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Jun 19 2012

Changing my tune

Oh neat! It’s time for one of my rare (but fun) retractions!

Last Monday, I put the boots to James Croft for a conversation we had over Twitter. To summarize, I thought that his advocacy for increasing the use of song as part of humanist gatherings was a) offputting, and b) dangerous. A, because there are a lot of people who identify as humanist after fleeing religion, and that adding secular hymns to humanist functions was going to make those people intensely uncomfortable and unwelcome. B, because the function of liturgical music is to make messaging more palatable by bypassing the rational parts of the brain, and that rationality is what makes humanism more than just “religion for atheists”.

James took his time in responding, but when he did, he kicked my ass:

I have sought to demonstrate here that, based on the best scientific evidence available, and the consensus of the scientific and philosophical community at this time, the idea that the emotions are always threatening to overwhelm our reason, and that there is a “rational part of the brain” which can be unseated by base limbic passions is simply false. It’s bad science. It is bad science which is popular with some in the secular movement, but it is bad science nonetheless. Instead, we must recognize that our emotions are part of our cognitive apparatus, and that they can be epistemically valuable, helping us advance our understanding of phenomena. Further, I have shown that there is simply no evidence that engaging in communal singing poses any serious threat to a person’s capability to reason, and that group singing conveys multiple health benefits on people.

So let that be a lesson to you all – don’t pick a fight with someone who knows a lot more than you about the topic. Especially if you’re trying to bash out 1,000 words over a lunch hour. It will be embarrassing for you.

There are a lot of places where I think James either grossly misinterprets me, or otherwise errs in his monster of a response, but with one notable exception, those errors do not change the fact that he is right and I am wrong. The exception, which I promised I’d expound upon, is his contention that putting someone in a room where everyone is engaging in a behaviour does not qualify as de facto coercion.

James’ explanation went right to the dictionary (which is a surefire way to know that you’re starting your argument in the wrong place), where he explained that absent a threat of violence, no coercion can be said to occur. If I was talking about de jure coercion, he’d be absolutely correct. He then went into a long and rambling explanation about the importance of setting social norms (at one point accusing me of “denigrating” their importance). Hyperbole aside, I think James has failed to understand my point.

Socially normative behaviour is indeed an effective way of enforcing behaviour. Many of those behaviours are positive – etiquette, honesty, and respect are all practices that are enforced more or less exclusively by social pressure. Other behaviours are decidedly negative – nationalist tribalism, racism, and misogyny are all similarly fueled by influence from a peer group (or a larger societal group). Both are examples of situations in which an individual may not necessarily have engaged in a specific behaviour voluntarily, but because ze knows that there is either a) a reward for compliance, or b) a price to pay for deviance, ze will ‘go along’ with what is being done.

James’ argument, as best I understand it, is that the goodness or badness of etiquette/tribalism are not judged based on the mechanism by which they work. That is to say, just because social pressure can be used for good or ill does not convey a value judgment on socially normative behaviours per se. I am certainly willing to grant this; however, that is not the argument I was making. What I was saying is that, particularly in a community in which many members are leery of religious ceremony (James seems to think that they are a minority – I don’t know where he’s getting his numbers from), the use of song as a social pressure mechanism will evoke a strong (and negative) reaction. James seems to think that’s not a big deal, or at least not a big enough deal for him to care about. I disagree, but again he’s not trying to build an inclusive humanism – he’s trying to meet the needs of a specific group who want a specific thing. You don’t like it? Don’t join.

James’ attempt to conflate building of socially normative behaviour with the use of groupsing also falls far short of the mark for another reason. He attempts to use the example of refusing to accept anti-feminist screeds and general misogynistic assholery as vindication for his position:

Shame is just one form of social pressure which encourages norm-following. It is potentially dangerous and should be used sparingly – indeed it is one of the most dangerous forms of non-coercive social pressure – but it is not coercion and is sometimes valuable to restrict harmful behaviors, as Zvan recognizes.

There is, however, a world of difference between restricting harmful behaviours (because they’re harmful) and compelling arbitrary desired behaviours simply because you like them. Group song doesn’t prevent harmful behaviours (unless you’re singing a very specific slate of tunes) or ensure that people in the group can function together the way that norms about etiquette do. Rather, they are simply a mechanism (as far as I understand James’ purpose) to build solidarity for solidarity’s sake. This isn’t ‘setting social norms’, this is ‘enforcing group behaviour’. Punishment for non-compliance, when it happens, does not therefore serve a non-arbitrary end, and the use of (or fear of the use of) social pressures becomes an exercise in engendering compliance. I don’t see this as being qualitatively different from coercion.

