A thought occurred to me as I was mulling over Natalie’s vivisection of the odious Be Scofield. On my third or fourth time through Be’s interminable swipe at Natalie for having the temerity to point out the harms that religious thinking has on trans people, I managed to ferret out his point. Side note: why do people feel the need to secret their theses in a labyrinthine construction of verbose passages? Why can’t you just say what you mean? Anyway – Be’s inability to write clearly isn’t relevant to this post, I just thought I would express my beef.
Scofield, and those in his camp, think that religious edifices can be cannibalized to appropriate the things that it does well (social organization, community building, humanitarian aid) from the dangerous nonsense that props it up (i.e., everything else it does). One step beyond that argument is to state that those religions that do the good stuff with a minimum of the other stuff are a net positive and should be exempted from the blanket criticisms of religion that Gnus should rightfully be directing only at the worst offenders. After all, how can we make the assertion that all religion is bad if we haven’t seen them all? Shouldn’t we save our ire for groups that have demonstrated their harmful tendencies and let the ‘nicer’ religions skate?
As long as we ignore the fact that their argument is stupid, we can see the superficial appeal of using the scaffolding of religion for a secular purpose. Indeed, I myself have taken a very similar stance before – there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and church seems to address a need that secular institutions have not found a way to replace. Why not use religious institutions as a model? Are we rejecting it simply because religious faith is destructive, or is it out of spite and a vainglorious insistence that ‘we don’t need no steenking churches’? I have yet to receive a coherent answer to that question.
Listening to the Ask an Atheist ‘debate’* between PZ and Greg Epstein collided with these thoughts in an interesting way that gave me an interesting idea. Greg (and those of his ilk) keep talking about the need for atheists to develop a ‘post-religion’ understanding and system for exploration of human topics. That unlike the Gnus, he wants to focus on building a fellowship where we can congregate as non-believers and find answers to existential questions. At one point he mentioned that he was getting kind of tired of talking about religion. That got me thinking about what I really spend most of my time focused on, blogwise, and I realized that I don’t bash religion exclusively, or even predominantly. Sure, it comes up here and there, but I strongly doubt that I am known chiefly as an anti-theist (rather than, say, an anti-racist).
And then I got thinking about Greta’s fashion posts, and Natalie’s trans person issue stuff, and JT’s mental illness advocacy, and Dana’s rocks, and PP’s gorgonzola ravioli (or whateverre the fukke it is this week), and I realized that, without even meaning to, we have created precisely the kind of edifice that the Harvard Humanists are talking about. We don’t spend all of our time trying to tear down religion (although we do sometimes, because it’s fun) – we explore the things that make life meaningful. Not everyone likes Daniel’s philosophical treatises. Not everyone cares when Jason and I gripe about Canadian politics. Hardly anyone likes it when Jen puts pictures of her cat on her blog [mutter, mutter]. It doesn’t matter though, because there is a spot for a variety of interests. Furthermore, we are constantly putting in active effort to expand those interests to make it more universal.
The fascinating thing is that if you look at how the FTB edifice is structured, it looks absolutely nothing like a church. Despite accomplishing many of the same functions that Epstein’s crew look to religions to do – nobody could claim that we don’t organize, or have a community, or accomplish charitable goals – we have almost no similarities to religious institutions. We have no central dogma, we have no ‘leader’, and our ‘priests’ (there are now 30+ of my co-bloggers who hate me for making that comparison) are selected not based on any adherence to the party line, but because the consensus is that they have something new and useful to add to the conversation. Dissent is not only tolerated, it is encouraged and fostered (unless it’s stupid – then it’s pilloried with joyful gusto). We are, most assuredly, not the first infidel group (or the only group) to assemble in this way – it’s just that we’re the best (because we have Brianne).
Now I am not suggesting that FTB has discovered ‘the right way’ to assemble secularly, and I am certainly not saying that Greg’s idea (which I support) is ‘the wrong way’**. What I am saying is that there are undoubtedly (and evidently) ways to build community without the need for religious trappings. Furthermore, I think it is interesting and somewhat inspiring to see that we have accidentally created precisely such a framework here at FTB that other secular groups can emulate. I don’t know what the future of FTB is, but looking back at the last 9 or so months that the site has been live, I’m optimistic and excited to see what comes next.
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*Pro tip: a debate happens when you listen to the other person and engage their arguments, Greg. Not whatever you call what you did.
**Pro tip #2: this is the problem that Gnus have with folks like Scofield and Epstein and Stedman and any other faux-diplomat you can name. They, not we, talk about people ‘doing it wrong’ with very little compunction about throwing their fellow atheists under the bus to gain allies on the other side.
Community building does not require religion or quasi-religion to happen. Much community building uses religious trappings because pretty well everyone is familiar with these trappings and is comfortable with them.
I give you lots of credit for asking that people make their points clearly and concisely. Sometimes I think it’s a deliberate rhetorical tactic: when people use verbose language and lots of jargon, they can always argue later that their words have been ‘misinterpreted’ since their writing is so vague and incomprehensible that only the author knows for sure what it means.
As far as faith based ‘charitable’ organizations, if they are judged by what they actually accomplish, they really don’t seem to do better than secular agencies handling the same problems. An article called “faith without works” was written by a journalist concerning faith-based agencies which got government money in the US under George W Bush and what a waste of money it was.
I see faith based agencies engaging in lots of dishonest behavior. You have substance abuse ‘treatment facilities’ where nobody on staff is actually a substance abuse counselor but they’ve been vetted for their religious orthodoxy, which apparently makes them qualified to handle drug problems. People entering the facility are made to sign waivers admitting that the place is run by amateurs, but yet these facilities clearly market themselves as facilities for treating substance abuse. It’d be nice if they subjected themselves to the same demand for honesty that a secular agency would be held to.
The problem is that the first obligation of any faith-based organization is to uphold and promote its beliefs. Whatever else it does is secondary.
I agree with this so fucking much. In a similar fashion, most states allow ministers to bill themselves as counselors on the same level as trained psychologists.
“Expertise matters” is not a universal belief, sadly. Countless examples abound, especially among the anti-intellectuals in the USA.
Which is why he needs to structure it as a religion — to meet the needs of those who feel it’s necessary to even discuss these questions there necessarily can only be One Right Answer.
Religious institutions are structured around the idea there is One Right Answer and therefore One Right Way To Live. The whole purpose of religion is to convince everyone they should ignore their own interests and talents and accept the instruction of the religion in how to contort themselves into an imitation of the One Ideal Person living the Idea Life that is held up by the religion as a goal.
Institutions structured like religions not only feel entitled to encourage people to buy into these ideas, and to solicit donations for propagandists to promote them, but also to attempt to structure society so that peer pressure will be brought to bear on people who don’t conform, so that parents will inculcate their children, so that those who fail to conform to the feel guilty, and attempt to coopt the power of government to punish those who refuse to even try.
We have secular institutions which are structured like religious institutions now, because although most of them don’t yet have the power to impose their One Right Way, certainly their adherents make it clear they would love to do so. Just offhand I can think of the extremist fringes in Sierra Club, ProLife, PETA, radical feminist groups, the Earth Liberation Front, the various sites promoting Anorexia, various racist groups like Creativity, and some Men’s Rights Activists.
This court decision about Creativity is instructive:
That is where “best practices” taught by the “gifted” comes from. And that is why so many of us are amused at best and deeply offended at worst, by the whole idea.
I would like to make out with you now.
I approve of this sentiment.
You couldn’t handle it.
I concur. The man is brilliant and is also very cute. A killer combination.
I agree that FTB is a community and I think most of us think that the diversity of both bloggers and what they blog about is a real gift.
Hasn’t it always been possible, indeed routine, to form communities with zero religious component? Sports, ballroom dancing? If you want a bunch of people to have coffee with on Sunday there are a million ways to do it based on real things.
Sports and ballroom dancing groups do not have an existential/philosophical component. We don’t explore questions of meaning and ethics on the dance floor in the same way that many do in their churches. People are used to asking those kinds of questions in a church environment… and apparently in a blog network.
Interestingly, however, these questions do often get hashed out in F&SF fandom.
And book clubs. Not to mention classrooms and coffee shops.
Maybe we need to bring back the salons of 17th and 18th century France and Russia. Their whole raison d’être was to eat good food, rub shoulders with the rich, famous, and well-bred, and discuss literature, philosophy, and politics.
There are a lot of discussion models from which to choose. Church may be a very familiar model – at least in the United States – but it is by no means the only model available.
Not to derail too much, but it’s worthwhile to remember who had access to those salons. It certainly wasn’t the common person. Consider the fact that church structures were the only places where poor people were allowed to congregate and discuss these things. The salon model appeals to a particularly aristocratic, particularly European model that likely does not resonate well with major sections of the very people who would be best served by it.
Keep in mind who it is we are reaching out to. Focusing on things that appeal to the well-educated, predominantly white, predominantly male people that make up the majority share of the atheist community is likely going to lead to us having to struggle through the same problems into the future.
In fact, I would think that the church model is a very poor one to appropriate. Far too much being told what to think by an authoritarian leader and not nearly enough active discussion and critical thought.
