The Freedom of the Artist »« Fallen Warriors

A Coalition Is Not a Community

This is part of my ongoing discussion with James Croft on the establishment of humanist communities. Links to the full series of posts is below.

On Thursday, James agreed with me that the normative aspects of community can be exclusionary. He said pains would need to be taken to keep any humanist community from defining itself in such a way to cause problems. I’m not entirely sure that can happen, but I’ll get back to that later.

James said that his purpose in building communities is the political strength they offer. I agree that a community does offer more political strength than the individuals in it do alone. I was particularly struck by this quote by William R. Murry that James used, however:

Institutionalized injustice can be changed only through the exercise of power…Each person is a center of power. Our task is to use our personal power on behalf of love and justice to effect systematic change. One of the best ways to use power effectively is to form voluntary associations and coalitions of associations. Coalitions are important because there is strength in numbers. In today’s world, groups that do not exercise their power on behalf of their interests and rights are usually left out of consideration by governmental or corporate entities…Justice is won only when power is brought to bear against power.

I agree with this, but when I read it, it doesn’t tell me that we need humanist communities organized around taking action on their values. That is in some ways the opposite of what this passage says to me.

One of the problems the atheist community has is that it is anything but a singular community or even some small number of communities. We come from lots of backgrounds, even when the question is religion. We don’t share the same sets of values. We’re not all humanists. We can’t even all agree that a vigorous defense of our own rights is a good idea.

What we do have is numbers. Well, numbers and an organizational problem. We can get a substantial minority to agree on any one of a number of goals. If we add another goal to that, we don’t add to the number who agree with us. We decrease it.

The more goals we try to encompass in a single organization, the more likely we are to battle over the “real” priorities of the organization, the more we will be fighting each other instead of our common enemies. We’ve seen it happen among skeptical organizations, organizations based around common methods. We’ve seen it happen among progressive organizations, organizations based around common values. We’ve seen it happen among atheist organizations, organizations based around common beliefs and common problems.

Over and over again, when we get too close, instead of focusing on our common goals, we argue about which goals should have primacy. Without the reliance on any kind of supreme authority, these arguments can go on for a very long time. The formation of groups with multiple goals adds to all this.

That isn’t to say such groups can’t exists. However, the kinds of disagreements we’re prone to will likely give us a choice between small groups and groups that do not pull well together. Nor will groups organized around political or social activity give us access to the maximum number of “centers of power”. A large number of people will act prosocially as part of a group (think workplace food drives or volunteer events) more readily than they will join a group dedicated to this kind of action.

If we organize around other interests that many of us have in common, we are still organized, but in a looser and wider fashion. Then we can form actual coalitions for particular actions. We can pull resources from our communities for targeted actions without forcing those communities into too small a space for anyone’s comfort. Then we have those “voluntary associations and coalitions of associations” that will help us win.

The Series

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself says

    The Harvard Humanists, the clique James Croft and his leader, Pope Chaplain Greg Epstein, run, want to set up a “humanist community.” This boils down to a religion with everything but gods. They’ve suggested a priesthood, temples, rituals, hymns, and all the other trappings of religion, just no gods. They haven’t got around to proclaiming a dogma yet, probably because they’re still deciding exactly what we’re supposed to believe in. Possibly bowing towards Cambridge, MA will be involved.

    Right now atheism is pretty much a bottom up organization. Epstein and Croft want atheists to become a subset of their humanist cult, with them as self-selected leaders. And no, I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic. Epstein’s official title is “Humanist Chaplain”! Why do atheists need chaplains?

  2. consciousness razor says

    They’ve suggested a priesthood, temples, rituals, hymns, and all the other trappings of religion, just no gods.

    Indeed, rituals and the like are just the sort of thing Croft has consistently had in mind when talking about creating “a strong sense community.” But what does any of that have to do with justice, or securing any social or political goals (which at least some of us want)? We can all appreciate rituals and art on some level, but they certainly don’t fight against systematic injustices. If anything, they’re a way for the leadership to exercise power over the community itself.

  3. says

    I think I have a significant advantage in the community building efforts that I am engaged in, because I have completely non-political goals – except insofar as I work hard to keep politics out of it. When I host Cafe Inquiry for CFI, I work to keep the conversation focused on basic human interactions, rather than on the larger political ramifications of a given topic. Occasionally the conversation even hits on how we are interacting with each other.

    What is important to me, is to build a community of people who I can do things with and who do things with each other. Because I am now an only parent, it is increasingly important to me to engage with other families who are non-theists and preferably skeptics (we definitely have non-skeptic atheists as well, which occasionally causes some friction). The most important issue for me is to build a community of people that includes most everyone who is interested in being part of a secular community. I want to create a safe place where people don’t have to concern themselves with alienating religious parents who are afraid their children will “catch” atheism.*

    And while the going is slow, we are building just such a community. There are a variety of political beliefs and there are people whom I flat don’t like and who don’t like me. Still and all, we are a part of the same community and we make it work. We do shit together – sometimes larger gatherings, sometimes something more intimate (today we had a small bbq party at my house – five great kids who behaved wonderfully and who had a hella lot of fun while six adults were able to have enjoyable adult conversations.

    What is exciting about this to me, is that the community we are building is entirely focused on having opportunities to spend time with other people who are generally skeptical and who mostly identify as atheists. Living somewhere where people are generally quite comfortable wearing their religion on their sleeves – many of whom outright *want* to alienate non-believers – is very tiresome. I know a lot of people who I used to know who are only uninterested in spending time with me and my children, because I am quite open about being an atheist. No more (and in many cases far less) than they are about being religious, but it is problematic for them. They are so keen on not talking to their children about certain topics, that they aren’t even willing to consider that I don’t go about telling kids they shouldn’t believe in gods, demons and other bullshit.

