The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on January 10, 2013
Why are there no humanist funerals?

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.

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  • http://AmericanInterest Ibn Rushdy

    This is an interesting blog, bursting with insights: religion whether is right or wrong tends to sooth the panic and the pains of its followers here and hereafter. In this sense, religious doctrines are more functional than humanist principles. Untill humanism comes up with a philosophies that are more appealing than the current ones, religion will remain the medium utilized by people to alleviate their pains at the point of burying their dead!

  • jim

    for this atheist, if my chid were to die, blather about life after death, or god’s purpose, would not be helpful. a discussion about what it is that is eternal, being, maybe something having to do with being human, would be comforting.

  • http://atheologically.blogspot.com/ Zachary Bos

    The rarity of denominationally “Humanist” funerals is explained more by the institutional differences between naturalist and supernaturalist congregational communities, than a failing in the intellectual or ethical basis of Humanism to provide “something much more central than community”.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve attended Humanist funerals, and secular ones, and irreverent ones.

    As the secular movement continues to grow in membership and activity, as has been the trend over the past decade, you’ll see more people committed to the creation of values-based communities, going beyond that aspect of the movement which the media tends to focus on — secular/religious conflict. The author might wish to reach out to staff at http://humanistinstitute.org to learn more about the training available for Humanist ministry, and to inquire about the incidence and nature of Humanist funeral ceremonies.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture James Croft

    The question in your title rests on a false premise: that there are no Humanist funerals. In fact, there are Humanist funerals and have been as long as there have been Humanists. Humanist celebrants like myself can and do officiate at funerals as well as weddings, baby naming ceremonies, life-cycle celebrations – any significant moment in a person’s life, including their death. Even the death of a child.

    What does such a funeral have to offer, if not the false consolation of a (highly implausible) commitment to life after death (a commitment that studies show is in reality scant consolation to the devout when facing their death)? Everything else a religious funeral offers.

    First, a recognition of an individual’s life, a marking of it, an assertion of its significance. Second, the chance to consider together what a life has meant, a collective moment of storytelling to bring a community together to make sense of a life. Third, the opportunity for loved ones left behind to share memories of the deceased and receive the consolation of others. Fourth, a sense of psychological closure which can be deeply valuable, particularly in tragic circumstances. And finally, most important, a moment set aside to remind ourselves of the shortness and precariousness of life, to prick ourselves to live better and more fully.

    The truth is, and has always been, that funerals – whether religious or not – are not for the dead or their “immortal souls”. They are for us. For the ones left behind. A Humanist funeral is therefore the most honest and powerful of all funerals – a funeral in which people refuse to lie to themselves or to others and look the fact of death squarely in the face, confronting their mortality with dignity and grace. A funeral for the living.

    James Croft
    Research and Education Fellow
    The Humanist Community at Harvard

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  • http://metabelief.blogspot.com/ Josiah

    Religions, Abrahamic or otherwise are not the only ones with a message that death is not the final word about an individual life.

    The individual life has countless impacts on the world around it that extend beyond itself. We live in an interconnected world, connected by such simple things as relationships, charity, commerce, progeny, art, culture, crime and poetry.

    Because of those connections what one does matters, not just to the people around them, not just to the people around those people, but to the environment, to people throughout history. Even someone’s untimely, tragic death has meaning in secular terms.

    This life and this world is all we have, and not only Must that be enough, but it Is enough. We live impossibly improbable lives in an incomprehensibly wondrous world. A secular humanist community can help remind people of those things, help contextualize loss and gain. We can do more than celebrate, we can mourn together when need be. And a burden shared is a burden lightened, even if we stare at that burden frankly.

