Humanism in a New Key

Humanism in a New Key June 13, 2012

Warning: the following discussion is long, technical and in-depth.

I have written extensively on this and related topics before. Those interested should investigate, in no particular order, the following posts (and, if they are particularly fascinated and brimming with leisure time, the linked speech):

Why Seculars Sing – A Response to Tom Flynn

Rational Ritual

The Profane Harp

Singing Together

The Symbolic Poverty and Potential of Humanism

I love to sing. I grew up a choirboy. I sang all through middle and high school, sometimes singing in four choirs at once, happily raising my voice in song during countless religious services. I was a choral scholar at my Cambridge college, and continued to sing even during the busy years of my high school teaching. I have sung in some of the greatest cathedrals of the world, from St. Paul’s in London to St. Peter’s in Rome. Singing is still a central part of my life – my performances with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus have been some of the most wonderful experiences of my life. And I’d like to find a Humanist community which enjoys singing together.

Ian Cromwell of the Crommunist Manifesto (a member of the Freethought Blogs network) thinks that this desire is “anti-humanist”. He has composed an extended reply to my advocacy of the role of the arts, particularly participatory song, in Humanist communities. This reply stems from a Twitter discussion a couple of nights ago, which itself was prompted by my live-tweeting a talk on Myth, Narrative and Art by Fred Edwords at the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference. His reply combines some inaccurate and outdated science supported by irrelevant ‘evidence’ and confused philosophical arguments in an attempt to defeat a position I do not hold, and I am responding to it here to set the record straight.

Clarifying the Context

Some context: in my tweets I began by advocating a more artful Humanism – a Humanism that is comfortable expressing itself in song, story, art and music. I said that “every large session should have some musical and narrative aspect”. This was immediately misinterpreted as “group participation in song and storytelling”. I need not point out, I hope, that there are many ways to include song, story, art and music in Humanist gatherings without group participatory song or storytelling  – performances in which the audience does not participate would also fit the bill. So from the start the discussion was drifting from its initial moorings. I was not advocating that Humanist conferences should have any sort of “hymnal”, for instance, as Crommunist inaccurately suggests. Nor was I suggesting that “the reason why people object to group hymns is a complete mystery” – rather, I was asking Crommunist to provide his best arguments, having previously defeated similar arguments in a similar vein.

What I was suggesting that those Humanist communities and groups which wish to engage in participatory song should feel comfortable to do so, and that to engage in such a practice is fully consistent with Humanism. Again, this is not how Crommunist portrays my position: he says that “James’ model of a humanist community specifically excludes anyone who doesn’t want to participate in a church-like atmosphere.” This is not the case. Rather, I recognize that were a Humanist group or community to decide to engage in participatory song some people may not wish to attend. Everyone would be welcome to attend (and therefore no one is “specifically excluded”), but some people might choose not to attend (and therefore willingly exclude themselves).

What I am in Fact Arguing

A fairer and more accurate way to describe my position Is this: there is, in my view, room for many different types of Humanist community to emerge, some of which might explore participatory song, some of which will not wish to do so. No one community is likely to appeal to all the different types of people who might seek nonreligious community, so let a thousand flowers bloom. I myself would like to attend one in which singing is part of the agenda, while I recognize that many others might not. I understand that, as Crommunist says, “There are people who want ‘emotive humanism’ without the spectre of their religious past haunting them every time the congregation bursts into some secular hymn”, and they would find and form a slightly different sort of group (or a different track within the same overarching community). And that’s OK by me. That’s more than OK by me – I want to support such people in the development of their Humanist community, and that’s one reason why I work with the Humanist Community Project to do just that. But is the sort of community I would like to participate in OK by him? Is he willing to allow me the freedom I want to allow others and to respect how I wish to express my Humanist beliefs?

