Why Seculars Sing – A Response to Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn, in his recent Free Inquiry Op Ed Why Seculars Don’t Sing, sets out to do “something staunch seculars seldom do”: explain the source of their discomfort with ritual and with collective expression of their values such as singing. I welcome the effort. As a lifelong humanist and vocal advocate of collective practices such as singing and ritual in humanist spaces I am frequently disappointed when those who respond with vehemence to such ideas refuse to provide an argument to support their view. “Music? Yuk! Ritual? Eww!”, they seem to say, their self-professed rationalism withering under the influence of their intense dislike for anything associated too closely with religion. Flynn’s attempt to give reasons for his position, then, is refreshing, and serves to open up for dialogue a contested area of humanist thought. I further appreciate Flynn’s contribution because the concerns he raises regarding ritual are profound and serious: ritual truly does potentially embody many of the dangerous features he describes, and this needs to be recognized.

Flynn’s argument is not, however, entirely convincing. Flynn suggests two reasons why secular humanists (which he contrasts with religious humanists) might wish to avoid ritual practices: they “erode rationality” and they “denigrate the autonomy of the individual”. Neither criticism strikes home, as I hope to show. But first, some important ground-work: we need to make some clear distinctions and definitions. Ritual, as I view it, is a (usually repeated) primarily symbolic practice performed to refer to something other than itself (I have written extensively on ritual here). Examples include the college graduation ceremony, the baby shower, the various traditions of Valentine’s Day, and the dropping of the Times Square Ball to herald the New Year. Note that none of these is necessarily religious – secular rituals abound.

Second, given this definition, note that there is a significant distinction between ritual and communal singing: communal singing does not always symbolically refer to something other than itself, and therefore need not be ritualistic. People can engage in communal singing simply because it is pleasurable, or of aesthetic value (for instance when friends sing round a campfire or choirs sing choral works in concert): neither are necessarily rituals. Therefore, any simple criticism of ritual practice will not always strike the target of communal singing. This distinction – between communal singing and ritualized communal singing – is one of many useful distinctions Flynn does not make in his article, as I shall demonstrate. But I will be charitable to Flynn and see his argument as addressing only clearly ritualistic communal singing and not communal singing per se which, as he himself recognizes, has multiple well-documented benefits to human health and wellbeing (for surely he cannot be suggesting that no choirs should ever perform choral works).

Collective Ritual Practice can Promote Rationality

Flynn begins by considering the function of collective ritual in religious congregations. He notes that such practices (although he is unhelpfully unspecific regarding which ones, only vaguely mentioning “touching, swaying, singing, and the rest”) “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.” These might seem in-themselves good reasons to engage in ritual collective practice. However, he then offers a quote from Alan Greenspan to explain (explain away?) such benefits: they are examples of “irrational exuberance”. Ritual may be effective, Flynn avers, but its effectiveness is built on a lie: the community isn’t really that close, the people’s circumstances don’t truly justify their sense of well-being, and the local solidarity created by ritual is purchased at the expense of the global solidarity humanists seek in any case. We should fling aside such well-worn crutches, Flynn argues, and look reality squarely in the face. Case closed.

Two things are remarkable to this rationalist about the case offered here: first, Flynn begins and ends by examining “the function [ritual] serves in religious congregations”, without considering the functions ritual serves in any nonreligious settings; and second that no evidence or reasons are presented to accept Flynn’s view that the sense of wellbeing and solidarity created by collective ritual are in fact false.

The first problem is damning because there is no reason to believe that ritual serves precisely the same purposes in secular settings as it does in religious settings. If one of our strongest criticisms of religion is that it is based on demonstrably false beliefs then, obviously, rituals used in such settings to reinforce such beliefs will be objectionable. But consider the graduation ceremony: can we so clearly dismiss such a ritual practice on the same basis? Or might we recognize that the rituals associated with graduation actually point to something true and valuable, and therefore function in a way which is significantly different to religious ritual? More on this below.

