“In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent”


Dead End?


I don’t like the way it uses the term humanist much, since I’ve always considered myself very much a humanist — just not a secular one.  (If you didn’t realize that humanists can be theists, you should know that Erasmus of Rotterdam, for instance, is often described as a “Renaissance humanist,” though he was anything but an atheist.  And others — Sir Thomas More, for example [or, for Catholics, St. Thomas More] — are often also included in the ranks of “Renaissance humanists.”)  But this New York Times article, brought to my attention by my friend Mike Parker, describes the seeming failure of secular humanists to provide much comfort for the families of the victims of the Newtown shootings.


The secularists in the article say it’s a failure of messaging.  But my own sense is that it’s a matter of substance, or the lack thereof.  Secular humanism just doesn’t have a lot to offer in such cases.  Really, it’s a pretty thin gruel, at best.  (Have you heard the one about the atheist’s funeral?  “All dressed up, and nowhere to go.”)



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  • Lucy Mcgee

    I’m not certain why you Dr. Peterson, defining yourself as very much a humanist, would be so bold as to state that what non religious believers have to offer the families who have suffered tragedy as being no more than “pretty thin gruel at best”. How in the world would you know such a thing? Labeling or categorizing others, who you do not know, and then trivializing the compassion and helpfulness they can offer simply because they do not belong to a religion, seems a very lopsided way of looking at humanity.

    • Jason Covell

      Lucy – I don’t think any thoughtful person, and certainly not Dr Peterson, would ever denigrate the compassion and helpfulness that would come from all directions under such circumstances. And that would of course include those of any religion and of none.

      I venture to suggest that what he was referring to was not the acts of compassion, but something deeper – the lasting, eternal message that burns especially strongly in persons of faith.

      This is sacred ground for all concerned, and I do not mean to speak out of turn. I simply think that what is meant in this case is that there is a profound, qualitative difference between the words of comfort which say, “your child is gone too soon, but you will treasure her memory as long as you live” and “your child is gone too soon from this vale of tears, but there is a time when you will see her again and be reunited in her loving embrace”.

      That people may prefer one of these messages and reject the other is entirely up to them, and no one is suggesting that either message be forced into unwilling ears. But Dr Peterson’s point that there is a difference in substance between the two is not invalid or irrelevant.

      • Lucy Mcgee

        Your comment is thoughtful. Dr. Peterson seems to enjoy jabbing at those without religious belief which is of course his prerogative. But to write that what the non religious can offer as being thin gruel, then finishing with an attempt at humor is quite thoughtless. He surely must realize that just like all believing people of faith, there are many millions who die each year who are not religious, and may have family members who aren’t either. To some of them-and definitely me- saying that they will see their loved ones again and unite in their loving embrace would be words well appreciated but not very meaningful or useful.

        Such things as love, caring, compassion, understanding and friendship transcend religious dogma and not everyone who loses a child too soon, or a dear spouse or close friend would find comfort in a religious message, but would most certainly find some comfort in those best of human expressions which the vast, vast majority of us possess and contribute.

        • Rodney Ross

          I like this comment better than your first post. I think a helping person needs to assess where a family is in terms of belief and go from there. Many years ago, as a school counselor, I visited the home of a family who’s child had committed suicide. As a representative of the public school I worked for, I could not deliver a religious message, but the fact that we were there meant a lot to this family and the food that came to them, the attendance by school personnel at the ensuing funeral meant a lot to this family. The man who visited the family with me was, as far as I know, a secular humanist, but he offered this family and later me, in my time of tragedy, a lot of caring. I think the compassion of those who care is the actual bottom line, but again, it is typically those from the religious community who do most, if not all, of the responding. You are obviously a caring person and I wish you well.

      • danpeterson

        Jason Covell accurately understands the point of my blog entry. Lucy McGee has fundamentally misunderstood it.

    • Rodney Ross

      Dr. Peterson references a New York Times article, worth reading, which says that the most frequent responders to the Newtown tragedy are from the religious community. The author of that article proposes that the secular humanists and atheists of the world organize to give more help in times like this. Having lived in a community that faced some serious problems, it was not the secular humanists who were called upon, but the religious community. With a lot of hard work and caring, the community became involved and the problems of this community were helped significantly.

      I would not, and I doubt Dr. Peterson would advocate that there are no compassionate secular humanists. Certainly there are many. The main point of all of this is that there is no secular humanist organization for communities to turn to in time of need.

