Writing for the New York Times, Samuel G. Freedman is asking how humanists can and should respond to tragedies like the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
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.
Freedman notes that none of the families affected by the shooting chose non-religious ceremonies, so of course, there wouldn’t have been any humanist funerals this time around. But the larger question, of how groups such as the American Humanist Association can provide aid and comfort (beyond fundraisers, that is) to communities affected by tragedies, remains.
According to Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain, what people need following an event like the Newtown shooting is community, and that is something that religion is very good at providing. For example, Christian churches, with their emphasis on communal worship, come with their own built-in support networks — and not just for their own members, but for the surrounding community. And this sense of community’s importance is deeply embedded in the Christian faith, from its belief in the community of the Holy Trinity to the Bible’s many references to living and worshiping in community.
Part of the problem, according to various humanists themselves, is the individualistic nature of humanism itself. Or, as Freedman puts it, “[I]n the view of internal critics… humanism suffers in certain ways for its valorization of the individual. The inside joke is that creating a humanist group is like ‘herding cats.’” This dilemma is exacerbated by recent studies showing increasing numbers of people (aka, the “nones”) disavowing any sort of affiliation with organized religion. But leaving organized religion means leaving the organization behind as well, and that organization allows churches and their members to be very good at mobilizing.
So what’s the solution? Secular therapist Darrel W. Ray maintains that humanism needs 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.” Additionally, Epstein says that humanism needs to move beyond merely celebrating reason over faith, and instead, needs to use reason as a means to display greater compassion for those who are suffering.