Why This Way - A Consensus-based Belief System and Organization

by cazort

Why This Way is a consensus-based organization and belief system which may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition of religion.

Why This Way is a consensus-based organization and belief system which may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition of religion. I have chosen to list it here under religion because I personally believe it to be my religion, but not everyone in the group considers it a religion.

Why This Way is characterized by a particular way of communicating, which is designed to promote positive and respectful dialogue, and keep the dialogue as truthful as possible. The group's belief system encompasses concepts such as all people being valuable, and values consent and self-motivation.

What is Why This Way?

Our group is hard to define or characterize; here are a few important aspects of it.

One of the key aspects of Why This Way is that it is hard to define concisely.  Rather than define it, I want to share some of the key aspects of the group and its belief system:

  • Diversity of Viewpoints, Synthesized - Why This Way is all about people who have different ideas, different perspectives, or different beliefs coming together to discuss potentially controversial points in a respectful manner.  The group highly values disagreement and diversity of viewpoints, and uses this disagreement to reach more nuanced viewpoints which synthesize the best aspects or most truthful aspects of all the different viewpoints, and weed out the weaknesses or flaws in various approaches.
  • Self-motivation and Consent - Why This Way is all about self-motivation.  A key idea in the group is that we want people to do good things because they want to, not because they are forced to or feel social pressure to.  Why This Way embraces and encourages the autonomy of each person.  The goal of the group is not to force beliefs or practices on people, but rather, to encourage people to question their beliefs and way of living and acting, and embrace beliefs and practices of their own accord, because they make sense.
  • A Focus on Communication and Truthfulness - Communication is a key focus of Why This Way.  As a group, we place a great deal of importance on how we communicate with each other, and we talk about communication a lot.  Our views on communication are related to communicating truthfully, and also discerning the truthfulness of other people's communication, both in speech and in writing or print.

One of the best ways to learn about Why This Way is on the official Why This Way wiki.

The history of Why This Way

A wild idea becomes reality when 5 friends get together.

I've started a lot of ambitious projects in my life, and I used to joke about how I wanted to some day start a new religion.  I was half serious.  Some time in late 2011, I started to think more about this wild and crazy idea.

A group of my friends and I, especially my friends Sylvia and Anna, would often meet to discuss religion, values, and the state of society.  We would have consistently satisfying conversations, and, while we disagreed on numerous issues, we found ourselves able to discuss topics that are normally considered controversial.

For my whole life, I've had the experience of going through various groups of people, and sometimes feeling really wonderful connections with people, but other times feeling frustrated, excluded from groups, bored, or otherwise unfulfilled.  Although I was always able to articulate how I felt after the fact, I had a relatively poor grasp on how and why I would feel so good in some group settings and so bad in others.

We started talking about how to replicate the positive and fulfilling dynamic that existed in our own conversations.

On January 4th, 2012, a group of five of us gathered in West Philadelphia to found the group.  At this meeting, we started building our rules of communication, the rules that would be used to guide and govern our discussions and how our organization is run.  We continued to meet, with different people coming to the meetings, but the meetings remaining small.

On March 28th, after we had already built a substantial portion of our belief system, we finally agreed on a name for the group, Why This Way, and on April 4th we agreed on a symbol.  The next day, the 5th, our wiki was set up.  With the wiki up, the extent of our group's system of beliefs and practices began to blossom.

The group now has regular meetings in multiple locations and has been slowly growing, both in terms of participation, and the extent of the belief system.

