Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York

The Corliss Lamont Chapter of the American Humanist Association

Siloists — with responses from the Humanist Movement in Iceland and from J.D. Snyder, former member of the Siloist Movement


by Beth K. Lamont

For many years now critics have charged a Humanist group called Siloists with being an opportunistic cult which engages in practices that are inconsistent with Humanist principles: things like using quotas for member recruitment and for financial contribution, and using intimidating psychological stress in the name of self improvement. Longer established Humanists have wished to differentiate themselves from this group feeling that criticism regarding these practices will spill over onto themselves in public opinion.

The Siloist literature seems logical and descriptive of Humanist principles. Their active community outreach seems honorable. What is the problem? Might it be partly, because on one hand they make no move to associate with long-standing Humanist groups, yet on the other hand they claim disputed connection to popular organizations like the Greens? What is the truth of the matter? What do the Siloists say? Do they acknowledge engaging in the objectionable practices? If so, what is their rationale or how do they feel justified in doing so? What are their criticisms of non-Siloist Humanists? How can we explore this further? Is there any way that these serious differences can be reconciled to the satisfaction of both groups? I certainly hope so. This is an invitation for dialogue.

The Humanists' stock-in-trade is critical reasoning. We are continually honing our arguments. We keep refining our rejection of irrational thought. This attribute, sometimes carried to the point of being caustically critical, generally serves us well in the world of ideas. It causes us to be very uneasy collaborators with other Humanists, unfortunately.

We Humanists come in a great variety of flavors; each with a slightly different emphasis. Variously we call ourselves non-theists, Freethinkers, Rationalists, Ethical Culturists, Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, Unitarian Universalists, and some of us espouse Religious Humanism or Humanistic Judaism. Rather than honoring the common thread we share, we often criticize the other expressions of Humanism with the high emotion and fervor found in family squabbles, emphasizing our differences rather than our similarities.

Indeed, it must be part of our nature to expect more of those who are most like us. We seem to hold family to much higher standards. It's as though we are better able to shrug off the poor judgment of all those strange people out there who are not close to us in our critical reasoning and in our Humanist life-stance. But we, "the enlightened ones," on the other hand, of all people should know better than to make mistakes in our reasoning!

It would be much more productive to acknowledge that we are more alike than we are different, and to reach out to embrace a friend. Joining forces to promote our common causes seems to me to be an imperative. Is it immodest to assert that the world might be a more sane and a safer place to live if there were more Humanists? I plead guilty to this chauvinistic notion. How I would love to see more of us working in harmony and taking leadership roles. This is why it is so perplexing to witness any kind of in-fighting, almost like turf wars, among Humanists.

From my own personal history I recognize the "push-away" syndrome. I well remember how people who were important to me were shocked at my questioning "god's word" or "god's will." My Mother prayed for my soul when I declared that I just couldn't handle the biblical account of creation. More and more I felt isolated from family and friends as I searched out truths for myself, and I drew much criticism when I emphatically refused to pray for guidance on the matter! I became fiercely critical as I pushed away from the myths that tradition had imposed upon me. Over the years, as I gained the courage and the scientific information to express my new-found convictions, I found that I was at last completely free of the myths! I no longer needed to focus on my "push-aways." Instead, I found that I had turned around and was facing into an expression of my beliefs in a more positive way. I had become fully focused on earth-oriented and human-oriented concerns like social justice and the promotion of equitable and abundant life right here and now. How delighted I was to learn that these views have an historical perspective and that Humanism is the name for this philosophy.

I was especially delighted to find others of like mind, and to be comforted that I was not alone. But I soon learned, much to my dismay, that many of these like-minded others were still doing their own "push-aways." Rather than moving forward, getting on with the task of helping to promote a more Humanistic world, they were still focused backward on the struggle against the myths. We must not meet in a church. We must not join in protest with religious organizations. This kind of allergy seems counter-productive. "Push-aways" seem to have become so much a part of their intellectual outlook, that these Humanists continue to push away even against each other in a more or less sustained critical mode.

