On choral signing and chanting: should humanism stay well away?

One of the things I like about humanism is that humanists tend to be happy about marking important points in your life, like births, weddings, and deaths, and so on, without feeling you have to get religion involved. I don’t believe, as some apparently do, that the practice of marking these things is simply a hangover from an older religious age, and that we should get out of the habit. I think the truth is that marking certain points in our lives, just as we mark important points in the year, is something a lot of humans are drawn to, for deep biological reasons. It just happens that, for much of human history, this sort of thing happened to be done in a religious context. If you want, you can see Humanism as reclaiming births, weddings and deaths from the clutches of religion.

Of course, you don’t even need humanism for this. All that humanism really provides is a philosophy and a community of people who have experience of doing this sort of thing. You could, I suppose, characterise the movement as the idea that religion has some good ideas (whether originating in religion, or entirely coopted by it) that we don’t need to abandon if we abandon belief in the supernatural. This doesn’t quite cover it (the promotion of reason is pretty central too), but I think it’s probably one of the main differences between humanism and non-humanist atheism.

Now, this is not to say that, to be a humanist, you have to organise a special ceremony for naming your babies, or even get married. You don’t. I don’t know any humanists who think couples have to get married. I do think, however, that a lot of people (probably most) feel a desire to mark these life events in this way, and that Humanism provides a good context to do it in.

This brings me to an important question I’ve been mulling over for a while: what about the other things that religion does that aren’t inherently supernatural or mystical? What about the singing, the coming together once a week and reciting the same thing with lots of other people? Should humanists do this? I’m coming to the view that, while they shouldn’t feel it’s central to humanism, they shouldn’t feel it’s incompatible with it either.

Some humanists I know hate this sort of thing, and feel it’s cultish. Well, that’s fine, and they don’t need to be involved. However, I think that this is precisely the sort of thing that attracts many people to religion: not a belief in magical beings, or the mystery of transubstantiation, or whatever, but a sense of community, and some strange sense of comfort derived from meeting once a week and doing something with lots of other people, probably much like what you did last week. And of belonging to a community that goes out and does things together, often for the good of other people. Why should religion dominate here? Why should religion give this to people, and humanism not?

Now, I’m not alone among humanists in having this view, but some humanists certainly feel some uncertainty about, if not revulsion towards, it (well, maybe not the doing things for the good of other people). These people, however, are not the ones humanists need to attract. This doesn’t have to be for everyone.

So, what do you think? Is this something you like the idea of? What could it involve? Is chanting inherently cultish and weird? What if you just met once a week and vowed in unison to live your life based on reason and compassion, and to try to reduce suffering where you find it? Would that be wrong and dogmatic? Do you feel that any of this is inherently religious and shouldn’t be allowed past the borders of religion?

7 Comments

Filed under Humanism, Religion, Atheism etc.

7 responses to “On choral signing and chanting: should humanism stay well away?

  1. Speaking as a non-humanist atheist, I say leave it alone.So in a to the q's in your paragraph: It's bad; No; Nothing; Yes; That's just weird; Yes; Pretty much.It seems like the extreme case of what you're after is just a drop-in replacement for religion, where you can just go to church and mute the word 'god'. Make something new. If these things are required, then get them from other areas in your life. Sport, clubs, hobbies. Don't go making a humanist church.

  2. So, what do you think? Is this something you like the idea of?Definitely.What could it involve? Is chanting inherently cultish and weird? What if you just met once a week and vowed in unison to live your life based on reason and compassion, and to try to reduce suffering where you find it? Would that be wrong and dogmatic?I think at least it could involve a regular, formal gathering to discuss ideas. Many humanist groups have monthly meetings with talks. Why not weekly? With a very regular pattern: meet at a fixed time, mingle a bit, listen to a talk, question period, drinks and snacks afterward.I'm uncomfortable with the idea of a vow-in-unison, as that would seem to encourage groupthink over freethought. Chanting? I like the idea of singing together, and chanting can be musical. But I'd want to avoid compulsion to conform (implicit or explicit). A simple statement summarizing the main principles of humanism (as agreed by the community), read by a member of the community at the start of each meeting, would suffice. With a built-in clause inviting respectful discussion and dissent.Do you feel that any of this is inherently religious and shouldn't be allowed past the borders of religion?Like I say, I'd avoid anything that smacks of "you have to believe like we do". Not that religions have the market cornered on that tendency; but it's one of the most dangerous parts of bad religion.But rejecting healthy strategies for community-building is irrational. Just because something (such as weekly meetings) reminds you of religion doesn't mean that it's inherently religious; nor does it mean it's inherently anti-freethought (a separate question). And so what if others would take these things as evidence that we're "just another religion"? If they're wrong, and our practices are constructive and free from superstitious baggage, who cares what they say?In summary, none of what you mention seems inherently religious, and most of it has the potential to positively affect human communities. Surely there's nothing wrong with that.

