On December 29, 2012, the New York Times carried an article by Samuel Freedman, who is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and who regularly writes in the religion column of the Times. The article is entitled “In a Crisis, Humanists seem Absent”. It dealt with the strong religious presence in the aftermath of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. At the interfaith service attended by President Obama there were clergy representing the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’I faiths. The families of all the murdered children requested funerals under religious auspices.
Freedman asked a simple question: Where were the humanists in all of this? He made clear that he was not charging some sort of discrimination: An interfaith service rather logically did not include people without a faith, and the bereaved parents obviously had the right to decide on the type of funeral for their children. But the question suggests itself given the religious demography of America, especially as it has recently been reported on by the Pew Research Center (an organization whose findings are competently arrived at). According to Pew, about 20% of Americans reply “none” when asked their religious affiliation, a figure that reaches about one third with respondents under the age of thirty. “Humanists” is one term often used to refer to the “nones”, who are a very mixed group. They include a large number of people who are quite religious (about 80% say that they believe in God, and many of them regularly pray), but who have not found a church in which they feel at home. “Humanists” are also described as a category embracing both atheists and agnostics – respectively, people who are sure that there is no God, and people who don’t know. These are very different positions. Be this as it may, if one subsumes all the “nones” under the category of “humanists”, there are certainly more of them than Jews or Muslims, not to mention Baha’is. Why don’t people think of turning to them when seeking comfort in the midst of grief?
Apparently the question is also being asked within the self-described humanist movement. The question is sharpened by the fact that “humanist celebrants” are in demand at weddings. A non-religious ceremony seems to be plausible to celebrate a marriage; clearly it is not very easy to celebrate a death within the same discourse (especially, I would think, the death of a child).
Greg Epstein is a “humanist chaplain” at Harvard. (Come to think of it, I would love to see his job description.) He gives an answer to the question: “It’s a failure of community… What religion has to offer to people—more than theology, more than divine presence—is community. And we [humanists] 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”. Epstein also proposes that emphasis on reason, often presented as an antidote to religious faith, is not enough for the humanist message; it should be “reason in the service of compassion”. What he means is that humanists should engage themselves in activities that improve lives in this world, rather than simply rejecting the faith that there is anything beyond this world.
This proposition is not exactly new. One often hears it from liberal rabbis who first tell us that Judaism does not necessarily imply belief in life after death. Which is obviously true, since these rabbis exist. It is also true that, in the early stages of the religion of ancient Israel, God’s promises of resurrection referred to the people, not to individuals. But as rabbinical Judaism developed, this focus on the collectivity was deemed insufficient. The same liberal rabbis like to cite the old Jewish notion of tikkun olam—“repair of the world”—which they interpret as engagement for social justice. This is a translation from a decidedly supernaturalist discourse to a naturalist one: The notion first had a limited meaning in divinely revealed Jewish law (repairing a legal mistake), but then it came to mean all good deeds in the service of God, and eventually it became a central idea in Jewish mysticism. But this type of secularizing faith has been a dominant feature of liberal Protestantism for a long time, and has been an important factor in the decline of its version of Christianity. Efforts to, say, raise the minimum wage or increase funding for public schools are not very effective in comforting bereaved parents. When the message of the risen Christ is translated into the Social Gospel, the church tends to make itself irrelevant: It becomes an unnecessarily cumbersome instrument for this or that political project.
Where is Epstein right? Yes, community helps people cope with grief—any community—even a few neighbors coming over with some hugs and a meal. Of course a group of humanists can serve the same purpose. But this will hardly make their message more plausible, though it may make a particular group of humanists more likable. Activity on behalf of a good cause can divert the mind from sorrow; there is nothing wrong with that. Also, it is possible for individuals without faith to face tragedy with stoic dignity. But one does not need a humanist church for that.
Where is Epstein wrong? Yes, of course a religious community can offer comfort of the same kind as any other community. But religion offers something much more central than community in the abstract: It offers a community gathered around the message that death is not the final word about an individual life and nothingness not the final destiny of the universe. At any rate this is the message shared by the Abrahamic faiths that came to Newtown. Whether this message is true or not, humanism in the sense of “no faith” cannot offer a plausible alternative.