Why Seculars Don’t Sing

Tom Flynn

Like philosopher Andy Norman, whose report on the recent Center for Inquiry–Transnational symposium celebrating Daniel Dennett’s 2006 book, Breaking the Spell, appears in this issue (available in the print edition), I was in attendance when psychiatrist James Thomson performed what Norman aptly calls “an unusual experiment: he had about one hundred ardent secularists link arms, sway back and forth, and sing Amazing Grace.”

Yes, I linked arms with those beside me. I swayed back and forth. I sang Amazing Grace—badly, but I still sang it. (Try not to dwell on that image.) To this staunch secularist, doing these things didn’t just feel weird. It felt wrong.

Yet, as Norman recounts, “A quick ‘after’ poll indicated noticeable changes in people’s moods, attitudes, and pain thresholds.” The effect—as compared to results that had been obtained when the same rough-and-ready measures were self-administered just before all that swaying and singing—was clearly discernible. Reflecting on the experience, Norman asks, “Why, we were led to wonder, do secular humanists make so little use of rhythm, ritual, and touch? It is seculars, not the religious, who are outliers here.”

Andy Norman is correct. In our typical disdain for such trappings of congregational life as rhythm, ritual, and touch—I’ll add melody and unison recitation of song or spoken word for good measure—in our organizational life, we secular humanists are the outliers. But then, we’re used to that. In comparison to Americans in general, we have always been outliers in such matters as disbelieving in God, disavowing eternal rewards beyond the grave, and declining to draw our ethics from the mystical literature of long-ago pastoralists. We manage to bear up under the conviction that most people are simply wrong about these things. In fact, we take pride in belonging to the small minority that (in our opinion) gets them right. Such a view may be longer on straightforwardness than it is on humility, but it captures something essential about who we are as secular humanists, and we might as well own up to it.

What if something similar obtains with regard to secular humanists’ distaste for the trappings of ritual? Norman is the latest in a long line of commentators—Greg Epstein, anyone?—to write regretfully of our disinclination toward touching, singing, chanting, swaying, and such. “Why do we cut ourselves off,” they ask, “from so much that is part of our human heritage—from practices whose psychological effectiveness is easily documented?”

In this op-ed, I’m going to do something staunch seculars seldom do when faced with this question. I’m going to try answering it. I think secular humanists are not only right but wise to banish (for lack of a better catchall term) collective ritual practice from our (pardon the expression) sectarian observances. Why?

I think there are two broad grounds on which secular humanists—and I emphasize that adjective—disdain such practice: because it is erosive of rationality and because it denigrates the autonomy of the individual. Let’s examine these accusations one by one.

Does Collective Ritual Practice Erode Rationality?

Consider the function it serves in religious congregations. As Thomson demonstrated, touching, swaying, singing, and the rest have measurable psycho-physiological effects. They apparently promote physical responses such as endorphin release, suffusing participants with a sense of well-being and, coincidentally, a heightened pain threshold. They create a feeling of solidarity and personal closeness—a sense that together the community can accomplish great things.

In another context, Alan Greenspan offered two memorable words to label the state I am describing: “irrational exuberance.” There’s no denying that such practice can be efficacious at enabling small groups of people to bond together more deeply than reality demands, to feel a sense of well-being not justified by their actual circumstances, and to resolve to tackle challenges others might recognize as foolish or insurmountable. Given that humans (especially in groups) are imperfect judges of the impossible, there have no doubt been historic occasions when the ungrounded bonhomie such practice engenders has empowered communities united by faith to overcome obstacles and realize achievements that other communities could not. Many evolutionary biologists accept that for this reason, religion may have played a significant role in heightening resilience in early human communities.

But aren’t we past that now? More important, shouldn’t we be past it? It’s easy to imagine how important such exercises in (let’s be blunt) group self-deception might have been in warding off despair for people of the past. For them, natural disasters were essentially incomprehensible; survival could depend on agricultural output over which communities had little control; disease was mysterious and frequently incurable. How differently we (in the first and second worlds, at least) live today! Consider a single variable: how profoundly it changes the emotional register of human life that moderns can expect most of their children to live, whereas even two centuries ago it was the norm for most of one’s issue to die in infancy or childhood.

We moderns may still be largely helpless in the face of natural disasters from hurricanes to drought, but we have learned to mitigate their toll. Technological fixes like early warning systems and quake-and storm-resistant design have drastically lessened loss of life from acute events like quakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes. When disaster does strike, aid is hours or days away and may come from far across the world. Even where mitigation remains impossible—think of farmers or ranchers ruined by drought—how profoundly it must change the tenor of victims’ experience simply to know that their suffering results not from the capricious handiwork of gods but from natural processes whose mechanisms are broadly understood.

Even the individual dying of a now-incurable disease may draw some comfort and hope from knowing that researchers around the globe are on its trail and that future medical advances may equip their children or grandchildren to resist the same killer.

