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. raven
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    wringing about why humanists and secularists weren’t visible and providing consolation after the Newtown massacre.

    As Jerry pointed out, they wouldn’t have been welcome.

    A funeral isn’t the time to point out that their god and afterlife is most likely a myth.

    I can’t say that some xians were all that helpful. There are always the xian ghouls that show up after deaths and use them to propagandize for their own brand of xianity.

    WL Craig, Westboro Baptist, and the usual assortment of vaguely humanoid toad fundie leaders.

    • onkelbob
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      As Jerry pointed out, they wouldn’t have been welcome.

      Exactly – the humanist were where they should be – minding their own business. Instead of invading the private (and painful) space of the victims and those affected by the tragedy, they were where they should be, in the public forums, raising questions about the proliferation of guns and the lack of mental health care. Why is it if I want the doctor to treat my toe fungus, my health insurance covers it without question and with minimal co-pay, but if I am afflicted with depression, then payments are onerous and disputed every step of the way? Where is religion in the drive for health care? Oh they are out there fighting the good fight to deny it!

      • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Amen amen.

        And, as the Times article noted, American Atheists raised $11,000 for funeral expenses for Newtown victims, and other non-religious organizations held their own fundraisers or stepped up anti-gun-violence efforts.

        Where else would they have us be? Picketing next to the Westboro nutjobs?

        And the “herding cats” quote is, once again, apropos. Those who want organized community without organized religion are more than welcome to organize themselves into a community. But why the surprise that most of us who don’t care for organized religion also don’t care for organized community?

        I care much more for the disorganized community of people whose paths I’ve crossed about whom I care enough to continue to associate with than I possibly could of a bunch of random strangers with whom all I have in common is the maturity to have abandoned religious faery tales along with the non-religious ones.

        Besides, I don’t see many clubs out there for people who don’t collect stamps….


        • jimroberts
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink


    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Quite so, Raven. Why should we expect anyone other than family and friends with their personal memories at funerals?

      The only obnoxious recollection I have of the funeral of my wife (an agnostic, prematurely dead from cancer) is a fundie relative brightly telling me after the service, ‘God’s given us a beautiful day for it.’

      I expect he meant to cheer me up. Instead, I thought, but did not say, that God had rather missed his chance to be helpful.

      And on a different topic, congratulations Jerry on another year. Your website is one of my daily must-reads, a continual source of enjoyment and enlightenment in science, cats, food and irreligion. In particular, we are especially grateful for your willingness to take one for the team by reading recent theological effusions, stuff I stopped forcing myself to read 30 plus years ago.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Of course we weren’t invited. Religious shows are for the religious.

      And it’s good we didn’t show up.

      The last thing any of those parents needed was some humanist in the Fred Phelps genre to tell them their children’s deaths pointless and final, and that they’re a feast for the worms instead of heaven waiting for them. And I think we realize that.

      Unlike the religious who, at an atheist’s funeral, will have no qualms about spreading their religious BS when and where it’s not appropriate. (Personal experience, that.)

  2. raven
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    As a boomer, I’ve seen a lot of dead friends and relatives in the last few years.

    The trend here on the WC in nonreligious circles is to hold a celebration of life memorial service or not service. One of my acquaintenances was a pagan, so the pagans had an outdoor bonfire party. The few xians there were absolutely shocked.

    They actually work well.

    Better than the few xian funderals I’ve attended.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      This sounds wonderful. I’m still working on these types of questions myself.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I recently attended the funeral of an acquaintance, David Strang, who was the past chair of the Tempe Transportation Commission (of which I’m a member) and really quite a good guy.

      It was a stock vanilla church service, with completely scripted hymns and responses and a sermon and all the rest. The only thing that didn’t follow the Sunday morning formula was the insertion of a short statement by David’s son before the sermon.

      I found the whole thing rather unsatisfying…but David was active in the church, a former pastor and seminarian himself, so I have no doubt but that it’s exactly what he wanted.

      I don’t care much what happens after I die. It’d be nice if any leftover parts there might be could help somebody in need of them, even if it’s just for a medical student to get a better understanding of anatomy. Whatever makes happy those who survive me is fine by me.

      I suppose I’ll have to do something when my parents die. I have no clue what I’ll do, but it won’t be for me. Their lives are far superior memorials than anything that anybody could ever do in the span of an hour a couple days after they’ve died.


      • Marella
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        My daughter keeps telling me she’s going to have me made into a diamond!

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          Sure — why not?

          Though I think I’d personally rather be planted in a garden somewhere….


      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        I’m getting my wife’s ashes made into fireworks, so that she can go back to the stars, whence we all came. We’ll probably hold a fireworks party.

        She’s still hanging on, BTW, and the fireworks are her idea. She is also writing the script for the humanist celebrant, and this will be a witty celebration of her life.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          Big on hugs, here, and semding some your and your wife’s way…

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

            Thank you very much. It’s lovely not to be told that you’re praying for us. BTW, Mrs Brain has told me that the celebrant should have a moment for silent reflection during the funeral, but anyone praying out loud is to be summarily ejected! This period will be accompanied by the theme from “Twin Peaks”. The coffin sliding through will be accompanied by the guitar riff from “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin, but you knew that). Mrs Brains has quite a sense of humour!

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like it should be a fun party, all things considered.

          I don’t know if I’d rather have my parents go suddenly or in a way that would permit that sort of long goodbye. I think I’d much rather that they simply don’t die and stay healthy for another several decades, and I’m sure you and your wife have a similar opinion on the matter.

          Would it be too forward and / or ghoulish to suggest that you might consider serving a certain light-colored pudding for the dessert?

          And, another serious thought…now might not be such a terrible time for a memorial service, while she’s still alive and can enjoy it for herself. Why not one last party for the death-day girl, when everybody can tell her in person how much they love her and she can actually hear them?


  3. gillt
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Where was scientology after Newton?

  4. Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    As a Grandparent who lost a Grandson who was only 14 Months old, religion did not bring comfort, in fact it had the opposite effect, Nothing can bring the child back, My Daughter my Ex-wife and I wanted, him to be alive in this world not the next. I as an atheist would never try to interfere in the Parents or Families own way of grieving, when they are ready they will ask for help, and this will no doubt in some way be help from sources outside of Faith groups.

  5. RedSonja
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I wonder how much of this is projection, too – many theists would be perfectly comfortable injecting themselves into a grieving humanist’s life, so why weren’t humanists butting in left and right?

    After my dad died, I remember being gobsmacked that my cousin chose the dinner after the visitation to start an argument with me about being an atheist. He certainly felt zero compunction about inserting his Jesus spiel into my grief, nevermind the fact that Dad wasn’t a believer.

    • raven
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      You’ve never seen a xian ghoul before?

      You have now.

      They are common, you will see a lot more.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Were there witnesses to his accosting you? For the sake of “Keeping The Peace” and “The Bigger Picture” at such a gathering, did you deem it the more prudent course to take it on the chin and not respond at that time to him?

      (Or not respond at all so as not to have to further endure him, period, in that it would likely be only at an event like a funeral you’d have to deal with him? If it’s a sibling or parent, that doesn’t work, as often out of necessity one has to maintain communication with parents/siblings.)

      The world is full of those who feel entitled to say anything anywhere anytime to anyone about anything.

    • Posted January 2, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Just because they do something tasteless doesn’t mean we should too. You can ask them to be quiet & allow you to grieve.

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        Barbara, arguing is a traditional part of grieving – especially with siblings….

  6. Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    How dare he. Really. What would be the point of humanists descending en masse upon the grieving, insisting that their babies are forever gone to them, but offering a shoulder to cry on? Now is not the time to jerk those families away from their faith, if the brutal deaths of their children couldn’t do it, an offering of consolation from humanists isn’t going to make one bit of difference. No one wants to hear what we have to say because it’s too painful and scary. I know, this has broken me in ways I didn’t think possible. I am 40 and had my first panic attack last night when a wave of horrible tragedies flooded my mind – tragedies involving my own toddler. I asked my husband if there were any way a fire could start in his room. Completely irrational fear – all triggered by this event. I may have to seek help, or maybe this should be the normal reaction to such a slaughter…I don’t know…all I know is that we all hurt…all of us here. We are alone in facing this tragedy without the veil of superstition, or hope – and it’s miserable. I wish with all my heart that people could put aside religion and superstition – yet, as much as it boggles my mind, if religion is offering one shred of comfort to those affected by about the worst life has to offer, then let them have that this moment. There is no point, nor need, to an organized humanist effort in Newton. I did see a humanist charity organization accepting donations for burials, but I did not think these families were actually destitute, nor that their own communities would not support them in that.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I’m a complete layman here, but in my completely unqualified opinion I don’t think panic attacks should be taken lightly whether they are normal reactions or not.

      At worst they, if repeated, can be symptoms of problems (see the link below) and/or become problems by themselves. “Repeated panic attacks are considered a symptom of panic disorder.[4] Screening tools like Panic Disorder Severity Scale can be used to detect possible cases of disorder, and suggest the need for a formal diagnostic assessment.” [ ]

      I hesitate to make suggestions, except maybe to get a professional opinion despite it not yet being repeated.

      • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        I appreciate the suggestion – it took me by surprise – I don’t suffer from depression (besides it being rampant in my family) or other emotional/psychological issues. Yet, I can realize that this was out of the norm for me…my heart was racing and I just couldn’t relax – for a time…I was finally able to do some deep breathing, fell asleep, and have been fine since. If it happens again, I will be taking full advantage of my health coverage.

        • Keith
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          For what it’s worth, I experienced these, too, when my kids were toddlers. I was in grad school at the time, lots of daily stresses, and sometimes the terrible news of the day would overwhelm me. My anxiety attacks would hit only when coupled with driving on California mega-freeways (go figure…). I’m fine now. Kids are teens. I exercise more, and have a bit more stability in my life. Silly superstitions are most definitely NOT part of the toolkit I used to work through it.

          • Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            Thank you for this. Ever since having my child (now two and a half), horrible stories involving children have affected me much more personally than they did prior to being a parent. So this Newton massacre has ripped my heart out. That being said, I am also able to grasp on to perspective: I have a healthy, happy child and loving husband, a decent job, and no there are not mass murderers hiding around every corner wanting to gun down my child. But until that Friday, many of those Newton parents could have said the same thing. The randomness and unthinkable violence that occurred that day can be overwhelming in the sense that unless you live like a hermit, you can’t keep your family safe. But, I refuse to live in fear too. So, I think I am ok – and also, I am not pushing this story aside no matter how much more comfortable it would make me. I am turning my pain into energy – I am going to do what I can to make my voice heard where gun control is concerned. It’s the only way to pick up some of the pieces here and take a fragile step forward.

            • Diane G.
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

              Ever since having my child (now two and a half), horrible stories involving children have affected me much more personally than they did prior to being a parent.

              That’s more universal than anyone realizes until they’re in that position–new parenthood. I remember it so well . . . It does get better with time; someday you will be able to read or hear about violence to children without an involuntary physical reaction.

            • Keith
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

              +1…and positive, meaningful activism and action is a much needed and sane response to this tragedy. I will be more vocal on this issue, too.

  7. Sam
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I do closed captioning for a job, and I had to caption one of the memorial services afterward, the one President Obama attended. What a circus it was. They rounded up every religious leader in town and gave them each a moment on stage. It was clear to me it was more about the presenters rather than the mourners. None of the remarks seemed tailored to the event — they were evergreen homilies, blah blah about the grace and goodness of God, despite the fact he did not use his omnipotence to save the lives of 20 children. I hope some mourner got something out it, because all it did was disgust me.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      Yup, that corroborates my impression that there was a lot of self-promotion going on after Newtown.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      And that’s exactly how I’ve always perceived Greg Epstein, self-appointed humanist “chaplin.” Just another guy who wants to be on stage.

  8. SES
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Do we know they weren’t there? That none of those providing emotional support were humanists? That no one who lit a candle or left a child’s toy at a schoolyard memorial was a non-believer? That none of those who embraced a grieving neighbor was a “none”? That because no one took up a position before a news camera to announce their agnosticism before expressing their pain means everyone was a believer? Come on, let’s get serious. We do have a community of secular humanists where I live, and that community did come together to share their grief, and their anger, and now many of them are actively advocating for rational gun control for what some like to think of, ironically and perhaps tragically, as our “Christian” nation.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Thank you. Very well said.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Exactly right. My spouse – a non believer – is the hospice co-ordinator for a mid size city of half a million people. I know first hand that the majority of workers and a significant percentage of volunteers fall squarely into the ‘None’ category. I also know that no one advertizes it. In comparison, those involved with religious organizations and their participation in religiously organized funerals tend to do so under the banner of honouring their religion, whereas these Nones do so because they feel they can be of direct and practical help here and now.

      So I take the criticism from the Times to be about the absence of overt advertising of religious participation. Us ‘Nones’ feel no need to act similarly and are quite willing and able to act covertly and, I think, for much better and selfless reasons than the self-proclaimed religious pitchmen.

    • mordacious1
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. When my wife’s family first found out I was an atheist, almost 30 years ago, they were shocked. Over time though, they found that I did not give platitudes to their questions or problems. If they were dealing with stress and called their relatives, they would get, “I will pray for you” or “you’re in my prayers”. Well guess what, that doesn’t help most people, not really. Then they’d mention their problems to me and I would give them practical solutions to their problems (It may be sad at first, but if your boyfriend is hitting you, you need to leave him and if you’re afraid, I will come down and help you relocate). Unfortunately, I ended up running a counseling service for these people and had to tell people to quit calling me, unless it was serious. I have enough problems in my own life, thank you. In short, rational thinking people can give helpful, practical solutions, believers tend to give canned responses, which helps for one minute.

      • Cremnomaniac
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        Oh thank you, this is exactly the kind of thing that sparked a rather tense, but brief conversation with my brother on xmas day. I had called to say happy holidays. We started discussing how thing were going, and I mentioned the problems I was having. The first thing out of his mouth was, “You need to pray. He’s waiting for you to ask him for help.” My blood pressure went North, and things went downhill from there. Not particularly helpful, and I now realize I can no longer turn to him for help. Sad, but true.

        On another note, I don’t recall seeing any Humanists on TV telling people that the massacre was the result of too much religion, or false beliefs. Unlike the opportunist religious leaders JC pointed out (and others). The NYT should write about that sickening behavior.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted January 6, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

          I invariably give the Ambrose Bierce definition of prayer when confronted by those suggesting prayer:

          “The unworthy asking for the impossible.”

          How many prayers of amputees, whose limbs have been severed, have ever been answered?

          Answer is none.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:14 am | Permalink


    • Tracy
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      This was similar to my response to my husband when he mentioned this article that a friend had forwarded. Almost 2 years ago a dear friend died and his service was held at a mega church he had attended. I guarantee you that the majority of his coworkers that all attended were atheists, agnostics, humanists, nones… That didn’t matter — it was our presence that mattered to his family. Our beliefs never came up, other than the fact that we had loved our friend and would miss him horribly.

  9. devnulljp
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Dear Humanists,
    Why weren’t you there to offer consolation after the school shooting?
    signed a concerned student

    Dear concerned student,
    We weren’t invited.

  10. Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the absence of humanists in Newtown should be a concern, but at least one point that Freedman makes may be quite valid. Humanists, so far at least, have very limited institutional ways of expressing care and concern. One of the most important parts of priestly ministry is being present with people in times of crisis. There’s not much that anyone can do or say that really provides much relief to people in times of sorrow, for example, or in times of sickness, when, for example, someone has just got the really bad news that they have only so long before they die. But just being there as a caring human being counts for a lot.

    That clergy are often seen as representatives of the church, and possibly also as mediators between people and a god, may make some difference, but the mere presence of a caring individual who mediates a community’s concern is no small thing when people may feel particularly isolated and alone. Humanists should certainly not be afraid to learn from this, for pastoral care is, in fact, a discipline, which requires training. It is not something that comes naturally to us, and the very careful training that many clergy receive, in listening skills, and ways of responding to what people in distress are saying, is important. Humanists, and other nonbelievers, must learn that they too have a human obligation to care, and to reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. This is part of what it means to be good without god, and Freedman is right to point it out.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      I don’t know much about “pastoral care”. Yet, I find it distasteful that we should somehow find a humanist way of emulating it. There isn’t one of us here who wouldn’t hold a grieving Newton parent in their arms and sob with them. That’s all we can offer as we don’t pretend to have more answers than that. That a bunch of superstitious pseudo psychologists are readily available to the emotionally fragile is something the humanist movement will never replace, we can stand there with open arms all we like – believers are going to continue to flock to their churches and pastors.

      • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        No question Jeanine, nor would I suggest anything different. Of course, religious people are going to flock to their shepherds. All I am saying is that nonbelievers will eventually have to create parallel provision for people who are no longer religious, or they will resort to the churches for the things that nonbelievers cannot provide. And sobbing with people is not usually what people want in extremis. Having someone sobbing just adds to the problem. They need someone who is caring, and once you’ve joined the sobbing, you are no further use to the person in distress. They need someone who will bring them comfort, or strength to persevere. This can be done, but it takes some skill. Do humanists have that kind of commitment to human community to provide something like this? This still resides in the question about being good without god. There is more to being good than just not stealing or not murdering.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          For an alternative way where humanists can act efficiently, see my comment below on Scandinavia. There humanists, and religious, can be helpful depending on the needs of the involved families.

        • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Probably the closest thing we have right now would be the UU churches – of which I have not yet attended but have studied a bit. Still filled with woo and superstition, but at least shedding the dogma – perhaps it’s a step in the right direction towards a humanistic approach. Every Wednesday, my very Christian coworker goes to “The Healing Rooms” where people suffering all kinds of problems can have one on one’s with fellow church goers.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:20 am | Permalink

        (Jeanine, it’s Newtown, not Newton.)

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

          Nuh uh! It was most definitely Adam Lambert in Newton. 😛

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:22 am | Permalink

            You’re a very good sport! 🙂

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

              And you’re a sweetie 🙂

    • mordacious1
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps we don’t have “institutional ways” of taking care of situations like this (except professional counselors), but (and I must say I don’t label as a humanist) on an individual level we can be quite helpful. When my sister’s 3 year old died, everyone one was saying “She’s with Jesus” “She’s in a better place” etc, all of which my sister believed. Unfortunately, she still sunk into a deep depression, which is understandable. I approached it differently than the believers. I told her that losing a child is the saddest, most tragic thing that can happen to a person. You will grieve for the rest of your life and it really sucks, but you have three wonderful children who are alive and healthy and they need you. They need your help, you’re strong and can give them what they need while still grieving and other such positive statements. It seemed to help her more than what her priest was telling her. Non-believers are humans, some can be very helpful in times of need. I would suggest that the parents of Newtown seek such people out if they know any, because after the church nonsense wears off, practical advice (maybe from professional counselors) will be what gets these people through this.

  11. Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    So atheists did not use a tragedy for proselytizing.

    I would have thought that was a good thing.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      + 1

  12. Alice Wonder
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I find it very disturbing when someone uses a genuine tragedy as ammunition against another group. The NYTimes article should never have been published. That was a disgrace.

    I’m guessing it was just pandering to their religious subscribers, may have been a marketing move, but regardless it was a disgrace.

    • raven
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      I find it very disturbing when someone uses a genuine tragedy as ammunition against another group.

      Good point.

      The writers of that article were just…xian ghouls.

      They always show up after people die horribly.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        THe single sole author of the article is Jewish and not Christian, and the tone of the article is not assaultive.

        • raven
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          THe single sole author of the article is Jewish and not Christian,

          Well OK. Sorry.

          It is kind of hard to tell xian, Jewish, and Moslem ghouls apart.

          and the tone of the article is not assaultive.

          For an alternative view, read this whole thread, starting with the OP.

  13. Bob J
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Last night I had dinner with a good friend and atheist, who has for many years worked the graveyard (midnight to 8am) crisis / suicide telephone lines. He also works training police and firefighters in victim response. So while I think there may be much more secular help available during times of grief, these folks do so quietly, one-on-one, and do not seek the grand pronouncements and spotlight of their religious counterparts.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Bob J, that’s a good example, but as humanists and nonbelievers increase in numbers we are going to have to have identifiable people who can do the same kind of thing. And while it is true that secular officiants already do marriages, some do funerals and memorial services as well, and they also should be readily identifiable, so that people are not forced to accept a local cleric as a last resort.

      • DrDroid
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        On the occasion of a distressing crisis in my own life I sought the help of a trained psychologist; it never even crossed my mind to seek the advice of a minister. The psychologist was very helpful, and none of the help had any religious overtones. So to people who have experienced horrific tragedies like Newtown, I would say: seek professional counseling. Of course, if they are religious and believe some of that stuff, the support of a minister may provide some form of comfort (and I would not want to mess with that).

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          I have been there too (trained counsellor), when Mrs Brain’s terminal cancer was diagnosed. I found it a great help to talk to someone trained to listen. I may have to go back there when the time comes.

      • Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink


        Why do we need secular versions of religious officiants?

        And I’m entirely serious.

        My parents, in the late ’60s, were married not by a rabbi but by a judge. (In deference to his father, Dad found a Jewish judge to perform the service. It was the judge’s first marriage, and an amusing coincidence wound up with the San Francisco Chief of Police as one of the witnesses.)

        And why do people need somebody to officiate at a wedding at all? Why can’t they simply throw a party and, at some point, stand up and profess their commitment to each other to those there?

        And, if they really do feel the need for somebody to lead the affair, who better than one or both of the parents, or a grandparent, or some mentor who already fills a leadership role and who knows the couple far better than any random stranger with a collar possibly could?

        The same applies for funerals. What is a hired stranger going to say or do that carries more meaning than what the bereaved themselves would do themselves?

        And, for those who truly need professional help in such settings, would it not be far superior for them to get it from a licensed medical professional than an amateur, no matter how well-intentioned or even talented said amateur? If, after my parents die, I find myself so depressed as to have difficulty functioning, I really hope I call Dr. Wade (my and my parents’s primary care physician) before I call any humanist “officiant,” let alone some sort of witch doctor.

        Again, those who seek comfort in organized social groups will find it, whether it be the local Humanist chapter or Saturday Cycling or a gardening club or a political party or the Parent-Teacher Association or whatever they find the most comfortable. And isn’t that exactly where we, as secularists, would want them to find comfort and fulfillment?



        • Marella
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

          And why do people need somebody to officiate at a wedding at all?

          I can’t believe I never thought of that!

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

            When you consider all the profit made from the “officiating” business (weddings especially!), and all the marketing that goes into protecting said profit, it’s hardly surprising that nobody thinks of it.

            If you’re planning on hosting a huge party and you don’t have a lot of experience in that sort of thing, it makes sense to hire an event planner to do the heavy lifting for you. Even better if the party is a wedding that you should hire an expert in wedding parties, a wedding planner.

            And, if you’re planning a “traditional” big wedding party, chances are good you’ll want to follow the “traditional” wedding script, and that includes an officiant and musicians and his side and her side and color coordination and all the rest.

            Some people really get a kick out of that sort of thing, and all the more power to ’em. Especially since they occasionally hire me to play the trumpet as the bride walks down the aisle.

            But that’s not what defines a wedding.

            What defines a wedding is the couple intertwining their lives together, and they damned well should do so in the manner that pleases them most (even if only by taking vicarious pleasure from the pleasure others derive in the grand ceremony).

            And I strongly suspect that a great many people would be a lot happier by just hosting whatever type of party they most like to go to themselves and spending a part of it doing something that says, “Hey, we’re married!”


        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          Ben, there are several points here I’d like to reply to:

          1. Weddings. I have been married twice, and on both occasions it took place in a registry, in front of an official registrar (in the UK the marriage must be registered) and two witnesses, both close friends. In each case the registrar led a simple “Do you, Colin, take this woman…” type ceremony, with absolutely no religion or unnecessary guff. Afterwards a private dinner for close friends and family (total number less than ten) was held. Perhaps it’s the True Scotsman™ in me, but the cost was relatively low on both occasions ;-).

          My nephew was married recently in a lovely ceremony conducted by a humanist celebrant, with no religion whatsoever. The celebrant was well-briefed and provided an efficient yet personal ceremony, which led smoothly into a wedding party in the same location. I think most family members would have made a total arse of organising it!

          2. Funerals. Have you considered how difficult it might be for a close family member to lead the funeral of a loved one? I for one know that I would be totally incapable, in spite of some experience of public speaking and event organisation. Mrs Brains and I are fortunate to have in the family a humanist celebrant who is close enough to understand our personal requirements, yet far enough removed to be able to lead the ceremony without cracking up.

          3. Counselling. Here I agree with you that professional help is best, having used it myself. My first wife failed to get professional help following the loss of a child, but relied on a self-help group. The resultant depression she suffered was instrumental in our divorce. More than thirty years on I think she still has not come to terms with our loss.



          • gbjames
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            Regarding funerals. The natural candidate for this kind of service is the Funeral Director. These guys should be versed in providing service direction for non-believers. I don’t know how many are in fact. But there is no structural reason why funeral directors can’t do exactly what is needed without invoking demons and deities.

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              Funeral Directors, in my observation, are versed in selling expensive boxes in which to subterraneously store cadavers.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

                This is true. Some are worse than others. Removing religion from the body-processing and grieving process will not eliminate all unpleasantness. Still, this role is a natural fit for having death ceremonies without deities.

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

              Considering that most people these days die in the care of a physician, I think they’re a much better focal point.

              Not that the doctor who signs the death certificate should be the one to give a remembrance speech at the graveside, but that the doctor should consider the whole family, not just the decedent, to be her patients, and she shouldn’t release them from her care and oversight until she’s satisfied that they themselves are on the road to recovery.

              In practice, that would mostly mean spending a bit of time with the family to know which of the hospital’s mental health professionals would be the best personal fit and transferring care appropriately, and the mental health professional would then help counsel the family appropriately on how to begin the healing process, including how to say, “goodbye.”

              That’s all that a funeral is, after all: a last “goodbye.”


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                As a physician (surgeon, not primary care), I love that idea. Each of my patients honored me with permission to address their healthcare issues, and it would be closure for me, as well, to assist the family in that good-bye.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                Doc, by all means, please steal my idea and do anything and everything you can to further it.

                I’m sure you’d have some receptive colleagues, and I suspect the hospital’s ethics board might like the idea, too.

                All it takes is one hospital to implement an idea like this and to do it well for it to become the new standard of care.


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                Wish I could, Ben. Almost five years ago, after decades spent breaking through glass ceilings to achieve my childhood dream, I was politically black-listed for being the wrong religion (Jewish, then, and Jewish atheist, now). Years of fighting to overcome that finally took my health. The closest I come to medical practice, now, is a single monthly meeting of local colleagues, hoping to keep my toe in the water, hoping my health will return and I’ll get back to work. Meanwhile, I’m disabled, homeless (made my own shelter — not up to HUD standards), and proud to be surviving, so far. It’s been almost five years…
                Currently, I have no influence. I promise, though, that if I ever do get back on my feet, I will employ your idea.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

                God damn it, Doc. I’m sorry!

                Here I am whinging about my brush with the cliff, and here you are living the life over the edge I just barely missed.

                I really should shut up, now….


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

                Ben, you’re not the problem! No worries! I was poor growing up, struggling to pay student loans after borrowing them, never really on my feet financially thanks to all that and no family to fall back on, so I’m sadly too used to it. It’s worse, now, than it has ever been, especially for such a long time, but I’ve accomodated and survived.

                Besides, I really want to pick your brain over those solar panels. I use scant electricity, so scant, the cost of being connected to the grid is twice my usage. I’ve been thinking of going offgrid for ages. Your experience could be useful to hear…

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                Not sure I’d be the best source for information on photovoltaics…I researched the contractor who did the job much more than I researched the actual technology.

                If you’re looking for a grid-tie system like mine, you’re going to have to go the official route, with building permits and inspections not only by local officials for code compliance but by the utility as well. The only way to do that sort of thing on the cheap is to be a licensed electrician yourself, or to have the knowledge and skills of one.

                Off-grid is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. There, for the best bang-for-buck, you want to run everything off DC, not AC…which only makes sense if you’re starting from scratch. Otherwise, you need an inverter. Off-grid means batteries, which aren’t cheap, and your charging system needs to be good or else you’ll fry your batteries after just a couple years (and possibly even still with a good charger if you work the batteries too hard).

                Solar is one of those things that makes amazing kinds of sense…but really only as a capital investment.

                Still, since you’re talking about such a small system, you might check out what RV folks do, as I think that might be the same scale you’re looking for. I suspect the new stuff would be overpriced, as I think the RV crowd might be skewed to people with more money than sense…but that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t find something lightly used that’s fairly priced.

                Oh — again, the panels themselves are generally the cheapest part of any system. It’s the inverter and the batteries and their chargers and the labor and the bureaucracy that all the money goes to. Panels last forever and are nearly indestructible, so you should be safe buying them used. An inverter should last a really long time, too. But batteries? Everything but iron-nickel batteries (which are very expensive and heavy and bulky) are disposable, and you have to factor their sooner-than-you-expect replacement into your operating expenses. And those costs are often on a par with utility rates…which is why, as much as I like the idea of going off-grid, I haven’t a single battery and likely never will.



              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

                Thank you, Ben. (And, apologies to all for taking the comments off track, albeit briefly.) You covered pretty much everything you could. I’d thought you were off grid. My usage is tiny; 2/3 of the bill is just for being connected to the grid, and that locked in amount must be paid with money, not kWh. The battery bank holds me back from going off-grid, just yet… Eventually, though, I’ll get there. I recently started looking into solar powered air conditioners… In summer, one window-sized (RV roof-top) A/C unit doubles my total electric bill. Get that under control, and off grid comes much closer to being within reach.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                Industrial-sized airconditioners are generally absorptive chillers that, ironically enough, chill the air by heating something, and there are, indeed, commercial units that do said heating at least partially if not entirely with solar thermal collectors.

                I’m not aware of anything like that on the market as small as a typical suburban roof-mounted unit, though…which means that a “solar-powered airconditioner” is much more likely to be a standard unit with a bunch of PV panels. Which, in turn, means you might be better off getting a similarly-sized unit and a similar (or even larger) capacity PV array, unless the bundle is somehow exceptional in some other way.

                SRP, the local quasi-governmental electric utility, does net metering where I get a 1:1 credit, kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour, that carries over not only day to day but month to month. However, at the end of the April (or May?) billing cycle, if you still have a credit, they pay out your excess (in the form of a credit on your bill)…but, instead of the $0.10+ / kWh they charge you, they only pay you about $0.02 – $0.03 / kWh, based on some formula of off-peak bulk industrial rates for the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant.

                They just raised their monthly service charge from $15 to $17 (plus another $1.50 in taxes), so I don’t know if I’m going to have enough of a surplus to cover the service charge for the whole year or not.

                (I intentionally got a system this much oversized because I have plans of eventually getting some form of an electric-powered vehicle, and my system is sufficient to cover all my transportation needs as well as all my domestic electricity consumption.)



              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

                I’m paying about $26/month to be connected to the Co-op grid, here in Texas. I set a goal of $40/month for my total electrical bill. Our rate is $0.085/kWh, so I really don’t use much. The Co-op doesn’t roll over any grid-tied solar or wind-generated income, nor will it apply that financial gain to the monthly connection charge (which, by the way, includes taxes). So, the most benefit I could hope for, with a grid tied system, is $14/month most months, $54/month once a year at peak air conditioner use, when my total bill doubles.

                Here, BTW, is a solar DC electric A/C: I think the first one I saw was on another site. It makes the most logical sense for A/C, which is needed when the sun is strong, to be powered by solar energy, so this concept is bound to take off, soon… I hope…

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            I would not at all want to suggest that nobody should use the assistance of an officiant.

            Think of it like housecleaning. Few of us enjoy it, but no able-bodied person has an excuse for not being able to do it.