There is also the issue of decentralized group norms vs. imparted norms to consider. There is no atheist/feminist pope telling people that they must behave this way or that way. People are merely saying that if we wish to improve a specific situation, we should engage in some behaviours and refrain from some others. I imagine that James’ response would be that each humanist group (in his vision) would have the freedom to decide whether or not (and to what extent) they wished to use group song, in which case this objection does not really apply.

At any rate, none of these objections speak to the fact that I made a number of untrue, unsubstantiated (and in some cases specifically refuted) claims. There is no good evidence that groupsing is inherently harmful, and my objection was spurious. I officially retract my position in the previous post, and thank James for his thorough disemboweling.

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51 comments

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  1. 1
    'Tis Himself

    As a fair number of people, including Croft*, know, I am extremely leery of his group’s attempts to institute a godless religion. I already knew they were collecting godless hymns to go with the godless church services, godless weddings, godless funerals, godless baptisms**, and other godless activities held in their godless temples, supervised by the godless priesthood led by Humanist Chaplain*** Greg Epstein.

    *Croft doesn’t like to be called “Croft.” I will continue to call him Croft until he calls me what I asked him to call me. I think that’s fair.

    **I kid you not. Croft and his buddy Epstein are advocating godless baptisms. These will be called “naming ceremonies” but a baptism by any other name is still a baptism.

    ***Epstein’s official title is “Humanist Chaplain.” Why atheists need chaplains is a mystery understood only by the godless clergy.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    And your skepticism is certainly not unwarranted. I myself am deeply suspicious of any attempt to use religious-style organizing to convene a community. That being said, until I get an idea of what specific model is being proposed, I can’t really conjure any criticisms that stick.

  3. 3
    otrame

    Oh, lordy, are we dealing with those “well-trained, talented” secular “chaplains” again.

    Seriously, that whole notion runs right up my spine. If people need social support, they can get it. The very last thing we need is what Croft and his buddies are advocating.

    On the other hand, if anyone wants them to be all humanist and provide guidance, go right ahead. Seriously. Just make sure I am not around, or I might ask why, having gotten rid of the parasitic priesthood, we are going to create a new parasitic priesthood? Really?

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    If people need social support, they can get it

    Wow do I ever wish we lived in a world where that was true. But we don’t, and it isn’t.

    Do you watch The Atheist Experience? Atheists call in to that show, often not to debate but just to connect to someone else who understands. People bounce ideas off of Russell, Jenn, Matt et al. because they are good at responding and have a wealth of knowledge that the average person simply doesn’t have. I disagree with your assertion that there’s no need for respected voices to provide guidance. If that’s the model for the chaplaincy, I want more of it.

    I suspect that there are a lot of humanists who wish they had someone they could call and talk to in times of crisis – their friends might be a) predominantly religious, or b) woefully ill-equipped to deal with existential issues without making trite references replete with religious ideas. If there’s an opportunity to train those people on some basic knowledge and techniques that have worked before, I really don’t see the harm in that. Again, that may or may not be what James and Greg have in mind – I’m never sure.

  5. 5
    Embutii

    I would agree with you, except that James Croft has made some pretty creepy comments about what he sees as the duty of secular chaplains. From things he’s said before (http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/03/21/atheists-existence-is-controversial-sparks-public-debate/ comment 71 and his response at 72 is the money quote), he doesn’t see these secular chaplains as equals helping equals. Instead, in the comments to that post, he agreed that his Harvard group should lead (and we should follow like a congregation following a preacher, perhaps?) I’m fine with counselors, but I really don’t like the idea of masters all over again.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    I read the whole comment thread. If that’s your smoking gun, it’s really not very convincing at all.

    As far as I understand, the HH is supposed to be more like a test kitchen for a chain restaurant. They do research, try out stuff, and come up with a menu of things they like. They then pass that along to the other franchises, who are free to take or leave any/all menu items. They also have people who are trained at ‘corporate’ on a variety of things that ‘head office’ thinks are important/useful. If employee X at the Santa Clara restaurant figures out a way of doing things better, there’s nothing to stop hir from doing hir own thing.

    None of this sounds particularly foreign or oppressive or creepy to me. It’s more or less what most major organizations that have branches do. Hell, CFI Vancouver has an executive director – he has resources made available to him that the rest of us don’t. That’s not a problem – if we don’t like him we have a process by which he can be turfed. Or we can stop listening to him and just do our own thing.

    Nothing that James says in that thread (and comment 72 was obviously tongue-in-cheek) leads me to believe that my impression is mistaken.

  7. 7
    jamessweet

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t even think about this idea rationally because I find the idea of humanist hymns so icky. That’s a personal judgment, mind you; I suspect some of the more objective criticisms may have some merit, but I can’t even tell because I just find it so personally revolting.

