Singing Together: “No, Please, NO!” or “Sing Aloud!”? – Humanism and Song, Part Two

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Sumer Is Icumen In, from a mid-13th Century manuscript, is perhaps the oldest secular song in existence, and shows the extraordinary age and resilience of the human desire to sing together.

Communal singing is not entirely unknown in secular and Humanistic communities. Many Humanists are members of Unitarian Universalist congregations, which frequently sing traditional hymns and other, more adventurous, musical fare. Events sponsored by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard have been known to burst into song, with John Lennon’s “Imagine” a firm favorite.  Perhaps the most well-established example of traditional congregational singing in a humanistic setting is provided by the Ethical Societies that comprise the American Ethical Union, many of which have choirs and monthly singing events. The Ethical Society of St. Louis, for example, has a Chorus which meets weekly and performs monthly, singing protest songs and songs about social justice, rather than hymns to God.

But communal singing is not always an easy fit with those who have left traditional religion behind. As Kate Lovelady, the Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, said to me in an interview, “the two most difficult things for Ethical Societies are candles, and singing”. Both the use of candles and the presence of communal singing, Lovelady suggests, remind some attendees of the religion that they have struggled to leave behind, sometimes moving away from family and friends to do so. The ritualized elements of communal song in a church-like setting make some Humanists deeply uncomfortable – so much so that they may choose not to attend a session in which songs will be sung.

This anxiety among Humanists regarding singing (and candles) represents a larger ambivalence towards ritual in general. Deborah Strod, writing in online magazine The New Humanism, asks “Should Humanists do Rituals?” She argues that Humanists should both embrace those religious rituals they feel comfortable with, and create new ones which replace those that cause discomfort. In contrast, “Dan”, a respondent to her article on the “comments” page of the magazine, writes simply “No! Please, no! I didn’t have time to read this article, so I’m just answering the title’s question. NO! Just, no!” Dan’s reaction is not entirely atypical of some Humanists.

Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, also recognizes this ambivalence, writing in Good Without God:

“When I first got involved in organized Humanism I was shocked that the groups I spent time visiting seemed to spend so much time and energy sponsoring debates about the existence of God or publishing magazines, journals, and newsletters, rather than staging poetry readings and concerts or going on hikes together.”

Epstein is pointing out, here, that many organized Humanist and nonreligious groups do not focus their energy on communal activity involving ritual, music and art, but rather on the more academic areas of debate and scholarship. Somehow communal activities like poetry readings and concerts are seen as less obviously “Humanist” than debates and journals.

Given these divisions within Humanist communities, the question must be posed “Should Humanists sing together at all?” My answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” Singing together with others provides many benefits which are entirely in-line with a Humanist worldview, and would benefit our communities immeasurably. As Brian Eno attests, there are clear benefits to singing:

[T]here are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.”…a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

Humanist communities can derive value from each of these strands: like everybody else, we have physiological, psychological and “civilizational” needs which communal singing could meet.

Furthermore, it has been argued that meaning making through symbols (including those of music) is a fundamental human need. Philosopher Susanne Langer, for example, writes “I believe there is a primary need in man, which other creatures probably do not have, and which actuates all his apparently unzoölogical aims, his wistful fancies, his consciousness of value, his utterly impractical enthusiasms, and his awareness of a “Beyond” filled with holiness… This basic need…is the need of symbolization”.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, also, argues for the centrality of music, particularly song, to human fulfillment. In The World in Six Songs Levitin argues that six different types of song – songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love – have been essential to the evolution of humankind. Songs of friendship are particularly important in community-building efforts. Levitin speculates that “synchronous, coordinated song and movement were what created the strongest bonds between early humans” – and as with early humans, so with modern Humanists seeking to build communities today.

If these theorists are correct, then giving voice in song should be considered a deep human need. And if Humanist communities are good for anything, they should attempt to fulfill human needs. Avoiding communal singing simply because it is a practice that is common in religious spaces is irrational. We should not forfeit valuable activities which promote human flourishing simply because the religious do them too. When it comes to singing together, we should not cut out our secular tongue to spite others’ religious face.

  • http://thepracticalhumanist.blogspot.com Paul Creeden

    I enjoyed reading these two pieces. I an appreciative listener and a non-musician, I like getting this inside look at the musical process from a humanist perspective.

    Communal singing in the context of a ritual is another matter. This potentially entails imposing a structure on a community at its gatherings rather than providing a musical option for humanists in a community. Having a humanist chorus as an activity option for members of a humanist community is an excellent idea. It neither imposes an activity on others nor excludes the activity itself from the community.

    I would flatly oppose any enforced ritualism in humanism that imposes activities by peer pressure or leadership pressure on participants at humanist community events. My opposition is not based in reactionary phobia about ritual (though I do have my share of that too). My opposition is against conformist pressure on members of the community to participate in activities which are not consistent with who they wish to be or what they wish to do in community. Rather than ritual, I would encourage humanist communities to provide multiple options for community participation by members. One of those options could be a weekly singing gathering, open to the whole community. This is different than imposing group sing-along on a single weekly community meeting for the whole community.

    I think humanists must be extremely cautious and thoughtful about any community-wide rituals or “approved” ideologies (holy books). Rituals and texts have been the bulwarks of religious oppression across the ages. Forcing or seducing people to conform to ritual is a method of mind control through behavioral control.

  • TempleoftheFuture

    Thank you for you comment, Paul. I share you wariness with imposing anything on a community – I think this is one of the central challenges we face when we seek so create Humanists communities. So I entirely agree when you say “I think humanists must be extremely cautious and thoughtful about any community-wide rituals or “approved” ideologies”.

    However, I wonder how far we can go, in terms of building strong communities with real moral force, without asking something of our members. If everything is completely pressure-free, I fear that we will get rather emaciated communities, communities without a backbone. I want Humanist communities to have a backbone – I want them STRONG. Part of that might involve encouraging people to try new things, even things they’re uncomfortable with. Is this truly incompatible with free thinking and free action?

  • Timothy C.

    Sometimes I find myself returning to some of my old favorite country gospel or Gaither gospel music for its memories. Not only do I enjoy the quartet style, but the sense of unity among the singers and congregation is familiar and comforting to me–you’re right, we shouldn’t shun something because we associate with a rejected pastime.

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