needs to be viewed as no more than a club where like minded people choose to get together…no more than that. The endless attempts to ostracise those who do not belong to a particular ‘club’ are childish and prejudiced. When such a religious ‘club’ tries to impose its will on non members, the non members will naturally object which is what the general revulsion against religion is about.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      Rick, agree with your description of churches as clubs. One of the thing that annoys me in religious research, is that they don’t differentiate between the belongingness of religious groups and the message therein.

      • Rick Baker
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        Dawn, It would be great if churches could be reclassified as ‘clubs’ in the general meaning of the word. If they could be reduced to the same status as say ‘old boys club’ , sports club, book club, yoga club, masonic lodge etc in the eyes/minds of the public. Then the actual goings on within the catholic club etc would be of no more interest than those in any other club. If the goings on annoyed non club members eg a motor cycle club making excessive noise, one would resort to normal legal action if necessary. Religion has managed to boost its status sucessfully to make it seem unique…based on ‘faith’. I like the definition of faith as ‘pretending to know something you do not know’ so religious ‘clubs’ would be clubs where people who like to pretend get together to share/stimulate/compare their imagination!

        • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

          I think that’s brilliant! Imagine: The Fire & Brimstone Club in a building right next to The Dungeons & Dragons Club! (We could put the atheist bar next door and have a beer…)

        • Dawn Oz
          Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Rick, this would be aim of a secular society which allowed freedom of religion, whilst clarifying freedom from religion; especially the separation of club and state. It will be a long journey in the US, as religion suits the Republican party. If you teach people not to think, then they will be open to a strong wind.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Love the “club” reframing!

          • Dawn Oz
            Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

            It was Rick’s reframing as clubs – for that is indeed what they are!

            • Rick Baker
              Posted January 3, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              Hi Dawn…and of course the various zigarats and churches are clubhouses.
              Not being a member of a particular club does not automaticaaly make you a member of an alternate club of nonmembers. That would be like saying that not collecting stamps is also a hobby! This type of logic highlights how ludicrous it is to say that people who are not interested in religion are therefore a group like those who are religious and should have spokespeople. The only common interest people who are not religious have is to prevent religious ones from trying to rule them in some way.

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 3, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

                True Rick, I belong to some clubs (mainly for social and dining), however I don’t think of my philosophical positions as being a club. I have thought of joining a photography group.

    • Posted January 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Rick, I appreciated your comment about “clubs”, and laughed heartily visualizing the chess club. The more we come out as nonbelievers, the larger our homespun “clubs” will be, and the more support we can lend when called upon. As I noted in my post earlier today, most humanists I know are not interested in recreating a “religious-like congregation” that mimics a church. As individuals, however, I see humanists and atheists doing what they can to make the world a better place in general, and to help individuals when appropriate.

  4. prieten49
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the low blow , New York Times. I guess we humanists didn’t run to Sandy Hook, rending our clothes and gnashing our teeth like all those afterlife hawkers. No, we are busy trying to build an America that makes guns illegal and provides health care for those who need it, especially mental health care. I am not Norwegian, but the New York Times told me a religious kook who wanted to stop the alleged Islamization of Norway committed that atrocity. I think that might make the Norwegians a little less likely to run to their churches for consolation.

  5. Posted January 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Most of the Humanists I know don’t want to establish the Church of Humanism, even though they recognize the incredible assistance many religious organizations deliver in times of crisis. So how then do we help after tragedy befalls individuals or entire communities?

    I think that we should not pretend that we are replacing or filling in for a religious organization. We will not offer fairy tales that are comforting… no matter how much reality hurts. I also do not think that our sole purpose is to end up looking like religious congregations without god. But, we should be mindful that humanists have social as well as intellectual needs, and to what extent we can, we should provide opportunities to create meaningful relationships with other nonbelievers.

    My experience is that humanists DO NOT sit by twiddling their thumbs. They get busy – socially, politically, and financially, to address specific problems. Most humanists belong to “secular” organizations that engage in public service and direct aid. So, we may not walk into a disaster under the “Humanist” banner, but we are there. And, we do have Humanist Chaplains who offer more than wedding services, and we are working hard to be recognized by traditional institutions such as hospitals, the military, community interfaith alliances, etc., where we might be of help.

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