Should Humanists Deliver Invocations? "Yes," says Andrew Lovley
by Andrew Lovley
Some secularists are calling for an end to the custom of having invocations delivered at the beginning of public meetings and ceremonies. An invocation is often understood to mean calling upon a higher power, and in the context of religion this involves soliciting the mercy and guidance of a deity. The main concern secularists have with invocations is that they are a violation of the separation of church and state, which is a worthy criticism when an invocation includes invoking a particular deity and a request for the audience to join in prayer. However, an invocation does not necessarily need to invoke a higher power in order to be effective and connective for those in attendance.
An invocation could instead refer to the power emanating from the collective human potential to endure and succeed - something that even secularists can believe in. Ultimately the function of an invocation is to inspire, and the benefit such inspiration could bring to attendees' esteem, attitude, and performance justifies its inclusion in public meetings and ceremonies. Not only should nonsectarian invocations continue to be a prelude to public meetings and ceremonies, but humanists should be more willing to deliver them.
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.
Humanist invocations can also be more inclusive than traditional religious invocations. While most religions do a remarkable job of uniting people of the same faith, they also create divisions among different belief systems that end up overshadowing what all people have in common. humanism recognizes the inherent dignity of all human beings regardless of race, creed, or gender, and thus humanists can speak on behalf of humankind rather than any particular religious sect or denomination. No one should feel left out or slighted by a humanist invocation. Rob Boston, the Assistant Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, believes that ultimately all invocations as part of public meetings should be done away with. However, Mr. Boston concedes that:
If government officials are dead set on having invocations, the least they can do is strive to include the entire range of religious and philosophical thought in America. This includes not only all of the Christian denominations but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., and yes, nontheistic groups1.
By virtue of their naturalistic worldview and broad respect for humanity, humanists are well-equipped to foster a sense of unity and the recognition that as people, we are all in this together. Invocations are not divisive by their nature, and thus do not need to be abolished completely. Our differences of race, religion, and politics can be respected by embracing diversity and emphasizing what we have in common.
Different approaches have been taken with the content of secular invocations. Some invocations, such as the ones delivered by Ed Buckner2, President of American Atheists, and Michael R. Harvey3, a member of Atheists of Florida, drew significant attention to the debate about religion in the public sphere and can be interpreted as acerbic in tone. To his credit, Mr. Buckner actually stated his speech was not an invocation so much as it was a protest against invocations, which can lead one to wonder if his actions were appropriate for the setting. Sam Olens, the chairman of the Cobb County (Georgia) Board of Commissioners that hosted Mr. Buckner, was quoted as saying "Did I find his comments repugnant and insulting? Yes. … He abused the process by giving an opinion ... rather than providing inspiration." Olens' comments provide a glimpse of what is expected from an invocation, and it is fair to say Mr. Buckner's speech was not only a disappointment but counterproductive too. While Mr. Harvey did invoke the humanist ethos to some degree, other secularists make it their invocations' primary focus, such as those delivered by Herb Silverman4, President of the Secular Coalition for America, and Tom Clark5, a Florida citizen. Neither of them spoiled their opportunity to inspire by delivering soapbox rants about the separation between church and state; both invocations promoted compassion, unity, and a realistic approach to problems.
Secularists should be willing to recognize the possible benefits that invocations can provide. Is there any pressing reason we should abandon the chance to reflect together about what we can accomplish and to advocate important values such as justice, equality, freedom, reason, and compassion? While traditional religious invocations can sometimes seem more defeatist than inspirational, humanists are capable of delivering something hopeful, proud, and realistic - and should not forfeit this opportunity by calling for an end to invocations altogether. Instead, secularists with humanist values should take advantage of the chance to offer people an excellent alternative to what they are used to hearing at public meetings and ceremonies. Let the audience take note that the humanist who had all those great things to say not once appealed to a deity for help or suggested that humans are not good enough as they are. As humanist invocations become more frequent, people may be less inclined to prefer the divisive and self-deprecating invocations delivered in the standard religious sense. Perhaps religious leaders will be more motivated to shape their invocations in such a way that can approximate the optimism and sense of togetherness offered by humanist invocations. Either way, any leader who wishes to foster these attitudes should have the privilege to do so, whether they are religious or not. Let us reserve the occasion for an invocation, and as humanists we can show people what it really means to be inspired and unified.
Andrew is a senior majoring in psychology at the University of Southern Maine, and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists.