Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Songs of Appraise


Songs for Humanists

What is Songs of Appraise all about? The name is a twist on Songs of Praise, the long-running Christian music television program.

These are not religious songs, however. In fact, they are primarily songs for non-religious people i.e. atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc.

But these are not songs against religion, nor about atheism or disbelief. Rather, they are concerned with humanism i.e. how can we live without religion?

Christians may be able to enjoy these songs, if their interpretation of Christianity has a strong humanist streak. Indeed, some of these songs are written or sung by Christians. But primarily these are songs for humanists looking for instruction on how to live without religion.


Words can mean different things to different people, so it's best to define them. Generally I use very broad terms.

Humanism - I am using a very simple and minimal definition i.e. the pursuit of human desires by the use of human reason. This definition does not include any particular ethical system, or manifesto, it simply means to be guided by human faculties rather than religion.

Humanist - as per above. I use the term "humanist" to mean any type of rational non-religious person such as an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, etc. Sometimes I may use the word "atheist" on this website, because it's a common label for non-believers, but technically I mean humanist.

Emotion, desire, affect, affective, passions - again I am using a very simple definition i.e. all these terms mean anything you feel, in terms of desirable end goals. (This does NOT include feelings/intuition about knowledge, only feelings of desirable outcomes).

Values - I am using values in the broad sense, that a philosopher or scientist might use the term i.e. a measure of your like/dislike for objects in the world around us. This is broader than the everyday use of the term (a set of standards/ethics).

Appraise - to estimate the value or worth of something. Essentially it means the same as "value".


The impetus for this website came from a few directions, one of them:

Atheists Have No Songs?

When comedian Steve Martin sang the hilarious Atheists Don't Have No Songs it left most of us in stitches, but nonetheless left the lingering question: well what songs do atheists have? Of course, atheists do have some songs like:

Losing My Religion - REM
Superstition - Stevie Wonder
Listen to Reason - Bryan Steeksma
Let the Mystery Be - Iris DeMent
Heaven - Talking Heads
Kingdom Come - Mark Erelli

These are great songs but they are mostly negative i.e. concerned with what we don't believe. Ultimately they are simply an affirmation of common sense, which is not very interesting after a while.

Or there's Imagine by John Lennon. But that's a little vague, and doesn't get more specific than: living for today, peace and sharing.

Or you might find a band that is tagged with the "atheist" label like Quiet Company. But after a while their atheism song-list comes to an abrupt end, as band leader Taylor Muse noted: "I wrote 15 songs about atheism, and I said everything I wanted to say".

So what exactly can long-term atheists sing about?

Many atheists will say that reason and science is what we should sing about and, sure, you might find a few songs like that. But knowledge is only a means to an end. It is a tool to apply when seeking some goal. Knowledge is not usually an end in itself. So what goals are atheists striving for?

Ultimately that's a misleading question because (strictly speaking) it's not a matter for atheism at all (atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god). Rather, it's a question for humanism, because humanism is concerned with the question: how can we live without religion?

The other motivations for starting this website are (a) to help build up the humanist movement and (b) to bring to life the knowledge of Affective Propulsion (website under construction). But we'll talk about those later.


So, if songs about atheism/disbelief and reason/science are not very interesting, what songs does humanism have? A lot, as it turns out. But to find out what type of songs, we need to ask the question: how should we live without religion? What does it mean to be a humanist? And to answer that question we have to ask a more fundamental question: what stimulates human action?

Feeling and Thinking

If you ask a humanist: how can we live without religion? They often answer: reason and science can guide us. That is true, but it's an incomplete answer. It's incomplete because, no matter how much information we have, knowledge does not stimulate action. It is feeling that stimulates action. We act in anticipation of emotional rewards. Professor of Psychology Drew Westen explains:
Feeling and thinking evolved together, and nature "designed" them to work together.... the capacity to recognize whether an object in the environment is a banana or a snake would have been little use to our ancestors if they lacked the feelings that would impel them to eat it or run from it ...

Although Western philosophy and culture have a history of viewing reason and emotion as opposing forces, what becomes clear from understanding their evolution is how intimately they typically work together...

The capacity for rational judgment evolved to augment, not replace, evolutionarily older motivational systems...

It is no accident that the words motivation and emotion share the same Latin root, movere, which means to move.
Rational Beliefs & Affective Values

Thus human action is a function of two variables, not one. Reason informs us, and emotion moves us. They perform different but complementary functions. Reason is a model of how the world works, but that model contains no inherent drive or motivation. Rather, it is feeling that stimulates action. We act in anticipation of emotional rewards, and reason is merely a tool used in pursuit of emotional goals. Thus emotion defines the ends, and reason provides the means to achieve those end goals.

While it's true that emotion can interfere with reason, and we should guard against that, nonetheless the general nature of emotion and reason is complementary, not in competition. Thus reason and emotion are partners, they perform different functions.