It seems not. It seems from his reply that my attitude – an attitude which respects people’s different desires and predilections and which is open to different forms of Humanist community, and which does not try to force everyone to explore their Humanism in the same way – is not acceptable to Crommunist even when stated accurately. To him, because participatory group singing has the potential to powerfully activate the emotions, it “completely undermines” what he sees as the central tenet of Humanism – “that all beliefs are tempered with rational thought” – and is therefore “anti-Humanist”. Furthermore, since “group participation is de facto coercion”, and since the social pressure that might be generated by the existence of group singing at meetings is potentially dangerous to those who wish to attend but who do not want to sing (and similar to social mechanisms used by religious communities, which are sometimes extremely harmful), an institution which engages in group singing “is not worthy of the label ‘humanist’.”

The Extremity of Crommunist’s Claim

It’s worth noting at the outset that these are exceptionally strong claims. If we were to accept this argument, and be consistent in following it to its logical conclusion, we would not only have to banish participatory group song from Humanist communities, but also all other participatory activities which have the potential to strongly arouse the emotions. This would include group exercise, meditation, the creation of visual art as a group, etc. Depending on how broadly you define “participatory”, it could also exclude as “anti-humanist” watching films, going to art galleries, attending powerful lectures, and even listening to music (as we shall see, Crommunist’s argument, if we take it at face value, does indeed suggest that even listening to music is “anti-humanist”).

Furthermore, the position Crommunist espouses seems at first blush to be at odds with how Humanism is currently practiced in at least some existing Humanist communities. Humanist UU communities and Ethical Culture Societies do frequently engage in group participatory song, and they obviously feel that there is nothing anti-humanist about it. They could be wrong in that belief, but it does seem that there is a prima-facie case against Crommunist’s position: existing, broadly humanistic communities already exist which regularly engage in group singing and they haven’t succumb to wild irrationalism or rampant outgrouping.

The Paucity of Evidence Provided to Support Crommunist’s Argument

Given these two considerations – the extreme strength and dramatic implications of the claim, and the prima-facie case against it – it is reasonable to expect Crommunist to provide a very compelling argument in support of his view. It is surprising, then, that his arguments are few and poor. The main reason Crommunist provides for his opposition to participatory group singing in Humanist Communities is that “it bypasses the rational part of the brain”. A link is provided to support this assertion to a study which demonstrates that a group of non-musicians who listened to music (“task-free, passive listening to unfamiliar although liked music” p. 2035) showed activation in their limbic and paralimbic brain areas.

A couple of things about this study: first, it is a study of people listening to music, not participating in making music, and certainly not participation in communal singing. Thus the experiment does not strictly address the question of group singing, but rather suggests (if we are to take Crommunist at his word) that even listening to singing should be verboten in Humanist communities. Does Crommunist actually believe this?

Second, the researchers nowhere claim that activation of the limbic and paralimbic areas constitutes “bypassing the rational part of the brain”. The authors use the term “rational” nowhere in the study, and neither the discussion, conclusion nor abstract mention any finding which can be interpreted in the way Crommunist interprets the study. Indeed, they note that their study observed activation in areas of the brain commonly thought to be central to rational thought such as the hippocampus, which is generally considered to be central to memory consolidation and spatial reasoning (both elements of rational thought).

So on the face of it the linked study – the only piece of evidence offered to support the central argument – cannot support it. It is conducted on the wrong population and does not come to the conclusion that Crommunist claims. This problem – neuroscientific studies being cited to support conclusions they cannot – is not uncommon. Indeed, it is a particular problem in the area of neuroaesthetics (the use of neuroscience to understand art, or artistic stimuli to understand the brain). This very problem is the subject of a paper of mine which was published in Mind, Brain and Education a year or so back, so I have some experience with it. It is now, sadly, exceedingly common to mis- and over-interpret neuroscientific studies in ways which suit the prejudices of the reader, and this seems to be exactly what has happened here.

Is There Nonetheless Merit in Crommunist’s Case?

At this point Crommunist’s argument has essentially collapsed, since the only piece of evidence referenced is completely unsupportive of it. But is there any merit to his case despite the failure of the cited evidence to substantiate it? I am willing to concede there might be. It is certainly true that participation in group singing is often a profoundly emotional experience. And it is also true that, in the throes of emotional passion, we can sometimes fail to reason. So it is not immediately obvious that it is wrong to assert that there might be something unreasonable about promoting group singing.

