Last week, referring to the Sandy Hook massacre, an article in the New York Times posed a very pointed question:
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?
On this site, there were several responses along the lines of, “We were busy taking *real* action by lobbying for gun responsibility measures” or “We weren’t trying to use the tragedy to proselytize” or “We were raising funds for them online.”
In a NYT article of her own in today’s paper, Susan Jacoby cites our withdrawal from the public eye in the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook as part of the problem with atheism today — and part of why we don’t command influence despite our ever-growing numbers. She urges us to make our presence known:
… the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize…
Spoken like someone who rarely goes online…
I don’t actually disagree with her on the big picture — if you turned on the TV and read newspapers, you’d never know atheists were grieving after Sandy Hook. But if you went on the Internet, you would’ve seen atheist bloggers talking about the situation, national organizations releasing their own statements about the tragedy, and fundraisers for the victims’ families.
The bigger question is how we can obtain that influence so that our message goes beyond the computer screen. One suggestion Jacoby has is to share our personal stories. It’s not “logical.” It’s anecdotal. But it’s effective:
… I used to avoid personal discussions of my atheism. But over the years, I have changed my mind because such diffidence contributes to the false image of the atheist as someone whose convictions are removed from ordinary experience. It is vital to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.
I absolutely agree with this. It’s why, when I wrote The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide, it’s almost entirely a series of stories from students who have dealt with all sorts of consequences because of their non-belief. It’s just more relatable than some philosophical treatise.
Jacoby also stresses the fact that being an atheist is a benefit in times of tragedy and we should let the world know that:
It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.…
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
And no article about what atheists should be doing is complete without trashing the good work everyone else has done:
Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.”… Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.
All of those billboard campaigns and bus ads and books — no matter the tone — have helped a different segment of the population come out of the closet as atheists. They may not have used the A word, but it doesn’t matter. To say that we all have to identify as “atheists” is an unnecessary pipe dream. That word is less important than the simple fact that you don’t believe in God.
We should state publicly that we care in moments of crisis, and we cry after disasters, and we comfort those who don’t look to God for answers. In many cases, we are doing that even if the media doesn’t notice. We can do a better job, though, and that’s one of the things local communities do better than individuals.
There is a part of Jacoby’s essay that is undoubtedly good advice and it’s for President Obama. He could have included us in his remarks about Sandy Hook without causing any sort of national controversy if he had just put it this way:
In his speech at an interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, President Obama observed that “the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning?” He could easily have amended that to “the world’s religions and secular philosophies.” He could have said something like, “Whether you are religious or nonreligious, may you find solace in the knowledge that the suffering is ours, but that those we love suffer no more.”
There’s no reason he couldn’t have done that. There’s no reason he can’t say something similar after the next awful event, either.