Reason, Compassion, and Hope in Community: A Response to Some Constructive Criticism for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard

Andrew Tripp, fellow commentator on LGBTQ community blog In Our Words (to which I’ve only contributed one post so far), has written a readable and interesting critique of some of my recent work at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (HCH). Far be it from me that I should let this pass without comment! First, I’m excited that Tripp found the Boston Globe article about the new Humanist Community Project, and is asking questions about it: provoking a discussion in nonreligious circles about our aims and goals as a movement is part of our goal with our new initiative, and it’s exciting to see our ideas being discussed in various fora even (sometimes especially) when people don’t agree with us fully. We honestly welcome reasoned criticism like this (while being somewhat frustrated by the unreasoned criticism our work sometimes receives) – we could well be wrong in our approach, and if we are, we want to know it!

Before I respond directly to Tripp’s critique of our work, though, I want to note some interesting aspects of his post. First, he seems to claim that many of the major nonreligious movement organizations are either recently created or recently prominent, saying that 2004 could “arguably be called the beginning of the movement”. This reflects a common tendency among commentators on atheism to miss the long history of secular organizations in the USA, and the longer history of Humanism in general. The Center for Inquiry and the American Humanist Association (AHA) have been around for decades in some form or another, for instance, and the AHA was reasonably prominent in some parts of the cultural conversation a while back (certainly way before 2004). The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard itself has an almost 40 year history.

Moreover, when we talk about Humanism at HCH, we are thinking in terms of an extremely long tradition of rationalism and expanding moral concern that goes back, in some senses, to the Greeks. We claim people like Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Shakespeare, JS Mill, Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, and Mary Cady Stanton as our forebears. So we’re talking about a tradition of Humanism here that is as rich, significant and worthy of recognition and celebration as any religious tradition. This is an important recognition, because preserving and teaching the history of Humanism, as a rich tradition in its own right, is one of our primary goals at HCH. We do not see Humanism as an incredibly-recent offshoot of the New Atheism, but as the millennia-long march towards greater compassion and reason in human affairs. Our horizons are broad, and our goals far-sighted.

At the same time, I want to celebrate Tripp’s stance that freethinkers must become more active in lobbying for social change. When he says, in his post on activism, that “Secularism must stand for basic human rights, or be thrown by the wayside”, I want to cheer. This passage in particular describes precisely my own view:

Within the movement, there are precious few voices who talk about politics, or feminism, or LGBTQ issues, or all the other fucked up shit that is happening in the world right now, or if they do, it is without a call to action. It’s always “look how fucked up religion is,” not, “register to vote to throw these theocractic assholes out of office. As such, the movement — especially amongst the Four Equine luminaries of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett — seems increasingly out of touch with the wider world.

This is precisely the argument we at the Chaplaincy, and myself in particular, have been making for a long time, as evidenced here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. You’ll note the first post is from Oct 2009, and that in these posts I tackle every single concern Tripp raises in the paragraph: politics, feminism, LGBTQ issues, and fucked up shit in general, and give numerous calls to action, including explicitly political calls to action. You can even find videos of me speaking at rallies and protests from an explicitly Humanist perspective in some of those posts. I have form on these issues.

Indeed, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more activist-oriented group of Humanists than those at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Our vision for Humanism is absolutely one of passionate engagement with the world in service of humanity, and our fervent hope is to get away from the “armchair philosophy” vision of Humanism that has been the norm for far too long. But, as Tripp astutely asks, “how does that happen?” How do we get freethinkers to get out of their armchairs and into the streets, more willing to act on what they say they believe in?

As Tripp notes, there are lots of answers to this question already. Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the Secular Coalition for America offer examples of how major organizations have tried to galvanise freethinkers into becoming, as Tripp seems to want, a more active group, politically and socially speaking.

The problem is they don’t seem to work that well. In the many years these organizations have been about, we have not seen the development of a significantly engaged and activist block of freethinkers (although this is changing to some degree extremely recently with the energizing effect of “New Atheist” writing – one of many reasons I love and support the work of “New Atheists”). But still, it’s hardly as if there is a new “Moral Majority” of Humanists who shape the public debate and have a huge impact on public policy.

The Humanist Community Project – the idea which sparked the Boston Globe article Tripp takes issue with – is our response to this problem (as I explain in great detail here). It is our view (a view supported by social science research) that one of the challenges faced by the feethinking movement is that it lacks real local communities where people come together to share, develop, and act upon their values. As Putnam and Campbell assert in American Grace, a recent study of religion in America, people who attend religious communities more often tend to give more money to charity – both religious and secular charities – and volunteer more of their time to causes they consider worthwhile. They are more likely to be active in their community. They are more likely to vote.

But all of these effects, the authors note, can be explained by involvement in religious social networks – it’s not down to religious belief. Therefore, they suggest, “close, morally intense, but nonreligious social networks could have a similarly powerful effect”.

We want to help build such “close, morally intense, but nonreligious social networks”. That’s the basic underlying principle of our project, and it is one that is informed by one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of religious life in America ever conducted. It is therefore an eminently reasonable position, and it addresses precisely the concerns Tripp himself raises. So, you’d think he’d support it wholeheartedly.

Not so. He says, rather “I want to take issue with the nature of the HHC’s [sic] language”. Specifically, he takes issue with a quote of mine from the article (but does so without putting in the whole thing). What I said, and what Tripp seems to object to, was this:

“People get a lot of benefits from their religious communities including profound ways of filling existential needs, like commemorating significant events in their lives. Just because they leave behind their religious beliefs doesn’t mean they stop having those needs. But secular society has not yet come up with a way to give them moments of significance with the same level of beauty and care that goes into religious ceremonies. That is a big gap.’’

