Should Humanists Deliver Invocations? February 4, 2010

Should Humanists Deliver Invocations?

At the Secular Student Alliance website, Andrew Lovley (who delivered a secular message at an inauguration ceremony a couple months ago) argues that Humanists should continue to deliver invocations:

Invocations delivered by humanists could stand out from most religious invocations by emphasizing human potential rather than human abasement. The standard religious invocation calls upon a god to have mercy and to offer strength, guidance, and wisdom that people are supposedly incapable of attaining on their own. Secular folks recognize that the invoking of such fatalism and subservience undermines people’s ingenuity and determination by inviting them to doubt their abilities. People should instead be reminded that they are capable of great things and be encouraged to believe in the potential within themselves and in each other to overcome challenges. Given that invocations often mark the beginning of a new public endeavor, it seems totally appropriate to reserve a moment for inviting people to reflect on that kind of message.

Frank Bellamy argues that we should not take part in a ritual that is meant to exclude us:

The invocation that Andrew Lovley… 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… 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.

It’s a tricky situation when the goal is to get rid of invocations to higher powers altogether. You want to take advantage of the situation when it’s offered to you (better you than another religious person, right?) but you also want to push back and urge them to get rid of the whole practice in the first place. Many secular invocations end up being “anti-invocations,” a message that we should all stand above calling out to a higher power.

Where do you stand on the matter — should we allow invocations and work to be among those delivering them? Or should we continue to fight against the practice altogether?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I don’t see a problem invoking the human spirit with inspirational words. Secular invocations don’t break the wall of Separation and ought to be encouraged.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Where do you stand on the matter — should we allow invocations and work to be among those delivering them? Or should we continue to fight against the practice altogether?

    Yes. 🙂 Seriously, though, a humanist “invocation” is chipping away at the practice of invocation because it replaces an invocation of gods with what basically amounts to an inspirational introduction. Sure, not every secular “invocation” is a direct protest against the practice of invoking deities, but all of them displace said practice with something else, and that’s at least a small measure of progress.

  • Ubi Dubium

    There are so many people out there who insist that public events begin with an invocation. Those are often some of the same people who denounce Humanists as amoral nihilists.

    What better chance for us to change our public image and fight for inclusion than by delivering uplifting inspiring invocations that focus on the potential of human beings while omitting any mention the supernatural? FSM yes, take every opportunity to deliver invocations. And unless the forum is one where we have specifically chosen to fight the presence of an invocation at all, lets make the invocations as positive and non-confrontational as possible. I’d love for the general theist reaction to a Humanist invocation to be “I wasn’t expecting to agree with everything the speaker said, but I did. Wow.”

  • littlejohn

    Who, or what, would we “invoke”?

  • RPJ

    Who, or what, would we “invoke”?

    Human ingenuity, innovation, strength etc, as mention in the OP. Rather airy material yes, but humanism doesn’t necessarily have to reside entirely in empiricism, and emotional appeals exist regardless – that’s the point of any inspirational speech; to appeal to emotions rather than a rigid set of logical rules.

    I would say go ahead. While the invocation itself is about as powerful as prayer (moot), failure to recognize that humans are emotional beings and will respond to emotional stimulus is a folly that I believe is one of the reasons while theism is much more prevalent than atheism and even humanism.

  • Neon Genesis

    I think we should do away with the practice of having invocations at government-endorsed events all together. It’s a violation of separation of church and state and it also makes Christians look hypocritical to be praying to be seen by men when Jesus condemned such behavior. Government-endorsed invocations only cause more trouble than its worth like with the controversy Obama caused by inviting Rick Warren to pray and then there’s the whole controversy around the National Prayer Breakfast. And even when politicans violate the separation of church and state, some Christians still complain and try to force their practices on others when politicans don’t do it the “right way”, like when Obama didn’t have a special ceremony for the National Day Of Prayer and upset the fundamentalists for not being showy enough.

    If Christian politicans are unable to perform their jobs without seeking divine intervention, they should pray before their meetings start on their own or ask their congregations to pray for them when they go to church. It also seems insulting to God when Christians act like God can’t guide them in their daily lives unless they show off how holy they are with a flashy prayer ceremony and makes their god look weak.

  • I had to give an invocation once. . . to a majority of catholic people in a VA Hospital. I began with “Deities are known to many by many names. . . pick the one of your choosing” and continued w/o ever mentioning the word god or amen. I did however emphasize how we as doctors and a society need to work to improve our community.

    I guess I lacked some “cojones” not to mention anything at all but, we learn with experience.

  • Claudia

    What J.J Ramney said.

    Beyond that, personally I think that the middle of an invocation is a bad place to speak out against invocations. It’s like being invited to give a speech at a wedding and using the platform to rail against the concept of marriage. I can understand the reasoning behind not participating in the practice and trying to end it on philosophical and legal grounds, but when you participate you legitimize, and hence using the participation to complain about the existence of the ceremony gives the impression you act in bad faith.

    My personal view is that human beings have certain emotional needs for ritual (not all of us, but a large portion) and that we will never win if we ask people to do away with their religion and replace it with nothing. Hence Humanism, with its baby-namings, singing, weddings and yes, invocations. We’ll get a lot further a lot sooner if we present people with an alternative that seems to be more than a mere absence of their religion. We should show through example that you can keep the comfort and community of ritual without needing to invoke nonexistent supernatural powers, and the whole affair loses nothing in terms of beauty, inspiration and joy.

