I think it was Ben Franklin, on the eve of the American Revolution, who is alleged to have
said, "We must hang together, or we will most assuredly hang individually." And that's
why we are all here today – why we started this organization. Because we realize that as
individuals we have very little power. But in unity there is strength. As a representative of
a respected organization our individual voice is amplified a thousand times. So power is
what it's all about. How can we, as an organization, increase our influence on society?
John Kenneth Galbraith is probably the most famous economist in the world: Professor
Emeritus at Harvard University. Economic advisor to four decades of presidents.
Ambassador to India. Past president of the American Economic Association. Author of
dozens of books. And recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He
has not only studied the world literature on the subject, but he has occupied, or been
around, seats of power all his life. So there is probably no one better qualified to write
this book – The Anatomy of Power – than he is.
III. What is Power?
First of all, there is nothing wrong with wanting power. Power is what life is all about.
Power is the ability to get what we want. Without it, we die. When a baby is born, his task
is to gain mastery over his own body and, through knowledge, to gain power over nature.
The worst thing that can happen to us is to lose this most basic power – through injury,
disease, or incarceration. We seek money. But money is only a unit of power – like the
erg, calorie, or watt. We seek fame. But fame only increases our ability to influence
society. Religious people seek "holiness." But that's only an attempt to gain supernatural
For purposes of our discussion today I'll use a definition proposed by Max Weber,
another political scientist: "Power is the ability to impose one's will on the behavior of
IV. Three Categories of Power
Galbraith divides power into three categories: (1)Condign, (2) compensatory, and (3)
1. "Condign" power refers to brute force. This means the ability to inflict punishment on
someone if they don't obey. Courts, police forces and armies are the principle
instruments of condign power.
2. "Compensatory" power means the ability to get what you want by exchanging
something of value. And of course the principal instrument of compensatory power is
3. "Conditioned" power refers to public opinion. And the instruments of conditioned
power are education and persuasion. The trick is to get people to obey you of their own
The life cycle of an idea starts with a seed in the mind of a few individuals. They spread
the idea until they have gained enough conditioned power to enter the realm of
compensatory power. Money then gains access to more media, and thus consolidates
more conditioned power. And the combination of money and public opinion eventually
becomes law, and thus gains condign power.
V. Three Sources of Power
Behind the three categories of power, there are three sources of power: (1) Personality,
(2) Property and (3), Organization.
(1)"Personality" refers to leadership. In primitive societies it may depend on size,
physical strength, or cleverness. But in the modern world, it is persuasive ability that
counts – primarily public speaking ability and a "charismatic" image.
(2) "Property" is self-explanatory. "Wealth" means never having to say you're sorry. Or
say anything at all! Money speaks louder than words.
(3) But “organization" is the most important source of power in today's world. Because
only through effective organization can the first two sources of power be implemented.
Galbraith points out that religion became the first superpower in the world – because all
religions start with a charismatic personality who claims condign power through access
to supernatural knowledge. This person begins an organization, which enlarges itself
through threats of supernatural punishment to non-believers. As the organization grows, it
acquires property. And the combination of wealth and popular opinion eventually
becomes law. So even non-believers are finally forced to submit by brute force. But the
key to this kind of growth is effective organization.
VI. Effectiveness of types of power
Condign and compensatory powers are equivalent to the carrot and stick approach.
Wielding this kind of power is very obvious to everyone. Condign power is regarded as a
primitive last resort in civilized countries. Slavery, torture and death have gradually been
replaced by the positive reinforcement of compensation for obedience. Religion,
however, being a vestigial remnant of primitive times, still depends on threats of hell as
much as its promises of eternal euphoria – with never a hangover.
Conditioned power is much more efficient than either the carrot or the stick. This is a
matter of mind control, so it doesn’t require as much effort to get people to obey. And a
large percentage of all media time and space is devoted to this purpose.
VII. Methods of Mind Control
There are only five general ends for any communication at all, and of these five, three are
types of propaganda. They are:
1. To inform
2. To entertain
3. To persuade
4. To actuate
5. To inspire
To inform simply means to provide new information. The most common examples are
newspapers and newscasts.
To entertain means to make the audience forget their personal problems for awhile, and
come away feeling refreshed. The most common examples are feature movies and
To persuade means to make the audience change their mind about something. The most
common examples are editorials, essays and documentary films.
To actuate means to make the audience perform some physical action. The most
common example is the TV commercial.
