Yesterday morning at Skepticon, James Croft gave a pitch for creating Humanist communities with their own buildings. The (main) point of the buildings is to facilitate regular meetings. The point of regular, or at least somewhat frequent, meetings is to promote civic engagement, something for which James has at least very subjective data.
It was a good talk, but as usual, I tend to play devils’s advocate on James’s ideas along these lines simply because our perspectives are so different. I don’t do it intentionally. He just starts talking, and I hear myself saying, “Yes but…”.
I think James does something similar with certain strains of what I have to say, which provides for entertaining arguments that I think lead to a broader understanding for both of us.
This time, what got me thinking was the pictures of various Humanist and Ethical Society buildings around the country. Specifically, it was a picture of (if I recall correctly) a California building with colorful flags draped next to a set of stairs leading to a second-floor entrance.
Visually, it was quite nice. I understand why James included the slide. The stairs, however, made my knees hurt. I thought, “How many people will those keep out?”
Now, that was just my initial reaction. I’m sure the building has a more accessible entrance than that. But it did start me thinking about how a community that owns a building tends to limit itself. James is right that there are advantages, but they don’t exist in a vacuum.
As a point of reference, the Minnesota Atheists have been attempting to raise money for a building for several years. I don’t think the fact that we’re not there yet is just due to a relatively small number of active, paid members (relative compared to the number of people who benefit from what we do). I don’t think it’s because members don’t understand the value of a building.
I think it’s because the way we operate now serves more people than would be served by a building.
If you look at the list of events MNA puts out each week (sign up here), you’ll see events all over the Twin Cities. There are events in Minneapolis, in the northern suburbs, in the southern suburbs, occasionally to the east. If you look at the MeetUp group, you’ll find more events in more places. Even our monthly meetings, held in the larger public libraries, travel.
Is there no bus line leading to one of our events? There is to the next. Is the drive to one prohibitively long from your work or your house? There will be one closer. Does this space present physical challenges to you? Try this one instead. We’re everywhere.
We have active members who live all over our metro area, which covers seven counties. I don’t know that we would be able to say that if we just had a little place near downtown with scant parking or a grander, more spacious building out in a suburb. That happens for a very few churches in the area, and they’ve all worked (or spent) hard to be “desination” churches.
Being all over the place also reduces certain barriers to new participants. A building that is home to a community becomes a home in another way as well. There is a small but real psychological barrier to newcomers inviting themselves in to someone else’s space. This barrier exists without a building, of course, for any established community, but the walls of a building become metaphorical walls as well. When events are held in more public spaces, this isn’t an issue.
I do understand the appeals of a building. James wants spaces for music, which is harder to accommodate in public. Minnesota Atheists have a library of atheist books that are currently very hard to access and impossible to browse. Child-friendly spaces have their own needs.
I do understand the appeals of a building. I just think that a building is not necessary for many of the kinds of community participation that James envisions, and that unless we look clearly at the downsides of buildings, we aren’t going to be able to make conscious decisions about whom we include in our communities.
Arguing fine points with James is something of a hobby. You can see the prior posts in our discussions below.