Associated Press
President Barack Obama greets Gov. Dannel Malloy during his arrival at the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Stephen Dunn, Pool)

In a Dec. 28 article for the New York Times ("In a crisis, humanists seem absent"), Samuel Freedman calls attention to the seeming failure of secular humanists to provide much comfort for the families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

Protestant, Catholic, Baha'i, Jewish and Muslim clergy participated with President Barack Obama in an interfaith service two days after the massacre. All of the victims' families chose religious services, which were held in, among others, Catholic, Congregational, United Methodist and Latter-day Saint houses of worship. Where were the secularists?

I dislike the way Freedman uses the term "humanist" as a synonym for "atheist," since I've always considered myself very much a humanist — just not a secular one. In my view, Mormonism is a profoundly humanistic faith.

Historically, many humanists have been believers: Erasmus of Rotterdam, for instance, is often described as a "Renaissance humanist," even though, among other things, he was an ordained priest and an important New Testament scholar. And others — Sir Thomas More, for example (or, for Catholics, St. Thomas Moore), along with such prominent figures as Rabelais, Ficino, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Pico della Mirandola, the martyr Michael Servetus, and Luther's famous lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon — are typically described as "Christian humanists."

That quibble aside, though, Freedman's article raises an important issue: Why, faced with appalling tragedies such as Newtown, does secular humanism seem so irrelevant? And not just in the face of extreme tragedies. "We have humanist celebrants, as we call them," says a secularist counselor interviewed by Freedman, "but they're focused on doing weddings" — happy, easy, non-challenging events. "I don't see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals."

Another secularist cited in the article contends that the problem is a failure of messaging. And that unbelievers need to be better organized. My own sense, however, is that the problem is a matter of substance, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Secular humanism just doesn't have a lot to offer in such cases. Secularism's comfort when a loved one dies — whether from senseless violence or quietly in a hospital or hospice — seems pretty thin gruel, at best. (Have you heard the one about the atheist's funeral? "All dressed up, and nowhere to go.")

"What religion has to offer to people," he continues, "at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community." And indeed, if this were all that religious faith could offer, believers could provide no greater comfort than unbelievers. There's no reason to believe nonbelievers are necessarily less compassionate or caring than religious people are.

But most forms of religion offer the comforting hope of continued life, reunion and even compensation beyond the grave. True or not, such hope is simply unavailable to atheists and secularists.

The great British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970, was an outspoken atheist, and a far more serious thinker than the writers who have gained recent notoriety as advocates of the so-called "New Atheism." Listen to the comforting words that Lord Russell wrote in a famous essay titled "A Free Man's Worship":

"That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built. …

"Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; … Man (is) condemned … to lose his dearest, (and) to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness."

It's not just the packaging. The message is intrinsically unattractive.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at and he blogs daily at