The second problem is more damaging: Flynn simply asserts that the positive physical, psychological and social effects of ritual have a false foundation and, in so doing, assumes what he set out to prove (that collective ritual practice erodes rationality). But it seems obvious that this needn’t, in principle, be the case. Collective ritual could instead reveal to the participants the solidarity that truly does exist between them, for example (such as when sports teams use rituals developed from previous experience playing together to remind themselves of past victories). It could focus our mind on reasons for a sense of wellbeing that we tend to overlook. Ritual could, in helping engender a sense of solidarity and wellbeing, actually generate the very grounds for bonhomie that Flynn calls (without justification) “ungrounded”: it makes perfect sense to reply, in response to the question “Why is your community so close and happy?”, “Because we engage in regular collective rituals which make us so!” So there are many other ways of viewing ritual which do not succumb to Flynn’s critique, and he gives us no reason to prefer his view.

Further, Flynn’s assumption that the solidarity ritual might promote works against efforts to develop a more global sense of solidarity with humanity is flawed. As Kwame Anthony Appiah notes in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, it could well be that global solidarity must begin at home, close relationships with our own relatives and tribes providing the security to reach out to other people. In order to learn to love the world, we must first learn to love our mother. And, indeed, this is precisely the message that scholars of moral development such as William Damon of Stanford have discovered: the development of such virtues as compassion for others is rooted in firm guidance from and commitment to our closest moral relationships: the family, the local community, and the school. Rituals, by fostering connections between individuals within a small group, may help them develop the capacity to reach beyond that group with greater confidence. The circle of compassion may start small before being drawn wider, but most do not begin with a hand steady enough to draw a wide circle.

An example will help illustrate these points. When students graduate from university, they are almost universally expected to participate in a graduation ceremony filled with highly ritualistic practices. Special clothing is worn, special words are said, special people sit in special places and do special things in a special way, and all of this has symbolic significance. Lots of ritual. Does this common (and widely celebrated) practice fall foul of Flynn’s critique? I think not.

First, remember that the process the ritual is symbolizing is (if the university is any good) quite real: the students have really achieved something significant in reaching their graduation, and that achievement is worth recognizing. To call the recognition of four years of study “group self-deception” seems to me perverse (though I am now thinking of some of my less successful students…). The ritual gives the students an opportunity to look back on their time at university, consider what they have learnt, and reflect upon the relationships they have made. This is no “false sense of well-being” but wellbeing based on a solid foundation of real shared success – after all, if you don’t graduate, you don’t get to go through the ritual.

The bonding that is fostered between the members of a graduating class is not parochial and limiting but the foundation for a wider affiliation, the stepstool to membership of a larger group. At Harvard, for instance, those graduating with Bachelor’s degrees are welcomed into the “fellowship of educated people”, while those receiving doctorates are inducted into the “ancient and universal company of scholars” – both categories of global scope and significance. Speeches frequently also mark the transition into full adulthood, welcoming graduates into the “real world” and encouraging them to engage in civic life. Thus the ritual serves to expand the students’ sense of connection with others rather than to contract it. “Because of the experiences you have shared with these particular people,” the ritual says, “you can understand and relate to many millions more.”

What the ritual of graduation offers, then, is not a “filtered” reality but an organized reality in which central features of human life are given greater weight through their ritualized form. The ritual serves as a lens which focuses the attention on salient aspects of experience which might otherwise go unremarked. It thus promotes rationality and clear-thinking rather than erodes it, the opposite of what Flynn claims – and ritual becomes an effective practice to achieve secular humanist aims.

Collective Ritual Practice can Promote the Autonomy and Worth of the Individual

Flynn’s second criticism of ritual fairs little better than his first, for much the same reason: he simply assumes the truth of his position before he argues in its favor, saying “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.”