Reason is a Model

This relationship between reason and emotion is frequently misunderstood by humanists, who often equate the function of reason with the whole human mind. But neuroscience and common sense tell us that reason merely models how the world works, it doesn't stimulate action, and thus reason is only one part of the mind.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio confirmed the limits of pure reason with his research on brain-injured patients. The patients' reasoning faculties were functioning perfectly well, but they have little or no emotion left in their brains due to an accident or stroke. Far from becoming hyper-rational Dr Spocks, they become chronic procrastinators, unable to arrive at final decisions because they lack emotional preferences to apply their reason towards some action.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains:
The neurologist Antonio Damasio has studied people who, because of a stroke, tumor, or blow to the head, have lost various parts of their ... emotional lives. They report that when they ought to feel emotion, they feel nothing ... So what happens when these people go out into the world? Now that they are free of the distractions of emotion, do they become hyperlogical, able to see through the haze of feelings that blinds the rest of us to the path of perfect rationality? Just the opposite. They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or to set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, “What should I do now?” they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other. When the rest of us look out at the world, our emotional brains have instantly and automatically appraised the possibilities. One possibility usually jumps out at us as the obvious best one ... It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all. Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior ...
So when someone like Richard Dawkins says:
My foundation is called the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and my primary motivation is that a reasoning approach to science is enthralling...

What a privilege it is for each one of us to have in our heads an organ which is capable of ... constructing a model of the universe ...
That is true, reason is a model of the universe. But that model is only one function of the brain. That model contains no inherent drive or motivation. It is feeling which motivates us to act and apply that model towards some fulfilling goals. Thus there are two complementary functions of the brain, thinking and feeling.

The Emotional Drive

Thus without emotion to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent, we are left with an inert model of the world, with nothing to tell us what we like and dislike in that world. Without emotion, we can have all the knowledge in the world, but we will have no motivation to act. It is feeling that stimulates action. We act in anticipation of emotional rewards.

Thus for a humanist, questions of motivation, drive, purpose, meaning, are all reducible to matters of emotional preferences. This may seem too simple, and indeed many intellectuals will offer up some mythical alternative source of motivational drive that we should adhere to. But these are myths, pure and simple. There is no known source of motivational drive except for our feelings. None.

Thus a humanist lifestyle or philosophy will be a philosophy of emotional fulfillment. No doubt there are some tough questions that are raised if feelings are our only arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong, but there is no avoiding that a humanist lifestyle boils down to emotional fulfillment.

But actually, affective propulsion (feeling is the stimulus to action) is not a uniquely humanist characteristic. It's an inescapable universal fact that all humans are driven by the emotional drive. Whereas humanists seek their rewards in the here and now, Christians seek their rewards in the afterlife, or in fellowship and song, or in relationship with their god, etc. But all humans are driven by the emotional drive. There is no escape. It's a universal human biological fact. So, whether you worship candy bars or Christ, you do so because of anticipation of emotional rewards.

Emotional Appraisals

So, now that we know that all humans are driven by the emotional drive, the sane humanist response is to lead a life that emotionally appraises (estimates the value/worth of) things in the world around us, and seeks out a life of emotional fulfillment, using reason and science as a means towards an emotionally satisfying life.

Psychologist Valerie Tarico explains the complementary nature of reason and emotion:
Cognition without emotion doesn’t get us very far... For a decision to be made, all of that reason and information needs to create a valence, a positive feeling that privileges one option over others that then directs action. As psychologist Marlene Winell has put it: “Imagine going into a Baskin Robins and having to choose one of the thirty one ice cream flavors by rational analysis.” In fact, this is one of the primary functions of emotion—when we are presented with choices, it guides us toward one among many options.

... emotions are neither a liability nor some superfluous fluff like the wings on an angel. They are practical mental processes that serve a purpose ...

Emotions function as a motivational system. In a very real sense, all human emotions can be thought of as forms of pleasure and pain: they are all either appealing or aversive. We are motivated to seek them or avoid them... In this we are like other sentient beings. All creatures that experience pleasure and pain are motivated to seek the former and avoid the later... We all ... are about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The only real arguments are over what gets us there, what kinds of pleasure are preferable, and whose feelings matter ...

... emotions are situational appraisals that guide the reactions of physical creatures to the world around them.
Breath into the Bag

Now, at this point it's a good idea to slow down before I lose some readers. Many humanists hear the word "emotion" and instantly perceive it as an attack on reason and science. They may think that I'm saying emotion is sometimes better than reason. So let me make it crystal clear: Nowhere on this website do I say that emotion is better than reason. Never. Not once.

The point of this website is that emotion and reason perform different but complementary functions. Reason informs us, and emotion moves us. Both are necessary. While it's true that emotion can interfere with reason, and we should guard against that, nonetheless the general nature of emotion and reason is complementary, not in competition. Human behaviour is a function of two variables, not one.

So relax, rationality and science are not threatened by this website. On the contrary, I quote from many experts in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, to provide an entirely rational account of the relationship between reason and emotion. When you get to the end, you'll realise it's all just common sense anyway, and there was nothing to worry about.

Songs of Appraise

So after all that groundwork, what actually are these songs of appraise? Well, basically they are songs that acknowledge (explicitly or implicitly) the importance of the emotional drive in setting our goals in life. Here's a sample:

Songs in the Key of Meta-Ethics

An important point about Songs of Appraise is that these songs are intended to be ethically and politically neutral. They are about the foundation of values/ethics, not about any particular ethical position. Meta-ethics is a term used in philosophy. It is concerned with:
"What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.
So, meta-ethics (or value theory, or axiology) is about identifying the source or foundation of value i.e. what makes something good?

