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.”


  1. John Horstman says

    Croft sounds more and more like he’s simply seeking to construct religion without god. If that’s his real aim, he should bypass the secular humanism thing entirely: nationalism already has a well-established framework in most countries and an extensive established toolkit from which to work (including established songs that most people in his target audience are going to know, like “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “America the Beautiful”, and our subversively-bastardized version of “God Save the Queen”).

  2. says

    I can’t say I’ve ever been completely satisfied with James’ explanation of what exactly the HH are trying to build. He’s told me a number of things he’s not doing, but seems to be pretty scanty on what he is trying to do, aside from adopting some elements of religious tradition into humanist expression. As I’ve said, I’m not necessarily opposed to that. There are some disturbing elements to it though. I’m hoping he has a more adequate response to this particular criticism than he did on Twitter (which is almost guaranteed – Twitter is a terrible debate medium).

  3. Mclean says

    Good post Ian. As a member of Humanist groups for awhile, this idea of group singing has come up many times, and has led to both argument and discussion.

    Those that support it tend to realize it is dangerous, but want to pursue it anyway but with eyes open to the danger, in an attempt to build better group cohesion (and a sense of fun) anyway.

    Those that are against it are, as you point out, against the cohersion and cultish aspect of the group sing.

    I really don’t like James’ “like it our get out” response, which is most certainly, as you point out not, in the style of humanism, however I do see a place for it, and have seen it done well.

    The group sing has absolutely no place, for the reasons you mentioned, in regular gatherings UNLESS it is in an optional second stream of meetings for those without a sensitive religous background and who like to sing and explore and develop culture as a group can do so.

    However, for more social events based around a meal, like the local picnic we have at the peace arch, the group sing (with mild social encouragement) is very appropriate, fun, and builds a sense of community that is hard to develop otherwise. Yes it is emotional, and yes I felt uncomfortable (I have a religious background myself), but as long as we maintain an informal atmosphere where, although there is mild social pressure, no one really cares if you sing along or not, I think the rare group sing is a very good thing and not something that should be forbidden outright.

    Some humanist groups in the past have even formed caroling subgroups where they belt out the secular as well as religious carols for fun.

    In short, group sings that are more spontaneous, tongue-in-cheek, or informal, and above all: OPTIONAL, tend to be well-received whereas planned, enforced, and serious group sings, of the sort James Croft seems to be suggesting, tend to upset and repel with good reason.

  4. says

    I imagine that James will (as is his style) clarify a lot of what he meant. As I said in response to the previous comment, Twitter is a really bad place for the exchange/discussion of complex ideas. I may be misinterpreting his intention, but he showed little awareness of any problems with the advocacy of group-sing. Maybe I got it right.

    I’d be interested to hear more about the specific things you’ve tried with BCHA and how they were received.

  5. Mclean says

    Things tried with BCHA: (group song/music/action)

    1. Ending poem.
    We tried to end meetings by reciting a fell-good poem. While about half really liked this, the rest were very offput by it, so we stopped the experiment very quickly. It was a failure.

    2. Thought to leave on.
    We now end our meetings with a quote or quick news item that is positive in nature. Before, we used to just end abruptly and people would taper out. This change has been well received and there have been no complaints.

    3. Music to start.
    Very informally, sometimes a member will play the piano we have in our room at the beginning of the meeting before most people show up. There are no complaints I’ve heard of, but there is no singing.

    4. Music and song to end with.
    Trying to get an impromptu sing-along for “Imagine no religion”, after a discussion on singing, failed completely. Nobody joined in and it failed really before it started.

    5. Music and songs at dinner events.
    We often have someone volunteer to play music for annual dinner events, and this is very well received. Sometimes there is a group sing involved at somepoint, and while some are more uncomfortable, this is usually well received as well. For one picnic, this singer/songwriter led us in a sing/repeat, which is what I refered to earlier:

    6. Moment of bedlam
    At the start of large group dinners, one of our members leads us in a ‘Moment of Bedlam’ (as opposed to a moment of silence) which is always well received.

    7. Hand holding during a speech
    During lunch after a humanist eulogy, the visiting humanist officiant led us in a hand-holding moment of somber reflection before the meal. This made me and others very uncomfortable, but he handled this and his speech quite well so that by the end I didn’t mind as much and even appreciated the moment afterwards. I feel that this is only appropriate in these situations though.

    8. Icebreakers and games
    For more social events, we sometimes have icebreakers and games. While people tend to hesitate at first, usually they are well received by the end. Those that are not interested are not forced into it, and although there is social encouragement, there are usually no complaints.

  6. consciousness razor says

    Thank you, Crommunist.