One could argue that taking the class problems out of the salon model is much easier than taking the religion out of a church.
Host the salon at a library or community center and ensure open invitations and you’d pretty much have the class problem licked (as long as you also continued to specifically invite the people who would spark the discussions/conversations). It doesn’t have to be held in the home of a person of wealth.
Perhaps the convention model – you’d just have to remove the travel/cost aspect of it. (IE: Local community)
Class is about way more than just money. Money is absolutely relevant, and lowering financial barriers is certainly one way to open things up, but there’s way more going on than just people not being able to afford stuff.
Stephanie’s got a good point. As I mentioned in my “Why I Love Doctor Who” post, fandoms can provide us a whole ton of the stuff that religion does without any of the things that come along with what I consider the most dangerous aspect of religion (faith and literal belief). Doctor Who gives me community, friendship, a moral compass, a set of ethics, a set of myths and stories to use as a reference point for life and conflicts, a framework with which to explore philosophical and existential questions, etc.
Also, The Doctor is way better than Jesus. Jesus saved one planet. The Doctor has saved HUNDREDS. Jesus rose from the dead. The Doctor rose from the dead TEN DIFFERENT TIMES. Jesus’ love, compassion and forgiveness are all conditional on a set of weird arbitrary rules. The Doctor’s are conditional on only a couple basic principles: no violence, no tyranny, no cynical ethical compromises.
That’s what they’re used to doing, not what they could possibly do. Before blog networks, they weren’t used to doing it in this sort of environment either. In another decade or century, I expect new types of environments — not the same old ones — to be the most relevant to people’s lives. Then again, some people like to “live in the past,” and they may also have to make new environments to form a shelter from the present, if that’s what they want to do.
Perhaps in some cases, but for the most part open discussion was generally not open to poor people, or even rich people for that matter. Yes they congregated in these structures, but that was generally because of various social pressures, rather than because of a non-coerced choice made out of genuine interest in the topics purportedly being discussed.
If you’re going to criticize the salon model like this (as you should), then at the same time you should criticize the church model* for its very similar failings. The power imbalance was there too, even on the church’s turf.
*More like a set of models. To me it seems like we have to be talking about a large class of very different models. Maybe we’re simplifying the issue too much by doing that.
@wondering: Not everybody is verbally gifted. Not everybody with verbal gifts deploys them in the manner of the aristocratic salon. Not everybody wishes to spend their leisure time seated or chatting. Not everybody is comfortable socializing in groups. Not everybody cares about fine food and drink; for some, food is fuel.
Not really true on two counts. First, discussion is not generally allowed in churches. That’s where the laity are told by the priesthood what to think. Discussion and questioning are discouraged (if not forbidden altogether), certainly not encouraged. Second, the poor who had/have the inclination, ability, and time to discuss philosophical questions were/are presumably more likely to do so in small groups or one on one outside of church setting.
The main purpose church serves in a community is social reinforcement of the community’s mores. People can gossip about rebels and malcontents, spy on each other to make sure people are behaving according to the rules, get a reading of the social hierarchy–who’s going up and who’s going down. The authority figures can display their power and superiority. The food and the singing, ritual, or other endorphin-raising activities are mere adjuncts.
Peoples have been discussing philosophy and meaning of life in plenty of places, from academia to bar counters. The idea that we need to take that aspect from religion is just as utterly stupid as the religious claiming that they, and they alone have a guide to morality.
It really need to be said religion does absolutly nothing exclusively, there is no aspect of religion that isn’t done elsewhere. Charities exist whitout religion, morality exist whitout religion, rituals exist whitout religion, philosophy exist whitout religion. There is no reason we should look to religion for anything when we can find those things elsewhere whitout having to clean it from the taint of theism.
With that in mind there is one and only one thing that matters when judging a religion. Is it true ? If it’s not, it doesn’t bring anything that cannot be found elsewhere so there is no reason to have religion at all or to even look at it.
It is that simple.
This was never an issue of ‘need to’. This is an issue of ‘can’ and ‘should’. Can we take the structure of religious groups without bringing in the harmful dogmatic practices that are the origin of the harms of organized faith? Should we use an extant model with a storied history, or eschew it entirely to create our own from scratch?
My answer to both is ‘why not?’ Saying that we can do it ourselves is all well and good, but I don’t see that as being an argument against the HH’s idea. I likely wouldn’t go to ‘atheist church’ either, but I can understand why others might.
Whereas my answer is “why bother?” Part of where I’m coming from on this is that the things I’ve seen described as existential questions (What is the meaning of life, why are we here, etc) don’t bother me at all. I don’t have answers to them either because I’m not asking them (meaning of life), or the only meaningful answer is a known fact (why are we here). I try to shape those aspects of my personal moral sentiments that aren’t innate to conform to the standards of behavior required for functional social interactions. Function systems of societal ethics can in turn be derived from empirical observations of what systems produce healthier, longer lived, happier and more prosperous people relative to other systems. In turn, questions like “What will reduce interpersonal violence?” or “What makes people happy?” are actually questions that have measurable answers at this point in history. I can understand that in the past a great deal of philosophizing was considered necessary because the tools of measurement available weren’t up to producing rational, evidence-based answers, but now we can, for the most part. In cases where our tools aren’t up to measuring yet, we can still be pretty confident that simply talking all around it won’t give us any confirmable answers until we can measure it.
I couldn’t disagree with you more. Understanding the narrative and human processes that drive historic events is not something that can be discussed without existential, philosophical discussions. Just because you don’t care about an issue doesn’t mean it isn’t important to others.
I understand that it is of great importance to some people, but I still question whether it’s fundamentally essential to society to any greater extent then, e.g. sports and games, storytelling, or similar pursuits. That is to say that while all cultures have these, and they are of great personal importance to some people and moderate importance to many people, they also have minimal or no importance to many others. Just because they are inevitable byproducts of society doesn’t mean that it’s a matter of general social concern how they’re organized or who participates, and the same goes for existential discussion. De Botton seems to consider it to be of paramount importance to all societies, and what I’m understanding is that you agree at least to the extent that you consider it to be fundamentally more relevant to society at large than sports and stories. That’s the part that I am failing to understand/agree with, essentially
Speaking as one of the minority I’d love to see more posts focused around canada >.>
Hahaha, I struggle every week to find stuff that’s NOT Canadian politics to get fired up about. Canada stuff coming tomorrow!
Yay ^.^ Includes otter photo in appreciation 😛
As a lifelong Canadaphile I have no problem with more Cadada stuff. In fact I have an entire fake canadian persona ready in case I need it, from Sarnia, Ontario… 😉
I’m pretty sure Jason Kenney is trying to make that illegal.
Ian, have you heard that your country is too dangerous for Dick Cheney? I guess he worries that he won’t be able to carry a gun in order to defend himself if a wild laywer appears.
Dick Cheney is too dangerous to visit. Rabid right-wingers like Cheney and Coulter don’t get the adulation and fawning faux-respect they’re accustomed to in Canada.
I think it is mostly illusion that we are even trying to emulate religion at all. It was, after all, religion that co-opted basic cultural structures of family and community in the first place. It helped fuel the spread of religion and used community and our basic instincts toward family as a useful means to not only lure but also retain adherents. It is no surprise that the church so often uses familial terms for its offices; father, brother, sister, mother. These structures were here first. If nothing else it is a sign of how dominant religion is that we see an attempt to organize a community as an attempt to emulate religion. Just my take on it.
Though I have to say I am still uncomfortable with the idea of people believing I am trying to mimic the structures of religion, whether I’m actually doing it or not. FTB is a wonderful community. One of the hardest parts of leaving religion for many people is the void left in their need for community and fellowship with like minded people. I think places like this fill those needs very well.
I don’t terribly see why we need any kind of “model” at all. If we want such a thing, let’s build it from scratch.
First, regarding the second footnote, I think that is largely true, but not entirely true. PZ has not been entirely innocent of lobbing a few “ur doin it rong”s at the diplomatic wing, although it is true he generally reserves his ire for those who declared unprovoked that we’re doin it rong. Jerry Coyne is probably the worst offender — though don’t get me wrong, I love his blog. His recent backtracking over Lawrence Krauss is an example where even Jerry realized he went too far. In any case, I’ve seen Jerry go off on someone for simply being too accomodationist, even without said accomodationist feeling compelled to lob a few unnecessary bombs at the gnus. I generally agree with the second footnote, but we can’t claim outright innocence here.
Second, while I agree overall, there’s one very important aspect (or, at least it’s important to a lot of church-likers, theists and atheists alike) that FtB is missing: You can’t drag your kids there on Sunday morning.
I’m not kidding. My wife — also an atheist — has dragged us to a couple of UU services, because she really misses having that weekly thing that the whole family goes to. I personally can’t stand it, but not everybody has to like everything. I think that, for obvious reasons, our community tends to self-select for people who don’t much enjoy going to church, and so we tend to forget that, theism aside, many people do in fact enjoy that for its own sake.
And skimming the comments, I see a lot of people here are forgetting what I tried to highlight in the last paragraph of my previous comment.
Look, I get it. I don’t understand the appeal either. But, a lot of people love line-dancing, and a lot of people love church, independent of the absurd and often harmful dogmas. We need to accept that.