The most uniformity that we can expect of any Humanist group is that its members generally agree to a set of principles like the Humanist Manifestos I & II, or a similar document, even though they may continue to debate some fine points. Essentially the over all cohesive factor is an assertion by the members themselves, that they as individuals believe in these principles and that they, with varying degrees of success, try to act in ways consistent with these principles. For some highly motivated Humanists, devotion to the cause brings them to engage in various organizational and cooperative efforts, volunteering in the community, perhaps writing about or taking a public stand on an issue, or in assuming a teaching or leadership role, even seeking or holding a public office.

While commitment to the cause of Humanism is admirable, tactics which use pressure to accomplish this commitment, such as recruitment quotas or obligatory financial payments, are not consistent with Humanist principles, nor is the use of humiliation when goals are not met. Open elections, opportunity for shared decision-making, and openings for newcomers to assume leadership roles, are essential to a democratic process, rather than adhering to a top-down flow of authority. The publishing of annual reports disclosing operating costs and sources of funding helps to determine whether a group is making good financial decisions, and to disclose any large contributions which might possibly create a powerful vested influence or reflect a hidden agenda.

We are certainly in agreement that we must be free to explore and to search out our own truths. The principles of free will and of human responsibility are well established among Humanists. Consequently we would expect that the organizational structure of any Humanist group would be non-authoritarian and most certainly democratic in nature. We would always expect that Humanist ends be pursued through Humanist means. How could it be otherwise? To use means that would disrespect the dignity and autonomy of the individual would be a betrayal of our basic principles.

This is an invitation for a Humanist dialogue between the Siloists and the non-Siloists.

The following is a thoughtful response to the above article from a Siloist in Iceland, Mr. Kjartan Jónsson, Spokesman of the Humanist Movement in Iceland, who took up my challenge. This description of the Humanist Movement is appreciated.

From the "Other" Humanists

I welcome the opportunity to respond to some criticism appearing in Beth K. Lamont's article on the Web; "The Other Humanists," towards the Humanist (Siloist) Movement. Although this criticism, which is based on statements from former Siloists, is in some ways vague I find the article in general honest and open-minded, and in that I find motivation to sit and put down few words in our defence. The main points in this critisim are the following: in the Humanist Movement leadership positions are supposedly not accessible; decision-making not democratic; rigid requirements for financial support existing and the overall funding of the international operation supposed to be obscure rather than available for public scrutiny. In this criticism however Siloist literature is not included. In Mrs. Lamont's article this literature is described as logical and descriptive of Humanist principles.

I would like to divide my reply into the following categories.

Comparing Different Kinds of Organisations

First of all I must emphasise the difference in the organisations that are being compared in Mrs. Lamont's article; the American Humanist Association and The Humanist Movement (Siloist). The American Humanist Association is a national organization founded in 1941 to promote humanism in the United States. The Humanist Movement is an international movement with its own internal structure. This structure is based on human relations, not geography. The same "council" can be in many countries, spread over different continents.
Aside from being a social movement, the Humanist Movement has a side that could be described as a school of ideas and methods and its structure is designed to implement those ideas and methods efficiently (see later; School of ideas and methods, Structure of expansion).

Also, it is important to mention that the Humanist Movement has started many kinds of associations and political parties that have their own structure and are nationally and locally based with their own identities and independence.

Financial Issues

The overall financial matters of the Movement can be divided into 3 categories:

Membership dues collection every 6 months

The membership dues are the Humanist Movement's only formal income. Every member pays an amount based on the particular economic situation in their country. For example, in India dues are $3.5 and in the United States they are $100. The money collected is not accumulated into any one single fund. Instead, it is distributed in a specific manner, according to the way the Movement is structured:
25 percent of what is collected in each group (of 7 to 30 people) remains in that group to cover costs like photocopying and other small expenses. Each group is a part of a larger unit of 7 to 30 groups which is called a council of team delegates. Another 25 percent remains within this larger unit of groups for expenses like short trips, local campaigns, etc. This council is again part of a bigger circle of 7 to 30 such units called a council of general delegates. Here again another 25 percent remains to finance trips between countries and to assist people who are establishing new groups in different countries. The remaining 25 percent is left within the biggest unit of the movement which is called a council of coordinators. This part is used to support some of the same activities as the council of general delegates, but it also helps to pay expenses for evaluation-conferences that are held every 6 months. This council of coordinators is an independent unit, both financially and strategically. At the moment, there are 12 such councils in the world and there are expected to be at least 20 by the end of this year, each one with approximately 7,000 to 20,000 members. Each council is accountable to its members for how it uses this money. For the councils of team delegates, general delegates and coordinators, such accounting is a standard practice. Providing formal accounts to people for their 25 percent in groups of 7 to 30 people (most often consisting of 10 to 15 members) has usually not been required.

