[Epistemic status: Sloppy. You’re going to have to read between the lines and fill in some of the holes here.]
Some rationalists study ecclesiology. I used to think this was dumb. Now I appreciate it a little more. Let me see if I can explain.
Suppose you have a cause or movement. Let’s say libertarianism. You’re probably not going to get too far on your own, so you start looking for other people who agree with you.
You end up with a wide spectrum of people. Some of them agree with you on nearly everything. Other people consider themselves part of your movement, but disagree with your goals and hate you personally. Maybe you’re kind of a soft libertarian who just wants the government to decriminalize pot and stop ordering illegal drone attacks, but the other guy wants to disband the government entirely and make everyone live in heavily armed communes. And the other other guy is a member of the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party, and you’re not even sure if he has real opinions or just likes chaining political-sounding words together, but that swastika armband of his is starting to creep you out.
If you only work together with the libertarians who agree with you about everything, then you’ll have a nice, low-conflict group who can cooperate naturally and completely to achieve common goals. You’ll also have like three people.
If you work together with everyone who shares a goal with you, you get much more power – money, activist-hours, votes – but you’ve got to make ideological compromises. And sometimes you’ve got to make practical compromises too – for example, letting people you consider idiots have a say in your strategic planning, or holding your nose and agreeing to wear a swastika armband on Tuesdays and every second Thursday.
One option is to refuse to incorporate a formal group. You vote for whichever major-party candidate seems the most libertarian, occasionally picket your local IRS office, and write lots of angry letters to the editor about Big Government. The heavily-armed-commune people also do some similar things, and sometimes you go to each other’s protests, or write articles in each other’s magazines. Occasionally the Libertarian Green Nazis say something, and you get to pretend you don’t know them.
This seems to be the status of the broader libertarian movement right now, as well as a lot of other movements like feminism, transhumanism, socialism, Islam, and atheism – just to name a few.
Another option is that you do incorporate a formal group. You come up with bylaws and membership requirements and elect a Planning Committee and start fretting a lot over who is In and who is Out.
The libertarian version of this seems to be the US Libertarian Party. They are no doubt the strongest face of US libertarianism, but they only capture a tiny part of the energy and power of the movement. Running through the other movements mentioned in order, they can boast groups like the National Organization for Women, MIRI, the US Communist Party, various mosques, and the Secular Student Association. Usually there is more than one group per movement – Islam, for example, boasts everything from your local mosque to ISIS to CAIR.
Muslims have this quasi-messianic goal of the caliphate – a single organization representing and capturing all the strength of Islam. It seems to me to be a very reasonable goal, at least conditional on supporting Islam and wanting it to flourish. Likewise, if there were a Single Feminist Organization that contained and directed the actions of all feminists, that would be a really big deal. If two or more socialists could sit in a room together without each accusing the others of being fascist pigs, maybe socialism would achieve more.
The Big Question of ecclesiology seems to me to be – how do you design a single organization to capture and direct the greatest percentage of your movement’s energy most effectively?
Here there are a bunch of tradeoffs, most notably:
Strict organization versus relaxed organization. If I wanted to capture near 100% of all libertarians, the easiest way would be to spend my own money publishing nice glossy pamphlets with pictures of the Statue of Liberty on them saying in a vague way that more freedom would be nice. Probably most libertarians, presented with a chance to sign their name on a dotted line saying they are “a supporter” of my organization at no cost to them, would be willing to go along. But in terms of energy direction, this is frickin’ useless.
On the other hand, imagine an organization in which the Libertarian Field Marshal gave orders to everyone who signed on – you quit college to canvas door-to-door, you get a Ph. D in economics so we can have someone ready to respond to arguments against the free market if we need it, you become a banker and donate your obscene salary to our group. This group has energy-direction up the wazoo, and it could become incredibly powerful with only a couple dozen members. It also would never get a couple dozen members.
Strict orthodoxy versus relaxed orthodoxy. Maybe you’re allowed to join the group if you “identify” with the “label” of libertarian. Maybe you have to agree to every single point on a ninety-point platform about what the ideal society should be and how we’re going to pursue it. The first group is probably hopelessly conflict-prone and can only act in very large brush strokes. The second group can work together much more easily, but is smaller.
The limiting case of relaxedness is a national government, which “represents” everyone in an entire country, but which is so non-agenty that it is better viewed as a sort of exoskeleton-suit for other movements to take over and control rather than a goal-having movement in its own right. The limiting case of strictness is a single person.