While remaining realistic about the limits of human knowledge and the very real dangers of human technology’s unintended consequences, contemporary men and women can nonetheless confront life’s trials from a position of comprehension and relative mastery that their long-ago counterparts could only dream of. Given all of that, doesn’t it make sense that people today should have less need to indulge in communal self-deception? Indeed, shouldn’t moderns exult precisely because human intellectual, cultural, and scientific development has reached a point where we no longer require such powerful but deceptive psychological tricks to make our way in the world?

At root, this is why I suspect that staunch secular humanists view collective ritual practice with suspicion. Not because it doesn’t work, but because it does—because it offers psychologically effective mechanisms for accomplishing things that secular humanists qua secular humanists are no longer particularly interested in accomplishing.

Collective ritual practice effectively promotes a false sense of well-being—but secular humanists prefer reality. It fosters deep bonding within small groups—but secular humanists are more concerned with planetary solidarity than with helping fifty people in a small room (or ten thousand in an auditorium) feel more vividly that “it’s us against the world.”

As a secular humanist, when I get together with others of like mind, I am gathering with, yes, outliers—people who are exceptional precisely in their heightened regard for reason, their uncommon enthusiasm for reality unfiltered. Why would folks like us yearn to indulge in group practices whose well-proven effect is to mute the promptings of reason, to blur the inconvenient hard edges of reality, to blunt our appreciation for life’s true colors by fitting us all with the proverbial rose-colored glasses? Quite the contrary, when we understand what collective ritual practice consists of and how it has served religious communities throughout history, we see that it’s just the sort of thing we as secular humanists should be eager to avoid. If anything, when we gather, part of what we ought to be up to is celebrating humanity’s relatively recent achievement in lessening the need for such practices.

Does Collective Ritual Practice Denigrate the Autonomy of the Individual?

This question all but answers itself. To the degree it is efficacious, collective ritual practice inevitably taps the power of groupthink. It functions by submerging the individual, at least subjectively, into a synthetic unity of the whole. Yet secular humanists are not only rationalists, we also champion the radical individualism that burns at the heart of the Enlightenment program. We justifiably distrust communal exercises that invite us to surrender individual identity. And we raise reasonable objections based on the destructive uses to which such methods have been put through history, both inside and outside of the churches. The feel-good megachurch sing-along and the Nuremberg Rally have more in common, psychologically speaking, than first appearances might suggest.

For all these reasons, I think secular humanists are more than justified in spurning the nonetheless-powerful seductions of collective ritual practice. I’d rather celebrate my rationality than set it aside for a fuzzily agreeable delusion that everything will be all right. I’d rather be myself than surrender my autonomy to a group—or to a mob. And I’m far from alone in that.

I hasten to note that not all humanists feel this way. Indeed, attitudes toward collective ritual practice may be one of the signal distinctions between truly secular humanists and another large category of people whose humanist credentials are nonetheless secure. For lack of a more precise term, we might call these folks “religious humanists.” As I’ve written before, the religious humanist camp apparently encompasses two distinct communities. One continues to favor collective ritual practice and thus tends to duplicate within its humanist activities many of the structures of congregational life. The other, possibly smaller, community of religious humanists includes those whose humanism involves intellectual assent to propositions justifiable only by faith, whether a vestigial belief in some sort of cosmic force, utopianisms such as Marxism, or counterfactual convictions about near-term human perfectibility. One who declares with William Faulkner that “man will not merely endure; he will prevail”—and takes it seriously—is a religious humanist of this lattermost sort.

Still, Andy Norman is right. Compared to the American mainstream, we secular humanists are more conspicuous outliers than religious humanists, whether by that term we mean enthusiasts for congregational practice or those who have not broken fully with mysticism. Our disdain for group ritual practice and for worldviews that violate the boundaries of philosophical naturalism compounds our outlier status. But this is nothing to lament, any more than staunch secular humanists regret having denied ourselves the “comfort” of believing that all the injustices we suffered during life will be made up to us after we die. There’s a hardiness, a deep courage, in facing life as it is—and a justifiable pride in belonging to a pioneer generation for which so radically unembellished a worldview can be a living option for so many, if not yet for most—that goes far to define the affective core of what it means to be a secular humanist.

In a more crassly political sense, I suppose this difference in viewpoints goes far to explain why secular humanist and religious humanist organizations continue to exist independently—and why, despite some overlap in membership, they continue to attract core constituents who differ profoundly about things like the desirability of collective ritual practice.* If nothing else, I hope that the articulation of these matters I offer here will help both secular and religious humanists to understand their differences—as well as the things they hold in common—more acutely.

*Another division point between secular and religious humanists is their opposing views on the appropriateness of humanist chaplains in the military. See my “Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Close?” (FI, October/November 2011).

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Like philosopher Andy Norman, whose report on the recent Center for Inquiry–Transnational symposium celebrating Daniel Dennett’s 2006 book, Breaking the Spell, appears in this issue (available in the print edition), I was in attendance when psychiatrist James Thomson performed what Norman aptly calls “an unusual experiment: he had about one hundred ardent secularists link arms, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.