Why Seculars Still Don’t Sing: response to James Croft

April 6, 2012

James Croft (https://harvardhumanist.org/2012/04/06/why-seculars-sing-a-response-to-tom-flynn/) offers a thoughtful and provocative critique of my Free Inquiry op-ed on humanist ritual (“Why Seculars Don’t Sing,” April/May 2012, https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=flynn_32_3). As frequently happens when religious and secular humanists engage in debate, the ground on which the disputants – to say nothing of the spectators – stand quickly becomes mushy. Herewith, my unconscionably lengthy response.

Croft apparently sets great store by the distinction between religious and secular forms of ritual. He questions why I make no mention of secular rituals, after which he offers a concise definition apparently meant to cover all forms of ritual: “Ritual, as I view it, is a (usually repeated) primarily symbolic practice performed to refer to something other than itself.” To him, this is the core of the matter: in the next paragraph he implies strongly that if a particular program of action is ritualistic, it will “always symbolically refer to something other than itself …” In what follows I will take Croft at his word.

As to why my article did not consider secular rituals, the reason is simple. Writing for print can involve limits on length that are often far stricter than when writing for online publication. My subject was the importation into humanist practice of rituals drawn from the life of the church congregation – that is, rituals of religious derivation. Of course secular rituals such as the university commencement exist, and if I were writing a book I might have devoted a chapter to them in the interest of completeness. In the context of a Free Inquiry op-ed, I needed to say what I had to say about my core subject and then, well, shut up.

Croft’s idea of other-reference as essential to the nature of ritual, however, strikes me as problematic. I’m not at all sure it supports the distinction between ritual and non-ritual activity that he seeks to establish, such as the distinction between group hymn-singing and a concert performance of choral music. And I think it raises exceptional difficulties when applied to the subject of my original essay: the importation of ritual forms from the religious environment of the church to the naturalistic environment of a humanist community.

When members of a religious congregation engage in communal singing, Croft and I would almost surely agree that this is a ritual activity. And no doubt, it is an exercise that refers to something other than itself. When engaged in by traditional Christian believers, hymn-singing is focused on the presumed transcendent realm of God and souls and spirits. Congregants sing to glorify God, or to gratify him (though I’ve never been sure how The Entity Who Has Everything could benefit from hearing sinful mortals sing together, even if they do it well). Or they may sing to supplicate for divine grace. No two ways about it, ritual singing in the church context is clearly focused on the putative hereafter. But what about a concert performance of choral music? Here again I suspect Croft and I would agree: a choral concert is not a ritual act, though there may be secular rituals associated with the performance itself (i.e. applauding the conductor on entering the onstage). Since choral performance is non-ritual, one might expect Croft to argue that it refers to nothing outside of itself; but surely that is not the case. Like any public musical performance, the choral concert is most certainly directed to something outside itself, namely the audience.

The most important distinction between ritual hymn-singing and non-ritual choral performance is not that one refers to something outside itself and the other does not. No, the important distinction seems to be one that Croft does not discuss: Ritual hymn-singing refers an outside object (or better, realm) that is transcendent, cannot be described on the basis of mundane observation, and which requires the exercise of faith to reach high confidence as to even its existence, much less its nature. Choral performance refers to an outside object that physically exists right out there beyond the footlights. The audience members are there. You can count them, you can touch them. If you are skeptical that they exist, I can prove it to you without needing to exhort you to have faith.

The religious ritual of communal hymn-singing has a referent that is supernatural; the non-religious non-ritual of choral performance has a referent that is natural. Given these examples, the idea of other-reference seems to have precious little to do with whether a given act of singing is religious or secular, ritual or non-ritual. But the confusion truly multiplies when we consider the special case of ritual activities which were other-referent in their original context, but are then transplanted into a new setting where they cease to refer to anything outside themselves. I am speaking, of course, of the situation where rituals familiar from the setting of the church congregation are transplanted into the practice of a humanist group or community.

