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.

  • George Wiman

    One word: FEMA. OK, that isn’t a word. But I prefer that a secular government respond to tragedy because 1) as an agency it is mandated to prepare in advance, 2) it can be chartered to provide aid without discrimination, and 3) it a first obligation of society as a whole. That said some of the larger agencies like Red Cross do a good job of those things. Even though my donations don’t show up on a “secular-compassion meter”.

    It’s a little irritating, the assumption that secular people aren’t involved unless there’s an organization with “secular” in its name on the ground.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Of course, that’s not at all the case. Because most nones don’t care to flaunt their “noneism”, people don’t notice the work done by nones in these situations. Nones do good because it’s good, not because they’re nones.

  • Sandy Kokch

    So let me get this right in Greg World:

    The Nones do not receive an invite to the party. However despite this they get together and organise buying the host a present or two and have it quietly delivered.

    The guests at the party then have their get together. One then afterward posts an article about how the Nones snubbed the host by not turning up to the party. The poster does however make some small grudging mention of the gifts that were delivered by the Nones quietly despite the lack of an invite.

    And Greg says in the article he agrees the Nones snubbed the host?

    Great strategic thinking there Greg. Guess WalMart were having a special offer on Weak Sauce and you bought a bulk shipment.

    Methinks Greg is the US version of Alain DeBotton.

  • Sandy Kokch

    I take it George you have not seen the raft of YouTube vids made by CT nutballs that are accusing FEMA and the government of carrying out another false flag attack (the same accusation thats been attached to the last few spree shootings) at Newtown.

    Laughably stupid, scarily paranoid, and utterly disgusting they may be. but they are out there.

    While you are being disgusted, and Im right there with you mate, how about the Christian insensitivity of the schools art teacher who put up the cardboard cutout angels for each of the victims – despite the fact at least one dead kid was Jewish and another a Sikh? Or the local authorities giving the job of breaking the news to the parents to a sodding Catholic priest? Or the accusations that the shooter was influenced by evil secularism, despite the indications he was home schooled by his gun crazy evangelical mother? Or….and that list gets longer.

  • Santiago

    Umbrella term? Not really

  • fett101

    I demand to know where the North American Tiddlywinks Association was in response to this tragedy.

  • Chris Clayton

    The problem is one of perceptions. For example, Newtown CT has a food pantry that might be perceived to be faith-based. It is even called FAITH, which stands for Food Assistance Immediate Temporary Help, and operates from the basement of St John’s Episcopal Church in Sandy Hook,.

    An interesting article at describes the group as non-faith-based:

    “The fact the food pantry is based in a church does not mean that it is affiliated with the Episcopal Church or any religious organization. FAITH could just as easily have been based in a school, a library, or even a private home. Today’s volunteers “are from everywhere, not just the churches,” said Mrs Paulsen, who has been involved with FAITH since its inception.

    Many of the volunteers are churchgoing, but it certainly is not a requisite. “You do not have to be the member of a church to benefit from the food pantry, or to volunteer. I cannot stress that enough,” said Mrs Paulsen. “We’re housed in a church and this was started by Joan… but we are not church-based.”

    If only more groups would take a similar stance, this would quickly become a non-issue.

  • Zugswang

    It’s a catch-22. Good people from many backgrounds help anonymously during tragedies, not expecting recognition.

    On the other hand, if we also want people to see that atheists/humanists/etc are populated by many good and helpful people, we need to explicitly identify as atheist, humanist, agnostic, etc. when we do these things, because the people we help do not owe it to us to ask.

  • Beverlz

    There are many Unitarian congregations in the US. Those congregations are usually 1/3 atheist, and the rest a mix of agnostic and other faiths. there is no dogma – it is up to everyone to come up with their belief system. It is too bad that there wasn’t one in Newtown. It is a place for free-thinkers. The Unitarian ministers are trained at Harvard and other universities.

  • jjramsey

    Did it occur to you that the author of the opinion piece had a predetermined angle and may have obtained the quote from Epstein by asking a leading question?

  • LesterBallard

    Suck my sweaty balls, Samuel Freedman.

  • John A. Anderson

    We don’t wear uniforms. How does he know we weren’t there?