But this is far from obvious (at least to me). Collective ritual can involve collectively recognizing our individuality, for example when the members of a congregation are asked to “share with each other a sign of peace”. This common practice during church services asks individuals to shake hands with each other and get to know them a little, in order to symbolize in action the right-relations the church wishes to promote between members (and between members and God). I see no way in which autonomy is “surrendered” during such a ritual. Rather, the presence of each individual is affirmed and explicitly recognized: “we notice you are here, and you, and we collectively affirm that you, individually, matter to us.”

Further, rituals may themselves affirm the importance of a particular individual. When I engaged in the collective ritual practice of pinning money on my cousin’s wedding dress (a Greek tradition) I sacrificed no autonomy in doing so, though I was doing it alongside many others. In so doing we demonstrated our respect and admiration for one individual (although within the symbolic rules of a ritual with questionable origins).

Perhaps most important, by engaging in collective ritual action individuals can in fact develop their sense of individual agency such that they recognize themselves capable of achieving more than they thought. When Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church encourages the congregation to spread a lighted flame from a chalice at the altar all throughout the congregation, person by person, this can lead to a strengthened sense of individual power, because you can see that large-scale change not only can be accomplished by individuals like you, but must be accomplished by individuals like you. Unless I play my role in the candle-lighting the goal of filling the hall with light will not be fully achieved. And therefore I matter, visibly, and I matter to hundreds of others. I can imagine this feeling is even stronger for the children asked to be the first to light their candles from the flaming chalice – they made this amazing coruscation happen!

Finally, even some forms of surrender of autonomy can represent conscious, autonomous choices. When I choose to raise my voice in song with a congregation I see no necessary relinquishment of my self-control. Even if I am swept-up in the music to such an extent that I feel myself no longer to be myself, that is the outcome of my freely-exercised and conscious choice, the blossom of my will: the choice to surrender myself to music can be an expression of my individuality as much as it can be a betrayal of it.

What I think Flynn is picking up is that ritual often arrives in settings in which it is compulsory (or at least strongly encouraged by group pressure) – and when people are forced or unfairly pressured into engaging in a given practice then clearly their autonomy is being traduced. But there seems to me no reason why ritual is necessarily compulsory (people choose to engage in rituals all the time, such as or why the choice to subject oneself to certain forms of social pressure is necessary an illegitimate choice. He asserts that “secular humanists… champion the radical individualism that burns at the heart of the Enlightenment program”, but doesn’t sufficiently establish the case that ritual practice necessarily denigrates such radical individualism.

For these reasons I think Flynn’s attempt at an explanation of the antipathy of some humanists toward ritual does not fully succeed. To me, it seems that the benefits are real and well-documented, the dangers overblown and avoidable. Seculars can keep singing.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

5 comments on “Why Seculars Sing – A Response to Tom Flynn

  1. Great article that has really advanced my confused thinking on this topic.

    As a somewhat reluctant Humanistic Jew, I don’t really struggle with ritual. Your examples are excellent ones. But I do struggle with ancient religious rituals repurposed as Humanistic ones (though the religious rituals surely had human-centered roots or they would not have evolved).

    I’m not sure why but I suspect we secularists are self-selected for a kind of independence that may emotionally reject ritual.

    Yet humans at are core are emotional creatures (emotion evolved hundreds of millions of years before reason). If ritual can harness human emotions to promote what we rationally consider to be the best parts of being human, play on!

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  3. In reading this and Flynn’s previous work, he just seems like a curmudgeon who is against anyone having fun, because fun isn’t “rational.” The mistake he and others who put reason on a pedestal is to ignore the recent scientific literature that shows that the more a human being is an unemotional calculating machine, the less effective and able to make decisions they are (see Antonio Damasio’s work). Reason is just a way to get from A to B. But ultimately, we can only determine what we value through emotions.

    We need to sing more!

    However, I wouldn’t want it to be the same songs again and again. That would be “ritualistic” and mind-numbing. Especially for people with lousy voices (like myself) to be able to sing in a group brings a fantastic feeling.

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