Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Learning Lessons from the Fellowship of Reason
by Luke Setzer

Before I became involved with SOLO and now RoR as a way to place my local Objectivist club under a wider umbrella, I briefly explored the idea of opening a local chapter of the Fellowship of Reason® (FOR) for that purpose.  Unfortunately, I learned that FOR had a substantially different vision, so I abandoned the effort.  I also did not renew my membership with them when dues time came.  Their new Executive Board sent a survey to all current and former members to learn lessons about what they could do to improve FOR.  I offer my responses to their survey here.  I have changed names to protect privacy.
Fellowship of Reason, Self-Study Survey, January 2006

1. How did you learn about FOR?

Some time around the year 2000, or possibly earlier, I searched the Internet for sites related to Ayn Rand and Objectivism and found the founder's book Fellowship of Reason online.  I read it and found the concept intriguing, so I did some more research and began a dialogue with him.  Later, I invited him to speak to our Objectivist group in Florida.  More recently, in mid-2004 I seriously considered opening a local chapter of FOR.  Conflicts of vision with the FOR leadership led me not to do so.

2. What is your understanding of FOR's mission?  Should we provide more information in this area?

Your Web site says: "The Fellowship of Reason ('FOR') is a reason-based ethical community; that is, a group of people united by the idea that reason provides the best guide for understanding reality and living the best life possible.  FOR differs from faith-based organizations in that we believe each individual's purpose and success in life are derived from, and ultimately determined by, the individual - not a supernatural authority."

That said, your site desperately needs a totally clear and plainly visible statement of Vision,
Mission, and Values to paint a complete picture in the minds of visitors.

Yes, you need much more work in this area.  What you provide now will never do long-term.

3. What were the most important factors that led you to contact, participate in, or to become a member of FOR?

I liked the idea of a community built around the Objectivist values of reason, purpose, and self-esteem.  The founder's sweeping yet readable book helped to tie these back to the universal needs that religion has long addressed but which Objectivism has not.  I liked the idea of a global network of such local chapters and considered moving my existing Objectivist group under that umbrella.

4. In which other, similar, groups do you/have you participated?

Since 1999, I have run a local Objectivist community club and, briefly, a campus club at a nearby university.  I am also a member of the Space Coast Freethought Association.  I also attended the Central Florida Fellowship of Freethought (CF3) before it dissolved after the main leaders moved to Texas.

5. If you are not a member, what might lead you to become a supporting member?  OR If you feel certain that you will not become a member, tell us why.

See my response to Question 13.
6. If you are a former member or no longer participate in FOR activities, in what way did the organization not meet your interests or needs?  What factors led to your departure?

See my response to Question 13.

7. What other groups do you think are 'competitors' to FOR?  How do we differ from our 'competitors'?

Churches, especially the Unitarian Universalists (UUs), represent the main FOR competitors based on the general thrust of FOR as a spiritual organization.  Unlike the UUs, FOR at least takes a firm stand about the role of reason in human life.

Freethought and humanist organizations constitute the secular competitors to FOR.  They tend to be "activist" organizations more interested in filing lawsuits and complaining about the evils of religion than in helping members to find inner peace and spiritual fulfillment via reason.  That FOR wants to treat the culture war as "already won" embodies both a virtue and a vice: a virtue because it allows FOR to focus on positive values and a vice because it distracts FOR from the very real challenges to its very existence that the culture now poses.

8. What do you think are the most appropriate, practical, and effective ways to promote FOR?

I propose a more aggressive and "evangelical" marketing plan.  See my response to Question 15.

9. If you had to sign up ten new members of FOR, what kind of people would you look for?  (Be as specific as possible.)  Where would you look for them?

I would visit local Freethought, humanist and Objectivist groups to talk about the many benefits of FOR membership and how its activities satisfy the four basic human needs: spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical.

10. Would you say the $35 annual dues are Too High, About Right, or a Real Bargain?  If Too High or a Real Bargain, why do you say that?

I think $35 falls within the bounds of reason, i.e., "About Right."  I would suggest a different dues structure along the lines of Toastmasters with a one-time New Member fee to cover an introductory kit along with monthly dues collected every six months.