            At the same time, there are many valid reasons for hiring somebody else to do it. You might be wealthy enough that the expense is trivial to you. You might merely make enough money yourself that it’s more profitable for you to get somebody else to pay you to do your job at the same time you pay somebody to clean your house. You may just consider it a luxury to pay somebody else to do it, the same way you’d consider it a luxury to pay somebody else at a restaurant to cook an elaborate meal for you, or the way you’d pay for a massage or the like. And, sometimes, especially in times of trouble, you might simply be so overwhelmed that having somebody else to take care of the housecleaning is all that lets you make it through the day without breaking down.

            I think there are very, very few people who actually need an officiant to step them through life’s big events, contrary to the claims of the Times column and the Harvard Humanists and the like. Almost everybody is perfectly capable of doing these sorts of things by themselves, thankyouverymuch, and many would be happier for doing so.

            But if you want help, then, by all means! Get it and don’t feel any more guilty than you would for taking the car to a mechanic to change the oil or hiring a plumber to drain the sink or hiring the kid next door to mow the lawn.

            My point isn’t to tell people that they shouldn’t have an officiant. My point is to tell people that they don’t need an officiant. And I’ve been surprised at the number of people in this thread alone who’ve expressed surprise at the thought….



            • Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

              Perhaps the mistake is thinking in terms of “hiring”. We’ve become so atomized that (even for me – someone who abhors this stituation) we often reflexively think of our relationships to others in such terms. I dare say that we should look to rebuilding social systems in general, and then there would be people there …

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

                I’m all for the informal community-based barter system, where people just help each other out and don’t worry much about keeping score.

                But money is simply a formalization of that concept and the only way that it’s even theoretically possible to interact with strangers the same way we do with acquaintances. As such, I have no problem with people paying for services rendered, even in an otherwise-informal community barter system.

                If you’ve got a community where you’re comfortable helping each other out without exchanging money, fantastic; enjoy it. But there’s no shame in paying nor charging even close relatives for work.


      • gbjames
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        …but as humanists and nonbelievers increase in numbers we are going to have to have identifiable people who can do the same kind of thing.

        Huh? Did I miss something? I am going to have to have a secular officiant at my funeral? Why is that? (not that I’ll particularly care when the time comes)

        • Kiwi Dave
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          Having people available, when wanted, is not the same thing as forcing them on you.

          • gbjames
            Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

            Since when does it require specialists in ritual for people to be available?

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

              Is that a sentence? To answer the question I think you’re asking: a well-constructed ritual — a sequence of appropriate words, of evocative music, conducted in the right physical environment — creates a mood, and conducts the participants and audience through an emotional experience that, if done right, helps them come to terms with their loss, helps them say “good bye” and start moving on. Not everyone knows how to do that. Some people are no doubt natural talents it, and some who are supposedly trained and qualified are no doubt hopelessly incompetent (but every vocation has those). Bottom line: it’s valuable to have someone who can do that, on behalf of those who can’t, or just don’t want to at the time.

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink


              • gbjames
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

                Well, it was a rather poorly constructed question, I’ll grant you that. The point is that one doesn’t require ritual-specialists to satisfy the need for “having people available” (Kiwi Dave’s wording). (Having who available? To do what? Are not these people already available?)

                I was trying to respond to Eric’s assertion that “we are going to have to have identifiable people who can do the same kind of thing” which I read as a call for humanist ritual specialists of some sort. I don’t see why this is framed as a requirement (“have to have…”). Kiwi Dave’s response that nobody is forcing such a specialist on me is true but not really to the point when Eric asserts a requirement.

        • Marella
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

          My father’s funeral was conducted by a secular celebrant (who nonetheless had enormous trouble keeping religious mumbo-jumbo out of it however hard she tried) and it was more a case of having someone who knew what they were doing running things at a time of stress. Now that I’ve read Ben’s previous comment however I realise we really didn’t need anyone, I could have done it myself.

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

            For my parents memorials, my wife and I arranged the order of service and chose all the readings and music, and I delivered the eulogies. But we got a UU chaplain basically to act as MC, because I simply didn’t want to be the one standing at the front calling the shots the entire time (and being an only child, it really was all on me).

            As with your experience, the guy we got for Dad had trouble keeping keeping “spiritual” talk out of his closing remarks, despite the fact that I told him earlier that my parents were agnostic and so we didn’t need to hear anything about God or the afterlife. For Mom, I went back to their old congregation where they lived before they moved into care, and got a chaplain who had actually known them. That went rather better.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:28 am | Permalink

        A) I agree with Ben. We don’t need any more official officials.

        B) As soon as there is demand there will be plenty of people stepping forward to fill it. Humanists, like any other group, have no shortage of those who want to “lead.”

        C) Humanist celebrants are already amongst us.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

          For my father’s funeral (this is in New Zealand) we had a ‘celebrant’ and I have to say it took a huge load off me. I wrote a synopsis of my father’s life and the celebrant organised everything else. My father never gave any indication of being religious so the service itself was therefore pretty wishy-washy as far as religion went – included the Lords Prayer but no other religious references, focussed more on my father’s life. (The Lord’s Prayer is sufficiently ritual on such occasions that one would have to be outspokenly atheist – which my father wasn’t – to object to it, I think. The celebrant did ask about that point and we left it in). In other respects it was an excellent service. I have no idea what the celebrant’s religion, if any, was.

          And I couldn’t have done it without the celebrant to advise on the order of proceedings and so on – so many details.

  14. DV
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    The bigger question is where was God? All I saw was people consoling each other. Some people resorted to making up stories about imaginary sky-beings in order to emotionally support their fellows, some did not.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Not a bigger question at all for religious people. It’s simplistic and unhelpful to ask the question where is god? in situations like this, for no one thinks of god as the primary person who brings comfort. They look to human comfort, and the religious have perfectly intelligible ways of relating human care and compassion to god’s care and compassion.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      The bigger question is where was God?

      Where he normally is : kicking back with his homie Lucifer, cracking a few tubes, snorting some Angel Dust, and planning their next campaign of tormenting the ants.
      What – the God of the Old Testament has reformed? I don’t see evidence for that.

  15. will
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I guess the real quandary for us secularists in the U.S. is: how exactly do we build up a “secularist community” (as a rival to a “faith community”), strong enough to tackle deep feelings of death and loss — like they seem to have done in parts of Europe? It’s like butting your head against a brick wall because indoctrination in some from of God is so strong here. How has Europe managed to go its relatively humanist way while the U.S. keeps its godly stronghold?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Because we have (tax supported but voluntary used) social security.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:33 am | Permalink

      We already have a secular society. Despite fundy inroads our government is secular and it comprises a vast number of agencies that provide the bulk of the real relief efforts in the wake of any tragedy. Secular efforts support the indigent, the incapcitated, education, public safety, disaster relief, civil protection, disease prevention, health care (not as much as they should!) etc., etc., etc.

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

        And, as for nongovernmental secular societal support, just being considerate neighbors and community members, perhaps with a little practical imagination, can work.

        Example: A member of one local atheist organization near me was in a terrible accident. Though new to the atheist community, I jumped in, setting up a table at our next meeting, providing a variety of blank but pretty cards, envelopes, address of the injured member, and postage stamps. Anyone could donate and know the donation went straight there, no intermediary. I didn’t have to handle any money, do any IRS stuff later, or even put much money into it. I also covered the table with a roll of paper that people could sign, creating a Get Well Soon banner that wound up hung in the hospital room of person we were helping.

  16. Chad
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    All this focus on “grief” stuff…leaving flowers…sending teddy bears…bringing grief counsellors into schools…I don’t get it. In my junior high (25+ years ago) we had a kid take a class hostage for a few hours with a shotgun and a bag of ammo (I’m not equating the two situations…in my situation no one was killed, but it was traumatic for the kids). After it was over we just talked with our parents and dealt with it. All this public grieving from those not directly affected is oft putting.

    What’s this guy want us to do, drive down there and give the parents a hug? What a bunch of self serving aggrandizing bullshit.

    Let them deal with their grief as they see fit…if that’s church so be it…if it’s with friends and family even better.


    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      It is, I think the science agree, more socially satisfying and less health expenses used to organize communal support. (See my comment below on Scandinavia.)

  17. Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The NYT article is….not bad. Now, if you really, really need to raise your blood pressure, go read how some goddamn Disco Tooter (of whom I had never previously heard, but who now has my utter and permanent contempt) picks it up, and uses it to launch a blatant “Nyah-nyah, atheists: you got nuttin’ to say about death!”:

    • DrDroid
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      Actually atheists do have something to say about death; it’s just not what this writer, and many people, want to hear. There are indeed many people who prefer to be consoled by religious BS. On the other hand there are some of us who, for whatever reason, really want to know the truth insofar as we are capable of determining it through reason and science. But looking reality squarely in the eye carries a price: once you’ve done it you never return again to those false and meaningless consolations offered by religion. It recalls to mind the lyrics of the song Toyland:

      “Toy land, toy land
      Li-ittle girl and boy land
      While you dwell within it
      You are ever happy there
      Childhood’s joy land
      Mi-istic merry toy land
      Once you pass it’s borders
      You can ne’er return again”

  18. John Perkins
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Bryan Fischer hit the nail rather obliquely on the head. He said that god was a gentleman and knew to stay away from places, eg: schools, where he was not welcome. In actual fact,it is non-believers who are the gentle people. They know that to horn in on a god-fest would only cause a load of resentment – it would almost be as bad,if not worse, than the WBC showing up!.

  19. Greg Esres
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    The secularists were the police, the firemen, the paramedics, the doctors and the nurses that provided the essential material assistance to the victims and families, fulfilling the roles for which religion was useless. For the mental side, there were doubtless grief counselors available. While these people might have been individually religious, these are secular roles and would exist in a society without religion.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:35 am | Permalink

      Precisely what I was going to say, though you said it better.

  20. Sastra
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the better question is “where was humanism after Newtown?” And it was all over — and very vocal.

    Every time a speaker’s form of consolation was capable of making sense and having meaning even if you don’t believe in a God or afterlife, then humanism was there. Every time a clergyman, rabbi, or other religious official spoke about love, grief, community, and remembrance in a way that also resonated with us — then humanism was there.

    It just didn’t get specific recognition.


  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    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.

    This is correct, though I can’t vouch for the exact details of Norway dealt with their tragedy.

    When many hundreds of scandinavian tourists died and thousands were wounded in the Indian Ocean tsunami 2004 a local social security grid work was activated, where the local authorities have catastrophe groups ready. They have trained groups of social helpers and psychologists on standby, who informs and helps with practicalities. And, if I’m correctly informed, have assemblies in large locales for getting continued community support groups going, with the involved families but also neighbors and the willing helpers.

    A skeleton of this was already in place, at least in Swdeden, during the Eustonia sinking 1994. (Where again many hundreds were killed or wounded.) But due to the incapacity showed when truly communal tragedies happen it was improved under criticism. The tsunami and norwegian terrorist acts were, I take it, satisfactorily handled.

    The upshot with these catastrophe teams, which are also available in smaller scales for all forms of family catastrophes such as deaths, is that research shows (as I remember it) that they do maximize help and minimize stress.

    As opposed to when the states relied on the state churches more. There were many cases of abandonment from the churches, as well as inappropriate actions that sufferers were highly dissatisfied with.

    I think the system is now reversed, so priests are made available for those who wishes it. But that nones that will have nothing of it indeed see nothing untoward at the time of highest stress.

    The problems I take it is that a) US is a more dysfunctional society re social security, b) this is a “socialistic”, “tax paid” mechanism, never mind that it is voluntary and minimizes health costs, so would be a hard sell in US.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      … details of _how_ Norway dealt with their tragedy.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Got any room at your place Torbjörn?

        Sheesh! I am envious. Perhaps one day, with a lot of hard work, and much sweat and blood, my country will become as decent a place to live as yours.

    • OlliP
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      The same type of mechanisms are in place in Finland. Though I’m not sure if they are voluntary or government supported. We have had 2 bad school shooting incidets in the recent past and there were lots of psychologists available both on hotlines and person-to-person. I think in Finland the government pays the tab, though it could be also largely a voluntary effort (we tend to copy any Swedish system that works). I have not heard a single bad word about how the psychological support for the survivors and victims’ families has been handled. The (lutheran) church also usually sets up a hotline for these kinds of things and priests are available in person.

      So a humanist solution to the problem: pay a bit more taxes and have the local/state/national governments hire psychologists that are paid for with the taxes.

      And though this is not from Norway either, the school shootings are surely comparable, the 2004 tsunami took about 200 Finnish lives and the Estonia boat disaster took place in Finnish waters with dozens of Finns among the 800+ victims.

    • peter
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      This reply, and others, as well as Coyne’s article, are very good to have, and the discussion valuable. Just two small points:

      I don’t know how the immediate aftermath was handled in Norway, but probably with a similar system to Sweden. It is my good fortune to have visited Norway many times in recent years, with good friends there, an interest in ski racing, and the good luck of having the resources and time. We stopped just off the major highway to pay respects to the Utoya victims a year ago. There is a small tasteful (and not-at-all religious IIRC) site where one can leave flowers for example, facing the island not far off shore. I don’t know whether there is any kind of religious commemoration or anything nearby, but doubt it.

      The second point is that it is not at all obvious to me that all the counsellors and helpers in the aftermath of Newtown were of religious persuasion. Does the NYTimes writer know this for a fact? I do think that it would have been the religious if any who made a public display of their basic sentiments, sometimes without necessarily intending to, since priestly garb is hard to hide.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      As you indicate it is difficult to calculate the costs, both monetary and socially, to the US in providing for the christian religion but it is quite expensive if the costs of stalling and blundering for the name of god are included. The christians are also selective as to who receives the best of their services. Someone in a poor neighborhood won’t receive the quality of help provided to those in wealthier neighborhoods, and those that attend christian meetings more regularly are afforded better service than those that don’t.

      Thank for the summary of the process of society from a more functional society.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      The problems I take it is that a) US is a more dysfunctional society re social security,

      The U.S. has a huge industry of professional psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors who provide their services to people in the wake of a community tragedy like the Newtown shooting, or in response to a personal crisis like the death of a loved one or the breakup of a marriage, or on an on-going basis as regular therapy sessions. The U.S. also has a huge network of grass-roots support groups, recovery groups and religious groups that provide emotional support to people in crisis. I seriously doubt that Sweden or any other country provides more of this kind of service to its population than does the U.S.

      • OlliP
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        Do the victims’ families and survivors need to pay or are the services provided free of charge to them after a tragedy like Newtown? It’s probably no news to most of us non-americans that there are legions of psychologists and therapists over there, but are the non-wealthy left without care?

        • Gary W
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          Do the victims’ families and survivors need to pay or are the services provided free of charge to them after a tragedy like Newtown?

          Depends on the particular situation and the circumstances of the individual receiving the services.

          It’s probably no news to most of us non-americans that there are legions of psychologists and therapists over there, but are the non-wealthy left without care?

          No, the non-wealthy are not left without care. The legions of pyschiatrists and therapists wouldn’t exist if only the wealthy could afford them. Mental health services are a standard component of U.S. health insurance, and are available to the indigent and uninsured through Medicaid and programs such as the federal Health Center Program. And the grass-roots organizations I mentioned (support groups, church groups, etc.) are typically non-profits that provide support services for free or for nominal fees. Non-Americans seem to have a very distorted view of the reality of health care in America. Not surprising, I suppose, if they rely on sensational media stories or partisan political sources for their information.

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            I dare you to take of the rose colored glasses and, as the song goes, “Walk a mile in my shoes, and before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”

            Also, I dare you to provide reliably sourced data to support your claims. Fox News, obvously, does not count either as reliable nor as data.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              Well, let’s see. According to this New York Times report, about 85% of employers provide coverage for mental health services. Medicaid, the primary government health care program for the poor, also covers mental health services. The federal Health Center Program, which provides free or low-cost health care for the indigent and uninsured, also provides mental health services.

              There is also a vast network of grass-roots community and non-profit support groups and counselling services for various mental and emotional disorders and conditions. You can find details through the open directory project here.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

                God damn it, Gary. Do you think we’re so fucking stupid that we can’t read more than the first sentence of a Times article? Or are you?

                The whole point of the article is that huge swaths of Americans lack adequate mental health care, and it’s only right now as the provisions of Obamacare are starting to kick in that there’s any significant sign of the potential for movement in a positive direction.

