The Difference Between Goals and Values

This is part of my ongoing discussion with Stephanie Zvan on the establishment of humanist communities. Links to the full series of posts is below, or find them all here.

In her response to my last post Stephanie makes a valuable point regarding the diversity of the frethinking community:

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.

The many sub-communities which comprise the atheist community as a whole. Stephanie rightly argues, do not all share the same goals, and the more goals we seek to pursue, the more we dice the community into warring factions who fight over which goals to prioritize. Therefore, instead of forming communities committed to numerous goals (which might well have to be small in order to find members who share all the goals) Stephanie suggests we organize more loosely “around other interests that many of us have in common”, forming coalitions over particular actions we might want to undertake (like a food drive):

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.

In general, I think this is a wise strategy to pursue. Clearly, the ‘market’ for intense moral communities dedicated to Humanist values is smaller than the ‘market’ for more loosely organized non-believers’ groups. As numerous charity and service drives organized by the movement demonstrate, it is possible, sometimes, to get many atheist groups from all over the country to join together to take action around a particular issue – the Light the Night initiative headed by Todd Stiefel is a great example of such a coalition, which people can get involved in now.

Predictably, though, I don’t think this analysis is quite accurate, and I don’t feel this strategy is enough on its own to achieve what we need to achieve as a movement. First, I want to draw a distinction between “goals” and “values”. While an organizational goal might be something concrete, like some target to be achieved regarding service projects, or a piece of legislation to be passed, a value is a broader, higher-level commitment – reason is a Humanist value, for instance.

Ideally, a group’s goals should stem from their values – we participate in the food drive because they have compassion for the hungry, and we try to promote science education because we have a commitment to reason, for instance. But the communities we are imagining are not committed to goals – they are committed to values. They exist to promote and engender those values in people, which (we hope) will make them more likely to want to get engaged in a coalition focusing on a particular goal.

Felix Adler, who founded congregational Humanist spaces like the ones we imagine in the 19th Century, responded to a similar question to Stephanie’s in the following way:

we need the churches, or the substitutes for the Church, as a hearth at which the spirit of charity may be kindled, in which the motives may be engendered that shall lead men to charitable action. Otherwise these secular societies will become mechanical, and formalistic to a degree. A system of electric transportation cannot be operated without power, there must be powerhouses in which the electric fluid is generated. So the Church, or the institution that takes its place, is designed to be a powerhouse in which the electric fluid that moves the world’s charities shall be generated.

I think we don’t just need loose communities which are occasionally mobilized into coalitions to achieve specific goals. I think we need, in addition, close, values-based communities which serve as generators for the spirit of charity, powerhouses for the soul. These communities won’t be for everyone – some will certainly dislike them and not wish to attend. Fine! But without them, I think we risk remaining stuck in our current situation: a rising number of nonreligious people, with little significant increase in their political power, while the dwindling religious right continues to exercise disproportionate influence.

The Series

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.


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