Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Humanist Civic Movement - Debunking is not enough

I have just come back from two weeks of discussing the nature of civic society and citizenship at Tufts university. It was a remarkable experience, full of new, challenging ideas and extremely smart people.

Perhaps the most striking element of the two weeks was my growing feeling that Humanists must come together to create a new civic movement to change society for the better. Why "civic" movement, and why do it at all?

There are already organisations which lobby for political change on behalf of the non-religious, and some, like the Council for Secular Humanism, which have a broader purview. What I have not seen, however, is a national movement attempting to bring Humanism into the everyday lives of people, filling those gaps which the erosion of religious observance has left.

What Humanists need to recognize is that religious institutions offer all sorts of valuable social goods to the people who frequent them. They have access to physical spaces, common rituals, artistic traditions etc. which serve to build social ties between people in a community, bringing people of different generations together, encouraging people of different social class, race, and ethnicity to share in common experiences. This is extremely valuable, in my view, for individual human beings and for the communities in which they live. We all derive significance and meaning from our interactions with others, and religious organisations provide opportunities for us to connect.

With the decline of religious observance, no secular alternative to these organizations has arisen, and this may be part of the "crisis of civic life" that some (like Harvard Professor Robert Putnam) think is occurring in many parts of the western world. People are segregating themselves on the basis of money, class more forcefully than before, and there are few safe spaces in which they can come together and appreciate each other, discussing important questions about what it means to live together with others.

I've seen (as a teacher) the effect of communities that do not have a shared identity or a common space in which to discuss existential questions. There is an almost palpable lack of "connectedness", of moral sensibility, of feelings of responsibility for others. I've also seen the powerful effect of bringing people together in a non-religious context to share an experience, most notably as a prison educator. Indeed, I've seen the value of the religious institutions "from the inside" (as a choirboy for many years). But I believe that not only do such institutions not have to be religious, but they may be even more effective if they are not, since you then eradicate the final barrier - that between people of different faiths.

In short, humanism / secularism / atheism is often presented as a negative position. We're "against" god, "against" irrationalism etc. And we often spend much of our time debunking things - religious arguments, homeopathy, pseudoscience, cults etc. Instead, we absolutely must spend more time building positive institutions to achieve social change. If we really believe that a society in which reason, rational method, clear thinking, and respect for all human beings would be a better society, we have to go out and
build it. Debunking is not enough.

Monday, July 6, 2009

27 Seconds Too Short for Art

"Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" at Boston's MFA is remarkable, particularly for the way it has chosen to present the magnificent works it houses. Instead of lining them up in chronological order, or separating them by artist, they are organized thematically, so the visitor can see how each artist's treatment of a similar subject differs (or not).

This is an interesting curatorial decision, as it affords many opportunities for learning if one is willing to take the time over each painting - but you have to spend the time!. A number of empirical studies have shown that, in general, visitors to museums spend strikingly little time looking at individual paintings. Here's an extract from the abstract of a 2001 study:

The mean time spent viewing a work of art was found to be 27.2 seconds, with a median time of 17.0 seconds. Viewing time was not related to gender or age, but was strongly related to group size, with larger groups spending more time. There were also significant differences among paintings. (Smith and Smith, 2001)

In order to counter such tendencies, researchers (Steve Seidel and others) at Harvard's Project Zero strategies for investigating art that aim to help people learn more from the experience. Following these principles, I spent considerable time in each room observing each painting very closely. I asked myself "What do I see in this painting?" (making no interpretive or quality judgments), "What questions do I have about this painting?" (for example, "why does the upper left hand corner of the painting seem unfinished?"), and "What hypotheses do I have about the answers to my questions?" Of course, I refrained from reading the commentaries that accompanied each painting.

This was an enlightening experience. By the end of my visit, I could I found myself able to predict, occassionally, which artist was responsible for a given painting. I had identified for myself stylistic differences and similarities. I had correctly identified that some works were unfinished, and where the unfinished sections occurred in the canvas. All this from looking and thinking.

Perhaps, when you are next at an art exhibition, take longer than those 27 seconds! It can be extremely rewarding...