    That said, the community we are building also affords opportunities for people who are mutually supportive of a given issue to connect on those issues. What is really great about it, is that while many of us disagree with each other on a variety of things, we can connect where we do agree and oppose each other when we strongly disagree. In a few cases mutual animosity over a given issue precludes any real connection otherwise, but such occurrences are rare and certainly haven’t destabilized the foundation. But that is largely because political alliances are a side effect of, rather than the basis for our community.

    * Just to be clear, we are also building a community that respects the choices of non-parents not to be parents. I am absolutely disgusted by people who believe that everyone has some responsibility to reproduce, or at least adopt children.

  4. says

    Stephanie raises good questions, which I’ll respond to in my next post in the dialogue, but here I’ll address the points raised in the replies:

    DuWayne:

    The community you describe sounds precisely like the sort of community we started the Humanist Community Project to support. Take a look at the website and you might find some helpful resources!

    http://harvardhumanist.org

    consciousness razor:

    Humanist communities would have many purposes and many areas of value, some of which have nothing to do with political activism and power. I think that such communities are valuable in themselves as venues for growth for the members, for instance. I didn’t foreground t his yet in our discussion because I wanted to address political matters first, but there’s no need to assume that every aspect of such a community would be valuable because it aids in the attainment of some political goal.

    Further, as I’ve repeatedly stressed, though ritual is an academic and personal interest of mine, it is a minor aspect of such communities – they could certainly exist without ritual of any kind.

    That said, you make two assertions regarding, for instance, ritual which you do nothing to substantiate. You claim, for instance, that “ritual and art…certainly don’t fight against systematic injustices”. I don’t agree. Pride parades are a ritual (by my definition, offered at length both on my site and at the HCP website), and they do precisely this. So do anti-racism marches and AIDs walks. The Slut Walk is a great example. These all are repeated symbolic actions to challenge systematic injustices. Ritual has very frequently been used as a tool of the oppressed to fight the oppressor – the use of the cross in the marches of Hugo Chavez comes to mind as a particularly striking example.

    Rituals can also be co-created by a community or group to assert their identity, and therefore need not reinforce authority.

    Neither of your assertions stand, therefore.

    ‘Tis Himself:

    You’ve gone way beyond hyperbolic – you’re totally paranoid. Your strange vendetta against the Humanist Community at Harvard leads you to make all these weird posts that have no relationship to reality. The only dogma in this thread is your own view of us and our work, which has repeatedly proven impervious to evidence and argument.

    On this topic, you are no freethinker.

  5. says

    I don’t agree. Pride parades are a ritual (by my definition, offered at length both on my site and at the HCP website), and they do precisely this. So do anti-racism marches and AIDs walks. The Slut Walk is a great example. These all are repeated symbolic actions to challenge systematic injustices.

    Sounds to me like you’ve deliberately stretched your definition of “ritual” to sidestep this specific criticism. You might have a point with Pride, but that’s about it — anti-racism marches and AIDS walks are nonspecific protest and consciousness-raising efforts respectively, and SlutWalk is a protest movement on its own.

    At the very least, it’s quite a strange usage to describe protest and awareness-raising actions as rituals =/

    You’ve gone way beyond hyperbolic – you’re totally paranoid. Your strange vendetta against the Humanist Community at Harvard leads you to make all these weird posts that have no relationship to reality. The only dogma in this thread is your own view of us and our work, which has repeatedly proven impervious to evidence and argument.

    On this topic, you are no freethinker.

    This condescending dismissiveness only hurts the credibility of your strange use of “ritual”, because now from what I gather I can only expect more of the same.

    I’ll just go ahead and disclose here that I dropped out of college for emotional reasons, so you can go ahead and pat me on the head about how uneducated I must be to not see how your strangely wide definition of “ritual” applies.

  6. John Morales says

    [meta]

    James:

    You’ve gone way beyond hyperbolic – you’re totally paranoid. [...] On this topic, you are no freethinker.

    What I see is a dismissive evasion of Himself’s contentions via (totes non-hyperbolic!) assertion of paranoia, and then evinced exactly the kind of thinking he derides.

    (When did freethinking become synonymous with agreeing with you?)

    That noted, James has often explained that “They’ve suggested a priesthood, temples, rituals, hymns, and all the other trappings of religion, just no gods.” is not correct, because they’re merely seeking to extract the non-supernatural aspects of each of those things — just the trappings.

    (Hm)

    PS Are there no longer “humanist chaplains” at the HCP?

  7. khms says

    That noted, James has often explained that “They’ve suggested a priesthood, temples, rituals, hymns, and all the other trappings of religion, just no gods.” is not correct, because they’re merely seeking to extract the non-supernatural aspects of each of those things — just the trappings.

    Ok,so s/gods/supernatural aspects/. So presumably no saints and angels, either – but I suspect the first formulation was in fact a shorthand for exactly this.

    Or, in other words, and the difference is?

  8. John Morales says

    khms,

    Or, in other words, and the difference is?

    Best as I can make it (I have to intellectualise it, I certainly can’t empathise) the difference is not in the behavioural sociality and bonding, but in its basis (Higher Purpose vs. Higher Being) — in short, it ain’t one that’s evident by looking from outside.

    Celebrants, rituals, rites of passage, gatherings are just that.

    (Which, fair to say, was the thing that allowed its genesis given the milieu.

    I am curious as to whether this specific initiative could (and might) adapt; initial signs are positive, but I’m ambivalent whether that is a good sign)

  9. jflcroft says

    Setár:

    Sounds to me like you’ve deliberately stretched your definition of “ritual” to sidestep this specific criticism.

    I do have a broader definition of ritual than some, and a narrower one than others. I think my definition is a reasonable one, and I have argued for it at length:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/03/11/the-humanist-community-project-rational-ritual/

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/04/06/why-seculars-sing-a-response-to-tom-flynn/

    You are free to offer an alternative definition, but it would have to come with a justification as to why we should use yours and not mine. I’m open to changing my usage, but we’d have to discuss it and review the merits of the proposed alternatives. My usage is not that strange among philosophers of aesthetics and anthropologists, though I admit it may be different to colloquial usage. I plead guilty to being an academic! =D

    I’ll just go ahead and disclose here that I dropped out of college for emotional reasons, so you can go ahead and pat me on the head about how uneducated I must be to not see how your strangely wide definition of “ritual” applies.

