New York Times: where were the humanists after Newtown?

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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.

Written By: Jerry Coyne
continue to source article at whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com

36 COMMENTS

  1. Who needs “celebrants” and chaplains? Surely there were first responders and trauma counsellors on site shortlty after the massacre, none of them spouting religious platitudes. Wouldn’t they be the humanist contribution?

  2. Where were the humanists after Newtown?

    Where was God during Newtown ?

    Effing double standards all the way with the religios. God does nothing whilst a disturbed young man murders many kids and adults. Apparently this same God can give comfort to the bereaved ! Please hit me with a rolling pin someone, I must be dreaming this !!

  3. I think this is a very important point for humanism and atheism in general. Religion currently is the default scenario when it comes to grieving, following tragedy. The media automatically home in on religious services and accordingly, the general public, whether seemingly weak or strong in their religious belief, turn to religious ritual as a comfort in their time of grieving.

    Atheism isn’t an alternative option, that has a structural system ready to provide an instant and alternative comfort mechanism to the bereaved and their sympathisers, I simply ask that in times of tragedy, Is that a desirable objective for a non-religious section of society?

  4. Personal tragedy does not need to be politically correct. We may argue that there needs to be a balance of views represented in a publicly funded forum, but this about mending broken hearts and dealing with personal psychological trauma. Individuals decide on how to best grieve. The issue is not where are the Humanists, but why in 2012/3 are we still running to untrained clergy for these types of issues? Why do people still prefer a story of Heaven and an incorrect rationalization of what happened? Why have people not abandoned their traditions and rituals and sought out help from trained therapists and counselors who give quality meaningful assistance? Why didn’t the media run a marathon on quotes by famous people who are trained in dealing with children. I heard a quote by Mr. Rodgers and that was it. There are massive amounts of great lines from children’s books that could have been quoted by the media instead of “God works in mysterious ways.” The goal is not for Humanists to show up at a tragedy, but have a society be Humanists capable of handling tragedy in rational and heartfelt ways. Humanist assistance is simply nonreligious help by a trained therapist and health care providers – no labels needed.

    To come to a tragedy where 6-year-olds were murdered wearing a giant red “A” would be using the situation for political gain. To distinguish quality help and therapy as either religious or Humanist should not be the issue. Quality therapy and assistance should simply BE and not politicized with a label. The ultimate goal is to have nonreligious assistance be a natural outcome and desired form of assistance when a tragedy occurs It shows that Humanism/nonbelief is not in the mainstream. Clearly we still have far to go.

    For those with strong people skills,here is a societal need that had been clearly revealed. Go for it. While many Humanist and atheist are debating, questioning, and intellectualizing, let’s not overlook the side streets of compassion, healing, understanding and service to others in need.

    This may be a tough pill for many to swallow, but this event reveals that atheists are still too busy trying to tear down old ways of society and fighting against something rather than making a stand and building something. If atheists and Humanists expect to be accepted into the mainstream, our views need to be heard by people other than those interested in science, debate,and politics. It needs to be heard by women as well as men. It needs to be heard by the rancher, the nurse, the artist, and florist. It seems as if a limited range of personality types are drawn to atheist views and this makes us very unbalanced.

    It will take time for us to be absorbed into the mainstream, whether we should be wearing the label as “Humanists helping Humans” I’m not sure – I guess as long the help is sincere and given with the intention of helping OK. but let’s not upstage the tragedy by making it political.

  5. I didn’t see much sympathy from the muslim or hindu communities either, this is just one way, media, try and single out atheism as a system teaching lack of human emotion and morals. If the church really gave a damn, they’d of held those funerals free of charge, or does God need money as much as we do? Hah.

  6. In reply to #8 by DanPorter:

    I didn’t see much sympathy from the muslim or hindu communities either, this is just one way, media, try and single out atheism as a system teaching lack of human emotion and morals. If the church really gave a damn, they’d of held those funerals free of charge, or does God need money as much as we do? Hah.

    Actually, It is called a “love offering” of money – usually a small amount of money or none.
    The goal really should be – people helping people – with no agenda. Anyone who helps really shouldn’t need to say if they are religious or not. It does seem to be a Christian ploy of singling out atheists. Unfortunately, people most people do not yet realize that religion has an agenda.

  7. This is, sadly, one of the thornier issues for humanists/athiests. One of the problems our worldview has is that it really doesn’t give people in trauma– especially the trauma of having lost loved ones– much comfort. Yes, we care about them, we are there for them, we feel their pain, but we feel that the dead are GONE, that they live now only in our memories, and that their deaths served no purpose save those we wish to ascribe to them.