  • DougI

    I see, so after decades of oppression, harassment, blacklists and persecution the Atheists are starting to get a voice again because of social media and that instantly put our minority on equal footing with institutions that have been around for thousands of years with large financing from the government. What an idiot.

    Why don’t we ask where the religious were as they were giving Adam Lanza his Christian education in Catholic school? Maybe Freedman is saying Atheists need to step up their game to fix all the problems created by the religious? Let’s see, next year 0% of people in Congress will identify themselves as Atheist. Well, no help from there but I’m sure that Atheist-empty Congress will vote to give millions of Atheist taxpayer money to religious institutions so they can provide social services and announce how morally superior they are than Atheists.

    Freedman’s bigotry is spilling over in the article, so even if Atheists did do something we wouldn’t get any credit. Atheists are his whipping boy because I didn’t notice him asking the question about where all the Muslims or Hindus are. And sure, we didn’t give any public funerals, I guess that makes him upset that no Atheist parents had to bury their children. What a sick fuck he is to be lamenting the issue that Atheists didn’t have more dead children to bury.

    The guy is a bigoted asshole. If his main contention is that we aren’t organized and activist enough I’m sure that once that does happen he’ll complain that we’re too militant and trying to force our views upon others. Heck, look was happens with our Solstice signs, we get backlash for operating on equal footing with the believers.

    How about this Freedman, you Christians stop being such bigots and stop expecting us to subsidize your religions and maybe you’ll start to see a larger godless presence.

  • dcl3500

    We don’t have a church banner that we wave to proclaim that we are here. Maybe some of us prefer to have our good works seen but not preach about them.

  • funnieguy

    ‘Our hearts goes out to the victims’ is probably what most people can say. My heart goes out to all those who are suffering. If I really want to help, I won’t pray. I’ll do something. Study economics, politics, science, something. Every second we turn back and give consolation for the sake of it, we lose some time. Education. Education is the most important. I’m not really answering the question.

  • Bill Sheehan

    The local food pantry is located in a church hall. It is absolutely non-religious, and I happen to know that a couple outspoken atheists have been volunteering there for years. The houses of worship (in all their many-splendored and mutually exclusive glory) turned out for an “Interfaith” serivce, and someone asks where the nonbelievers were? Did anyone ask the first responders, the ambulance drivers, the teachers, the doctors, the grief counselors… you know, the ones who *did* something more than close their eyes and think nice thoughts really hard? Atheists may or may not be members of groups, but we’re damned sure members of society. So don’t say we weren’t there.

  • Gayle Jordan

    An event like Sandy Hook is different than an event like Hurricane Sandy. After Sandy, there were scads of things to be done – clearing roads, delivering food, helping with clean up. After Sandy Hook, there was nothing for extra hands to do. We write blog posts, we participate in community discussions about possible solutions, and yes, we donate to causes directly and indirectly related to helping the families of the victims. And even more broadly, we work, sometimes for a lifetime, to resolve issues like this BECAUSE of our humanism.

    The first question that should have been asked was not Where were the Humanists? It was What Do These Families Need?

  • AxeGrrl

    So let me get this right in Greg World:

    The Nones do not receive an invite to the party. However despite this they get together and organise buying the host a present or two and have it quietly delivered.

    The guests at the party then have their get together. One then afterward posts an article about how the Nones snubbed the host by not turning up to the party. The poster does however make some small grudging mention of the gifts that were delivered by the Nones quietly despite the lack of an invite.

    And Greg says in the article he agrees the Nones snubbed the host?


    I don’t think you could have summarized this ‘story’ any more accurately or succinctly. Kudos :)

  • Bob Becker

    Yup. The food bank in my town is operated by Catholic Community Services. I have volunteered on a number of occasions [usually holiday food distribution]. Food is available to all. No one asked my faith or if I had any at all when I volunteered. No one coming for food is asked either. I, an atheist, worked five hours straight, with Catholics, Mormons, and I have no idea who all else. And I’d resent like hell anyone asking “where were the nones?” at that food bank. Short of having everyone wear a badge announcing their faith or lack thereof, how the hell would anyone know? Why the hell would [should] anyone care?

  • sam

    I’ve no doubt that the Ronald McDonald House does good for children. It doesn’t take a cynic to admit that the reason the McDonalds Corporation puts their name and logo on their charity is, in part, to sell more product. Would anyone deny that an anonymous organization of equal charity would be more altruistic?