Recognizing that there is a demand for this is not the same as saying that you have to want it. If all of these problems were solved tomorrow, and there was an absolutely ideal “atheist church” service in my town this very Sunday, I still wouldn’t want to go, because I don’t like that shit. But I probably would be end up there anyway, because my wife does like that shit. She doesn’t like everything I like, either (obviously).
That’s fine, but because you don’t like it (and I’m right with you on that, FWIW), that doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for it.
There is a great deal of selection bias when you raise a topic like this in a group like the one that reads FTB. If you are out atheist enough to comment and invested enough in your nonbelief to frequent an atheist blog, of course you won’t see the need for a church. It’s like going to an NRA convention and trying to sell the idea of pacifism – there aren’t going to be many takers. And that’s fine – I get that and I feel pretty much the same way. But just as we need the Hitchenses and Dawkinses as well as the Epsteins and the Stedmans in order to make a comprehensive argument, we need a broad (and sometimes diametrically opposed) spectrum of activities to maximize the number of people we’re speaking to.
I don’t think there’s anyone who actually disagrees with this – I think people are just (justifiably) wary of churches. I’m not sold on the idea either, but I think that a model of it can work.
Ok. I haven’t made it through all the comments yet and I am not sure I will but I am thinking this one through hard.
I’ll start off with I don’t like church. I had problems with certain community aspects even when I went but I am trying to imagine a model that could work.
Here is something rough. One of the big problems with churches is how much power is invested in the leaders to convey moral and ethical guidance. How exactly do you remove that without seriously affecting the dynamic of church? Who gets up and speaks every Sunday(or whatever day) if not the charismatic keystone of that particular community? It is a problem but I don’t think we can get rid of it if you insist on modeling any individual community after something like a church. So if we aren’t going to try and scrap the leader idea altogether, how can we make that work for atheists? Perhaps by instead of making the person at the pulpit a leader you just make hir a speaker. Someone who is confident enough to get up every week and lead a congregation in the discussion of needs in their community. Maybe not even just one person but a handful of people with guest speakers when a member of the community feels strongly about a community topic. (Like I said this is rough. Just trying to imagine a way it can work.)
Something we might be able to do to help facilitate a larger community is by doing a Sunday School scenario where weekly discussions could be held on structured topics. It could foster education for members of the community in all age groups and help sharpen critical thinking skills.
I am still not sure. Even typing all that out it seems almost pointless to me. I can envision a million ways to foster communities that can or cannot have anything to do with church. I guess if people need it, someone will find a way to fill that niche.
QFT Jarreg, totally agree with you. It is something I try to hammer home as often as I can when I write.
Crommunist, I really enjoyed this post. I think you’re right that FTB has become a community in a very real sense. The only thing missing is physical reassurance – the knowledge that we have a living breathing ally or two in the same town. This is a drawback of online communities, but not an insurmountable one, in my opinion.
Did anyone else misread that as “secrete their feces”?
If I were particularly dishonest, I’d claim that I wrote the phrase that way intentionally.
No, seriously. I can understand the desire for an IRL community, but I still don’t see why people want to model it after church. Why not make it it’s own thing?
Familiarity being chief among the advantages. Many people are afraid to “leave the church” for nothing, or for something radically different. A secular institution that was modeled after a church could simply encourage faitheists to “switch churches” rather than “leave”. People switch denominations all the time, but they still go somewhere.
It may also be easier than reinventing the wheel – piggyback on an organizational model that has worked (with varying success across multiple cultures) rather than trying to figure it out from first principles.
The church organizational structure has so many flaws, I still don’t think we should use it as a base. We could always call it a church, if we really want to.
Aside from the hierarchical nature (and not all churches are like this – mosques and synagogues have a great deal of autonomy), and the tendency toward dogma (which is where I most strongly draw my line against the model), I don’t see what the ‘so many flaws’ are, or how they are insurmountable. If it’s a question of practicality, we can’t know if it’s impossible until we try.
Well, alright. First we should decide what kind of church we’re mimicking, there are a great many varieties, after all. For now, I think we can assume that the various American protestant churches are the ones we’re talking about, because those are the ones most atheists have had exposure to. As for problems, the main one is that sitting about listening to some dude talk for hours is boring and pointless. We could address this by making things more of a discussion. I was actually thinking of having the buildings(if we ever make buildings) be made in more of a circular fashion, to signify the equal status of those participating. It would have a kind of arena shape, with the active parties being in the lowered middle area, and the audience being in the raised seating. But at this, point, we’ve kinda left the church model behind, so I figure we might as well ditch it to start with.
Tell that to every atheist who’s ever gone to see Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Jen McCreight, Debbie Goddard, Maryam Namazie, Matt Dillahunty…
“Boring and pointless” are arguments about preference, not fact. You don’t like going to speeches. Neither do I, particularly. That doesn’t mean that a) nobody likes going to them, or that b) they are not useful.
I’ve been in circular churches, and I’ve been to secular activities in rectangular rooms with a podium at the front. I’ve been to discursive church activities, and I’ve been to secular presentations where no Q&A was permitted. These are not valid criticisms of a church model, because they do not address the majority of activities that churches undertake outside of Sunday services (or whatever day).
Alright, so maybe sme people have interesting things to say. The point still stands though, that if churches are so diverse, why are we trying to model off of them anyway? They come in enough different varieties that when you say church, I think of one thing, P.Z. thinks of another, while you were thinking of a third entirely. There are too many different definitions of “church” to effectively use it as a model. There are too many to even use the word to communicate effectively. I still think we should make our own design, and take ideas from churches on an individual basis.
for example, let’s start with what we want. We want to see each other, right? To have the reassurance that we’re not the only sane ones in the entire world. We probably want to do this on a semi regular basis. We probably want some kind of structure, but not too much. I personally don’t want anything more than a provisional leader, and to have the rest be democratic. How’s that for a start?
Note: I haven’t yet read James Croft’s comment (or any subsequent ones), so this is no response to that in any way.
Going at this from a completely different direction, for many years I was part of a neo-Pagan community. We didn’t start out thinking, let’s model “Church” we just did what we wanted and this is what developed:
1. We started with an online community–a forum rather than a blog network, and based in a particular city rather than international, but not so different from FtB.
2. We had a weekly Sunday brunch at a restaurant to meet in RL. Kids were welcome. People who couldn’t afford to pay for a meal came anyway and generally got their food paid for by the group. (Eventually we sent around a jar for donations–see below–from which we could have had a regular fund for people use for this purpose).
3. During the school year, we had weekly classes on various topics including ethics and parenting (along with wooish stuff that’s irrelevant to this discussion). We sometimes had guest speakers. We used an empty classroom at the university or a room at the local UU church for this purpose, but a library or community centre would have worked as well.
4. We had a pub night once a month (I believe; it could have been more often) with a set discussion on philosophical topics.
5. We had a ritual followed by a party (grown ups only) for each major holiday except for Lammas (August 2nd)–which we generally spent camping together (Spring & Fall Equinox, Summer & Winter Solstice, May Day, Halloween, Imbolc aka Candlemas). These were generally held at someone’s house. The hosts changed from holiday to holiday. The donations we gathered at the Sunday brunches went to pay for supplies and food.
6. Members of our group also sponsored a yearly women’s weekend retreat and a conference concerning women & feminist religion at the university.
7. One member ran a community library stocked by donations.
8. We also had a few benefit nights with silent auctions etc. to raise money for charitable purposes, and had an annual get together on Earth Day to do litter clean up by the river.
9. As it happened, in the years I was involved, we never had a funeral, but we did celebrate a few marriages. This was really the only major obstacle in terms of what an established church could provide that we couldn’t–a legally recognised officiant. I looked into it, but the rules here in Ontario were pretty strict and pretty much full of religious privilege. As a result, we had to go outside our group to find someone authorised.
10. Though there was no official membership–people could attend whatever events they wanted–we eventually had to formulate a mechanism for expelling someone from the group for inappropriate behaviour. Since we had no leaders, this was done by holding an open discussion on the person’s behaviour and a vote.
As I said, this whole thing grew organically, answering to the needs of the community. For example, at one point there was talk about starting a kind of Sunday School for kids, but there must not have been enough demand for it. We had housewarmings, child naming ceremonies–whatever we needed, we got together and did it.
This, to me, seems a much better way of going than having a church with leaders and the trappings of authoritarian religion. In fact, aside from the fairly little woo in the rituals and somewhat more in the classes (oh and the somewhat more licentious nature of the parties and optional clothing during camping trips)*, this whole thing could just as easily have been a secular community.
*The relative dearth of outright misogyny (even online) was also quite different from what I see in the atheist/secular community too, but that’s another conversation.
Sounds fascinating! If love to know more about this community. The growth process you describe sounds somewhat similar to how we are exploring with the design of our own community.
A few amendments:
4. We had both a monthly pub night, just to socialise and listen to music AND a monthly(?) coffee night to talk philosophy.
8. We also marched in the city’s Pride Parade, and participated with other similar groups in an annual memorial of the Polytechnique massacre.