    It’s like there is a controversial treatment for skin disorders, and while it’s very effective there are occasionally severe side effects, and so people are having a discussion over whether it should ever be prescribed for cosmetic issues or reserved only for serious health problems… but the treatment involves THOUSANDS SPIDERS CRAWLING ALL OVER YOUR FACE. I would not be capable of even discussing the ethical considerations of such a treatment, because every time I thought of it, the overriding thought in my mind would be “OH MY GOD GET THE SPIDERS OFF THAT PERSON’S FACE!!!!”

  8. 8
    Melody

    I run a secular community and I can tell you that people would run for the hills if we ever tried to sing a hymn of any type. It was suggested at Hitchens’ memorial outside his home that we sing “Imagine.” No one felt comfortable doing it so we spoke the lyrics to the song. I could tell that people still felt uncomfortable.

  9. 9
    Katalina

    OMG I so agree! Now, I enjoy a good group song, such as an awkward Happy Birthday sung to a crimson-faced coworker around a box of cupcakes in a cubicle, or a bawdy and mostly inappropriate campfire song, but hymns? Gross.

    I guess if people are just barely escaping the clutches of their own native religion, it can be comforting to participate in seemingly religious rites and ceremonies, but for those who have definitively left it behind, I can’t imagine how it would be … welcome.

    On a related note, I am a refugee of Mormonism, so I know literally hundreds of children’s songs and hymns, and when I think about the words… oh good god… the things I was brainwashed to say… it just makes my skin crawl. So while humanist hymns would not be harmful per se, I would definitely not feel welcome or happy to be in a group that was indulging in them.

  10. 10
    Katalina

    P.S. Crommunist, I am a perennial admirer of your humility and willingness to concede defeat on those rare occasions where necessary.

  11. 11
    Crommunist

    Well thanks, but I swear to Bog that humility has nothing to do with it. I like being wrong – it’s an opportunity to learn things. Plus, y’know… facts are important to me.

  12. 12
    jamessweet

    On a related note, I am a refugee of Mormonism, so I know literally hundreds of children’s songs and hymns, and when I think about the words… oh good god… the things I was brainwashed to say… it just makes my skin crawl.

    Hey, me too!

    My (equally atheistic) wife thinks part of the reason I can’t stand church so much is because Mormon church ceremonies are boring and icky. I think my personality must also have figured into it prominently (it’s undeniable that many Mormons lap that shit up, yet I never enjoyed it even when I was a True Believer), but I think she has a point…

  13. 13
    jamessweet

    Okay, reading Melody’s comment, it just hit me what James Croft is doing wrong: He’s got a desirable goal in mind, but he’s approaching it from the wrong side.

    As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am an atheist who hated church, but my wife is an atheist who really misses synagogue, and has dragged me to a couple of UU services since she’d really love to have a weekly church-like community gathering. This puts me in a unique position to both recognize the need for what James seems to be aiming for, as well as to be pretty viscerally connected to why a lot of our movement finds it so icky.

    And it just hit me… Most of the people who make up the target audience of what James is trying to build are probably already going to UU congregations or maybe liberal Quaker or what have you. People who have no religious beliefs but who crave church-like community, UU is so damn close already that I imagine the majority of them have settled, and choose to ignore the few philosophically objectionable nuggets contained in UU.

    Meanwhile, you have all these people — the majority of our movement, I would argue — who are really turned off by the church-y aspects. Many of them are seeking community too, but they want a distinctly non-church-like community. These are the people who have typically sought out humanist gatherings.

    So. James Croft is right that there is a need for a 100% secular/atheistic church-like experience. But the problem is that if you try to take a humanist gathering and remake it into “atheist church”, you’re going to miss your target audience, while potentially foisting it onto people who have been fleeing from the very thing you are selling. On the other hand, if you could take a very liberal sect (like UU) and strip away the last few theistic/faith-y remnants, then your target audience is right there waiting.

    This thought is about 10 minutes old and so not still well-formed, so I’m not entirely sure what I mean by the following… but I think, instead of taking humanism and adding a dash of church, James needs to take church and make it secular.

  14. 14
    jamessweet

    A metaphor: If you want to sell decaf coffee, who is your target audience? Do you go after coffee drinkers who, for one reason or another, are trying to cut back on caffeine? Or do you convince yourself that there are legions of non-coffee drinkers out there who would love the stuff if only it wasn’t a stimulant? Cuz if you do the latter, you’re going to wind up wasting your time on a lot of people who just don’t like the taste.

  15. 15
    nichrome

    I like being wrong – it’s an opportunity to learn things.

    I’ve always held this view as well! And it’s very freeing to admit you’re wrong – it’s like a window has opened to another view you didn’t know was there.

