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


#1 James Croft on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 11:35am

Tom, you know we don’t agree on a whole lot, but seriously: how can you possibly continue in your role as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism when you continually attack the very values the organization was created to support? You are perfectly entitled to your extreme individualist interpretation of “Humanism” (although it is no Humanism I recognize), but to promote it from the head of an organization dedicated to spreading a different vision it seems perverse.

The idea, which you consistently promote, that “secular” implies “non-communal” is a simple non-sequitur and is unworthy of a reasonable person. It flies against the stated commitments of the Council for Secular Humanism itself, and makes your position seem weirdly untenable.

What say you?

#2 Myra Rubinstein (Guest) on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 12:17pm

Thank you!  I agree and rarely hear anyone else take this viewpoint!

#3 Paul (Guest) on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 12:18pm


Given that the Council for Secular Humanism has a mandate on its web page for “Developing Secular Communities”, How do you rectify this mandate with your statement that secularists have “emancipated” themselves from such communities?

#4 SimonSays on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 12:43pm

Full disclosure: I coordinate events on a volunteer basis at a local Center for Inquiry (the Council’s umbrella organization) branch in Washington, DC and my wife is Executive Director.

Tom, you claim that (emphasis mine) “truly secular” humanists have “emancipated themselves from the very notion of sequestering themselves into *local* parochial communities segregated by lifestance”

Why the emphasis on “local”? Because if one was to remove this one single word, then all the participants at Council for Secular Humanism conferences would also presumably be disqualified from being “truly secular”.

Also missing is an acknowledgement of the fact that CFI -an organization of which you are also in a leadership position- does in fact have paid and volunteer staff at several of exactly the type of local communities you are referring to. At least in the US, I think it’s fair to say that in a fairly short time CFI has developed the most successful network of such communities, with paid staff and significant donors and membership in several major cities.

This is to say nothing of what a previous comment correctly noted about the Council’s support for secular communities:

#5 Bill Haines on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 1:19pm

Ignorant statements like the above are why I don’t support the Council.  Epstein is in no sense a “pope” and Humanist communities like the one at Harvard, or local chapters of AHA by definition are not “religious.”  Such divisiveness obviates whatever valid point otherwise might have been made. 

Since the Council is a member of IHEU, Flynn might want to pay attention to its agreements which include the usage of the terms Humanism and Humanist capitalized, the defining of Humanism as non-religious and tolerance of all conceptions of Humanism within the minimum definition.

#6 jerrys on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 2:29pm

There is an issue raised in the article that I think is important.  It quotes Darrel Ray:

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

CFI has been active in the fight to have secular celebrants have the right to solemnize weddings.  And to make people available for that purpose.  And I support that effort.  But I have suggested several times to CFI staff that we need to create a registry of people who are willing to conduct secular funerals.  Weddings are usually planned well in advance and are happy occasions.  Celebrants enjoy performing them   But funerals (as in the Newtown case) are frequently sudden, they aren’t fun and it can be hard to find someone to conduct a non-religious ceremony on short notice. CFI ‘s website lists 23 people who have had our celebrant training.  I urge CFI to expand that list to include people who have not had our training, but are willing to perform secular funerals.

#7 Tom Flynn on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 3:53pm

Let me try to respond briefly to everyone (well, except Myra. Thanks, Myra!). Yes, the Council for Secular Humanism does promote secular communities. Here’s the relevant language from the website: “The Council for Secular Humanism supports independent, autonomous local groups that provide a forum for sharing ideas and a base for social activities.” Note that this mission differs significantly from the mission of a church congregation, which exists to share dogmas as well as other types of ideas, and in addition to social activities provides emotional support which can rise to the level of psychotherapy (of varying levels of professionalism, depending on the pastor’s education). At the same time secular communities tend to stress member education, public education, and protest to a greater degree than most church congregations. Finally, secular humanist groups and other proper secular communities usually do a pretty good job of staying the hell out of irrelevant parts of their members’ lives, in marked contrast to the norm in many congregations or megachurches, where it’s often strongly expected that members will seek to buy insurance and contract for professional or skilled-trades services (etc. etc.) from other members of the congregation.