                And yet here you’re crowing a less-than-worthless statistic about how 85% of employers offer a worthless and insulting token.

                Now can I tell him to fuck off, Jerry?


              • Dawn Oz
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

                Ben, we all hear you – this fellow is trolling with great expertise. Perhaps its time to let go and focus on something else. Thanks for applying your considerable intellect and focus.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                The whole point of the article is that huge swaths of Americans lack adequate mental health care

                It doesn’t say any such thing. It describes certain gaps in insurance coverage and other problems, but also points out that 85% of employers cover mental health services. As I said, in addition to coverage provided by employers, mental health services are provided by government programs for the poor and uninsured, and by non-profit support groups and other community organizations. No one has presented any evidence that the provision of mental health services is superior in any other country, including any of the scandinavian countries mentioned above (Sweden, Norway, Finland).

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

                Dawn, I very much doubt that Gary’s intentionally trolling. His particular brand of bullshit is the same as you’ll hear from Republicans and Teabaggers and Neocons everywhere.

                What I don’t get is why our host is willing to let Gary turn WEIT into yet another propaganda arm of the “I’ve got mine so fuck all you assholes!” party.


              • Dawn Oz
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

                Ben, there is something about the Republican rump that has a series beliefs which don’t hold up once you leave the US. The rest of the Western world doesn’t work like that. Thank goodness, Australia has had lots of free medical services, and we are appalled that the US is so right wing. The whole of Australian politics would fit within the Democratic Party, with the exception of some which don’t understand global warming.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

                Wow. That was impressively… vague. Define “covers mental health services.” Oh, and by the way, do you know, historically, why so many mentally ill people are out on the streets, homelessly wandering around? I’ll give you a hint: It started in the mid 1970s, when I was in college. Look it up. You’re more likely to believe the truth, if you find it for yourself. Then, go back and see what “covers mental health services” means, these days.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

                Dawn, few people realize that, within rounding, there are no liberals or even moderates in the States, if you use global standards.

                We have a far-right hard conservative party and a batshit fucking insane lunatic party.

                In most parts of the world, the Democrats would be considered so radically far right as to be bordering on fascism. And the Republicans make the Democrats look liberal in comparison!

                I mentioned it elsewhere, but I’m a registered Green. I don’t at all consider myself radical, however; I’d vote for a resurrected Eisenhower in an heartbeat.

                Our country has shifted so far to the radical right that Eisenhower would be decried as a commie pinko socialist even by the Democrats.

                Utterly disgraceful!


              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

                Ben – not going to look for it right now, however there is a graph which also tracks the Australian political system which has moved to the right. A former conservative PM, stands up against the current crop of hard hearts. Many of the Labor Party in Australia have moved to the Greens, so that they have the balance of power.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                Define “covers mental health services.”

                The health insurance coverage they provide to their employees reimburses costs for mental health services as well as other kinds of health care service. I’m not sure what part of this you don’t understand.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                You don’t even try to define “mental health services.” Instead, you continue to illustrate yourself as a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect…. speaking of mental health issues…

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                You don’t even try to define “mental health services.” Instead, you continue to illustrate yourself as a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect…. speaking of mental health issues…

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                we are appalled that the US is so right wing.

                You, Dawn Oz, may be appalled, but you should not presume to speak for your fellow Australians. Australia has been one of the U.S.’s strongest allies in recent years, supporting both the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and committing its own troops to the Iraq invasion. President Bush even rewarded Australia for its support by fast-tracking a free-trade agreement. Australia has also agreed to use its Defense Force bases to host American troops. Polls show that Australia’s military alliance with the U.S. has strong public support among Australians. So much for your “appalled.”

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink


                Most Australians didn’t want to go to war – we marched against it, however in terms of foreign policy we are wedded to the US – end of story. The debacle of the Iraq war when Bush, Blair and Howard had a love fest has led to Blair being charged with war crimes.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

                Dawn, would this be that graph?


              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

                Yes, thank you!

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

                Most Australians didn’t want to go to war

                You seem to be wrong about this too. Public opinion has changed over time in Australia as well as in the U.S., but a Morgan poll in 2003 found that a (small) majority of Australians supported Australian involvement in the Iraq invasion.

                And a Pew poll in 2008 found that a majority of Australians favored keeping their troops in Afghanistan.

                So it wasn’t just the government. It was the people too. These facts, and Australia’s support for its military alliance with the U.S. more broadly, contradicts your claim that Australians “are appalled that the US is so right wing.” You are obviously just projecting your own far-left views on to your fellow Australians.

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

                The Morgan Poll you sent was about the Libyan intervention. In 2003, the country was split – whilst people didn’t want to go to war, they didn’t want to wreck the US alliance either. So there is a confusion about what ‘support’ means – for the war, or for the alliance. We also follow the US on our drug policy even though it is unpopular. 70% of Australians want euthanasia, however the government won’t do anything about it.

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                Gary, tried to answer and it wouldn’t let me.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

                The Morgan Poll you sent was about the Libyan intervention.

                No, it also includes information about public support for the invasion of Iraq (“a bare majority of Australians (50.5% on March 24/25, 2003) approved Australian involvement in the last major international military action begun in Iraq in 2003 compared to 46% that disapproved.”).

                You still haven’t offered the slightest shred of evidence that your extreme anti-American views are shared by more than a small fraction of the Australian population. As I said, you’re just projecting your extreme views on to other people. That kind of projection seems to be very common among political extremists who simply cannot accept the fact that their beliefs are very unpopular.

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                You haven’t answered the complexity I raised – that there was a huge reaction to us going into Iraq in 2003 and 50.05% of people voted for it. That isn’t huge support for a war, and it is conflated by those who wanted to keep the US alliance – two different issues.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

                That isn’t huge support for a war,

                I didn’t say it was huge support for a war. I said it was a small majority in support of Australian involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Australian involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan was supported by a larger majority. And the Australian government obviously supported by invasions, by committing troops and other military resources. And Australia also has a broad and long-standing military alliance with the U.S. that goes beyond those two operations. All of these facts contradict your assertion that Australians “are appalled that the US is so right wing.” You are just making up facts out of thin air about what other Australians believe.

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                My statement about the Australians being appalled at the US for being so right wing was about the lack of support for those who fall through the cracks of the social fabric – we have an excellent medical and social services support. We are also shocked and appalled by your gun policy. You chose to pick on a war statistic which wasn’t part of the discussion. That was an excellent device on your behalf, however, a device, rather than an honest reply.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

                You didn’t restrict your statement to any set of issues. You just said “so right wing,” without any qualification. And you haven’t produced any evidence that Australians are “appalled that the US is so right wing” on any issue at all. Not health care. Not guns. Nothing. You’re just making up facts out of thin air.

              • Dawn Oz
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

                I don’t want to debate you any longer Gary…let’s call it a stall…. bye.

  22. Mark Joseph
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    A few, unsystematic comments.
    1) I agree with pretty much all the points in Jerry’s post. And, I had come up with the same answer as he did, namely that we would not have been welcome. “Why should I comfort you and then tomorrow be proved a liar? The truth is always best.” (from Sophocles’ “Antigone”)

    2) The fact (let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that it is a fact) that religious people did more in that situation than did secular people does not provide objective evidence that religion is true (especially in the light of the fact that different, mutually contradictory and competing religions were all helping), any more than the fact that secularists contributed more to American political freedoms than did religious people (see Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers” for documentation) provides objective evidence that secularism is true. To argue otherwise is to commit a fallacy of emotional appeal. Furthermore, even arguing on the fallacious basis of appeal to emotions, to cherry-pick this one instance of good behavior by religionists, while ignoring others of bad behavior (including the arguments against gun control by the religious right-wing), is not logically or ethically acceptable. As Stephen Weinberg so famously stated, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

    3) To those who would say that I, or my immediately preceding argument, is “cold,” I would ask if that does not imply that all truth is “cold”? Are we to define as true that which gives us warm fuzzies? I think we can all supply examples of people whose warm fuzzy feelings are based on ethically suspect or outright evil actions.

    4) But, to turn around the whole issue of comfort, a consistent christian really has to believe that only some of the Newtown children are in heaven, and that some are in hell. Amusingly (to me, at least), different of the various religions there giving “comfort” would answer the question differently–the calvinists would have only the elect children in heaven now; the run of the mill evangelicals would have only the saved children there (of course, they don’t talk about this in public); I’m not clear on the catholic position; the muslims would have none of them there (unless any of the children were muslim); some jews and the liberal christians don’t believe in heaven and hell, ad infinitum. So, where is the comfort there? “I’m sorry Mr. Smith, but your son is now burning in the eternal dungeon.” Any christian who would hesitate to say this kind of thing would be denying what god is reputed to have said in favor of humanitarian goodness. To which we atheists would say, “so, they act better than their religion would have them act,” which ironically is sometimes used by religionists against us (with, of course, the word “religion” replaced by “philosophy,” when they talk about us being decent people despite our belief that we are no more than highly evolved animals).

    5) Nevertheless, I do occasionally wonder about how to replace some of the, for lack of a better term, “communitarian” aspects of religion (even though I fully recognize that they are tribalistic, not humanistic; witness the way that members of the church I used to attend and at which I taught loved me while I was in the fold, and treat me with either pity, contempt, or hostility now that I’m not). Easiest example: I know full well that “I’ll pray for you” is evangelicalese for any number of things, such as “I’m relating to your problem,” “OK, this conversation is over,” or even “I’ll pray for you.” Nevertheless, it involved some minimal caring for, or at least contact with others, in a manner that both parties (no matter how mistakenly) considered to be helpful–and in that sense, it was helpful, at least for one who is as big a believer in the placebo effect as I am. This is why de Boton’s idea of a “temple of atheism” didn’t outrage me as much as it did some others (of course I considered it silly, but not outrageous); I thought it (or something like it) might have been a good idea until I suddenly realized that we already have thousands of them in our country–they are more commonly known as “university libraries.” I think the key is to show that as secularists and atheists we can provide all of the positives that religion supposedly supplies (comfort, purpose, etc.) without having to accept at the same time the poison pill of superstition, irrationality, and faith (defined here as believing things without evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence). Raven provided a good example above; I’m looking forward to many more in this thread.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      As for 5), my take is that it depends on the society allowing all groups, regardless of religious orientation, to be helpful if the involved families needs it. I outlined in my longish commentary how it seems to have been solved in Scandinavia, and how it seems to work better than earlier alternatives which was akin to how US have it. (Maybe we should call that “pre-secular” organized.)

  23. Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry’s conclusion and might even take it a step further.

    In the comment section of an earlier WEIT post, I offered an immediate, practical solution to the issue of mass shootings in schools, bypassing both gun laws and mental health while likely to significantly raise efficacy.

    Years ago, before I realized I was an atheist, I consoled a grieving aunt over the death of her husband. She was crying out to him, asking why he left her, even though she knew his cancer was terminal when it was discovered, a year earlier. I answered for him: “Aunt, he didn’t want to leave you.” By her response, it was exactly what she needed to hear, and I knew it was the truth, too.

    Humanists don’t need the headlines, don’t need to act in committee, and don’t need god to handle and help others, even believers, handle tragedies.

  24. Daniel Murphy
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe that more than a tiny percentage of “nones” are members of organized groups like the American Humanist Association or one of the various ethical culture groups. Why would the apparent nonparticipation of nametag bearing representatives of official groups (who seem not have been invited to participate formally) be a sign that “humanists seem absent” from Newtown?

    Where were the humanists, the secularists, the atheists, the agnostics, the not sures, the “nones”? If the services in Newtown were at churches that, like many, don’t really care a whole lot about scrutinizing the beliefs of individual attending to make sure they’re sufficiently orthodox, a lot of them were probably right there in the pews, where many of them frequently are on any Sunday.

  25. Erin
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I think that it is more the point of the article that some people do need and want the sense of community. It is one of the few things that I think religion can provide in this country that we humanists often fail to deliver. It isn’t just when death occurs, but at other times.

    This article immediately reminded me of a friend who said “This is when I wish they were members of a [congregation] because this would be taken care of” when a colleague’s son had a major medical emergency. My friend, a Catholic, spent a great deal of time and effort with fundraising efforts to help offset the family’s medical bills and the family registered with a foundation that raises funds for such situations, but if they had belonged to a local religious group, the group would have quickly stepped up and contributed funds much faster and at a much greater rate. It isn’t because humanists aren’t kind. It is because, without that established sense of community, you are asking large numbers of people to assist someone they do not know and with whom, they have no connection -a stranger. It is just easier to open our hearts, our sense of charity, our time, and our wallets to those with whom we feel a more personal sense of connection. Sure, we felt successful when 25-50 people showed up to a fundraising event, but compare that to the 300+ individuals active at our local Catholic Church, the 200+ people active at our local Episcopalian church, or the thousands of people in our local Mormon wards (I’m in Utah). If we had had even 200 people contributing at a basic level we would have raised 4-8x the money that we did.

    This isn’t about butting in where you are not wanted. There are jerks in every religion and among the secularists who bring up questions of faith at inappropriate moments. You do not have to say anything about your own faith (or lack thereof) to comfort someone. This is about providing physical comfort, emotional support, food, money, and any other form of required aid when people are in need. Sure, humanists raised money to help the victims, but I do wonder about the amounts compared to the funds raised by the churches where the families were members. It is quite possible that humanists did step up. It is possible that their offers were accepted or rebuffed. It is possible that the person holding a grieving mother’s hand at a funeral was an atheist friend or sibling. We don’t often recognize the work of secularists because, as SES said, we don’t identify ourselves by the things we say at such times.

    However, I also wonder if some of the grieving families were not humanists themselves. In the small city where I currently live, I recently saw how you don’t think clearly when you experience the loss of a child and you often go with whatever is offered or easy and try to take solace in whatever memorial you can cobble together. A student of mine was killed in a car accident this fall and her formerly Mormon family held her memorial at their local ward house because it was offered to them. There just isn’t an easy and quickly available alternative for humanists in most places because we do not organize into communities.

    There isn’t the strong community support that people of faith have. It was my mother’s one concern about how my parents chose to raise me and it is my concern for my own daughter. I have generally not found a strong and supportive secular community in the places where I have lived and I have lived in six states, four countries, and urban, suburban and rural settings. The only place I have lived where there was an attempt at a formal humanist community was in Chicago and it was tiny at that time. It isn’t enough of a concern for me to join a church, but I wish there was an alternative sometimes. We find such communities through connections like hobbies and our careers but those often do not have the culture of assisting their members to the extent that organized religions do. I think that there is some validity to the article personally.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      My friend, a Catholic, spent a great deal of time and effort with fundraising efforts to help offset the family’s medical bills and the family registered with a foundation that raises funds for such situations, but if they had belonged to a local religious group, the group would have quickly stepped up and contributed funds much faster and at a much greater rate.

      Whilst I accept your point (and I apologise that this comment is off-topic), I can’t help but notice that raising money for medical treatment should not be necessary for an individual living in an advanced western state, such as the US purports to be. I don’t mean this to sound offensive to Americans, particularly as I realise that in this respect I am preaching to the largely converted. As a Brit, I just don’t get it.

      • gbjames
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        As an American, I don’t get it either.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

          I get it, but that’s because I’ve read Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” which belabors the point that in this country you are judged (socially) only on how much money you have. It has taken me awhile to come to grips with such a miserable philosophy, but it is at the root of all of American culture.
          I like to explain it as the difference between intent and design. The food system, for example, is *intended* to feed people, but in reality it is *designed* to maximize profit for Big Agriculture. Replace “food” with “medical care” or any of the other necessities of life, and make the appropriate changes in the sentence to understand why our health care or other systems don’t work. And who keeps them that way? The rich, of course, who profit from the status quo, and their toadies, the religious right, the Rethuglicans, and the Libertarians (Gary W, I’m looking at you). The bane of religion is that the right can dangle “social” issues like gay marriage, immigration and abortion to get the religious to vote for the right wing and against their own economic interests.
          Which is why this country sucks.

          PS: To all the idiots who think socialized medicine does not work, I have only this to say: Why don’t you go live somewhere where it has been instantiated for a while and see if your gibberish is even remotely in alignment with reality? When I was a missionary I lived in Prague for seven years. If I needed a doctor, or even a medical procedure, I went to see the doctor and got what I needed. End of story. Here it’s all about paperwork, co-pays, long waits, and basically enough hassle that even though I have insurance, I avoid going to the doctor or seeking any kind of medical help (fortunately, I’m in fairly robust health for an old geezer).

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink


            • Mark Joseph
              Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:18 am | Permalink

              Aw, shucks. Thanks, doc. I was abashed to read about your circumstances. I hope things get better for you, and have really appreciated your contributions to this web site in general, and to this thread in particular.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

                You beat me to the “Aw, shucks!” Thank you, Mark Joseph.

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

            + 2

            • Mark Joseph
              Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:24 am | Permalink

              Thanks, Diane. I wonder if everyone has noticed that to a greater or lesser degree, this thread has functioned as a sort of (temporary) community, subject to the limitations, of course, of the fact that we aren’t in physical proximity one to another. In any case, I really appreciate the concern shown, both in respect to each other, and to the victims in Connecticut.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

                The same thought crossed my mind, Mark Joseph, and just when I was in need of a sense of community — one that actually fit!

                To Jerry, keeper of the webpage and maker of the good posts: Thank you for giving us a space and really good cues to come together as a community, enjoy each other’s company, and stretch our intellects. It is an amazing thing you’ve done.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink



              • Diane G.
                Posted January 2, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

                Hear, hear.

      • Erin
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        And we have very good insurance by American standards. Hospitalizations require patients to pay 20% of the costs. Unfortunately that amounts to over 100,000 USD when an organ transplant is involved. It taught me to never drop our dual coverage (when a family is covered by two different policies).

  26. Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Where were humanists?

    Matthew 6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

    5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

    7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      You know what’s especially ironic, in a truly hypocritical way?

      Right after that passage, Jesus leads the crowd at the Mount to whom he is Sermonizing in the first recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

      (In reality, of course, the prayer very likely existed in some form or another before Matthew wrote his Gospel, and he needed a good place in the story to put it in Jesus’s mouth. It’s a very uninspiring agrarian paean to a Sun god, after all — to the source of all life in the sky who brings bread and watches over all. The Christian fusion of the judge of the souls of the dead into the Sun god might be novel, but it’s a very small step from the Sun at the Winter Solstice dying, laying in the grave / underworld for three days, and conquering death in a triumphal resurrection to having said deity take over the judgmental duties of the gods of the underworld the Sun has just conquered and to bring the righteous souls trapped there back up to the heavens with him to join the heroes already set amongst the stars.)


    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it. Thanks, though.

  27. Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    This is the same kinda shit trouted out by Dinesh during the VA Tech shooting. More witch hunting and self-righteous back slapping by folks who think they have the market cornered on altruism by conflating deference to deities with compassion.

    • Harry
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      We must not forget the unforgettable reply that an atheist professor at VA Tech penned in reply to Dinesh’s “Where were the atheists at VA Tach?”. It’s a wonderfully worded piece that has the same relevance after Sandy Hook as it had then. Please read it:

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

        Harry, thanks for the article, I shall send it on. It was very moving and an example of a good answer to the writer of the NYT article. Perhaps you could send it to him.

      • Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

        This moved me to tears. Thank you for sharing. If only believers could be still long enough to hear what we are saying regarding grief and loss. That we do hurt. That death is a finality for us makes it all that much more raw and painful. Believers that would label us as cold and uncaring strikes a nerve with me. And really, how bad can death be for someone removed from the tragedy who is absolutely sure those kids are frolicking with Jesus right now? I was looking at those little faces again, the victims of Newtown- and those teachers that died doing everything they could to protect those babies – and I just can’t wrap my head around it – it still feels like a nightmare.

        • Rick Baker
          Posted January 1, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for this. Believers seem to be very closed as you say. I think its because they are unable to defend their ‘faith’ with any sensible logic and they know it. I like the definition of faith …’faith is pretending to know something you don’t know’. They think that what they imagine is true and that anyone else who doesn’t imagine the same things as they do is wrong/bad. Its highly unlikely that any two people could imagine exactly the same about anything, least of all something that is in itself imaginary like religion. Factual evidence, like relied on by legal systems, helps to create a common understanding. It seems lack of evidence creates distrust etc which might explain why there are so many breakaway churches and evangelicals, each claiming that they are the only correct ones!

      • Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Outstanding piece.
        Many, many thanks.

  28. gbjames
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Gratuitous atheist bashing.

  29. Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m Norwegian and knew one of the shooting victims from Utøya on July 22nd. 2011. I also know two others who were there, but lucky enough to make it back home alive. While I can’t say anything about how everyone reacted to the events, I can say a little about the public response.

    The first response was from government institutions and from leaders of the state church. The state church is a liberal lutheran church, so there wasn’t too much talk about god and such, but religious leaders were definitely present. Other religious leaders were also present as the victims came from different religious backgrounds. Critisism has been raised about the religious presence in the public ceremonies, and the lack of outspoken humanist presence. Still, we didn’t have anything like the religious monopoly that Newtown did.

    Also, we didn’t have any of the “this is god punishing us for…..whatever”. A few of the more out there evangelists tried, but they don’t have much of an audience. If the terrorist had been a muslim we might have had more of it, but as it was we didn’t.

    The largest public display of grief after the fact was the oceans of flowers that were left at central places in the larger cities. In Oslo this display was by the cathedral in the center of town, while in Bergen it was by “The Blue Stone” a popular meeting place in the center of town, as secular as it gets. The largest public ceremoni was in Oslo and it was outdoor outside the town hall. It was attended by the cabinet members and other public officials, survivors from the attacs, families and friends of victims and survivors, the royal family and everyone else who wanted to attend. Again very secular.

    The funeral ceremonies took place all over the country. The one I attended was a lutheran service, but I know that there were also a few humanist services. I think there were more christian services than actual christians being buried. Most of the victims were young and their families chose traditional services even if the young victim was an atheist.

    A few of the survivors have in interviews thanked god/allah for saving them, most have never mentioned any deities at all.

    All municipalities with victims and survivors still have groups of health personnel available for them and their famlies. Any religious support is a personal matter that the public don’t get involved in.

    The survivors and families have their own support group both for emotional and practical support. The survivors have also received some financial compensation (up to about USD 100000 for those with serious injuries) and the families of victims have also received compensations.

    The major critisism after the attack hasn’t been the help that people got after help actually got there. The critisism has been about slow police response to Utøya (an island in a rural area), lack of intelligence that could have led to the capture of Anders Behring Breivik before the attack, failure of equipment, that the street outside the governement building in Oslo was open to everyone and so on.

    The trial of Anders Behring Breivik is over and he’s been given the maximum sentence. Norway doesn’t have the death penalty. A few voices were raised saying that we should have it for him, but they are nowhere close to the majority. Most people feel that we would be degrading ourselves as a country if we went to steps like that.

    One of the major differences, I think, between the US and Norway is that we expect the authorities to help us when something like this happens. We don’t expect churces to do it, and most of us would be very uncomfortable if religion swooped in on us like it seems to do when bad things happen in the US.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      One of the major differences, I think, between the US and Norway is that we expect the authorities to help us when something like this happens.

      I would suggest that the difference lies not so much between Scandinavian and American sensibilities on the matter, but between those who think of the government as “them” versus those of us who think of it as an extension of the people.

      If the government is “them,” then of course you don’t want the government telling you what to do. But if your government is of the people, by the people and for the people, then it seems insane to think that anybody other than the government should have a role in protecting and supporting the people.

      This would, of course, cycle directly back to the degree of social security (in the generic sense, not merely that of the US retirement program by the same name). If the people help those in need and the people are comfortable turning to the people for help in times of need…well, that’s what civilization is all about, no?

      TLDR: It’s the American worship of rugged individualism that’s largely at fault for our problems.


      • Gary W
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        But if your government is of the people, by the people and for the people, then it seems insane to think that anybody other than the government should have a role in protecting and supporting the people.

        No, it seems insane not to think that. The government does not and cannot “protect and support” the people at all times and in all circumstances. That’s why we also have non-governmental actors and institutions to perform that role, most obviously families, friends and various kinds of private organization, not to mention self-reliance.

        • Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          The tone of your words suggests you think you’re refuting my point, but the content of your words proves it perfectly.


          • Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

            I suppose I should elaborate, since it is so likely that you will completely miss the point.

            Yes, of course, family and friends are there to help, and they provide an invaluable first line of defense.

            But for so many in America, especially those born into poor rural and inner city communities, their family and friends are in as much need of a helping hand as they themselves are. This rot has even spread to what used to be the industrial powerhouse of the nation (and, to a certain extent, the planet) in the area now known as the “Rust Belt.”

            What a civilized society does in such instances is welcome all its members as its extended family and provide the help and support they need.

            What Americans, especially Americans like you, think we should do is let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

            What you fail to understand is that vanishingly few people are capable of escaping poverty on their own. Yes, of course, there are famous exceptions — but they represent an insignificant fraction of the population. It no more make sense to point to them than it does to point to Michael Jordan or the Beatles as examples of how anybody can be great at sports or music.

            By providing a secure safety net through which we shall not let anybody fall, we provide everybody a platform from which they may reasonably attain any level of achievement they may reasonably be capable of reaching — and they, in turn, repay the rest of us a hundredfold with the contributions they make to society that they never would have accomplished without help.

            If you think that families and charity are sufficient to achieve such ends, then you’re as deluded by faith as any Christian. The empirical evidence to the contrary is painfully overwhelming: compare poverty rates and other measures of social insecurity between America and the nations of comparable wealth but true social support infrastructure.


            • Gary W
              Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

              Yes, of course, family and friends are there to help, and they provide an invaluable first line of defense.

              Right. So your previous claim that it is “insane” to think that anyone other than the government has a role in protecting and supporting people is nonsense.

              The rest of your (characteristically long-winded) comment is just a defense of the proposition that the government also has a role. Since no one has denied that, I don’t know why you’re bothering to defend it.

            • Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

              Factor in the shrinking size of prototypical families over many generations; the job-required mobility spreading those remnants of family far apart; the rising cost of education, seen as necessary for earning something above minimum wage and hopefully above a subsistance level; and even those above poverty are at great risk. A family of four, losing the income of one parent due to disease, death, or divorce, leaves the other parent handling at least two fulltime roles as wage earner and housekeeper/parent. Technical advances have not only allowed the freedoms which brought us to this point but might also be appreciated for requiring these changes, thereby making them no longer acts of freedom but acts of survival: fewer children, more moves, less stability and security over all. Did I forget to mention increasing costs of medical care, since insurers got in the middle and started double-dipping their cut from both patients and providers?

              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

                Did I forget to mention increasing costs of medical care, since insurers got in the middle and started double-dipping their cut from both patients and providers?

                No, but I think you did forget to mention the legally-guaranteed 20% profit margin for the insurance companies — where, in the rest of the developed world, even 5% overhead is a sign of intolerable graft and corruption….


              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                That reminds me, in Texas, last I heard (just a few years ago at a conference on the subject), legally mandated Workers’ Compensation Insurance, paid by employers, was split by their insurers 50/50. That is, 50% covered healthcare for employees with a work related injury, the case worker to follow along, the clerical workers managing all the paperwork, the building structure, furnishings, technology, CEO and all other employee salaries, and the expenses of the insurance companies’ lobbyists. The other 50% was pure profit — legally, state-mandated, pure profit. Doctors have to pay this insurance for their employees, too, so in addition to everything else, this actually further raises the effective cost of healthcare.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              The empirical evidence to the contrary is painfully overwhelming: compare poverty rates and other measures of social insecurity between America and the nations of comparable wealth but true social support infrastructure.

              The chart you link to does not compare poverty rates. It compares rates of income inequality. It tells us nothing about poverty rates. One country can have a higher rate of income inequality but a lower rate of poverty than another.

              Comparisons of this type between countries are problematic in any case, because different countries define and measure income and poverty in different ways. There is significant evidence from consumption data that American households classified as “poor” by the federal government generally enjoy a material standard of living comparable to that of middle-income European households.

              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                There is significant evidence from consumption data that American households classified as “poor” by the federal government generally enjoy a material standard of living comparable to that of middle-income European households.


                Few poor Americans (and depressing numbers of middle class Americans) have access to healthcare (or, at least, healthcare that won’t bankrupt them and turn them out on the street), whereas basically all Europeans, regardless of income, have free healthcare.

                What use the geegaws one has without the good health to enjoy them?

                Now, compare the rates of homelessness between the US and Europe….

                Being poor in Europe isn’t fun, of course, but at least there you’ve got health, a bit of dignity, and a solid foundation from which you can climb out of poverty. In the States? You’re royally fucked. Even if you can soothe your fuckitude with a 42″ flat-screen TV bought with a credit card that charges 20% interest.


              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink


              • Gary W
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

                Few poor Americans (and depressing numbers of middle class Americans) have access to healthcare

                Nonsense. Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor, provides health care services to about 20% of the U.S. population (the federal poverty rate is about 15% of the population). In addition, the federal Health Center Program provides free and subsidized health care to poor and uninsured Americans. Fees are based on the ability of the recipient to pay. There are also many state programs that provide health care for the poor.

              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

                Gary, your arrogantly privileged ignorance is painfully insulting.

                Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle home from work when I was rear-ended by a woman driving an SUV.

                I had no insurance at the time; couldn’t really afford it, and I was (and still am) an independent consultant without even the hypothetical option for employer-based coverage.

                My most modest, four-figure rainy-day fund disqualified me from AHCCCS, Arizona’s version of Medicaid. I was too rich, and I only qualified after nearly bankrupting myself by paying, out of pocket, thousands of dollars for the E.R. and ambulance. Fortunately, AHCCCS then did pay for reconstructive shoulder surgery and I’ve since made a full recovery. I’ve also had some very good years, financially, since then…but I literally started over again from scratch with barely enough to pay for rent and food.

                While I was still on AHCCCS, less than a year later, they changed the eligibility requirements. I was grandfathered in, but I would not have qualified, no matter how poor, for I was a single childless male. As best I know, that remains the case to this day.

                So don’t you dare try to bullshit me about the wonders of Medicaid. I’ve been there, I’ve waited all day at the social services office just to be told to go away by an overworked, underpaid, and uncaring social worker, I’ve seen the women and children there more desperate than I get worse treatment, and I’ve escaped homelessness and a lifetime of destitution myself only by the barest sliver of luck. Frankly, if I had children, if I had any less savings (and few poor people have any savings), if I had any debt (and most poor people have debt)…if any single one of those was the case, I would have been fucked, pure and simple.

                And you have no excuse whatsoever for your ignorance. What the fuck do you think the last couple elections were all about if not access to affordable healthcare? Do you really think people are going homeless and bankrupt after illness and injury because they’re stupid or lazy?

                You damned well should be ashamed of yourself, but you’ve never even shown a hint of compassion, so I have no doubt but that you’ll once again draw comfort from your Randite fantasies.

                You can go rot in the Christian Hell for all I care.


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

                You said it, Ben. I’m still pulling out of destitution, and will be for some time, yet, due to circumstances outside my control. Funny: When I was coming up on the M.D. degree, there were university hospital employees suggesting I start spending in anticipation. I was poor growing up and knew better. Now, I would be without shelter and probably dead, had I not learned the survival skills and coping skills that harsh childhood provided. I’d like to see what would happen to those who refuse to get it, but then, too many of them, facing such destruction of life as they know it, cop out with suicide. It takes greater strength to survive.

                That said, the greater strength would be put to greater and better use, were a sufficient safety net in place to prevent these extremes in life from causing such unnecessarily dire circumstances.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

                I was rear-ended by a woman driving an SUV

                If it was her fault, why didn’t her insurance pay for your medical expenses?

                I had no insurance at the time; couldn’t really afford it

                Why not? You say you were “too rich” for Medicaid. And you wouldn’t have needed comprehensive medical insurance anyway, just coverage for accidents while riding your bike. Why didn’t you even have that?

