This is part of my ongoing discussion with James Croft on the establishment of humanist communities. Links to the full series of posts is below.
On Thursday, James agreed with me that the normative aspects of community can be exclusionary. He said pains would need to be taken to keep any humanist community from defining itself in such a way to cause problems. I’m not entirely sure that can happen, but I’ll get back to that later.
James said that his purpose in building communities is the political strength they offer. I agree that a community does offer more political strength than the individuals in it do alone. I was particularly struck by this quote by William R. Murry that James used, however:
Institutionalized injustice can be changed only through the exercise of power…Each person is a center of power. Our task is to use our personal power on behalf of love and justice to effect systematic change. One of the best ways to use power effectively is to form voluntary associations and coalitions of associations. Coalitions are important because there is strength in numbers. In today’s world, groups that do not exercise their power on behalf of their interests and rights are usually left out of consideration by governmental or corporate entities…Justice is won only when power is brought to bear against power.
I agree with this, but when I read it, it doesn’t tell me that we need humanist communities organized around taking action on their values. That is in some ways the opposite of what this passage says to me.
One of the problems the atheist community has is that it is anything but a singular community or even some small number of communities. We come from lots of backgrounds, even when the question is religion. We don’t share the same sets of values. We’re not all humanists. We can’t even all agree that a vigorous defense of our own rights is a good idea.
What we do have is numbers. Well, numbers and an organizational problem. We can get a substantial minority to agree on any one of a number of goals. If we add another goal to that, we don’t add to the number who agree with us. We decrease it.
The more goals we try to encompass in a single organization, the more likely we are to battle over the “real” priorities of the organization, the more we will be fighting each other instead of our common enemies. We’ve seen it happen among skeptical organizations, organizations based around common methods. We’ve seen it happen among progressive organizations, organizations based around common values. We’ve seen it happen among atheist organizations, organizations based around common beliefs and common problems.
Over and over again, when we get too close, instead of focusing on our common goals, we argue about which goals should have primacy. Without the reliance on any kind of supreme authority, these arguments can go on for a very long time. The formation of groups with multiple goals adds to all this.
That isn’t to say such groups can’t exists. However, the kinds of disagreements we’re prone to will likely give us a choice between small groups and groups that do not pull well together. Nor will groups organized around political or social activity give us access to the maximum number of “centers of power”. A large number of people will act prosocially as part of a group (think workplace food drives or volunteer events) more readily than they will join a group dedicated to this kind of action.
If we organize around other interests that many of us have in common, we are still organized, but in a looser and wider fashion. Then we can form actual coalitions for particular actions. We can pull resources from our communities for targeted actions without forcing those communities into too small a space for anyone’s comfort. Then we have those “voluntary associations and coalitions of associations” that will help us win.