      A secondary point is what does a secular humanist or atheist have to offer in times of tragedy? Compassion for sure, but no prayers, no hope, no uplifting music, no belief in an afterlife where families are reunited. Some may say that the prayers, hope, music and belief are merely an dream or an illusion, but if that is the case, what is there to offer the grieving? I am a believer because of spiritual experiences I have had, not because I am searching for something to offer those who grieve or myself when I grieve. But my spiritual life certainly gives me many tools to help me get through life and to assist others who may have need. Does that make me a better person than a secular humanist? Not at all, but I may have more tools in my helping bag.

      • danpeterson

        Thank you, Rodney Ross, for getting my point.

  • Stephen Douglas

    Having been on the other side of theism fence, I’d have to say/admit, there is nothing to offer in way of compassion from an atheist, other than to say, “Hey, it’s horrible about your loss and everything, but you know, we all die and that’s it, so nothing really matters, does it?” Yeah, I feel better already!

    • Lucy Mcgee

      Something should be written about this comment and so I will. I would venture that Stephen has not truly known someone non religious who has suffered a great loss since he seems to toss any meaning aside or may not care or is immune. Sorry but your comment is lacking any basic human acknowledgement of human suffering one experiences when losing a loved one. Perhaps you’ve experienced terrible loss, or not? But your callous comment most certainly argues that we humans should be better informed. This includes you.

  • http://www.templestudy.com Bryce

    What are your thoughts about transhumanists?

    • danpeterson

      LOL. (Or am I not allowed to laugh on this thread?)

  • Louis Midgley

    Secular humanism is deeply and even profoundly religious in most of the ways in which we commonly use that word to describe faith and communities of faith. One problem is that such a secular religion simply cannot offer a hope, whatever the sympathy that variety of humanists might feel in instances of terrible human misery. The basic reason is that secular humanists have chosen to put their trust in the wrong things. Over against the stone cold world of secular humanist imagination, heated only by bizarre revolutionary fervor, we have readily available the consolation and hope available to those from within the horizon of Christian faith, which includes the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Latter-day Saint traditions. This is obvious especially to secular humanists. This is exactly why they often insist that all there is to Christian faith is an imaginary world that merely papers over the really grim reality. Must I quote Karl Marx on the opiate offered by faith in what he insisted was an imaginary God to demonstrate where the secular humanist logic takes us? Instead of offering mere words of consolation, or wishful thinking, secular humanists of various varieties have sought to change the world through resolute political action. Such projects have, unfortunately, often led to human misery on a grand scale. Or to empty meaningless lives. Or to the collapse of genuine faith in God, which is replaced by what Marx called “money and haggling.” Or with merely fun which leads exactly nowhere, not even to the barricades.

    • Lucy Mcgee

      This is most certainly an interesting comment and worthy of discussion methinks. Louis Midgley asserts that secular humanism is somehow a religion. I would ask him to expand on this thesis. I would ask, broadly, what specific doctrines he believes are being employed which would unite nearly a billion humans into a “belief” which collectively denies hope for a better human future. How is it that he could come to understand that millions of people would adhere to “something” which would deny love, hope, friendship, understanding or sympathy to our fellow travelers? Are all religious non believers to be “classified” as those who desire a future which will lead the world into planetary misery? I don’t think so.

      It is interesting that Mr. Midgley seems to somehow equate the religious non belief of hundreds of millions of people, alive and well on planet earth, as living empty and meaningless lives (if I understand his point correctly). A billion people are reported as a statistic, but should be thought of as the individual lives of countless individuals who desire a better future for themselves, their children and the planet. They should be thought of as people who do not adhere to religious dogma yet who desire a better understanding of the world based on the best knowledge we have available; people who care deeply about the future of humanity but who are not tied to ancient beliefs. These many and varied people may have been excluded from religion by birth or choice or investigation; it matters not. What is most important is thoughtful dialogue and understanding. Labeling people makes little sense because it throws up walls. We are fortunate to live in a world where discourse is available to many and to a degree not present in our recent past. Let the dialogue continue.

      • Stephen Smoot

        “I would ask, broadly, what specific doctrines he believes are being employed which would unite nearly a billion humans into a “belief” which collectively denies hope for a better human future.”

