In the Arena

Secular Humanist Watch

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TIME Magazine Cover, July 1, 2013
Photo-Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME; styling by Kirsten Reader; typography by Joe Zeff Design

Well, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about my observation in this week’s cover story, that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals in disaster relief areas like Moore, Oklahoma, after the tornados. Let me explain.

First of all, I consider myself a secular humanist. It seems, somewhat to my surprise, that some people equate that term with atheism. You can certainly be a secular humanist and an atheist; but you can also be, as I am, a secular humanist for whom the jury is out on the question of the divine providence. To my mind, secular humanists are those who lack the scientific certitude of atheists, and also lack the spiritual certitude of the religious. It makes perfect sense to me: Can atheists be absolutely sure that there’s nothing after this? Can believers be sure that there is?

I’m Jewish. I respect the culture and the tradition of my foremothers (Judaism is carried in the matrilineal line); I think that the Old Testament version of God made sense before meteorology and geology were discovered, but not now. I love chanting the prayers in Hebrew, but for primal reasons, not because I’m under the impression that I’m giving God Her due. The prayers, especially the mourner’s Kaddish, are mesmerizing. They hold out the hope, and possibility, that we’re all connected in some mystic, ethereal way; that we’re part of a larger intention, which I hope is benign.

There is, I know, something mealy-mouthed and uncommitted about my squishy spirituality. And that is part of what I was thinking about when I made the observation about organized groups of secular humanists not being present in disaster zones. As a society, we’ve lost a good deal of our sense of communitarian commitment. That’s not a novel observation, of course. It was best made by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, twenty years ago. But the churches–disdained and sometimes ridiculed in my part of the world, Acela world–still have it. Many of their teachings are improbably literal and sometimes close-minded to the point of ugliness; but the church groups are always out there, in droves, when a disaster happens.

There was a time when secular service organizations had a greater sway in this country and, no doubt, a greater presence when disaster struck. But that’s not true now–although, it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized. The effects of this post-modern atomization is something I’ve been trying to puzzle through for most of my career. That’s why I find the military, and the community values that are at the heart of military culture, so intriguing. That’s why I find the groups featured in my cover story about public service this week so inspiring. I believe that they sustain an essential part of citizenship that the rest of us have lost track of, the importance of being an active part of something larger than yourself.

I’m going to be spending the next nine months on book leave, trying to drill down into this area. That means my presence here in the Swamp and the magazine will be limited. I’ll miss you. Some of you. And I will be back, when the high sheriffs deem it necessary.

165 comments
tonygalli
tonygalli

A.) Joe, has it ever occurred to you that what you witnessed in Oklahoma is largely due to the fact that you live in *America*, one of the most religious societies on earth, and one where, traditionally, such charitable and social projects were organized by/within religious groups and institutions to begin with? How much have you observed this same phenomenon in other developed countries?

B.) In your response you still evade the issue of your flawed assumption by using the term "organized groups" (as opposed to individual secular humanists who may be, and indeed, according to research, often are, generous).

It's great that you recognize that non-believers can be good citizens, but that's not the main problem. What you ignore is that there *are* plenty of non-religious, indeed secular humanist, charities, non-profits, and NGO's that do the sorts of things you never seem to notice (and much more besides). Here are just a few: 
http://givingaid.richarddawkins.net/
http://www.lionsclubs.org/EN/index.php
http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
http://www.ewb.ca/
http://www.kiva.org/
http://www.goodwill.org/
http://www.seedfoundation.com/
https://www.rotary.org/
http://www.unicef.org/
http://www.planusa.org/
http://www.ewb-usa.org/
http://www.oxfam.org/eng/
http://www.wheelchairfoundation.org/
http://www.engenderhealth.org/about/awwa.html

MuhammadShahzad
MuhammadShahzad

Well, I still like you Joe for what it's worth and I hope you return soon. And I'm in full agreement with you. For the pseudo hate-mongers who are writing the not so nice emails, they remind me of the reason I left the religious community I was raised in many years ago. My best to you and your book, coming from a family with a prolific author, I have the utmost respect. Take care, be safe and don't change!