    I’m not quite sure where you see condecension in my reply, but I certainly didn’t mention ‘Tis Himself’s education (I know nothing about it). I found his comment, which is one of very many in response to me and my work, to be condescending and dismiss, as well as filled with outright falsehoods, and I reserve the right to strongly rebuff those who seek to perpetuate lies about our work.

    Please remember, when I respond to ‘Tis Himself, that it is not just this comment I am responding to – it is the numerous increasingly frenzied, never substantiated ‘criticisms’ ‘Tis Himself has provided since we announced the project, including (but not limited to) this wonderful gem of a comment thread in which he compares me and Greg Epstein to Hitler (or some other aspect of the Fascist machinery) and repeatedly makes the same false accusations, never responding to my clarifications.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/04/07/are-communal-rituals-deceptive/

    Until I see some evidence that ‘Tis Himself is willing to engage honestly with the actual project I see no reason to repeat my previous replies to his nonsense.

    John Morales:

    What I see is a dismissive evasion of Himself’s contentions via (totes non-hyperbolic!) assertion of paranoia, and then evinced exactly the kind of thinking he derides.

    ‘Tis Himself made no contentions I can respond to – he merely repeated the same falsehoods I’ve put to rest countless times before.

    What he says is untrue, and unsubstantiated. What more can I say than that? We have absolutely not “suggested a priesthood, temples, rituals, hymns, and all the other trappings of religion, just no gods.” We do not want a priesthood, for instance, and I have repeatedly stated that the word “temples” is not an appropriate word to describe the communities we envisage. I ask again, what more can I say other than “that is false”?

  10. consciousness razor says

    I didn’t foreground t his yet in our discussion because I wanted to address political matters first, but there’s no need to assume that every aspect of such a community would be valuable because it aids in the attainment of some political goal.

    I never made such an assumption, but would you be specific? Which aspects don’t and what are they valuable for (if anything)?

    Further, as I’ve repeatedly stressed, though ritual is an academic and personal interest of mine, it is a minor aspect of such communities – they could certainly exist without ritual of any kind.

    I thought you just said they would be valuable, just not in attaining political goals. You don’t need to undermine it by calling it “minor” and so on. But maybe you’re talking about something else now, not art and music in general, and not communities as widely understood but a particular kind of “humanist community” which isn’t self-sufficient and doesn’t offer what a real community does — because I’d argue all real communities do have art and music. So would you be specific?

    That said, you make two assertions regarding, for instance, ritual which you do nothing to substantiate. You claim, for instance, that “ritual and art…certainly don’t fight against systematic injustices”. I don’t agree.

    Stephanie’s covered this, but would you be more specific? How do hymns or baby-naming ceremonies, for example, fight against systematic injustice? Or priests or temples? And if they do it at all, is that their primary effect?

  11. says

    I don’t know enough about the Harvard Humanist Project to comment specifically what they are doing, but I am very wary of developing dogmatic structures and building exclusive hierarchical frames. That said, I do see a value in rituals and having “secular celebrants,” as CFI calls them.

    Far from being restricted to superstitious nonsense, rituals are a part of the mainstream of human experience. They include public celebrations of life stages – such as graduations, or making public commitments to fulfill one’s duties as a public servant. They can include such things as presenting one’s newborn children to their community. They also include more private affairs, such as how one starts their day, or the things a couple generally does before they have sex. And there is a huge range of human activities that we use to help define our lives, both publicly and in private.

    Shared rituals are an exceptionally powerful tool for helping tie communities together. As a Christian, I held leadership positions in a couple of churches. In the last church I attended I was a worship leader for some time. There are no few church leaders who understand that worship and praise is the ritual that really ties a church together.

    It is also useful to have people who regularly preside over funerals, weddings/personal unions, who help lead a community in offering support to members of a community who need it (such as when a loved one dies, when there is illness in the household, etc.) – who effectively fulfill many of the roles that pastors engage in church communities.

    What is important is to avoid falling into the trap of dogma and cultism. I am very wary of rituals that too closely mimic those of religious communities. A good example is groups that seek analogs for worship and praise. Music can be a powerful tool for strengthening group cohesion, but does so in a very cult like fashion. Worship and praise music is all about expressing one’s commitment of their whole self to the group identity. The problem with using this sort of ritualized commitment in a secular/non-theist/skeptical community, is that by definition, such communities *shouldn’t* have such a powerful group identity. The development of such a central dogmatic structure should be antithetical to the sort of communities being discussed here.

    But there is, in some areas, a rather fine line. Managing to function as close to that line as is necessary to fulfill the needs of members of a given community is important, but even more important is avoiding crossing that line. For my own part, I have powerful needs in terms of mutual community support. At the same time, I spent too goddamned much of my life committed to dogmatic bullshit and I am bloody well done with that. I will fight tooth and nail to avoid falling into – or indeed *creating* that trap.

    My point is, it is important to take great care when criticizing secular communities. That is not to say that being critical isn’t important. But there will often be a fine line between maintaining a functional community and a dogmatic community. And of course the line will often be in the eye of the beholder – but that is the nature of human relations.

  12. consciousness razor says

    You are free to offer an alternative definition, but it would have to come with a justification as to why we should use yours and not mine.

    Let’s use yours for now, just for the sake of argument.

    By “ritual” I mean any reasonably regular practice that an individual or community engages in which has a primary or significantly symbolic purpose. Note that this is a broad, but not all-encompassing definition.

    [...]

    The “morning ritual” of brushing one’s teeth is disqualified under my definition because it lacks a primarily symbolic function, for example, whereas the speaking of certain words repeatedly, even very common phrases (“Ladies and Gentlemen…”) is ritualistic.