Influences on Why This Way

Organizations and belief systems that inspired or shaped Why This Way in various ways

Why This Way has been influenced by numerous other belief systems and organizations.  I have personally had many experiences with organizations and systems of thought and belief that I think were influential in the ideas I and others contributed to the group.  Some of them are:

  • Unitarian Universalism (UU) -- UU is a religion or church denomination that grew out of Christianity but came to include people with a broad range of belief systems.  The group emphasizes tolerance and mutual understanding and embraces diversity.  UU shares a lot in common with Why This Way, but it has an emphasis on democracy and frames much of its beliefs in terms of justice, a concept that doesn't fit as easily into Why This Way's belief system.
  • Quakers (Society of Friends) - The Society of Friends is run by consensus, and as such provided one of the sources of inspiration for founding and running Why This Way as a consensus-based organization.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - Cognitive behavioral therapy is certainly not a religion, but it definitely provides a framework for thinking and solving problems in a person's life, and was highly influential in Why This Way.
  • Nonviolent Communication (NVC) - NVC is a framework for dispute resolution that can be applied in as diverse settings as marriage and relationship counseling, and international diplomacy.  NVC emphasizes both listening and expression, and has many elements that have influenced or share certain things in common with the ways of communicating embraced by Why This Way.

The Rules of Communication

One of the key defining features of Why This Way, characterizing how we communicate

In my experience, when people talk of a religion, philosophy, group, or organization focused on systems of beliefs and practices, they usually focus on the group's beliefs.  In the case of Why This Way, there is something that is as important as, or more important than the group's beliefs, which has no clear counterpart in most organizations or religions.  This aspect of the group is the set of rules of communication.

The best place to read about the rules is on the group's wiki, as the rules themselves are dynamic, and the wiki also describes extensive commentary.  Here is my attempt to summarize the spirit or goal of these rules:

  • Truthfulness - The rules are designed to keep the dialogue as truthful as possible.  The rules include points such as requiring people to speak from their own experience, and clearly identify the source of information or facts that they are sharing, when those ideas are uncertain or potentially contentious.  The rules also prohibit stating opinions or speculations about unknown things as facts, requiring them to be identified as personal opinions.
  • Respect - The rules prohibit personal attacks, and also set clear boundaries that prohibit talking about specific people's thoughts, intentions, or motivations.  They also prohibit people from using "should" statements, statements telling people what they "should" do or how things "should" be.  These rules all serve many purposes, but one key purpose of them is to maintain an atmosphere in which everyone is respected.
  • Empowerment - Another goal of the rules is to create an environment in which ideas themselves flourish on their own merit, regardless of who shared them.  This has the effect of empowering newcomers to contribute to the group, and keep people from using power or authority to control or manipulate the group and its belief system through the controlling of ideas or dialogue.  Some of the rules that relate to empowerment including a prohibition on evading questions, and a rule about using language within the range of meanings in society at large, so as to make the group's dialogue accessible to newcomers.  The rules also expressly forbid blaming people or assigning or taking credit for positive things.

Have you ever been involved in a discussion or meeting which become overriden with conflict?

Is it a religion or not?

We do not even agree on the question of whether or not we are a religion!

When our group was founded, we initially called it a religion.  But now we do not.  There is no consensus in our consensus-based group on whether or not we are a religion, in part because we all use and define the word "religion" in different ways.

Some of our participants believe that it is not a religion because our beliefs do not make any direct statements about the nature of God or the afterlife, and because we accomodate different beliefs on these points.  Other people do not see it as a religion because it is necessarily non-exclusive, and encourages people to participate in it who identify with other religions.  Currently, the group has active participants who identify as Christian, Jewish, Agnostic, and other faiths as well.

I personally see the group as a religion, because it is a belief system which is represented by a human organization, which has its own distinct history, culture, and organizational structure.  I also see it as a religion because I personally feel the group to be an expression of my own spiritual beliefs.  I also do not see religion as something that is necessarily exclusive--while I see Why This Way as a religion, I also think Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism are religions, and I think it is possible for people to practice, believe in, or identify with these religions while also participating in or identifying with Why This Way.

Do you personally think Why This Way is a religion?

Based on what you've seen so far, would you consider this group a religion or not?

Is Why This Way Similar to Existing Groups?

Our group and its belief system are different from the groups that we are often seen as being most similar to.

I definitely consider Why This Way to be based on a new and somewhat radical combination of ideas, but the individual ideas that form it are hardly new.  It makes sense that there would be a lot of existing groups in society, particularly religious groups, that share a lot of things in common with our group.

One of the questions that we are frequently asked is how our group differs from existing groups.