    Songs in the key of H(umanism)

    Well, you know, B natural isn’t for everyone. (That joke is probably going to fall flat.)

    I’m certainly biased as a musician, but I think humanists should be very supportive of art. That’s not to say we need “humanist” art, if that means a kind of propaganda for group cohesion or for attracting the churchy types to “our” cause. We shouldn’t treat art as a means to some end, other than the appreciation of art. A lot of art is political, but there’s still a lot of danger in using it as a political weapon, because as you say, it can have very strong effects.

    One sort of thing I hear a lot is that it can create positive emotions. It’s there to make people feel good and comfortable and relaxed, and so on. That’s often assumed to be good thing, but it can lull people into complacency or distract them from problems they ought to be dealing with. People don’t tend to challenge the message itself when it’s delivered in a way that appeals to them on that level. And the “message” may not even be a part of the work itself, but only in how people interpret it.

    On the other end of the spectrum, more aggressive or hard-to-stomach art can either turn people off or toss them off the deep end, doing more harm than good, because people react very unpredictably when they have such powerful experiences. So you really have to tighten your grip on what is allowed or just accept that it’s going to be out of control. The only winning move is not to play.

    What I don’t expect from people like Croft is any real understanding of this shit, or honest acknowledgment of the problems without digging in even further with a load of apologetics. He may be steeped in humanist thought, know how to run an organization or celebrate a rite of passage, etc., but none of that’s a substitute for having an artist’s or a philosopher’s or a psychologist’s perspective.

  7. Joshua says

    Have you ever considered having an open mike night for those with musical ability? something that is laid back and allows for a diversity of different styles of music and culture while also creating a sense of community (obviously no sing alongs)?

  8. says

    Aren’t the UU’s already sitting where Croft wants to go?

    Anyways, much though I love music (I sang in choirs and on occasion led folk-style singing on guitar, back in my churchy days), I’m not real eager to re-institute anything like a church service. Been there, done that, and now I’d prefer a pint of something medium dark and a science or philosophy talk/discussion to poetry and an “inspirational” message.

  9. says

    My understanding is that James and the rest of the HHs do not feel as though the UUs adequately address a specific need they’ve identified. I don’t really know what the UUs do, nor do I fully understand what it is the HHs have planned, so I will not attempt to define what that need is. However, James has repeatedly made it clear that participation in UU service is not a sufficient alternative.

    And certainly you realize that while you may prefer beer and conversation, there are many people who feel unwelcome at such events. I certainly don’t feel as though my personal interests are being well-addressed by the mainstream freethought community, and my needs are pretty vanilla compared to those of others. The discussion of the issue of liturgical music has to go outside the realm of “I don’t personally like it, therefore it’s a bad idea”. Otherwise it’s the “beer crowd” vs. the “church crowd” in the battle of whose personal tastes are less relevant to meaningful discourse.

  10. Erasmus says

    Then there’s those of us who don’t like either. Social pressure to drink vs social pressure to be all churchy is a pretty shitty choice.

  11. ash says

    “humanism” is far too broad a concept to create any one ritual set around. people tend to find the issues within humanism that they care most passionately about and participate in those causes under the aegis of humanism

  12. ash says

    I hate all singalongs. And that thing where people collectively start clapping in time to the band. uggg. This whole ritual nonsense is a tacit play for a leader/follower kind of set up. My family was not religious at all, but we had this blowhard neighbor who my folks invited to dinner occasionally who would always ask if he could “lead us in prayer”…It’s such a foul presumptuous practice. And who exactly ARE these people who so deeply miss the ritual that religion once provided?

  13. ash says

    It’s called “going out to see a band”. Why does it have to be centered around some ‘meta’ meaning. If you’re working for the SSA or women’s rights advocacy group, or any number of organizations promoting some facet of humanism, shouldn’t that be enough?

  14. says

    And who exactly ARE these people who so deeply miss the ritual that religion once provided?

    Well James is one, as are apparently those involved in HH. Not to mention the number of nonbelievers who still attend church services because they like the ritual aspect. It’s not at all inconceivable to me that there are people out there who don’t share your obvious contempt for the idea.

  15. ash says

    in other words, why does there have to be any organized ritual space outside of our support and involvement in the causes that advance humanism in general?

  16. says

    Going to see a band is not a participatory exercise. It is a passive one.

    I don’t know how to answer the question “shouldn’t that be enough” except to say that not everyone shares your outlook on life. Some people don’t find science all that fulfilling – I don’t think it’s reasonable to imply that it “should be enough” to look through a telescope if you have some existential need.