I am glad I got this far at least tonight. This is kind of how I could actually see an atheist group modeling similar to a church. Still it is very different in that it doesn’t follow a central figurehead. I could absolutely be a part of a irl community of like minded individuals that met weekly or more often and was kid friendly.
Hi folks! I’m James Croft, and I work with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard on the Humanist Community Project – an initiative to build, grow and develop Humanist Communities across the USA and the world (http://HumanistCommunityProject.org). Crommunist has asked me to offer my thoughts on this piece (presumably because our work is very much related to the questions he raises here), and I’m always happy to oblige.
First, I want to clarify our stance as an organization regarding religious criticism. We certainly feel secular society could take some pointers from some religious practices, and we feel any such appropriation (or, as we see it, reappropriation) should be done reflectively and intelligently, and not out of a misplaced reverence for religion. But none of us takes the view that because we wish to look to some religious practices for inspiration for secular institutions that any form of religion should be exempt from scrutiny or criticism. That is not the viewpoint of the Humanist Community Project, it never has been, and nothing we have written would give the impression we take this view. We are staunch religious critics. I trust this resolves this issue.
Second, I think there is some serious misunderstanding about our goals (that is, the goals of ‘Greg (and those of his ilk)’) if you think that FTB is “precisely the kind of edifice that the Harvard Humanists are talking about. ” FTB has SOME of the qualities of the sorts of communities we seek to support, but it lacks some very important characteristics:
1) FTB is not a physical community space where people gather together in one location. The communities we hope to help are physical spaces (like the Humanist Center at Harvard, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis, the Humanist Community of LA, the upcoming Humanist Community Center of Puget Sound WA). They are physical places where people gather in person.
2) FTB is not a values-based community in the same way we imagine these Humanist Communities will be. Clearly there are a set of shared values which drive many of the writers on FTB. And I wouldn’t question for a moment that the individual writers are highly principled, and blog in service of a set of personal values. We see the potential for a community that is more cohesive and active, though – something that says “If you support these (Humanist) values, join this community and take action.”
So I have to push back when you say that FTB performs “many of the same functions that Epstein’s crew look to religions to do – nobody could claim that we don’t organize, or have a community, or accomplish charitable goals”. I don’t know that you do organize in the way that we are imagining. We would like to see Humanist groups marching in Pride Parades, holding dignity vigils, rallying behind political issues, and generally being active in support of their values. The charitable exercises FTB bloggers engage in are fantastic. They are, however, the tip of the iceberg in terms of what might be possible with physical Humanist communities.
3) We see these communities offering a much wider range of resources than FTB offers. Weddings, baby-namings, memorials, life-cycle ceremonies, pastoral care, educational programs, service programs, discussion groups, outings etc. Pretty much everything a religious institution might provide, from an explicitly Humanist perspective. Communities like FTB currently address some of these needs extremely well, but do not approach many of them.
So those are the main differences I see. I think you will agree that these are quite major. FTB is quite far from what we’re imagining – not at all bad (in fact, I would say spaces like this are essential to our community as a whole) but not the same sort of thing we are imagining. We have a different vision with different goals and, while we understand that not everyone shares that vision (there’s no reason you should), I would ask that people take some time to read our materials and understand the basic concept we are promoting so that we do not have to repeatedly correct misinterpretations.
Finally, I want to address the question of institutional organization and leadership, since this is the area which seems to be most controversial (at least with FTB bloggers). PZ wrote the following in response to this post:
“I think that what humanity needs to do to get its collective head out of its humongous ass is to repurpose all that wasted effort spent on the frills and nonsense and trappings of religion on more human needs…We need communities. We need a non-religious ecumene that wraps around the whole world and includes diverse points of view”
We agree wholeheartedly with PZ on all these points. We see the project of Humanist community building as primarily a design problem which requires creative solutions. Although much has been made of our willingness to look to religious models for inspiration, we also look to many other institutions, and regularly try to design new modes of organization. We are very reflective about our approach to this. That’s why we call our organization the “Humanist Community PROJECT” – we see this as an ongoing research and design process and we have come to no conclusions which we wouldn’t be willing to revise on the basis of more research.
Where we don’t entirely agree, it seems, is over two main points. Some areas of religious practice which we think are potentially valuable (note the conditional), like ritual and ceremony, PZ seems to think are never going to be acceptable. Well, we can disagree on that point – ritual is a very tiny part of our bigger concept of these communities (a TINY part), and we can each make our arguments (I’ve recently written about ritual at length: http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/03/11/the-humanist-community-project-rational-ritual/ I haven’t seen any of our critics actually present their arguments in such detail – one of the reasons why I am sometimes frustrated by these discussions).
The second area of disagreement seems to be over the question of leadership. We at the HCP do believe there is a role for professional leadership in the Humanist Community. This is not such a controversial idea: the AHA, AA, the CfI etc. all have professional, trained leaders. We think local Humanist Communities could benefit from paid, professional leadership, just like regional CfI offices do. We don’t think there is anything inherently “authoritarian” or “religious” about that – we simply think it is strategically wise to have dedicated, skillful leaders who want and can grow communities and our movement. Obviously such people would be employed by their community and have no ultimate authority over that community. But we think, as Humanist Communities grow, it will become necessary to train and hire leaders.
So let me end with this. PZ, in his response to this post, says the following:
“I just resent that part of the movement that wants to regress and build a church of humanism, with all the same titles and geegaws and practices. Humanity deserves and needs something new and better and greater, that breaks the old shackles and doesn’t try to dress us up in shinier shackles with a different manufacturer’s label on them.”
I love engaging in discussions like this around Humanist community building. It’s my passion and much of my work. I increasingly think of it as my calling. I think Crommunist raises interesting and important questions and I appreciate his request for me to comment. What I resent is the art of the movement which consistently and completely mischaracterizes our ideas and projects, as PZ does here and has repeatedly done in the past. Humanity, and the Humanist movement, does indeed deserve better – we deserve an open and honest discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of different community models which is not distorted by fantastical misrepresentations of the views of different parties in the debate. I thank Crommunist for the opportunity to engage in such a discussion here.
As long as HHC consists entirely (or almost entirely) of accommodationists, there will be strong resistance to the arrogant, presumptuous demands of HHC to usurp the leadership of atheists. As soon as you guys are willing to accept gnu atheists instead of throwing us under the bus, then we’ll consider your claims of “professional leadership.” But as long as you have assholes like Greg Epstein whining about gnu atheists “not helping” and “doin’ it rong” then you can take your professional leadership and put it where the Sun don’t shine.
Upon mature consideration, I should not have called Mr. Epstein an asshole. I can continue to think that he’s one, but I should not have publicly called him one. So I apologize to him for calling him an asshole.
We aren’t actually Accommodationists either, by any accurate definition 😉
@Ibis3 I still don’t buy the elision you’re making between leadership and authoritarianism. If someone, who has a vision for a community center, goes out and raises money from supporters to make it happen, then runs that organization, surely they are not necessarily being “authoritarian”? I find this fear of leadership really baffling. There are many people in our movement who have been leaders by any reasonable sense of the term, but are not authoritarian. Authoritarianism is a style of leadership or organizational structure, but not all leadership is authoritarian.
No. I think those differences are quite minor. All it would take to transform FtB into a bunch of physical communities is for a few people to start holding regular RL meetups in addition to all the conferences and speaking engagements. Everything else would follow (“from marching in Pride Parades, holding dignity vigils, rallying behind political issues, and generally being active in support of their values”)–without the need for a uniform value statement or authoritarian (call it “leadership” if it makes you feel better) anything. People will build whatever communities feel right for them, consensually and voluntarily. I know, because I’ve done it.
This is where the difference lies between your approach and ours:
We don’t think the way of organising you have in mind is either necessary or desirable.
When you suggest the difference between an online community like FTB and the physical communitues we enisage are minir I have to strongly disagree. As someone working with and alongside numerous organizations trying to develop Humanist communities, I know how extremely difficult it is to raise the funds and organizational capacity to make this a reality. You face literally hundreds of additional concerns which are not relevant to the blog environment, the resources required are massively different, it requires a team of people with a wide skillset – these things don’t just happen. To really do this we need to raise millions of dollars, develop educational curricula and marketing guides, develop institutional models etc. This is a major difference in my view, between brick and mortar centers and online community blogs.
Your elision of leadership and authoritarianism is unreasonable: there are many forms of leadership that are not authoritarian. If you can say in detail what you think is authoritarian in our plans, and why authoritarian is the correct word to describe it, we can continue to discuss. But as it stands it feels like your understanding of our aims is inaccurate.
“enisige”? “minir”? Major iPhone posting fail 😉
As I say, I have lots of experience translating from an online to physical community (and that was in the 90s, before the internet had all the bells and whistles that it does today). If we wanted something, we made it happen ourselves, and we didn’t require millions of dollars or institutional models to do it.
Because I think it would be ideal for these groups to own buildings in prominent locations. But even if we’re leasing space, that costs potentially tens of thousands each year. If we scale that up to every city in the USA, we’re talking millions before any other cost.
