New York Times: Where Were Atheists After the Sandy Hook Massacre?

Samuel Freedman has an article in today’s New York Times with the headline, “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent.” The gist, as you might guess, is that in the wake of a disaster like the Sandy Hook massacre, there were religious groups waiting to serve the victims’ families and the community… but there was no obvious Humanist presence:

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.

Greg is right about that. If we want people to feel comfortable shedding the superstitious aspect of faith, logic and reason alone (unfortunately) won’t do the trick. Many people stay in their churches, not because they believe everything the pastor says, but because they don’t want to lose the community and support that’s virtually guaranteed when you’re a part of The Club — and the response to Sandy Hook just underscores that. We have to be able to provide a suitable alternative for those who need it if we want to ease peoples’ transitions out of faith — and, you know, because it would be the decent thing to do after a horrible event like that.

Be the bear. Give hugs to atheists in need.

Where Greg goes wrong — or at least what may have been cut from the story during editing — is that Humanist groups were there. We may not have been part of the formal ceremonies that got media attention, but we were raising money for victims’ families and we were there to provide grief support to those who needed it.

Freedman even admits as much:

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the families of each Newtown victim chose religious funerals. The interfaith service, by its very definition, precluded the involvement of leaders from non-faith organizations like the Ethical Culture Society or the American Humanist Association…

While tacitly excluded from religious coalitions, humanist groups did respond to the Newtown killings. The Ethical Culture Society chapter in Teaneck, N.J., helped organize a gun-control rally there. The Connecticut branch of the American Humanist Association contributed about $370 to Newtown families from a winter solstice fund-raiser. The organization American Atheists reports on its Web site that it has collected more than $11,000 in online donations toward funeral expenses in Newtown. A secular support group called Grief Beyond Belief operates on Facebook.

This really highlights the crux of the problem. In the wake of tragedies, common wisdom suggests, people turn to faith. Any faith. It doesn’t matter which. And atheists are automatically excluded from that. The faith groups also have buildings that people can meet up at. Most atheist organizations do not. We do a lot of our best work through the Internet — or we meet up at public places that don’t always carry the weight of solemnity. But even when you do have a building, all you can do is advertise the fact that you’re there for the community in case anyone needs it — you still need the media and local officials to point grieving people in your direction:

“We send out letters, we send out press releases, we’re on Meetup,” said Anne Klaeysen, 61, leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “But we feel people don’t pick us up. We’re not proselytizers. But the religious landscape has changed so that we have to market ourselves.”

The article doesn’t sound like it speaks in a very positive way about the Humanist community. And maybe we deserve that. However, Greg Epstein responded to this article (on Facebook) by highlighting something that might otherwise go ignored — the underlying assumption to this piece was that there should have been a Humanist response.

Instead of saying “Atheists weren’t there, but religious people were,” the article implied, “Atheists should have been there just like the religious people.” It’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but it’s an important one. We’re being included in this conversation and that may not have been the case just a few years ago.

Here’s Greg:

This article assumes Humanist community could and should be an equal part of our most important national moments. That’s the way things ought to be. And it’s the way they will be. We can’t deny the truth that we were left out this time. But these sorts of conversations give us the opportunity to step up tomorrow like never before, if we build the kind of infrastructure of caring that can.

The question is: What can we do to make sure we’re there, on the ground, for those who need us after another tragedy? (And, as I said earlier,how do we make sure people know we’re there for them?)

Local Humanist communities are only one way to do it — though they work really well wherever they seem to be.

What other suggestions would you offer?

***Edit***: A number of commenters are saying atheists aren’t trying to score bonus points after a tragedy like the religious groups are. I don’t think that’s a fair argument at all. There’s no reason to think the religious groups opening their doors to victims’ families and community members are doing it for anything other than sincere goodwill or a desire to be there for other people during their time of need.

That’s the same reason I don’t think it’s out of bounds to ask why Humanist groups weren’t present. You can say we were “doing things that mattered,” but having people to talk to, to console you, to share in your sorrows are incredibly important. If we can’t offer a non-religious shoulder — in person, not just as a metaphor — for someone else to cry on, then the religious groups are offering something worthwhile that we can’t match. We have to be able to do better than that.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.