  17. says

    why does there have to be any organized ritual space…

    You’re basically asking why religion exists in the first place, which is a long and complicated answer.

  18. says

    Oh, I don’t think it’s a bad idea (though such attempts at humanist hymnody as I’ve heard struck me as pretty desperate. For that matter, so do some of the more out-there-liberal Christian attempts — I think I’m too steeped in traditional religion to ever sing about “Old Mother God” with a straight face). Apologies for getting grumpy and making it all about me.

    There are some aspects of church we (to include my wife, for whom this is an important issue) would very much like to reproduce in a secular context, notably the network of mutual aid that a well-run congregation provides.

  19. says

    What I don’t expect from people like Croft is any real understanding of this shit, or honest acknowledgment of the problems without digging in even further with a load of apologetics. He may be steeped in humanist thought, know how to run an organization or celebrate a rite of passage, etc., but none of that’s a substitute for having an artist’s or a philosopher’s or a psychologist’s perspective.

    Luckily I have the perspective of all three – my undergraduate and graduate degrees include training in philosophy and psychology, my doctoral work is in philosophy, and I have been a singer and an actor all my life. I have helped reach classes on cognitive science, aesthetics and epistemology, have taught drama, and have published psychological, sociological, neuroscientists and philosophical work.

    You may not like my ideas, but my background is well-suited to advancing them.

  20. ash says

    ” It’s not at all inconceivable to me that there are people out there who don’t share your obvious contempt for the idea.”

    You’re right of course, it just seems I never have met any of them. I think I’m more accustomed to associations with fellow atheists which would explain my bafflement. I still have a hard time separating atheism and humanism. It seems that a position that is internally consistant would assume humanism as a subset of atheisism. as in ‘all humanists are atheist but not all atheists are humanists.’ I know it’s a lame assumption on my part and I see the problem with that argument, but if some people want that sort of ritual in their lives, no one is stopping them. Just so long as no one makes it a requirement for membership. And who decides the tenets of the rituals of humanism. That’s another problem.

  21. ash says

    Actually, I would gladly go to a humanist ritual service if they ever got around to setting it up, just to see what it would look like. I know I’ve been bloviating a bit here, so sorry for that. It’s partly my problem with the desire to make rules where none are necessary. That’s what’s so awesome about FTB per Ed’s ‘we ahve no mission staement’ announcement. Again, I would never stand in the way of anyone wanting to practice their humanism in any way they want. I came across as more antagonistic than I actually am on the matter.

  22. Mclean says

    Erasmus: I see the spectrum as something like this, at least in North America (and specifically in Vancouver, Canada):

    NO —– IO —- CFI – HU —- HH —————- UU

    NO: No organization, just join science clubs, etc.
    IO: Informal events only. Pubs, drop-in/drop-out events and membership, and internet participation and groups. Community avoided.
    CFI: Centre for Inquiry, pretty much a new humanist group in all but official name.
    HU: Secular Humanist Groups (more focus on community and events, very little to no ritual)
    HH: Harvard Humanist Group/ Christian and Jewish Humanists (more ritual)
    UU: Unitarian/Universalists. Ritual, very churchy (sunday school, sermons, singing), Woo and spirituality are allowed and sometimes endorsed.

    Ethical Societies fit in somewhere, but I’m not sure where as I’ve never attended one, and from what I’ve heard many ethical societies have merged with local humanist groups.

    To make it more confusing, people from the entire spectrum can and do call themselves (and are considered) Humanists.

  23. ash says

    And rock n roll was invented by Bela Bartok…Hell Yeah! I’ll go see any of his string quartets in a heartbeat! Hail Satan

  24. says

    Of course not! I’m still in New Orleans, probably the only place with power enough to keep me from responding more quickly! I’ll be composing a thorough reply on the plane this evening.

  25. says

    I’m partway through a very long reply, but one thing I should interject now: 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.

  26. says

    You may want to consider breaking up your reply if it’s truly that long. Otherwise we will run into a nightmare of comment threading.

  27. says

    I am going to post it on my website – you’ve entered right into my wheelhouse, and I want to give this topic the full attention it deserves, so I’m basically trying to summarize years of my academic work into a blogpost =P

  28. says

    I always liked the sense of community I got when singing with others. And I do really miss that–though I can get that from joining secular choirs.

    But what really makes a community come together is doing community service, I find, and it’s also something a lot of churches do well. A combination of somehow-helpful networking and counseling within the group, and working to do useful projects outside the group.

  29. consciousness razor says

    Going to see a band is not a participatory exercise. It is a passive one.

