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Should Humanists Deliver Invocations? "No," says Frank Bellamy

Frank Bellamyby Frank Bellamy

Most of us have watched or attended a ceremony, whether it was a presidential inauguration or a college graduation, where we should have been treated with respect like every other human being, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof. Instead, we encounter invocations which exclude us, the nonreligious. An invocation is, after all, usually an invocation of a divine being in which we do not believe, and is usually given by a religious leader whom we do not follow.

Doing away with such invocations obviously solves the problem. A ceremony that doesn't reference religion at all can't exclude people because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. There doesn't appear to be much positive benefit to having an invocation, humanistic or religious. In centuries of U.S. history, has any law or policy ever been improved by the presence of invocations in public events?

Some in the secular community would prefer to maintain the practice of invocations and, when humanist leaders have the opportunity to give them, to use that opportunity to inspire. However what do they see as the long term benefit in doing so? How do these humanists address the problem of the exclusivity of religious invocations? It is not clear that they have even thought this through.

If these humanists hope that religious leaders will give more humanistic and inclusive invocations in response to the invocations of humanistic leaders, they hope for the impossible. When religious leaders tell us that humans do not have the ability to solve our problems ourselves and call on a god to help us, it is not because they wish to demoralize us or because they haven't thought it through, it is because that is a central aspect of their belief system that they cannot abandon. The humanistic claim that humans have the potential to overcome all challenges without divine intervention is not one that the religious accept. This is a fundamental point of disagreement between humanists and the religious, one which will always separate humanistic invocations from religious ones.

This disagreement leads to a potential problem of exclusivity in the other direction. If humanistic invocations are to be inspirational, to have any meaning at all, they have to make humanistic statements which exclude the religious in the same way that religious invocations exclude humanists. The only way an invocation can include everyone is by saying nothing, which would accomplish nothing. Humanists should not delude themselves into thinking that they can speak on behalf of the religious. If they do, they lower themselves to the level of those who believe that this is a Christian nation by failing to respect the real differences of belief that do exist in this country.

Given that removing invocations from public ceremonies completely seems the only viable path to truly inclusive public ceremonies, it is worth asking if humanists giving such invocations is a strategically sound move towards achieving that objective. The answer to this depends on what sort of invocation the humanist gives.

The invocation that Andrew Lovley, president of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists at the University of Southern Maine, gave in December 2009 at the South Portland, Maine, mayor's inauguration ceremony is an example of what a humanist invocation should not be: abstract, largely devoid of meaning, and more a step away from the objective than towards it. (You can see the text here.) What Mr. Lovley gave was actually an invocation in content if not in form (he didn't actually invoke anything): it was meant to inspire, not to raise consciousness or protest the practice of invocations in inauguration ceremonies. As such, it did absolutely nothing to advance the ultimate goal of doing away with such invocations entirely. Even the news article about the event, for which Mr. Lovley was interviewed, gave no indication that humanists are dissatisfied with the general practice of having invocations at such events. Yet if humanists ask to be included in such ceremonies by being allowed to give invocations like Mr. Lovley's, then once humanists have gotten there, turn around and ask to have the invocations done away with for the sake of inclusiveness, won't humanists look like hypocrites? Once humanists are participating in invocations, shouldn't we would expect it to be harder, not easier, to get rid of them.

As an example of an invocation that does contribute to the ultimate goal of doing away with invocations, consider the invocation American Atheist president Ed Buckner gave at a Cobb County (Georgia) Board of Commissioners meeting in July 2009. (You can watch the video here). He offered a protest rather than a prayer. It was an excellent civics lesson, referencing everything from the Treaty of Tripoli to the Christian bible. Mr. Buckner said "For any of you who ... think this is more a provocation than an invocation, who would prefer not to hear such comments at a meeting you came to expecting government instead of religion and philosophy, please join me in urging that the Cobb County commissioners ... cease to open their meetings with public religious invocations of any kind."

This is what a humanist invocation should be: honest, clear, and a step towards doing away with such invocations all together. While some in at that meeting didn't like Mr. Buckner's invocation, it is certain that some people attended that meeting never having considered that they might have nontheistic neighbors symbolically excluded by such invocations, and whether they agree with us or not, they left that meeting with their consciousness raised.

Frank Bellamy is a graduate student in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the president of the Secular Student Alliance at RPI, and the content manager of the eMpirical.

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