    If a protest march were a ritual, as you suggested, it would primarily be symbolic. It wouldn’t primarily be a valuable activity for other reasons, like persuading those who aren’t participating to notice an injustice and agree to work against it.

  13. says

    This is a very helpful discussion for me – it helps me develop my ideas further, and I’m grateful for that. Thanks folks!

    DuWayne:

    We share a skepticism of dogma and hierarchical structures – that’s one reason why we’ve been extremely open about every aspect of our proposal. We want to open our ideas to the widest possible audience so that we can constantly receive critiques and improve them. I entirely agree with you regarding the fine line between strong communities and potentially dogmatic ones. The only response I see as valid is constant vigilance and self-scrutiny. What I don’t think is wise is throwing out the whole idea of close moral communities because there are dangers inherent in them. There are dangers too in not having communities such as these – anomie, disconnectedness, lack of social clout. I think careful, intentional institutional design is what’s required – hence these discussions.

    I don’t agree with you that communal singing is necessarily cultish – I’ve written a long reply to Tom Flynn on this point which I linked above in my last response here :).

    consciousness razor:

    You raise a number of very interesting questions which I’ll try to address in turn, but first I want to make a meta-point: I’ve noticed that in these discussions the question of ritual always gets a lot of interest. I want to point out that I didn’t raise this issue in the discussion, and in the article which prompted the post by PZ which started the FtB discussion of the HCP ritual was not mentioned a single time. I find it fascinating that people gravitate to the discussion of ritual as THE central concern when we at the HCP don’t raise it at all frequently, and when it’s such a small part of what we do and write about. I understand people’s desire to discuss it – it’s controversial, even within our organization – and I want to honor the questions by giving full answers. But I would prefer this discussion not to be sidetracked by yet another discussion of ritual. As I’ve said before, one can ignore the ritual element entirely and still make a great case for Humanist communities.

    Which aspects [Humanist communities] don’t [have to do with attaining political goals] and what are they valuable for (if anything)?

    There are many reasons to be a member of a moral community other than political engagement. I think Humanist communities are often valuable educational spaces which simply promote the growth and healthy
    development of their members, for instance: they can offer a space for discussion of difficult issues and frequently organize speeches in interesting topics. They can help raise kids, both through formal educational programs like Sunday schools and informal learning through the engagement of the children with a broader community. They can encourage friendships between people who otherwise wouldn’t meet. They can provide the simple enjoyment of others’ company. These are all valuable things such communities might offer which aren’t directly related to political engagement.

    On whether ritual is necessary to the development of Humanist communities:

    My point here is that such moral communities could exist which don’t make extensive use of ritual. I think ritual could be valuable sometimes, and I like to think about it, but it’s not a big aspect of our ideas or work.

    How do hymns or baby-naming ceremonies, for example, fight against systematic injustice? Or priests or temples? And if they do it at all, is that their primary effect?

    I wouldn’t say they necessarily do – my contention was not that ALL rituals have anti-oppressive features, but that some might. And I believe I’ve supported that point with a number of salient examples.

    If a protest march were a ritual, as you suggested, it would primarily be symbolic. It wouldn’t primarily be a valuable activity for other reasons, like persuading those who aren’t participating to notice an injustice and agree to work against it.

    I think what you’ve just described is a form of symbolic activity. Persuading people to note an injustice through exemplifying the number and power of those who support the LGBTQ Community is profoundly symbolic. The march is a way of demonstrating (symbolically showing forth) the power of the community. That is partly why they are so strongly resisted by authoritarian regimes such as Russia – the Pride march, with its host of symbolic resources (the Pride flag, the bear flag, the angels, etc. etc,), is of extraordinary symbolic potency. It is, I would say, a ritual of great power.

  14. 'Tis Himself says

    Please remember, when I respond to ‘Tis Himself, that it is not just this comment I am responding to – it is the numerous increasingly frenzied, never substantiated ‘criticisms’ ‘Tis Himself has provided since we announced the project, including (but not limited to) this wonderful gem of a comment thread in which he compares me and Greg Epstein to Hitler (or some other aspect of the Fascist machinery) and repeatedly makes the same false accusations, never responding to my clarifications.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/04/07/are-communal-rituals-deceptive/

    Until I see some evidence that ‘Tis Himself is willing to engage honestly with the actual project I see no reason to repeat my previous replies to his nonsense.

    Jimmy, (I hope you don’t mind me calling you Jimmy, we’re all pals here and besides, you’ve ignored my request about what I’d like to be called, so now you’re Jimmy), I must congratulate you on successfully godwinning yourself.

    I have responded to your “clarifications.” I would say things like “you’re trying to establish a religion only without gods” and your clarification would be along the lines of “nope, we’re not, so there, nyah!”

    I really don’t think you understand my objection to your and Chaplain Epstein’s scheme. You are trying to set up a religion. It may be a godless religion, but it would include rituals like godless baptism, godless churches, and godless hymns. Chaplain Epstein is already the godless High Priest of this godless religion.

    All I want is for people to be aware that you’re not promoting social equity, progressive ideas, or secularism. You’re establishing a religion. And whining “no we’re not, ignore the Chaplain behind the curtain” isn’t a good refutation.

    But I already know you’ll blow me off, pretending I’m just being paranoid about you and Humanist Chaplain Epstein. I just ask one thing. Jimmy, could you please explain, in simple words because I’m only a Harvard MA, why atheists need Chaplains?

  15. 'Tis Himself says

    Oh yeah, one more thing. My reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was not comparing you and Chaplain Epstein to the Nazis. If you’ve ever seen the movie (which I suspect you haven’t), you would know how effective rituals are in shaping peoples’ response to organizations and their leaders. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any other work that shows how people can be controlled through ritual besides Riefenstahl’s film.

    Maybe you should see the film. You’d get some pointers on the rituals you guys want the rest of us to observe.

