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.