Top-down control versus bottom-up control. Bottom-up control makes members happy, offers a guarantee against certain forms of insanity, and is a good way of resolving disputes and preventing outright civil war. Top-down control is more effective in terms of making sure the group’s actions are unified and not “designed by committee” in the perjorative sense of the phrase. It also means the people who founded the organization aren’t going to suddenly get outvoted by a membership that wants to do something else, which seems to be a surprisingly common problem. For example, the Republican Party started out as the party representing the racially enlightened and highly educated North against the backward South. I wonder how that’s been working out for them?
Closely related here is the problem of value drift. You can go a large part of the way to preventing value drift by some level of hard-coding of principles in a founding document (eg the US Bill of Rights) which is very difficult for future generations to change. On the other hand, if those values prove unexpectedly sub-optimal you get stuck having to say the founding document was “meant as a metaphor” or declaring in 1978 that you got a new revelation from God saying the previous revelation from God was received in error.
If you succeed in these tradeoffs, your reward is an organization that encompasses a large number of mostly-like-minded individuals who invest a lot of effort into working together for a common purpose. If you fail, you get organizations that can never get a coherent platform together or tear themselves apart in internal squabbles or civil wars.
So much for a description of what an atheist ecclesiology might be about. What about the experimental results of such an ecclesiology?
Most of the people I know who have thought about this problem hard agree upon one major ecclesiological principle that neatly summarizes the gist of their investigation into this area:
The Catholic Church is really, really impressive.
It is the oldest continuously-operating organization in the world. It is the largest organization in the world, as measured in number of members. It is probably the richest non-state organization in the world. Although we can debate how closely they have stuck to the founding principles they had as of 114 AD or 1014 AD, they are doubtlessly a lot closer to those principles than, say, modern China is to 1014-AD-China.
Although there are other religions nearly as large as Catholicism – Islam and Hinduism, for example – they lack the same level of organization or really any organization at all. And although there are various governments that are probably a bit more powerful, they cheat by being able to throw anyone who doesn’t support them in jail. So what are the Church’s institutional choices, and how do they contribute to its longevity and success?
The first unusual thing I immediately notice about the Catholic Church is its insistence on turning group membership into a binary. You can be sort-of-libertarian, kind-of-libertarian, occasionally-libertarian-on-some-topics, or super-duper-libertarian – but the Catholics make it very clear that you are either A Catholic or Not A Catholic. You become a Catholic by going through the appropriate rituals, which are obvious and public and difficult to miss. You become Not A Catholic by things like official orders of excommunication.
I agree that this has become sort of washed out in recent years, to the point where there are people who are as just as vaguely Catholic as I am vaguely Jewish – that is, hardly at all except as a fuzzy feeling of connectedness to a group that shaped your culture. But as best I can tell, the Official Church Position is that this is degenerate, and that on God’s computer each person definitely has a Boolean variable representing whether they are Catholic or not.
Second, I notice the Catholic Church formalizes what beliefs and commitments Catholicism does and does not entail. These are the endless creeds and catechisms. Most other organizations have no good equivalent to this – not only is there no Feminist Catechism, but there’s not even a creed for specific limited feminist organizations like NOW or NARAL. Although party platforms are kind of close to this, I feel like on closer inspection they’re effects rather than causes of group membership. They’re talking about “Given the current makeup of the Republican Party, here are the sorts of things we expect Republican candidates to push during the next election”. They’re not saying “If you don’t believe every plank of this platform, get out of the GOP.”
Not only does the Church formalize where they demand conformity, but they formalize where they don’t. I don’t know enough to talk about this accurately, but I think that questions like “What was the Virgin Mary’s eye color?” can be debated by anyone with a half-baked theory and any bishop asked to intervene would get annoyed and say the Church has no opinion on this and shouldn’t force consensus. On the other hand, if someone asks “Was the Virgin Mary even Jesus’ real mother at all?” the Church politely informs you that they are forcing consensus on this question and you can either fall into line with the consensus or be declared a heretic and get out of the Church and in to the pit of eternal fire where the worm dieth not.
