Why Seculars Don’t Sing
As a staunch secularist, it is understandable that Tom Flynn feels weird and wrong when he links arms and sings “Amazing Grace” (“Why Seculars Don’t Sing,” FI, April/May 2012). Many sec ularists share his feeling. I think Flynn’s op-ed goes astray, however, when it attempts to explain why.
Flynn’s arguments—that collective ritual practice erodes rationality and denigrates individual autonomy—conflate the means with the ends to which they are often put. The effects of ritual practice (endorphin release, sense of well-being, heightened pain threshold) are not self-deception but scientifically documented phenomena. They are evolved biological responses that are morally neutral. We naturally disdain the abuse of these practices to encourage thoughtless acceptance of creeds unsupported by fact or reason. But this is far from the only way that people exploit our biology for their ends. Madison Avenue manipulates our sexual instincts to sell products. Our response is to be on guard against manipulation, not to suppress our sexuality as corrosive of reason.
As a veteran of the U.S. Army, I recall our use of collective ritual practice (parade-ground marching, cadence-calling during group runs) to build esprit de corps. As a secular institution and an all-volunteer force drawn from a democratic society, the Army appeals to potential enlistees to rationally and knowingly subordinate an individual goal—personal safety—to the higher group goal of national defense. Ritual practice enhances the soldiers’ ability to achieve that goal. To call these practices wrong simply because they promote a group goal is to question whether any group goal can ever be rational or legitimate.
Kernersville, North Carolina
Tom Flynn’s op-ed piece on why secular humanists should not use rituals is less than satisfactory. If it were true (as seems likely) that people who meet on a weekly basis to sing and dance together have better health and a greater life expectancy than those who do not, would it be irrational to perform those rituals? If it could be shown that a group of people who share a common goal are more efficient and more effective in achieving their aims when they sing and dance together on a regular basis than when they do not, should they avoid doing so on the grounds that their joy in acting collectively might modify their individual views?
I am becoming more and more convinced that Tom Flynn would take the “free” out of “freethinkers,” leaving us with just “thinkers.” First he tells us that there should be no humanist chaplains in the military (“Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Close?” FI, October/November 2011); then that we should tolerate no spirituality, however defined (“Excrement Eventuates!” FI, February/March 2012); and now that we seculars should not sing at group get-togethers or “observances”—it would lull us into a false sense of well-being and bonding (“Why Seculars Don’t Sing,” FI, April/May 2012). In Flynn’s view, those of us who succumb to the temptation of group singing stand accused of being religious, rather than secular, humanists!
Such a Grinch-like approach gives validity to the reason that some hesitate to join our organizations. They suspect that we are a rigid, joyless bunch who value little except intellectual achievement. I am afraid that such rigidity will force secular humanists to remain marginalized and viewed as a uniformly antisocial confederacy of poorly adjusted misfits.
Cape Coral, Florida
Tom Flynn’s otherwise excellent op-ed mischaracterizes Marxism as one of the “propositions justifiable only by faith” along with beliefs in such things as cosmic forces. Marxism is based not on “faith” but rather on a scientific analysis of political and economic forces in society. Countless individuals and movements have adopted a doctrinaire reading of Marx and attempted to convert his ideas into a sort of secular religion, but this does not invalidate the analytic and objective bases of Marx’s own writings, which have been the subject of scholarly debate since they were published. Flynn’s phrase “utopianisms such as Marxism” is especially misguided, since Marx consciously developed his theories as a counterpoint to the “unscientific” utopian socialists who preceded him.
Tom Flynn’s article confirms many study results about the effects of collective actions, which one might also describe as self- or group-hypnosis. A very important aspect that was left out, however, and which belongs in any article on this subject, is the political one. When you look at the history of the Nazi party in Germany, you can clearly see the means described in this article at work, beginning in 1920 and all the way to 1945. The magical effect that a group experience with rituals and mystical mumbo jumbo has on the human mind is incredible.
Adolf Hitler wrote about this in Mein Kampf. He understood that with the right rituals humans who come together are no longer a group of individuals but become a quasi single being he called “the mass.” When this is achieved, he wrote, it is possible to undermine the defense of the intellect and to indoctrinate the human mind with magical simplifications that overwhelm any rational defense.
Apparently, the National Socialist Party was not very successful in Switzerland, of all the German-speaking countries. A possible reason is that according to Swiss traditions, Nazis were required to take part in discussions and explain their positions. I guess even the most devoted Nazis would have had difficulties rationalizing a point like “Everything is the Jews’ fault,” or “only through Jesus can your soul reach salvation.”
Today’s so-called mass media do not unite their audience in a group experience, and, therefore, the necessary transformation of the collection of individuals into “the mass” does not take place. Fox News can influence the weak-minded, but it can’t make people run out on the street spontaneously and commit murder. Individual reasoning still remains active.