  16. consciousness razor says

    There are many reasons to be a member of a moral community other than political engagement. I think Humanist communities are often valuable educational spaces which simply promote the growth and healthy development of their members, for instance: [...]

    Since you’re calling this a kind of “moral community,” would you say that rather than being for “political” goals, these are directed to “moral” goals?

    I think what you’ve just described is a form of symbolic activity. Persuading people to note an injustice through exemplifying the number and power of those who support the LGBTQ Community is profoundly symbolic. The march is a way of demonstrating (symbolically showing forth) the power of the community. That is partly why they are so strongly resisted by authoritarian regimes such as Russia – the Pride march, with its host of symbolic resources (the Pride flag, the bear flag, the angels, etc. etc,), is of extraordinary symbolic potency. It is, I would say, a ritual of great power.

    Just like brushing your teeth is symbolic of your resolve to have healthy teeth, attract sexual partners, and to foreshadow the power with which your teeth will crush any food you intend to eat. Get over yourself and get back to the point. Most people don’t brush their teeth primarily so that they can represent something symbolically about themselves or their purported powers. Instead, they do it for more practical reasons. You could of course slap on some symbolism like I just did, as you could with any other activity, but that will not mean people think it’s the most important reason to brush their teeth. So if you wanted to engage in this discussion honestly, you would have at least given some passing hint of an acknowledgment that you understood protest marches are more like that and less like chanting or candle-lighting.

  17. John Morales says

    [semi-OT free association]

    candle-lighting

    To this day, devout Catholics light candles in churches as the somatic part of their prayercraft.

    (praying = wishcraft)

  18. John Morales says

    [addendum]

    In Humanist Communities, they will have some different somatic component to their affirmative ritual, guided by a wise mentor, in the full knowledge that it’s but a psychological crutch.

    (Such an aspiration!)

  19. says

    James Croft #13:

    But I would prefer this discussion not to be sidetracked by yet another discussion of ritual. As I’ve said before, one can ignore the ritual element entirely and still make a great case for Humanist communities.

    translation: this line of argument is my biggest vulnerability and I haven’t been able to paper it over well enough, IGNORE IT!

    At the very least, it’s convenient how this comes out when CR decides to address the point while complying with Croft’s little rule (‘my strange definition is right until proven otherwise’). To his credit, he does better than the conspiracy theorists who just change the ‘rules’ or outright ignore the response.

    But running from the point is no more valid than fudging it.

    (I fully expect Croft to come down from his ivory tower with another steaming heap of totally-not-condescension in response to this; such is to be expected from people who have little more than long-winded Courtier’s Replies.)

  20. says

    James –

    What I don’t think is wise is throwing out the whole idea of close moral communities because there are dangers inherent in them. There are dangers too in not having communities such as these – anomie, disconnectedness, lack of social clout.

    We have a variety of members to our community who couldn’t begin to agree on too many issues to include them in a close moral community. We can (mostly) agree on the need for mutual respect and basic human rights. The problem is that the realm in which we can all agree (even there with exceptions) is exceptionally narrow. At that, we would have significant differences in how we believe those rights should be asserted. (I will note that we are not defined as a humanist community persay, though with a couple of exceptions, all of us are)

    For my own part, I flat refuse to assert *any* moral system for inclusion. There are rational arguments for humanist principles and I engage them with some frequency. Humanist principles are integral to my own moral frame. But I accept that they may not be integral to everyone’s moral frame and honestly don’t care. If you want to start couching it in terms of morality, not only will better than half the community we have built leave the table, so will I.

    I think careful, intentional institutional design is what’s required – hence these discussions.

    I think the discussions are important, I am not so sure about intentional institutional design. I am far more interested in taking a more reactionary approach. That is not to say we don’t have some strictures we operate under, we do. It’s just that they are minimal and unobtrusive. And by not explicitly stating very many rules, we don’t have to justify them until we come across a reason for doing so. Though as we continually formalize our community that will probably change.

    At that though, I am far more interested in focusing structure on rules that make it more comfortable for people who don’t sport penises as a matter of course and people who are otherwise not white, straight and/or male. And honestly, the biggest tool we’re using for managing that, is to foster a variety of activities for the variety of people we are associating with. I am building a forum expressly for the purpose of making it easier for people to offer activities. I am also making a lot of suggestions and even planning activities that I won’t actually attend. Rather than creating a formal structure that permeates the entire community, we try to offer specific parameters for a given activity – also engaging in activities that don’t have any (mainly getting together to shoot the shit, with several people eventually moving to a bar while others call it a night).

    In building the community I have been a part of building, I have developed great relationships that are important to me. Our community is a network of great relationships. We give a shit about each other and each other’s well being. We do shit for each other and that keeps blossoming into more and better connections. The thing is, we are committed to the people we have come to care about – not abstract ideals. Rituals have a small role to play in that, but they are mostly informal rituals and while we may choose to engage in some random formal rituals as a community (ie. weddings, funerals and the like), the primary cohesion of our community will continue to be the relationships that drive it.

    I will address the issue of music where it is more appropriate to do so, when I have more time. Lets just say that having spent a great deal of my life writing music, performing and even as a worship leader, I am more than a little uncomfortable with it. I am acutely aware of the power of music to impact the human mind, having worked hard to become very good at making just such an impact.

    John Morales –

    In Humanist Communities, they will have some different somatic component to their affirmative ritual, guided by a wise mentor, in the full knowledge that it’s but a psychological crutch.

    Calling somatic ritual a psychological crutch, is a lot like calling breathing a habit. Technically it *may* be correct, but we’re talking about something that encompasses the entire history of every human culture. And it isn’t limited to human cultures. Most other animals engage in rituals for mating, with many social animals engaging in still other rituals. Dismissing somatic ritual as a mere psychological crutch, dismisses a rather expansive aspect of the human experience.

