Dacey Decomposes Humanism

A piece by Austin Dacey takes a swipe at humanists.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.

and Ophelia Benson says right on

It’s not, after all, as if humanists and/or atheists are like theism turned inside out – carrying all the same baggage but with minus-signs replacing plus-signs; it’s not as if we come complete with our own atheist music and atheist prayers and atheist temples and atheist holidays and atheist hats. It’s also not as if the ‘more’ that there is to life is necessarily a peculiarly atheist kind of more. It’s just more. Most of it is every bit as available to theists as it is to us. (I say ‘most’ because there probably are various senses of freedom, liberation, autonomy, that are specific to atheism, in the same way that there are various senses of protection, companionship, cosmic love, that are specific to theism.) We can all revel in poetry, music, nature, landscapes, relationships, conversation, learning, dance, play; feelings of wonder, awe, joy; chocolate, ice cream, weirdly fascinating stupid tv shows about real people being neurotic, chocolate.

In rebuttal, let me point to Emily Cadik’s piece on secular communities in The New Humanism

It’s true that if you are an avid orchid lover, you can find community among your fellow orchid admirers, and likewise for coin collectors and other hobbyists. But for those of us who are generalists, as I am, who are interested in a lot of things but not obsessed by any of them, it’s valuable to have a general interest community of people who are reasonably like-minded (we’re certainly not on the same page on everything).

No, we don’t want humanism to be a clone (or evil twin) of religion. But I would argue that religions evolved over thousands of years because they met human emotional needs, and some religion practices, like singing together and meditation, can be secularized and naturalized and provide satisfying experiences for some humanists who have a taste for these things.


3 Responses to “Dacey Decomposes Humanism”

  1. November 4, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I have responded to both (I felt rather poor) articles. To the Religion Dispatches article:

    I think you raise a series of interesting issues in the article – the question of whether a single institution is required to replace religious institutions is a powerful one.

    However, you seem to confuse the Humanist “movement” with a single (or series of cloned)”institutions”. Many of us advocating for what you call “organized Humanism” seek precisely the infusion of Humanist values into multiple institutions you seem to desire, but we recognize that to achieve this will require effort and struggle. Hence the organized movement – it won’t just happen.

    Also, there is value to specifically Humanist places and organizations. Very few secular institutions offer a place in which people can discuss what might broadly be termed “existential” issues – none of the institutions you list has this specific purpose, for example. This is a space organized Humanism can fill.

    To the other:

    I commented to the original article, expressing my doubts about its analysis, and I feel the same here. It seems like you both have misunderstood the Humanist movement’s aims and hopes.

    First, it is not to replace religion with a single institution that performs all religious functions. his truly would be absurd. However, it would be wise to recognize that religious organizations do fulfill particular social roles that would not be easily performed by existing secular institutions (the recognition, in the wider community, of new births, for instance), and it might be wise to provide nonreligious alternatives for these.

    Further, the model that sees the naturalization of religious beliefs and rituals as the “removal” of something which leaves a “hole” is not a good way to look at the problem. Rather, these ritualistic elements of human living are being reclaimed for humanity and for a naturalistic worldview. There is no hole.

  2. November 4, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Wellllll, I wouldn’t call it a swipe, I think it’s more of a mild joke. And it’s quite funny.

    It’s not that I think ‘No, no, humanism should not try to replace religion!’ It’s that I think there are some difficulties and tensions.

  3. 3 David Kimball
    November 19, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Dacey ends the article with “The secular house has many mansions.” I don’t see a unified Humanist movement which is limiting or even hierarchical. I’m not sure where Dacey sees it.

    As for getting together as a community, why not. Dacey brings up singing and says he would rather listen to Bach by professionals than to hear Greg Epstein sing. And that might be a valid point if music were just an event to listen to. But if one believes, as I do, that music should be a participatory event, then I would say that I would rather sing with Epstein than I would listen to the same recording that Dacey is listening to. And that goes for many more things than music. The joy and benefit of many things is in the engagement, or participation and not based on the level of performance and definitely not based on the amount of critical acclaim we receive. This goes with music, poetry, art, all the Humanities, but also science. There is much joy and benefit to be engaged in science rather than just reading a research paper or Popular Mechanics. And that engagement experience is enhanced by doing it in a collaborative manner rather than in isolation.

    And so it is with community. There is much joy and benefit by engaging in community rather than just talking to others or reading books by people we don’t know. We are social animals just like many other species. But if Dacey would rather be a lone wolf that’s his prerogative. But he shouldn’t insist that everyone be as lonely and unengaged as he wants to be.

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