  3. "It seems like the extreme case of what you're after is just a drop-in replacement for religion, where you can just go to church and mute the word 'god'."Yes. That's kind of the point! I think a lot of people go to church for something other than God, and I think that the world would be a better place if we could offer them this without the superstition and mysticism. That said, I'm not saying this sort of humanist event should be based on any particular religion, or should borrow only from religion, or shouldn't include new-minted elements borrowed from nowhere. I'm inclined to agree with both of you about the chanting. You're right that that can be at worst dangerous and at best uncomfortable for a lot of people.And, my general caveat again: I'm not saying this is something all humanists should do, or all people should do, or that it's the logical conclusion of humanism, or anything like that. It doesn't surprise me that a lot of people who identify as atheists don't like the idea. And I have no problem with that. They're not the target audience, after all. (Nor, by the way, am I suggesting this is a new idea; as Tim might well have added, this is sort of the idea behind Unitarianism. I just get the feeling that Unitarianism allows too much in.)

  4. That's kind of the point!Oh. I thought that was a self-evidently bad idea, but I guess not.I think a lot of people go to church for something other than GodDuty? Fear? Routine? Most religious people don't go to church, I'd say, and I'd reckon that most who do don't get much out of it. I'm of the opinion that the faithy side of a person should be as small as possible, and ideally non-existent. There needs now to be atheist movements and such to combat religious influence and bigotry and the like, but in an ideal world we wouldn't have that either.If you want a sense of community or routine or whatever, like Anonymous said above, get it from somewhere else. Your humanist church will probably eventually give rise to different incompatible humanist churches and we're back where we started. You may be starting it with the best of intentions, but I can only see it going one way. Get what you need from as many other areas of your life as required. Other, more inclusive areas, and it will be far less likely to go bad.

  5. Oh. I thought that was a self-evidently bad idea, but I guess not.Nope.Most religious people don't go to church, I'd say, and I'd reckon that most who do don't get much out of it.Maybe; in which case, there is no need for this. And I admit it's not something I feel a personal need for especially (although I can see the benefits of moving to a new area, say, and having a community of this sort to join). But I don't think I'm especially typical of most people, or that most of the people I know are. I'd be interested in seeing data on this though. I suspect that a lot of people who don't go to church are actually keen to do something of that sort, but don't like what's offered. This may explain the growth in paganism: they have rituals, and the rituals are fun.Your humanist church will probably eventually give rise to different incompatible humanist churches and we're back where we started.This is a worry, but it's a worry about any movement of any sort. I think we differ mainly, Anonymous (if that is your real name) in that you apparently think ritual is inherently bad, whereas I don't. It's not necessarily something everyone needs, but shared rituals do help create bonds between people and give them a sense of shared purpose, and I don't this is a bad thing just because people have sometimes used it for bad ends

  6. you apparently think ritual is inherently bad, whereas I don't.I think you've misunderstood the first two Anonymouses. They weren't talking about ritual at all. Ritual can be good, and you can and probably should get it from other areas in your life. A really obvious example is sport. And if you don't like any sports, well, nobody likes church, so it's perfect.What we are objecting to is a movement that defines and reinforces any ideology, like religious ceremonies or this humanist church that you're proposing. You might think that humanism is fundamentally different from religion, but I think turning it into a church movement just brings back a whole load of the problems of religion for no reason. Get your ritual and sense of community and pointless bigotry from a footy game or a knitting club. At least most people know it's all a bit silly when you get right down to it. Leave the churchy stuff to the churches.

  7. humanism + choral singing = anathem

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