    Since theism isn’t grounded in truth, it must defend its existence in utilitarian terms. Do we want to adopt the same psychological manipulations to “sell” truth to others, or do we want to do good things for the sake of being good, and then later defend a worldview using reason and evidence?

  • Ricky Wilks

    So, because we don’t take advantage of a national tragedy to espouse our beliefs and attempt to strengthen our place in society, we are bad people? I’m as anti-theist as anyone out there – but, I’m not an asshole. Taking advantage of national tragedies to forward an agenda is more in the realm of politicians and the religious.

  • Randomfactor

    I suspect the atheists were in some of the classrooms, protecting the children during the attack.

  • Bellj

    Sorry we didn’t seem to be in the picture. We were here, quietly in the background, talking, commiserating, and trying to make sense of the tragedy. You probably couldn’t hear that over the din of preachers blaming it on separation of church and state, gays, abortions, and, oh yeah, the victims, who were not properly armed.

  • C Peterson

    My view is that it isn’t anybody’s role to “be there” after an event like this except for family and friends. I find the collection of money by strangers around the country to be unseemly and faintly obscene… as if money could somehow be a proxy for real concern and real action to prevent such things from happening again. I was not tempted to send anything to the victims. I am honest in admitting that I am not close to them, I cannot really feel what they feel, and I have no business offering them any sort of close comfort. I cannot even understand them, except by indirectly imagining the same thing happening in my community. I found the statements of comfort and “interfaith” services to be grotesque and out of place.

    That said, I’ll ask this: where were the churches? If we are to measure response in money, there should have been millions or tens of millions of dollars rolling into Newtown (after all, some 70% of Americans are religious to some degree). Mostly, where I saw religion after this event, was in the obscene suggestion that the fault lay with some sort of artificial ethical failure on the part of society- “turning away from god”, “denying god in our schools”, “accepting homosexuality”. Disgusting. How many religious organizations argued that the ethical failure was in a society that has failed to use its ample resources to detect and help the mentally ill? How many argued that the ethical failure was in failing to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people? No, what we actually heard is that the failure was in not ensuring that teachers be armed even more dangerously. Absurd and disgusting! For the most part, religion has been a great negative force in responding to this tragedy, and arguably an important factor in why it happened in the first place.

    Where were atheists? Where they should be, which is not part of the discussion at all. Where were atheist organizations? Hopefully, taking no formal position, because any such position would be inconsistent with atheism. Where were humanist organizations? Right where they should be: arguing for a rational societal response to finding ways to prevent things like this from happening. Maybe some chose to raise a little money. If so, and it made their members happy, fine. But that’s a cheap response. It provides scant comfort and no real relief. It isn’t how we should assess humanism. Humanists are at the forefront of calling for real, meaningful action to change society for the better, to make it into something where events like Sandy Hook are far less likely to occur. Quite the opposite of the religious response.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I can tell you where we weren’t: On TV making statements about how this was totally the fault of the religious, and it was a huge judgement on the country for not accepting reason like we do. And then adding that it’ll just keep happening if we don’t institute evolution as the one true faith in all our schools, then collectively suck off Dawkins for forgiveness.

  • Justin Miyundees

    I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh because I know the religious groups do mean well – they have ONLY the best intentions, but the fact remains that they are providing assurances and comfort based on claims for which they have no evidence – not one iota. It is comforting indeed to picture those children safe in the arms of a warm loving protector, but it is comfort and nothing more and while I can join the surviving victims of this tragedy in wishing fervently that this was true, I don’t have the scruples or faith it takes to assure the grief stricken that it is absolutely and undoubtably so. I simply can’t bring myself to offer up something that’s so patently absurd – it would ring so hollow and empty and, if it were not for genuinely kind intentions, quite potentially insulting (an eternal life cheapens this finite one), but I don’t begrudge anyone in such pain whatever comfort they can find.

    Those cut of the same cloth as Huckabee & Robertson have the luxury of throwing up easy pat answers and I find this sort of opportunism the ugliest and distasteful tendency of faith – to capitalize on tragedy just piles on tragedy.

    Humanists don’t do that, as a rule. The reason they have been relatively quiet is that they don’t throw up pat easy answers where there are none as in psychopathic rampages and that’s just a sad truth. God is the placebo of faith but humanists have no such, and sell no such, magic elixir.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Money is a materialistic comfort in a time of huge emotional trauma.

