The Value of Defiance

This post is part of my ongoing dialog with James Croft about the idea of Humanist temples. Each of us, for part one of the series, is explaining the value that is most central to how we view the question. James’s post is here. This is mine.

I’ve been badly hurt in my life by group social norms. I’m obviously not alone in that, but for me, they have become a large part of what I think about, a large part of what I write about.

This blog doesn’t have a gender category or a race category or a class category. It has a “Difference” category. Posts on race, class, and gender go into that category, as do posts on sexual orientation, religious belief, and disability. In short, any time I’m talking about how the norms of a group function to excludes people who don’t meet those norms, that’s my category. It gets used a lot.

As I’ve written about this over time, one of the things that has most impressed me–and not in a good way–is how easy it is to develop these norms. It seems we will tie our group identity to anything. And then we use it to outlaw people who don’t fit that identity.

We will outlaw people for consensual sexual behavior. We’ll outlaw them based on clothing choices. We’ll outlaw them based on language use: syntax, vocabulary, and accent. We’ll outlaw them for something as irrelevant as lawn care.

Some degree of this is useful, of course. “We do not kill people” doesn’t recognize self-defense, but it may still generally be a functional distinction.

However, there are serious costs to being outlawed. It isn’t anything that should be done lightly, yet it seems to happen almost as naturally as breathing when we create group identities.

The idea of Humanist temples appears to be designed to use group identity for good. That’s often the case with particularly liberal church congregations, as well, but that doesn’t make those churches immune to the problem I’ve described.  I don’t know that Humanist temples would provide benefits that would outweigh the problems a strong group identity creates, but I’m willing to consider the idea.

Given all that, my next question for James is “Why organized groups?”

The Value of Defiance

16 thoughts on “The Value of Defiance

  1. 1

    Why does HH insist on all of this religious language? Humanist temples? Humanist chaplains? CFI has communities (branches) and Executive Directors. We have wonderful, tight-knit communities without using instruments of religion.

  2. 2

    I’ll let James answer the “temple” question, but the Humanist Chaplaincy just became the Humanist Community (exact wording is probably off) just a few days ago.

  3. 3

    I wouldn’t call the communities “temples”. The name of my blog is a quote from Robert Ingersoll and Felix Adler. It’s all explained in the FAQ.

    But why fear language? It’s time to take control of language, not run away from it.

  4. 4

    I’ve been meaning for awhile to do a blog post on this whole atheist temple/humanist churches/etc. thing. The bottom line: Some people like that shit, some people don’t.

    The people who like that shit need to start respecting that not everybody likes it, and it doesn’t mean we’re broken people or that we need to make an effort to learn to like it or anything. In fact, as Stephanie points out here (and hers is a unique insight I have not heard before, thank you Stephanie!) for some of us, and organization that even has the potential to foster oppressive group norms leading to social ostracism is distasteful.

    On the other hand, those of us who don’t like that shit (and I count myself among them!) ought to acknowledge that some people seem to have a pretty strong need for this stuff, and if they want to go off and do it an organize it, that’s their business. As long as they aren’t chastising us for our failure to recognize the need for and organize a club to do shit we don’t even like doing — which unfortunately many of them are — there’s not a whole lot to criticize. I don’t think this latter is a huge problem, but I do sometimes see PZ, for example, coming across as “Why the fuck would anybody want to go to a humanist church?”, when really he should be saying (and sometimes does), “I have absolutely no desire to go to a humanist church… but hey, if you do, knock yourself out.”

    I think an interesting litmus test, at least for those of us who were raised religious, is whether you miss going to church. I hated going to church even when I was a believer; I certainly don’t miss a goddamn thing about it! The only fond memory I have is skipping Sunday school with a couple of like-minded teens and hanging out in the gymnasium having teenager conversations (yeah, it was a Mormon church, they all have basketball courts).