    I’m an American expatriate (and recent Canadian citizen!) – and someone once had this very insightful view of Americans, “The only thing Americans hate more than being wrong is admitting they’re wrong.” This may be true of other cultures/peoples but it’s definitely true of many, many of the people of the country of my birth.

  16. 16
    Emburii

    Replying down here, since the ‘reply’ button isn’t showing up in the nested comments…

    I can see you point, sir, but personally it didn’t come off as quite so innocuous or tongue in cheek. I find a lot of James Croft’s focus to be elitist and creepy, not inspiring, but YMM (and apparently does) vary.

    Even aside from that, jamessweet makes an excellent point above about James Croft’s efforts and why they don’t make as much sense as he’d like.

  17. 17
    B-Lar

    I brain jizzed.

  18. 18
    Alice in Wonderland

    People who have no religious beliefs but who crave church-like community, UU is so damn close already that I imagine the majority of them have settled, and choose to ignore the few philosophically objectionable nuggets contained in UU.

    Yep.

    I’m emphatically atheist, and also a member of a UU community. According to a poll conducted a few years ago, about a third of the people in my city’s UU community consider themselves atheists or secular humanists. So we’re definitely out there, we atheists who nevertheless like some aspect of church enough to get up for it on a Sunday morning.

    I can’t speak for the other atheist UUs, but I know that I have settled, because what I want is a godless church and the UU church is just the closest thing I’ve found. But I don’t ignore the philosophically objectionable nuggets; I chafe at them, I complain to my husband about them, I write emails to the minister to let her know when such and such a thing has left me uncomfortable. (This doesn’t make me a bad UU; this makes me a pretty average UU, as far as I can tell.)

    If James Croft started a new humanist “church” in my city next week, would I leave the UU’s and join up? Probably not, because at this point I’m socially invested in the UU community (meaning: I’ve made several good friends there, as well as plenty of friendly acquaintances). But if there’d been a real secular humanist church-like thingy in my city three years ago, before I joined the UU’s, I certainly would have given it a shot.

  19. 19
    davidb

    I find myself with mixed feelings reading about this.

    On the one hand the idea of gatherings having sing-songs of secular songs fills me with a sort of visceral horror, but on the other hand my mother’s funeral, conducted by an officiant recognised by the British Humanist Association, was a sad occasion, but also a useful way of bringing together the family, sharing memories, saying goodbyes, and giving some sort of closure.

    I can see the value, for the people who want it, of marking more happy landmarks in life, like births and marriages, within a secular context.

    In the end, though, I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong answer to this – people are different, with different values, and, while I wouldn’t myself want to go to humanist sing-songs, I don’t object to the opportunity being offered to those who may like that sort of thing. If it catches on in some circles, fine. If not – also fine.

    The recognition of rites of passage, though, I’m rather more sympathetic to, though there again some people might not like that sort of thing.

    I don’t think any of us would want them to be compulsory, though.

    David B

  20. 20
    James Croft

    Wait wait wait wait wait: yu have a problem with atheist baby namings now? Sheesh. Is there no end to your dogmatic vendetta against any form of celebration of life’s joys? Or do you, just this once, have an argument to back up your prejudices?

  21. 21
    Crommunist

    Is there no end to your dogmatic vendetta against any form of celebration of life’s joys?

    You two clearly have a history. Keep it the hell away from me.

    Also that sentence makes you sound stupid, James.

  22. 22
    James Croft

    Woah, did you really think. 72 was serious? 0_o

    I have to seriously rethink what I write in these comment threads from now on..

  23. 23
    James Croft

    I totally believe you. And I think this one of many pernicious effects of religious privilege: they have stolen singing from us, and made it so that some of us can’t even conceive of doing it. Thank goodness they didn’t get dancing.

    I say don’t bow to the privilege – take it back.

  24. 24
    Crommunist

    For the record, although nobody asked, I am uncomfortable singing in groups as well, and it has nothing to do with religion. I have been a musician pretty much my whole life. I love to sing – it’s usually one of the first things I do when I get up in the morning.

    That being said, I hate singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or even the national anthem because it’s friggin’ weird. I sing when I want to – not because the person next to me is doing it too. This is just a statement of personal preference, but I don’t want this to be mistaken for a “people don’t like singing because they’ve been scarred by religion” thing. It’s not just that, although there’s certainly an element of that.

  25. 25
    Katalina

    Some things are going to have to be left to the religious community, and I think that’s okay. I don’t want to have a dogmatic text, for example, and I don’t want to simulate praying. I enjoy a little reverence from time to time, but I’m done bowing my head in submission. I don’t want to chant in Latin, and I don’t want to sing hymns.

  26. 26
    Katalina

    They are definitely boring, but the non-mysterious nature of them always made them seem so much more normal than any other church service I’ve ever been to. No candles, hardly any stained glass, tons of kids running around and being loud – it’s just like any other boring meeting!

