Apr 10, 2012

Atheists don't have bodies!
And other objections to secularist rituals

"Atheists," Steve Martin once declared on David Letterman's show, "really have nothing."

"Until now," he said.

Waving a single sheet of paper, Martin announced he was holding the "entire atheist hymnal, right here," and then he and his music troupe launched into a harmonized, barbershop-quartet style song called "Atheists Don't Have No Songs."

It was a joke, obviously, but for some, the question of why atheists don't have songs, and, more specifically, why they don't sing together, has become very important. The question of whether they should have songs they sing together has actually divided atheists, revealing an interesting fault line among American atheists over what "atheism" is in practice.

And, more, over whether it can be a "practice" at all.

Tom Flynn, an executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and a founding editor of the Secular Humanist Bulletin, has taken up the "nay" side of the question. There's been a long line of commentators, he writes, who have argued the anti-religious should adopt, at least in part, at least in style if not in substance, some of the rituals of religion. But, he writes, they're wrong.

He writes that "secular humanists," which means, for him and in this conversation generally, the same thing as atheists, have typically had only "disdain for such trappings of congregational life as rhythm, ritual, and touch," and that that's right. Flynn writes,
"secular humanists are not only right but wise to banish (for lack of a better catchall term) collective ritual practice from our (pardon the expression) sectarian observances. Why?

"I think there are two broad grounds on which secular humanists—and I emphasize that adjective—disdain such practice: because it is erosive of rationality and because it denigrates the autonomy of the individual."
The two broad grounds turn out to be one, though. For Flynn, all collective action, all group-formation, functions to erase the autonomy of the individual, and that functions to erode rationality. People basically are not rational in groups, so anything that makes one part of a group, that "create[s] a feeling of solidarity and personal closeness—a sense that together the community can accomplish great things," is an act of "group self-deception." Groups, as groups, are necessarily self-deceiving. Rationality and individuality are bound together so tightly that recognition of the truth of things can only really come to those who, through force of will, recognize the true extent to which they're cosmically alone. Flynn argues the "well-proven effect" of groups "is to mute the promptings of reason, to blur the inconvenient hard edges of reality."

There are two peculiarities to this, one political, one more philosophical.

Politically, this argument that atheists, qua atheists, secularists qua secularists, should logically be opposed to all collective understandings of themselves and all collective engagements, would necessarily commit them to certain sorts of politics. They would have to be opposed to labor unions, for example. Opposed to any class-action. There's a very old argument from the left that exploitation is perpetrated and perpetuated precisely by the illusion of individuality, so it's only because people don't recognize how their interests, their fates, are intertwined, are most essentially common interests and common fates, but instead see themselves as rugged and independent individuals, that causes them to endorse and encourage their own exploitation.

A lot of historic effort has gone into creating exactly the thing Flynn specifically identifies as a delusion, that is, class consciousness.

Using ritual to create a sense of togetherness is not exclusively religious thing, but has, actually, a lot of history in left-wing politics, a history which is here being set up as distasteful and objectionable to atheists. Joe Hill, for example, was no fan of religion, but felt it was exactly the rituals of religion and the sense of community created by those rituals that was needed to help people out of the horrible conditions their religion had left them in. Thus the concept of the "Union song":

I don't know what Flynn's politics are. He quotes Alan Greenspan approvingly, however much one can read into that. His understanding of secularism, though, is that it commits one to something like the political philosophy of Greenspan's mentor, Ayn Rand, or at least some sort of libertarianism.

Some significant parts of the modern movement of atheists have leaned rather rightward, but it would be quite a step to say secularists and those opposed to religion must, necessarily, be capitalists and adamant individualists opposed to any kind of collective action.  

Philosophically, what's peculiar here is that Flynn's atheism is built on a conception of humans as, in some sense, Cartesian egos. That is to say, for him, bodies are causes of confusion, delusion, and error. People are most truly human when they're rational, and most rational when they overcome the ways in which they're embodied.

"Atheists really have nothing," as Martin said: Not even bodies.

