Togetherness in Secular Society: My Response to the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard

by: Andrew Tripp

So, I’m going to be the first to admit that my piece at In Our Words today is, organizationally, not my best. I tend to write shorter pieces there because I spend my life writing 15+ page opuses on Rousseau and conceptual art, and because I know no one who reads that site wants my take on the nature of ethical and political and linguistic quandaries a la Quine, Levinas, Nussbaum, etc. As such, this particular piece is distinctly lacking, when it should have been more robust in this issue. Especially as it deals with a topic that has caused much miscommunication, bickering, and name-calling, I should have done my damnedest to be as clear as possible, and I did not. For that, I’m sorry, and the lesson has been learned.

So, here I go.

James Croft, who works for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, who I quoted in my original post, has written a response to it. Unlike me, he didn’t go for brevity, and it’s the kind of post I should have written originally. But I do have some things to say about it.

First off, I did not choose the title. My editor, Nico, did. And I really dislike it. (Although, I still love you, Nico.) [1]

Next, James is absolutely right in saying that secular groups like Center For Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, etc. have been around far longer than 2004. And that’s why I said that the groups I listed have either “formed or come to prominence.” I suppose it’s down to one’s definition of prominence, but I would argue that these groups are far more well known since 2004 than they were before; their membership increases and public visibility prove it. It’s in that context that I used prominence. And I’m never missing a day on his blog again now that I’ve seen the depth of his Ingersoll love. It’s so great.

He and I clearly share an activist mindset, but I’m more than a little troubled by his characterization of me. He all too quickly groups me in with PZ Myers, who has long sparred with the HCH, saying that I “[do not] support it wholeheartedly.”

He’s right. I can’t think of a single organization in the world I support wholeheartedly, or don’t have some reservation with, but now I am being pedantic. Never in my article did I say that I think the HCH is dumb, misguided or in any way call it or the people who work for it idiots. What I did was offer perhaps not the most perfectly-worded critique, but a critique nonetheless, of the language being used and asked for a rationale for it. And, to James’ great credit, he responded extremely well, and answered my questions brilliantly. It’s really, really refreshing to have a discussion where questions get answered, not one where more insults are just thrown around.

I did say I love PZ, and I do: he’s one of the very few “big names” in the secular blogosphere who talks politics, feminism, sex-positivity, etc. The liberal section of the “Standards and Practices” governing his blog make me very happy. He regularly calls out the awful trolls who abuse people like Rebecca Watson and advocates for the freethought community to address things like sexism, feminism, and other matters of social justice. But, he has his bad moments too, as do we all. So, please don’t take my support of PZ as being absolute. It’s not. And as such, I thought it a bit unfair to lump my offerings in with his. He said the HCH was absolutely wrong, I asked a question. Subtle difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless.

Even after James’ explanations, I still find the claim that “secular society” does not create a sense of community to be a little problematic. Simon Critchley, who I mentioned briefly earlier, wrote what I believe to be the best analysis of the modern dearth of community and organization in his 2007 book, Infinitely Demanding. In it, he posits that philosophy, being the investigation of life itself, begins in disappointment, both political and religious, because of the lack of motivational and moral deficit that is inherent in secular liberal democracy. In short, liberal democracies do not motivate their citizenry to action, for obvious reasons: when one has apparent freedom and exercisable rights, what is there to be angry about? Add in the free market, mass media, etc, and you’ve got a lovely stew of placation and laziness.

That is, in short, our present circumstance: I think that saying that the sense of togetherness garnered from religious communities being the best path forward in this circumstance ignores a lot of issues associated with religious communities, as well as the current state of world politics.

I, personally, count myself extremely fortunate to be part of an amazing community of activists here in Chicago, not just secularists I know from my presidency of DAFT, but the feminists, LGBTQ people, socialists, anarchists, and others who populate DePaul and the other universities around the city. We not only have a thriving community, but also engage in activism: DePaul’s Feminist Front recently put on a Trans 101 workshop at Occupy Chicago, for instance, and we are in the planning stages for other events like Take Back the Night. There are people of faith involved in this community, certainly, but there is nothing religious or spiritual about the work that we do.  James is very right in saying that activist communities have not, as of yet, arisen in atheist activism; but, they are starting to show signs of doing so, and already have risen all across the country, especially in Secular Student Alliance affiliates.

This is an issue that should be addressed more fully in a post of its own, but I will just say that I don’t think that the HCH’s approach to organization is necessarily the best one, as they seem to assert that it is, and nor do I believe that the way we have organized in Chicago is the best. Saying that one way or another is “best” in such a situation does not seem useful in this situation: what matters is that people are organizing, are becoming active. And in our case, secular society has absolutely offered community and a sense of togetherness. Going back to Critchley, even when there is no one single motivating force in a democracy, it is possible to be motivated by that lack, which I think is at the very heart of our activism.

I’m not saying that the HCH is bad; never have I said that, an in the original post I said exactly the same thing. I am not the kind of atheist who thinks that just because something is religious it is bad. I don’t particularly care about religious language. It doesn’t offend me whens someone says “God bless you” in response to a sneeze, and I certainly am overly guilty of taking God’s name in vain. But I am curious as to its use, and I want to continue analyzing it — because I’m a philosophy major and that’s what I do. Social movements inevitably stagnate without internal as well as external analysis: as such, I’m just trying to figure out what makes the various organizations tick, as it were.

Just to try and clear this part up once and for all: at one point in his response, James asks, “To put it bluntly, how stupid do Tripp and PZ think we are?” I don’t. Not at all. Ne’er did I say such a thing.

As a philosophy student, I have learned that language is extremely important; one stray word here or there can have meaning that the writer never intended. As such, I saw words like “Chaplain” being associated with a secular institution, and became curious as to why the HCH chose to use it. Maybe “troubled” wasn’t the word to use, just very curious. As James said, chaplain has become more frequently used in a secular sense, but I would wager quite strongly that for most people in the world, its first connotation is a religious one. I never said that I thought the HCH was wrong or dumb because of it; as I said, I am not a PZ clone. I posited a possible explanation, from my own deduction, and asked if I had a decent point. In short, what a student of philosophy should do.

In closing, I would like to thank James for reading my post and offering a response. I hope that in the future we can continue to discuss this and other issues in a civil manner, and maybe make some positive changes along the way.

Andrew Tripp is a scoundrel, raconteur, and all around roguish individual who is studying Philosophy and Art History at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and President of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, the university’s first and only group serving its population of nonreligious students. You can find him on a barstool cheering on Manchester City Football Club on the weekends, at his blog dreamingofqueens.blogspot.com and on Twitter @ahtripp.

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[1] His editor backs him up on this, although he stands by the title. And loves Andrew Tripp, too.

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