http://www.garciniacambogia.com.au/

George286
George286

Seculars lack a church but should have one, churches perform all kinds of valuable supporting social, psychological, philosophical and community guidance functions beyond believing in God.  But it would have to be several churches just as Christianity has, depending on how members of each group believe on a visceral level how life should best be conducted (which in reality are what the different Christian churches are), how conservative or liberal for instance.  Being a non-believer does not mean a belief system by itself, it does not speak to any substitute belief system, it just rejects the idea that there is a conscious will that runs the universe. 
So atheism is not much of an organizing principle by itself, there is not much "we" there beyond that.  Most seculars de-facto adopt local Judeo-Christian values whether they are aware of that or not, but this also means that you can have a value system of true believers without the supernatural element.

JohnThompson1
JohnThompson1

I'm sure it will get some in knots what Joel Klein wrote but I know what he's saying.  It's true that protestant and catholic  groups are out there helping people because a lot of those organizations and individuals believe in God and showing His love to others as he first loved them.  Non-believers see the practical good in those same values and adopt them too but the common 'greater force' that binds believers in God together is missing.  What is common is their uncertainty or absence of belief but this doesn't drive them as a group to help others.  They want to be involved in helping others and do but it would out of their own sense of need and want I think.

Goldindemhills
Goldindemhills

Nihilists: 'This shouldn't even be debated, because it doesn't matter.'

BigIslanderBugga
BigIslanderBugga

I would have to say, as a "secularist", that I too found Mr. Klein's comments regarding service and secularism some what offensive.  I have spent my career working in service for others.  I have worked with developmentally disabled youth and adults, the elderly and infirm, as well as currently working for the local Department of Health spending my days trying to prevent and reduce the incidents of chronic disease.   None of these jobs have I done for the money.  In fact, I made more money when I waited tables as a younger man than these jobs pay.  It is for the very fact that I derive pleasure, meaning, and purpose in serving others that I do it.  The paycheck is secondary.  I also volunteer in my community doing environmental restoration work, which not only helps to restore my local community's degraded environment but my soul as well.   I am not affiliated with any religious organization and do not find organized religion to be of much use for myself but have nothing against anyone else who chooses to believe in an organized religion's teachings; so long as they do not push their views onto me.  This also brings up the obvious point that how would someone, like Mr. Klein, know whether I am a secularist or not when I am working in the service of others since I do not have a "badge" affiliating me as secularist or religious? 

jameswbales
jameswbales

Mr. Klein writes:

"There is, I know, something mealy-mouthed and uncommitted about my squishy spirituality. And that is part of what I was thinking about when I made the observation about organized groups of secular humanists not being present in disaster zones."

A real mensch would apologize for the mealy-mouthed "part of what I was thinking about when I made the observation about organized groups of secular humanists not being present in disaster zones." Sadly, Mr. Klein failed.

Organized groups of atheists have been on the ground trying to provide assistance to disaster victims. As reported by Oklahoma's "Red Dirt Report"  (http://www.reddirtreport.com/Story.aspx/25721) on May 28:

<i>"FreeOK has ... teamed with Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme to get breakfast to cemetery clean-up volunteers with Frontline Church in Moore, and to volunteers working through the Moore Community Center in the first week of response.</i>

Again, no-one faults Mr. Klein for failing to <i>notice </i>organized secular humanists (a group that surely includes atheists) on the ground Oklahoma helping their fellow Americans. We fault Mr. Klein for <i>presuming</i> that secular humanists (including atheists) would not step up to help their fellow Americans. 

Sadly, Mr. Klein has yet to demonstrate the moral courage of apologizing for his error. He can still do so, and I (for one) hopes that he will.