The Pagans of my former community and the Gnu atheists of FtB are very similar in many respects. One of them is a dislike of formal leadership. What you’re proposing is to set up *leaders* who set up *institutions* which are marketed and then the populace joins and *follows*. This model is one of the reasons why religion is so reviled.
By contrast, the community with which I’m familiar, did everything it did because someone or someones decided to do it and invited others to participate. No one was the boss. Anyone who wanted to did the activity, anyone who didn’t want to didn’t. People chipped in to pay for stuff ad hoc. People used their personal networks to get space for activities or equipment or whatever or we used public property which was available at no or low cost. If we needed someone with special skills that no one in the community had (or could offer for free) we raised funds and paid for it. Consensual, voluntary, ad hoc. Bottom up, rather than top down.
This is the exact same model as people use here online. We wanted to help out Jessica Ahlquist, suddenly there was a scholarship fund, and a t-shirt to buy. Jen’s car was full of mould and insurance wouldn’t cough up, there were offers to help her with the cost, a woman from Egypt stood up to Islam fundamentalists and now there’s a calendar full of people standing with her.
You want a class on Biology? go to Pharyngula. A class on Women’s Studies? go to Greta Christina. You want to learn about the intersection of secularism and racism, come here or Black Skeptics. There’s no need for hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent on educational curricula. A real life “branch” community could play all the talks from Skepticon4 or TAM or episodes of The Atheist Experience and discuss them if there’s no one in the group who can give good lecture.
The only thing that can’t necessarily be done by the community voluntarily or through consensus is when you have to interact with government regulations that are geared to work only with hierarchical structures. Baby naming ceremonies, rituals for the dead, charity work we can handle, but official marriages, not so much. In another case, some people who were tangentially related to our group were members of an official registered non-profit that (among other things) offered pastoral care to inmates. If you need to have a shell to accomplish this kind of thing, fine. But all the other stuff? No thanks.
I’m glad to see the accusation of authoritarianism is no longer being levied. As for the distinction you draw between top-down and bottom-up, I don’t find it very convincing. You seem at some point in your response to suggest that the sorts of institutions we are describing are non-consensual or note-voluntary. You don’t say why. They would of course be both, and it’s half-hidden insinuations of this sort which make it so frustrating to discuss this issue on this forum. I ask you to refrain from these common and unfair mischaracterizations.
As for the leadership question, you still have not articulated a reason why a group, if it decides to raise funds to hire a professional organizer, it should not do so.
I’m with you on the bottom up thing. I’m still mulling over a few of the things Mr. Croft mentioned but I’m not yet sold. You mentioned complications with things like marriage. While there may be some exceptions to this I believe it’s fairly easy to get past this with minimal effort in most parts of the country. Any member ordained online through Universal Life Church can legally perform perfectly legitimate wedding ceremonies. Ordination is available to people of any religion or no religion. In some places ordination credentials alone are enough. Sometimes you also need a letter of good standing from the church which they will mail you upon request for a small fee. Just thought I would throw that out there in case you didn’t know. You can be officially recognized as a Jedi Knight through the ULC also. You get a certificate and everything.
This is why I feel like you’re being authoritarian. You’re going at it ass backwards. You don’t raise millions of dollars to build empty buildings, then appoint leaders on high, develop doctrine, and market to the masses.
You have a basically vibrant online community of communities (we’ll get some idea of how big it actually is, at least in the US, by the Reason Rally turnout). It’s currently rather scattered, but offline groups are growing in numbers (e.g. SSA affiliates). Next will come people wanting to get together regularly offline–monthly meetups. Community groups like the ACA will increase in numbers and membership. They will meet the needs of their own members. If no one in the group is interested in rituals, there won’t be any. If everyone wants to adopt a highway, they will. Some groups may focus on philosophy, others will be more political. If, and only if, a group feels the need to have a community centre (or a TV studio), will they put together a committee to go in that direction. Groups will band together when necessary to accomplish goals (organising conferences, raising funds for charity, buying buildings). No gods, no masters, you know?
In your country, not mine. 😉
You’re missing the distinction. When I say consensual and voluntary, I mean *there are no leaders*. Things are instigated and decided upon by the participants themselves by consensus. There is no leader on FtB. Everybody does their own thing and when someone else thinks it’s cool, they participate too. Who’s volunteering to attend your temples/centres/what have you? You have a consensus of one or a few, not a whole community. When there are a few hundred people in Chatanooga who meet and say, “let’s buy a building so we can talk about rocket science on Sundays, all in favour say aye and chip in some cash”–that’s what I’m talking about.
That’s not a leader, that’s an employee. The community wants to hire a caterer, a professional fundraiser, a graphic designer for a billboard (please hire a graphic designer), a professional organiser, a real estate agent, a musician, a lobbyist, a speaker, a videographer, an early childhood educator… go ahead and hire one!
Errr, yes – that’s precisely what the HCP exists to do: support groups who wish to take the step into a more physical community. Where did you get the impression we were advocating anything different?
Oh. You must be part of that world wide web thing. It was an assumption I made without thinking. Duly noted, with apologies.
Indeed, and I see no why people in every city in the US should follow the lead of the Harvard Humanists. If it isn’t their lead which everyone is supposed to follow, then what exactly is being “scaled up”? Is it merely the concept of having local atheist/secular/humanist organizations of some form or another? That doesn’t come in dollar amounts. What does? Apparently it’s a top-down organization which has some measure of control over these resources, or else distributes the materials necessary (supposedly) to communicate such a ‘concept’ to every local group which wants to implement it.
What kind of “support” are you talking about, if it isn’t telling people how you think things ought to be done? If that is the basic idea, then why would the nice folks in Cambridge assume they understand how things should work in Chattanooga?
No, this is not the idea. The information is on our website if you want to check it out. The idea is to offer actual resources to people who want to use them – things like disucssion guides, educational curricula, marketing suggestions etc. Stuff like this is already on the site for people to view.
As for the question about why we should know what is best for groups elsewhere, we do not claim to. The model is to get the members of the groups in Chattanooga to write about their own needs, experiences, successes etc, so that other groups in similar situations can take what they think they can use. That’s why our authors represent communities all round the country.
Again, this all has been explained in great detail before, and all these questions are answered extensively on the site and in my other writing in the topic.
Ibis3, due to your comments in all this section, you win the internets from me tonight.
Do those mean something different to you?
Maybe it’s the “top-down” description that you don’t like. There is some particular entity offering these resources and another receiving them, right? How would you describe that dynamic? And which role do you think the HCH is supposed to play, if any?
Anyone who is interested in understanding the goals of the HCP could do a lot worse than read our Welcome post:
I think this explains the core components of the project quite succinctly.
Yes, it’s precisely the “top-down” description which I object to, because it is totally inaccurate. We are offering, for free, a series of resources that groups can use if they like. Our role is to create some of these resources, curate others, and host them on the website for others to use (there is also a big research component which is not so relevant here). We are expending a lot of staff time to do this, and have decided to eschew advertisements on our site and, so far, to offer the resources we are making for free. We ensure that the contributors to the site retain all the rights to their work. We are offering all this stuff at great cost to us because we believe in the movement, and it is extremely aggravating to have to repeatedly debunk basic misconceptions which people could dispel themselves with a little effort.
Sorry to aggravate you, but for what it’s worth, I’m frequently aggravated by the things you’ve said and implied as well.
I appreciate that you care about it and are working on it, but there have been a lot of not-so-subtle indications that some of our differences aren’t based on misconceptions (in either direction). We’ve simply got different goals, I’m fairly sure, so we’ll have to accept they’ll be in conflict with one another sometimes.
To give an example that came to my attention recently, when I take a little effort and try to interpret things like this, to figure out some way it could possibly imply a bottom-up approach, it only gives me a headache:
There’s the fairly nice part about collaborative development, but the rest is just pompous. That doesn’t necessarily indicate authoritarianism, but it certainly isn’t reassuring to anyone who’d like to clear up their “misconceptions” and is paying attention. And to me it seems like a non-authoritarian leader would welcome this sort of criticism with open arms. If you like, take it as a helpful hint that a lot of the rhetoric raises my suspicions, despite whatever your intentions may be. And that’s before we open a whole other can of worms about having “churches” or “chaplains,” or borrowing things from religions.
This. CR, I agree with everything you’ve said.
I also share the criticism ‘Tis has brought up regarding accommodationism, but I’ll disregard this here because it’ll distract from my main point,
Lke many others, I would like to have some more humanist activities going on. As ibyea said, you can invite/hire experts if you need them for a particular purpose. I do not see the need of renting buildings for lots of money in every major city WITHOUT any need for it from the communities. Groups can thrive on the local level and proceed according to their needs.
The fundamental problem as I see it with HCC is one of power structure. Ultimately it is quite similar to that of a church, if less authoritarian.
You say it is all democratic and minority representative etc buit that’s beside the point. By setting up, or trying to set up, a structure that reflects the ideas of a small elitist group you are setting the discourse about how atheist activities should be done in the US and beyond. You are designing curricula for a leadership course, producing materials for others to emulate and so forth. You cannot get over this fundamental problem of how the needs of individual communities can be met, how minorities can get heard and their needs addressed. Minority representation is not something that is done by allotting some x% of positions in a leadership course YOU have designed. It doesn’t matter that you merely offer the resources, the fact that you do is an exercise of cultural power. And that you offer them for free does not make it better.