People are individuals, but more, individual minds. For Flynn, "communal exercises ... invite us to surrender individual identity," specifically because "individual identity" is understood to be this rationalism, which must be protected from infection of such things as "moods." Flynn distrusts the emotional effects of the physical act of communal singing, because the mental is under the influence of the physical, there, which isn't rational, and demonstrates, if anything, the limits of rationality. Rationalism is here constructed exactly as Descartes and other Modernists would have it: an act by a thinking subject, who is, in the very act of thinking, most essentially a) thinking, and b) an individual who does the thinking. Which is to say, an individual mind. The body of the individual is the source of errors, such as the one's produced by the psychological effects of group-singing. Thus, to the extent that atheism is meant to equal rationalism (which is quite an extent), atheists have overcome their bodies.

This is not an exaggeration of Flynn's position. He writes that he opposes secularists' singing for exactly this reason. Singing is physical, and the physical leads to foolishness and error:
"touching, swaying, singing, and the rest have measurable psycho-physiological effects. They apparently promote physical responses such as endorphin release, suffusing participants with a sense of well-being ... a sense of well-being not justified by their actual circumstances."
What's odd about this is that atheism, for much of its history, has been understood as an outworking of materialism. But materialism, in the Marxist sense, can be understood to mean that ideas are not radically free from the material conditions out of which they arise, and then, conversely, that they cannot be cleanly separated from practice, which is, at least in some cases, ritual practices. Secularism and atheism are being set up, here, as idealist notions, and are understood to be rational and, therefore, true, only to the extent to which they're not related to material reality, bodies, physical acts and enactments, etc. So where Karl Marx -- certainly no covert religionist -- said "All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice," here human practices such as singing are understood to be not the solution to mystification, but mystification itself. Not to suggest that Marx was going around inventing rituals for atheists, but that he understood that ideas were not detached from forms of life, modes, manners and arrangements of living.

There's a pretty persistent idea that if ideas have history, if they have actual contexts and material conditions, they're impure. They've been corrupted. They're bad ideas. It's often the case, for example, that explaing the context and historical development of an idea is taken as an account of it's illegitimacy. As if what one was really saying was that the idea is a bastard, it's true father not (pure) though, but history.

It seems to me that much of the very strong reaction to Alain de Botton's recent brief on behalf of atheists adoption/adaptation of religious rituals, Religion for Atheists, is undergirded by exactly this sort of anti-materialism.

Most of the arguments against De Botton have been that his proposals -- atheist bar mitzvahs, temples, etc. -- are just absurd. Which is true. But what such proposals evidence, at least in part, is that knowledge is not disembodied. Thought, De Botton implies though never directly says, is not disentangled from practices and exercises and such things as emotions. Ideas don't float free from the earth.

Thus, "when we think about how to make the world a better place," it's important to think about not only the ways in which people think, but the practices, acts, and exercises they engage in. Religion, for De Botton, has until now owned rituals, but rituals, as distinct from actual beliefs, as distinguishable from religion per se, serve humans, solve social problems and have societal functions. Rituals act as answers to such things as loneliness, which mere right-thinking cannot affect at all. They effect consolation, which is not delusion or illusion or just mushy-minded avoidance of the hard realities of a cold cosmos, but ways in which one is enabled to contemplate beauty, share joy, internalize wisdom, and mark important moments of life.

De Botton thus takes the "yea" position on whether or not atheists sing songs. And he does so because his understanding of atheism doesn't disavow "practice," since it's not just a matter of minds and rationalism and propositions to be upheld, but also supposed to be about living, and living better.

This question of whether atheists should sing songs, and whether there should be atheist songs (entirely apart from the fact that there are such songs, and more of them than Martin allows in his joke), is up to atheists to decide, of course. And since there's no executive council of secularists, presumably individual atheists will have to hash this out for themselves.

It's worth noting, though, that the answer to the question of whether they should have songs they sing together actually falls out of an answer to a previous question: what is atheism?

This division, this fault line shifting to separate atheists from atheists, is definitional. And comes, ultimately, out of un-articulated philosophical issues of the nature of ideas and of the humans who have them.