Best

Jim Bales

Truth60
Truth60

I believe in God more than I believe in secular humanists for a very simple reason: God has been correct more often than they have. Science has more often advanced itself by proving itself wrong than by its accomplishments; religion has persisted for so many centuries simply because there is something there that defies any attempt to discredit it, no matter how imperfectly man attempts to define or interpret it. I also get highly amused when I am accused of not believeing in science, when it is science that proves God more likely every day. It has proved, for example that our very existence is "absurd", as one physicist put it. We should not exist at all. The very foundations of our reality is so chaotic and un-ordered, that there is no reason why order should exist at all. It defies the very laws of physics itself. Very interesting, I think. When one starts looking into all the different disciplines of science, and comparing them, it is amazing to discover that they are quite correct: It is "absurd". We should realy not exist. And that we do so could said to be a miracle, if one were inclined to think that way, and  it could be said God has left these signs for us to find, just so we know, unmistakably, who and what He is. Just as He has done in the Bible, that sorely maligned book that those who mock it most know it least.

VictorBien
VictorBien

Joe Klein that is a cogent defence of your remark in your article Can Service Save Us which I read with interest.  I write as a member of a secular Humanist Society.  I will be sharing some of the article with some members.  The cranky dismissive comments from atheists your article attracted troubles the Australian secular movement avowedly with the object of winning the separation of religion in state here.  However, many in the movement broadly are fixated on pushing atheism, and find that limited objective chaffingly wishy washy.  They want to push an agenda to *stop* people believing in nonsensical supernatural beliefs.   I myself this resist even though I'm, for practical purposes an atheist.  I've been trying to get members to engage with say Alain de Botton's Religions for Atheists idea but except in one small section the word "religion" produces a dreadful operant conditioned reaction.  I think for many their seething hatred of religion arose from terrible dogmatic upbrings.  For others where this did not happen I'm not sure where the hatred or heat comes from for this group.  Perhaps it is push back against the influence of a variety of religions in a variety of public policies such as dying with dignity and same sex marriages where most resistance to these prominently come from religions.

Terry
Terry

Are you Jewish if you are an Atheist ?  Aren't you really just someone of Jewish ancestry ?  After all, Judaism is a faith, not a race.  Isn't it ?  I believe that there are many secular  humanists of Jewish ancestry running around who use "I am Jewish" as a form of a "victim" shield when it is convenient for them, but they don't go to temple, they don't believe in God, and they don't believe in the tenants of Judaism.  

DebPedrick
DebPedrick

Well, I still like you Joe for what it's worth and I hope you return soon. And I'm in full agreement with you. For the pseudo hate-mongers who are writing the not so nice emails, they remind me of the reason I left the religious community I was raised in many years ago. My best to you and your book, coming from a family with a prolific author, I have the utmost respect. Take care, be safe and don't change!

meisnerman
meisnerman

Hate to break it to you Mr. Klein, but "jury is still out"=ATHEIST. Whether or not you self identify as such, you, by your own description in this piece, are an atheist...who happens to also be agnostic, just like almost every other atheist I know, including Richard Dawkins.

If you hold an affirmative belief in god, you are a theist. If you do not, YOU ARE AN ATHEIST (i.e. not a theist, which is all atheist means.) This is true whether your position is "definitely no god," "probably no god," "I have no idea whether there is a god," or "the jury is out."

"To my mind, secular humanists are those who lack the scientific certitude of atheists..."

You need to brush up on your understanding of science. Certitude has nothing to do with the scientific method of knowing things. In science ALL knowledge is provisional and subject to revision or complete reversal in the light of new evidence. By the same token, almost every atheist I know believes that gods existence is vanishingly unlikely (with widely varying assesments of probablility) in the light of current evidence. That is NOT the same as "certitude." Perpetuating the old canard that atheists are just as "certain" as religious beleivers? Shame on you.

"Can atheists be absolutely sure that there’s nothing after this?"