Fourth, although I don’t begin to claim to know enough theology to have credible things to say about the demands the Church may make, there are definitely occasional instances of, for example, Catholics being excommunicated for being part of abortion rights groups or the like. So it seems like they are pretty serious about being able to tell you what to do and expelling you if you don’t do it (with the caveat that in most cases with low-level proles they never bother to enforce it). But they likewise seem pretty serious about not abusing that power in stupid ways.
Fifth, the Church is hierarchical. There are many clearly defined levels, it’s obvious who is in charge of whom, and each level has to obey the levels above it or else. The Pope is in charge of all the levels and in theory everyone has to listen to him. You get promoted based on some combination of ability and politics.
Finally, the Church seems really big on rituals. A lot of them seem to be very clear IDENTIFY US AS YOUR IN GROUP AND THIS AS YOUR COMMUNITY NOW rituals – attempts to flip Haidt’s hive switch. Others just lend an air of dignity and grandeur to proceedings.
A paradox: if the Catholic Church is the most successful organization in history, why don’t other organizations follow its example?
There are a few counterexamples here. National armies seem very similar to the Catholic Church in a lot of ways. You’re either in them or out of them. There are induction rituals and dismissal rituals. They are hierarchical with a general on top, colonels and majors in the middle, and the enlisted man on the bottom. When you’re in them, you have to do everything the higher levels say or you get kicked out and make a lot of people very angry. The whole thing is extremely full of rituals and everyone has to venerate various ritual objects in weird ways (for example, the national flag, or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). Fraternal organizations like the Freemasons seem to have something kind of similar going on here.
But that just makes the problems weirder. National armies are optimized for effectiveness and nearly everyone considers them impressive models of organizations that Get Things Done. If the Catholic Church – maybe the most culturally powerful organization in the world – and the US Army – doubtless the most physically powerful organization in the world – share a structure, isn’t that a pretty strong point in favor of that structure?
Yet a lot of very sincere, maybe even fanatical movements – the libertarian movement, the feminist movement, the transhumanist movement, the socialist movement – don’t seem to even be considering that model.
Their model is to have a large base of mostly atomized supporters, upon which float many different organizations. The supporters donate money to the organizations, and sometimes accept paying or volunteer jobs there. Occasionally they will wear the organization’s logo on a t-shirt, or affix its bumper sticker to their car, but this is the extent of their identification. The organizations do not have membership rosters per se, except maybe a “donor list” or “supporter list” that exists mostly so they know who to email the newsletter to.
The only political-social organizations that even approach the Church model are political parties – and as we saw before, these fall short in a lot of ways. They demand nothing from supporters, their platforms are notably different from catechisms, and although they sort of have hierarchy and ritual it seems a bit forced and apologizing-for-itself most of the time.
So phrased differently, the paradox goes: why are there so many NGOs and so few Churches?
One answer I reject is that nobody wants to join a Church. I see among my friends something approaching longing for a good Church-like structure. This is hard for me to explain without naming names in a way I worry would be embarrassing, but it seems self-evidently true to me. Certainly this was something I saw a lot in micronations – a longing to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Imagine that whatever cause you most support – libertarianism, transhumanism, effective altruism, feminism, whatever – had a Church type organization that you could join, led by the spokesperson for that movement you most respect (Ron Paul? Ray Kurzweil? Peter Singer? bell hooks?). You are welcome to go to their local community center, partake in a tasteful initiation ritual, and then they will ask you to do certain things for the good of the movement, which you will be assured the other members of the movement will also be doing. They will have a clearly printed list of what they do or don’t demand consensus on, and members of the movement will follow it for the sake of maintaining cohesion. No more endless “Can you still be a feminist even if you don’t…?” debates. The answer is always “Look at the list printed by the Feminist Pope (Mome?), if it’s not on there, then yes”. Also, their hierarchs wear cool clothes and occasionally speak in dead languages.
Unless every single cliched movie villain speech I have ever seen is wrong, humans long for someone to rule them and tell them what to do. Structure is good. Ability to pick your own in group is good. I have a really hard time imagining that there are no Churches because of a lack of willing adherents.
My guess is that for some reason we have a specific memetic immune response against Churches. Existing religions are grandfathered in. Everyone else who starts evolving towards such a design gets told they’re a cult and soundly mocked. I think this might have happened to Objectivism, which at one point might have been turning into a Church but now looks a little more like an NGO.
Chesterton’s Fence tells us we probably shouldn’t mess with this. But there is still a spot in my heart that misses all of the interesting Churches that there could have been.