Death and Injustice: How Can Humanists Respond?


(Note: the following contains references to racist, transphobic, and misogynistic violence.)

In the face of unjust death—what can humanists say and do?

I have a new book out called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, a short collection of essays offering secular ways to handle your own mortality and the deaths of those you love. [It comes out December 11 in ebook and audiobook; print edition will come later.] In it, I talk about some humanist ways of coping with death and highlight philosophies that might provide some consolation and meaning—including the idea that death is a natural part of the physical universe; that mortality makes us treasure our lives; that we were all astronomically lucky to have been born at all; that religious views of death are only comforting if you don’t think about them carefully; and more.

But when Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and when his body was left in the street for over four hours, and when a grand jury decided that the questions about his death didn’t warrant a jury trial and declined to indict his killer on even the most minor charges—I found myself with very little to say. And when, a week after that grand jury announcement, another grand jury in New York City declined to indict another police officer (Daniel Pantaleo) in the death of another unarmed black man (Eric Garner)—I was almost speechless.

Of course I’ve had plenty to say about racist policing, about prosecutors deliberately tanking cases, about how over 99 percent of grand juries indict but less than five percent will do it to a cop. (Although mostly what I’ve had to say about that has been, “Go read these pieces by black writers, they know a lot more about this than I do.”) But when it comes to any consolations humanism might have for people grieving for Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the injustice surrounding their deaths, I’ve been coming up largely empty.

So, in the face of unjust death—what can humanists say and do?


Thus begins my latest piece for The Humanist magazine, Death and Injustice: How Can Humanists Respond? To read more, read the rest of the piece.

(Note: Some of the comments at the link are okay, but some are appalling. The next time someone says, “You shouldn’t call yourself an atheist, if you care about atheism plus social justice you should call yourself a humanist” — or the next time someone says, “Humanism already means caring about racism and sexism and all that, so why should I call myself a feminist or anti-racist, I just call myself a humanist and that covers it” — I’m pointing them to these comments. Self-identified humanists can be total fucking assholes.)

Death and Injustice: How Can Humanists Respond?
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2 thoughts on “Death and Injustice: How Can Humanists Respond?

  1. 1

    At some point, the outrage and sorrow sort of transcend theological quibbling. But atheists, with a commitment to empirical decision-making and a reality-based world view DO have an angle on these events that needs hearing.

    The police arms race, which began long before the use of police as caretakers for heavy military equipment, is based on simply WRONG ideas about self-defense and firearm policy. Police have been wrongly (over)armed and wrongly trained for decades.

    Even older, is the tradition of police serving as extensions of city Machine Politics. Asbury’s ‘Gangs of New York’ charts how the police functioned as enforcers in the accepted criminal economy of big cities. Routine corruption, and the use of police muscle to enforce political control of criminal enterprises, were invisible to most citizens. It may be that the anti-war movement of the 60s was one of the first times that voting, white, citizens saw what urban police forces were really like.

    The policies and cultures that reinforce police violence and ramp up the adversarial relations between police and policed, can be examined with better reasoning and better decision making when religion and pseudo-science are vigorously countered.

  2. 2

    I honestly don’t know what we can do. I can’t even walk around my office without being accosted by racists expressing their “outrage” that anyone even mourn these deaths. Even the tiny twelve-year-old boy gunned down for carrying a toy gun in an open carry state is somehow too stupid to not get himself shot by police.

    No one outside my small group of friends expresses any remorse or respect for the dead. No one expresses any empathy for their parents and families.

    I had a woman at work today, with no prompting from me, fly into a rant about how the “rioters” were making the case for the shooting of Michael Brown with their “behavior.”

    How the hell does that even make sense? The “rioters” responding to a kid being gunned down forced the police to preemptively gun him down using their magical time machine?!!

    WTF is wrong with people? I hope someone can contribute some coping strategies for this, because I no longer have any idea what to do.

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