Again, let’s think of believers singing a hymn glorifying God. As we’ve seen, that activity has an external referent which is supernatural in kind. Now let’s transplant that same sort of unison singing into a humanist setting. Obviously, such a setting is by definition religious-humanist, as it involves the conscious appropriation of the forms of congregational life. And as religious humanists, some small number of those raising their voices in song may imagine that they are singing for the delight of the Spirit of Man in some empyrean domain. But the vast majority, insofar as they are humanists, will also be naturalists. They will hold no belief in a deity nor in any realm transcending the physical.

Obviously, for such individuals the practice of ritual communal singing cannot be imagined as in any way the same type of act. Believers direct their singing toward the supernatura
l; naturalists disbelieve that the supernatural exists. In other words, in the single case when activities that were ritualistic in congregational life are transplanted into humanist – even religious-humanist – practice, the motivations for engaging in that behavior do not – cannot follow along with them. The other-referring practice of ritual hymn-singing becomes non-other-referring when dragged into a naturalistic setting.
 The example with which I began my original essay attests to this fact. I opened by describing a presentation in which psychiatrist James Thompson guided a room full of hard-bitten secularists in an arm-linking, hip-swaying, full-out communal performance of Amazing Grace. A series of simple physiological and psychological self-tests which we administered to ourselves before and after the exercise showed that, for most of us at least, the mere act of singing together had increased our sense of well-being, raised our pain threshold, and so on. Note carefully what happened here: a ritual that was once solidly other-referring (i.e. trained on the hereafter) is now focused exclusively on the self. Our new justification for engaging in that behavior is not that it is pleasing in the nostrils of God, but that it makes (for crying in the sink) even our hormones do nice things for us.

Frankly, have no idea what this says regarding whether communal singing within a humanist community is or is not ritualistic. But to me it says volumes about why I, and other hard secularists like me, sense something wrong, even deeply repellent, when efforts are made to graft practices from traditional congregational life into humanist practice. Most humanists know enough about religion to know what those practices mean and what they signified within a traditional believing community. There, those forms were organic and appropriate, given certain shared assumptions about the supernatural. But take away the web of other-references endemic to religious ritual – that is, the supernatural, the deity as spectator – and the whole reason for engaging in the behaviors collapses. Transplanted into a naturalistic setting that undercuts the very reasons why traditional believers engaged in communal singing in the first place, communal singing becomes an empty form. Torn from the reference to a presumed supernatural order that made it meaningful, the practices of congregational life take on, to me at least, a vile, zombie-like quality.

Croft is right when he complains about seculars recoiling almost viscerally from importations of music and ritual. If we can describe anything as unnatural, surely it is the effort to perpetuate the hollow forms of congregational practice among persons who have explicitly and often proudly jettisoned the entire matrix of assumptions in light of which those forms made sense.

I will close (yes, even online writing must come to an end) by responding to a few of Croft’s other specific contentions.

Since he objects to my silence on the subject of secular rituals like academic commencements, I will address them here. I disdain commencements for many of the same reasons I revile rituals in humanist life – not (in this case) because they are religious, but because (as I observed in my original essay) they erode rationality and individual autonomy. Participants are compelled to perform together forms that have little or no inherent meaning, and to do so only because the community demands it of them. Croft seems to believe that the quality of coercion in situations like these is a matter of interpretation; to the contrary, I find it inescapable. And for that reason object to this ritual even though it does not involve any falsehoods of a religious nature. For whatever it’s worth, I detested my high school and undergraduate commencements. I found them empty and meaningless and oppressive, and would delightedly have skipped them if that had been permitted. For whatever else it’s worth, when we constructed major new additions on the Center for Inquiry in 1995 and 2005, on each occasion I argued futilely that we should refrain from conducting any sort of ceremony to “dedicate” the new structures. I called for us to do the rational thing, to simply turn on the lights and start using the new building when it was done without any needless or empty mumbo-jumbo. So let the record show that whether religious or otherwise, there is something at the core of ritual that this individualist finds profoundly and consistently objectionable.