11. If you are a current member, when your membership expires, how likely are you to renew?  Would you say: Definitely Will, Probably Will, Probably Will Not, or Definitely Will Not?  Why do you say that?

I am not a current member of FOR.

12. What are the best things about FOR?  What do we do well?

I can appreciate the wide range of activities aimed at satisfying human needs in an abundant way.  The FORum gives participants a chance to shine by showcasing their talents.  The book discussion groups, runners' session, and Toastmasters Club all help members to grow and prosper.  As the founder intended, FOR helps people to satisfy the same sorts of needs a church satisfies but without the mystical nonsense.

13. What things would you like to see change or improve about FOR?  What are our weaknesses?

Some glaring weaknesses include:

a. Excessive tolerance through misplaced benevolence.  I recall a gentleman who polluted the Reason message board with his abusive language to the point that FOR completely dissociated itself from it.  Only after I briefly joined the board, volunteered as a moderator, caught him in the act of posting under multiple identities, and banned him did that stop.  I should not have had to do that.  I saw in the FOR calendar a live regular discussion group centered on Nathaniel Branden's The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.  Branden names one of those virtues as "self-assertiveness."  The owner of the board showed an utter lack of this virtue when he refused to ban the troublemaker months or years earlier.

As much as I like the founder, he has also shown a lack of this virtue by making his authority as FOR founder subservient to the irrational demands of other FOR Executives.  Rather than assert his earned authority by putting an immediate kibosh on this troublemaker, he let the list owner argue -- wrongly -- that such arguments help to build self-esteem of the list members.  Rubbish!

b. Irrational hostility to, and disrespect for, Objectivism.  Tied to the preceding point of misplaced benevolence comes the unpleasant exchanges I had with several of the FOR Executive Board members.  On the private e-mail list for that board, I commenced discussions about starting a FOR chapter in central Florida.  See the Additional Comments page for the full story.
c. Lack of clarity of vision.  When I dealt with the Executive Board via e-mail, I heard one recurring message, namely, that they themselves still had not sorted exactly what FOR is.  What?!  How do you expect others to involve themselves outside the home base when the people in charge have no clear and compelling vision?!

d. Lack of full employment of proven technology.  This very survey demonstrates that.  You need a Web page to collect this data, not a sluggish hard copy snail mail system.  Advocating a "philosophy for the new millennium" using old millennium technology undermines your credibility.

Participants outside metro Atlanta, GA:
14. How would you rate your interest in establishing a new FOR chapter in your area?  Would you say: Very High, Moderate or Low?  Should we provide more information in this area?

Very, very low indeed.  Unless a major shift happens in the thrust of FOR, that will not change no matter how much "more information" you feed me.

15. Thinking creatively, how might FOR engage its members or interested parties outside metro Atlanta, GA?  (FOR does not maintain or anticipate maintaining an on-line chat board.)

a. See my prior answer to Question 13 about moderated discussion boards.

b. The FOR leadership needs to take an aggressive, unapologetic, uncompromising stand about its message.  The attitude needs to be, "We do not need your ideas.  You need ours."

c. It needs to maintain a well-moderated discussion board free of malevolence and clearly stating that moderators will unceremoniously remove troublemakers.
d. It needs to advertise itself aggressively in all outlets that might draw an interested audience.
e. It needs to create a friendly Web interface with free space for new chapters to form quickly similar to Meetup.

f. It needs to make the path to forming a new chapter easy, not difficult, with downloadable forms and online processing readily available.  Cost and ease should compare to that of starting a new Toastmasters Club.
Additional Comments

On the back of this sheet, please share with us any further comments or observations you may have about FOR, its leadership, its membership, the activities, the overall function and atmosphere, etc.