Songs of Appraise aims to be songs about meta-ethics. These songs are instructing us about the foundation of value/ethics. For this reason, the songs are generally about universal matters such as: love and loss, sunshine and lollipops, rainy days and Mondays, frozen orange juice, etc. I have tried to avoid songs which might lean politically in one direction or another, or be offensive to some people.

Songs of Appraise seeks to instruct humanists about the foundation of values, but what particular ethics you may derive from that foundation is a personal matter and beyond the scope of this blog. Humanists can be just as divided politically as the general population, so this website aims at the common, universal, and foundational level of ethics.


Here are a few more experts explaining the relationship between reason and emotion. If you need further information see: Complete Humanism: Emotion and Reason (website under construction).

Affective Forecasting

Daniel Gilbert, What is Happiness?
Affective forecasting ... is the process by which people look into their future and make predictions about what they’ll like and what they won’t like. And when you make decisions – whether they’re large ones ... or small ones ... all of these decisions are predicated on some estimation that your brain is making very rapidly that one of them will feel better than the other one.
Daniel Gilbert, Experts in Emotion Series:
By studying hedonics, by studying what makes us feel good or bad, you're studying the essence of what we're doing here on Earth. To me, emotion defines value, which is to say: nothing is good or bad in the world except because of the emotions or feelings that it brings to human beings. And so, I think you're studying the single most important central aspect of the human condition.
Imagine No Emotion

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works:
The first step in reverse-engineering the emotions is try to imagine what a mind would be like without them. Supposedly Mr. Spock, the Vulcan mastermind, didn't have emotions (except for occasional intrusions from his human side and a seven-year itch that drove him back to Vulcan to spawn). But Spock's emotionlessness really just amounted to his being in control, not losing his head, coolly voicing unpleasant truths, and so on. He must have been driven by some motives or goals. Something must have kept Spock from spending his days calculating pi to a quadrillion digits or memorizing the Manhattan telephone directory. Something must have impelled him to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man had gone before. Presumably it was intellectual curiosity, a drive to set and solve problems, and solidarity with allies—emotions all. And what would Spock have done when faced with a predator or an invading Klingon? Do a headstand? Prove the four-color map theorem? Presumably a part of his brain quickly mobilized his faculties to scope out how to flee and to take steps to avoid the vulnerable predicament in the future. That is, he had fear. Spock may not have been impulsive or demonstrative, but he must have had drives that impelled him to deploy his intellect in pursuit of certain goals rather than others.

... intelligence is the pursuit of goals in the face of obstacles. Without goals, the very concept of intelligence is meaningless ...

The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting.
Comfortably Numb

Paul Bloom, Evolution, Emotion, and Reason:
Without emotions to drive us we would do nothing at all. And you could illustrate this scientifically. Creatures like Spock and Data don't exist in the real world but there are unusual and unfortunate cases where people lose, to some extent or another, their emotions. And you could look at these people and see what happens to them. The classic case, the most famous case, is that of a man called Phineas Gage...

.. There are other cases like Phineas Gage, cases where people have had damage to that same part of the brain, parts of the frontal cortex. And what they've lost is they basically lost a good part of their emotions. And what this means is they don't really care that much about things. They can't prioritize.

Emotions set goals and establish priorities. And without them you wouldn't do anything, you couldn't do anything. Your desire to come to class to study, to go out with friends, to read a book, to raise a family, to be — to do anything are priorities set by your emotions. Life would be impossible without those emotions.
Ends and Means

Bertrand Russell, Ethics and Politics:
"Reason" has a perfectly clear and precise meaning. It signifies the choice of the right means to an end that you wish to achieve. It has nothing whatever to do with the choice of ends. But opponents of reason do not realize this, and think that advocates of rationality want reason to dictate ends as well as means. They have no excuse for this view in the writings of rationalists. There is a famous sentence: "Reason is and ought only to be, the slave of the passions." This sentence does not come from the works of Rousseau or Dostoevsky or Sartre. It comes from David Hume. It expresses a view to which I, like every man who attempts to be reasonable, fully subscribe. When I am told, as I frequently am, that I "almost entirely discount the part played by the emotions in human affairs," I wonder what motive-force the critic supposes me to regard as dominant. Desires, emotions, passions (you can choose whichever word you will), are the only possible causes of action.
I think "Reason has ... nothing whatever" is an overstatement, reason can definitely study human nature, human desires, emotional satisfaction, and offer much insight our workings. But nonetheless Russell's basic point is correct: reason cannot choose our end goals, only emotion can do that.

Julia Galef, The Straw Vulcan:
So, this is essentially the Spock model of how emotions and rationality relate to each other: you have a goal, and you use rationality, unencumbered by emotion, to figure out what action to take to achieve that goal. And then emotion can get in the way and screw up this process, if you’re not really careful. This is the Spock model. And it’s not wrong per se. Emotions can clearly, and frequently do, screw up attempts at rational decision making...

So, Spock is not actually wrong. The problem with this model is just that it's incomplete. And the reason it’s incomplete is that goal box. Where does that goal box come from? It’s not handed down to us from on high. It’s not sort of written into the fabric of the universe. The only reason that you have goals is because you have emotions -- because you care about some outcomes of the world more than others; because you feel positively about some potential outcomes and negatively about other potential outcomes.