    It can’t bring the dead back, nor can it really ease the pain the still living feel. But it can help not add more Bad to the mix by ensuring that things like funerals and transportation are paid for, or that the family has a little extra money if they were too busy/tired to cook and just want to order pizza, or things of that nature.

    And really, it’s one of the few comforts the anonymous stranger across the country can provide that can actually have an effect.

    Is it the best thing that can be done? Debatable. But it still does good.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    What you’re saying is stupid. Didn’t you catch what Hemant and I caught?: “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.”

    This was a call for inclusion amid a sea of negativity towards secularists, and your response shows you’re totally clueless.

  • C Peterson

    I can only speak for myself, and I would NOT want strangers sending me money if my kid was shot. I would NOT want strangers sending me their sympathy. I would not take comfort in sympathy from the federal government or the President. I would take comfort in the personal response of my friends and community (who would know that, in my case, money is not something that would help me). And I would take comfort in the response of strangers who asked what could reasonably be done to ensure that things like this wouldn’t happen in the future.

    These people were not poor. Are some comforted by receiving money? Maybe. I’m not really criticizing anybody for sending money, I’m criticizing people for suggesting that the failure to send money or the failure to produce sympathetic rhetoric is some sort of failure of compassion or failure of humanism. I’m criticizing those who have such narrow definitions of what it means to help.

  • coyotenose

    Conservatives and Christians have a bizarre tendency* to make proclamations that imply that they are psychic. Sometimes it’s blatant bigotry, such as when they say that [Group] is only doing something positive for publicity. In other cases, I theorize that it stems from a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect: mildly sociopathic people aren’t good at understanding empathy, and in their ignorance they think it’s extremely simple and that they DO understand it. Then they apply their broken, less-than-amateur idea of it to other people. And of course sometimes it’s just confirmation bias. His sources only mentioned Christian sympathy, and poor him couldn’t be bothered to Google, because obviously his sources are fair and balanced or he wouldn’t be reading them.

    *Obviously people in every group do this, but I overwhelmingly see it coming from those groups. And I couldn’t possibly be experiencing confirmation bias, oh no no no! *coughs*

  • coyotenose

    That said, I’ll ask this: where were the churches? If we are to measure
    response in money, there should have been millions or tens of millions
    of dollars rolling into Newtown

    Meanwhile George Zimmerman got $180,000 in donations right off the bat (and more later) to help him make excuses for murdering an angry, probably house-robbing black who deserved it because he once smoked a joint and wore sneakers or something unarmed kid, and history and statistics suggest that nearly all of it came from Christians.

  • MikeHypercube

    Now who was it who said that when you do good works you shouldn’t let everyone know about it? Ah yes, it was that Jesus chap, a sort of theistic protohumanist. Maybe the humanists are taking his prnciplesto heart better than some others? Just a thought.

  • coyotenose

    This reminds me of something… (the first 20 seconds):

  • DougI

    Since all you can do is respond with insults it’s clear you didn’t have a point to make at all. Take your trolling to PZs page, it’s preferred there.

  • DougI

    Yeah, the war on Christmas is over so we put all our fatigues away. :)
    I think it says good things about Atheists and Humanists that we can do good without the need to advertise. It’s only the anti-Atheist rhetoric coming from the insecure religious who use our lack of self-serving behavior as a means to berate us that many feel the need to advertise our good deeds.

  • Bill Haines

    My thought exactly — in fact I just wrote to Freedman asking for a correction.

    “the humanist movement — an umbrella term for those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers, among other terms”

    The actual usage is Humanist (capitalized) and this is not an umbrella term; most atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and other skeptics do not identify themselves as Humanists and many specifically reject and even resent the term. Also, being a Humanist means more than just personal secularity; see for a concise description of what we believe.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Actually there was a point, and since you ignore it, it looks like you are not interested in a discussion. I don’t think trolling belongs anywhere, and I dont’ think you should engage in it either

  • Bill Haines

    I saw it as both a recognition that we secular folk are a growing demographic, and a complaint that we’re not more organized or publicly visible as such in time of crisis. I think the recognition is welcome, but the complaint baseless. We’re not religious; there’s no reason to expect us to behave as if we were. The compassionate response to such a tragedy is to support those affected with expressions of sympathy, and the reasonable response is to work toward preventing it from happening again. Humanist and other secular organizations, as well as individual secular Americans, have done and are doing these things.