Additional Comments
Since you asked me to express "honest criticism" in the letter that accompanied this survey, I will let you have it.  I may as well make a statement here about my first impressions of certain key players over e-mail that may veer totally from reality.  What I will say does not stem from a malevolent attempt at ad hominem attacks, but it does represent my honest, gut-level "sense of life" of some notables:

"Ann" and "Victoria" share qualities of nattering, pecking, clucking hens.  When I interacted with them, they usually responded with the equivalent of:
"But ... but ... but ...."
For instance, in mid-2004 Ann made a call for a list of non-fiction books to discuss for the coming year.  I suggested two books by Anthony Robbins.  She added them to the list but publicly announced that she would use her veto power if they won the vote.  What kind of leadership is that?
When I confronted her privately about this, she offered some lame excuse whose content I do not even recall.  Suffice it to say that I did not consider her argument to fall within the bounds of reason.
Peck, peck, peck.  Cluck, cluck, cluck.
Ann also argued -- wrongly -- "that FOR's core principles ... are to the credit of influences that predated either Ayn Rand or FOR by millennia."  She also argued -- even more wrongly -- that "Objectivism is stuck in the 'insolent teenager' phase, thinking it knows everything."
Peck, peck, peck.  Cluck, cluck, cluck.
I will at least credit her remark with prompting me to update my own personal values list with the statement:
"When I practice this invigorating virtue [of pride] regularly and then find myself in unhappy social settings, I have both the capacity and the right to exercise the enjoyable and youthful luxury of earned insolence, that liberating 'walk away' power that says, 'I do not need you.  Next!'"
Victoria -- oh, dear -- exposed her statist stripes when she wrote:
"Not all people who accept some adjustments to the market as a good idea are socialists and communists. ... I am one of the people who is more to the left in my theories of economics than most people in FOR and more to the right in my notions of how much freedom of choice is good for people. Yet, there is room for me in FOR: nobody thinks I advocate a turn toward the Kremlin."
This sounds like fascism -- public control of private property and lives.  Yet she denied it in a later post.
Peck, peck, peck.  Cluck, cluck, cluck.
Now to address "David," a man who exemplifies the excessive tolerance I described earlier.  He wrote: "To surround yourself primarily with others that think like you will become very boring and stagnant. ... The best teachers you will have now are the others who disagree with you.  The test of your self-esteem will be to see who inspires who, by raising the bar on those important discussions.  This in effect was the sole purpose of the reason yahoo group.  To learn how to effectively raise the bar on discussions going astray, and to experience the feeling of success in doing so.  This causes the self-efficacy part of self-esteem. You know you can personally handle these things when they arise."
If FOR aims to engage in the spiritual refueling described in the founder's book, then I disagree strongly with David's argument.  Dealing with others who share one's "sense of life" rather than arguing with malefactors needs to serve as the guiding FOR principle.  Practicing the self-assertiveness needed to withdraw energy from life-wasting conversations manifests true self-esteem.
The agitation over values conflicts, the refusal to "weed" troublemakers from the membership rosters and discussion boards, the excessive tolerance of wrong-headed ideas, the lack of vision, and the pecking and clucking did not push me finally to say no to FOR.  What did?  This happened when the Executive Board told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to start a FOR chapter from scratch rather than simply move my existing Objectivist group under the FOR umbrella.  In the words of Ann:
"The typical blinders-on, won't-tolerate-anyone-who-doesn't-believe-everything-exactly-as-I-do Objectivist[s] ... are not the people I'd like to see FOR associated with."
Peck, peck, peck.  Cluck, cluck, cluck.
At that point, I politely informed the FOR Executive Board that I no longer had any interest whatsoever in pursuing the formation of a local FOR chapter.  I wished them goodbye and good luck, left their list, resigned as moderator of the Reason and Eudaimonists Euphoria lists and left those lists as well.  A list member contacted me via private e-mail and said, "You could have at least said goodbye."  Yes, I could have, but why bother?  We had irreconcilable differences and I had no interest in wasting more effort with FOR.
I have moved forward to serve as Club Coordinator for an Objectivist organization that resonates fully with my own sense of life:
You can read my recent articles to get a glimpse of my vision of a global network of life-affirming, rational clubs.  Trust me when I say that such a network will advocate Objectivism without apologies, without compromises and without nattering, pecking or clucking.  I regret that FOR cannot make that claim.  It would do well to change its ways.
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