Thank you, Tom Flynn, for expressing my exact thoughts on the subject of music for humanists. I had felt perhaps I was unusual for cringing at the thought of patterning our freethought meetings after religious observances. When first freeing myself from the brainwashing of Southern Baptist fundamentalism I encountered the term religious humanism and thought that very curious. When I hear the words of “Amazing Grace”( “that saved a wretch like me”) or “The Old Rugged Cross” (the emblem of suffering and shame), I want to stick my fingers in my ears and go: “La la la la la. . . .” Discussions of spirituality leave me frustrated because of the religious meaning inferred by uses of the word. Unitarian and Universalist meetings are often so identical to some churches that I do not attend such meetings. So Flynn’s insightful piece makes me feel much less an odd duck.
Tom Flynn replies:
Reader Mark Gibb cites armed forces training as a positive example of ritual in action. I disagree. When I wrote “Excrement Eventuates!,” I wanted to include a nonreligious example of collectivized ritual eroding rationality and denigrating individual autonomy just to show that the danger was not confined to the domain of religion. The example I would have cited, if only space had permitted, was military training. Granted, a free country needs to defend itself; still, I wonder how many of our fellow citizens need be so exquisitely shaped to suppress their moral judgment and stand ready to kill on command.
To reader Alwyn Eades, I answer “yes.” Even if ritual behavior was once an optimal method for enhancing fitness among early humans, we moderns have capabilities for improving our surroundings that early humans could never have imagined—and most of them work best when directed by accurate cognition. To the degree they blur our perceptions of reality, I think these ancient group practices are archaisms the human community can no longer afford.
I thank reader Patric Lagny for demonstrating why the mass media don’t belong in the same category with religious practice and military training, as reader Gibb suggests. Except for the declining practice of viewing motion pictures in large theaters, most mass media are consumed alone or in very small groups. That gives us defenses against the wiles of Madison Avenue that are denied to the subjects of church ritual—or basic training.
Re “Who’s Afraid of Scientism” by Russell Blackford (FI, April/May 2012): Regardless of how one uses the term scientism, it is an error to think that science and the humanities are necessarily at odds with each other or that we could ever hope to cultivate one without cultivating the other. The reasons for this are clear and quite discernible throughout history. Science without the humanities (art, history, philosophy, literature, etc.) has no incentive to explore the cosmos and progress. But the humanities without progressive science are simply self-indulgent apologetics for an intellectually squalid and culturally effete status quo. Science and the humanities always prosper at the same times in history. This was true of Periclean Greece just like it was true of the Italian Renaissance. The humanities supply our sense of adventure and incentives to appreciate and explore the world. Science is the means by which we successfully comprehend the world and the cosmos around us.
John L. Indo
Hentoff on Students’ Rights
I have just finished reading Nat Hentoff’s column about Andrew Mikel II, a fourteen-year-old who was kicked out of school for shooting spitballs (“Schools Show ‘Zero Tolerance’ . . . of the Constitution,” FI, April/May 2012). It seems that the local school board may have overreacted. I do have one question. Exactly what does this have to do with the mission of the Council for Secular Humanism? I kept waiting for the article to show that the Mikel affair had some prayer-in-school or perhaps creationism twist. Maybe it was a paranormal spitball or the school was a religious one using tax dollars? Alas, notwithstanding the justness of the child’s cause, I can’t figure out what this was doing in Free Inquiry. What next, a sports or food column?
Tom Flynn replies:
Actually, Arthur Caplan offered our first food column in that same issue (“Let’s Be Mean to Deen”). But seriously: on the Council for Secular Humanism website, secular humanism is described as “a comprehensive, nonreligious life stance . . . touching every aspect of life.” The previous mission statement of our supporting organization, the Center for Inquiry, spoke stirringly of promoting and defending “reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in every area of human endeavor.” In other words, our authors are encouraged to explore subjects not narrowly yoked to the critique of religion. Though in the case of Nat Hentoff’s column, the critique of religion was only a step or two removed; after all, the contemporary issue of civil liberties proceeds directly from the Enlightenment project of establishing individual rights at the expense of the presumed divine right of kings.
Katrina Voss’s op-ed “Ready for Prime Time” (FI, April/May 2012) echoed my observations about how atheists are usually portrayed in television shows. But she may have missed one portrayal with a difference: John Walton in the 1970s series The Waltons. John was a Depression-era father of seven in a long-term stable marriage, struggling to support his extended family. He was clearly nonreligious, yet was just as clearly a good man who imparted a strong moral code—by word and by example—to his children.
I don’t remember John described or self-described as an atheist or the issue being central to any story line, but his lack of religion was made plain by his refusal to attend church with the rest of his family. He did not fit the “village atheist” stereotype: an oddball who was tolerated because he was harmless. On the contrary, John was a loved and admired member of the community. I can’t think of another character in television or film who better exemplified “good without god.”
Mountain View, California
The Problem with Freedom of Religion
Shadia B. Drury indicated in her op-ed “Is Freedom of Religion a Mistake?” (FI, April/May 2012) that “conscience can be silenced or corrupted.” She held that the Constitution allows for nonsectarianism but does not promote secularism. The state is not neutral, nor is religion. As she pointed out, America has always given a free pass to religion that it does not give to any other social institution. We allow people to refuse to do or not do things by stating that to do so or not do so would violate their religious conscience.