As long as HCC stays in Cambridge, I don’t care. But as they try to spread beyond it and compete for resources, I call upon everyone to oppose them.
I don’t like to do it this simplistically, but just as a further point for consideration, let’s have a look at the staff page of HCC
All four staff members listed are white (assessment based on internet searches, but even if I was wrong in one case, it wouldn’t substantially alter my point), and only one is a woman (based on how I’ve perceived the HCC presence in the blogosphere, I was surprised there was even one woman, to me it always seemed like a bunch of men).
(Incidentally, the four people listed all seem to hold some kind of divinity/religion degree. Does not make me have more confidence in their leadership either. Sure, one person who has studied theology as some kind of “know thy enemy” thing, OK. But four out of four?)
Now apply the cultural dominance model to this.
No, this is not what I envision as a diverse, vibrant community of atheists.
I do welcome fair criticism, certainly – one of the reasons I continue to engage in discussion on sites like this is because we want to engage with some of the most passionate members of the atheist community. But some of the criticism we get is simply not fair-minded, since it is based on bizarre misinterpretations of our project which are not based on any facts, and frequently are not expressed with great clarity or care.
Take the criticism you’ve just made, CR: you’ve quoted a section of our website (great! Someone’s reading it!) and express the concern that some of it is “pompous”. But you don’t say why. You don’t express any detailed or reasoned critique. You just, essentially, say “yuk” to it. What am I supposed to say to respond to that? In my mind, that paragraph describes something desirable: communities of Humanists with professional leaders who can effectively manage the affairs of said community in order to better fulfil the needs of their members. People who are employed by that community, which has made a choice to hire such a person and fundraise to support them. I don’t see what problem you have with that. I would welcome specific, detailed criticism of that proposal, but you haven’t given me any to work with here. So how do you expect me to respond? This is characteristic of a lot of the criticism our work receives on FTB (although not really anywhere else – most people seem to understand the idea immediately) – immediate rejection, very little reasoned criticism.
As for your point, pelamun, I just don’t understand how you can get such a twisted view of our model. The aim is precisely to do what you say you want to happen – to support the needs of local communities, and raise the voices of local community members so they can share their successes. The idea is NOT to go out and colonize local groups and tell them how to do things. And we have said this repeatedly and consistently from the launch of the program. Where are you getting your information from that your perspective is so skewed?
Your point regarding our staff is simply absurd, frankly. And offensive in its presumption. I am not going to detail the ethnicities, histories, and identities of our staff for you here (if you are truly interested in learning about us, send us an email – I promise on my part I would respond), but I can assure you we are plenty diverse and represent a number of minority identities.
I think that the question revolves around what sort of authority these professionals are afforded. If they act as facilitators, organizers, counsellors as you claim, then it’s tough to get too upset about it. However, you cannot ignore the fact that priests (imams, other prelates) are often described in those same terms when such a description is a disingenuous obfuscation of the de facto clout they wield. I am sure you don’t have too much difficulty understanding why people might be wary of any organization that claims to want to put people in leadership positions within the framework of a religious organization.
So here is your fair criticism – you have yet to demonstrate HH’s comprehension of this (justifiable) wariness, or describe a detailed description of the duties of those who would fill the role of ‘priests’. Personally, I don’t imagine it would be too difficult to design a system wherein the actions of this person are transparently scrutinized by the ‘congregation’, who have ultimate say over who leads the community. If, however, HH’s model is closer to that of the RCC wherein a ‘priest’ can be imposed on a group, you will find very little support from most of the vociferous freethinkers you encounter here.
To articulate James’ side of the argument for a moment, when I first heard of the idea of a freethinking ‘imam’ (the word I coined was ‘freemam’), my mind went to Matt Dilahunty and the folks at AXP. They are secular ‘leaders’ with no official power who are a source of knowledge and counselling to a worldwide group of atheists. They wield no influence outside their ability to run their own show and the respect that they have earned by demonstrating their competence. People who have doubts or questions call the show and get advice that they are free to follow or ignore. In fact, so many atheists seek AXP for guidance that they had to start screening atheists away from the show. If each community had a person (or persons) who were as strong, educated and insightful as the AXP folks, wouldn’t that be a good thing? What if there were resources available for this person to engage in this kind of work full-time rather than only once a week on a call-in show?
It’s about who is speaking for HHC. Every time I hear about the HHC, I see white men with theology degrees preaching. I’ve gone to the website to see if my impression was wrong. Surely you don’t expect me having to conduct email interviews before I’m allowed to have an impression? Instead of getting all offended (I did say doing a simple count would be simplistic), how about showing the world on your website how inclusive your leadership allegedly is. Until then I just take how you introduce yourselves on your own website.
Some of you have claimed to speak for all atheists. Later they claimed they slipped up, but whatever. Also the part of your mission statement cited by cr
Are you really that naive that this isn’t read as HHC laying claim to a leadership role?
In this post you have said
Many people have said in the past that buildings are not a prime concern. Yet you bring this up again. (Or maybe you have done a nationwide survey?)
You don’t understand that by offering these things irrespective of need you’re already setting the agenda? I wouldn’t mind if you would restrict yourselves to Harvard, I’m only speaking because I would hate to see this kind of atheist leadership model spreading beyond Cambridge.
Why not make a nationwide survey first about what the needs of local groups really are, and then develop materials or if and only if they require your assistance.
And you wonder why people compare you to a church. Hint: it’s not just the theology degrees you all seem to hold.
these are fair points you’re raising, and I would definitely consider them.
However, the behaviour of people speaking on behalf of the HHC have not contributed to the impression that they indeed would be such leaders. (I won’t repeat my main three points in full here, but in short: accommodationist debate, some claiming to speak for all, preponderance of theology degree holders. All these factors conspire to make me wary as hell).
You want me to explain why it sounds pompous to me? First, note that the quoted material doesn’t describe a bottom-up approach, despite what you’ve been saying. Are you going to address that or not?
I had beer to drink. You could’ve said something like, “Gee, sorry it sounded pompous. We’ll try to work on that, because it’s our problem, not yours.” See, here’s the thing: like your own perspective, mine isn’t the only one you need to get. So whatever reasoned critique I give won’t be enough anyway.
No, they are only individuals. The people being led have their own gifts, do they not? Then why characterize their imagined leaders as being distinctly gifted? If you don’t want to leave the impression of being pompous jerks, that is simply not how it is done. And since you’re now worried about detail and substance, which gifts was I supposed to imagine? Perhaps that comes later…
Trained by whom? pelamun has already described many of the concerns I have about this sort of dynamic. If someone is training someone else, deciding who is an acceptable trainee, which things ought to be trained, whose training materials are appropriate, etc., there’s no way to avoid the power differential you seem to want to avoid. It’s going to be biased to your advantage, if you assume this sort of role. Denying such a bias, or brushing it aside as unimportant, is exactly the sort of thing that will get you into trouble.
But I say this as if one can be an expert in “Humanist thought and best practices,” identifying such thought singly and the practices superlatively, instead of as a plurality of distinctly different viewpoints, none of whom know which practices are best. Though we’re both “humanists” in some sense, I think you would agree that such groups ought to be guided by more than just humanistic ideas, and some may even want to focus on things like environmentalism or animal rights activism or other causes. It may not always be useful to put such goals into terms which are human-centric, and there’s a lot of room for reasonable people to disagree about them, meaning that their shared humanistic values don’t themselves offer a solution. So this description of what would make them qualified leaders is inadequate at best, especially if these groups are supposed to be capable of fully engaging with a society that doesn’t put everything into humanistic terms.
Again, having these supposed experts use such “how-to road maps” still puts them in charge of deciding which parts of the terrain ought to be explored, regardless of how the maps were developed.
As a side note, I’m looking at the authors on your site, and I want to find a broad range of representation on various fronts from across the country. That is not what I see. They’re heavily weighted toward Harvard and other urban areas on the East coast, with a handful scattered across the rest of the country. I understand that it’s a work in progress, but so far it doesn’t seem like those perspectives are going to be relevant to a lot of people, gifted experts though they may be.
Thanks so much CR – this is precisely the sort of detailed critique we are really happy to see, because I can understand now where your concerns lie and can either address them or at least try to explain our thinking. So many thanks for taking the time to give me this analysis.
So, first you mention that the quoted section doesn’t describe a bottom-up approach. And I suppose whether you agree with that depends on your view of what a bottom-up approach looks like.i think, as you suggested earlier, we do have fundamental differences regarding the potential role of leaders in our movement, and we might just have to disagree on that. But I think that large communities will need leadership of some sort (when you’re managing a physical community of hundreds you will definitely need a leadership team of some sort), and that it would be best if such people could, if they wish, seek training. I don’t know of any highly successful, stable, values-based communities which don’t have some sort of trained leadership. So yes, we do think that we could provide something useful by offering leadership training for Humanist community leaders. But we also think a such leaders should be selected by their communities, and maintained in their position by consent. I think that do make it bottom-up, in the sense that the leaders are selected and maintained by the community.