  27. 27
    Alice in Wonderland

    Hah, maybe this is the root of my fundamental disagreement with you here! I love singing in groups, but I don’t like singing by myself very much at all. This is because I’m honestly not a very good singer; when I sing alone I don’t sound very good, even to myself. But in a group, I sound kinda okay!

    So basically I go to church so that I can mooch off of other people’s better singing.

  28. 28
    Crommunist

    Heh, maybe so.

    I love to sing with other musicians in the context of a jam or a performance. They don’t even have to be particularly good. I could be persuaded, if I was really hard up for activity, to join a choir or something where I’d be singing with a lot of other people. But singing in public gatherings creeps me out. I also don’t like singing to people, either individually or in small audiences – albeit for entirely different reasons.

  29. 29
    Katalina

    Singing TO people is actually really creepy, I agree. Perfect for office celebrations.

  30. 30
    WilloNyx

    I am one of those people can’t help but to sing when I know the words to a song that is on. Even if it is a song I disagree with or hate. I can’t help it. I start singing it and I am internally dialoguing all my issues when the song is on. It is uncomfortable and strangely pleasant at the same time. To me I think singalongs are bizarre and can only enjoy it when I really like the song. I don’t really know how it affects most people but it feels kind of group thinky to me to have an analogue to hymns in the atheist community. I prefer the flavor that not everyone likes the same music or lyrics.

    Aside from that, I get excited when someone admits to being wrong. It happens so rarely it makes my jaw drop. I can only hope that I admit my errors with near your eloquence in the future.

  31. 31
    Anthony K

    I share this feeling, and I love to sing. My partner and I communicate almost exclusively in song by changing the lyrics of songs we both know to fit whatever we happen to be doing. We’ve gotten so good at doing this that we’ll often improvise the exact same lyrics on the fly. Of course, a lot of the songs revolve around our cat, so it goes without saying that some subjects are easier to riff on than others.

    At the pub, friends and I would sneak out back and have an impromptu karaoke session with an iPod, just because it got into our heads that we needed to sing.

    But the atonal murmuring that passed for singing at the church I grew up in? Ugh. Gross. Awful.

    That said, I totally understand why other people might like to sing in a group, even love to do so, and I’m not even counting the people I know who’ve joined choirs for the purpose.

    So, I don’t know what to make of this issue other than to say Don’t make everyone do it, whether ‘it’ is singing or ‘it’ is not singing.

  32. 32
    'Tis Himself

    You two clearly have a history. Keep it the hell away from me.

    To hear (or read, as the case may be) is to obey, oh maximum leader of the blog.

  33. 33
    Crommunist

    If you’re going to fight about something relevant to this post, have at it. I don’t need this to be a metastatic node of a fight from someone else’s blog.

  34. 34
    John Horstman

    I object to the characterization of coercion. While I agree that coercion always includes a threat of violence, I view psychic violence i.e. shunning, loss of community, etc. as a form that qualifies. All social norms are, by definition, coercive – that’s what makes them “norms” instead of “stuff that most people do but which it also doesn’t matter if you do.” The problem is with viewing coercion (bullying, shaming, etc.) as intrinsically bad; they’re not, they’re just applied to negative ends a whole lot of the time. I also assert that most, though not all, social norms are extremely harmful to at the very least some small subset of people. What makes them valid is if they prevent more harm overall (I also don’t think most of them do so – don’t punch people is a good one; men must not wear dresses is a bad one, and also a clear example of a direct threat of violence for nonconformity).

    Anyway, I still find the idea of secular/atheist churches fucking creepy, primarily because any group identity like that has a strong tendency to inculcate tribalism instead of encouraging case-by-case evaluations of experiences and ideas, even when that group values rational analysis. Nationalism is a good example (it’s already an extant form of secular religion, as I pointed out in my comment on the previous post), but people get into vicious fights over something as trivial as the opinion of the quality of a TV show. The fact that formalized ritual and group norms are strong components of human social organization throughout the entire history of human social organization don’t necessarily make them the best ideas.

  35. 35
    davidb

    Yabbut I think marking things like births and marriages is pretty much a human universal, and it does have the virtue – I see it as a virtue anyway – of tending to bring families together.

    It is, I think, the sort of thing many people want to do. I can’t ultimately justify why people ought to want this, but I can’t see why they shouldn’t want to either. Why not share joyful occasions, and sad ones too for that matter, with family and friends? Is that not part of what makes us human?

    For such events to be marked by religious orgs, without the option of a humanist or secular or whatever you want to call it option, seems to me a bad thing pragmatically, and a bit inhumane.

    David B

  36. 36
    melody

    I have made this point to James before. He rejects it.