If you really didn't care about any potential state of the world more or less than other potential state of the world, it wouldn't matter how skilled your reasoning abilities were, you'd never have any reason to do anything...

So, emotions are clearly necessary for forming the goals, rationality is simply lame without them.
Leslie Paul Thiele, The Heart of Judgment:
Conceptually, one might imagine the individual as a ship at sea grappling with the winds and currents of a challenging and ever-changing environment. Reason provides a strong rudder, allowing a specific course to be consistently pursued. Affect provides the sails, without which the ship cannot reach any destination. Absent a means of propulsion, the ship's rudder becomes quite useless. It cannot govern the ship's progress. A vessel stripped of its sails will simply drift with the current. In the absence of an emotional thrust that starts the ship in motion and carries it forward, the steering power of reason ... becomes null and void.

Of course, a ship equipped with sails but no rudder is hardly better off. Absent a rudder, one could never steer a straight course... Working together, however, rudder and sail can achieve amazing results...

As Aristotle observed, reason can do nothing by itself; it must be combined with desire to induce action. The judgments that precede and inform action find in emotion their motivating and sustaining force. Reason requires emotion to stimulate its use, to recruit and direct its abilities, and to execute its commands. The most rational judgment would not get out of port without the propulsive force of emotion.
Richard Carrier, Reason as the Servant of Desire:
The battle between reason and emotion is often characterized as a master-slave relationship, as if reason should always be in control over emotion. This is not quite correct. Certainly, reason must always keep a check on emotions, making sure they are sending correct signals, and correcting their recommendations when they are not. But without emotions, reason would be a dead letter. For reason is the slave of emotion. Reason is not a motivator. Reason is a tool, a process. But for that tool to be applied, you must be motivated to apply it, and what you apply it to depends on your goals, which are in turn the result of motives, and motives are the product of desires, and desires are the outcome of emotions.


Brave New World

Songs of Appraise does not exist in a vacuum. It is a part of broader questions about the humanist movement such as: What is the humanist movement about? Where is it going? How can we help it get there?

For argument's sake, let's define the humanist movement as: humanists getting better at (a) serving the internal needs of humanists (b) outreach to potential new humanists and (c) generally trying to make the world a better place.

Why should we do these things? Because (a) it will make life better for humanists, better for people seeking an alternative to religion, and better for the world generally and (b) if we don't become an influential voice in society then that leaves a vacuum for some other group to lead the world in an undesirable direction.

So what are the internal needs of humanists? Mostly education and social needs. We need education regarding how to live without religion. Too many humanists are lost and confused. And humanists, particularly young humanists, have social needs for identity, belonging and support.

So how can the humanist movement get better at achieving these goals? The two main areas for improvement are: education (moving from one-eyed humanism to complete humanism), and harnessing the power of groups. Songs of Appraise can play a role in both these areas.

One-Eyed Humanism

Let's start with education. Are humanists being equipped with the knowledge required to live well without religion? Generally no, the humanist movement is still dominated by a one-eyed view of human nature that focuses on reason and ignores emotion.

Humanist Paul Kurtz explains:
... one of the great failures of the atheist and freethought movement may be attributed to the fact that it was largely cerebral and cognitive in function...

... in spite of the scientific/technological revolution, the secularist outlook will not succeed in enlisting human devotion and dedication unless it appeals not simply to the mind, but to the hearts of men and women; unless, that is, it is able to arouse and stimulate feeling, and unless there is some intensity of emotion.

... Humanism has a basic cognitive aspect, and it involves a commitment to rationalism ... But humanism involves not simply that, but a way of life. Humanism must address itself to the heart and the passions; ... it must have some effect upon how we live. I submit that broadly conceived the freethought movement has failed in that direction ...

... Thus humanism is both cognitive and passionate; ... Unless we can demonstrate by deed as well as belief that we are not simply negative, eager to destroy the religious institutions of the past, but that we are prepared to build creatively and constructively new institutions for the future, then I believe that the freethought / atheist / rationalist / humanist movement will continue to languish ...
So, humanism is not resonating because it is "largely cerebral", and the challenge for humanist groups is to make the knowledge of affective values an integral part of their teachings. Songs of Appraise can be a vehicle to that end.

Two-Footed Humanism

So, the solution is to develop a humanism that incorporates both rational beliefs and affective values.

James Croft, Building the Humanist Movement:
Humanism, in my view, rests on two propositions. First, the back foot, planted firmly in the soil: a rejection of the supernatural as an explanation for any of the phenomena we observe or experience. Second, the front foot, striding confidently forward: the embrace of a positive ethical stance derived from human experience and the natural world. The "four horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) ably constitute the first of these "feet," demonstrating why we should reject the supernatural, but they fail to convincingly espouse an alternative philosophy that might replace peoples' religious worldview. The lack of the second foot, however, leaves Humanism somewhat off-stride.
And where does that second foot come from?

Bloodless Professors

Susan Jacoby, American atheists must define themselves ...
Looking back ... I see a great paradox in the progress of American secularism: The numbers and visibility of atheists and secularists in the United States have increased but their political and social influence has not.