  • Joe Montoto

    We weren’t standing around making ridiculous statements such as “The children are in a better place now” or “The children got the best Christmas gift of all…they’re in the sweet loving arms of Jesus.”

  • primenumbers

    Of course there was a humanist response – an appropriate response to let families greave in private, with no pious lies to upset them further by forcing them to choose between their genuine feeling of grief and the happiness they should be feeling that their loved ones are safe in Jesus’ arms.

  • Bill Haines

    Epstein isn’t de Botton, but I agree he really fell short here, good analysis!

  • Cerulean

    My perspective on this is that this particular article is biased and coming from a “journalist” at the NYT who frequently writes about the good deeds of a variety of the the more popular religions. It appears that because there just happens to be an organization of people who do not believe in god but would happen to label themselves as “Humanists” that this Humanist organization is now responsible for the actions, or non-actions as in the title of the article, of ALL non-believers.. even if they do not choose to label themselves as Humanists. He sort of gives it away that he might understand this by including someone’s “herding cats” quote. However the article in itself is IMO irresponsible biased and childish.

    How is this kind of article allowed to be published by the NYT when it seems the only facts of Humanist or non-religious involvement that he has is based on what the TV media or grossly popular opinion has told him. Does this writer have hands on experience in Newtown, CT looking for the Humanists or Athiest aid given? Why does one who does not believe in god have to give money or moral support under the guise of a label or organization anyway? Why is it important to be labeled as anything other than a fellow human being to be told they are valid enough to be allowed to help these victims as the media viewpoint seems to dictate. Has any news media channel given a Humanist or non-religous movement enough air time to let the world know that we’re out there just as concerned and passionate about helping the victims of this horrible event? Short Answer: No! Everything you hear about, including comments from the President of the United States, gives the message that the only people on this earth that are able to help these victims are those that believe in a god. Mostly.. the Christian God.

    And what do you expect. In a town that is populated by those that are largely church goers and those that do deeply believe in a god, did anyone really expect a balanced secular vs. spiritual coverage of the aid this town receives. These people were going to by instinct go to their spiritual leaders. And any and all religious commentary was going to by instinct swoop in like a pack of vultures and spew their view to the media. The media, especially Cable formats, were going to by instinct eat it up and spit it out to the world. I think this article is definitely irresponsible, biased and ill informed and I hope that I do see some good letters in Op Ed/or Letters to the Editor about it and others like it.

    Happy New Year.. I hope to see a more positive light for people who use their own morality to do good rather than what is dictated to them by a mythological being.

  • T

    If my child was shot I would probably want some space and time to mourn them. I wouldn’t want their deaths turned into a media circus. Honestly, it seems like what the families really need is time and space to heal. Maybe some of them will also need a grief cousellor, maybe that’s something people can sponsor? I don’t know.

    I’m sure the money that was donated will come in useful to them. Obviously it can’t compensate for the loss of their child, but I’m not sure anything can.

    Another thing I would want if someone I loved had been murdered is justice. Of course, Lanza is dead, and so he can’t be brought to justice and the reason he killed those children will never be fully known. There’s not much we as individuals can do to help there- it’s a matter for the police and forensic psychologists to work out why he did it. If there are any atheists who are trained in those areas then maybe they could suggest theories, but it’s the investigators on the scene who have the best chance of finding the truth.

    To try to make sure this never happens again might give the families some comfort. I’m not sure there is any way to stop someone from ever shooting schoolchildren, but maybe there’s a way to reduce the number of killings. Gun laws, mental health provisions, changing the culture. This is one thing a group should be good for- find the best science-backed way to reduce the rate of murders on children and then apply pressure on government until they make the necessary changes.

    Of course, this is my opinion of what the families might want. Maybe the best way to help is to actually get in touch with them and ask if they need anything?

    As for what to do in the event of other tragedies- start working locally on building communities now. Offer useful things that people need: baby-sitting, playgroups for parents and children, support groups for people who are ill or fighting addiction, grief support groups. People won’t trust humanists to help them after big disasters unless humanists are already helping them with their own struggles.