    I find myself absolutely incapable of empathizing with those who no longer believe, and yet crave the church-y aspects. It makes no damn sense to me — and yet I know they exist, if for no other reason than because my wife is one of them!

    There seem to be enough people who want this kind of thing that, even if there are some negative side-effects (and as I say, Stephanie points out a potential doozy here, and I’ll have to ruminate on it a bit to see if it changes my opinion), it’s probably inevitable. But the fact remains that some of us hate that shit independent of the faith/dogma content! Furthermore, for obvious reasons, people like us are disproportionately represented in the atheist movement right now, and the joiner-types are just going to have to accept that.

    You are going to have no more success getting someone like me or PZ or Stephanie to become enthusiastic about atheist churches, than you are convincing someone to change their mind about what toppings they like on their pizza by presenting a 30-slide Powerpoint on “Why Olives Are Awesome”. Sorry, people, we just don’t like that shit.

  5. 5

    “I do not want a Supreme pizza. I am a strict ethical vegetarian, and in any case I don’t care for olives, peppers, or mushrooms on my pizza.”

    “Okay, I agree with you about eating meat. But we’ve already moved past that battle. We as a vegetarian movement need to mature, and find the good things in a Supreme pizza, and co-opt then as our own! This is why I propose a Meatless Supreme.”

    “Um…. yeah, I still want my half plain, okay?”

    “But a whole Supreme pizza fosters a sense of community, and nobody is going to take us seriously until we can replace that aspect! The vegetarian movement can make no further progress until we all start eating Meatless Supremes.”

  6. 6

    James Sweet – I think you’re absolutely right in your first post. I have to respect that there are a lot of people out there, including many leaders in this movement, who do not want to join any sort of Humanist community of the type I envisage. And that’s ok! This idea has NEVER been about berating people who do not want the same things. And those who wouldn’t want to attend such a community also need to respect that some people do want it, and that their wanting it is not some sign that they aren’t proper atheists. So up to that point I agree.

    But there’s a whole other level to this discussion beyond people’s personal preferences (and this is where I think your pizza analogy breaks down). If we are going to talk about a Humanist MOVEMENT – ie not just an atheist identity movement, or an atheist subculture, but a social movement dedicated to promoting Humanist values – then in my judgment it is ESSENTIAL that we build moral communities. This is NOT to say that everyone has to join such a community – the first paragraph still stands ;). But it does mean that arguing that such groups are unnecessary, harmful, not Humanistic etc. puts the brakes on something that, in my judgment, we cannot succeed without. Therefore it is legitimate to argue that there is a movement-level need for this, and that even those who would not wish to attend themselves need to engage with the arguments as to why this might be a necessary component of this movement.

    So to return to the pizza analogy, I think it would be more accurate to say that the freethinking movement is like the restaurant, and that to be successful it must offer veggie supremes as well as cheese. Otherwise, it won’t draw in enough people and it will lose out to restaurants which offer more.

  7. 7

    I don’t want A Humanist community, I want a multitude of Humanist communities, that all do things somewhat differently depending on the needs of the people.

  8. 8

    karmakin: Quite right – that would be the ideal. A suite of community offerings, all broadly humanistic, but offering different things for different people. I wouldn’t want it to be one-size-fits-all (because one size doesn’t fit all).

  9. 9

    “I’ve been badly hurt in my life by group social norms. ”

    Dear god in whom I do not believe, is there any limit to the self-pity of the privileged?

  10. 11

    Ellipsis, you consider that being badly hurt is a privilege?

    Ellipsis considers growing up poor as shit with having abusive parents and being a victim of sexual abuse to be a privileged existence because Stephanie didn’t have the decency to die but carried on living and getting out of that shit.

  11. 12

    […] Because We Need Power by TempleoftheFuture under Atheist Bloggers, Dialogue This is my second entry in an ongoing blog dialogue with Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds over at Freethought Blogs, answering the question “Why do Humanists need organized groups?” You can find my first post here, and her reply here. […]

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