James Croft on Humanist Values, Opposing Religion, and Supporting Gay Marriage as Sacred

This Sunday morning, I am really delighted that James Croft of the Harvard Humanists, the blog Temple of the Future, and the excellent lecture on humanism above, will join me for an hour live at 10am for The Camels With Hammers Show. James is going to make an exclusive announcement live on the show, so be sure to tune in! You will be able to watch the show stream in real time by going to my YouTube page or (I think) by going straight to my Google+ page. I believe there is some way you can even throw us questions during the show so you might want to try that and help us figure out that feature. Of course I will post video of the show here on the blog once it is over as well.

James and I had a wonderful written conversation in the spring:

So, I hear that in addition to being a philosophy doctoral candidate you are also a cult leader. Care to comment on that allegation?

James Croft: It is absolutely true: my grand design, hitherto unrevealed (and how you worked it out is beyond me) is to fuse Humanism with Scientology to create a cult of personality around myself. Fair cop.

I always kind of laugh and facepalm at the same time when people say I’m interested in starting a cult, because cults are absolutely antithetical to my worldview and to my ethics. I actually detest them. They fill me with a powerful rage, and that level of anger is very rare for me. I am generally very emotionally upbeat, but cults make me MAD. I am writing my dissertation of Free Thinking precisely because I think intellectual autonomy, freedom of the mind, is a primary value, a sine que non of the good life. And cults directly traduce that value, they besmirch it, and I truly hate them for it. Honestly, cults are one of the few things I thoroughly and utterly detest.

I am the sort of person who has stood for HOURS on the sidewalk arguing with and protesting Scientologists. As far as I know I am actually responsible for getting the Scientologists out of Harvard Square. And there is this Korean cult called Dahn Yoga also in Harvard which I have protested before. I actually got the mayor of Cambridge to stop declaring a certain day “Brain Education Day” in honor of this cult because I hate it so much. I called the mayor’s office and made sure they stopped doing that. And now Harvard won’t let them do events in our buildings.

So I hate cults, I hate what they stand for. I think the attempt to control another person’s mind is on of the few things I would call truly evil.

What I do want to do is create an emotionally compelling, morally intense Humanism. And I think you can do that without remotely becoming a cult. I think a lot of religious communities are emotionally compelling and morally intense without being cultish. But I do recognize, and this is why those comments sting a little, that some forms of social pressure are on a spectrum, and at one end you have the sort of atomized individual and at the other you have the cult member. And I want to push a model of Humanism which is a bit to close to the cult side for some people’s liking (though still very far away). But I understand and respect that concern. I just wish the people who say that would give some consideration to what is actually being proposed instead of jumping to wild conclusions.

Daniel Fincke: So what you’re saying is you proactively shut down the competing cults to make room for your own. You learned from the Scientologists, with their lawsuits. I get it now.

James Croft: Yes, correct. I want to clear the market so mine will be more successful. It’s a strategic move. And if anyone wants to take issue with that, my lawyers are watching closely.

Daniel Fincke: But seriously, how do we protect against authoritarianism? When you say morally intense, people are going to ask, whose values? Emotions are dangerous. Every one of the rotten institutions that plague us today started out with noble intentions and beautiful words about the “brain education” or loving thy neighbor.

So how are you going to build something that does not follow the logic of power and emotion and manipulation to corruption?

James Croft: Yes emotions are dangerous. But so is reason unmoored from compassion. I think we have to recognize that reason is one foundational value of Humanism, but only one. And we have to find a way to engage Humanists in the great moral issues of our time. The fact is secular people are simply less engaged in society: they give less money, volunteer less time, donate less blood, vote less often, run for office less (in America, at least). And that has severe political consequences when it comes to gay rights, reproductive rights, trans rights, economic issues. The religious right out-organizes and outspends progressives all the time. And part of the reason, I believe, is that they have a clearer set of values and a more emotionally compelling narrative, alongside local community groups (churches basically) which serve as hubs for organization and spurs to action.

So you ask “whose values”, I say the time-honored values of reason, compassion and hope which Humanists have been committed to since Humanist Manifesto 1. Seriously, if you can’t get on board with those basic ideas – that reason is the best way to solve human problems, that all human beings should be afforded equal dignity and considered as having equal moral worth, and that we can work together for a better future for our species – then you have no business calling yourself a Humanist. Those values should be non-controversial within the Humanist community.

Then, how to guard against authoritarianism? You investigate religious (and other) communities to see what they do right and wrong. You research cults to see what not to do. You research social psychology and developmental psychology to get an understanding of how people work in groups and alone. And then you design the community with intentional safeguards against authoritarianism.

I think you can never be sure that any organization won’t become corrupt. But the response which says “because of the possibility this community might degenerate we should never try to build it” is a defeatist one. I mean, it’s a hopeless stance. It will lead to more of the same of what we’ve got now – energized, organized, right wing religious communities repeatedly defeating a disorganized progressive secular ‘movement’ which will not ‘move’ anywhere. And we have, in my firm conviction, a moral imperative not to let that happen, particularly at a time of great disenchantment with the church – this is exactly the time to strike!

Read the whole interview.

In the video atop this post, James talked about his philosophical approach to writing a speech that he gave against Chris Christie’s veto of gay marriage rights. Writing the speech, he deliberately appealed to moral psychology, as Jonathan Haidt describes it in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. As James discusses in the speech above, the tactic worked exactly as it irked the National Organization for Marriage, the leading political group against gay marriage, in a special way. Here is video of that especially effective speech:

I have expressed my thoughts on Haidt in several posts:

France Considers Banning Burqas in Public and I Consider Haidt on Pluralism
Towards a Non-Moral Standard of Ethical Evaluation
Further Towards a Non-Moral Standard of Ethical Evaluation
Some Suspicions About the Superiority of Liberal Values.

Remember to tune in Sunday at 10am EST or check the blog after the show is over to see my conversation with James.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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