 Can you be absolutely sure you aren't in the Matrix? Well then, let's drop "absolute" as our standard for knowledge, shall we?

pkgsf96
pkgsf96

Wow. A not-pology and then "ttyl kthxbai." I didn't think anybody would ever unseat Stephen Glass as worst reporter in America, but that just proves I have no imagination. Joe Klein, you're even lazier than he was. Amazing!

caroliner3435
caroliner3435

Atheism and "secular humanism" are not religions, nor are they meant to substitute for religion. Why would anyone be surprised that they do not normally organize into identifiable groups? To bolster his case, Klein makes the unsupported claim that at one time there were many more secular humanist groups that engaged in charitable endeavors, such as showing up at relief efforts. Can't help but wonder who these groups were.

thedofca
thedofca

I belong to a secular group that meets on Sunday mornings followed by a lunch with talks by various religous persons explaining to us why they believe as they do.  As an organized group we help others.  We are more organized than the church I was raised in but have sense left.  I think Mr. Klein is, perhaps, once again incorrect.  But I don't actually care what he thinks.

AZMatt
AZMatt

Way to go, Klein. Bad to worse. No wonder you so often get voted "worst person in the world."

EddieKehler
EddieKehler

Mealy mouthed is a correct assessment that can be applied to your "explanation". You know what else is a problem in our society today, Mr. Klein? The inability to acknowledge one's mistakes and take responsibility for that. Good luck with your book.

SeanATX
SeanATX

It's possible that this muddy explanation is actually valid (it's also possible that Mr. Klein is a weasel who, at the request of his employer, came up with a weenie excuse resembling something out of an egg-faced politician's mouth), but I still can't fathom how an editor could read that line and not think, "Hmmm. Without any elaboration or explanation of that statement, it might be a problem." I read it and thought, "Did he just say that? Why the hell did he just say that?" No one but Mr. Klein knows what was occupying his head at the time he put that sloppy thought into words, but given the potential (and now realized) inflammation of an entire group of readers, why take that chance? If a writer makes a claim like that, isn't he obligated to provide some sort of evidence for that claim--or at least some sort of rationale for putting his strange musing on the page? Or has journalism simply devolved into people writing whatever the hell they want?

2013yourwelcome
2013yourwelcome

We all are connected as individuals, but the moral sphere of humans is a bland portrait to paint for your thesis. As such, you must also include the moral spheres of plants, animals, diseases, emotions, etc. If you seek to find the purpose of helping one another oppose to competing; then, include those factors mention above. But the Joe Klein attitude enshrouds itself to deeply in the shadows of theories, unable to fathom the simple truth about life instead it makes it so complicated. Since, Joe your not god and your theories aren't really supplementing logic to, try constructualism.

kenithadams
kenithadams

Wow, Joe you chose to double down on your mistake but couldn't come up anything that meets the facts. There were organized secular groups there end of story. How you call yourself a journalist is beyond me. Twice now you have slighted a large minority and still dont have your facts in order.

AnthonyCheeks
AnthonyCheeks

Mr. Klein, your clumsy, crude avoidance of the simple fact that you were flat out wrong, is a major reason why very few people on either side of the political specturm trust the corporate media.   From now on,  I will consider everything you state as fact, to be suspect, pending independent verification. 

Rast
Rast

Was going to write something serious here, but this sorry excuse for a reporter is not worth the effort. Don't come back Mr. Klein. 

You had a chance to put things right but you write this instead? You are a disgrace to serious journalism.

StevenJackson
StevenJackson

Non-believers are organized all around you (they don't necessarily wear t-shirts that advertise their non-affiliation).  They are writers, engineers, doctors, teachers, and others who develop products you use, research medicine that saves lives, and define policies that advance society.  This growing segment of the global population is vital to the quality of life of all.  Klein does a great disservice.  His assertions are easily dismissed because they are not factual. 

russell.frege
russell.frege

In short, secular humanists are more likely to be charitable for its own sake. Religious groups are more likely to be charitable for the sake of propagandizing for their religion. Hence, secular humanists are less visibly organized around a recognizable marketing scheme for their belief system. They're just there to help and they sort of blend in.

