I have a sense that what I say here may be subject to misinterpretation, so let me be clear about one point at the outset: I have nothing against hugs. I give hugs and I receive hugs. Hugs are generally a good thing. The precise message they convey depends on the context, but at a minimum, they usually mean something like: "I’m really glad to see you." What’s wrong with that?
Nothing — if the hug is given voluntarily.
As you might expect, in the last couple of years I have been to quite a few humanist meetings, conferences, and gatherings. At some of these events, usually toward the beginning of the event, someone will solemnly issue an instruction like this: "Now let’s hug each other." The first couple of times that this happened I gave hugs to whoever was nearby because — well, when in Rome…
But I have stopped responding to the hug command. This is not because I’m anti-hug but because I am pro-hug — when the hugs are heartfelt and voluntary. But hugs-on-command debase hugs. A forced hug is about as genuine as a three dollar bill. A forced hug is a contradiction in terms, like "compulsory love," "drafted volunteer," or "Justice Scalia." Hugs-on-command consitute an empty ceremony that succeeds only in draining the emotional content from what should be a beautiful expression of friendship, concern, or love.
As I have stated, I’m all in favor of voluntary hugs. The next time that you’re at a humanist gathering, by all means hug others if you’re so inclined (yes, you can even hug me, if you want). But let’s dispense with the hug-on-command. If we were craving ritual, we’d all be attending church.
With respect to the contention that we need to encourage warm feelings among humanists, I say that we should have more confidence in our fellow humanists. Humanists can both think and feel for themselves. We don’t need a priest, ringmaster, or cult leader to tell us when to stand, sit, genuflect … or hug.