Caveat for Community Builders

In our rush to create and embrace community, an important caution must be sounded. A community can quickly turn into a gated enclave, an "us" that not only binds its members together but also excludes and even demonizes "them"—those who are on the outside of our defining wall.

We live in naturally concentric circles of community. The inner circle is often our immediate family, those with whom we feel the most connection. Around that circle runs the larger circle of extended family, followed by other affinities like regional, cultural, and language groups; our ethnicities, regions, and nations; our worldviews; even our species. Each of these concentric circles defines a community, linking us to those with whom we share something significant.

In addition to these concentric circles, we also have cross-cutting community memberships and identities—we may be similar to others in one way, and different in others.3 For example, a doctor may belong to a community of medical professionals, but may be different from many other members of that community in terms of her race, religious views, or other characteristics. She may also belong to an empowerment group for African American women, but differ from many members of that group in her religious views or her occupational identity.

Our connection, our compassion, and our empathy often drop as we move outward through concentric communities, or interact with those who are different from us in more of our important identities, across what has been called an "empathy gradient." We tend to feel closest to and most protective of those who are closely related or otherwise similar to us—natural selection at work— followed by those who live nearby but are less similar. By the time we have moved outward to people living far away, or those who are unlike us in other ways, we tend to feel a reduced empathy. It's easier to feel compassion for the neighbor child with leukemia than the child in a distant country with the same condition.

Merely spending time with people who are different than you doesn't always lead to increased empathy and understanding. It helps a lot to have a common goal, as Muzafer Sherif found out in his famous "Robbers Cave Experiment" in 1954.4 In the experiment, two groups of boys at a summer camp were organized into competing teams. The experimenters tried to break down the animosity between the groups by having the boys spend time together, but instead of decreased animosity, they got food fights in the dining hall. What succeeded in breaking down the barriers between the groups were situations in which both groups had to work together to accomplish something that everyone wanted. It took work from both groups, for example, to pull the camp truck when it wouldn't start.

Several more recent studies have come to similar conclusions.5 For example, recognizing our cross-cutting social identities and recognizing larger shared identities have both been shown to lead to more cooperation and fairer outcomes in social dilemma situations, where there is a limited resource that people have to allocate and share.6

As humanists, our goal should be not just building the inner circles of community, but pushing that sense of connectedness out across as many of boundaries as possible. The community of freethinkers should be just one of several communities of which we consider ourselves to be a part. It's one of the nine "best practices" for nonreligious parenting mentioned in the Preface: Encourage the widest possible circles of empathy. As we define our immediate communities, it's important to recognize and reinforce the communities of which we are already a part, all the way out to the widest circle of all: the community of life on Earth.

We can take a page from the atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers at the University of Illinois who went on a spring break community service trip together with members of their school's Campus Crusade for Christ group to help with rebuilding in New Orleans. As we seek to form communities with other freethinking families, we can and should also join together with other groups to make our broader community a better place.

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