Some of these similar groups are:

  • Unitarian Universalism - Unitarian Universalism (UU) is similar to Why This Way in that it is an organization that provides a broad umbrella under which people who practice different faiths and live by different belief systems, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Agnosticism, among others, can come together.  There are several key differences, however, between the two groups.  UU places a great emphasis on the idea of justice, whereas Why This Way is very cautious about using words like "justice".  UU tends to attract mostly people with a more liberal (in the stereotypical US sense) political ideology, whereas Why This Way seems to harmonize (in my opinion) more easily with a sort of progressive libertarian political ideology, one that is less of a close match to the stereotypical liberal political ideology in the U.S.
  • Quakers (Society of Friends) - Quakers share many things in common with Why This Way, including an emphasis on consensus for running organizations and making decisions, and an emphasis on silence and reflection in communications and gatherings.

Why This Way also differs from these and existing religious groups in the level of specificity with which the group has spelled out the way it wants to communicate.  The ground rules used to govern discussion, the rules of communication, are quite extensive and more restrictive on the sort of dialogue and ideas that are allowed to enter into the group.  These rules represent one of the most radical elements of Why This Way, and the point that I believe gives the group the greatest potential for it to achieve ambitious goals through a genuinely new approach.

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Updated: 07/07/2013, cazort
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cazort on 12/03/2014

Thank you! We have definitely had a lot of success with the group. For one, we've been able to have fruitful and positive discussions on a wide range of topics, and I think that in itself is something beautiful and powerful. For example, we had people with a wide range of views discuss abortion, same-sex marriage, and other "hot-button" issues, and we haven't generally had any problems discussing those topics.

But for a second benefit, many of the people in the group have expressed that they have found that learning the group's rules has helped them immensely in their interactions with others. For example, many people express that they have been able to better moderate or participate in internet discussions that often get tense. A lot of people have expressed that it has helped with assertiveness.

And I've also found it very helpful for myself personally, for refining and clarifying my values...I've changed viewpoints on a wide range of issues, often in subtle ways, through discussions in the group.

cazort on 03/06/2013

It's interesting...the hope is definitely to create open-minded dialogue, but one way we achieve this is by moving away from talking about individual people as open-minded or closed-minded...and instead focusing on the culture of the group, and the specific ways people communicate. For example, I can become stubborn, defensive, and closed-off from advice under certain circumstances, and I've also had times when I have handled discussions poorly, in ways which contributed to others feeling upset or defensive.

So, while I certainly hope that the group can help people to be more open-minded, it's about more than that...in a sense, it's about moving beyond concepts like open-mindedness (which can sometimes tend towards unhealthy, judgmental approaches, like if we judge or label others as closed-minded) and instead, raising awareness of what sorts of ways of communicating lead towards conversations where there is more listening and understanding.

dustytoes on 03/06/2013

That really does sound amazing. I do like this idea. It sounds like the people who attend your meetings are, or will become, more open-minded in their thinking and that can only be helpful to making our society a better one.

cazort on 03/06/2013

One thing that I find happens a lot in our group is that when we discuss issues on which we seem to disagree, it becomes apparent that different people are using language in different ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes more overtly. It's not uncommon for all of the apparent disagreements to vanish when we get to a deeper understanding of exactly what each of us is using various words or phrases.

But another thing that happens too is that I see people's views (including my own) change more in the group than they do in other sorts of discussion contexts. I think part of this is because our rules are designed to minimize feelings of defensiveness, and keep people in a place of genuine listening. Often, when someone points out a problem in our already-agreed-upon beliefs, there's not even a moment of defensiveness--at times, everyone has agreed with the proposed change right off the bat. It's kind of exciting to watch.

dustytoes on 03/06/2013

Any time people of differing beliefs can get together and talk respectfully and listen to each other it's a good thing. I applaud you for creating such a group. I think it would be very interesting to listen to others who may think differently than I do, and I understand why you would need rules about how to discuss issues and what not to bring into the conversation. I wouldn't consider this a religion as I would think it could change or strengthen ones beliefs to discuss why they think as they do. Then again, for some, it could be considered a religion.

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