    I am curious – not just John, but everyone who is so very critical of James Croft and the HCP – how should humanist/secular/non-theist communities look? You all seem pretty critical of the idea of rituals and especially of a non-theist chaplain. That may just be in the specific manner in which the HCP engages these, but I am sensing this is not the case. So I have to ask, what about people who want to married by like minded persons who are part of a given secular community? What end of life supports for individuals who are dying and those who care about them? What about the variety of life stages and changes that we might like to celebrate with our respective communities? What about the myriad roles that religious ministers play in their respective communities, that have nothing to do with their religion (ie. hospital visitations, organizing care in various contexts – such as elder care, caring for the ill and injured, etc.)?

    Believe me, I am more than a little concerned about how such communities should function and what they should look like. But as someone who is very heavily involved in building such a community, I would really rather hear some alternatives over useless, non-constructive criticisms. If we’re doing it wrong, then by all means, tell us how to do it right.

  21. says

    Just to be clear James, I am not trying to dismiss you or the HCP. It is just that I spent most of my life locked tightly to dogmatic systems, largely the result of my having been quite thoroughly indoctrinated into one as a very small child. I had a very abusive relationship with religion and have a lot of concerns about relying on the more dangerous tools used by religions, to help build and bolster a secular community. If I am sounding overly zealous in my criticism, I sincerely apologize. It is not my intent to be a dick – rather it is to work out the best practices of building a community that is similar to religious communities, without creating a non-supernatural religion.

  22. says

    Hi folks. Apologies for letting a few questions pile up – we’ve recently suffered a death in our community and I have been preparing our response to that in the past day or so.

    I’ll try again to answer everyone as fully as I can:

    DuWayne:

    Just to be clear James, I am not trying to dismiss you or the HCP… If I am sounding overly zealous in my criticism, I sincerely apologize. It is not my intent to be a dick – rather it is to work out the best practices of building a community that is similar to religious communities, without creating a non-supernatural religion.

    We share that goal! And I truly welcome the criticism. One of the values of engaging in discussions like these – when they are fair-minded and genuine – is that we refine our ideas. So, no need for apologies – thank you for participating!

    If you want to start couching it in terms of morality, not only will better than half the community we have built leave the table, so will I.

    You make a number of valuable points int he first section, but what I think it’s worth picking up on here is this one. I, myself, am quite aware that truly Humanist communities which make an explicit commitment to the sorts of values contained in the 3rd Humanist Manifesto will make some people who are currently members of the broad freethinking community uncomfortable, and will drive some people away. To be 100% honest, I think that’s OK. First because I think we will actually appeal to a lot more people than we are currently drawing into the movement (and so we’ll more than replace the losses), but also because I think an explicit values-stance is essential for any community which wishes to make a difference. Otherwise, how can any decision be made as to which ideals to pursue?

    To be clear, though, these moral communities are values based, not strictly based on political stance. I see values as operating at a higher level to specific political positions, and therefore more broad. The sorts of values I mean might be, for instance, to the equal dignity of all persons, and the use of reason to solve human problems. Broad value-positions like that. So I don’t think they would necessarily be as exclusive as you might be imagining.

    For instance, you say that members of your community “can (mostly) agree on the need for mutual respect and basic human rights. The problem is that the realm in which we can all agree (even there with exceptions) is exceptionally narrow.” I don’t actually see a commitment to basic human rights and mutual respect as being at all narrow. If you can agree on the need for all people to have their rights honored, then you have many lifetimes of work ahead of you, as a community, to bring about a world in which that is a reality. That is a huge project you’ve set yourself – it’s not really narrow at all!

    I do think it essential that Humanist communities (and remember I’m talking always of Humanist communities) take a value-stance, because Humanism is defined by its values. If there are members in your community, as you suggest, who don’t think that all human beings should be given some basic level of respect, then in my view they are simply not Humanists, and they would indeed find it difficult to fit into the sort of Humanist community we espouse. And I think that’s OK.

    Setár:

    translation: this line of argument is my biggest vulnerability and I haven’t been able to paper it over well enough, IGNORE IT! At the very least, it’s convenient how this comes out when CR decides to address the point while complying with Croft’s little rule (‘my strange definition is right until proven otherwise’)…But running from the point is no more valid than fudging it.

    I plead not-guilty. I have absolutely not avoided the question – I made a request for the post to stay on-topic (our discussion isn’t about ritual, and I haven’t yet raised the topic of ritual, so talking about ritual ad nauseum is OT), and then provided what I think is a full and honest response to the question. If you object to the argument I have laid out in my response, I challenge you to demonstrate what in it is fallacious. But here you have provided no counter-argument – just an extended ad hominem fallacy. You don’t respond at all to my earlier reply – you simply write as if I didn’t respond at all.

    Nor did I try to promote the rule that ‘my strange definition is right until proven otherwise’. Rather, I provide (in the links I gave) an extended justification for my definition, and request that if people object to the definition they say why.

    If you are going to discuss these points you have to bring arguments. Insults aren’t going to cut it. This is a trend I see happening frequently in discussions on FtB: when someone articulates a view different to the accepted norm, people engage in actual discussion for a little while. But if the opposing view is well-stated and well-evidenced, and the person proposes it doesn’t just roll-over after the first couple of comments, the insults come out and the arguments recede.

    Unluckily for you I am not so easily dealt with: if you think I’m wrong, show me where. If you think my argument convincing in part, say where. But you have to engage with the arguments I’ve provided.

    consciousness razor:

    Since you’re calling this a kind of “moral community,” would you say that rather than being for “political” goals, these are directed to “moral” goals?

    I would say that, yes, with the addendum that moral goals are essentially political because they inevitably involve us in the process of politics. Moral and ethical development for its own sake would be a big part of such communities.

    Just like brushing your teeth is symbolic of your resolve to have healthy teeth, attract sexual partners, and to foreshadow the power with which your teeth will crush any food you intend to eat. Get over yourself and get back to the point. Most people don’t brush their teeth primarily so that they can represent something symbolically about themselves or their purported powers. Instead, they do it for more practical reasons. You could of course slap on some symbolism like I just did, as you could with any other activity, but that will not mean people think it’s the most important reason to brush their teeth. So if you wanted to engage in this discussion honestly, you would have at least given some passing hint of an acknowledgment that you understood protest marches are more like that and less like chanting or candle-lighting.