However, this argument would be far too simplistic. Like far too much of the discourse around “rationality” in the secular movement, it relies on an (extremely) outdated view of how human reasoning proceeds and a philosophically untenable notion of “rationality”. The short solution to this problem (and the position taken by every respected contemporary cognitive scientist, psychologist, philosopher and neuroscientist I am aware of) is that our emotions are part of our reasoning apparatus, and can constitute an element of our rationality. It is simply not the case, as a matter of fact, that there is a simple inverse relationship between the amount of emotion someone is experiencing and the extent to which they are being rational.

The Breakdown of the Emotion/Rationality Dichotomy

The shift from viewing emotion and rationality as antagonistic to viewing them as complimentary was kick-started by Antonio Damasio’s book Descarte’s Error* (1994), which seeks to break down the dichotomy and which is widely regarded as one of the most significant books on cognition of the last few decades. In it Damasio synthesizes the findings of hundreds of studies in multiples disciplines to come to the conclusion – now widely accepted – that “emotions…are essential to rational thinking”. The extended quote below puts the case clearly:

“we usually conceive of emotion as a supernumerary mental faculty, an unsolicited, nature-ordained accompaniment to our rational thinking. If emotion is pleasurable, we enjoy it as a luxury; if it is painful, we suffer it as an unwelcome intrusion. In either case, the sage will advise us, we should experience emotion and feeling in only judicious amounts. We should be reasonable. There is much wisdom in this widely held belief, and I will not deny that uncontrolled or misdirected emotion can be a major source of irrational behavior. Nor will I deny that seemingly normal reason can be disturbed by subtle biases rooted in emotion…Nonetheless, what the traditional account leaves out is a notion that…Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior. (p. 53)

According to Damasio, seeing rationality and emotion as opposed forces is profoundly unscientific. The Enlightenment view (which Crommunist implicitly endorses through his mode of argumentation) views our rationality as dependent on “higher” brain structures which are in danger of being undermined by those “beneath” (you can see this view reflected in the choice of citation – since the limbic system is activated, emotion must be overthrowing reason, thinks Crommunist). More properly understood, though, the brain is an interconnected whole which requires the input of the “emotional parts” for the “rational parts” to work: “”Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it” (p.128.). In other words, there is no “rational part of the brain” – there is just the brain which, as an interconnected whole (and in concert with other parts of the body, as more recent evidence seems to suggest), “does rationality” to the extent that it can.

The ideas explored in Descartes’ Error are prefigured by certain philosophers, who have long argued that the divide between emotions and rationality implied by Communist’s critique is invalid and philosophically confused: see Langer, 1957; Goodman, 1976; and Best 1992 (Best, 1988 is a short paper which explores some of these issues in an accessible way). Contemporary philosophers have pushed this line of thinking further to suggest that the emotions can even help us further our understanding of phenomena. Elgin’s Considered Judgment (1999), for instance, contains an excellent chapter on how the emotions can be epistemically valuable (Chapter V, p. 146). Another quote:

That reason and passion are antithetical has long been an article of philosophical faith, less often argued than assumed… Relatively recently, cognitivist theories of emotion have emerged to counter the traditional view…I suggest…that emotions play a variety of cognitive roles, not all of them derived from or dependent on beliefs or propositions they embed. This is not to say that all emotions are epistemically estimable. Neither are all beliefs. But if the occurrence of wayward beliefs or propositions does not justify banishing all beliefs from the epistemic realm, the occurrence of unruly passions ought not to constitute grounds for the wholesale exclusion of emotions. Instead, I suggest, we should investigate the cognitive functions that emotions perform to see how they affect epistemic tenability. (p. 147)

And this she goes on to do, in great detail.

This reconceptualization has profound experimental consequences, too. The work of Project Zero at Harvard, a research institute dedicated to studying complex cognition (and where I worked for two years) was founded explicitly on the premise that engagement in the arts is a complex intellectual activity with multiple similarities to the sciences, and that engagement in the arts can be, and frequently is, profoundly rational. Their research history demonstrates that viewing the emotions as cognitively valuable, and the arts as complex intellectual endeavor, can lead to extraordinarily fruitful developmental research (i.e. this is not some unimportant philosophical jargon-shifting).

