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A pair of NY Times pieces in the past two weeks raise vital issues. A week ago in an “On Religion” column, Samuel G. Freedman wondered where the humanists–those who now claim “None” as their religious preference–were in the wake of the Newtown tragedy in December. Freedman noted their absence over against Jewish, B’hai, Muslim, Christian, and other religious leaders, all of whom stepped forward to comfort those in Newtown. In the course of the article a humanist chaplain from Harvard noted that the main failure of humanists and “Nones” is that they have not yet figured out how to form a community to come around people who are suffering. If one day they can figure out how to do that, this chaplain said, then the humanists will provide an eminently meaningful alternative to those communities that talk about God, resurrection, or hope beyond death.
This past Sunday Susan Jacoby reflected on “The Blessings of Atheism” and likewise noted that whereas religious people manage to find things to say to people who have lost loved ones to death, “Nones” and atheists generally sometimes struggle. But since she has just written a book about him, Jacoby commended the 19th century atheist Robert Green Ingersoll who was known to tell people at the graves of loved ones to take heart because the dead, Ingersoll said, are perfectly at rest because they can no longer suffer. Jacoby concluded her essay by claiming that President Obama could have better served the larger country if in his remarks at the Newtown memorial service on December 16 he had told us some version of the Ingersoll sentiment. This would have helped the gathered mourners that night because “Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but ‘only perfect rest.’”
These ideas properly give people of faith pause. One cannot deny, for instance, the vital role that community plays in times of loss, grief, and outright tragedy. Nor can one deny another point made by Jacoby in her essay: when faced with the need to say something in the face of great loss–when faced, in short, with the classic conundrum of theodicy–not a few religious people say egregiously awful things. Too true. I’ve heard them in many’a funeral home. Like Job’s miserable friends, some Christian folks need to learn the value of silence. Of course, it’s not as though the “She’s in a better place” and the “God needed another angel in heaven” sentiments are all that people of faith have ever managed to say. Better, more sensitive, more thoughtful ideas have been spoken in history by people who are not ever and only trying to–in Jacoby’s phrase–“get God off the hook” for the bad things that happen in this world.
But in the relative short compass of this blog I want to engage just two of the thoughts raised by these articles. First, is it really true that all atheists need to do is figure out how to become a community in order to “compete” with–or at least be a viable alternative to–a Christian congregation or the members of a Jewish temple? Frankly, I doubt that would be enough. Community is important. Having a way to come together and to come around mourners is vital. It’s also a convenient way to coordinate the bringing of casseroles and the writing of letters and the visiting of those in grief. But a community without a core message may still seem empty to at least some–and perhaps to many–who are in crisis. After something like a 9/11 takes place, it’s startling to see how well otherwise disconnected people can form communities of solidarity. Neighbors, co-workers, even total strangers find a common bond with each other–we even become to some extent an extended national community gathered around TV screens as we together experience the same things in real time.
But people in grief need more. They need a message. They seek hope, comfort, even the future prospect perhaps to feel joy again.
So maybe that’s where Ms. Jacoby’s piece comes in to provide the message that a humanist community of “Nones” would provide by telling the grieving parents in Newtown that they at least can know that their 1st Graders are now “at rest” and that they cannot suffer anymore. If an entire community of such like-minded Nones could surround those parents and say this, would that be what the grieving are seeking? Perhaps. But I think there is something finally hollow in the Ingersoll phrasing about which Ms. Jacoby makes so much in her essay. The truth is that “rest” and a lack of “suffering” are meaningful only vis-a-vis beings that in some sense still exist. The raw truth of what an atheist needs to speak is that the dead 1st Grader isn’t really “resting” in any meaningful sense because that child and all her distinctiveness and everything that already at the age of 7 made her the joy of her parents’ lives is inextricably gone. The child is not at rest: she is annhiliated, extinguished, extinct. The gunman took it all: past, present, and future. No one beyond the handful of people on earth who knew her remembers her now. Thus, once the last person on earth who knew that 7-year-old is also dead, the cosmos will never bear a single trace of that dear child’s having existed.
Good news? Comforting words? Some may find it so. Me? I wonder how many parents would be glad to know that their child winked out of existence in so irretrievable a way. And it might not much matter if those same parents were surrounded by an entire “community” whose bottom line message was essentially that.
Most people have the need for more, sometimes even have intimations of more. On the same day that the Times published the Freedman article, the New York Times Magazine published its annual “The Lives They Lived” series with obit-like reflections on the lives of some very well-known figures but on also lesser-known folks who died in the past year. Most revealed the stunning uniqueness–the irreplacable and irrepressible features–to these people that made them worth remembering and recounting. But one such figure, Maurice Sendak, conveyed a deeply felt conviction that a lot of people–even atheists like Sendak–have when Sendak said (from a radio interview some years before) “I don’t believe in an afterlife but I fully expect to see my brother again.”
Why is that? The answers would fill many more blogs. But the Ingersoll graveside sentiments–even if shared by a large community–would perforce chalk that up to an impossible dream.
What comfort or solace do the humanist Nones have to offer in the face of grief, loss, and intimations of something more? I think I know the answer: None.