  37. 37
    James Croft

    Then you don’t have to. But the argument is not that “everyone should do communal singing”. It’s that “communal singing is compatible with Humanism and some might like to”. My position is that your likes and dislikes don’t get to determine others’ actions in this regard.

  38. 38
    James Croft

    I don’t reject it – I think it is an extremely astute and well-made point. It’s something we think about a lot at the Humanist Community at Harvard. When we first pitched the Project, we had to think carefully about just this question: who is our target audience? Who do we really hope to reach? This quote from jamessweet makes the point nicely:

    So. James Croft is right that there is a need for a 100% secular/atheistic church-like experience. But the problem is that if you try to take a humanist gathering and remake it into “atheist church”, you’re going to miss your target audience, while potentially foisting it onto people who have been fleeing from the very thing you are selling. On the other hand, if you could take a very liberal sect (like UU) and strip away the last few theistic/faith-y remnants, then your target audience is right there waiting.

    We do think a lot about who we are seeking to target with our community – who do we want to bring in? And we don’t come to quite the same conclusion as you do. We do find that a lot of committed atheist activists do not like what we are offering that much. Our crossover with Boston Atheists, when it comes to our Sunday community meetings, for example, is quite low, although many of them will join us for large events, and vice versa. On the other hand, many members of area Humanist groups do attend (such as members of the Greater Boston Humanists). So we think there are clearly different tastes within the movement as it currently stands, and we can appeal to some within that demographic. You always have to keep in mind that FTB draws a very specific slice of the broader freethinking community – a slice which tends to demonstrate a particularly antipathy towards community building. There are lots of movement Humanists out there who are intrigued by what we offer (hence our overflowing space every Sunday).

    But the biggest difference I have with your position is that we honestly believe that the appeal of something like this extends far beyond people who are already in the secular movement. There are almost 30% of Millennial now who identify as non religious, and the vast majority of those are not in secular student groups, not commenting on FTB, not members of American Atheists or the AHA, not HUUmanists, not Ethical Culturists. They are just “non religious”. And they are often VERY interested in finding a community which shares their political values (this is in line with all the polling and demographic data we’ve analyzed). And these are the sorts of people we hope to reach.

    We think by having a vision which is broader than usual we can actually grow the movement, perhaps hugely, adding new people who have never deeply considered Humanism.

    This is really important to remember in discussions on this site, because it’s not the case that we’re really angling our efforts primarily towards drawing the avid commentariat of Freethought Blogs. You already have a place to go (although you are always welcome to join us if this appeals!). We want to reach out to new people who aren’t engaged in any way with he movement yet.

  39. 39
    James Croft

    First, Crommunist is a true skeptic and freethinker, and is generally awesome. *bows*

    I wanted to take a while to untangle my thoughts regarding the question of coercion, and here they are. Crommunist says:

    Socially normative behaviour is indeed an effective way of enforcing behaviour. Many of those behaviours are positive – etiquette, honesty, and respect are all practices that are enforced more or less exclusively by social pressure. Other behaviours are decidedly negative – nationalist tribalism, racism, and misogyny are all similarly fueled by influence from a peer group (or a larger societal group). Both are examples of situations in which an individual may not necessarily have engaged in a specific behaviour voluntarily, but because ze knows that there is either a) a reward for compliance, or b) a price to pay for deviance, ze will ‘go along’ with what is being done.

    I agree with everything up until the final sentence. I would phrase it this way: someone who engages in an activity because they are aware that social rewards will accrue to them if they do so (and penalties, though not physical or legal penalties, might occur if they refuse) is still acting voluntarily, in my view. And this is why I still maintain my view that social norms are generally not coercive.

    If we take Crommunist’s view, we would have to accept that the vast majority of actions we perform, including many we generally consider “voluntary”, are in fact “coerced”, or formed under threat of “coercion”. I think this definition too broad an incompatible with how we generally use language, but even if one accepts it, it doesn’t seem to me to hurt my case: I can simply point out that at most the “coercion” that exists when others around you are singing is a very light form of “coercion” and is not particularly objectionable.

    This is a stronger criticism, though:

    There is, however, a world of difference between restricting harmful behaviours (because they’re harmful) and compelling arbitrary desired behaviours simply because you like them

    I think this is a useful criticism because I can see that there is indeed a significant difference between “enforcing group norms” and “using social pressure to get people to do something you like to do”. This is something to consider, and I’ll have to give it more thought. It may be that I have been too gung-ho about this and should think of it more as an optional extra rather than as a core part of community functions.

    So, in all, this has been a very fruitful exchange – here’s to many more in the future!

  40. 40
    jamessweet

    But I don’t ignore the philosophically objectionable nuggets; I chafe at them, I complain to my husband about them, I write emails to the minister to let her know when such and such a thing has left me uncomfortable. (This doesn’t make me a bad UU; this makes me a pretty average UU, as far as I can tell.)