  • Very Inspired

    I was sitting at home waiting for the mob to blame us and drag me off to my death.

  • HughInAz

    Of course atheists were at Sandy Hook, helping out in the aftermath… they just weren’t using the occasion to score points. They were helping out as human beings, and not trying to make it all about them.

  • Anna

    If I want to do something to help the bereaved families, I’m not going to do it to promote (directly or indirectly) atheism or humanism. I don’t think tragedies are an appropriate time to advertise one’s “brand,” religious or irreligious.

    I really don’t have anything against humanist organizations, but this idea that all atheists should do charitable or social things as a group bothers me. We’re not a religion. I don’t need to do things in the name of atheism. I don’t need a special atheist community. I would prefer to see the larger community be secular, so that I can be involved in that.

  • chicago dyke

    obviously way late to this conversation, but wow do i not agree.

    there are so very, very many tragedies and horrors in this world. i do not feel “obligated” or pressured by other “faiths” to respond to them. i am one woman, with my own life, limited resources, and other concerns that if i ignore, will cause me to fail at doing anything substantive and meaningful, not to mention survive.

    literally hundreds of thousands of children die on this earth, every day. for no “good” reason. starvation, war, rape, slavery, drugs… i can go on and on. do i feel bad about that fact? yes, of course i do. i am a compassionate progressive and i don’t want anyone, not anyone, to suffer needlessly.

    but don’t try to “guilt me out” about Newtown. these were extremely privileged children in a very safe and rich society who experienced a horror. yes, one that no child should’ve experienced. but don’t tell me i didn’t “do enough” or give enough or say enough of whatever the point of this post is.

    i would like to see this level of outrage for the hundreds of dead pakistani children killed by american taxpayer funded drones, for example. or the thousands of black/brown kids made homeless/fostered in the american “war on drugs.” or the thousands of children who go hungry in africa, every day, as a result of western corporations that pay mercenaries to slaughter village leaders in order to control precious resources that western interests will make a mint on, once extracted. or the children who are enslaved into prostitution so that western men can go to dubai or whereever and have a 12yo slave-prostitute while on a business trip. etc.

    “born into brothels.” rent it today. get back to me when you’re angry that american atheists “didn’t do enough.” yes, we don’t do enough.that is true of all of us lucky enough to have won the birth lottery and be americans. no, it’s not just about dead, white american children from a wealthy suburb killed by a young man who didn’t get enough medication.

    i am an atheist. that means… i am an atheist. it doesn’t mean i have a moral code that i have to demonstrate repeatedly to others to prove my “faith.” indeed, that’s rather silly, given the actual definition of atheist. which is simply, “i believe in nothing supernatural.” don’t foist your personal moral code on me, thanks.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    The concept of an Atheist Group is absurd. Religious types band together in their belief of a superior being….Why would those of us that have no belief band together? As a parallel, if you don’t enjoy football, do you therefore have to join a ‘Non-Football Club’ and root for non-existent teams? That’s silly. In fact many atheists were there, they just don’t announce themselves with a scarlet letter ‘A’, unlike religious types that have to stick a fish on the back of their car, or hang a crucifix off their rear view mirror. People of all denominations donated and sent stuffed animals and sympathized with the families that lost children. It’s the “Human’ thing to do.

  • smrnda

    A problem with this is that religious people have a long history of belonging to established organizations that make statements and do things as a group. Atheists have only recently started to organize, and many don’t do things officially through atheist organizations the same way that people who belong to religions can use their house or worship as a sort of ‘one stop shop.’

    I mean, someone can ask “Where are atheist volunteers?” I mean, I’m volunteering a lot all the time, but I never do so officially as an atheist or as part of an atheist group, so of course I don’t count as an atheist volunteer. Because atheists don’t necessarily do things as part of a group (since atheists are hardly a monolith and contain many divergent viewpoints – I identify as a political liberal far more than I do as an atheist) when they do things as individuals, they aren’t noticed.

  • Miss_Beara

    What is he expecting atheists to do? Fly to Connecticut to volunteer? Send money even though many of us cannot afford to do so? Are we to proclaim to everyone that we are atheists so we can show that we are there? And volunteer to do what exactly? This isn’t like Hurricane Sandy where volunteers were needed. Why should there always be a Humanist response to tragedy? Are humanists competing with religious folk to see who can be the most compassionate? Can’t people do good things just to do a good thing instead of being guilt tripped into doing so?

  • roberthughmclean

    Got to remember , the godbots, while doing some good are really there to get more godbots and try to improve the image of god/babyjesus/ghost/mo thing to the rest of us. Yep they do help but they are primarily there to add to the delusion in the face of more evidence that god is a fraud.

  • Charvakan

    Of course, the religious groups will have an upper hand when something like this happens, they can the provide BS like “they are in a better place”. There is not much humanists can do other than push for common sense things like gun control – but that is not of much help in the immediate wake of a tragedy like this …

  • AxeGrrl

    So, because we don’t take advantage of a national tragedy to espouse our beliefs and attempt to strengthen our place in society, we are bad people?

    You’ve nailed it.

  • Kelley

    I don’t advertise that I am a humanist/agnostic. I also don’t advertise every time I help some one in distress. I don’t belong to a church (obviously) and I don’t belong to a humanist group either. Most of us who are “Nones” choose NOT to be “out there” displaying our “giving” or “helping”. We work without the fanfare that religious groups seem to need. We ‘non-believers’ probably were there, we just didn’t advertise it.

  • Darrell Ross

    “The faith groups also have buildings that people can meet up at. Most atheist organizations do not.”

    Well, the faith groups don’t have to pay any taxes on their buildings. They own them free-and-clear and can use them as little or as often as they like without any cost to them at all.

    I think tons of non-profits would have their own buildings if they didn’t have to pay taxes on them.

  • Compassionate Atheism Rocks

    But it’s not just about you. And it’s not just about Newtown. Even re: Newtown, can’t just assume that all the families are wealthy and have great support systems.

    The concern that Hemant and others express goes much deeper. It goes to the essence of being a viable alternative to religions, one that offers what religions do, sans crap.

    Hemant’s piece is brilliant and I had hoped someone would write such a piece. Last 2 sentence, powerful: “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.”

    To me, this is what the term “Atheism Plus” needs to be reserved for.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Raising money. And in the mean time, supporting the very Philosophy that Adam Lanza supported: that the world would be better off with 27 less people in it to support overpopulation.

  • scrzbill

    My wife and I both could be called humanist and we sent money. Atheist defined by Christians: anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus.

  • scrzbill

    “Those children were killed because God is mad.” Huckster and other “religious” leaders. “Hurricane Sandy is Gods punishment for something,” far right christians. Keep spouting this crazy stuff that you believe and as people become more educated, there will be fewer people living in fear, fewer religious people.

  • John S.

    “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.”

    When me and my wife tried a UU church out years back we found the community woeful. They spent more time trying to one up each other on who was more liberal instead of providing meaningful community.

    We decided to go back to a baptist church because people their really try to help each other out even during the week they are 100% available.

  • Sandra Goodick

    Surely the police, firefighters, first responders, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, etc. who responded to the tragedy, providing tangible, material support to the victims and their families are the humanist response? Our social services are not ordained by the bible. When first responders rush to save lives or doctors operate or whatever, they do it without biblical prescription. They do it because we have built a society on humanist goals of providing support and succour for those who need it, regardless of their political affiliation or creed. We help because we’re human and so are those who need our help. Catholic churches provided services for the catholic victims, synagogues provided the same for Jewish victims and so on through the various creeds. Which crisis responded asked religious affiliation before they offered help? Before they jumped in to protect, aid or comfort?
    It’s a mistake to let the religion claim the moral high-ground here. Humanism was the first on the scene and it will be there long after the churches have completed their ceremonies.

  • Hellbound Allee

    But, how do they know the religious affiliations of everyone if they don’t TELL? “Where were the humanists–the religious were there!” There with what? T-Shirts? Is that what we have to do, hold big signs every time we try to do something good?

  • Subodai

    Since atheism is neither a religion nor an organization, why would you expect them to be doing religious things? Chances are there were atheists everywhere, they just weren’t identifying themselves as a group. There were probably some at several of the religious-sponsored events, showing support and offering condolences.

  • CatholicDadof3
  • Naomi Zacsh

    Atheists are people who don’t beleive in superstitions of any kind including GOD, the Bible, the Greek Mythology, the Kuran etc. So how would anyone know how many atheists were there? .