The large audience for the writings of atheists ... Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has led many American pundits, preachers and politicians to exaggerate the influence of secular thought in the culture as a whole. I only wish they were right ...

I have written many times ... about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement ... to translate their values into real social and political influence...

We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” ... devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. ...

I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.
Passion and reason, the two feet of humanism.

Philosophy of Desire

So, once you have a solid two-footed foundation of rational beliefs and affective values, that forms the springboard from which humanists can enter debates about philosophy, lifestyle, culture and politics i.e. what are better and worse ways to live?

Christopher Hitchens said:
Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as ... chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
But exactly what philosophy? The philosophy of desire fulfillment. Human reason is a tool to be used in the pursuit of an emotionally fulfilling life.

The philosophy of desire is what humanists need to be taught. They need to understand their own desires (and the desires of others) well enough so that they can speak the language of desire, and articulate a compelling argument about better and worse ways to live.

Sam Harris describes in The Moral Landscape an analogy of peaks and valleys, representing the heights of well-being and the lows suffering. What are those peaks and valleys? They are the highs and lows of emotional experience (although Harris is reluctant to explicitly acknowledge affective values).

Bertrand Russell says:
All human activity is prompted by desire... If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.
Indeed, this is what we must teach humanists, the whole system of human desires, so they can weigh up different lifestyles, philosophies, cultures and politics, and judge which strategies best satisfy those desires. (Not that I'm implying a technocratic one-size-fits-all solution).

The Power of Groups

So that's a good start on education, but alas, good ideas don't always spread themselves. The writings of great experts can go unnoticed if they are not transformed into effective education material, and distributed widely. And this is where harnessing the power of groups can be useful.

Humanists are often fiercely independent types who resist forming groups. This is an understandable reaction to the dangers of group-think, leader worship, cults, and so on. And while it's good to be aware of these dangers, nonetheless, there are good reasons for humanists to harness the power of groups e.g. for education and social support.

When it comes to educating young humanists, for instance, humanism does a poor job. Humanism has some great writers, past and present, but their words are buried in books. When a young humanist begins to explore how to live without religion they are often left to their own devices. They may be directed to some humanist books or websites, and thereafter left to figure things out for themselves. Thus it often takes a humanist years to form a strong opinion of how to live without religion.

To some extent the internet has empowered individuals and small groups to create powerful education material, and this is good, and we need more of it. But we need to do better for mass education. We need to work as a team.

Intellectual Inheritance

Thus the humanist movement needs to (a) consolidate the knowledge of humanism's best experts into effective education material and (b) disseminate this as widely as possible. To do this we need to form two levels of groups: our best thinkers, educators and communicators need to combine their efforts to produce the best education material; and we need to form local humanist groups as channels of communication to disseminate this material. This way, the best humanist knowledge is distributed as widely as possible.

Young humanists should be handed an intellectual inheritance, not an intellectual deficit. Our best knowledge should be presented to them as clearly and concisely as possible, so they are equipped with the knowledge of how to live without religion. They should be handed a metaphorical guidebook for living without religion, rather than being told to find the answers on Google, YouTube and Amazon.

If we fail at educating young humanists then too many of them will remain lost and confused, without a navigational compass to guide them, and the humanist movement will remain stagnant. As it stands now, the humanist movement is generally too small and uncoordinated to produce and disseminate effective education material. (Although, there are some encouraging signs). We need to pool our talents to create good education material, and form local groups as channels of communication.

Songs of Appraise can be a part of this education material, to teach affective values, the foundation of the philosophy of desire.

The Social Animal

Apart from education, the other key needs of humanists are our social needs. Humans are social animals, and we are often happier when we can share our joys and sorrows with friends. Activities which can be dull by ourselves, come alive when they resonate with shared experience.

Life can be hard, at times, and having the support of community can make a world of difference. And we often find our purpose, or sense of mission, in advancing the plight of the community with which we identify.

Humanists often complain about the lack of humanist community, compared to religion, and that's a valid criticism. But should we form distinctly humanist groups to serve our social needs, or should we find these through the myriad of specialised interest groups formed around activities, hobbies, causes, and so on?

The answer is probably a bit of both. Yes, we can find community through many groups that have nothing (explicitly) to do with humanism. But yet there is still probably a need for distinctly humanist groups.

If humanists form groups for the purpose of education, outreach, and social or political causes, then some community will naturally form around that. But there is a need for more. There is probably a strong need for young humanists to form youth groups. And adults may also desire social activities, and support, that requires connecting with fellow humanists.

David Books describes the "urge to merge" in The Social Animal:
Your unconscious, that inner extrovert, wants you to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation, and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing. It longs and pushes for love... Of all the blessings that come with being alive, it is the most awesome gift.
So there are good reasons to create distinctly humanist groups to serve our social needs. Songs of Appraise can play a part in strengthening the social ties within these groups.

Nothing But Hugs

The need for identity, belonging, support and structure can be particularly important in raising children. Humanist Katherine Ozment explains in Losing Our Religion:
“What are they doing?” my son asked.

“It’s some kind of ritual,” I said ...

“Why don’t we do that?”

“Because we’re not Greek Orthodox.”

“What are we?” ...

I looked at him and felt my face flush.

“We’re nothing.”

Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives... Religion is the big exception... So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives? ...

If I’m a secular humanist, then where do I find my community? Where do secular humanists go to church, or whatever it is that they do? ...

So I arranged to talk with members of the teen youth group ...

When I asked what they thought my still-young children would miss out on if we never joined any religious group, they told me that they couldn’t imagine their lives without this community... One girl, wearing a blue sweatshirt and blond ponytail, said, “This church creates a structure for us to grow up in.”...

Later, I asked Marcie Griffith, the youth-program coordinator, what she sees as the main benefit of this church for teens. She shared the story of a girl who had found out right before coming to youth group one night that her parents were getting divorced... At the end of the candle-lighting ceremony ... the whole group circled around her in a spontaneous, spiral-shaped hug and then, without anyone speaking, they unspiraled. “I remember standing there thinking, This is why I do this work,” she said.

I drove home on that dark autumn night imagining my own kids struggling through adolescence, and having a community of like-minded peers to share their troubles with. Church seemed to offer those kids something nothing else could.
So, while as adults we might be able to cope with "we're nothing", children might need a more clearly defined identity and supportive environment. That's good reason to create distinctly humanist youth groups. And carefully selected (age appropriate) Songs of Appraise can help these youth groups in education about affective values, and in forming community.

Godless Congregations

James Croft and Greg Epstein explain the importance of godless congregations:
The Rise of the Godless Congregation

Something interesting is happening: across the United States and increasingly even the world, atheists are coming together not to debate but to celebrate. Moving beyond discussions of the existence of God and the evils of religion, groups of nonbelievers are meeting to ask ... How should we live? ... They share the joys and struggles of their lives... They ... listen to poetry or music; some even sing together. But most of all they seek, together, to live fuller, richer, more meaningful lives ...

These new godless congregations ... are reaching far beyond the boundaries of the freethought movement and bringing in people who might never have considered joining an atheist group before...

The Future of Humanism

In our minds, godless congregations represent the best chance for humanism to grow into a mass movement able to have an impact on the broader culture. By building local communities that fulfill real human needs ... we will bring more people into the humanist movement and ramp up the commitment of those already engaged with it. We will make humanism more visible, more connected to the wider society, and more relevant to people’s daily lives. And we will ensure ... that the humanists of today can pass their values onto the next generation.

In his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton argues that “Thinkers must learn to master the power of institutions for their ideas to have any chance of achieving a pervasive influence on the world.” We agree. Godless congregations could be the institutions that enable humanism, at last, to become pervasive and influential in American culture to a degree it has not hitherto achieved. If we build these institutions, we will end the longtime curse of humanism—that it looks great on paper but in most places doesn’t really exist in practice.
You Might Be Assimilated

Okay, that all sounds encouraging: harness the power of groups to educate and support humanists, and thus create a thriving humanist movement. What could go wrong?

Well, there's a potential obstacle to creating humanist groups that leaders should probably be aware of it, lest they fritter away their energy in the wrong direction. You can think of it as our arch enemy, our achilles heel, our nemesis.

It's about the nature of groups. Some groups live long and prosper, whereas others fade away. So what makes a long-lived group? That's a question for someone smarter than me to answer, so I'll just take a guess at what seems to be the key challenge for humanism.

Humanism, as defined broadly, is an open book. It can go in any direction. Human culture, lifestyle and politics is many and varied, so which one should humanism advocate? That can't be easily answered, and so the humanist movement has tended to be open, inclusive, diverse, tolerant, and so on.

That's a noble and well-intended ideal, but is it a good way to create humanist groups? Perhaps not. Professor Jonathan Haidt cites studies that show religious communities outlive secular communities, and one key ingredient for success is the degree to which communities are uniform and cohesive, that demand sameness, rather than diversity. And for this reason, Haidt suggests we may need to lower our expectations to comply more with human nature as it is, not as we wish it to be:
It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love – love within groups – amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate ... may be the most we can accomplish.
Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind:
We are Homo duplex; we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Successful religions work on both levels of our nature to suppress selfishness, or at least to channel it in ways that often pay dividends for the group...

Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that ... influence your behaviour. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass... That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie--Durkheim's word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order. (It means, literally, "normlessness"). We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide...

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
The take-home message from Haidt is:
Let us embrace a realistic picture of human nature, then maximize the benefits of our hivishness while minimizing its negative externalities.
So, if humans are evolved to be happy in a highly uniform environment, then perhaps these are the types of humanist groups we should encourage i.e. smaller, more distinct, specialised and unified groups, rather than all-embracing groups. If you try to please everyone you may end up pleasing nobody. So, allowing humanist groups to specialise, and fostering good relations between them, may be the best we can hope for.

Likewise, former atheist Leah Libresco suggests that humanism needs to factionalise:
... groups founded around atheism or humanism are likely to be a diverse mix of moral philosophies. The definitions of humanism are always diffuse and bland enough to make room for everyone from Objectivists to Emma Goldman. It’s great to be pro-human, but at some point you’re going to have to specify what manner of things humans are and how we know what is good for us...