                But the more basic problem with your story is that anecdotes are not evidence of general patterns and do not provide a rational basis for broad policy. I’m sure there are people with personal medical horror stories in every country. Maybe you’ve heard some of the stories from people in the UK who had to wait months in severe pain or disability for consultations or surgeries that they would have been able to obtain immediately with private insurance in the U.S.

              • Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

                OH FFS. That’s just it. His story ISN’T anecdotal – there are MILLIONS of Americans who, just like him, just like my family, fall through the cracks. We are wealthy enough to take care of our people. We should be embarrassed that people are going bankrupt (at best) and dying (at worst) from lack of comprehensive, affordable healthcare. The problem isn’t that we are all blood sucking lazy leeches of “The Rich” – it’s that the insurance pools are too small and there is too much billing fraud. I make $30K a year – not too bad – but I live in Northern California in the Bay Area. Where fixer uppers are still selling for $300k-400k. Where gas is still $4/gal. Where grocery bills are astronomical. Where it costs no less than $1100 a month for a small apartment if you want to live in a neighborhood without bars over the windows. Where paying childcare would cost more than one salary, hence pretty much forcing one of us to be a stay at home parent. I am the sole provider for my family. Thankfully, my child qualifies for CA’s Healthy Program where I pay $15 a month for HMO coverage. And I JUST squeaked by qualifying for that. But my husband is SOL – we can’t afford $500 extra a month for him. Were I to lose my job, we would be utterly fucked. It’s beyond frightening to live paycheck to paycheck with no buffer for a blown radiator or a much needed root canal. That being said I am grateful – I have a roof over my head, I have clean running water, we are never without food. Am I wealthy in comparison to much of the developing world? Absolutely. Am I doing ok financially here in this country in this state? Absolutely fucking now. I work my ass off, but you would easily lump me into the group of takers should misfortune fall upon me and my little family.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:27 am | Permalink

                It is horribly unrealistic to expect someone at death’s door or otherwise in extremis to be running around making a point of notifying nay-sayers, just to prove they exist. That’s what “falling between the cracks” is all about. Ever seen something that fell between the cracks in a floor? Of course, not! And “out of sight, out of mind.” Now, think about the USA before Social Security was enacted. Ever hear about The Great Depression? Ever notice what nobody talks about? Nobody mentions all those who died of exposure, starvation, disease, etc. Too many died; it was too painful for those who were known, and the rest died in anonymity. It’s happening, today, too. Some choose suicide: I’ve seen two, one attempt with drugs whom I was able to save, one success with a gun, whom I was not — and I’m not even in practice, right now, thanks to chronic illness. I just happneed to be first on the scene. The police said they’d seen six such shootings in the past couple months. All this is within the past three years, and accelerating. For that matter, so are suicides within the military, particularly those who never deployed to “the desert.” Something is going on, and you are missing it. If you ever fall into this “between the cracks” category, it’s going to be all the harder for you, coupled as it will be with disillusionment beyond belief.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

                Gary, this time, of all times, you really don’t deserve more than a hearty “Fuck off, parasite!”

                But our host frowns upon such, so I’ll do what I can to control my rage.

                First, you’re assuming that the woman stopped and had insurance.

                As it turned out, she did…but it took several months and an expensive lawyer to get anything out of either. Said lawyer got at least a third, maybe a half of the insurance money, but what was left did let me make a down payment on what is today my home. But, again, that was several months, almost a year later, and completely useless to me at the time; if that was my only option, I’d probably have starved as a cripple on the streets before seeing a penny. It’s also unlikely I would have gotten a dime had I not some time before designed the then-mayor’s campaign Web site and had thought to ask him for advice; he’s the one who referred me to the lawyer.

                And “too rich” for AHCCCS meant that I had more than, I think, $5,000 in a bank account. If you think that’s rich, then fuck you.

                I had priced health insurance every couple years or so. Every time, it was going to cost me about as much as my rent — hundreds per month. Now, it’s obvious that that’s pocket change to you, but there were as many months as not where I simply didn’t have enough income that I could have paid both rent and that much money for insurance. Hell, there were lots of months I had no income and only savings to pay the rent. The only reason I had any money in the bank was I had finished several months of good work and had built up my rainy-day fund almost to the point that I could reasonably make it through the next dry spell that was sure to come.

                And it was only by living in a one-bedroom apartment in, as somebody else just put it, the part of town where you do have bars on the windows, that I could even afford that much.

                So fuck off, Ms. Antoinette. I skated as close to (and over) the brink as one possibly can without falling off, and I saw people all around me actually fall off. We don’t have endowments to draw on to pay for a new Mercedes every other year. Mommy and Daddy won’t pay off our credit cards for us when the balance gets to the six-figure range and it threatens to make it less convenient to buy a Starbucks crappulater. We don’t “work” at jobs where the perks include gym membership and all we have to do is schmooze other parasites.

                Almost a hundred million of us have no or inadequate insurance and are faced with the trilemma of choosing between paying the landlord, the grocer, and the doctor. And yes, we work and have jobs. Many of us have two or three jobs, in fact.

                Gary, you are the problem. You are why dozens of millions of Americans live lives of desperation. You and your privileged “If you were so rich why didn’t you just buy insurance?” assholiness — you are one of the ones sucking the marrow from the bones of the American working class. You think you deserve all that wealth you enjoy? You think you earned it?

                Shit, you probably don’t even think you’re rich.

                Damn. Hell of a way to start the week and end the year….


                P.S. Yes, I’ve since made a remarkable turnaround. A couple years ago I actually maxed out my Social Security taxes, though that hasn’t happened since and won’t ever happen again. But had any of dozens of very common alternate scenarios played out, as they play out every day for dozens of millions of Americans, and I’d have been one of those statistics. b&

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                “patting Ben on the back for conveying all that I wanted to — every damn word!”

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                +1 to Ben and doc.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

                Pat on the back? Hell, I’ll buy Ben a pint of the best!

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                First, you’re assuming that the woman stopped and had insurance.

                No, I’m not assuming anything. That’s why I asked.

                As it turned out, she did…but it took several months and an expensive lawyer to get anything out of either. … what was left did let me make a down payment on what is today my home.

                So, in fact, not only were your medical expenses covered, but the accident allowed you to buy a house too. Your story is getting less sympathetic as more details emerge.

                I had priced health insurance every couple years or so. Every time, it was going to cost me about as much as my rent — hundreds per month.

                So what? Health care is expensive, whether it’s paid for through taxes or through private insurance. Canada spends about $6,000 per person per year, or about $500 per person per month. You appear to have been a relatively young, single male with no dependents, healthy enough to ride a bicycle, apparently also with a college education, and yet you expect to receive expensive health care for free.

                Almost a hundred million of us have no or inadequate insurance

                Yawn. Yes, and in Britain and Canada there are massive shortages of health care resources, leading to long waits for health care services, or simply refusal of health care services altogether. I previously gave you an example of cancer drugs that are widely available in other countries but are denied to cancer patients under Britain’s NHS because they are too expensive for that country’s meager health care budget.

                You seem to think that “socializing” health care is some magic bullet that would provide unlimited health care for “free” to anyone who needs it. It isn’t. It trades one set of problems for another, and arguably much worse, set of problems.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                By the standard you just set, if someone in Ben Goren’s situation died for lack of sufficient health care after his accident, because the cost was exhorbitant and he lacked the cash flow, but then, after he died, the money came through, that would be just as good, because even though it was too late to save his life, he did, post mortemly, receive it.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                We should be embarrassed that people are going bankrupt (at best) and dying (at worst) from lack of comprehensive, affordable healthcare.

                The evidence suggests that “universal health care” would do little to reduce the rate of bankruptcy, or to reduce economic insecurity more broadly, due to illness. It might pay for some health care services, but it won’t pay your mortgage or your credit card bill or buy groceries because you’re too ill to work and have lost your income. It won’t pay for health care services that are not covered under the “universal” plan. It won’t pay to fix or replace your car if you get into an auto accident. It won’t pay for a new house if yours burns down. It won’t pay your living expenses if you became disabled or chronically ill and can no longer work. It won’t pay your salary if you lose your job because your company makes poor business decisions. It won’t pay your living expenses if your spouse on whom you are financially dependent leaves you. It won’t pay for your retirement if you fail to save enough money, or blow your savings on bad investments. And so on. There are many possible causes of economic insecurity.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                Gary, your last sentence states, “There are many possible causes of economic insecurity.” If that’s so, why is it that, leading up to that sentence, you put all the blame on the poor person? Sounds like, in your view, there is only one cause: You blame the victim.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                Jerry, how much more of Gary’s bullshit do we have to put up with?

                I just recounted my own very close brush with becoming destitute by way of an excruciating violent injury, one that involved a long and very painful recovery clouded by serious doubts that I’d avoid becoming homeless, and now he has the fucking nerve to go all Christian on me telling me that it was a blessing in disguise. And then he tops it off by pretending that we can’t afford to take care of the sick, right after he was just yesterday vehemently justifying all the money we spend on drone missiles to assassinate brown people.

                I’m sorry, but this is just beyond the pale. Though he never used foul language, he has repeatedly insulted me, several other of your most devoted readers (right here in this thread for a perfect example), and tens of millions of Americans in a manner far more vulgar than could ever be expressed by any of Carlin’s famous words.

                You understandably and justifiably won’t tolerate neither religious proselytizing nor hate speech here, so why do you continue to grant Gary the platform to spread his own brand of vicious lies?


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                @ Ben, I feel your frustration – I really do. I 100% agree with your stance. Yet Gary IS abiding by the rules Jerry set forth. As distasteful and abhorrent I find his views, I find unnecessary censorship even more so. I think once the anger settles down, you may even agree with that. Hang in there 🙂

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                Easier if more of us stand up to Gary’s abuse, so Ben doesn’t have to. He’s already gone above and beyond the call of duty, here, opening his heart and soul to illustrate truth and reality. I’m up for a bit of a battle, today. Let’s have a go. Anyone else care to join me?

              • gbjames
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

                I have also find Gary W’s special brand of ***** [redacted to avoid tempting the Hammer of The Cat] well beyond my limit of tolerability. This isn’t my living room so I’ve done what I can… I don’t read his comments anymore. I can handle disagreements but am unwilling to engage with that level of aggressive dishonesty.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                Gary, your last sentence states, “There are many possible causes of economic insecurity.” If that’s so, why is it that, leading up to that sentence, you put all the blame on the poor person?

                I didn’t. Of all the examples I just gave of possible causes of economic insecurity, only the last (failing to save for retirement or to manage retirement savings responsibly) involves blame on the “poor person.” And I’m not sure why you think we should just turn a blind eye to irresponsible behavior in that example, anyway.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                You better re-read what you wrote.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, guys.

                Anybody who wants to remind this %*#% #)@ *%#@ !)# %*#@ %*$#@ %&$#@% @$%&*@ of basic math and how the only way to be able to save for retirement (or anything else) in the first place involves earning more than expenses, by all means, please have at the #*$)@ ^(#)@ *$@($ $#!)!!@.

                I mean, really. Just how is blaming people earning under $30,000 / year (and there are many, many millions of them) for “failing” to “properly” “manage” their “retirement savings” any less an odious lie than WLC’s nonsense about how the Midianite children enjoyed being raped and murdered by Moses and his Merry Men?


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                Hah…chuckling at “blow your savings on bad investments”. This is the republican version of destitute. So out of touch with what it means to actually live paycheck to paycheck. I work in a luxury market – a high end jewelry store. When the plastic surgery-mangled, spoiled women exclaim “How can you work here? I would spend my entire paycheck on jewelry!” I just have to politely laugh and say, “Well, living indoors is more of a priority.” I sometimes feel like a failure for not having a yard for my child to play in, or a dog to play with, or the fact that he will not see Disneyland while he’s young enough to enjoy it. That is my reality. I will never get a $60,000 tennis bracelet for my birthday, nor would I want one. I encounter the 1% on a daily basis – one of our customers recently donated $11 million to a local Catholic hospital. But don’t you dare tell me we aren’t wealthy enough to take care of each other – or that we shouldn’t try. No solution is perfect, but increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots is going to hurt all of us, the haves most succinctly. If you want to label universal health care wealth redistribution, I just don’t care. We can do better. We can and should take care of each other.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                Jeanine! That was spot on, and then some!!!

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

                But don’t you dare tell me we aren’t wealthy enough to take care of each other – or that we shouldn’t try.

                The phrase “take care of each other” is so vague with respect to health care policy it’s hard to know what it’s supposed to mean. I’m glad you agree that there is no “perfect solution” (to put it mildly). All health care systems have serious drawbacks. The main problem with single-payer systems is underfunding. Central planners just aren’t very good at matching supply and demand. That’s why countries with single-payer health care systems like Britain and Canada tend to suffer from chronic shortages of health care resources. If you think that such systems are superior to the American system despite these resource problems, then you’d better be able to make a clear, calm, rational, evidence-based argument to that effect. Hand-waving and swearing and ad hominems and endless expressions of self-righteous indignation aren’t likely to work.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

                I’d say profits off every sort of health insurance is evidence enough. You could, of course, add the parts where insurers deny care, knowing patients will die, or die sooner, without it, and that they’re far to sick to fight back. That adds to the profits, too. You think this is better than a nonprofit, standardized model, available to all, and to which you are welcome to pay for any supplemental for-profit insurance you care to afford?

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

                I’d say profits off every sort of health insurance is evidence enough.

                Huh? How is that evidence? And if it’s okay for drug companies, hospitals, physicians’ practises, nursing agencies, medical schools, surgical equipment suppliers, MRI machine manufacturers, etc., to make a profit, why isn’t it ok for health insurers to make a profit? They’re all making a profit “off the backs of sick people.”

                You could, of course, add the parts where insurers deny care,

                Government-funded health care systems also deny care.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

                It’s a given that you won’t take my word for it, but if insurance companies weren’t taking their profits from both the patients on one side and the care-givings on the other, that would reduce the cost of medical care significantly. When you see a doctor, your copay probably covers what you’d be paying out of pocket, if the doctor didn’t have to hire multiple office workings to deal with tons of paperwork to handle different forms and protocols from different insurance agencies with different policies for different groups of patients. A single payer system would streamline, cutting clerical costs (from added space to added computers, phone lines, employees and their benefits) dramatically. So, no exhorbitant insurance profits plus one standard insurance form for all, and huge cost savings would result before any — ANY! — cut in healthcare services.

                You do understand that much, now, don’t you? If not, you’re no longer worth any effort on anyone’s part, as you refuse the obvious.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

                I’m entirely with Ben and docatheist and jeanine on this one.

                Three years ago I had a leaky heart valve repair (not replacement). Cost $42,000 NZ. I could have waited six months and had it free in Auckland Hospital (it wasn’t immediately life-threatening). I have health insurance for wife and me, costs around $200 a month (and I think the presence of the public universal healthcare keeps our premiums down).
                The insurance paid $35,000 of it, their set rate for this sort of op, which would have covered the whole costs elsewhere in the country (Auckland is the most expensive for operations apparently). I decided to pay because a. my heart specialist (which insurance paid for separately) reckoned the sooner the better for this sort of repair, b. I could have the op in August (midwinter here) so be fully recovered for the summer and c. going private freed up a space on the public list for someone else. And d. I could get a single room (which cost $1000 extra, my one ‘extravagance’) – I’m antisocial, I did NOT want to be sharing a room with someone who might want to talk. About, for example, rugby football. Or Ayn Rand. So I got a loan and paid the $7000 balance.
                By the way, I found the experience almost enjoyable (some discomfort aside) – just being able to lie back and relax for a week without feeling guilty. Undoubtedly the fact it wasn’t costing me a ruinous amount helped.
                I don’t think this would be possible in my average financial circumstances in a country without a functional public health service though.

                Also, we have ACC (Accident Compensation) which is an additional tax (levy) on income, motor vehicle insurance etc etc, which is always being moaned about but pays for accidental injury expenses AND the ACC Act forbids private injury lawsuits. Which means I don’t need to carry any insurance against being sued because some wally tripped over a weed on my lawn or ran into my car and starts screaming ‘whiplash’…

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

                if insurance companies weren’t taking their profits from both the patients on one side and the care-givings on the other, that would reduce the cost of medical care significantly.