Croft objects to my description of communal rituals as fostering (using Greenspan’s phrase) “irrational exuberance,” making people feel happier or more confident than their actual circumstances justify. Again, I go back to Thompson’s argument about the hormonal benefits of engaging in ritual behavior. As I see things, it doesn’t matter how objectively commodious or difficult your life is at this moment. My life can suck; yours could be the proverbial bowl of cherries. The point is that if we engage in ritual behaviors that will cause our bodies to dose themselves with endorphins, then whatever our actual conditions may be, we will see them as more positive than they are. Croft imagines this as a benign phenomenon –“Why is your community so close and happy?”, “Because we engage in regular collective rituals which make us so!” – but sooner or later, we all must make our way in the real world, not the world of our delusions. Gauzy bootstrap-tugging deception of this sort must sooner or later set us up for a hard fall

As for Croft’s objections to my charge that ritual submerges the individual in groupthink, I can only say that I find them unconvincing. Croft chooses as an example the “sign of peace” in a church service. He sees no loss of autonomy here, and even claims that “the presence of each individual is affirmed and explicitly recognized.” I think such a reading is idiosyncratic at best. Let’s see, what happens at church when it’s time for the sign of peace? The minister or lector or leader clears his or her throat and orders everyone to stop whatever else they’re doing, drop everything, and turn and shake hands with (or hug) the people around them. Congregants are to do that and nothing else, and to do it now! I’m laying it on heavy to make a point: an element of coercion, however gently swathed, is inescapable whenever you have a leader telling people to do what they’re supposed to do, not what it is their authentic desire to do. I draw here on my ow
n experience as a former Catholic old enough to have been a deeply believing Catholic both before and after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. I passed my childhood and early adolescence in the mysterious, nakedly authoritarian church in which the priest spent most of the Sunday Mass with his back to the congregation, speaking only to God – in Latin, no less – while we mere communicants in the pews looked on. We were less participants in the Mass than its spectators. Yet that isolation also gave us substantial inner liberty: between the sermon and the time for communion, the priest pretty much ignored the churchgoers, who (if only because they were left alone) were free to pray their rosaries, or stare at the stained glass windows, or otherwise contemplate the divine in their own way. I don’t think I was unusual in coming to view that unstructured time as “my time alone with God.” When the altar was turned around and the priest started speaking English and we were all supposed to be suddenly more involved in the service – and, perhaps most especially at the time we were commanded to stand up and greet the person next to us (and trust me, in Catholic churches just getting their sea legs after Vatican II it was a command) – there was widespread discomfiture, much of it having to do with the sudden need to focus on consecutive physical ritual activities instead of communing with the numinous as one understood it. “Stand up! Sit down! Kneel! Talk! Sing!” the complaint would go, “and most of all, they want me to distract myself saying hello to my neighbor when I’m supposed to be thinking about eternity.”

Finally, Croft questions my assumption whether an individual who engages in ritual is necessary surrendering autonomy. I don’t deny that a person can consciously, willingly decide to submerge oneself in a ritual – but it is submergence, it is surrender, all the same. After all, when one yields oneself to a ceremony whose form was dictated by others, one necessarily uses their words, their concepts, their images – not the words and concepts that might authentically express one’s real feelings. Croft speaks of participating in a Greek tradition where he and many others pinned money to a cousin’s wedding dress. He admitted that it was a “ritual with questionable origins.” So why engage in it? Why not let each participant shape a new and personal expression that captures his or her feelings and sidesteps the smarmy side of this old ritual? Why? Because the coerciveness, the groupthink that’s essential to ritual won’t permit it.

There’s a huge gulf between, say, a wedding ceremony that the bride and groom write themselves and one that’s parroted out of a book. It’s the difference between relative autonomy and relative self-abnegation. With all due respect to James Croft, I think “the case that ritual practice necessarily denigrates … radical individualism” is so clear as to be all but self-evident. And with that, this (for me) unfamiliar ritual of untrammeled screed-writing, unconstrained by any thought of how many column-inches of print my words might overspread, must come to an end.