    I’d be interested in what you, as someone who decided to embrace UU, finds as the objectionable pieces. I’ve only attended a grand total of two UU services, at two different congregations, and my list would be:

    1. Faith nominally treated as a virtue, even though in practice UUs don’t really act that way.
    2. Undue respect granted to the Bible, and so-called “Judeo-Christian values”, as if the genuine moral insights contained in them were in any way unique or non-obvious. (i.e. even though they don’t really treat the Bible as a sacred text, they still treat it as a good text, and I beg to differ)
    3. In at least one of the services I went to, while the entire rest of the service was devoid of overtly supernatural claptrap, some of the hymns inexplicably invoked BS like angels and crap like that, and in apparently non-metaphorical ways, i.e. the hymns seemed just as tediously theistic as you’d find in any church.
    4. A little too much ambiguity over literal vs. metaphorical in situations where if it were literal it would be total nonsense.

    The example I have in mind for my last one was that the 2nd UU service I went to, it was the “Blessing of the Animals”, which loosely translates to “Take Your Pet To Church Day”. It was really fun and cool, lots of tongue-in-cheek-ness, as well as some genuinely heartfelt stuff about the meaningfulness of animal companionship. Good altogether. But when they actual allowed people to take their pet up to be blessed, I got this vibe that was way less ceremonial, and way more like it was actually supposed to do something. Maybe I just don’t “get” it, and it was supposed to be ceremonial after all. But it was kinda weird.

    Anyway, does that about sum it up?

  41. 41
    jamessweet

    Okay, fair enough James. I think you’re making some sense.

    Now, nothing you can say will change the “ick factor” I experience in regards to your endeavor — as I said in an earlier comment, I viscerally experience the idea of humanist hymns the way one might experience an image of spiders crawling on somebody’s face. Even if there’s nothing inherently wrong about it, it totally creeps me out on a personal level. (Seriously, I literally feel itchy when I try to imagine singing a hymn with a bunch of humanists)

    But it seems you are aware of these issues and thinking about them, and as I admitted, I think there is a need for something kinda like this… The presence of so many atheists in UU congregations (as Alice in Wonderland describes) is a testament to that. I still don’t know whether you’re going about it right or not, but… you’re thinking about the right issues, and working on the problem. I think that’s praiseworthy.

  42. 42
    jamessweet

    Nah, it’s not just how well you sing. I sing poorly, but I also enjoy singing (poorly, I tell you!) in a band, and, I also can’t stand group singing in the form of hymns. I actually don’t mind Happy Birthday, because it’s short and self-consciously silly. But even with that, in the wrong frame of mind I don’t care for it either.

    But there is a definite personal preference aspect. Some people just love it. Other people just don’t. This is totally separate from any practical or philosophical concerns, and it’s an issue that needs to be kept in mind.

  43. 43
    jamessweet

    I have to take some issue with your phrasing of this point however:

    You always have to keep in mind that FTB draws a very specific slice of the broader freethinking community – a slice which tends to demonstrate a particularly antipathy towards community building.

    I think I agree with what you meant, but I don’t agree with how you said it. I don’t think that FtBers tends to have a particular antipathy towards building communities per se, I think the antipathy is for certain types of communities, types of communities which the public at large is A-OK with or even craves.

    But that FtB is a non-representative sample, and is going to draw a disproportionate number of people who are not at all interested in your idea or anything like it? Yes, I think you are right about that.

  44. 44
    Crommunist

    James I think you are seriously misrepresenting the position of those at FTB who criticize your project when you say that we demonstrate an antipathy toward community building. It has been said repeatedly that what they (we?) oppose is the idea that there is a ‘right’ way of doing it, and that HH will be the ones to arbitrate how other communities structure themselves. It is the idea of one group setting the standard for how other groups behave that is getting your efforts the lion’s share of criticism.

    I do not believe that you intend to dictate practices by fiat to other groups, or step in and tell some group that they’re doing it wrong and must shut down. This view of your project is as big a straw man as your statement that FTB is hostile to community building. The way I understand it is that you will be testing and creating a model that other groups are free to emulate (in whole or in part) or reject outright. If a group says “we want to set up a thing”, HH would like to offer guidance (and perhaps staff, if asked) so that humanist groups have a scaffolding upon which to build, rather than having to start from scratch every time.

    Is the above a fair description of what you have in mind?

  45. 45
    Alice in Wonderland

    I’d be interested in what you, as someone who decided to embrace UU, finds as the objectionable pieces.

    In fact you’ve already hit on the bulk of them, in your own list. I’ll go through the list and give my own comments, and then see if I can think of any additional items.