  • http://endtimestavern.com George L. Duncan

    Thanks for your excellent and very insightful column. Actually I can think of nothing more depressing or boring than a Humanist Funeral. Linked to your column at endtimestavern.com
    Best regards

  • Gary Novak

    Berger gets it right: there aren’t any humanist funerals because humanists do not and cannot have a “functional equivalent” of God. To the extent that a humanist funeral could provide real consolation, it would have to move beyond the circulation of a gun control petition or the initiation of a class action lawsuit (against gun manufacturers, tobacco companies, or the other dirty, rotten scoundrels responsible for Death) and perceive the tragedy which occasioned the funeral as a signal of transcendence. No transcendence, no consolation—only distraction, displacement, despair (a.k.a. stoic resignation—at least WE don’t stoop to telling children that Jesus is bouncing their murdered classmates on his knee in heaven!).

    But if, in perceiving a previously unnoticed dimension of being, agnostics and atheists discover the limitations of the Social Gospel, their militantly humanist funeral becomes self-liquidating. A humanist church? What was I thinking?

    What I wonder about is the putative ability of “no faith” humanists to successfully ground a functional equivalent of religious morality. In an earlier comment on Huck Finn’s perception of Jim’s inviolable human dignity (Two Anniversaries | Religion and Other Curiosities Oct 24, 2012), I readily conceded that Huck’s perception presupposed no prior acquaintance with religion. But just as a humanist funeral might be the occasion for the discovery of a God who makes nonsense of the idea of a humanist church, so Huck’s unexpected perception of a slave’s inviolable dignity might constitute an implicit recognition that Jim’s dignity is inviolable because it is sacred. One need not respect humans only because some sacred canopy mandates it. One may perceive the human dignity of the children of God before one thinks of them as such. The children of whom? Oh, I get it now! (Buber: Every particular thou is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou.) Of course, the implicit recognition of the sacred foundation of human dignity need never become explicit in the lives of many people. Antipathy to religion because of the abuses of various sacred canopies keeps many people from articulating their lifeworld experience in religious language. But—to quote Berger—“once the conviction [in this case regarding the immorality of slavery] has been established in my consciousness, it necessarily implies universality” (“Accidental Sociologist,” p. 251). And once the conviction regarding the sacred foundation of human dignity has been established in my consciousness, it necessarily implies universality. I can see your recognition of inviolable human dignity as only implicitly religious; I cannot see it as essentially secular.

    Does it matter? As long as I recognize the morality of nominal humanists, what difference does it make if I think of them as implicitly religious? Berger: “In a sense . . ., every reflective person, if concerned with religion at all, must become a sort of theologian” (“Questions of Faith,” p. 5). We can’t navigate the many “forms of life” and “language games” available in modern life without reflection, interpretation. I do not live my life in unmediated, mystical relation to God. I make choices on the basis of my “knowledge” of the world. And what I am able to see of that world will depend partly on whether I “speak” Christian, rap, or progressive politics. Interpretation may be said to “construct” the world we inhabit, but it may also be said to filter signals from a pre-existing world.

    Both humanists and theists live in constructed worlds. The humanists judge the success of their construction on the basis of their achievement of social justice. The theists try to construct a world in which we can best hear the dark drums of God. Who’s right? All we know is what Groucho said: You bet your life.

  • John Barker

    At an age when I and many of my friends are aging and the world I have known is passing away, I cannot take much consolation in the promises of scripture, but I do sense a benevolent presence that I find at the core of my being, which gives me comfort and hope.

  • Frank Gallagher

    After reading James Croft’s reasoned definition and defense of humanist ritual, I am then vividly reminded by Gary Novak of why my sympathies lie with the humanists even as my beliefs tend towards the Church. His caricature of the humanist funeral (circulating a gun control petition, homilies attacking religious belief), bears no relation to what Croft describes. Do such “militantly humanist” funerals exist? I’ll grant they probably do; human small-mindedness is (almost) as universal as human dignity. But it reminds me of my atheist friends’ ‘argument’ against Christianity: “Look, the Inquisition!”

    Then Novak makes an argument I agree with. I’m not convinced there’s anything behind humanist arguments for the significance of life other than wishful thinking. Why is life (or existence) better than death (or non-existence)? Barring transcendence, what can be argued? Human life has meaning because humans say it has meaning. Because we prefer and desire life. And so human desire becomes the yardstick by which all things are measured. But since human small-mindedness is as univeral as human dignity, desire leads to death as well as life.

