Responding to a Slam in the New York Times

December 29, 2012

It's Saturday, and each Saturday brings a new religion feature story in the New York Times. This week's installment is by Samuel G. Freedman, with the lurid headline "In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent." It concerns a phenomenon widely noted within the nontheist community, as well -- the fact that despite the great increase in atheism's social prominence, freethinkers were largely unheard from in the social response to the Newtown massacre. In fairness, Freedman's analysis was more even-handed than his essay's headline would suggest. He recognized that unbelievers were as much shut out of "interfaith" outpourings as they failed to step up. But does it make sense to say that there's any sense in which the nonreligious actually "failed to step up"? Greg Epstein thinks so. He is Harvard's humanist chaplain and, for all intents and purposes, the current "pope" of the religious-humanist camp. He told Freedman, "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." But I'm not convinced. Truly secular people, precisely insofar as they are secular, have outgrown the need to seek emotional support primarily from a group that has been twice segregated to resemble them: segregated once by adjacent residence, and segregated again by worldview. That's what a traditional church congregation is, after all: a community of people who live in the same area and see the world in about the same way. Secular humanists tend not to seek that parochial sort of support. That's a distinctive characteristic of their approach to life, not a shortcoming. Colloquially, it's a feature, not a bug. I wrote a letter to the New York Times making this point. Since I'm more likely to be struck by lightning twice while marrying a terrorist than to see my letter published, I reproduce it below.


To the editors,

Samuel G. Freedman ("In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent," Dec. 29) is to be commended for his fairness in recognizing that humanists were as much shut out of the supportive response to the Newtown killings as they were "absent." All of the victims' families chose religious observances, and the religious community's embrace of "interfaith" activities effectively shut out those who live without faith. Still, both Mr. Freedman and the individuals he quoted miss the larger point: it is both unfair and foolish to expect highly secularized, nonreligious people to respond to traumatic events in a way that closely mirrors the response of churchgoers' congregations. _Secular_ humanists, insofar as they are truly secular, have emancipated themselves from the very notion of sequestering themselves into local parochial communities segregated by lifestance. Religious believers often seek emotional support by gathering with others who see the world largely as they do, through their local congregations; secular humanists are different precisely in that they do not. Secular humanists are more likely to plug directly into the larger culture and to seek to meet their emotional needs in ways that do not require first that the person next to them shares their worldview. When pain becomes unbearable, churchgoers may turn to a pastor or similar local leader whose qualifications as a de facto therapist may vary widely. Secular humanists are more likely to make an individual decision to seek a professional therapist, without relying on any intermediary community. That is not  a shortcoming on the part of secular humanists; it is simply a difference in the way that members of that group engage with life. What is sadder, perhaps, is the spectacle of non-secular humanists trying so hard to imitate the way the churches respond to trauma and tragedy.

Thomas Flynn
Executive Director, the Council for Secular Humanism
Editor, FREE INQUIRY magazine