    It seems to me that our philosophy is good for the day-to-day living of life, and maybe even for end-of-life situtaions where you have a say in the end of your life, but in certain situations, we can only fall back on the “hard truth is better than comforting lies”, and that’s a hard thing in certain situations.

  8. To be fair, the paper does note that “the families of each Newtown victim chose religious funerals”,.

    The Humanist, Muslim and Hindu communities have not jumped on to the media bandwagon to self publicise!

    They have not intruded into the private grief of people of other religions either!

    Is there something unusual about this in the USA?

    and that the interfaith service perforce excluded humanists

    BTW: At my mother’s (UK) humanist funeral (conducted by a celebrant), some Muslim and Xtian friends were invited and respectfully attended the funeral and the wake.

  9. Humans need a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning, community, universal love, gratitude, hope, to live full, productive and complete lives. Religions in general give us these things, and also (wrongly, I think) associate these attributes as coming from God (or a higher power).

    Agnostics and Atheists (I count myself as one) often forget about these human needs. And religious people tend to take rejection of belief in God as rejection of these human emotional needs.

    In general, when making the argument for a non-religious approach to the world, I think agnostics and atheists needs to make this distinction more clearly, to distinguish between rejecting religious beliefs and not rejecting (and actively finding ways to support) the human emotional needs and connections that religions otherwise provide.

    If we really want religions to die away, then the non-religious needs to be serious about creating support structures that replace what are otherwise healthy functions of religions. Granted, there are a lot of humanist organizations and support structures already out there. How can we identify, promote and use them more effectively?

  10. 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?

    Maybe because (a) they weren’t invited and (b) they don’t take every opportunity to use a disaster to push themselves forward. Imagine the outrage if atheists had demanded the right to put up a banner asking where was God. But there is no outrage when religious people push themselves forward after such tragedies? Do we even know that everyone on stage at the interfaith service was wanted by at least one of the victim’s families?

    It’s just the same old double standard.

    Some good comments over on Jerry’s site.

    Michael

  11. The chances of that community being religious was very high. Every time a humanist opens her/his mouth the god squad gets upset. Maybe, just maybe humanists did not want to ruffle any feathers at that delicate time. If the community was a humanist community you would have heard from humanists. That town was the last place to make a point.

  12. Mother Teresa is considered a Saint for soothing the dying in third-world countries, but continued to preach against contraception, the lack of which contributed significantly to the overpopulation, poverty, and ignorance that was the root cause of the suffering.

    To me, the real compassionate person is humanists like Bill and Melinda Gates, who are trying to fund programs to attack the root causes before they become humanitarian disasters; using science and reason to come up with solutions and to make sure that every woman across the globe eventually has free access to the drugs, contraception, and education that will be of far greater comfort in the long run than the antiquated superstitious beliefs that love to grab the headlines when the disaster is too late to avert.

     
    Throughout history, religion’s most fertile recruiting grounds have been among the poor and devastated. Is it any wonder that so many fundamentalists are against government programs to wipe out poverty? I wonder if it is wholly unconscious? Certainly having the government come in with humanitarian relief takes away one of religion’s prime recruiting grounds.

     
    Mike Huckabee’s solution is to pray harder in fairytales with absolutely no basis in fact or track-record of actually receiving an answer. I choose to put my “faith” in humanity and reason to find better solutions to these problems. So I’m not worried if the religious claim moral superiority by grabbing headlines by swooping in to take advantage of the victim’s vulnerability at a time of personal crisis. Humanism cannot compete on this playing field, where lies and false promises are so seductive and soothing. But at least what reason and science and humanism offer are real solutions that offer true hope for the future.

  13. Some good comments over on Jerry’s site.

    Yes there are several. One comment made me think:
    How would have Newtown looked if Humanists showed up and played a key role in the ceremonies and assistance to others? My guess is that they would essentially be invisible and unobtrusive. There would be no one on camera, no organization claiming ultimate understanding or imposing expected ways to grieve. Family and friends would play key roles in verbally expressing their grief to a group of people (instead of a person who knew little or anything about the family.) People would attend private counseling sessions that no one would know about.The media would run to grief counselors and people who specialize in child psychology. The media would quote authors from children’s books, or talk about the positive things that enrich our lives.

    My guess is that the school district hired plenty of trained psychologists that are secular in approach instead of priests, and other clergy. Even if the district was legally allowed to hire clergy for counseling, schools value education and college degrees. Clergy members lack the proper qualifications.

  14. There was a lot of good work undertaken by various groups to stop the picketing of the funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church. Also members of the police departments and fire brigades and just ordinary people. See here for further information. I guess the New York Times forgot to ask them if they were humanists or not.

