Thanks to everyone who chimed in with suggestions for a secular alternative to the phrase, “preaching to the choir.” Lots of people had very good suggestions, and if (like me) you’re trying to get religious phrases out of your language unless you’re actually talking about religion, I encourage y’all to look at the comment thread and pick the ones you like best. I love crowdsourcing!
(If you don’t care about this “getting religious phrases out of your language” thing, btw, that’s totally fine. Every atheist gets to decide for themselves where they draw the line between “totally secularized religious language” and “religious language that still conveys tacit support for religious ideas.” And every atheist gets to decide for themselves whether they even care about this.)
But the replacement for “preaching to the choir” that I liked best is “cheering to the pep squad.” (Thanks to northierthanthou for the suggestion, to others who made similar suggestions, and to everyone who participated in the conversation!) I think that’s the one I’ll be using. Here’s why.
1: “Cheering to the pep squad” is personal. It conveys the image of a person talking to a group of people. “Coals to Newcastle” or other phrases connoting “delivering something to a place that already has lots of it” don’t convey that sense of personal communication of ideas. Same with “kicking at an open door.” Although I do like that phrase, and may wind up using it sometimes.
2: “Cheering to the pep squad” conveys what I see as the central concept in the phrase “preaching to the choir”: the idea of trying to persuade people who already agree with you, and in fact whose job it is to help convey those very same ideas.
This is why I personally like “cheering to the pep squad” better than “lecturing to the faculty,” btw. “Lecturing to the faculty” got a lot of votes in the discussion thread. But as many people in the conversation pointed out, “lecturing to the faculty” is, in fact, a useful endeavor, one which actually goes on in many schools. Faculty members don’t always agree about everything. They may even attend lectures as part of how they resolve disagreements. So for me, that phrase doesn’t quite fit.
3: “Cheering to the pep squad” conveys the same vibe of the phrase “preaching to the choir” — the vibe of pointlessness, the vibe of wasting your efforts persuading people who already agree with you. But it also leaves room open for questions and interpretation about this supposed pointlessness. When the concept of “preaching to the choir” comes up, it’s often pointed out that “preaching to the choir” isn’t always pointless. Sometimes the choir needs to be motivated, inspired, revved up. Sometimes you need to persuade people on your side: not that you’re right, but that the fight is worth fighting. And giving people words for ideas and feelings they’ve been experiencing but couldn’t find words for… that’s useful. As former preacher and Atheist Nexus founder Richard Haynes said, “Sure, you preach to the choir — that’s how you get them to sing.”
“Cheering to the pep squad” leaves that same door open. Often, cheering to the pep squad is a waste of time — they’re already pretty darned cheerful. But sometimes the pep squad needs cheering. And it’s often worth discussing whether any given instance of cheering to the pep squad is useful motivation, or a pointless echoing back and forth between people who all already agree.
So that’s my vote. But again… not trying to establish dogma here. If you like another phrase instead, by all means, go ahead and use it. And if I’ve already convinced you that this phrase is a good one, I won’t keep hammering on about it. I don’t want to be cheering to the pep squad here. :-)
Oh, btw: A side discussion was started in that same thread, looking for secular alternatives to the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’d like to put in a vote for, “There but for a lot of luck go I.” Same scansion and everything! But I also like my brother’s suggestion, “There but for the hammer of Thor go I.” Not strictly secular, but sometimes talking about gods that nobody believes in anymore has much the same effect. What are your thoughts?