JamesShredfield
JamesShredfield

Hhmm... you can't even call this "back peddling". No where near an "apology" or "retraction". What to call it then? Ah, yes... "Faux Journalism"!

This would have been a WAY better, more accurate article:



In The Arena -- Secular Humanist Watch

by Joe Klein

WHOOPS! My bad...

dian810
dian810

@JohnThompson1 Human values precede religion. I don't think religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, should have a monopoly on morality.

Galen
Galen

@BigIslanderBugga 

Because you took it personally, he was talking more about a much larger collective. I too, am what you would call a secularist and most of my giving is through monetary means. You make some great points, but it seems a lot of it gets lost when your ego has taken it personally. His intentions here seem worthy and mostly true. Thank you for all your great service!

sparrow
sparrow

@Truth60  "the Bible, that sorely maligned book that those who mock it most know it least."

many prominent bible scholars don't mock the bible. they just don't believe many in it are true. and definitely, they know more than you do.

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

As a Christian, I am offended that you think that all people of faith are as bigoted, lazy, and stupid as Joe Klein.

InisMagrath
InisMagrath

@Terry-- I am Jewish and I say that not as a shield but as a truism. My beliefs vary with my faith from day to day because I am human. Remember, even Mother Teresa experienced doubts about the existence of God and she wrote, "Where is my faith? Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness..." But just because she had times she didn't believe, I'm sure you would still call her Catholic. 

tonygalli
tonygalli

@meisnerman Couldn't have written it better myself. Thank you for correcting these mistakes in his article.

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

@Rast Of course, you are disparaging a well reasoned and well regarded journalist who has years, if not decades, of journalistic experience just because you don't like what he just said.

thephilosotroll
thephilosotroll

@AlphaJuliette No, we're disparaging a journalist who made an off-hand remark that turned out to be demonstrably false (and easily so; see Mehta's recounting linked by @LloydLawrence , or use google) and then, in responding to critics decided to again reiterate a claim that was demonstrably false. Doesn't help that the TIME editors haven't apologized either. @Rast 

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

@oaguabonita1 @AlphaJuliette @Rast While you are more than welcome to post your personal opinion that you instead resort to personal attacks simply disqualifies you as a reasoned and informed participant.  Have a nice day.

FloridaFarmer
FloridaFarmer

@AlphaJuliette @thephilosotroll @LloydLawrence @Rast Not really. He tried to justify his "misspeaking", as you call it, by claiming he really meant they weren't "organized" - itself as untrue as his original assertion. Doubling down on something you didn't seem to bother to fact check in the first place just makes you look like a chump, and from someone who claims to be a journalist, yes, this sort of thing deserves the derision it receives.

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

@thephilosotroll @AlphaJuliette @LloydLawrence @Rast I'm sure that Mr. Klein has many more years of experience as a journalist than any of us who, from time to time, drop in and comment on this or that article.  Everyone is bound to misspeak.  But it appears that his opinion, and it was an opinion piece, has garnered far more outcry then it reasonably deserves. 

He has offered his explanation and has described his own spirituality which corresponds more with secular humanism than it does his religious faith.  But the outrage continues and everyone still has their panties in a bunch.  Far more important issues to rail against then one man's opinion about who responds to natural disasters, in my humble opinion.

AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

@LloydLawrence @Rast Thank you Lloyd for providing this article.  I find it very well written and very informative.

It would seem that secular humanists/atheists did indeed provide a lot of help alongside the religious groups that were there.  And perhaps Mr. Mehta was right in that none of the secular humanists were wearing T-Shirts.

amonwalters
amonwalters

@RichardSimpkins

An inversion of the colors of the flag of Switzerland, where the organization began.  The argument that the Red Cross has any affiliation to Christianity was put to rest in  1906. In countries where the cross might be considered controversial, the organization uses different symbols and goes by different names — the Red Crescent and the Red Crystal.