There’s a final difference: proper secular groups usually will not engage in localized social-service or charity work unless that work is of special benefit to secular people (i.e. SOS for non-religious addiction recovery) or has a public education component (i.e. adopting a highway to get the group’s name on a sign). Otherwise secular groups per se usually recognize that feeding the hungry, aiding the poor, etc., are better done by nonsectarian, often but not always public organizations that do not segregate their beneficiaries, their workers, *or their donors* by lifestance. (Yes, some ostensibly secular groups do organize work at soup kitchens, blood drives etc., but IMHO they shouldn’t. I find such outreach generally improper as an aping of congregational activities and a perpetuation of archaic social-service forms.)

In general, whenever you see an ostensibly secular group doing the same kinds of things that church congregations do—and especially when there appears to be no motive for doing so other than that church congregations do the same things—the secular group is going down the wrong path. We should be especially cautious about initiatives that lead our groups in the direction of performing amateur social services and/or delivering amateur psychotherapy. Such work is best left to professionals, and professionals are best chosen without first segregating them by lifestance.

Responding to Bill, “religious humanism” is a term with multiple meanings. It includes those who, rightly or wrongly, define humanism as their religion (such as the Huumanists within the Unitarian Universalist Church). It includes those rare humanists who consider human beings worthy of worship or find something genuinely mystical in human consciousness, the “spark of life,” and so on. But the largest group of aptly-labeled religious humanists is the group of people who may not hold any otherworldly or mystical views, but who for whatever reason strongly prefer to organize their humanist practice along the lines of traditional church congregations. I agree with Bill that many, perhaps most, AHA chapters are not religious in this way; but groups like Harvard’s, which are organized explicitly on a chaplaincy model, *are* religious in this sense. Maybe it would be clearer to call this approach to humanism congregational rather than religious. Whatever we call it, if your humanist community is led by a chaplain, it is by definition religious (or congregational), not secular.

Further responding to Bill, as (then) a voting member of IHEU, the Council for Secular Humanism voted against the requirement to capitalize the H in humanism and we continue to stand in dissent on this issue. In any case, it’s not intolerant to recognize genuine difference. I’m not calling Greg Epstein a bad person, just saying that when he acts as a humanist chaplain he is not being a secular humanist.

Responding to jerrys, I think the most telling sentence in Darrel Ray’s quote is “There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.” I think Darrel got this ever so slightly wrong. Doubtless there are nonreligious people, and even humanists, who need pastoral care and who turn to clergy when religious-humanist groups fail to provide it. But I don’t think there are truly *secular* people who fit this description. Truly secular people, insofar as they are secular, neither need nor want pastoral care. If they need emotional support or psychotherapeutic intervention, they want to get it from a professional, whom they will select without regard for where the individual lives or his or her metaphysical beliefs. Whether my friend James Crofts approves of it or not, that’s a significant part of what being truly secular entails.

Tom Flynn

#8 jerrys on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 5:02pm


I don’t think your reply addresses the issue I raised in my second paragraph.  Are there any professionals who perform funerals and memorials other than clergy?  I believe this is not usually part of the job description of psychologists.  This is the gap that I want CFI to fill.

#9 Myra Rubinstein (Guest) on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 5:06pm

One can be supportive of CFI, AHA and other organizations and yet not need to meet with other Humanists in a weekly basis for meetings that include invocations, hymns and other aspects that come close to being religious.

The true challenge is to live a secular life as an “out” Humanist in a community that includes people who are NOT Humanists.  To do so and to support Humanist organizations at the same time?  That is the way to model the ideal IMHO.

#10 SimonSays on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 5:32pm

Myra, I am not aware of any CFI branch or community in the US that holds either invocations or hymns. I think Ethical Culture societies sometimes do this but this is nothing to do with CFI or CSH and I am certainly not an expert.

#11 Myra Rubinstein (Guest) on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 5:53pm

SimonSays, my comments are not directed specifically at CFI or any particular organization.  And if there are Humanists who feel the need to model their organization on religious organizations, they have every right to do so.  My point is that it is not NECESSARY IMHO for them to do so and that the true challenge is to be part of communities of UNLIKE minded individuals.  I apologize if that was not clear.

#12 Melody Hensley on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 6:59pm

CFI communities are not modeled after religious communities. We are communities of like-minded people. For example, we provide intellectual and social events.

#13 Paul (Guest) on Saturday December 29, 2012 at 10:45pm


Thanks for that reply to our questions. I have a follow-up

I’m curious why you believe outreach is somehow improper for non-religious groups like this one (CFI or CSH in this case). Religious groups participate in community service projects and outreach, but there are also groups that are explicitly non-religious that are service organizations that function quite well (Rotary International, for example, comes to mind as it is one I participate in).

If a group of humanists have a stated ethical/moral position, and a crisis arises in a community which creates a moral imperative for action, why should the humanists/atheists/secularists be prevented from organizing in such a way as to fulfill that need simply because a religious group does the same thing? From my limited point of view, this creates a false dilemma. From a PR point of view, I think it’s a nightmare. Such a view could be easily spun by religious adherents as a false assumption of moral superiority by the groups that refuse to participate in such activities.


#14 Tom Flynn on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 10:03am

Hi Paul,

The answer to your question requires a good bit of background; for the gritty details, see my consecutive op-eds at and .

Here’s the Cliff Notes version: ever since the middle ages, Western society has been in the grip of a strong secularizing trend, with function after function being transferred from organized religion to secular institutions or individuals. In the bad old days, the church was the only institution caring for the sick, for example; today religious hospitals still exist, but they deliver only a fraction of hospital care, a fraction that has been shrinking slowly but steadily. We see the same for poor relief, provision of emergency food, disaster relief, etc.: religious providers still exist and in some cases are important, but they have smaller “market share” than in years past. Across the board, growth is on the side of *secular* charitable institutions—i.e., institutions that do not discriminate on the basis of life stance among the beneficiaries they serve, the workers they employee, or even the donors they invite to support their work.

In other words, organizing charitable relief work on the basis of supporters’ religion or worldview is an archaic concept, one that (despite the considerable power of social inertia) is on the way out. One sign of this is the fact that despite decades of social/economic prominence, we have not seen evangelical organizations like the Assemblies of God establish big institutionalized charitable programs along the lines of Catholic Charities; they realize that in today’s climate, that is not something that religious bodies need to do.

If delivering charitable relief through lifestance organizations is an archaic principle, and if this fact has been recognized even by the religious denominations that experienced the greatest success in the mid-20th century, then why on earth should humanist or atheist organizations waste their energy creating such buggywhip programs now?

As secularists, we should recognize that lifestance is an outmoded principle for organizing charity. We should applaud when long-established religious organizations smell the coffee and, however reluctantly, disestablish their archaic charitable bureaucracies. We should hope for a future in which outfits like Catholic Charities, Jewish Social Services, etc. etc. will gradually, gently disappear. At the very least, we should make sure that our own organizations do not plant themselves on the wrong side of history by sprouting their own charitable programs now. The old churches have the excuse that they are preserving a tradition rooted in a time when churches had to take the lead in delivering charitable aid—what would be our excuse?

In a nutshell, our position as secularists should be that it’s long past time for religious groups to get out of the charity business—and the least we can do is model the correct solution by staying out of it ourselves.

Responding to jerrys, no one needs a license to officiate at a funeral or memorial. Anyone at all can do it, which raises the question why secular individuals should uniquely prefer that someone drawn from their lifestance community take on that role. In fact, why rely on any outsider? Why not empower free men and women to decide for themselves what the deceased meant to them, and reflect on the life of the departed as each individual thinks best? Why does there have to be anyone standing at the front of the room, as though the departed’s life will only mean something after some community has agreed on what it is? (I’ll leave space here for James Croft to shake his head sadly at my wild individualism.)

Officiating at weddings is thornier, since many states discriminate against the nonreligious by denying them the right to have their wedding solemnized by a member of their lifestance community, a right routinely extended to the religious. Note that the active principle here is not being able to have one’s marriage made official by a member of one’s own lifestance community—a magistrate or JP can do the job, and more secularly to boot, since there is no preselection on the basis of lifestance. The active principle is that a privilege is being extended to religious people that is withheld from nonreligious people. CFI Indiana is currently pursuing a suit along these lines. In any legal action such as this, plaintiffs must be cognizant of one looming danger: it would be a Pyrrhic victory, at best, if nonbelievers should secure the right to officiate at weddings because some court ruled humanist celebrants legally equivalent to clergy! The only acceptable solution is one that recognizes the right of nonreligious people—AS nonreligious people—to get their weddings solemnized. Many humanists will appreciate that. Some more secular folks, including secular humanists, may wonder what all the shouting was about.

#15 James Croft on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 12:42pm

Tom -

Your argument is filled with leaps of logic not justified by the arguments you provide. I might accept the premise that “Across the board, growth is on the side of *secular* charitable institutions”, and even that “organizing charitable relief work on the basis of supporters’ religion or worldview is an archaic concept”, but NOT accept that it is therefore a BAD concept. You give no reason to be opposed to such work, only demonstration of a trend that it is becoming less common. Big deal: many valuable social practices are becoming less common. That does not mean we shouldn’t seek to revive them.

You ask, regarding Humanist charitable work, “what would be our excuse?” I would say our “excuse” is simple human need and the ability to assuage it. That is all that is required to generate a moral responsibility - need and the ability to act to fulfill the need. Your argument is extraordinarily callous, because in effect it cashes out to this: “Regardless of the fact millions live in want in this very wealthy nation, Humanist should do nothing about it AS Humanists because…errr…that would look a bit “religious”.” That is no case at all.

You talk about us modelling the “correct solution” to social problems, but offer no clue as to what it is except for vague assurances that the government will provide. Bullshit! The government does not currently and has never provided for the weakest and the poorest! And anyway, how will the government be forced to change without organizing? And how can we organize without local groups to organize within? And how will those local groups be effective if they don’t share a common value set? Your whole view of power and how it functions makes no sense at all!

On the topic of weddings and funerals, I cannot understand you. We live in entirely different emotional worlds. And that’s fine - until you start implying that my world is inferior or “not properly secular”. Then, with the greatest respect, you can bugger right off.

#16 Melody Hensley on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 1:21pm

James and I have always had our disagreements. I’ve felt that his brand of humanism took on too much of a religious tone. I never thought I would have to side with James and say that my colleague Tom Flynn’s position is on this issue is extreme. I don’t usually use that word when talking about a fellow atheist.

I don’t celebrate religious holidays like Christmas or Easter. I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving either, but for other reasons. Ethical Cultural wasn’t my cup of tea, because of their “secular” sermons and hymns. I still needed a home of like-minded individuals and I found it at CFI.

I built a tight knit community where people feel like they could count on one another. We have social events as well as some of the best intellectual events in the country. And yes, we do community service. The religious don’t own lending a hand to our neighbors and organizations in need. It’s fun and rewarding for our members and there is nothing religious about it.

I grew up as an evangelical Christian and our church was never involved in community service. I had never helped out at a soup kitchen, put together care packages for soldiers overseas, or made condom kits for at-risk teens. I never associated community service with religion and still don’t.

#17 Bill Haines on Sunday December 30, 2012 at 6:16pm

“[...] groups like Harvard’s, which are organized explicitly on a chaplaincy model, *are* religious in this sense.”

Religion is commonly understood as supernatural belief, myth based on that belief, ritual based on that myth and belief, community based on that ritual and myth and belief.  The Harvard group specifically disavows supernaturalism of all kinds, and does not promote myth of any kind; it is not ‘religious’ in any meaningful sense. 

“Maybe it would be clearer to call this approach to humanism congregational rather than religious.”

Certainly it would. 

“Whatever we call it, if your humanist community is led by a chaplain, it is by definition religious [...]”

I doubt you’ll find a definition for ‘religious’ in any standard reference work supporting this statement, without also supporting calling your own version of Humanism ‘religious’ as well—and we both know this is not the common understanding of the word, as above.

“[...] (or congregational), not secular.”

These are not mutually exclusive terms; people who are personally secular can and do congregate for entirely secular reasons and purposes. 

“[...] Council for Secular Humanism voted against the requirement to capitalize the H in humanism and we continue to stand in dissent on this issue.”

I know, and since the Council seems to have other issues with other Humanists, I wonder why it remains an IHEU member organization.

“[...] it’s not intolerant to recognize genuine difference.”

But it is intolerant to say that ‘truly’ secular people have ‘outgrown’ the need to seek emotional support in like-minded groups.  You might as well have written ‘no true Scotsman’ and called the rest of us ‘children.’

“I’m not calling Greg Epstein a bad person, just saying that when he acts as a humanist chaplain he is not being a secular humanist.”

And I’m not calling you a bad person either, just saying your statement is ignorant and divisive, thus not reflective of Humanist principles.

#18 Tony Houston (Guest) on Monday December 31, 2012 at 8:04am

I see Tom drawing a meaningful distinction between “secular” and “religious” humanists. You may not agree with his delineation, but calling it a no true Scotsman argument makes it sound more doctrinaire than I think was intended. The Times article strongly suggested that there was something wrong with humanists who don’t care to congregate. You don’t build community by scolding people. I would be happy to see Tom’s response appear as written. Clearly there’s more than one way to be a humanist. I wish Epstein had acknowledged that.

#19 TK (Guest) on Monday December 31, 2012 at 8:14am

But we DO gather together, we DO join in ritual and celebration. We congregate just like anyone else does, in support groups, friendship circles, to mourn our losses and celebrate our victories. The only difference is that we are secular in our action.

I do agree that we don’t need G.E. to contrive some kind of reason to get together, but to say that we don’t commune, that we don’t have the essential need to be one with like-minds, that’s either a bold-faced lie or a demonstration of ignorance.

If you think humanism represents some kind of libertarian free-for-all, you can have it. Meanwhile, I’ll be celebrating the coming of a new year with friends, family, and a cheese platter.

#20 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 31, 2012 at 8:20am

Hi James,

Granted, I did leave some concepts out of my “Cliff Notes” account, concepts that I developed more fully in the op-eds to which I provided links in Item #14 above. One was a rationale for why we should view Western society’s very-long-term secularizing trend not just as a fact, but as a very good thing. The initial concentration of almost all social functions under the aegis of the church after the fall of Rome was an immense social dysfunction. The church was the last large social institution standing when the rest of Western civilization collapsed. It thus wound up with everything from poor relief to public works, education, art patronage, diplomacy, etc. etc. in its “job jar.” This was an unsustainable concentration of power, and we’ve spent the last 1600 or so years reversing it bit by bit. It’s a very positive development when task after task is being taken away from organized religion and taken over by secular actors, whether government, nonsectarian institutions, or individuals.

I never claimed that government offered the answer to all social ills! (Though FWIW the Great Society-era US government probably did more for the poor than any church in history.) As in the graf above, I’m talking about government, nonsectarian institutions, and individuals. When I look back at the works of Dickens and Hugo for some feel of what it was like to be poor back when religion had an effective monopoly on poor relief, I realize that the public and private-nonsectarian sector is doing a far better job today. More could be done, of course; and we were serving this need better thirty years ago than today. But on a scale of centuries, the status quo, for all its flaws, nonetheless looks like a near-golden age.

