Because We Need Power

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.

Communities are dangerous. Intense, moral communities like the Humanist communities I envisage are particularly so. Stephanie outlines some of the dangers in her recent reply: by creating a strong sense of in-group solidarity they also create the potential for out-group exclusion. Indeed, this must be true by definition: you cannot create a strong sense of community without shared values and norms, and any given set of values and norms will exclude some people. It is impossible to create communities which meaningfully include some individuals on the basis of their values without also excluding others.

And this is a big problem. As Stephanie rightly notes, group norms can develop quickly and swiftly come to have pernicious effects: “It seems we will tie our group identity to anything. And then we use it to outlaw people who don’t fit that identity.” And I agree with Stephanie wholeheartedly when she suggests that Humanist communities would not be immune to these potential problems. “I don’t know”, she says, “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 short answer is “power”. We need political power to achieve the changes in society that humanists have long wished for but in modern times have shown little ability to push for. And only by gathering together in community, I believe, will we generate sufficient political power to make change.

William R. Murry, in his interesting book Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, articulates my position very clearly, so I hope you’ll excuse the longish quote:

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. (p. 149)

We live in a world of institutionalized injustice, and we need power to fight it. To generate power, I believe, we need to organize and find strength in numbers – hence, organized groups. In a sense, Freethought Blogs is itself an expression of this idea – the collective voice of all the bloggers is stronger than any individual voice alone.

But how can we create moral communities and avoid most of the dangers of out-grouping and ostracizing? I think the first step is to be honest and recognize that this will indeed occur. We won’t overcome the human urge to enforce group norms to the detriment of others. But we can limit it in two main ways, I think: first, by ensuring that one of the explicit moral values that the community coheres around is respect for the dignity of every person without exception. That is an exceptional benefit of Humanist communities over religious ones – Humanism includes an explicit commitment to the worth and equality of all, unlike most religions.

Second, we can consciously design our communities to have institutional checks on outgrouping. This is another benefit of Humanist communities: we need not bow to any given design or have respect for any particular organizational tradition. We can work with the grain of human psychology and bring our full understanding of our own foibles to bear, so that when we design the community structures we ensure to take account of, and even work against, this problem. One simple example would be the introduction of “progressive stack” methods of taking questions after talks, as used in some Occupy meetings, to ensure traditionally marginalized voices are heard more frequently.

The problem of social norms is a deep one and, I believe, inherent to the creation of any community. Wherever you develop a community that believes in X you open the door to demonizing people who believe in Y. I do not think this sufficient reason to avoid the creation of organized groups altogether, though: there are ways to mitigate this problem, and organized groups are simply too essential, if we wish to meet our goals as a movement, to be cast aside.


About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • John Morales

    I think: first, by ensuring that one of the explicit moral values that the community coheres around is respect for the dignity of every person without exception.

    Dogma is your solution?

    Pretend that everyone has equal dignity at all times, this is your proposition?

  • John Morales


    I forgot to blockquote, above

  • John Morales

    I probably should add that I’m happy to grant everyone human rights.

    (Respecting them as a person, that for those who I find worthy of respect; and dignity ain’t something I grant, it’s something I perceive about others — or not, as the case may be)

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Your question opens up quite a deep problem which is probably best addressed in a post of its own (or perhaps in a book), but I think two points are worth sketching here:

      First, we should be clear about what we mean by “dignity”, because it may be we don’t share the same definition. I see dignity as a cornerstone of the moral valuing of other people, and it that sense it is as about as foundational as any moral belief can be. I essentially think that a commitment to view others as having dignity means that you are willing to try to act as if others are of equal moral worth to you and worthy of the same level of moral regard and concern. That doesn’t mean you have to like them or even treat them the same, but it means you have to weigh their moral interests against others’ in a fair way.

      That certainly includes a respect for their rights, but it also includes a concern for their flourishing. We should I believe, actively seek out the best in each other, work to promote each others’ good. And that’s more than a basic commitment to rights.

      The second point concerns the question of whether a community commitment necessarily constitutes a “dogma”. This will depend what one means by a “dogma”, but I find it impossible to imagine how a community can cohere without any set of truly foundational values. At some point a community must declare “this we believe”, and use those beliefs as a building-block on which to develop a fuller conception of living.

      It is certainly true that the foundational values of a community will be harder to challenge than other beliefs of that community, and it that sense will be more “dogmatic”. But I think we can strongly commit to a set of core values without entirely succumbing to dogma by realizing that even the core commitments are subject to change and reevaluation if an extraordinarily compelling case can be adduced to do so.

      But, to be honest, I find it hard to imagine any argument which would shift me from my fundamental commitment to human welfare. I think that values may have to start with some self-justifying moral truths, and this may be one of them.

      I recognize this is not a fully fleshed-out response, but you raise an extremely deep question.

      • John Morales

        First, we should be clear about what we mean by “dignity”, because it may be we don’t share the same definition.

        You’re using it in a moral sense as meaning a human right to ethical treatment, but most people use it in the colloquial sense, being the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect.

        The former is something one does grant; the latter, not-so-much.

        This will depend what one means by a “dogma”, but I find it impossible to imagine how a community can cohere without any set of truly foundational values.

        Even your Constitution leaves room for amendments; if it didn’t, it would be dogmatic.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          So it seems we can agree on the question of dignity if you allow my definition to stand, so that’s progress.

          The Constitution is not “mine” (I’m a Brit!), but that is the sort of foundational commitment I think we should have – an ethical constitution, as it were, which admits for revision but only if stringent requirements are met.

          Seems like we agree.

          • John Morales

            Brit, eh?

            I stand corrected, though I was not employing the personal ‘your’, but the institutional one.

            (Am I still wrong?)

            And yes, it’s fairly easy to reach points of agreement with any fair interlocutor. :)

  • Stephanie Zvan