    Michael

  15. Looking around the internet for who is doing the work now collecting money seems to be being done United Way of Western Connecticut. At first I assumed this was some religious group but I don’t actually see that on their website.

    http://www.uwwesternct.org/index.html

    ABOUT UNITED WAY OF WESTERN CONNECTICUT

    <

    p>
    United Way of Western Connecticut advances the common good, creating opportunities for a better life for all by focusing on the three key building blocks of education, income and health. United Way creates long lasting community change by addressing the underlying causes of problems that prevent progress in these areas. LIVE UNITED is a call to action for everyone to be a part of the change.

    They seem like people just getting together to improve their community. This is how I would expect a secular society to work. Does this not count for the New York Times unless we stick Humanist label or a red A symbol on it ?

    Michael

  16. There is a list of organisations below which are helping at in Sandy Hook and aren’t religious

    http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/15/us/iyw-help-for-victims-of-sandy-hook-shooting/index.html

    Such as Red Cross who we know about, Newtown Youth and Family Services who are providing free counselling:

    MISSION STATEMENT

    Newtown Youth and Family Services, Inc. is dedicated to helping children and families achieve their highest potential.
    Newtown Youth & Family Services’ vision is to become a recognized leader in providing mental health and support services.

    WHO WE ARE

    Our dynamic nonprofit agency combines clinical services and positive youth development programs to provide a continuum of care to residents of the greater Newtown area.

    NYFS is a licensed, non-profit, mental health clinic and youth service bureau. We provide outpatient individual, couple and family counseling and substance abuse treatment services. In addition we offer prevention initiatives, after school, evening and weekend programs and support groups to promote individual and community wellness.

    For more than 30 years, we have offered specialized programs and services to individuals of all ages.

    So the question isn’t why aren’t non-religious organisations helping. The question is why doesn’t anyone notice they are ?

    Michael

  17. I’ve always believed that immortality is gained by continually celebrating the lives of those who have passed, however long or short. It fills my heart with joy and wonder to listen to stories or learn something new about family members after they’re no longer with me. To help open someone’s heart and get them to share memories of those they’ve just lost must be incredibly difficult but it seems incredibly benevolent and good.

  18. My natural reaction to this, like many other here, is to ask ‘Where was your god when this happened? Was he not looking, not able to do anything, or not bothered?’ But I think it is incumbent upon us all to consider why this questions is being asked.
    I worked in a homeless shelter over Christmas, and the percentage of volunteers with religious motivations,l was much higher than what I believe is their presence in UK society in general. And when I talked to them about their motivations, they were surprised to find that I was not religious.
    It is still natural, in our society, to assume that you need god in order to be good.
    I remember seeing Richard Dawkins interviewed at Hay Literary Festival some years ago, by Rosie Boycott, who asked him ‘Don’t we need religion to give us morals.’ An open goal for Dawkins of course, but it demonstrates the problem, when an intelligent woman, a former national newspaper editor, can pose a question like that.

  19. In reply to #3 by quarecuss:

    Who needs “celebrants” and chaplains? Surely there were first responders and trauma counsellors on site shortlty after the massacre, none of them spouting religious platitudes. Wouldn’t they be the humanist contribution?

    Exactly. The main objection was that Humanists couldn’t be seen prancing around in wizard costumes and promoting their ideology by exploiting a tragedy. You know, like religions do.

  20. In reply to #12 by datasmithy:

    Humans need a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning, community, universal love, gratitude, hope, to live full, productive and complete lives. Religions in general give us these things, and also (wrongly, I think) associate these attributes as coming from God (or a higher power).

    Agnostics and Atheists (I count myself as one) often forget about these human needs. And religious people tend to take rejection of belief in God as rejection of these human emotional needs.

    In general, when making the argument for a non-religious approach to the world, I think agnostics and atheists needs to make this distinction more clearly, to distinguish between rejecting religious beliefs and not rejecting (and actively finding ways to support) the human emotional needs and connections that religions otherwise provide.

    If we really want religions to die away, then the non-religious needs to be serious about creating support structures that replace what are otherwise healthy functions of religions. Granted, there are a lot of humanist organizations and support structures already out there. How can we identify, promote and use them more effectively?

    Humanists should get wizard costumes with long sleeved robes and pointy hats. This would fit the bar set by how useful religion is in these situations.

  21. We were out there not buying guns and not killing children. We were the police, we were the ambulances, we were the people not praising their gods for taking these children to a “better place”. We are the people who never want to see this again and are in favour of removing assault weapons from the disturbed people who just have to have them some fire power.