  • J. J. Ramsey and Claudia both put it correctly. We need to approach questions like these with an open mind and an understanding of the human condition. There will always be options that are better from an idealisic point of view, but they shouldn’t really be part of the discussion. There’s a reason the early church of Rome took over so may of the rituals and traditions of its pagan contemporaries and predecessors. Judging by its success as an institution, we can assume that it was at the very least, a partially effective approach.

  • Ron in Houston

    Traditions die hard. I don’t think giving an “anti-invocation” is going to do much of anything to get rid of the tradition.

    I agree with Andrew use the time instead to give a humanist message.

  • Jonas

    I don’t think we need to be anti-theistic in a “Humanistic Invocation” though the word “Invocation” has religious connotations, we need not use it that way. Rather we can speak to inspire, to motivate through human ability, reason, or praise of the good in humanity.

  • This is an interesting topic.

    On the one hand, we should be including more groups, instead of the invocations just being given by one religious group. On the other hand, the very idea of a religoius invocation excludes certain groups.

    I guess an invocation doesn’t necessarily have to invoke a God, but that does seem to be the connotation that the invocations have. I personally find a speech promoting the idea that we can all work together to accomplish goals, etc. a good thing, but I can understand why it might be considered an “anti-invocation” since it’s not really invoking anything.

    I don’t really like the idea of an invocation, especially if it’s at an event done by the government or other organization supported by tax money, even if it’s given by a Humanist. The invocations given by Humanists seem to be the exception to the rule, with most being religous (correct me if I’m wrong) so I think a better thing to do would be to not have an invocation at all.

  • Tom Coward

    I am the Mayor who asked Andrew Lovely to give the invocation at my inauguration. (I’m the fat beardy one on the left in the first linked article.) I opted for a Humanist invocation as sort of an experiment. Southern Maine is generally not a very religious place, but I wanted to see how quietly providing a secular alternative to a mildly religious tradition would go over. I thought it unlikely that much splash would occur, but recognized the possibility of some level of public outrage. I worked with Andrew to make sue that the message was positive, and I requested that he not give an ‘anti-invocation’, as some humanists have done.

    In the event, one reporter for a weekly paper tried to generate a controversy by finding a minister to opine that ‘it wasn’t a real invocation if it didn’t mention god.’ I got interviewed on the local right-wing talk radio program (the host tried red-baiting me about 30 seconds in), and I got a sympathetic interview from a columnist for the local daily, who settled for me when he couldn’t contact Andrew. All personal feedback from actual people was either neutral or positive.

    I am thus pleased to report that my community lived up to my hopes and expectations, and that a modest blow for atheism was struck.

    I feel that it is good for secularism and Humanism to adapt to the prevailing culture, and to provide ceremonies to mark important human events. Just as there are Humanist weddings (I have officiated at several) and funerals, there should be Humanist ‘invocations’ to mark the beginning of important human endeavors by the greater entity of which all humans are a part.

    Andrew did a great job, and I believe there is a video of his invocation up on YouTube, although I can’t locate the link at the moment.

  • Bacopa

    This came up at my older brother’s HS graduation in the early 80’s. 2nd in class rank refused to do the invocation as he was an atheist. 3rd ranker gave us so vague a Hindu invocation that everyone was too confused to be offended. 2nd ranker was a weirdo hated by many. I liked him. He turned me on to KTRU, KPFT, Zappa, King Crimson, and The Normal. His life has been rough and has barely gone well, but I admire the the stand he took.

  • Claudia

    To Mayor Coward, thanks for the the inside view of what happened. As you can probably tell, we nonbelievers are very big on debates, and the one about invocations isn’t about to end any time soon. I’m glad the invocation given in your case was a positive one and I’m even happier that it was largely treated as a non-event. More people need to realize that giving nonbelievers a place at the table will not, in fact, lead to the end of the world. Thank You.

  • muggle

    I say until they fall by the wayside as they should, I say yes. At every opportunity we get.

    They should be just that, however, an optimistic secular statement invoking people (instead of imaginary beings) to action. There’s no need to lecture. That will only be counterproductive but a secular positive call to others to be their best actually protests the religious ones beautifully.

    Well, done Mayor Coward and Mr. Lovley. The irony of your names is killing me. You are no coward and his innvocation was indeed lovely.

  • This is a great discussion. I, however, have a related question. I’m an atheist and have attended many events that commence with invocations. I feel like a hypocrit to stand up to something that I dont belive in. I also find it insulting to me and to other non-christians who might be attending and have to listen to that invocation. On the other hand I don’t want to be seen as controversial or rebelious by not standing up (not that I care being controversial, but at those moments I just want to enjoy the event, not argue about religions). What should I do? Stand up and pretend or sit down and be honest? What do you all do?


  • Kalasry

     “Do you”… don’t stand up and be cool about it. If people ask, a simple explanation should do and if it invites argument, disengage. The more you do this, the more comfortable you’ll be standing up (or standing out) for what you believe in and hopefully it will inspire others to do the same.
    I am a theist (a Muslim) so I enjoy some invocations (when they are appropriate) but I have similar conflicts during nonMuslim invocations that are not overarching in a way that includes Muslims.

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