Another concept my “Cliff Notes” account glossed over—which you quite correctly called me on—was why I attach a positive moral value to the secularization of charitable work. Again, this is covered in my op-eds. In a nutshell, organizing charity along sectarian lines needlessly limits the scale on which aid can be delivered, encourages wasteful duplication, and hence decreases efficiency. Imagine a nonsectarian charity alongside a sophisticated sectarian charity—that is, one that offers help to beneficiaries regardless of their religion, but still prefers to hire members of its sponsoring denomination, and raises most of its money in that denomination’s churches. All other things being equal, the nonsectarian charity will reliably outperform the sectarian one, because it is not limited in its hiring by job candidate’s religion, and because it can raise funds from all of society, not just the members of a single denomination.

Far from being vague as to what the “correct solution” entails, I think I expressed that pretty specifically: I think secularist organizations should refrain from organizing “denominational” charitable outreaches of the sort that we should criticize religious groups for continuing to cling to. Such work is best done at a higher level—again, both by government and by private-sector institutions that do not discriminate by lifestance in any way—and inherently sectarian organizations of every stripe, including humanist groups, should steer clear.

Melody Hensley’s post (following James’s) confirms one of my points, namely that evangelical Christian churches that rose to great prominence in the second half of the twentieth century engage in social-service charity work far less frequently than older-line Christian churches. Some have criticized them for failing to follow Christ’s example; I suspect they are simply reacting to a socio-cultural environment that demands far less of such work from sectarian religious bodies. Ah well, happy new year to all who attach great importance to the particular spot on our world’s orbit that it will occupy in about fourteen hours!

Responding to Bill, I actually agree with you that properly defined, “religion” and “religious” should necessarily include a supernatural component. Ironically, that places you and me on the conservative side of an untidy scholarly controversy, opposite thinkers like Paul Tillich who equate “religion” with any object of a person’s “ultimate concern.” I live near Buffalo, New York, where Tillich would probably observe that many folks have the Buffalo Bills as their religion. (If you follow football, one could scarcely ask for a more piquant, not to say pathetic, demonstration of the power of faith to ignore inconvenient realities, but I digress.) In my own writing I have argued for a more restrictive definition of “religion” of the very sort you espouse, while recognizing that actual usage is much broader and messier. Most self-described religious humanists hold no supernatural beliefs, yet they choose to call *themselves* religious. If what goes on in the more humanistic U-U churches is “religious,” then so is much of what goes on under the aegis of Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy. Believe it or not, you and I are on the same side in preferring to call this a-supernaturalist preservation of denominational forms something else—we even seem to agree on “congregational”—but while many of the people actually practicing this sort of humanism describe it as religious, we are all probably stuck with that language.


#21 multiversalist on Monday December 31, 2012 at 9:23am

I support humanist community building, but some of the objections raised just don’t follow from what Tom has written. Saying that we have emancipated ourselves from parochialism merely accounts for why some of us are none too eager to recreate it. Saying that we tend to seek “pastoral” care from qualified providers doesn’t mean we’re antisocial. Acknowledging the impediments to group cohesion in ways that don’t depict us as unruly cats is precisely what this conversation needs.

#22 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday December 31, 2012 at 12:39pm

Tom’s post, as usual, is well-written, well-argued and thought provoking. That said, it is worth reminding readers that this post is written in Tom’s personal capacity and does not represent the official position of either the Center for Inquiry or the Council for Secular Humanism. CFI branches have frequently organized charitable efforts in their capacity as CFI groups. All CFI branches participated in the recent Light the Night walks for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society under the CFI banner. I see nothing inappropriate or ill-advised in such efforts; to the contrary, these charitable efforts are praiseworthy. Moreover, if people hang out together in groups, and feel connected to one another as a result of their participation in these groups, it’s almost inevitable that they will undertake some collective action. Nothing wrong with them doing charitable work as opposed to organizing a softball team (not that there’s anything wrong with softball either.) In working together to bring about positive change, they solidify their own ties and strengthen their sense of community. On the whole, this seems like a good thing.