    And yet, it’s Croft whose tone offers respect, and Novak, with his clever but vaguely threatening close, who offers small mindedness.

    We hear in Novak the voice of the Church. Thus explaining the ever larger number of Nones in the religious surveys, who believe in God and pray regularly, but are more concerned with human dignity than dogma.

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  • Gary Novak

    In response to Frank Gallagher:

    James Croft says that Humanist funerals are the most honest and powerful because the participants do not lie to themselves and others. Does it show respect for religious mourners to suggest that they are liars? It sounds kind of militant to me. But I wouldn’t say that Croft is small-minded; his aversion to the religious is simply a consequence of his commitment to a this-worldly perspective. He is betting his life that it will be richer, more abundant if he does not waste his human capital on pie in the sky. And he’s got “studies” to back him up: The “highly implausible” belief in life after death doesn’t work when it comes to providing consolation.

    Some people bet their lives on the belief that strict adherence to religious codes will pay off in the next life—even if such adherence is a drag in this life. Other religious people believe that salvation occurs in the eternal now or not at all. Constructing (or assimilating, or both) a world in which the dark drums of God can be heard in this life is still a “bet,” because, as Berger puts it, we can never quite be sure, after a religious experience, if we are coming back to, or from, reality. To say that we bet our lives on our existential orientations to life does not imply that the “winners” and “losers” will only be determined after death. Nor does it “threaten” losers with eternal hellfire. Humanists typically view faith as “blind,” but it need not be. Berger endorses an “inductive” approach to religious affirmation that begins with experience in the lifeworld and is required to make sense in that lifeworld. But it is not required to conform to Croft’s ideas of plausibility (even if Humanist plausibility structures are capitalized). In my judgment, Berger’s “skeptical affirmation of Christianity” (the subtitle of his “Questions of Faith”) is far more plausible than Croft’s “dignified and graceful” confrontation with death (unlike, you know, those liars). Berger’s world is more meaningful, now.

    I would have thought that my fumblings with Wittgensteinian forms of life and language games, with the social construction of a theistic interpretation of the world, with my location of the origin of religion not in the Sermon on the Mount but in Huckleberry Finn would have dispelled any idea that I am a dogmatic “voice of the Church,” but, as a relatively recent “speaker” of Christianity, I am learning that any use of religious language (however phenomenological, playful, or ironic) outside officially defined religious contexts tends to brand one as a fundamentalist. The default assumption is that anyone but a fundamentalist would realize that such language could make no sense in unauthorized settings.

    As for my caricature of the gun control petition circulation at a Humanist funeral, yes, it was a caricature. But if the most important purpose of a Humanist funeral is to “prick ourselves to live better and more fully,” how will we—the people we have been waiting for—make the world a better place if not by engaging in precisely such activities? Maybe not on the spot but, after a suitable pause, as a result of the pricking. Or maybe on the spot. Recall the memorial service for Paul Wellstone after his tragic death in a plane crash in 2002. It was attended by Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who was booed by Democrats. A time-out from politics for a memorial service? No way—all politics, all the time.

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  • Corlyss

    I was unaware that humanism meant “anti-religious.” I suppose it is common to assume as much, given the way the term is tossed around as a more respectable and shorter way of referring to “godless, self-absorbed, hedonistic, licentious, social do-gooders who want some kind of wholesome, superior-sounding philosophical cover for their otherwise irresponsible belief system.”

    Atheists not having rites or ceremonies around death is understandable. They don’t have a god to impose standards of behavior. Humanism is not a synonym for atheism. Indeed, humanism outside of a religious context is almost incomprehensible. Humanism itself was born, or reborn, in the late middle ages/renaissance. The very virtues that humanists think they uphold to the exclusion of the religious were the result of religious conflict and the modus vivendi that the conflict produced.

    I’m proud to call myself a Christian humanist. I know Jewish humanists. I’m sure there are Muslim humanists out there somewhere. I don’t think we religious should let the atheists walk off with a perfectly good descripter that applies to many of us.