I promise to address the rest later – have to run now! 🙂
So, your other points sort of have a common theme, which seems to me to be targeting the question of power differentials. Now, what you seem to be suggesting (as far as I can tell) is that we should not ask members of Humanist communities around the country to share their ideas and resources with other groups (which is the extant part of the project right now), because by so doing we are deciding what the agenda of Humanism should be.
I find that a very unconvincing argument. We have opened our authorship up to the whole world, and I am constantly soliciting applications (indeed, anyone on this site is welcome to apply to become an author – some FTB commenters have been extended such an invitation personally over the past through months). Despite your analysis, the majority of the contributors are not from Harvard or the East or West coasts (this is true of even those who have bios up on the site, and true of pretty much all the people who have not added them yet, so how you came to that conclusion I’m unsure).
I honestly do not see how asking members of communities which already exist to share their ideas counts as establishing any sort of power differential. Rather, I see us as redressing an imbalance in the Freethought blogosphere by ensuring that voices which are infrequently heard on spaces like this – Ethical Culturists, HUUmanists etc – are able to share their hopes and dreams for Humansim in the future.
A I honestly do not see what the problem is with the Project as it currently stands.
If the concern is with the leadership training aspect, then I can see more of a potential problem. But I want to know, before I address that, whether you have the same problem with the leadership training offered by the CfI (like its student leadership conference) or the Humanist Institute (and its leadership program). If not, then I think that’s a double standard. Of so, I’d appreciate a clearer description of precisely what the problem is.
I don’t want an atheist church. But I want new holidays and lots of them, with special delicious food and fun decorations and jolly customs. And more excuses for more parties! And dancing! And music! And parades!
James Croft Subpost #17 5:44AM March 14, 2012
You’r right, it is inaccurate. It’s too mild a description of the “you ignorant peasants, you’re fortunate that we have developed the leadership and training materials for you to imitate us as closely as possible, because otherwise you might be doing your own thing and going your own way and we Harvard intellectuals can’t have that, can we?” approach you’re pushing.
There’s the further point you haven’t refuted: “And by the way, Grand Master Atheist Epstein wants you gnu atheists to go back into the closet. We can’t upset the goddists by letting you out in public.”
By the way, I got my MA from Harvard. It’s not envy I’m displaying by calling you Harvard intellectuals.
There’s not much point in me engaging you, is there? If you are going to look at the provision of resources, by members of Humanist and atheist groups all around the country, as some sort of intellectual land-grab by a few “Harvard Intellectuals” then there’s not much I can say to convince you.
How about you spend a little time with the content on the site and come back here and tell me what you think about it? Also, look closer at the authors page, because it will show you how widely we are searching for contributors. The HCP is based at Harvard, but it is simply not in any way the sort of exercise you describe.
I’ve read your website. Do you have any idea about how arrogant and pompous you sound? Obviously not, or else you’d tone down your pompous arrogance. Here’s some quotes:
We’ll be happy to teach you ignorant peasants about how to do your communities right, which you obviously aren’t because you’re not doing it our way, which is the best way.
We’ll be happy to teach you ignorant peasants about how to run your communities just like churches except no gods. Weddings with secular chaplains, baptisms without holy water, Ananda Selah Osel and Emily Dickenson poetry, we’ve got it all.
We’ll be going as far afield as MIT or maybe even Medford (some school named Toughs is around there) so we can indoctrinate them in the right way to run their secular student groups. We’ll be happy to explain in great detail about how they’re doing humanism and/or skepticism wrong and what they need to do to do it the right way, i.e., our way.
You ignorant peasants presently qualify as Postulate Humanists (Probationary) but, as soon as you pass Accommodationism 101 you’ll be rated as Apprentice Humanists with the possibility of becoming Novice Humanists (Provisional) within five or so years if you’re lucky and we’re feeling in a good mood.
You should probably look at how CFI operates, because what’s being suggested here isn’t very different from what the national branch of CFI Canada does.
I have my problems with CFI as well. If you look at this two year old Pharyngula thread Witless wanker peddles pablum for CFI you’ll see several of my posts like this one:
Yeah, America’s CFI and Canada’s CFI both have their issues. However, they both orgs that hire local leadership for secular groups. It’s usually more science-based than philosophical/ethical/existential but each city is free to set its own direction. The head office stays in communication to provide guidance and oversight (and a certain amount of funding), but each city is more or less autonomous. The kind of stuff we did/do in Vancouver has been entirely self-directed.
I’ve gone to the CFI Canada website, and I’m at a loss finding many commonalities to HHC. Did I miss something?
Look at their Outre and observe the difference to HHC, note the absence of leadership development ideas (faculty advisors are a characteristic of student groups)
So yes CFI might already play the role HHC aspires to, and they do have a national presence in the US, without all the church-like features many of us object to.
Not really at all. CFI is about scientific skepticism and education. It does not fulfill most of the roles that HHC says it wants to. I bring them up only in terms of how they are structured. It is possible to have a head office without having a Vatican.
I think this post, more than anything I could write, displays your prejudice in this matter. There is simply no relationship between what you quote and your interpretation. There’s no point continuing to discuss these matters with you as you are clearly highly prejudiced against our efforts.
Okay Croft, since you dismiss me out of hand then nothing I can say will persuade you that your tone is anything other than pure arrogance. I won’t even bother to comment about your priesthood of Humanism (note the capital “H”).
However I do notice that you continue to pretend you’re not accommodationists. I’ve heard and read Greg Epstein. You cannot tell me with a straight face and uncrossed fingers that he’s not an accommodationist. Here’s PZ’s reaction to an email from you guys after his radio discussion with Epstein:
Just as a final thought, I was less than impressed with your group’s selection of Seth McFarlane as Humanist of the Year. His anti-feminist “humor” and trans-phobia doesn’t strike me as particularly humanist.
I will now withdraw from this discussion. You may have the final word.
First, I’d appreciate it if you called me James. I have never gone by “Croft” and I dislike it intensely – historical reasons that you can’t be expected to know, but it’s not polite to refer to someone solely by their last name.
Second, you have absolutely no grounds to take umbrage at my decision not to engage you further on this matter. You began your contribution to this discussion by insulting my boss, and then proceeded to make completely fantastical “interpretations” of the language on our website which are so absurd that, were I to attempt to parody your response, I would not have been able to produce anything so ridiculous as what you actually wrote. It’s clear you entered this discussion with mal intent and with no openness to my point of view, and have been consistently unpleasant and personal (this last post is no exception).
I choose not to waste my time with closed-minded dogmatists who display no intention or capability to engage in honest, open and civil discussion over issues which are important to me.
I think it fulfills most of the roles that might be useful for a local group.
Their statement regarding religion is a bit wishy-washy, but ultimately they come down on the side of reason (now how the actual people involved in the organisation interpret this is a different matter, of course).
But I understand that they do have a different focus. However, local CFI chapters might be useful partners for atheist/humanist groups?
Perhaps, American Atheists might have been an alternative, but not really after that Billboard Incident.
I think CFI would have to go pretty far outside of its mandate to do things like weddings, funerals, the other kinds of ‘ritual’ events that churches perform. One’s current choices as an atheist are to either eschew these activities or try to reinvent them for one’s self with the religious component removed (wedding with an officiant, funeral outside of a church). Many people, I’d imagine, don’t have the wherewithal to do that on their own, which is where HHC would come in. As far as I understand it, the goal is to perform the same function as a church but with the troubling bits removed. How that stacks up with UU I am not 100% clear, but my understanding is that UU is quite happy to use gods as placeholders for vague, undefinable concepts whereas HHC doesn’t bother dancing on that pinhead.
AA is an activist/advocacy group – I don’t think it’s suited well to their mandate either. The BC Humanist Association could conceivably perform that function (and I think they do some of them) but they are not modeled on a church and are therefore not well suited to regular gatherings. BCHA and CFI-V do work together on occasion, but CFI tries to keep their focus strictly scientific.
Ah yes, the rituals. Sorry I forgot about those (probably because I mainly associate with religions, and to a certain extent share the aversion to ritual expressed by many). That said, I still don’t think atheists need specifically schooled officiants.
A useful service would be to have lists of officiants/speakers for weddings and funerals. I’m not sure though if they need any special schooling. It would be enough if there was some kind of “atheist approved list” in every town.
(And regarding funerals, I do see it as a huge problem that in many countries, cemeteries are predominantly run by religious organisations.)
RE: Secular Weddings/Funerals
The HAC (Federal Humanist Org) and various Ontario humanist groups offer naming, wedding, and funeral services in that province. In BC, an officiant registrar is being created, and yes training and certification is important though it is not a huge time sink. We (in BC) can currently do everything except weddings, and should be able to offer these within a year or two. In the UK, humanist weddings are very popular, especially in Scotland. Training for humanist/secular officiants is available in Ontario and in various locations in the US. The reason for having Humanist officiants rather than government ones is that people still like poetic speeches at times like these given in a somewhat official capacity, and the philsophy of Humanism can inspire good, secular speeches and speechmakers.
