"Cheering to the Pep Squad" — My New Secular Alternative to "Preaching to the Choir"

Thanks to everyone who chimed in with suggestions for a secular alternative to the phrase, “preaching to the choir.” Lots of people had very good suggestions, and if (like me) you’re trying to get religious phrases out of your language unless you’re actually talking about religion, I encourage y’all to look at the comment thread and pick the ones you like best. I love crowdsourcing!

(If you don’t care about this “getting religious phrases out of your language” thing, btw, that’s totally fine. Every atheist gets to decide for themselves where they draw the line between “totally secularized religious language” and “religious language that still conveys tacit support for religious ideas.” And every atheist gets to decide for themselves whether they even care about this.)

But the replacement for “preaching to the choir” that I liked best is “cheering to the pep squad.” (Thanks to northierthanthou for the suggestion, to others who made similar suggestions, and to everyone who participated in the conversation!) I think that’s the one I’ll be using. Here’s why.

1: “Cheering to the pep squad” is personal. It conveys the image of a person talking to a group of people. “Coals to Newcastle” or other phrases connoting “delivering something to a place that already has lots of it” don’t convey that sense of personal communication of ideas. Same with “kicking at an open door.” Although I do like that phrase, and may wind up using it sometimes.

2: “Cheering to the pep squad” conveys what I see as the central concept in the phrase “preaching to the choir”: the idea of trying to persuade people who already agree with you, and in fact whose job it is to help convey those very same ideas.

This is why I personally like “cheering to the pep squad” better than “lecturing to the faculty,” btw. “Lecturing to the faculty” got a lot of votes in the discussion thread. But as many people in the conversation pointed out, “lecturing to the faculty” is, in fact, a useful endeavor, one which actually goes on in many schools. Faculty members don’t always agree about everything. They may even attend lectures as part of how they resolve disagreements. So for me, that phrase doesn’t quite fit.

3: “Cheering to the pep squad” conveys the same vibe of the phrase “preaching to the choir” — the vibe of pointlessness, the vibe of wasting your efforts persuading people who already agree with you. But it also leaves room open for questions and interpretation about this supposed pointlessness. When the concept of “preaching to the choir” comes up, it’s often pointed out that “preaching to the choir” isn’t always pointless. Sometimes the choir needs to be motivated, inspired, revved up. Sometimes you need to persuade people on your side: not that you’re right, but that the fight is worth fighting. And giving people words for ideas and feelings they’ve been experiencing but couldn’t find words for… that’s useful. As former preacher and Atheist Nexus founder Richard Haynes said, “Sure, you preach to the choir — that’s how you get them to sing.”

“Cheering to the pep squad” leaves that same door open. Often, cheering to the pep squad is a waste of time — they’re already pretty darned cheerful. But sometimes the pep squad needs cheering. And it’s often worth discussing whether any given instance of cheering to the pep squad is useful motivation, or a pointless echoing back and forth between people who all already agree.

So that’s my vote. But again… not trying to establish dogma here. If you like another phrase instead, by all means, go ahead and use it. And if I’ve already convinced you that this phrase is a good one, I won’t keep hammering on about it. I don’t want to be cheering to the pep squad here. 🙂

Oh, btw: A side discussion was started in that same thread, looking for secular alternatives to the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’d like to put in a vote for, “There but for a lot of luck go I.” Same scansion and everything! But I also like my brother’s suggestion, “There but for the hammer of Thor go I.” Not strictly secular, but sometimes talking about gods that nobody believes in anymore has much the same effect. What are your thoughts?

"Cheering to the Pep Squad" — My New Secular Alternative to "Preaching to the Choir"

23 thoughts on “"Cheering to the Pep Squad" — My New Secular Alternative to "Preaching to the Choir"

  1. 2

    Every atheist gets to decide for themselves …


    A-fucking-hem, I said!

    The Noun-Verb-Agreement Flying Squad, a mobile detachment of the Grammar Police, have made it clear that we have two acceptable options in a case such as this:

    Every atheist gets to decide for him-or-her/hir self …


    All atheists get to decide for themselves …

    Mishmangles will be officially Frowned Upon (at least until the PC [Prepositional Constabulary] shows up).

  2. 3

    I like “cheering to the pep squad”, I think the meaning its clear and effective. Personally, I don’t mind using “preaching to the choir”, but that’s just me.

    “There but for the grace of God go I” is already in a somewhat odd form, I think we need to keep it in that form for it to have the same impact.

    How about “there but for a twist of fate go I”?

    Same format, same number of syllables.
    I think “twist of fate” is a pretty neutral phrase, even though there is a vague reference to the mythological “Fates”.

  3. 4

    Or, I suppose, “there but for the hand of fate go I”, but I think that ascribing a bit more agency to “fate” than “twist of fate” does. And getting rid of the agency here is the goal.

  4. 5

    Pierce@2: “The Noun-Verb-Agreement Flying Squad, a mobile detachment of the Grammar Police, have made it clear that we have two acceptable options in a case such as this”

    We are almost certainly never going to get non-standard pronouns like ‘hir’ or ‘ze’ etc to sound normal within our lifetimes. Certainly not if we can’t even pick one and stick with it. But we stand a good chance with gender-nonspecific singular ‘they’, given that in some contexts it already does sound normal.

