I Aim to Misbehave: A Comment on Humanist Communities

Over at Almost Diamonds and Temple of the Future respectively, Stephanie Zvan and James Croft, two people whose work I think very highly of, are having a discussion on Humanist communities. James and I have previously had discussions on the language use around the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy (now Community, I see), but I have not yet really written my thoughts on the idea of such communities, as counters to the religious variety. I’ll do that here, as well as in the future, I’m sure.

I’m going to start with a film reference. In Joss Whedon’s Serenity, the movie made to round up some plot lines from the utterly brilliant yet cruelly canceled Firefly, main character Captain Mal Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, has a superb monologue. Without going into too much detail for the philistines among you who have not seen it, it comes after a revelation of a massive coverup by the Alliance, the authoritarian ruling government of the galaxy. It’s a horrific tale, and Mal decides that the crew have to reveal it to the people; he says [emphasis mine]

Sure as I know anything, I know this – they [the Alliance] will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

The bolded segment here is the heart of my problem. It was further enforced when Crommunist posted this piece the other day in which he detailed a conversation he and James had had over ostracizing potential attendees from Humanist communities, which James apparently has no problem with doing.

I worry about this quite a bit. One of the things that I have seen over and over again as I have been a secular activist is that atheists and rationalists will use their criticisms of religion to create a new dogma on their own, another set of principles that set up an unchallengeable belief system: as I have learned previously, to criticize Richard Dawkins in this movement is akin to stealing groceries from little old ladies, in terms of the righteous backlash.

Though James will certainly argue otherwise, I worry that this kind of thing is what would happen in a Humanist community like those he wants to set up. When he says things like he did to Crommunist, about not being bothered about accepting everyone, he is inevitably setting up a binary of right and wrong. And, to borrow from Thedor Adorno, we must be wary of creating collective ethos, of setting up hierarchies of morality; collective ethos are almost always conservative ones, which Judith Butler characterizes as postulating a “false unity that attempts to suppress the difficulty and discontinuity existing within any contemporary ethos” (Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 4).

I encourage James and all other secularists to apply the same rationality and skepticism that they prize to their own views. Hierarchical divisions, based on virtue or reason or whatever, will break this movement as sure as anything.

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