Since some people still don’t really know what Humanism is about:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” -IHEU minimal statement on humanism
Good discussion folks! I haven’t encountered any strong arguments as to why we should not continue with our plans, so I’ll continue to do the work we’re doing until someone can dissuade me otherwise. As always you are welcome to comment on individual articles at http://Harvardhumanist.org and to attend our public events. If you’re ever in Cambridge I’d be delighted to show you around and continue this debate!
Well you’ve kind of ignored my question:
Oh – I missed this – my apologies. I think your first point is not justified – we are very well aware of the wariness our proposals are met with in some quarters of the freethinking community. I’ve addressed all these questions before at length precisely to deal with such wariness. One reason why we might not have addressed all the concerns is that, at least for me, it’s quite difficult to anticipate the misconceptions people might have. Since much of the criticism made on this thread is based on basic misunderstandings of what we are doing, it doesn’t seem too reasonable to expect us to pre-emptively respond to such criticisms.
As for the question of leadership, firstly, we never use the word “priests” to describe our ideas (or “church” for that matter). Our idea of community leaders is much more like organizers and facilitators, who represent the group to the outside world. But we don’t want to be too detailed about it, because we want to foster the discussion, and because we don’t have a single model we think is best.
Right, but my question was about oversight and accountability. I realize you’re not calling them priests – I just use that word because that’s essentially the function they are filling. For the record, I think the idea can work in theory, I am just asking about what your specific idea is. I’m more or less on your side here.
Wow, I’m speechless.
To quote ‘Tis
But you’d think anything I say sounds pompous, so you’re not such a great judge 😉
Your total dismissal of minority issues is noted.
Talking to you was really a waste of time.
What miniroty issues have I dismissed? I’m not going to talk about the personal backgrounds of our staff in a way they might not prefer. If you want to raise any real issues, I’m happy to discuss, but you’ve repeatedly shown you’re more interested in finding fault than honest debate.
You’re still not getting it. I really don’t care about the background of your staff, it’s just symptomatic of the problem I see. Reducing what I’ve said to the criticism of the background of your staff doesn’t speak well of your reading comprehension.
Really, I’ve known from earlier interactions that you (as in you people associated with HHC) don’t seem to get it, my main objective here was just to add my voice to those of many atheists who are opposed to your ideology, and that’s probably the last post I’m gonna write on this thread.
pelamun: I want to assure you that we take the question of respecting, promoting and honoring minority voices and identities extremely seriously at the HCH. I can see that this is an extremely important issue for you. What I don’t understand is where you have raised any concrete issues with our project which you would like me to respond to. As far as I can see (and I’ve reread your replies twice) the only specific issue you have pointed to (and therefore the only one to which I can directly respond) is the question of the makeup of our staff, in terms of their racial and educational backgrounds. In both of the assumptions you have made on that front you have been flatly wrong. You have vaguely referred to other questions regarding this issue, but I honestly do not see what specifically you are objecting to. I am always open to further discussion, but I will not reveal details about the background of other staff members which they themselves do not choose to reveal.
For my part, I’m content to tell you that I’m a gay man who struggled for many years with his sexuality, who experienced bullying bullying both from adults and peers, and who came out just two years ago (it will be two years this Monday!) on a Humanist service trip to New Orleans. Since that time I’ve dedicated a huge amount of my time to gay rights activism (making up for lost time), which continues a history of progressive activism which extends back into my teenage years when I worked with the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, with Prison Education programs at College, and other progressive causes (and I’m now working for the Obama campaign as an organizing fellow). I have, therefore, a passionate commitment to destroying structures of oppression and to the liberation of all humankind. You can read some of my writing on this topic – and that of other HCP authors – in our section dedicated to promoting and celebrating human diversity:
So the oversight question is interesting – since this is an evolving area, and such communities only rarely exist right now, it’s tough to say what form oversight and accountability might take. But there would certainly be community-member boards which offer direction to the individual or leadership team. For instance, HCH is overseen by a board and guided by an undergraduate student committee, a grad student committee, and an alumi committee, all of whom direct Greg in his efforts. So, for instance, when the grad community decided to hold a Spring Break Service Trip each year, it became part of Greg’s job to help us fundraise for that and organize it. So there are significant elements of student and community oversight in our current model.
Considering the debacle experienced by the RCC in its complete inability to manage an effective oversight process, I would suggest that a clear strategy for not only the HHC chapter, but any others you’d create in the future, would be highly appreciated. Communities need to be in control, not HQ.
My other major concern is the amount and type of ‘instruction’ happening within these groups. We’ve had this out on Twitter, but in a nutshell my position is that one of the fundamentals of humanism is critical thinking. People need to learn how to work out moral dilemmas on their own rather than being given a list of do’s/don’ts. Not sure where HHC aligns itself, but I would be deeply suspicious of any group that seeks to establish a single moral code, even if I happen to agree with it. Creating an ethical society means giving people the means to find their own way to the answers – listed instructions are insufficient.
Agreed on both counts. I do think a lot of the danger relating to RCC priests is obviated by the fact that Humanist community leaders are not considered infallible authority figures or engaged in weird creepy shit like confessions. Indeed the role of a Humanist Chaplain or community leader is really very different to that of a priest in my imagination – I think more of a community organizer.
As for the question of moral instruction, I see the promotion of reason and critical thinking skills as being one of the central roles of Humanist communities (the other being the promotion of genuine fellow-feeling for others, which I tend to refer to as compassion). However, I do think it is desirable to ocassionally have presentations in which someone articulates a moral stance in order to spark discussion. I also believe there are non-negotiable Humanist values without which any community cannot consider itself Humanist. This in itself is a big debate, but I have come to consider certain bedrock values as definitional to Humanism, sine qua non.
What’s wrong with the charity model most humanist orgs run with: board of governers and AGM’s, maybe with a paid position or two, to help run admin and weekly/monthly events and conferences? I don’t know why people want to model off of the church: isn’t the community centre a better starting point? FTB is an excellent online resource and community, but I also think local orgs and buildings with meeting places are very helpful (face-to-face is very important). At the BCHA we’ve talked before about one day buying a church just so we can replace the steeple topping with a giant question mark, but really a building is a building, and temples of any form are rather costly architecture.
Yeah this is actually essentially the model we are envisaging might arise for many of the groups. This is the model HCH uses itself – we’re a 501c3 with some paid staff and a board etc. Again, just to stress the point – the idea is NOT to model our community after a church. It is sometimes to look to churches for useful ideas.
I am frightened and horrified that I find James Croft is making a better argument than most of people opposing him here.
As in, yeah, when Ian first mentioned this thought on the FTB backchannel, my first response was “But we lack physical community”… and thinking about how there’s a number of things that the internet simply CAN’T do, that it has limitations, and that while internet communities will work well for some kinds of people, they’re very inadequate in other respects. I also believe that over-reliance on internet community is one of the things that leads the atheism/skepticism to be as homogenous as it is, and inhibits our ability to reach out to certain kinds of demographics- people of colour, women, queer people, working class and under class people, etc.
And yes, we can have “leadership” without it being authoritarian leadership. I’ve learned from firsthand experience that committee and consensus structured decision-making processes, and over-democratized decision-making, can SEVERELY hamstring activist organization. Sometimes you need people willing to actually do the organizational work, to take charge, to delegate, to provide STRUCTURE. This can be done in such a way as to ensure there is democratic input and oversight and controls and stuff, so as to prevent authoritarianism from ruining shit. But yeah, simply having “leaders” or people with defined executive roles in activist organizations is not only a reasonable thing, but often a necessary thing. If you disagree with me on this, go ahead and try to join or found activist organizations based on pure committee/consensus structures, and tell me how well that works.
Heck, even some of FTB’s own decision making is sometimes a headache, despite us being a relatively small group. Being as small as we are, we’re able to function on a consensus basis, but still… trying to please 33 different people, with 33 cooks in the kitchen, is not always a very efficient and enjoyable process.
… But, a lot of the stuff that James Croft says FTB isn’t doing (say, marching in Pride Parades or organizing weddings and stuff) is not by any means outside the range of what FTB COULD do. We’re very young. And it also isn’t necessarily what we WANT to be doing. We can play certain particular roles. The fact that we aren’t doing EXACTLY the kinds of activities James envisions doesn’t invalidate Crommunist’s thesis that FTB has spontaneously, simply by virtue of being a community based on shared general values, had a great deal of the kinds of things James envisions develop. It doesn’t invalidate his thesis that principled secular humanist communities can develop and engage in pretty much any of the beneficial activities of religious communities, without having to do so by deliberately adopting a religious model.
Nonetheless, I actually agree with a lot of James Croft’s thinking and goals here. But I also agree with Ian that these goals can be accomplished without doing so in a forced way. All it really takes is allowing room for it to happen.
And damn right I’ll be at Pride this year.
Pick a side, Reed! We’re at war here!
Wow Natalie – I’m both delighted and perturbed by your post! I am entirely in agreement with you, and at the same time are wondering why you should be frightened and horrified by our agreement! Have I offended you in some way?
I came to FTB recently by way of tracking down Natalie (and having met Greta yay), and I’ve been thinking this about them too. “Isn’t it awesome to see how free thought gets when it isn’t wasting time on religion?”
Seriously, this website makes me so much happier about the skeptic/humanist movement.