So, if groups focused on atheism are going to be sources of deep comfort for people in crisis, they probably need to factionalize a bit more. If you want someone to help you make sense of the world, you need some level of confidence you both share some axioms in your epistemology and ethics. And that’s a different and harder task than baking a casserole.
So, that's something to keep in mind if you're a humanist leader looking to create a group with some longevity. Songs of Appraise, being ethically neutral, might actually work as an all-embracing group. But if you're creating a humanist group that takes particular ethical or lifestyle stands, then you might need to specialise.

A League of Our Own

The key ingredients to progress are: being equipped with knowledge, empowered by free speech, and invigorated by the energy of youth. Thus develops a thriving contest of ideas that pushes the movement forward.

Alas, if we look at the humanist movement today, too often the one-eyed view of human nature (that focuses on reason, while ignoring emotion) leaves humanists feeling cold and confused. Subsequently, young humanists do not have the knowledge required to engage in debates about better ways to live. They are too lost and confused in themselves to drive the movement forward.

Such humanists are prone to depression, nihilism, and even suicide. But by equipping humanists with a foundation of rational beliefs and affective values, and a thorough knowledge of the philosophy of desire, suddenly the lightbulb turns on for these humanists. They know exactly what life is about. They know exactly how to judge good from bad. The regain control and direction over their lives.

(Albeit, it's one thing to know exactly what the foundation of values is, it is somewhat harder to argue for a particular philosophy derived from that foundation).

But empowered with knowledge, humanism can finally become a thriving contest of ideas about better ways to live. And this knowledge flows out into outreach and advocacy.

Songs of Appraise is the perfect vehicle to teach the knowledge of affective values, the missing ingredient in humanist knowledge, and the cause of stagnation of the humanist movement.

If the humanist movement is to have a lasting legacy then humanist groups will need to teach the whole package: rational beliefs, affective values, and philosophies of desire fulfillment.

Humanism will not realise its potential until the knowledge of affective values becomes an integral part of humanist teachings. Affective values are what it means to be human, and we need to move forward with this knowledge, not stagnate in ignorance or reluctance to acknowledge reality.

For a good example of the power of music to build a movement, look at the Hillsong Church which features music prominently in its services. We may not reach their dizzying heights of religious ecstasy but we can certainly use songs as the basis for a thriving humanist movement.


Complete Humanism

So, if the whole package resonates with you (rational beliefs, affective values, philosophy of desire, songs of appraise, and harnessing the power of groups) what can you do to bring it about? You need to push the humanist movement in the direction of complete humanism.

What is complete humanism? Philosopher Alain de Botton called for an Atheism 2.0 to go beyond the work of atheists like Richard Dawkins, beyond attacking religion, and onto questions about how to live without religion, how to deal with the emotional life, as well as reason, and how to harness the power of groups for education and support.

This is all well and good but, strictly speaking, Alain is really talking about humanism, not atheism. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god, and nothing more. So there is no next phase of atheism. Alain is simply calling for a more complete humanism in a similar way that Paul Kurtz laments the "largely cerebral" nature of humanism, and Susan Jacoby calls for humanists to "unite passion and reason", and James Croft calls for two-footed humanism, and David Brooks laments the "amputated view of human nature".

Basically what all these experts are calling for is a humanism that goes beyond the bloodless professors, beyond attacking religion, and deals with matters of the heart, not just matters of the head. But, for some reason, there is a reluctance of humanists to acknowledge affective values, and so the movement remains stagnant in the one-eyed view of human nature.

Apostles of Desire

And so it's going to take a different type of humanist to stand up and lead the movement towards complete humanism. Whereas the atheist movement was largely top down, led by Richard Dawkins, humanism might have to be largely a bottom-up movement. It will take humanists who can lead a congregation and gather up followers.

It will take humanists who are intent on changing the status quo, who are willing to swim upstream, to row against the tide, to speak up and not be silent, and not tag along with the crowd. The humanist movement needs a change in direction and it will take leaders who can step outside the one-eyed straitjacket and speak to the heart as well as the head. We are often uncomfortable speaking about our desires, yet this is exactly what is needed.

So, to bring about complete humanism, you need to do whatever is within your power, to shift the mindset from one-eyed humanism towards complete humanism. So you need to speak up using whatever channels of communication are available to you i.e. on the internet, at your local humanist group, YouTube, Facebook, blogs etc. Use whatever talents you have to spread the message of complete humanism. Be creative and use whatever avenues are open to you.

So, make your own list of Songs of Appraise and share it on the internet. Or start a Songs of Appraise singing group for humanists in your local area. But, more broadly, you need to start speaking the language of desire, to get beyond one-eyed humanism. The most important point is to lead the humanist movement towards complete humanism, rather than remain silent and drift along with the one-eyed crowd. Only by active and vocal leadership will we get beyond the bloodless professors, towards a complete humanism.

Lead, don't follow.

I'll finish with a quote from humanist Jen Hancock: the future of humanity depends on the future of humanism.


UPDATE: since writing the page above, some great new humanists have arrived on the scene e.g. Bart Campolo and Helen Stringer. Bart, in particular, is very experienced and knowledgeable about the power and value of groups, and I recommend watching some of his videos on YouTube. He emphasizes the point that it's one thing to have a set of values, but those values will not attract followers unless you have a community/group that embodies those values. Like the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words", a visible community is worth a thousand speeches and lectures.