  • Jay Dee

    For a Humanist to attend a religious ceremony would be to admit the unthinkable; that their beliefs are just that. In fact, one can even say that Humanism is one of the strangest religions of out time.

  • http://www.spiritualityandhistory.com Rev. Thomas Pullyblank

    As a pastor, I have no problem borrowing material from humanist sources in planning a funeral, including one source mentioned in these comments. God is still at work in the beautiful words of love and remembrance written by humanists, even though the authors might not know it. Erasmus offers the most useful model for applying humanist ideas to Christian living: be like the the bee in the garden, he says, suck out what is wholesome and sweet, and reject what is useless and poisonous. I invite humanists to do the same with Christian resources.

  • Michael Canaris

    While I’m neither a communist nor an atheist, one of the most moving funerals I’ve watched was of Brezhnev. It can be seen at the following URL:-

  • http://atheologically.blogspot.com/ Zachary Bos

    To respond to Gary Novak’s question, “Does it show respect for religious mourners to suggest that they are liars?”… it is not a sign of respect to pretend that I don’t believe they are mistaken in their conviction. Some of my best friends are theists, and I am as convicted an atheist as they come — do you imagine that I challenge their beliefs when we are enjoying each other’s company? Your questions suggest a view of Humanists, and secularists in general, that is adversarial and ungenerous. We can do better than that, I think.

  • ltlee

    A humanist does not mourn. Taking the objective, scientific view, human is always dying, from day one. Human living is also human dying. Taking the old fool’s view as in the Daoist fable “Old fool moving the mountain,” human, at least his spirit, never dies. Father to his sons and son to his sons, and so on as so forth, the spirit of an individual human can go on forever, becoming better and stronger with each cycle of death and rebirth.

  • http://kavanna.blogspot.com Kavanna

    I was going to make a bad joke, that humanists don’t have funerals, having left behind death and other such barbarous relics in the bright and shiny 21st century.

    But I’ll resist temptation and say that humanists do have memorial services and the like. I’ve attended a number of these and even helped to plan a couple.

    Besides, “religions” have a wide range of views about death and its significance — take the huge historical and denominational range within Christianity. Buddhists will ask, did someone achieve enlightenment and help others do the same? Jewish funerals make little mention of death, concentrating on the deceased’s life and comforting those remaining. The Hebrew Bible barely mentions an afterlife, which became important only in later Judaism, partly under Persian and Greek influence. The opposite extreme is ancient Egypt, perhaps history’s most death- and afterlife-obsessed culture.

  • http://www.peterjessen-gpa.com Peter Jessen

    Berger says he originally referred to his approach to sociology as “humanistic” (see his Adventures of An Accidental Sociologist), basing that on (1) “its debunking of the myths legitimating cruelty and oppression,” and (2) as sociology was “one of the ‘humanities” – Geistewissenschaften – closely related to history and philosophy but also to the intuitions of the literary imagination” (p. 25). Later, p. 64, he writes, “I wrote about sociology as having a ‘humanistic’ purpose in unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism and the persecution of homosexuals.” And (p. 64) although still embracing the “Weberian ideal of ‘value free social science,” sociology’s “practical application is morally justified by its contribution to a more humane society.” Thus, Berger writes, on p. 76, “the term humanistic in the subtitle of Invitation to Sociology had two meanings… suggested methodology …close to humanities—specifically literature, history, and philosopy. …also suggested … serve a liberating purpose – to free individuals from illusions and to help make society more humane” (p. 76).

    For those of us who enjoy Berger’s ironic and reality based sense of humor, we delight at Novak’s reminder of Berger’s statement that “In a sense . . ., every reflective person, if concerned with religion at all, must become a sort of theologian,” including humanists who reflect on their concern regarding their religion, humanism. Novak provides an added bonus by reminding us of Berger’s version of what we could call The Gamble, placing it beside Groucho’s Bet and Pascal’s Wager.