    It seems to me there must have been a miscommunication somewhere in our last exchange, because I thought we were getting somewhere and I’m baffled by this recent post. You asked, I think, whether Pride Parades (for instance) fit my definition of ritual because, in your view, they aren’t primarily symbolic. I responded explaining why I thought they are primarily symbolic: the parade is a symbol – technically, an exemplification – of the power and pride of the LGBT community and its supporters; it uses various clearly symbolic elements like pride flags; and it is trying to educate and persuade through its symbolic function. This seems to me a direct and full response to your question.

    You now seem to be accusing me of avoiding the point – but I directly answered it! – and proceed to offer a false analogy to tooth-brushing, and make some point about why people do what they do. The fact is, the pride parade is a repeated, primarily symbolic act regardless of why the people who attend go to it – it functions symbolically by nature of what it is and its social context. People’s reasons for doing it are quite secondary. My definition was not “a ritual is a mostly repeated activity which is primarily symbolic in function and which the participants engage in considering the most important reason of the activity to be its symbolic function”.

    Of course, the first Pride Parades were, absolutely, consciously designed to be symbolic in the way I have described. But they still function symbolically even if everyone who attends forgets that.

    If you think, for our purposes, there is a significant difference between some practice consciously undertaken for symbolic purposes and one which has primarily symbolic function but which the participants may be unaware of, then you’d have to articulate the difference, say why it matters, and explain how that should change the definition of ritual I use. Accusing me of dishonesty, when I directly answered your critique, does none of these.

    ‘Tis Himself:

    You say that you “really don’t think you understand my objection to your and Chaplain Epstein’s scheme.” You’re right – I don’t understand your objection. Perhaps that’s because I am being foolish and missing it, but I am making quite an effort to get it and I think you could help me out more.

    Perhaps we could generate some greater understanding of each other if we clarify our terms. You claim we are trying to “set up a new religion”. Putting aside the odd notion that you know better than I do what I hope to achieve, what do you mean by “religion”? It may be that, given your usage of the term, we are trying to do just that. So, what do you mean by it?

    On the word “Chaplain” – what, precisely, is your objection to it?

  23. Vicki says

    I was just at the feminist science fiction convention Wiscon. One of the things people talked about during the organized programming there was intersectionality. That doesn’t mean we have to agree about everything, or discuss every issue at the same time. It does mean we have to recognize that people have multiple issues and priorities, and that it’s not sufficient to say “we are all feminists” or “we are all humanists” or “we are all anti-racist.” If you want to get people working together, you have to talk about what goals you’re working towards, and keep an eye out for how you may be getting in your own way. (For example, I don’t care how good your rhetoric and goals are, if your wonderful conference is held in a space that’s up two flights of stairs, you are excluding people with disabilities, and sending a message to everyone about what matters.)

    And we can’t do this top-down, because no one person gets all of it. If a group or organization wants to address class issues, it needs to include working-class as well as middle- and upper-class people. It needs to include people without college educations. And so on.

    I realize that a Harvard $anything is going to skew towards people with college and/or graduate degrees; but recognize that as a limitation on such an organization as part of a broader movement. You don’t need a degree to recognize that there are no gods, or to think about how religion affects different people in different communities. And those people without degrees are going to notice if they aren’t listened to, if they’re treated as valuable recruits but not potential leaders. At that point, everyone to whom this issue, or set of issues, matters loses out.

  24. says

    Just to be more clear James, ours is not an explicitly humanist community – we are a non-theist community with a great deal of diversity. One of the things that I am working on is developing a system to make it easier for people who are a part of our community to plan and engage in activities that suit them. The thing is, we have over 150 people who chose to sign up for the non-theist meetup.com group. In real terms, probably about 45-55 people have actually attended meetups more than five times. I’d guess that double that have come to one. I am in the process of setting up a site that will co-opt the membership of the meetup.com list.

    The single biggest reason that people who have only shown once or who haven’t shown at all give, is that they are interested in doing more than just sitting around talking. The two biggest things people have asked for have been community service projects and family activities. Having spent a lot of time discussing this with a lot of the people who are or who would like to be active in a secular community, I have noted that there is also an attraction to a community that offers the same sort of support and caring that can often be found in religious communities.

    This is definitely a decent pool from which to build a humanist community, but a humanist community will only be a subset of a larger non-theist community. We will have a basic statement of purpose about human respect and rights, but it will not be a statement of moral purpose. Rather it will be the foundation for how we treat each other and how we choose to treat others. Actions will definitely be a part of that – but they will be largely focused on local issues.

    The single most important aspect of the community that I have had the pleasure to be a part of building, is the relationships that are it’s foundation. This community and the subsets that are coming out of it are all about building a network of relationships for mutual support. I am in the Kalamazoo area of Michigan and while there are hella worse places to be an atheist, we are surrounded by people who are either religious, or spiritualists who think that everyone should Believe in something. There just isn’t a lot of room for atheists in the worldviews of most of the people around these parts.

    We have come together, because being a non-theist is something that alienates a lot of people around us. That is the core of this community and will pervade every aspect of it. I am simply not going to do anything to endanger that, because we can’t afford to lose people. And that is not about numbers. I don’t give a damn about numbers and if I have learned anything being an out and proud atheist, it’s that there are a hell of a lot of us around. It is about being inclusive in terms of our core identity. I have been alone as an atheist and I didn’t like it. When I decided to take part in a secular community (I started hosting events for CFI Michigan here in Portage, still do) and later (after I got my kids full time and learned I wouldn’t be leaving as I had expected) decided to grow a stronger non-theist community, I decided that I would not relegate anyone to being an alienated atheist.