        It’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but here are a couple of the very appealing beliefs I’ve heard or read atheists espouse. (Mind you, these are beliefs; metaphysical or philosophical beliefs that cannot be verified or falsified by empirical scrutiny.)

        1. You’re not ultimately accountable for your actions, so do whatever you want, just so long as you’re not hurting other people. (Unless if it’s politically expedient to exterminate millions of people to further your secular agenda. Think Stalin’s USSR, or Mao’s China.)

        2. Death is the final, ultimate escape. No afterlife means no worrying about heaven or hell or behaving in such a way so as to worry about an eternal fate. (Compare #1)

        3. No God means no absolute morality or ethics, so we can define “morality” and “ethics” in any way which suits our social or political fancy. (That includes the Nazis being able to define “morality” as including the extermination humans who are “Lebensunwertes Leben”, or “life unworthy of life”.)

        Although I don’t agree with all of his arguments, I did like the quip from Dinesh D’Souza, who remarked that if religion is the opiate of the masses, then atheism is the opiate of the morally degenerate.

    • danpeterson

      Just curious: Are you in earnest about your opposition to “labeling people”? I’m not quite sure how you propose to think about people if labels are completely prohibited.

  • Stephen Smoot

    If humanists are having trouble connecting with people in times of crisis, they have no one to blame but themselves.

    What was that thing their champion Richard Dawkins said? Something like there’s no purpose to the universe, just a cosmic “pitiless indifference”, or something like that?

    And yet they wonder why people don’t just flock to Stephen Hawking lectures after tragedies like Sandy Hook.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    It s wonderful that many people feel compassion for those who have suffered the unnecessary violent death of their loved ones. There are many ways they can express their compassion. And certainly some of the things that some religious believers say in such circumstances may not actually provide comfort to grieving families. For example, that God decided to take your child or mother, or that if you really have faith in Christ and the resurrection of the dead, you would not mourn at all. And some religious denominations teach that a child that was not baptized in infancy, and died, is lost in hell or limbo for eternity. The Mormon teaching is the exact opposite, that “little children are alive in Christ” and are saved and exalted without baptism when they die young.

    It seems to me that a confirmed atheist who is honest about his beliefs cannot express those beliefs without risking hurting the feelings of those mourning such a loss. One of the main arguments of atheists is the Problem of Evil: How can a God who is all powerful and loving allow evil acts and suffering? The expected conclusion is that if suffering is real, then God cannot be real. How many mourners can feel comforted by a statement that there is no hope for justice or reunion? Even if atheists present their message in an organized effort, how does it comfort the survivors when the basic messages of atheism are that this life is all there is, that there is no individual hope for survival of a soul or ever seeing that soul again?

  • Sam Smith

    Two telling items from the NYT piece:

    1. “Humanists ‘Seem’ Absent” Can we look at the word “seem?” Realizing that editors, not article authors write the headline, were humanists present in important ways that were less visiable?

    2. “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.”

    a. So let’s not play gotcha. As Dr. Peterson says, humanist can mean different things. Is it appropriate to even say there is a “humanist movement,” let alone that it has “leaders?” Who defined the parameters of the movement and chose the leader? I fear the article author doesn’t have give insight into current US humanism, secular or otherwise.

    b. Should the “humanist movement” institutionalize its self and select organization leaders to better its ulturistic efforts and (more importantly?) publicize them. Institutionalization creates it own set of issues, not all of them positive. Many “humanists” might be aware of this.

    c. Is it fair to compare what “humanists” do in a crises to what “religionists” do? Did anyone take a survey of the number of professional counselors who were “humanist” or “religionist?” The people making increased charitable donations? Holding a public religious service with leaders of organized religions was important at the time. But such by definition is public. As to less obvious contributions, did they all come from “religionists?” In view of the proportion to the general population, who gave more? I’d wait to comment until the figures are in.

    d. I think the article makes a very positive point about the “humanist” “leaders” it refers to. It says that they are openly and publically “self-critical,” something many institutions have a big problem with, having an eye principally to their own self-preservation. The world would be a better place if more were such, open to public self-criticism and less about “blowing a trumpet” about ones ulturism. I know a humanist who advised just that.

    • danpeterson

      It seems to me that you and I are talking about two rather different things.

      • Sam Smith

        We are both posting comments on a rather poorly done (IMHO) NYT’s article re “humanists” and Sandy Hook. You have some issues with the article too. Do you think my critique raises any worthwhile points about the article?