This view is so much the accepted scientific consensus that David Brooks could declare, reasonably uncontroversially, that the time has come for a “New Humanism” (an intriguing use of terminology in this context!) which fully recognizes that the Scottish Enlightenment has triumphed over the French, and that the old dichotomy between rationality and emotion is simply totally unsupported by any evidence (Brooks’ 2011 book The Social Animal provides a fairly good non-academic summary of the sorts of research cited here, and his TED talk isn’t bad – watch from 3:00). The breakdown of this dichotomy has been extraordinarily generative for the sciences, having fed into advances in understanding like Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, a deeper understanding of motivated cognition, and great advances in political science (like the work of Lakoff, Westen, and Marcus).

The only people I know of who reject this view are a few holdouts who tend to be members, ironically enough, of the skeptical community, whose commitment to the French Enlightenment view of rationality – a view which is hundreds of years out of date – is so profound that they seem to reject the reams of evidence that has forced us to change our understanding of the human mind. Drew Westen calls this an “irrational commitment to rationality” (2007, p. 15), and I think he’s broadly right.

Put simply, the idea that people will get so swept up in the emotion of their singing that they will find their reason suppressed is mostly a fantasy. While it might occasionally happen, there is no long-term danger to rationality posed by collective song. During the act of singing they may not be fantastically well-disposed to engage in high level cognitive problems. But there is simply no evidence, and none has been provided, that engaging in communal singing regularly over a long period of time will “suppress” or “subvert” their ability to reason. Our reason doesn’t work like that, according to the best evidence available. States of emotional arousal are compatible with a strong capacity for rationality, and not necessarily subversive of it.

The Lack of Evidence to Support Crommunist’s Core Claim

But really, only a little common sense is needed to reject the argument posed. If it were the case that engaging in group singing were subversive of reason then there would be plenty of evidence of it: choirs and choruses around the country would be struck by an epidemic of unreasonableness. They would be bastions of dogmatism. There is no evidence of this outcome. Instead, singing has multiple health benefits, as Prof. Graham Welch of the University of London has extensively documented. He summarizes his research as follows:

“The health benefits of singing are both physical and psychological. Singing has physical benefits because it is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting. Singing has psychological benefits because of its normally positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system which is linked to our sense of emotional well-being. Psychological benefits are also evident when people sing together as well as alone because of the increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour.”

With such extensive physical and psychological benefits it seems to me that group singing fits extremely well into the Humanist emphasis on human flourishing and happiness, and is far from “anti-Humanist”.

The Question of Coercion

I have now demonstrated that the argument Crommunist advances is based on an outdated, discredited notion of a dichotomy between rationality and emotion, shown that no credible evidence exists to support the claim that communal singing is “subversive of reason”, and even shown that singing is beneficial to health. But what of the idea that “group participation is de facto coercion”? This could be true even if, as I have shown, group singing is not the danger to reason that was suggested.

First, it is essential to clarify our terms. Coercion is a very specific form of the use of power, in which force or the threat of force is used to ensure another to act against their wishes. Other ways of exercising power are not, strictly speaking, coercion: psychological manipulation and bribery, for instance, are not coercion if there is no threat of force. And neither is social pressure to conform to conform to a set of norms. The mere exercise of forms of social pressure to encourage conformity to norms simply does not fall under the accepted definition of coercion (even JS Mill, the father of modern liberalism and libertarianism, makes a distinction between what he calls “stigma” and the use of force to ensure compliance).

This distinction is important because different forms of power are frequently elided in the freethinking community (particularly in the more libertarian wing of the movement) in order to declare out-of-bounds the use of any sort of social pressure at all to regulate behavior. This is dangerous: strong social norms are essential to the welfare of communities and individuals, and by equating coercion with normative pressure Crommunist denigrates the importance of social norms.