    It can be participatory and non-passive, though I’m sure that’s far from typical. Or if that sort of thing is not your cup of tea, you could be in the band. If you don’t like that, there are a million other things you could do, but is there something wrong with example? Your response kind of seemed to overlook the follow-up questions:

    Why does it have to be centered around some ‘meta’ meaning. If you’re working for the SSA or women’s rights advocacy group, or any number of organizations promoting some facet of humanism, shouldn’t that be enough?

    People get a “sense of community” a lot of different ways. Sometimes, it’s “passive,” like going to see some kinds of bands, watching movies, or whatever. Other times, they’re in the band, playing a game, doing charitable or advocacy work, or other less-passive activities. Trying to lump all these different things together is a mistake, because people want different things out of different activities; and no organization can possibly fulfill them all effectively. That is one of the big failures of churches (besides the theology), if you ask me.

    If people want to do charitable work, that doesn’t mean they all want to sit in a drum circle and light candles first. (Maybe a few do, but most just want to get to work.) As much as I love candles and drum circles, I seriously doubt they’d effective at getting people to do charitable work. They’re also not going to make people better, more rational humanists or atheists. That’s not what they’re for.

    If we just want to communicate with people, we have language for that, which we should use clearly in an open, honest dialogue between equals. If we try to express those things through more deliberately-artistic methods, the message can very easily be obscured with music, visuals, poetic language, etc., and it’s much more often a one-way conversation. Remember how you automatically associated seeing a band as “passive”? That’s because the band generally isn’t listening to what you have to say or reacting to what you do. And then if you try to discuss the concert afterward, the message is very often overlooked in favor of talking about how the band played, assuming there even was a “message.” Of course that’s a good and important sort of conversation to have, but it’s not a conversation about humanism.

  30. Michael R says

    “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”

    That’s a misleading statement. Psychology and neuroscience 101 state that: emotion is the drive and reason is a tool used in pursuit of emotional goals. Rational thought is valued as a means to reliable beliefs which is a means to efficient satisfaction of desires.

    Crommunist’s simpled-minded elevation of reason above all else is nonsense. Reason exists to serve our desires. So the sine qua is a complement of emotion and reason. That’s the fact, Jack.

    Sure, emotion can interfere with accurate reasoning, and we should guard against that. But that’s a side issue. The general nature of emotion and reason is complementary, not in competition. They serve different functions. Reason informs us, emotion moves us. Reason alone does not move us to action.

    Yes we need to be wary of groupthink that can come through humanist communities and singalongs, but it’s totally brain-dead to deprive yourself of such emotional pursuits because desires are at the heart of why we exist.

    Jame’s ideas are not a threat to reason, they are a complement to it. Learn the difference.

  31. says

    The general nature of emotion and reason is complementary, not in competition.

    Um… no. Emotion is not a path to truth, nor can it be used as a check on the things that make religion threatening. Yes, emotion ‘moves us’, often to do really awful things to each other. Reason is the thing that ensures that any idea we’re all fired up about isn’t ultimately destructive. I’m hardly insensitive to the fact that emotion provides us with the motivation to act, but reason is what ought to guide those actions. The use of music does not further a rational end – it works in the exact opposite direction by prioritizing group cohesion and socially normative compliance over the ability to rationally consider ideas.

  32. jamessweet says

    Two things about the UUs:

    First, my understanding is that it depends a lot on the congregation you attend. The two I’ve been two weren’t tremendously far off from what Croft seems to be going for (though they still missed the boat; see below), but I’ve heard horror stories about some pretty distinctly anti-atheist congregations. UU as a whole is not particularly pro- or anti-atheist. Because of their anti-dogma stance, a lot of congregations are open to atheists, but not all.

    Second, UUs still tend to praise faith as a virtue, they do not really emphasize reason (avoiding dogma is not the same as emphasizing reason), and a lot of the music still has church-y references.

  33. jamessweet says

    I don’t want to bother saying too much about this, especially as it seems to be somewhat of a stale thread anyway. I see Croft’s point, and I do think there is a need for some kind of church-y humanism for some people; but I also agree very much with Ian in that there are some pretty serious dangers in going that route, and we are right to be concerned.

    But overall, my reaction is this: Humanist hymns? That you all sing together as a group? Fucking gag. Blech. I feel all itchy and weird just thinking about it. I recognize that’s personal preference, but frankly I find the idea so viscerally revolting that I’m not really capable of talking about it objectively. Just — yuck.

    (Sorry, James…)


  1. […] Cromwell of the Crommunist Manifesto (a member of the Freethought Blogs network) thinks that this desire is “anti-humanist”. He has composed an extended reply to my advocacy of the role of […]

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