    That’s why the word you’re looking for here is ‘themself’. Every atheist gets to decide for themself.

  5. 6

    I was a fan of “lecturing to the faculty”, (I think I may have even proffered it, but I didn’t bother checking the thread) but I think I’ve changed my mind, and now I like “cheering to the pep squad” better. See how it works creationists? Updated information –> new conclusion.

    BTW, I am CERTAIN that there is at least one small group of holdouts who believe in Thor. Heck, you can still find people who believe in the Ancient Greek mythologies.

  6. 8

    “Cheering to the pep squad” is very US-centered, isn’t it. I think your international audience may have to have it explained to them. Both “preaching” and “choir” are pan-English and everybody gets it. I’ll keep thinking about this. I do like “there but for fortune go I,” though it does buy into a quasi-psychic style of belief.

  7. 9

    Ismenia, a pep squad is people who are friends or acquaintances of a high school or college sports team who have the job of leading fans at games in cheers. “Cheerleaders” is a synonym.

    Sometimes when someone is lecturing me on the importance of topics I already agree with, I’ll respond with, “Yes, Minister. When do we begin rehearsals?” Now we have to find an alternative for that! (It is, of course, for any atheist to decide for itself.)

  8. 11

    Greta Christina @ # 10: I am a strong proponent of the singular “they.”

    In the cases you cited (5 years ago already!?!), that there “they” then addressed a real issue (gender). In the present instance, we have only a question of plural/singular; applying your solution grammatically would, to emend davidhart @ # 5, give us “Each atheist gets to decide for themself.”

    When we’re talking about general examples, resorting to the plural subject (“All atheists …”) not only resolves the gender problem without jarring neologisms, it – usually – describes the situation at hand more accurately.

  9. 14

    I follow a few comic book blogs, and “there but for the hammer of Thor” would make me think some sort of supervillain shenanigans are involved. I think I’d use “there but for the whims of Eris”, which is putting a bit of a human face on the random vagaries of chance – something which all humans have a tendency to do.

  10. 16

    Cheering to the pep squad makes even more sense than preaching to the choir. I used to sing in the church choir as an atheist, so I am sure I was in serious need of preaching(I liked to sing). Even though I have never been much of a fan of cheerleaders after watching them in high school not having a clue of what was happening in the game they were cheering for.

  11. 17

    Luck? Greta, surely a skeptical atheist of your prominence doesn’t put any faith in such backward superstitions as luck?

    …no, but I’m told it works even if you don’t believe in it. (And don’t call me Shirley.)

    — with apologies to Niels Bohr

  12. 18

    I’ve often thought that to ease the transition into a genderless singular it might be helpful to leverage the existing use of the plural but just tweak it a little. I’ll speak to thim, everyone must decide for thimself, in thir own way. It does sound a little like a speech impediment at first, but frankly so does every such alternative. It’s a tough nut and I haven’t worked much on the idea, just a thought.

    I’ve been using “There but for sheer happenstance go I” for most of my life, I think even back when I was still deluded.

  13. 19

    Not sure if this has been addressed already/elsewhere, but “RIP” (or R.I.P.) niggles me. Maybe it’s not strictly religious, but it’s often seen accompanied by a religious symbol such as a cross. Be that as it may, “resting” (in peace, or any other state) suggests continued existence to me, rather than simply being dead. I think it’s often used to express sadness at losing someone, to acknowledge that the person’s death is significant because of what they gave and achieved during their life. It signals a remembrance of their life.

    I rather like TFTM as an alternative to RIP. “Thanks For The Memories” seems more uplifting (<- dangerous territory, I know!) that RIP, and has the added advantage that it also stands for "Too Fat To Masturbate" which adds a bit of humour to a sad occasion.

    Glad I got that off my chest.

    And just to add my perspective on the "cheering to the pep squad" phrase, as a Brit I can confirm movablebooklady's suspicion that non-US people will have trouble "getting it". Yes, I can work out what it means, probably, but the word "pep" is more readily associated with "talk" (pep talk) for us Old World people.

  14. 20

    As my (atheist/apatheist) mother once said while driving by someone who got pulled over, “There but for the grace of God and strict adherence to Massachusetts state traffic regulations go I.”

    More practically, I just love “there but for sheer happenstance go I.”

    Oh, and I can’t stand the singular “they”–I still use it in speech since everyone around me does it, but I can’t stand to write it. I go more for the ze/zem/zir/zirs neologisms, and I don’t think their novelty makes them impossible. If we can manage to get “google,” “eleventy,” and “sexting” into our lexicon, I can see no reason why we can’t do the same with some very useful personal gender-unspecified singulars.

  15. 21

    i actually really dislike “There but for the grace of God” as it implies that the speaker has received a special favour and that zir lack of suffering/bad luck/etc. is not random.

    which isn’t usually what people want to convey by this phrase – they usually do mean that it is only good luck/happenstance, and are using it to emphathise with the less fortunate.

    personally, i like “There but for fortune.” it conveys the correct idea, acknowledging the fickleness of chance and the fact that other peoples’ sufferings are not their own fault – bad things can happen to anyone.

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