    We are the ones who understand the value of life on earth and don’t piss it away in the belief that it gets better after you are dead.

  22. In reply to #6 by wdbailey:

    In reply to #1 by phil rimmer:

    Atheism is strongly correlated with gun control advocacy. We could do something useful.

    No it doesn’t

    Household gun ownership is 50 to 54% for protestant/evangelical households and 32% for “no religion”. A quick drive by shows high levels of gun control advocacy on the atheist sites. (Cast your vote in support of the National Atheist Party position at the Daily Kos (80%pro btw)).

    I do not imply any particular linkage with atheist beliefs. Only that the correlation is high and reasonable numbers of sympathetic people can be engaged at these site.

  23. In reply to #27 by aquilacane:

    We were out there not buying guns and not killing children. We were the police, we were the ambulances, we were the people not praising their gods for taking these children to a “better place”. We are the people who never want to see this again and are in favour of removing assault weapons from the disturbed people who just have to have them some fire power.

    We are the ones who understand the value of life on earth and don’t piss it away in the belief that it gets better after you are dead.

    We were also the ones not telling parents that their beautiful children had “gone to a better place”.

  24. mmurray, Yes, the Red Cross!
    “The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement follows, in addition to the above core principles, the principle of neutrality. For the Red Cross, neutrality means not to take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

    Clara Barton, founder of the US Red Cross is also a very interesting woman.

  25. In reply to #21 by raidansoma:
    I’ve always believed that immortality is gained by continually celebrating the lives of those who have passed, >>however long or short. It fills my heart with joy and wonder to listen to stories or learn something new about >>family members after they’re no longer with me. To help open someone’s heart and get them to share ?>>memories of those they’ve just lost must be incredibly difficult but it seems incredibly benevolent and good.

    To be honest, I just can’t see how can one be consoled, either by “humanist” or “religious” rationale, after the brutal death of his 6-yrold, who barely got to experience life. I for one don’t think anything can be done. Such a thing is tragic, ugly, cold, depressing and random. Nothing can be said, really. It just happened, and you will endure it. The world is just an awful place much of the time.

  26. In other words, why didn’t humanists put on a nice show for us? We need to point these cameras at something to make sense of this tragedy! If you weren’t there in costume reading from books of comforting hocus pocus, you weren’t doing ANYTHING to help these people.

  27. In reply to #12 by datasmithy:

    Humans need a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning, community, universal love, gratitude, hope, to live full, productive and complete lives. Religions in general give us these things, and also (wrongly, I think) associate these attributes as coming from God (or a higher power).Agnostics and Atheists (I count myself as one) often forget about these human needs. And religious people tend to take rejection of belief in God as rejection of these human emotional needs.In general, when making the argument for a non-religious approach to the world, I think agnostics and atheists needs to make this distinction more clearly, to distinguish between rejecting religious beliefs and not rejecting (and actively finding ways to support) the human emotional needs and connections that religions otherwise provide.If we really want religions to die away, then the non-religious needs to be serious about creating support structures that replace what are otherwise healthy functions of religions. Granted, there are a lot of humanist organizations and support structures already out there. How can we identify, promote and use them more effectively?

    I would agree totally. It’s not just after tragedies like Newtown either but in general life the churches are often seen to be the ones offering community support partly because they have the networks in place to do so. There is so much that is bad about religion that I think sometimes you ignore what they are doing effectively.

    The kids that have trouble fitting in at school join the Church youth groups where they don’t have to be cool to be appreciated. Being a believer is than probably a small price to pay, as long as you don’t think too hard, for a support network. The less popular kids find something there that perhaps they don’t find elsewhere. A girl in our school who was self harming and attempted suicide has become a church goer and feels better. Not because of the god stuff but because nobody calls her lardy there. I’m sure my girlfriend believes in god purely because she hasn’t got over her dads death yet. Religious groups go onto the streets at weekends to help ensure people get home safely when drunk – which is really appreciated.

    It is very easy to put people off what religion should be but sometimes here I think people concentrate too much on whats in the koran or bible and the truly nasty extremists and ignore the fact that the bulk of the religious aren’t like that. They are often religious because it satisfies basic human needs or becuase they think it is the only place where they can help satisfy basic human needs. They often don’t even know what their holy books say.

    I don’t think religion will disappear completely until something actively replaces what it currently provides the vast majority of believers, who at the end of the day aren’t homophobic, ranting creationist morons – just people with human needs. I’ve noticed that sometimes here people can be quite abrupt if someone doesn’t agree with them. The religious, at least in the UK, are often seen as far kinder and gentler to dissenters despite popular opinion here and high profile exceptions.

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