                I see no evidence that health insurers make disproportionate profits compared to health care suppliers and providers (to which you apparently have no objection), or compared to other kinds of insurance company, or compared to other kinds of industry. Have you seen the profit margin Apple makes on its products? It’s enormous. And Apple is the biggest company in the world! Those huge Apple profits are money that people could otherwise be spending on health care. Why aren’t you screaming bloody murder about that?

                Sorry, but your arguments and double-standards just don’t make any sense.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

                @Gary W, you “see no evidence” because you refuse to look.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                As it is so emphatically well demonstrated by every other industrialized nation, there is no need for health insurance; health care can be provided just as well (better, actually) without whatever “service” it is that they’re supposed to be performing.

                Therefore, every penny that goes to them is a waste.

                They are the ultimate parasitic middlemen, taking our money and giving us nothing in return.


              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                , you “see no evidence” because you refuse to look.

                No, I see no evidence because you haven’t presented anyway. You have consistently demonstrated a reckless disregard for evidence. Like religious people, you believe certain things are true simply because you WANT them to be true. You just don’t care whether there’s any evidence for them or not. Your belief that health insurers make disproportionate profits is one example of this. And it’s utterly disingenuous anyway, as I said. If you object so strongly to high profit margins, why aren’t you railing against the tech industry, where massive profit margins are common?

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

                As it is so emphatically well demonstrated by every other industrialized nation, there is no need for health insurance;

                As I pointed out to you the last time you made this false assertion, the health care systems of many other industrialized countries rely on private health insurance. In the French health care system, for example — which was rated best in the world by the WHO — about 85% of the population has private health insurance, and almost a quarter of total of health care spending comes from private insurance or out-of-pocket costs paid by the beneficiary. As usual, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

              @ Gary – I’ll be honest – I am a high school dropout. I have no brain power for statistics nor am I smart enough to single-mindedly figure out what system would be optimal and how its effects would ripple through the country. I can’t even begin to visualize and put together the complex layers of such a system. I won’t pretend to. Nor should I have to in order to voice my opinion that what we have now is NOT WORKING. Nor do I need to major in economics to realize the dire impact of millions and millions of Americans living on a thread while homes, food, and consumer products get more expensive and wages stagnate at best or decrease and/or cease at worst. How many of us are one paycheck away from being homeless? How many of us have absolutely no safety net? Why can’t we look at the benefits of a social system such as Norway, which as far as I know has one of the best qualities of life for its citizens?

              • Gary W
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

                Why can’t we look at the benefits of a social system such as Norway, which as far as I know has one of the best qualities of life for its citizens?

                Norway is rich because it has a small population plus enormous oil and gas reserves. Half of its GDP comes from oil and gas production. To put it another way, Norway’s wealth is built on global warming.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

                “Norway is rich because it has a small population plus enormous oil and gas reserves. Half of its GDP comes from oil and gas production. To put it another way, Norway’s wealth is built on global warming.”

                That might be said of us (Norway), but Sweden and Finland have very similar health care systems, and they don’t have any oil. Without oil, we probably wouldn’t have been that different from them.

                Also, the oil and gas is about 20% of our GDP ( The 50% turns up when we look at the export income.

                While we earn a lot of money from the oil industry, those money are not the main part of our yearly state budget. It’s taxes that covers most of the running costs, including health care. The state oil income is all put into a national investment fund and there are rules for how much of the funds earnings that can be used. You can read more about it here:

                The fund is there to protect the rest of the national eceonomy and to ensure that future generations also get to reap the benefits of Norway’s great present income.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                That might be said of us (Norway), but Sweden and Finland have very similar health care systems, and they don’t have any oil.

                She specifically cited Norway. I don’t think the health care systems oif Sweden and Finland are “very similar.”

                Also, the oil and gas is about 20% of our GDP

                You’re right: it’s about 20% of GDP and about 50% of exports. That’s about $20,000 per person per year. It’s easy to provide lots of high quality public services, including health care, when you can get so much income just by selling your natural resources to other countries. As I said, Norway’s wealth is built on global warming. They must be very proud.

              • Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

                The healt care systems of Sweden, Finland and Norway are a lot more similar to each other than to the US.
                I’m not going to spend any more time on you, but you might read this:

                And, Norwegians are proud of Norway. I expect that you’re proud of your country, despite its faults.

      • Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        Yes, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:26 am | Permalink

      I think USAian distrust of their government must be almost unique in the Western world.

      Here in NZ, much as we distrust politicians, we *expect* the government to look after us. (And get resentful when the level of support isn’t as generous as we might like – which of course it never is, for financial reasons). As far as we’re concerned, it’s our country, the Government is our servant and it’s there for our benefit. If a Government department is getting too arbitrary then (in the common view) it needs a shake-up, it doesn’t need to be abolished.

      Of course, we don’t have ‘states rights’ to confuse the issue.

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

        Across the Tasman, we in Australia feel the same way about our government – that we elect it to take care of the running of the place, so we can get on with living and contributing.

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        I cannot speak for other Americans, but the media seem to suggest they, like I, have begun to recognize more and more a dangerous level of corruption inside each of our three branches of government. I have first hand experience.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

          We suspect corruption (in the sense of an ‘old boy net’ or ‘jobs for the boys’) in our government too. But the general attitude is ‘fix it!’, not ‘do away with it’. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater…

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

            It seems too many of the channels through which we should be able to fix it are, themselves, corrupt as well… It’s sort of a case of “Whose guarding the guards?”

  30. abandonwoo
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    “Nones” are present at funerals and tragedies like the aftermath of mass shootings, hurricanes and so forth, and no one ever knows it. The “nones” are at those events for many reasons, but seizing upon an opportunity to crusade for secularism in opposition to religion is (thankfully) not a common practice that I am aware of.

    If and when US society is comprised mostly of non-believers and there are funerals and tragedies, I hope and expect that “nones” will continue to behave exactly as they do now: offer respectful solace and support, and pitch in to contribute skills and financial support as they are so inclined.

    I’m surprised that it has not occurred to a Bryan Fischer or Ralph Reed to persuade James O’Keefe and Lila Rose to pull some sort of WBC-type stunt at a funeral, and claim they are atheist members of FFrF or some other secular organization.

  31. Bjørn Ove Sætre
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I am a Norwegian and can comment something about the tragedy which happen 22. july 2011

    I work as a teacher and several of my students were directly or indirectly affected by this tragedy.

    Both in our school and in the society generally the process after this tragedy was mostly secular, although funerals and memorials were often held in our churches (Lutheran state church, like in the UK)

    I would be very surprised if for example our prime minister would say something like ” our youth has gone to heaven or been brought home by god or whatever”

    As a public school teacher I once in while experience tragedies in the school, mostly suicides or accidents. I would say that all the memorials I have been to has been secular and would definitely say that we don’t need religions to hold a dignified memorial. I thing most teachers and students alike would object negatively to any jesus talk in a memorial, when for example, a student has killed them self or been killed in a accident

  32. MadScientist
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I was in Norway at the time and a few colleagues knew some of the victims or their families. I think for the most part people offered their sympathy (and mountains of flowers at the bomb site in Oslo). People involved in age old political debates with the right-wing faction said the debate is no longer academic and the right-wing have lost; Norwegians will not tolerate the delusions that outsiders are destroying their nation. I don’t know if anything has been done since to address the various hate groups (they are a very small minority), but hopefully something is being done to combat the whacky beliefs that Breivik bought into.

  33. Barbara
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    What do we humanists have to offer when people die? Like anyone else, we offer community, music, remembrance, food, sometimes ceremony. And the most important community at these times involves family and friends. I would imagine that atheist relatives and friends were there at the funerals in Newtown, quietly grieving and supporting others in their grief, and baking, cleaning kitchens, and running errands. I’ve lost relatives and co-workers in the last few years, and the indespensible part of the response is that community.

    When my atheist husband died two decades ago, the well-performed ceremony of the Catholic mass, so necessary for his parents, was effective at drawing out, expressing, and calming grief for all of us. When my mother died that same year, an insipid Christian funeral was mostly useless, but a secular inspiring song brought us all to healing tears. Afterwards we had a great picnic, laughing with the kids. After my colleague’s death five years ago, we joined to remember her in a purely secular memorial service that comforted us by sharing the parts of her diverse life.

    When my non-churched, incommunicative, probably atheist father died (can it be only two weeks ago today?!?) our mostly atheist extended family spent much of two days together, culminating in a dinner at which we discussed his life and dealt with the mixed legacy of a complex man whose duties and needs cut in different directions. We will continue this process. Next summer we will get together again in summer to place his ashes in our mother’s grave. And then we will picnic, laughing with a new generation of children.

    These often improvised secular funeral events don’t give the sometimes longed for comfort of an illusionary future meeting. No hope of future life. (And I really, really wish I could find out how everything going on now turns out centuries and millenia from now!) They do comfort us at the scale at which we live. They help us continue living or face our own deaths, with our families and our friends.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      I am sorry for the loss of your husband 😦 In 2010 I lost a woman who had been like a 2nd mom to me since I was a teenager. The funeral was held at her baptist church. I was so upset that it took a while for the pastor’s words to sink in – one line of which was “What point would there be for an atheist to be here today other than to dress up?” Yes, really. There was this woman I loved, dead, less than 10 feet away from me – and he is spewing this hate. I was utterly shocked and spent a few months trying to put together some type of response to him before I realized I just didn’t care any more what he thought and had to move on. That the theists have some type of stranglehold on appropriate comfort is the biggest farce of all.

  34. mordacious1
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    When my mom died young, age 49, we had a big catholic church service with hundreds of people showing up. It didn’t help the grieving one bit. In fact, the thing I remember most was the priest standing at the back of the church accepting envelopes of cash as people left, what an asshole. Maybe if I already wasn’t an atheist it would have been different, I doubt it.

    On the other hand, this Asian lady down the street (she was a Buddhist) showed up one day and cleaned my dad’s whole house, made sure there was plenty of food properly stored, sat down and sent out thank you cards…3 full days of work. Then she hugged everyone and left. She was great and I remember her fondly to this day.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like the Asian lady slipped in, did what she could see was needed, leaving you and your family to grieve as you needed, and then, she slipped out, without fanfare. That is what I do, when I see the chance to help someone. Imagine if this were the standard… Then, everyone, regardless of belief or lack thereof, might truly be called a humanist.
      I’d wager most deeply grieving families, fresh in the shock of death of a loved one, don’t want words, anyway. They want silent companionship, hugs when asked, open ears to hear their pain, and time to heal fresh wounds of the heart and soul variety.

      • mordacious1
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I don’t remember her saying anything but, “Hi, I’m here to help.” and “Goodbye” the whole three days. Even though normally she was a chatterbox.

  35. Johnny
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    I’m Swedish and I can say that even this trend is (slowly) decreasing. People are more and more having civil marriages without any church involvement. It is also very common that people don’t get married at all, but live as cohabitants and raise a family anyways (and it’s completely socially accepted).

    Also, many people who are still members of the Church of Sweden are so not for religious reasons, but because they like the charitable work the church does, because they want to help preserve our old medieval churches, or because they want to get married and/or buried in the church.

  36. Robert Bray
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    When a child dies, however that child dies, there is no consolation: religion’s is false and humanism’s does not exist. To say, as does this post on WEIT, that building a ‘more just society’ can console a bereaved parent is fatuous. A child’s death is tragic and, more largely, life is a tragedy for the surviving parents. Only palliatives for grief can work, and these offered individually from friends and family. Building a better world for homo sapiens is a utopian dream which, even if eventually successful, in no sufficient way redeems the death of any child or of all children, or of the spent lives of those of us left–who will be as unaware of utopia as the young ones who went to death before us. In this important sense, life is an individual not a social matter.

    • mordacious1
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Secular society can offer professional counseling and even psychiatry/medications, preferably for free. Maybe society could help with medical bills and end-of-life costs. This helps relieve some of the additional stresses of the situation and could all be paid for in the US by taxing the churches.

      • gbjames
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        When you think about it, secular society can provide everything religious society can with the exception of the fantasies and delusions of faith.

  37. Dave
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    After a disaster like that people will first do what they’ve been trained to do: religion. When it’s time to bring in the professional grief counselors to deal with the longer term problems, they will not be led by the Jesus Brigade.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      The theist funeral is partially a numbing event to give people a familiar ritual on such a sad day. Many of the words will be forgotten, however the hugs and faces will be remembered. I have been offended at many Xtain funerals by the opportunistic preacher who fills the air with his favourite theology, and little is said about the deceased. In Australia, many funerals now have a celebrant and people bring poetry, memorabilia and stories to share. When people die unexpectedly, often the choice of funeral is left to the mourners. As the secular funeral becomes more common, and people experience it, it will become a thoughtful choice. So whilst we are not as religiously liberated as Scandinavia, we stand as an example of a country much further on the way to secularism than the US.

      Most of the grieving is done in the year following, when there are no rituals, and we are left to our own devices.

      Last year, we lost Hitch, and after the first shock, many of us found ways of honouring him in our mind and conversation. One of the things I’m grateful for are all the audio-books which have his wonderful voice talking to me.

      I subscribe to the NYTimes on my beloved iPad, and am glad that the author raised the issue. Now we can answer it.

  38. manofperspective
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    The most useful thing for non-Christians to do was stay away, as always is America, we aren’t welcome.

  39. Brad
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    So let me get this right, Jerry — the way that we should relieve the profound pyschic pain that the parents of slain children experience is to ask them to grab a shovel and start forging a more just society? Yes, perhaps it’s better if the we atheists keep quiet here. In a recent talk on the subject of death Sam Harris pointed out, and rightly so, that the good news or gospel of atheism in these matters is virtually nothing. He recommends a type of spiritual practice that can change the character of one’s relationship with reality. When the scientific community begins to explore and support this idea perhaps it will then have something useful to offer the afflicted in times like these.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Cut the snark, okay, and learn some manners on this site! Where did I ever say that building a just society will ease the pain of these parents? What I said is that you won’t need lies and superstition to console people when we arrive at a secular society.

      Further, there are plenty of secular people who can assuage grief, as this thread amply attests. Psychologists and psychiatrists can be nonbeliever, but very useful. (That can be “scientific,” too, insofar as those therapies are tested.) But at any rate you don’t need religion to help people, AS I SAID with respect to Scandinavia.

    • Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      You essentially present a dichotomy between believers and atheists. By that standard, atheists cannot be humanitarian or humanistic. By extension, atheists must, for their lack of religion, be inhumane.

      Perhaps you would like to think this through again, after reading the rest of the comments, here.

      There is nothing more painful that for a mother to hear that her child has been murdered — except, perhaps, to hear that her god is ultimately responsible, and if she doens’t keep kissing his derriere, he’ll see to it that she never sees her child, again, even in heaven, but will, instead, burn in hell for all eternity.

      • Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Gee,docatheist, doesn’t Yeshua then fill you with warm words? Oh, you reject his divine racket plan!
        What rational person would even tolerate being around such a vile person? See what deist, Miklos Jako, says about the cult leader in ” Confronting Believers!”
        Too bad Jako doesn’t fathom atheism!

  40. Sam
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    What annoys me is how cavalierly faith-pushers will exploit tragedies to try to prop up their beliefs.

    • mordacious1
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      It is annoying, many times they don’t know the deceased or their relatives/friends and show up with empty platitudes. It’s annoying as hell, even to some believers.

      Religious people often ask me, “What can science do for these people?” My stock answer is, “When the churches were in charge, many if not most, children didn’t make it to adulthood. Science has changed this, that’s what science does for parents”. The sad thing is that the church people are a large proportion of “gun right’s” people and “no mental health support” people. One could make a case that they cause these situations.

  41. g2-d34147f3f4e571d41cd1577a51e70a35
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    If it were my decision, I would propose as a helpful humanist the tradition of granting family members and close friends the day off from work (with pay) to grieve (and/or celebrate) the memory of their loved one.

    • mordacious1
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      Or a week.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Don’t we already do that? My employer grants bereavement leave, I don’t recall how much maximum, but I took several days worth when each of my parents died (partly for emotional reasons, though also so I could focus on all the practical crap that needs to be dealt with). And every time some friend has lost someone, and I’ve gone to the funeral to be there for them, my manager would just say, “Yes of course, go. Don’t worry about it”.