I make essentially a four-step argument here: 1) People get tangible benefits from religious communities. 2) Many of those benefits come in the form of helping people navigate life transitions, make meaning out of difficult events, tackling existential questions like “why am I here?” etc. 3) Nonreligious people still experience life transitions, questions of meaning and significance, and times of trouble in which they might need support from like-minded people who share their values. And 4) secular society does not have an equivalent space which is dedicated to helping people address those existential concerns and provide such support. I think this argument is indisputable, and certainly nothing Tripp says gives me reason to doubt it.

Rather, he asks whether I can be possibly referring to religious services, since some church services are boring and meaningless. He links, by way of illustrating his meaning, this delightful clip of Eddie Izzard making fun of the lameness of the Church of England by calling it “phenomenally dreary”. Therefore, he implies, all services must be equally lame. This is not a cogent argument. Within the clip itself, Izzard notes that gospel services are “joyous” and “fucking amazing”, for instance, which immediately undercuts the point Tripp is trying to make with it. Clearly, to the extent to which we want to borrow intelligently from religious communities (more on this below), we want our meetings to be “fucking amazing” and not Church-of-England-lame.

Further, in taking issue with my language, is Tripp suggesting that the quote he pulled out (the same quote PZ Myers pulled out before completely misinterpreting it) has some sort of “religious” quality? This seems to be the implication of the title, which accuses the HCH of “aping dogma”. What’s “religious” about the idea that life can be filled with beauty and significance, and that certain ways of responding to life, in a community, might make that manifest? As with PZ’s reaction, I’m not sure I really understand the point. Are we really going to accept the old religious canard that a life without religion can have no beauty and meaning, and that to seek to recognize beauty and create meaning in life, together with other atheists, is to immediately make that space “religious”? This is a very odd stance for someone like PZ to take.

Tripp goes on to say that he’s “interested in why the HHC is so desperate to align themselves with religious images.” But where does he get the impression we are “desperate to align ourselves with religious images”? Is it because we have a “Chaplain” (a designation which makes us fit into Harvard’s structure, which we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves, but which has a reasonably long history of secular use)? Is it because we want to come together to discuss significant questions about human life? The characterization (similar to how PZ often responds to the HCH’s initiatives) seems not only unjustified but unfair, the result of knee-jerk thinking: “They call it a Chaplaincy, therefore it must be religious! Aaaaargh!”

So I’m left wondering, what in what the Chaplaincy actually does does Tripp disagree with? What about helping respond to existential needs in community is “dogmatic”? What about building communities which might serve as a base for the sort of activism Tripp seems to desire is “irrational”? Does the criticism really come down to the use of the word “Chaplain” and the fact we are willing to look carefully and critically to religious models, where appropriate, for inspiration? Surely the discomfort must have a more rational basis than that.

I think the primary fallacy here, also evident in PZ’s response (I cannot tell him so any longer – I have been banned from his blog as Socrates was banished from Athens – he doesn’t much like disagreement or, you know, free thinking), is when Tripp and PZ assume that because we at the Humanist Chaplaincy want to build a community that will provide nonreligious people with some of the same benefits religious people get from their religious communities, we also want the following:

A) To replicate the worst aspects of religious communities, like dogma.

B) The lame parts of religion, like Anglican churches in which no one sings the hymns with passion.

C) The dangerous parts of religious communities, such as appeals to illegitimate authority figures and reinforcement of group-think.

Only an extremely uncharitable reading of our writing about our intentions could possibly lead to such a perverse conclusion. To put it bluntly, how stupid do Tripp and PZ think we are? Do they honestly believe we haven’t considered the potential problems with this approach, and are just heading blindly toward creating a cult of Greg Epstein? Have they even read the voluminous responses we have previously made to these and other critiques, complete with the evidence to support our claims?

It seems the answer to that last must be “No”. What we’re doing is a highly reasonable, highly intelligent thing. We recognize the real benefits people get from their religious communities. We realize that many nonreligious people would like the same benefits but currently can’t get them without sacrificing their intellectual integrity. We want, as Tripp wants, to see freethinkers more engaged with the critical issues of our day, like social justice, equality, and other political concerns. We are therefore trying to build a community space where people who are Humanists can come together to affirm shared values, do the activism Tripp wants us to do (because almost all successful activism is rooted in community), and get mutual support when they need it – following the evidence which suggests this will be a successful approach.

In building such communities, we are not dogmatically taking a religious model, complete with all its flaws. Nor are we dogmatically avoiding all religious models simply because they are religious (which would be completely irrational, and which seems to be PZ’s approach). After all, religions have millennia of experience building communities based around shared values, and it seems hugely unlikely to me that they haven’t learned something of value about the process which might be useful to others who wish to do so (indeed, I’ve already written one post on what we can learn from religious communities, and many more are coming). We are seeking to untangle the good elements of religious community from the bad elements, changing and reforming things as necessary. That’s why, incidentally, our community looks (as Tripp notices in his post) not a lot like many religious communities.

So, in conclusion, we welcome the critique. But these are issues we’ve addressed at length in our planning process and in numerous other articles on the subject. I would love to have a proper discussion about the role and nature of congregational (Aaaaah! A “religious” word – flee!) Humanist communities with those who think that such communities would be a bad idea. But that discussion must be based on a fair reading of our aims and an appreciation of the depth of thought that has gone into our project. It is simply not enough to say, as PZ essentially has said, and as Tripp seems to be saying, “Ewww – religious language!” Our commitment to rationalism deserves a higher level of thought and discussion than that.

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