Consider: many have made the point in the current discussion of the treatment of women in the secular community that codes of conduct and official policies are all well and good, but mean nothing if they are not enforced or followed. This is an implicit admission that coercion (the enforcement of a policy by physically removing an offender, for example) is likely to be insufficient a tool to resolve the problem on its own. Rather, what is needed is a change of culture such that social pressure is brought to bear on individuals simply not to harass women in the first place.

Stephanie Zvan seems to hold a similar position. In a recent post discussing the issue of so-called “dogmatic feminism” she writes:

Shame that is invoked for behaviors that actually hurt people, however …serves a very useful purpose. It is the impetus to stop the harmful behavior. It’s not comfortable to watch, like much of the process of dealing with harassment in our movements, but it is sometimes what is called for.

Shame is just one form of social pressure which encourages norm-following. It is potentially dangerous and should be used sparingly – indeed it is one of the most dangerous forms of non-coercive social pressure – but it is not coercion and is sometimes valuable to restrict harmful behaviors, as Zvan recognizes.

A similar point could be made regarding the goals of the queer movement (I raise this partly because Crommunist seems to think my being gay should lead me to support his position, when it does the opposite). I often say in my talks to activist groups that we are not seeking an equality of laws alone – we want an equality of dreams, an equal culture. The struggle for queer acceptance is not over once laws guaranteeing equal rights are on the books – the social norms must change. Coercion isn’t enough and is not the same.

Having made this distinction, we can revisit the question of communal singing. No doubt, as I accepted from the outset, some people will dislike communal singing for whatever reason, and will choose not to attend a community where that is the common practice. They might have an uncomfortable experience in their first visit if they fail to research the community adequately enough, and attend a session in which communal singing is part of the proceedings. They may have to sit there feeling uncomfortable as they choose not to sing.

Let me put this bluntly: to the vast majority of people, this is not the end of the world. Nor is this any infringement on an individual’s autonomy: they chose to attend, they can leave at any time, and they needn’t participate in the singing. They may feel like they are being pressured to sing simply because everyone else is doing so, and that might make them feel uncomfortable if they don’t like singing. For most people, this isn’t a big deal: they will go home and decide not to attend that part of the community’s programming again, or look for another community which does not include group singing as part of the program.

None of this is coercion. The individual is always acting freely based on their own choices. And a little discomfort is not, for most people, the end of the world.


I have sought to demonstrate here that, based on the best scientific evidence available, and the consensus of the scientific and philosophical community at this time, the idea that the emotions are always threatening to overwhelm our reason, and that there is a “rational part of the brain” which can be unseated by base limbic passions is simply false. It’s bad science. It is bad science which is popular with some in the secular movement, but it is bad science nonetheless. Instead, we must recognize that our emotions are part of our cognitive apparatus, and that they can be epistemically valuable, helping us advance our understanding of phenomena. Further, I have shown that there is simply no evidence that engaging in communal singing poses any serious threat to a person’s capability to reason, and that group singing conveys multiple health benefits on people. Finally, I have demonstrated that coercion is no the same as group pressure, and have defended norm-setting and social pressure, in some forms and at some times, as essential to the functioning of any community.

There is far more that could be said here – I am intrigued, for instance, to explore why such outdated views of cognition are so popular within the secular community, and why some seem to be so irrationally afraid of any practice which is associated with religion that they would seek to exclude such practices from Humanist communities as Crommunist wishes to do with group singing. But that will have to wait for another time. For now, I think my argument stands.


*Why am I referencing books as well as journal articles here? Because the current view of the mind is the result of a synthesis of a wide range of peer-reviewed journal articles, and long, complex syntheses are rarely possible to publish within the length restrictions of academic journals. Further, it is accepted practice within the discipline of philosophy to cite books as well as single papers because philosophical arguments are frequently presented in book form.


Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 1957

Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, 1976
Catherine Z. Elgin, Considered Judgment, 1999
Antonio Damasio, Descarte’s Error, 1994
David Best, The Rationality of Feeling, 1992
David Best, Education of the Emotions, 1988
David Brooks, The Social Animal, 2011
Croft, The Challenges of Interdisciplinary Epistemology in Neuroaesthetics, 2011
Drew Westen, The Political Brain, 2007

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment