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Songs in the key of H(umanism)

As you may know (and should certainly know if you followed my Blogathon Songathon yesterday), one of the many hats I wear is that of musician. I am no great talent, to be sure, but I’ve got some moderate game. I’ve been a musician as long as I can remember – somewhere there exists a photo of me as a 3 year-old sitting on the steps, banging out rhythms on my knees. I started guitar lessons at age 6, singing lessons a couple of years after that, picked up the guitar at age 14, started my first string quartet at 15… I’ve been in the game for a minute.

Which is why I was torn this past weekend when James Croft, a person I otherwise respect for his outspoken defense of humanism, came out in favour of using song as part of humanist gatherings. His position (and I am trying my best not to straw man) is that because narrative and song have such a persuasive power, humanists should involve it as part of our regular discourse. Humanist gatherings should involve group participation in song and storytelling (he actually used the word ‘witnessing’ at one point), because they are useful in building consensus and community, and what he calls a more ‘emotive’ humanism.

I attempted to point out that, given the number of humanists who have actively fled religion, the adoption of a quasi-liturgical form to humanist gatherings was pretty likely to spook a lot of people. When I attempted to defend James’ idea of a church-like gathering for atheists who were in need of the kind of stable community and group interaction that churches provide to believers, there were a number of people who responded that, even if they thought the idea had some merit there was absolutely no way they would attend. Any attempt to ‘churchify’ humanism is going to alienate a lot of people.

James’ response was basically “Yeah? So?”

It was at that point that I began to understand that James’ model of a humanist community specifically excludes anyone who doesn’t want to participate in a church-like atmosphere. He is not interested in creating a model where all people feel welcome – he is interested in creating a group that caters exclusively to those humanists who miss group celebration, and do not see that need being met by pub nights and book clubs. And if that’s the case then my objection that it will alienate some people is frivolous – his idea is not supposed to be everything to everyone; it’s convened to meet the specific needs of a particular group.

The part where I began to get annoyed is when James basically stated that the reason why people object to group hymns is a complete mystery, and that a small, irrational minority was dominating the discourse*. Despite the number of text smileys and “ooh, fun!” tweets I receive, I am almost never bamboozled when “nice” attempts to take the place of “good”, and the argument that James was making is anything but the latter. So, because I said I would, I will explain exactly why inserting song into humanist gatherings isn’t an “irrational fear”.

Music is a double-edged sword

James is absolutely correct to note the emotive power of song. It’s no accident that song is used as a part of religious ceremony – it bypasses the rational part of the brain. As your brain is primed to process emotional content, it becomes less willing/able to critique it rationally. The very thing that makes music useful in building community also makes it inherently dangerous when it comes to utilizing reason. If reason is one of the fundamental underpinnings of modern humanism, then creating an environment specifically designed to suppress reason is anti-humanist.

If James’ vision of an ‘emotive humanism’ does not prioritize reason over emotion, then the criticisms of the Harvard Humanist project are true: he is simply attempting to create a new religion. The reason why religion is dangerous has nothing to do with the specific beliefs – those vary widely both between and within religious affiliations. The danger of religion comes from its overt attempts to suppress or subvert reason. This is the anti-theist position laid pretty bare: religion is bad because it’s inherently dangerous, not because some people are bad. I am almost certain that no religious group is ever started specifically with the goal of population control, but the model of supernatural, contrafactual belief lends itself admirably to that goal. It accomplishes this by substituting ‘feeling true’ for ‘being true’.

I am not opposed, as James attempted to refute, to the use of narrative as a teaching tool. Nor am I necessarily opposed to recognizing the fact that human beings are emotional as well as rational creatures. By all means, we are well served through empathy, optimism and pro-social positivity, but we cannot encourage those at the price of the only thing that makes humanism superior to “religion for atheists” – the constant, foundational encouragement of reason over dogma and tradition.

Group participation is de facto coercion

James also attempted to jiu-jitsu his way out of the fact that a large, group-enforced activity puts strong socially normative pressure on dissenting individuals to behave in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily choose. This isn’t even advanced-level psychology here – people will behave irrationally to comply with social pressure. This means that any humanist who wishes to participate in a gathering but does not wish to sing (or worse, feels actively threatened by the presence of group song) will be under an intense pressure to conform.

This has problems aside from simple hurt feelings or “just not liking it”. Part of the danger of religion is the very conflict it engenders in followers, and the immense social punishments faced by those who refuse to conform. Organized humanism is the refuge for a number of people who have escaped the kind of ostracism and betrayal that is part and parcel with many belief communities. A parallel institution that carries the potential for all of those harms – even encourages them – is not worthy of the label ‘humanist’.

Finally, I was incensed by James’ response of ‘who cares if people feel left out?’ You should care, James. You should care if you’re lambasting a contingent of people you claim allegiance to without giving appropriate time to consider the things that are hurting them. You should care that your model is going to force a non-trivial number of people into a deeply uncomfortable position. There are people who want ‘emotive humanism’ without the spectre of their religious past haunting them every time the congregation bursts into some secular hymn – you should care about them too.

There is a middle ground in which we can operate: there are ways to recognize the centrality of human emotion without intentionally provoking it in order to… what exactly? Give people the warm fuzzies? I don’t think there is anyone seriously making the claim that all humanism must be completely sterile and devoid of any interactions we would recognize as human. That being said, the sine qua non of humanism is the fact that all beliefs are tempered with rational thought. The use of ‘group sing’ completely undermines that tenet, and the fact that James has not even considered that fact means that his objections and whining about how “excluded” he feels because humanism conventions don’t have a hymnal are shockingly disingenuous.

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*A statement which made me wonder if he’d taken too many hymns to the head. James, you’re a gay atheist. I’d expect that you’d have a bit more comprehension of what it means when a minority group is agitating for something.

N.B. When diving into the comments thread, James asks us to keep this in mind: “I do not speak for the Humanist Community at Harvard or the Humanist Community Project when I tweet from my personal Twitter account or publish on my personal blog. As with all the writers here, I separate my own views from those of the institution for which I work.”