    It is also humorous for Croft to display his fundamentalist/literalist side, as he takes Berger’s title – “Why are there no humanist funerals” – out of context (Berger is commenting on Freedman use of “absent” in Freedman’s title question, “Where were the humanists in all of this?”). Berger was not asking about funerals per se. The context is clear: the funerals of the 6 and 7 years slain in the shootings. None of those funerals were humanist. Croft’s real concern, it seems to me, is to wade into the us vs. them argument of our truth vs. your falsehood. He suggests “reason” (always the downfall in rationalizations about tragedies, whether by Tsunami, miscarriage, or mentally deranged shooters). “Faith” in (fill in the blank) does not need “unexplainable” signals of non-transcendence or signals of transcendence to dismiss “highly implausible…life after death” or to accept a plausible life after death. That life after death doesn’t exist is as much an article of faith for Croft as the fact that it exists is for godders. Neither is empirically verifiable or disprovable. The fear of these conflicting “faiths” is seen in Josiah’s heretical imperative: “This life and this world is all we have, and not only Must that be enough, but it Is enough” (nice emphasis). This almost seems like a relativist position suggesting positive moral equivalency.

    Novak enjoins a Berger-like sense of humor, not to mention suggests a Berger-like sense of irony in noting that many so-call Christian churches with their proud social gospel stances are often more humanist secular than gospel transcendent, what Maritain called a “decorative Christianity, maintained as a moralizing agency.” Does this not expose the fear of liberal mainline protestants that they are declining into irrelevance (more Pew research numbers), while all the while they hang onto theories that drive them, there such as Marx’s final word on transcendence (none) and Sartre’s on existence (eternal “nothingness”)?

    I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer’s comments in New York City in 1930-1931, including: “the most vigorous group” at Union Theological Seminary have “turned their back on all genuine theology and study many economic and political problems,” and, thus, “the theological education of this group is virtually nil….” He had great concern that after their “accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity” [they would have] no sound basis on which one can rebuild after demolition [having] completely forgotten what Christian theology by its very nature stands for.” And here is Bonhoeffer’s killer blow that addresses this blog essay as well as others (first amendment, ecumenism, disasters, action of the law, etc.).: “they preach about everything; only one thing is not addressed…the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” In a line as compelling and relevant today and then, he wrote that in the gospel’s place was “an ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress,” rather ironic a decade before World War II. The only notable exception Bonhoeffer found as to where he could hear the gospel was in “negro churches” (although today, many have caught up to their liberal, modernist counterparts).

    Gallagher raises a great question: “Barring transcendence, what can be argued?” (although I’m not fully persuaded by his Croft-Novak dichotomy that leads to his explanation of nones: dignity over dogma, itself a statement of dogma). When I graduated as a humanities major (English, literature) in 1963 (I was brought to the social sciences after my military service and reading Berger’s books), our speaker was the #2 man at NASA, who gloried on about how the sciences and engineering would usher in a great new world. I prepared a hand written message to give him as I walked across the stage (but being a humanist did not disrupt the flow) that when he had created the brave new world we in the humanities would teach him how to enjoy it.

    This leads us to the crux of the problem: the human condition and suffering, and in our roles in abetting or alieviating it. In Berger’s November 21, 2012 blog essay, “Sandy and the God Problem,” I dealt in my responses on the blame game (God or us or inbetween), public policy questions of support for the damage, and theodicy in terms of Berger’s calculi and meaning and pain. I left out suffering, which is at the heart of the matter in school shootings, there and beyond. Jacques Maritain, in his “Moral Philosophy,” ends with the question of the human condition of “mass suffering,” even when we are not a local part, as in the school shootings. How do we make it in our “struggles against suffering,” which both “after life” religiond and philosophies address as do “no after life” religions and philosophies? Is there common ground or, to use Berger’s term, a “middle position” (which is different from compromise), where, in Maritain’s phrase, “life as a whole is almost tolerable” again? He sees philosophy as “valid but insufficient.” He closes with what we could call a “Dr. Hudson’s Secret Journal thought experiment:” that “there is another answer…. It was given on the Sermon on the Mount,” an answer that brings redemption and consolation.