Fundraising and sponsorships for projects and other expenses

Each group's activities are usually much more than the 25 percent allocation. In many cases, the group or groups are running a centre, a neighbourhood paper, and are doing other activities. The groups have various means of financing those activities. The most common ways are to find advertisers for the newspaper and to ask their supporters for donations.

Financial matters of independent, locally- or nationally-registered associations

The Humanist Movement has started various clubs, Humanist parties and associations in different countries. Although in some cases, early in the process of launching such organisms, there has not been a clear distinction between those entities and the Movement, they have after a while become independent and established their own identity. Those organisations are usually registered locally or nationally and are responsible for their own finances.

To put things into perspective, I would like to give an example of an actual situation. In Iceland there are 4 main groups that operate basically independent of each other. People from all groups are working in the Icelandic Humanist Party, which is a small party (has gotten 2 percent of the overall votes) but has a clear identity and its own voice. The Party has its own budget and the people participating in the party raise money to finance it. Some people in my group work with the Humanist Party. Still, over the past few years, as a group we have held multicultural events (constructive responses to racism), conferences related to racial issues, published papers, and recently started an association, Friends of India. The association's purpose is to collect money to support educational aid programs being carried out by Humanist groups that we helped start in India. Friends of India is legally registered in Iceland and has a board. The board includes some respected public figures, and it is responsible for how the organisation's money is used. This association has a unique position among similar organisations as volunteers do all administrative work and 100 percent of the money collected is paid directly to schools in India in the names of specific children.
In our group there are 15 members of the Movement who pay dues in the membership campaign, and we are working with more than 200 registered supporters who are helping in various ways. They help out in one or more of our projects and associations: the Humanist Party, Friends of India, coming to fundraising dinners (mostly to help pay for travel to India), etc.

School of Ideas and Methods

The Humanist Movement has its own ideology and methodology these were developed in the early days of the movement by its main founder, Mario Rodriguez Cobos, also known as Silo. Cobos is a philosopher and writer, and a study group formed around his ideas. The Humanist Movement began with this group. Orientors in the movement teach and implement those ideas and methods in the groups they form. As a result, the Humanist Movement is, in addition to being a social movement, like a school. Based on its school-like characteristics, it reserves the right to make its own curriculum of thought, methodology, and organisation. It is a school of those ideas and methods, not others, and it is not open to altering these basic principles unless there is broad agreement on doing so. In this sense, the Humanist Movement is not open for a "democratic reform" in individual groups. Of course there is nothing that prevents anybody from starting groups of a similar nature if they want to choose their own emphases. The Humanist Movement's nature as a social movement appears in the fact there is great tactical freedom for local groups to undertake any action that they feel is necessary. This freedom, of course, comes within the limits of non-violence. Likewise, actions mustn't contradict the Movement's basic principles.
The final decisions about altering those basic principles are taken by those who have the most experience in implementing those ideas and methods.
That is, those who have shown the most results make these decisions. People who have built a council of coordinators (network of +7,000) participate in a general assembly, which studies relevant issues and proposes adjustments.