      Of course, that depends on working for a half-decent employer.

  42. Ray Moody
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Most people don’t knowm what the Red Cross does until we show up. I’m on a disaster action team, on call 5:00p to 5:00 every three weeks, 24 hrs Saturday and Sunday. The calls usually come after midnight, usually a house fire. So off I go to a place I’ve never been before to provide assistance (food, shelter, clothing) to people I’ve never met before. Thanks to GPS, I get there, anywhere on Oahu.

    The American Red Cross was there to provide food, water, and emotional support to Newtown, CT. to first responders and families.

    The Red Cross is a humanitarian organization. That means humanist with a passion. That means atheists doing our thing, better without gods. We don’t advertise our values unless we have to. We did recently in Joplin, Mo.

    A church that had agreed to be a Red Cross shelter began prosylatizing at the door. We said prosylatizing goes or we go. It didn’t so we did. If it’s got religion, it can’t be Red Cross. Equal treatment for all excludes religion.

    I’ve been a volunteer for more than 10 years. It was only 6 months ago that I discovered all my bosses are atheists. It never came up. It was never important.

    What’s important is taking care of people.

    Photos available at “Red Cross Sandy Hook Shooting.”

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

      Ray, thanks for this – a splendid example, and thanks for your work in the Red Cross.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

      Hear, hear!

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

        Having buried both parents, I was happy to have a celebrant there, which took the responsibility from me of facilitating a ceremony. I spoke at both their funerals, which is as much as I could do. It also freed everyone else from responsibility and they could grieve. We then moved on to a wake where more stories were shared. We also had a celebrant at our wedding decades ago, who understood all the paperwork involved and led us through the formal procedures. We had written the vows etc, however it was freeing to have a guide.

        • Dawn Oz
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:57 am | Permalink

          PS – Sorry, I thought I was posting this closer to another section of the discussion…..

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Ray.


      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        well said Ray. It’s perhaps unfortunate that you organisation has a cross as its symbol, and this misleading is amplified, at least in my mind, by the fact that there is a separate “Red Crescent” which appears to be Islamic.

        Now that I know the Red Cross is secular, I shall be more inclined to support it in future.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

          I, too, tend to take issue with the cross and its color, as though it were meant to symbolize Jesus’ blood on the cross on which he died.

          Israel tried to follow the Red Cross, and both of the two (Sunni and Shia) Muslim mimicks (one a star and crescent, the other a lion and something or other), but the UN denied international recognition — a critical issue on the battlefield. (In fact, I learned this in USAF officer training.)

          In the end, Israel had to settle for a tilted parallelogram, euphemistically referred to as a diamond.

          It would be preferable to my secular mind if all of these symbols were replaced with something secular and appropriate; say, an anatomical heart shape (i.e., not the valentine sort).

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

            Actually, now that I think of it, Israel might have applied before the Muslim versions. I lack time to look this up, right now, but it is accessible on the internet.

    • Rick Baker
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that. I didn’t realise quite how sane you guys are!

  43. GMH
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    There’s an issue between precise and diffuse responsibility here – and I suspect this will be an ongoing problem for Atheists and Humanists compared to religious organizations.

    I have no doubt that the observation IS true. We probably were not there in any significant number, certainly not proportional to our actual numbers. I think there are reasons for that.

    It’s like after an accident. People gather around the hurt person, but if no one is in authority or in a position of responsibility, often people hesitate to take the initiative to step up and help – and it’s not at ALL that they are not willing, or even eager to help, but that they don’t know how, or they don’t feel it is their place…

    They lack the mandate, the training, the experience…

    First Aid and CPR programs help counteract this this by giving people an action plan for taking that initiative…

    It’s even tougher in BIG catastrophes – we don’t have ANY model for rendering assistance ad wait for the ‘professionals’ to do their thing. As passersby, we have no mandate…

    I mean, let’s say you find yourself right THERE? There’s a screaming, hysterical mother right in front of you, freshly aware that she’s just lost her child… You want to help, right? But what do you say? Who are you to intrude on her grief? What’s likely to comfort her?

    In contrast, a local pastor or priest is (looked at in a generous light) a professional whose responsibility includes this sort of thing. He has a template for action, a ‘method’ for providing counseling to the bereaved. And experience and sometimes even training in applying that method. Never mind that we think it’s bankrupt and false, it’s enough to get him IN there, and that’s 90% of the battle. He also has infrastructure: a body of church volunteers he can call on for extra boots on the ground, who will follow that model and operate with his support and encouragement. He has a congregation he can call on for donations, for extra volunteers…

    And the mandate to act. The best of them don’t even take advantage of the situation to proselytize, and they don’t have to, just by being there, they ARE helping ad that reflects well on them and their religion. (of course there are others that clearly abuse this and hopefully they will be seen for the jackals they are.

    By and large, we Atheists do not have this. Our ‘leaders’ (such as they are in our fractious lot) are not trained for this, they don’t have this mandate, this infrastructure, the training or the experience.

    I mentioned First Aid/CPR training above. It’s a mechanism for creating first responders out of ordinary citizens, who might through chance and proximity be in a position to lend a hand and save a life by giving them the training and mandate to do so. Possibly something similar could be created for Atheists and Humanists, under the auspices one of our larger organizations… An online course and certification in basic Grief Counseling/support with some networking tools, alert system and so forth…

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:05 am | Permalink

      Excellent idea. Those atheists with any previous training and/or interpersonal skills with overlap might help design such a program and/or become instructors of instructors as well as instructors of lay providers. Perhaps you could email your idea to several national or, better yet, world wide atheist organizations, and see who is interested…

  44. romanticrationalist
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    While I personally have little in the way of a “herd instinct,” and willingly have no truck with accommodationists, I do think this is an issue the secular community will have to deal with eventually. Human beings are social animals, our evolutionary history took place within groups (I’m not talking about any kind of group selection), because that kind of arrangement offered the best chances that our selfish genes would appear in future generations of individuals.

    Of course, throughout history being an atheist has required a toughness of mind, a willingness to go it alone, buck convention, and tolerate a certain amount social isolation. While the example of wide-spread lack of religious adherence in the Scandinavian countries of Europe will (hopefully) become a the global norm, expecting the majority of the human species to evolve away from a need for “community” is about as realistic as expecting the bulk of our species to eventually attain some standardized minimum competency in the solving of differential equations.

    In my day job, I am a Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program Specialist (DVOP) (see:, as such I am required by federal law to engage in outreach activities to veterans, which includes homeless veterans. Appallingly, the percentage of veterans that are homeless exceeds their representation of the population as a whole.

    I had previously passed up several openings as a DVOP before finally saying “yes,” largely because I was uncomfortable with the extent to which religion has infiltrated the US military, and therefore groups that advocate for veterans issues (and yes, I am a card-carrying MAAF member) and I adamantly refuse to consort with groups like the VFW, American Legion, or DAV aside from my work.
    The only local resources to which I can refer homeless vets are faith-based ones. Where are the non-faith based networks I can draw upon when a vet needs a presentable set of clothes and a haircut for a job interview?

    Simply saying that we should follow the Northern European model does nothing for anyone now. We need alternatives in the present-the only moments anyone ever really has.

  45. Bruce Gorton
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    This is precisely why I think of the pro-religion editorial types as complete and utter assholes.

    If the various brands of atheists in America went to Newtown uninvited, you can damn well bet that the New York Times would be running an article criticising those atheists for using the coffins of the dead as soap boxes for their opposition to religion.

    Instead the various atheist groups of America decided that when the parents were grieving wasn’t the time to particularly get into a religious argument with them.

    So they leave the religious in peace, they’re ‘incapable of providing solace’, they go there and they are horrifying opportunists preying on the bereaved.

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, in other words. Precisely.

  46. marcusa1971
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Maybe the humanists/atheists didn’t feel the need to intrude into the grief of people who have just suffered an unspeakable tragedy?

  47. Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Jesus say ‘let the dead bury the dead’?

  48. deacon
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    This “issue” reminds me of the novel Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.

    Happy Birthday to You, Dear Professor! And Happy New Year to everyone!

  49. ForCarl
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    This is a ludicrous article in the NYTimes! I can bet you that many of the families in Newtown were being comforted privately by many atheist/humanists etc, and that most likely their words of compassion were valued more than fairy tales by some. They just weren’t recognized as “atheist” in nature.

    There was a newscast that showed two women from out of state who traveled there just to “give hugs” to those grieving. What a humanistic thing to do! In my view those hugs felt a lot better than the words of some minister in a pulpit.

  50. Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I think you’re missing the point slightly by arguing that secular values can provide this solace – I think that’s an assumption that’s actually shared by the author of the article. The real question is why, as a matter of fact, that solace is not currently being offered by humanists.

    Of course, you are right to an extent that humanists aren’t wanted and religion will continue to wane, but even imagining a world without religion, I think we still need community, and we do need to seriously think about this “valorization of the individual”. It is unsurprising that most atheists are cats now because you have to be a serious freethinker to shun the nonsense that typifies the cultural norm, but as more and more people become atheist by default, we can’t expect that everyone will be so hard-headed and individualistic. Now, I think Alain de Botton is a first-class prick, but he’s on the right lines regarding community, though churches and cathedrals are nonsense – essentially, I think we need an alternative Sunday service. We need gatherings where people give talks on philosophy, science, ethics or whatever, and where we can even take part in secular music etc.

    • gbjames
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      The real question is why, as a matter of fact, that solace is not currently being offered by humanists.

      I don’t understand this question/idea. On what basis do you make the claim that humanists don’t offer solace? Because non-religious speakers weren’t ask to speak at Newtown funerals and public events? Why do you suppose that is? Do you seriously think that it was for any reason except deeply engrained “ownership” of grief-processing by religious institutions?

      This was not a case of solace failing to be offered by humanists. It was a case of humanists being excluded from public events.

      As for secular gatherings, there are many opportunities to attend public talks on matters philosophical, scientific, ethical, and “whateverish”, at least in most urban areas. Do you live in a remote small town or in some kind of rural isolation?

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        There’s no point responding to your first two paragraphs because I already explicitly accepted that caveat – my point was that it is not the *entire* explanation.

        As it happens, I live in a prominent university town, so I have philosophical talks on offer left, right and centre every evening, but those doesn’t fulfil the same communal role. There is a satisfying regularity, ritual and personal involvement with church – at a large event with a public speaker, you don’t know the people you are sat near to, and there isn’t much discussion. It also doesn’t offer bonding activities like choral music. The important thing is that an ideal centre of community should *not* be solely about the acquisition of knowledge and ideas while surrounded by strangers as is the case with lectures, valuable though that is, it should be a place for the congregation to express their feelings of place in the universe alongside family and friends.

        • gbjames
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          Have you considered regular meetings with friends at a coffee shop or pub?

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

            We can’t establish a choir in a pub.

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            You obviously don’t have a problem with what it is I and others want to do – i.e. discussion and community with friends and family – so what *exactly* is your objection? I imagine that if we had our meetings and music in some hum-drum community centre, you wouldn’t think anything of it. But why should we not have it wherever we like? If we want a reverent atmosphere to consider questions of our existence, not to mention somewhere with a good acoustic, why should we not have it in a church? Why does it have to be a coffee shop or a pub or basically anything that is NOT a church? Is it the building you have a problem with? Or is it just the word “church” that sets you off? I don’t think an entire concept should be ditched because of location or semantics.

            • gbjames
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

              My objection is to the idea that somehow the lives of secular people who don’t participate in some kind of ritualized pseudo-church service are diminished in some way. My objection is to the idea that some mysterious je ne sais quoi needs to be practiced on Sunday mornings.

              I’m guessing you a feeling you used to get when you attended church in an earlier part of your life. I object to the suggestion that your feeling of loss (assuming I’m right) is any indication that the rest of us non-believers are living lives that just aren’t good enough. Have you considered joining a UU church. My understanding is that those folk practice much of what you feel you need.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink


              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

                I never said that the lives of secular people who don’t participate in some kind of church service are diminished – absolutely nothing of the sort, and I’ve never thought it for an instant. That’s a defensive assumption that you’ve made without cause. I don’t care if people don’t want to attend, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable that some people can get everything they want out of life without doing so – what *I* object to is the persistent opposite notion that absolutely *nobody* needs these kinds of rituals. All I’m saying is if you have no objection to the substance, let other people get on with it while you get on with your own thing – I’m asking for this to be recognised as a question of preference rather than principle.

                FYI, I wasn’t brought up religious and I never attended church. I also very much doubt I’d ever bother if atheist churches were established! The reason I argue for them is because my partner is an atheist musician who attends an Anglican church because there is nowhere else he can sing and be an organist in that kind of tradition. It is, however, theoretically possible for him to do exactly that in a secular setting without having to endure theistic babble, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t give it a go.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

                Callum, you said: “We need gatherings where people give talks on philosophy, science, ethics or whatever, and where we can even take part in secular music etc.”

                I read that sort of thing to imply that places for doing these things are unavailable to humanists. And it implies that such things are available to church goers. When I or others point out that you can get those things elsewhere you object. You say they are lacking “satisfying regularity, ritual and personal involvement with church”. And you go on to say that these meetings need to happen on Sundays (or Saturdays, other days just aren’t quite right).

                So, does this all come down to your partner’s desire to sing in a choir? Really? We need to institutionalize regular Sunday secular non-worship in order to allow someone to play the organ?

                No… I am NOT objecting to organ playing or choir singing. People who want to do that sort of thing should join together for that purpose. I’ll go to listen to Verdi’s Requiem at the drop of a hat. In a cathedral if that’s where it is being performed. But I don’t require a weekly pseudo-church service for that. I don’t see why you feel it is necessary.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      1. You are far off the mark to conflate “hard headed” with “individualistic.” Hard headed is dogmatic, and dogmatic people are egocentrists trying to fit the mold they were indoctrinated to, while grasping desperately for empowerment by force of rigidity. Individualists, on the other hand, reflect a comfort with self that allows freedom of thought, “thinking outside the box”, anything but rigidity.

      2. As for some formal sort of service on a Sunday, the idea reveals regression to Christian background. Indeed, Christianity chose Sunday to distinguish itself from Judaism, which takes Saturday. Islam then chose Friday, for the same reason. One cannot escape religion and its dogma by mimicking it.

      Now, go think outside the box and let’s hear a better plan, okay?

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        If someone uses two terms to describe something, they do so precisely because they convey separate meanings. As such, it is not a conflation to say that people are both hard-headed and individualistic. As to the prescriptive definitions of hard-headedness and individualism that you demand, I don’t accept them because they are narrow and unhelpful – it seems that you also make the mistake of conflating individualism with free-thought when individualism is more akin to libertarianism than skepticism, and that’s an ideology in its own right.

        As for the day of the week that a service is held on, the weekend is most fitting because it is when most people are free. If you are going to avoid both Saturday and Sunday because religions already have those and you think it would be a detriment to the cause, then I would consider that extremely petulant.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          You, again, dogmatically narrow “individualistic.” Really, there is no need to do so. Between “individualist” and “dogmatist” is a spectrum, by the way. Women reaching for clergy positions within male-dominated religions might or might not be considered free thinkers, but they would fall closer to the individualist end of the spectrum than the dogmatist end.

          Why does any ritual you might devise require weekly scheduling? Keep your weekend consideration, if you wish, or consider putting the protocol on a weekday evening. Churches in the Deep South initiated Wednesday evening services, some decades ago, and apparently found it profitable, as it has become the norm. Mondays, on the other hand, would provide a treat after restarting the work week and before facing all the rest.

          Weekends or weekdays, consider avoidng the every-week cycle. People who join up feel a sense of obligation. They shouldn’t feel guilty for taking the weekend off completely to go and do whatever they wish. Those who don’t work the standard, steady weekdays might appreciate flexible timing like, say, the 10th of the month, whatever day it falls on.

          Oh, and while we’re at it, make food and music the center draws. Music acts like a sort of interpersonal glue, while food is inviting and exciting.

          Let me know if you need any more ideas. 🙂

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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…)

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink


        • 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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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