Tom is right to point out that it’s not desirable to have large scale charitable efforts channeled through expressly religious or expressly nonreligious groups, although he and I may differ over the exact reasons for this conclusion. I don’t think it would be desirable to have large charitable efforts channeled through ideological groups either. Charity should come with no strings attached, and it is not a good idea to have millions of people dependent on a Christian charity, a Muslim charity, a humanist charity, a socialist charity, or a politically conservative charity for essential services. This is one prudential (as opposed to constitutional) reason for opposing faith-based funding. But small scale supplemental efforts by affinity groups of whatever sort don’t usually pose any substantial threat of inducing people to accept a particular creed in exchange for a loaf of bread

#23 James Croft on Monday December 31, 2012 at 12:50pm

“it is worth reminding readers that this post is written in Tom’s personal capacity and does not represent the official position of either the Center for Inquiry or the Council for Secular Humanism.”

It’s all well and good to write in a personal capacity, Ron, but it seems very strange to me to do so in a way which provokes an explicit disclaimer of this fact when one is the Executive Director of one of the organizations in question! One would hope the ED of organization X would, in their personal capacity, be aligned with the mission and values of organization X, I think?

#24 Benjamin Radford on Monday December 31, 2012 at 3:46pm

Tom, with all due respect, I would be amused to no end to see you struck by lightning twice while marrying a terrorist.

#25 Bill Haines on Monday December 31, 2012 at 5:44pm

Re the Bills: ha!

Re HUUmanists who describe themselves as ‘religious,’ agreed—but in my own experience they’re a small minority, not the many.

And since the groups at Harvard, Rutgers, Columbia and American specifically reject this term as do all AHA chapters to my knowledge, I don’t consider it accurate or fair to conflate them with those who embrace it. ‘Congregational’ does seem to me a good description, however, and I’m writing to Greg Epstein to ask if he agrees.

I’ll post whatever reply I get, and thank you for your own straightforward replies, Tom. A Happy New Year to you and yours…

#26 Reba Boyd Wooden (Guest) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 at 9:45am

To jerrys:  I think I have discussed this with you before.  The CFI Secular Celebrant program does address secular memorial services and funerals.  I am available to come to your area to do a training session anytime you get enough people together to pay the expenses.  We have a list Secular Celebrants on our website.  If you want trained Secular Celebrants in your area, then contact me and when you can pay expenses, I will be there for a training: 

#27 Linda L (Guest) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 at 5:07pm

I think this has been a great conversation and I’m glad we’re having it here instead of as a result of the letter being published in the NY Times.  Because Tom signed the letter in his official capacities in the secular community, his strongly expressed views would have been seen as accurately representing all of our views, which they certainly do not. 

It’s my opinion that the one thing we have in common is that we do not hold supernatural beliefs.  Beyond that, we’re people like any others, with varying tastes, opinions and temperaments and varying need for community.

#28 Linda L (Guest) on Tuesday January 01, 2013 at 5:40pm

By the way—if the NYT does contact you, Tom, they will ask if it’s been published elsewhere on the internet and since it has, they will not publish it, because they want only original material.

#29 jerrys on Wednesday January 02, 2013 at 1:52pm

@ Linda L
Re what “we” have in common.  It depends on who “we” are.  If you’re talking about Skeptics (organized within CFI as Committee for Scientific Inquiry - CSI) then I agree with you what we have in common is disbelief in the supernatural.  If you’re talking about Humanists organized within CFI by Tom’s group (Council for Secular Humanism - CSH)) then you are presumably wrong because they have a program (see the inside of the cover of Free Inquiry) that goes well beyond non-belief in the supernatural.

Yes, I know CFI’s internal organization is confusing

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