  • Gary Novak

    To Zachary Bos:

    No, I don’t imagine that you challenge the beliefs of your theist friends when you are enjoying their company. Nor, I imagine, do you pretend that you do not find their theism mistaken. I imagine that you agree to disagree about religion and talk about something else. (Or do you discuss John Dewey’s “A Common Faith” in the hope of finding common ground?) You might have guessed my view from my reference to “unofficial contexts” and “unauthorized settings” for religious discourse. Mixed company is an unauthorized setting. But if you break the truce and tell your theist friends that you regard them as liars because they pretend to believe what is so highly implausible that no honest person could believe it, I doubt that they could enjoy a football game with you. Lower-case humanists who are content to put religion on the back burner do not call theists liars. Upper-case Humanists who feel a moral obligation to save the world from religion do.

    Meanwhile, atheist Daniel Dennett approves “the efforts of some agnostics, atheists, and other adherents of naturalism to coin a new term [‘bright’] for us nonbelievers . . ..” So far, no one has argued that Croft’s claim that Humanist funerals are not dishonest does not imply that religious funerals are. (Gallagher’s mention of Croft’s respectful tone seems not to have noticed the implication.) But Dennett DOES deny that the self-description of naturalists as bright actually implies what it “seems” to imply: that supernaturalists are dim or stupid. He suggests that supernaturalists concede “bright” to the naturalists and call themselves “supers.” (What’s wrong with Berger’s “Godder”?) Let’s do a Miller analogy: Supernaturalist is to super as naturalist is to . . . bright? I would not say that Dennett is stupid or small-minded in flunking the analogy. He’s not trying to make a closely reasoned argument; he is attempting to construct (or endorse) a socially progressive “meme.” It is difficult to accuse postmodern philosophers of lying, because the very idea of truth is modified beyond recognition when one begins to think in terms of “evolutionary epistemology” or “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (dangerous because it applies to everything). The boundary between philosophy and successful spin becomes blurred. Dennett’s goal is “Breaking the Spell [of religion],” and, precisely because he is serious about that goal, he, and militant “naturals” generally, are prepared to supplement philosophical argument with “viruses of the mind” (as one proponent of memes has characterized them).

    Zachary Bos describes me as adversarial and ungenerous. I could quote him and say that it is not a sign of respect for Humanists to pretend that I do not think they are mistaken. But I would rather plead guilty to being adversarial—but not ungenerous. (They are not synonyms.) Once, before I thought of myself as a half-assed Christian, I attempted to discuss “salvation” with a girlfriend. She said she didn’t want to be “salvated.” I laughed and let it go at that. I still would. But on a blog devoted to the intelligent discussion of religion and other curiosities, it hardly seems necessary or appropriate to agree to disagree about religion. That’s what we’re here for—not to insult each other but to discuss the unmentionables of civil society, to compare notes about what really matters. Here is one of my favorite passages from Paul Johnson’s “Jesus: A Biography from a Believer”: “[Jesus] left his hearers to talk and argue among themselves. That was his intention. His gift was not only to teach but to encourage people to teach one another, to take seriously the question of what constitutes the good life and to debate it earnestly” (p. 118). Imagine: a religious sanction not for blind obedience but for argument and earnest debate! Most of us respect the prohibition against false witness, but in our zeal not to appear adversarial or ungenerous, we may decide that the safest bet is to bear no witness at all (or only boilerplate multicultural “witness”). We can do better than that, I think.

  • James Croft

    I’m intrigued by the discussion my comments have sparked! I would like to offer a fuller response, but for the moment it seems wise to clarify what I meant by the following:

    “A Humanist funeral is therefore the most honest and powerful of all funerals – a funeral in which people refuse to lie to themselves or to others and look the fact of death squarely in the face, confronting their mortality with dignity and grace.”

    When I wrote this I was thinking of the common situation – in some ways promoted by attitudes like the ones presented in the argument – in which Humanists are forced to attend funerals which do not represent their beliefs and are therefore forced, effectively, to lie. For us, such funerals are clearly less than ideal and are sometimes highly distressing. Religious people themselves are obviously not lying when expressing their deep commitments – I could have phrased my comment better to make that clear.