1. Are you saying that emotion is sometimes better than reason?

No, no, no, no and NO! Let me make it crystal clear once again:

Nowhere on this website do I say that emotion is better than reason. Never. Not once.

The point of this website is that emotion and reason perform different but complementary functions. Reason informs us, and emotion moves us. Both are necessary. This website is about their interdependence not competition.

While it's true that emotion can interfere with reason, and we should guard against that, nonetheless the general nature of emotion and reason is complementary, not in competition. Human behaviour is a function of two variables, not one. Emotion and reason are partners.

2. Is it a good idea to explicitly teach young humanists affective values? Surely this will unleash a wave of unbridled hedonism? Surely their theme song will be We Can't Stop by Miley Cyrus?

All good points. Everything needs to be age appropriate, with childrens' education. When and how to introduce the knowledge of affective values, is a matter for parents and teachers to figure out. Obviously parents need to exercise discretion over what songs and ideas they expose their children to. A Hi-5 song is probably more appropriate than a Miley Cyrus song for a young child.

The foundation of affective values and Songs of Appraise should not be taught in a vacuum where youth are then left to figure the rest out for themselves. It should taught alongside a value system, and along with philosophies of desire fulfillment, so that they have all the knowledge needed to answer life's questions.

3. Does affective values mean that we follow the first impulse that comes to mind?

No, of course not. While an impulsive strategy might have been necessary in our primitive past, living happily in a modern civilisation often involves balancing a whole set of competing desires i.e. short term indulgence v. long term health, selfish desires v. empathetic desires, impulsive anarchy v. civilised norms, etc.

4. Affective values will lead to moral degeneration, cultural relativism, liberal anarchy, civilisational decline! You're hastening the end of the world!

Again this is a matter of balancing competing desires. If we acknowledge the arbiter of good and bad (in terms of end goals) is our feelings then, yes, perhaps it may lead our culture or morality in a different direction. The problem then becomes one of change management i.e balancing progress against tradition, balancing social cohesion against individuality, etc. The answer is often somewhere in the middle, and slow-steady change rather than radical change. Or maybe the answer is some groups will change, and others will stay the same, respecting each other's space. Whatever the answer is, it's not necessarily the end of civilisation.

5. You painted a wholly negative picture of the humanist movement. Surely it's not completely cold and one-eyed? Surely there are humanists teaching affective values, albeit using different terms such as human flourishing, happiness and suffering, etc?

Yes, good point. I painted a black and white picture of the humanist movement simply to make my point that, generally speaking, one-eyed humanism dominates most of the time. I exaggerated to make a point.

But, yes, there are lots of good humanists doing lots of good things, and I don't want to discourage any humanists from doing what they think is helpful. I'm merely trying to point out that the humanist movement won't reach its potential until the knowledge of affective values becomes an integral part of humanist teaching.

6. But aren't some of these songs written or sung by Christians?

Yes. Christians have feelings too, and sometimes they sing about them. I can see no good reason to exclude their songs, so long as they're singing about matters of the heart, and not religion. I  think we'd be a lot poorer if we started excluding songs with any hint of involvement by a Christian. Songs of Appraise is about matters of the heart, not about atheism or disbelief, and thus it can be inclusive.

7. What on earth is ethical about serotonin, bowls of cherries, frozen orange juice, and laughter in the rain?

Well, when you put like that, not a whole lot! But these songs are aimed at teaching the foundation of humanist values/ethics. The point of these songs is that all human values/preferences come from our heart i.e. our feelings. So, whether you're talking about preferences of food, or preferences of political/ethics systems, all humanist values come from emotional preferences. Feelings are what nature gave us to appraise our environment. They tell us what is good and bad.

8. All these songs are old and lame!

Okay, these songs are my personal preferences. They are meant as an example, a starting point. They are not meant as a definitive or canonical song list.

So, go ahead and create your own list and share it with the world. Only together will we start to find the best songs across different genres of music. It's a crowdsourcing exercise. You can take it in any direction, any musical genre.

9. This is it: Brave New World! Get in line for your happy pills. Mindless hedonism. It's the end of civilisation! Hello technocratic dictatorship!

Okay, just relax. This website is only about the foundations of value. What philosophy you derive from that foundation is beyond the scope of this website.

This website is about acknowledging reality, rather than living in denial. The reality is that we all are motivated by the anticipation of emotion rewards (in terms of end goals). That goes for all people: left or right, conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, even religious people. This is an inescapable biological fact. We differ only in regards to what things we find emotionally fulfilling.

So, no matter what lifestyle or politics you advocate, you do so because of the anticipation of emotional rewards. And thus, if we're going to have meaningful conversations, we need to be explicit about what emotional rewards we're striving towards. So, regardless of what politics you advocate, you need to articulate your views (in terms of end goals) in the language of desire.

Thus if you are concerned about future mindless hedonism, and its consequences for society, it's up to you to make a counter argument in the language of desire. We all have to argue that our vision of the future provides the most emotionally fulfilling outcomes. But, if you're arguing the case for some outcome that is independent of emotional fulfillment, then that argument is unintelligible and will fall on deaf ears.

Acknowledging the universal reality of affective values puts the onus onto all of us to articulate our arguments in the language of desire (in terms of end goals), the only meaningful ground.

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