There are other types of conscience besides religious conscience that are not honored as is religious conscience. For example, I might think/feel that going to war and killing other people violates my humanistic conscience, but the state will not grant me the status of conscientious objector unless it stems from a religious belief
The issue is clear. Religion gets a free pass, and if your objections are not religiously based you lose. We cannot get rid of religion, at least not in this century, if ever. But we can, and should, argue that the state must not give that free pass any longer. That is a political issue, as Drury pointed out.
Mt. Solon, Virginia
On the History of Humanism
Congrats on an outstanding issue of Free Inquiry (April/May 2012). Every article was well presented, timely, varied, interesting, readable, and pertinent to the causes of humanism. I give particular praise to Alan Charles Kors (“The History of Humanism”) for his splendid review of the thought processes of leading thinkers of the Enlightenment period. Also, kudos to Alexander Nussbaum for “Watching Intelligent Design,” which not only scotched the creationist’s arguments but also educated us about watchmaking.
Dripping Springs, Texas
The Catholic Church and Birth Control Coverage
With all due respect to Edd Doerr, I find errors in his conclusions (“Whose Freedom of Religion and Conscience?” FI, June/July 2012). As a humanist, I value reason above the frothy emotional appeals that pervade most of what passes for social discourse these days. It is irrelevant that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the majority of practicing Catholics believe that the use of contraceptives is not contrary to their church’s teachings. The papal hierarchy makes policy, not its members. I certainly don’t defend this policy. Overpopulation is an economic and ecological tragedy and must be addressed by forward-looking leaders with sound science to guide them.
But that is not what is being argued here. The argument is whether the Catholic Church can be compelled to provide a good or service that is in direct conflict with its religious beliefs. For now, the answer is no. The legal battles would be too lengthy and the court costs would be outrageous. Catholic schools and charities are extensions of the church and as such they are guided by the same principles as the church itself. But all of these institutions are subsidized by the tax payer in the form of tax breaks on some incomes at the federal level, certain sales taxes at the state level, and property taxes at the county levels. Not only that, but Catholic schools also have students that receive money in the form of government grants and student loans. All of this makes the Catholic Church a willing partner of the government. If the government wants to force the Catholic Church to change its health-care policies, it must first put the church on notice that any future funds are contingent upon it providing the same health care coverage as non-Catholic schools and charities. This will allow the Catholic Church to make an informed decision: conform to the rest of society, or forego government funds—period.
Gregory M. Mullaley
Edd Doerr replies:
Gregory Mullaley misses my point. Church-related colleges, hospitals, and charities (I did not mention K–12 private schools, the subject of my column in this issue) that are generously subsidized by taxes extracted from citizens of all religious persuasions should not be allowed to override the health and freedom of religion and conscience claims of their employees and/or clients of a wide spectrum of religious beliefs (and nonbeliefs). Church hierarchies whose institutions have accepted public funding have already forfeited the right to impose their values on people employed or served by tax-aided institutions. The Obama Health and Human Services Department is correct, and very substantial numbers, perhaps a majority, of Catholics agree.
Further Thoughts on Excrement
Seldom do I get a belly laugh upon opening my Free Inquiry, but I did with the February/March 2012 Free Inquiry at the title of Tom Flynn’s editorial “Excrement Eventuates!” I also loved the “undignified” quotes from Paul Kurtz. We Australians are alleged to be more profane than Americans. We take to heart Mark Twain’s dictum: “In certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.“
Leopold, Victoria, Australia
More on Circumcision
Kudos to Free Inquiry for publishing Edan Tasca’s “Snip the Snip” (February/March 2012). How nice to see the safety of defenseless children put before the views of neurotic, fanatical adults for a change. The circumcision rate is clearly dropping everywhere in the United States (see NOCIRC.org)—it’s now below 50 percent, and most industrialized countries reject infant circumcision, as 80 to 85 percent of the world’s males are intact or “uncircumcised,” as Americans still say. (Is that like being “unamputated”?)
The dynamics that drive what we call “female genital mutilation” and infant circumcision in America are very much the same. Each has the components of victim denial, cycle of abuse (from mother to daughter or father to son), and a hubristic cultural and/or religious inveteracy in which the participants feel their respective practices are beyond reproach. As Tasca clearly showed, the medical rationale is also absurd, since all of planet Earth’s mammals, including humans, are born with foreskins and go through life as nature made them without needing a “correction.”
If secular humanists can’t accept the premise of Edan Tasca’s article, then maybe they aren’t really secular humanists. His article was one of the best I have read on the subject of infant circumcision, which remains a profound violation of human rights. Some of us have seen firsthand the damage caused by it and take a dim view of perpetuating a pagan blood ritual on nonconsenting persons.
Michelle Storms, MD
The recent death of an infant at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, is relevant to the discussion of circumcision in your pages. The infant died after contracting herpes during a ritual Orthodox circumcision. The person doing the circumcision had herpes and passed it on to the infant, who died as a result. Circumcision may be a legitimate medical procedure, but subjecting the patient to oral suction is not necessary. The excuse that it is done as a part of a religious ritual is no defense.
Brooklyn, New York