    My humanist values are important to me and it is precisely because they are so important to me, that I am unwilling to alienate members of the community I am so invested in in the name of humanism. I genuinely care about people. Being a Christian for much of my life, I learned to care about people I don’t even like. I give a shit what happens to the people who are a part of my community, even the asshats. And I recognize that they certainly didn’t become engaged with this community because of shared political or moral values.

    Meh. This is more complicated than I can reasonably explain here or have the time to explain elsewhere at the moment. I will catch you privately when I have our new site launched, which will clarify some of what I am trying to express here.

  25. says

    Vicki:

    A couple of smaller points before the big one you raise: it is indeed a travesty that the space we currently operate from is not accessible, and we recognize that. We simply do not, at this time, have the funds to move to a different space, but in all our fundraising literature we stress that an accessible space is absolutely essential. I myself have been embarrassed a couple of times when having to explain that our Humanist community is not even accessible to some disabled people due to its location, and I feel that very strongly because it means that my own grandmother (who spent most of her life in a wheelchair) would not have been able to attend our meetings. It’s unacceptable, and it’s top of our list for change.

    The class and education issue is, in a sense, more difficult to address than accessibility. We have made great strides over the past couple of years reaching out to people beyond the Harvard bubble, but we still have an awful lot of work to do. It is worth pointing out that our staff come from a wide variety of class backgrounds – although we do all have degrees. This is definitely something we could work on more.

    On the issue of goals, I sort of agree and disagree: I think that goals do need to be articulated explicitly and returned to, but I also think that values trump goals. One of the big problems with modern progressives, I believe, is the obsessive focus on issues without a framing narrative which threads the issues together. The progressive story is muddied and unclear. I think Humanist communities could play a vital role in clarifying and revivifying the progressive story, but I think we need to focus on values more even than goals in order to do that.

    DuWayne

    There’s a lot of great stuff in this post, so I’ll respond to it bit by bit:

    Just to be more clear James, ours is not an explicitly humanist community – we are a non-theist community with a great deal of diversity.

    Yes – I’ve got this impression from your replies here. The Humanist Community Project, while focused mainly on Humanist communities, does exist to support non-theist communities like yours too, and some of the resources might be valuable to you still. I believe strongly that social communities for nonreligious people are very important, and I applaud your efforts! We need places where people who leave religion can gather and discuss their past experiences, and just come to be comfortable in their nonbelief.

    The single biggest reason that people who have only shown once or who haven’t shown at all give, is that they are interested in doing more than just sitting around talking. The two biggest things people have asked for have been community service projects and family activities. Having spent a lot of time discussing this with a lot of the people who are or who would like to be active in a secular community, I have noted that there is also an attraction to a community that offers the same sort of support and caring that can often be found in religious communities.

    I think what you’re seeing here is the sort of progression in your community which we have seen many times in our travels: communities start as clubs for the nonreligious and grow to become more activist and socially-oriented, wanting to make change in the world. I would predict, as you start to offer service and family activities, that your group’s diversity will also increase (age, gender, sexuality, race etc.) – this is what we see wherever we go.

    We see this as a natural progression and a large shift in the movement as a whole. When I started talking about Humanist communities at the AHA conference two years ago people very often didn’t get the idea. The student groups I spoke to were resistant. Now, the tide has massively turned: the major movement orgs – CfI, AHA, SCA – are talking about local communities as the way forward, and student groups are more service-oriented than ever (just look at how SSA has embraced interfaith service after initial heavy resistance). And I believe we can take some credit for that shift – we have passionately advocated this direction for our movement for a while, and the ideas are gaining traction.

    This is definitely a decent pool from which to build a humanist community, but a humanist community will only be a subset of a larger non-theist community.

    YES! I can’t stress this enough: we are aiming at a subset of the non-theist community. We know that not all atheists want to embrace this way of coming together or Humanist values in general. But we believe many do. Further (and more important, in my view) by taking an explicitly Humanist stance we will draw in people who are currently not part of the non-theist community because they don’t like what is offered there. We will grow the movement. That’s why our efforts can be seen as working in harmony with, for instance, American Atheists – we grow the movement at different ‘ends’.

    We will have a basic statement of purpose about human respect and rights, but it will not be a statement of moral purpose. Rather it will be the foundation for how we treat each other and how we choose to treat others. Actions will definitely be a part of that – but they will be largely focused on local issues.

    Her is where I disagree a bit: a statement of purpose about human respect and rights which is the foundation for how you treat each other and treat others is a statement of moral purpose. By definition. It’s an action-governing statement about how human beings should treat each other. That’s a moral statement right there.

    The single most important aspect of the community that I have had the pleasure to be a part of building, is the relationships that are it’s foundation.

    Indeed – relationships are central to any community. I’ve been researching church growth and congregational development literature recently and they all point to the primacy of interpersonal relationships. They are crucial.

    We have come together, because being a non-theist is something that alienates a lot of people around us. That is the core of this community and will pervade every aspect of it. I am simply not going to do anything to endanger that, because we can’t afford to lose people. And that is not about numbers. I don’t give a damn about numbers and if I have learned anything being an out and proud atheist, it’s that there are a hell of a lot of us around. It is about being inclusive in terms of our core identity. I have been alone as an atheist and I didn’t like it. When I decided to take part in a secular community (I started hosting events for CFI Michigan here in Portage, still do) and later (after I got my kids full time and learned I wouldn’t be leaving as I had expected) decided to grow a stronger non-theist community, I decided that I would not relegate anyone to being an alienated atheist.

    Here there is a little difference between your community and ours at Harvard – we already have groups for nontheists (Boston Atheists is fantastic). What we want for our own community is to build a space for people to come together around shared values. We understand this won’t be for all atheists, but we think that many (and some religious people) want something different to a social group for nontheists.

    Meh. This is more complicated than I can reasonably explain here or have the time to explain elsewhere at the moment. I will catch you privately when I have our new site launched, which will clarify some of what I am trying to express here.

    Great! Can’t wait for you to get in touch.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>