    1. Faith nominally treated as a virtue, even though in practice UUs don’t really act that way.

    I can’t think of any specific examples of this coming up for me in my particular community, but it may be present as one of those underlying currents which make me a bit uncomfortable but which I can never quite put my finger on.

    There’s a seminal book about UUism actually titled “Our Chosen Faith,” but I would strongly resist describing UUism as my own faith (instead, I would — and do! — say that I am a member of a UU community).

    2. Undue respect granted to the Bible, and so-called “Judeo-Christian values”, as if the genuine moral insights contained in them were in any way unique or non-obvious. (i.e. even though they don’t really treat the Bible as a sacred text, they still treat it as a good text, and I beg to differ)

    Yes, yes, and yes. And add to that the core texts of sundry other religious traditions, as well, although the Bible certainly gets special mention.

    I’m fine with studying these things as culturally- and historically-important texts, but I cringe at the idea that we should consider these texts to be particularly rich sources of moral insights.

    3. In at least one of the services I went to, while the entire rest of the service was devoid of overtly supernatural claptrap, some of the hymns inexplicably invoked BS like angels and crap like that, and in apparently non-metaphorical ways, i.e. the hymns seemed just as tediously theistic as you’d find in any church.

    Yep. That bothers me too. But it’s a small annoyance for me rather than a really big one, for the following reasons:

    First, my congregation tends to avoid the worst-offending hymns, generally speaking. (Heck, sometimes we go off-book and sing John Lennon’s Imagine instead.)

    Second, when we do end up singing one of the songs that has, say, “God” in it, the minister tends to apologize ahead of time and encourage us to personally make word-substitutions if we feel the need.

    In fact one time, at a service during Easter/Passover season, it came time for a song and the minister encouraged us to individually choose to sing either “Jesus Christ is Risen Again” or “Lo the Earth Awakes Again” (a secular song about spring, sung to the same melody as the Jesus one). The result was fairly silly, but I felt like it was a nice way of acknowledging the diversity of the congregation.

    Still, all that said, I’d be happier if the Jesus songs just weren’t in the book.

    4. A little too much ambiguity over literal vs. metaphorical in situations where if it were literal it would be total nonsense.

    I find that in my particular UU congregation, things tend to be sufficiently explicitly metaphorical as to keep me at ease on that point.

  46. 46
    Alice in Wonderland

    In addition to what you’ve brought up, I also tend to get edgy whenever the notion of “spirituality” arises. Spirituality is one of those slippery words, and some people even try to use it in a secular way, but I find it highly problematical.

  47. 47
    Crommunist

    It just so happens that I’ve written about the problems around that word before.

  48. 48
    Alice in Wonderland

    [Follows the link] Yep, that’s pretty much what bothers me about the concept of spirituality.

  49. 49
    James Croft

    Crommunist:

    James I think you are seriously misrepresenting the position of those at FTB who criticize your project when you say that we demonstrate an antipathy toward community building. It has been said repeatedly that what they (we?) oppose is the idea that there is a ‘right’ way of doing it, and that HH will be the ones to arbitrate how other communities structure themselves.

    Sure – I didn’t mean to suggest there’s a blanket antipathy anywhere toward community building. I do get the impression that it’s more an antipathy toward being told what to do. And you are completely right to note that that is absolutely not what we are hoping to do. We do not want to tell people what to do. We want to offer resources which other people might use or not according to their own desires.

    jamessweet:

    Thanks! We do try to think about the very real criticisms we receive on these and other forums, and although we don’t always end up agreeing with them, we always give them thorough consideration.

  50. 50
    James Croft

    Crommunist:

    I just reread the post you were responding to and see where I made the statement you picked up on re: the FTB antipathy toward community building. You are totally right – that statement was way too broad and inaccurate. My apologies.

  51. 51
    Ainuvande

    Two slightly contradictory things (late to the discussion, and not a regular voice, as I tend to lurk): In one of my undergrad psych courses, we looked at number of studies where people will give the wrong answer to simple and obvious questions because the room full of plants also publicly gave the wrong answer. People will also give the wrong answer is tone and body language of authority strongly suggests the wrong answer is the right one, but that’s less obvious.

    I love singing in groups. I’ve been a choral alto all my life, so I harmonize without thinking about it (wouldn’t know what to do with a melody line if it fell in my lap), which makes group singing way fun for me. I attended church for *years* just to sing, after I stopped believing. If I ever got over my fear of crowds enough to attend a con, I would totally go to an event there what was labeled “Humanist group-sing” (I totally did something similar at a folk dance weekend I attended recently). HOWEVER if the audience at large at something like a keynote speech or any other not-singing-focused-talk was exhorted to sing, I’d feel highly uncomfortable. Because then the speaker and the rest of the crowd is forcing me to do something I didn’t sign up for.

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