    At the same time I must object to Mr. Jessen’s assertion that I have too broadly interpreted Berger’s point. Berger quite starkly asks “Why don’t people think of turning to [Humanists] when seeking comfort in the midst of grief?” This implies, falsely, that “people” do not do so. I answer that in fact they do, and in rapidly increasing numbers.

    Further, Berger says explicitly that “humanism in the sense of “no faith” cannot offer a plausible alternative” to a belief in life after death. This is a very broad claim, and one which (again) I can believe to be false. My answer is correctly targeted at these questions.

  • Gary Novak

    If James Croft does indeed satisfy his desire to offer a fuller response, here are a couple of questions his last comment raised in my mind. First, it is helpful to know that he was referring to lying humanists! I’m trying to imagine how humanists could be forced to attend religious funerals. Perhaps an atheist politician in the Bible Belt would pay a prohibitive political price for skipping a religious VIP funeral? But even if we stipulate that that constitutes force, why would the politician need to lie to himself as well as to his constituents?

    If an atheist wishes to honor a dear departed friend and the only available funeral was religious, would he be regarded as lying just for showing up where a little religious hocus-pocus was going on? (And again, how on earth could he be forced to lie to himself?) But if a case can be made that forced humanist lying and bad faith take place at religious funerals, would it not also take place in the opposite direction— where religious people are forced to attend humanist funerals? (I’d rather go to a religious funeral, but what if the Dean saw me? I’d better go to a Humanist funeral.) Since humanist funerals are proliferating so rapidly, it might soon be difficult to tell who are the biggest liars! But I’m getting too wordy, so I’ll stop till Berger’s next post.

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  • Myron Bassman

    I find it interesting that no-one has mentioned The Society for the Advancement of Ethical Culture. For almost a century this community of Humanists has been conducting all sorts of rites of passage, including funerals.

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  • Robert F

    “… people think of turning to [Humanists] when seeking comfort in the midst of grief…” “…in rapidly increasing numbers…” in the midst of a rapidly decreasing demographic composed mostly of Euro/Americans who can not find adequate metaphysical/philosophical warrant for reproducing themselves in sufficient numbers to prolong their presence on Earth for more than a few more generation (if current trends continue). Mr. Croft, really, the human race is becoming more and more religious everywhere in the Global South, where the populations are immense and growing, and you have the temerity to herald a pathetic trickle of “nones” out of the anemic and dying matrix of Euro/American Christianity? That’s just sad.

  • Jerry Blaz

    I find myself in a quandary after the article and the lengthy commentaries following it. I have always considered myself a religious humanist. Why does humanism become one side and religion the other of a dichotomy, a dichotomy I consider quite arbitrary. I find God in the community of like-thinking people, and it may sound like a definition that is unsatisfactory to atheist and to religionist, but that is what I am.

  • James Croft

    That “pathetic trickle” is in my judgment nothing less than the most significant demographic shift in terms of religious affiliation yet seen in the USA and much of Europe. Certainly, trends elsewhere are going in the other direction: nothing I said precludes this fact.

  • http://www.peterjessen-gpa.com Peter Jessen

    To Jerry Blaz.

    What fun to find more well thoughtful responses. A regular treat on this blog. In my response, #22 above, I thought I was demonstrating humanist and religious were not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, just the opposite. As you read further in Berger’s work, you’ll find that for him humanism is part of the sociology of religion approach and that religion is part of the humanist expression, hence both are mutually inclusive. Only those who presume to have the “correct” definition define religion out of humanism. And as Rober F suggests, it may be a trickle in Europe but it is a flood in the Global South. The Holy Spirit is like the whack-a-mole. Pound it in one place and he pops in another. You can parry and block the Holy Spirit but never parry and land a death thrust.

  • Anne Heller

    I think it odd that you did not consult or refer to either the American Humanist Associeation or the Unitarian Universalist Association, both of which represent humanists of all sorts — and there are many. For instance: secular humanists, religious humanists, spiritual humanists, eco-humanists, etc. There are indeed humanist funerals and memorial services.

    Why in the world wouldn’t you go to sources?