Structure of Expansion

The Movement's structure is designed from the point of view of efficiency in expanding it. The general idea is that each person co-ordinates the activities and groups he/she has established. The advantage that this form has is that the energy is directed outwards to make it grow instead of toward internal conflicts. The road to influence is to form bigger human structure instead of focusing on having influence on what already exists. Within this set-up leading positions are equally accessible for everyone and everyone has the same chance. For someone who wants to be in a cosy organisation that nurtures a feeling of being right and just without very much commitment I can imagine that this kind of a set-up may not be very appealing. Also for someone who wants to reach influence in an easy way through popularism. To have influence within this movement takes a lot of work and a huge commitment.
One might argue that this is not a good form to use in a situation where the limits of expansion have been reached and the organisation is only maintaining itself. I could even agree with that. But we are far from reaching those limits and I believe that coherent ideas and work such as ours can have a vital role in a constantly more globalised world, where Internet and television stations launch their images into every corner of the world, challenging cultures, values and traditions. In this situation I would like to do it as efficiently as possible.
In my participation in the movement I have not found any need to make any compromises in regards to our basic ideas and values. On the contrary, in it I have found encouragement and an increasing need to practice tolerance and respect for other people, their opinions and lifestyles. I have also found stimuli to overcome the obstacles I have had in my relations with people in my own ongoing efforts to achieve more coherence as a human being. I consider my participation in the movement as my free choice and I invite anybody to take part in it on the same basis.

Kjartan Jónsson
Spokesman of the Humanist Movement in Iceland
May 20, 2001

The following is a response from a former member of the Siloist Movement, J.D. Snyder. This response is very much appreciated.

I read with interest your article about the Siloist Movement and Mr. Jónsson's response. I was an active member of the Humanist Movement for ten years. It has been approximately ten years since I left that Movement. I left the Siloist Movement after ten very active years within the Movement and have continued with my political and social work. I have hoped to have the opportunity to express my thoughts and feelings about the Humanists and until this point have not seen an opportunity to participate in a sincere dialogue.

First let me say that I left the Movement for personal reasons. I was thirty, had begun my "work" with the Siloists shortly after turning 21 and nine years later realized that I wanted to address both personal and career issues. I did leave disgruntled with particular members of the Humanist Movement, but I must emphasize - never with the goals and aspirations of the Movement. The members that I had "issues" with were members that in essence, I did not like. Nor were they people that I believe liked me. Simply put, our personalities clashed. However, I did not, and do not see the need to degrade the entire Siloist Movement because of these personality differences. I have seen "reports" and "testimonials" of ex-members who claim to have been brain-washed, humiliated, etc. by Humanist Movement members and I felt it disconcerting to say the least. Some of these ex-members I knew personally. Some had bitter rivals with other members, some had personal problems that poured over into their involvement that I believe "colored" their perceptions, others I believe were not mature enough to realize that every group has its shortcomings.

The Movement members, in general (and in my opinion), are hard working individuals who have chosen this particular organization to work within to achieve a better world. I think that most of us would not argue that this goal, in itself, is noble; as we all know, activism is a difficult "job." Time is precious and most Siloist Humanists I know, if not all, not only have to support themselves, they also have families to support, and must address the endless tasks that we all do in order to function in this world. I myself left the Humanist Movement, returned to school, completed an AA, BA, and now, hopefully, a law degree.

I never have regretted the time that I spent in the Movement. When I joined the Humanist Movement I was very shy, but through the encouragement and mentorship of Humanist members was given the opportunity to not only participate actively in projects, but to conceptualize and form many projects that I am proud of to this day (helping stop the off-shore oil-drilling along the California coast, to name but one.) I also attended workshops related to personal growth which informed my work as I worked, and continue to work, with other activists and volunteers. In addition, much of my organizing skills I acquired inform my studies and activism. Some of the criticism I have read about the Movement included references to the "cultish" workshops. As I mentioned, ex-members and their allies in the media (e.g., The San Francisco Bay Guardian) made references to workshops, etc. conducted by the Siloists. However, referring to meditation, works regarding the individual's "attention" (also a work that Thich Nhat Hanh speaks often of), etc. as weird and cultish strikes me as a veiled attempt to discredit the Siloists.

Yes, the Humanists are not a perfect organization. I too have my criticisms, however, I have worked with many fine groups since leaving the Siloist Movement and have not yet found a "perfect" organization. I think it is time that we try to be a bit more open-minded and less intolerant of those around us. For that I thank you for your article.

J.D. Snyder
Former member of the Siloist Movement
June 12, 2002

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