To inspire means to prevent the audience from changing their mind about something. An
inspirational program is designed to reinforce some pre-existing value. The most
common examples are church services, religious and patriotic holidays, pep rallies,
sales meetings, etc. This is why you are required to recite the same creeds and prayers
at every church service; why you must memorize hymns, catechisms, and rosaries; why
you must repeat the pledge of allegiance to "God and the flag" at all public events; why
religious and patriotic myths are reenacted every year during Christmas, Easter,
Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. I contend that even the rise of
professional sports is based on acting out the ritual of corporate competition –
reinforcing the ideal of subordination of the individual for the team. So the Superbowl or
World Series is really a religious ritual – an annual passion play in which the ideals of
capitalism are acted out.
Now persuasion, actuation and inspiration all come under the direct heading of
propaganda, since their only purpose is to control the mind of the audience. But even
information and entertainment can be easily slanted for propaganda purposes.
We always hear about the Russians being subjected to a barrage of propaganda.
Actually, there is no difference in the amount of propaganda we are subjected to in the
United States and the amount endured by citizens of the Soviet Union. The only
difference is that here there are many different groups trying to influence us to their own
purposes. While in totalitarian countries there is only one group – the government – and
only one purpose: to make the audience love and obey the existing rulers.
Overt persuasion, such as editorials, sermons, special magazines, and paid advertising,
are not generally as effective as more subtle forms of propaganda. In the case of
persuasive and actuational messages, the audience instinctively reacts with a certain
amount of suspicion and resistance. But if all their information and entertainment can be
slanted through lies and card stacking, they are defenseless. This, of course, is the whole
purpose of religious schools. Children are kept in a closed environment, and all
information has been censored and slanted so as to support the doctrines of that
particular denomination. Books, films, songs, dress codes, and all leisure time activities
are rigidly monitored. Once an individual has been thoroughly conditioned by these
methods, he adopts the lessons he has been taught as his own. So their philosophy
becomes his view of reality. A thoroughly conditioned individual is willing to work and die
for his philosophy – not necessarily because of threats or rewards – but just because
"that's the way things are." Anyone who disagrees with him is simply crazy. Of course,
this conditioning has to be reinforced to some extent by a combination of positive and
negative stimuli, or he may begin to re-evaluate his concepts of reality, and become what
we would call a "free thinker."
So, conditioned power is the ultimate power. Rewards and punishment are only the
means for attaining that end.
VIII. Effective Leadership
As I said earlier, the acquisition of power is the very essence of life. Everybody seeks it
for its own sake. It's one of the few intrinsic values we have. But an effective leader must
never admit that! He must somehow convince his followers that he is not enjoying it, but is
merely their self-sacrificing representative – humbly serving their best interests. And
much of our social conditioning is based on propaganda designed to conceal both the
ends and means of power manipulation. We are told, for example, that in a free
enterprise democracy all power resides in the people. But as we have seen, that is not
true. It comes from leaders and organizations – who then manipulate public opinion to
The next attribute of an effective leader is a certain amount of "charm" or "star quality"
and absolute self confidence. Whether he knows what he is talking about is irrelevant.
The important thing is whether he can convey the impression that he knows. Of course, a
good deal of this "charisma" is part of "image creation," which can be purchased from P.
R. agencies. And for certain positions, it may be helpful if he can convey the impression
that he is in direct contact with supernatural forces.
Finally, a leader must never get too far ahead of his followers, or he'll lose them.
Basically, he tells them what they want to hear, while only subtly and slowly interjecting his
own ideas. He waits until they have accepted these ideas, and then he suggests further
IX. Effective use of Property
Wealth, in itself, creates a certain degree of respect. It is still part of the "Protestant Ethic"
that God bestows material blessings on his favorite people. So if a person is wealthy,
that proves their "worthiness" in God's eyes.
Today, however, wealth is not flaunted as it once was. That is more likely to create a
backlash. Instead, it is used to create an image of modest respectability. And the
remainder should be spent on advertising, public relations, and political support.
X. Effective Organization
The most important element in an effective organization is what Galbraith calls "bimodal
symmetry." That is, an organization is only as strong as its internal discipline. An army
can win battles only if individual soldiers are willing to fight and die for it. It maintains
internal discipline, not only by psychological conditioning, but also by resorting to the
condign power of prison or even execution for refusing to obey orders. A union can win
its demands only if all members are willing to support a strike. Whether a football team
wins the Superbowl depends entirely on how well disciplined they are. And the
corporation that beats the competition is the one with the best disciplined management
team. This means the price of success is very high. A business executive must be willing
to obey any order, without question, no matter how disagreeable. But he is paid a very
high salary to do it.
An organization exercises external power by the same method it maintains internal
discipline. An army exercises power by threats of force; and it maintains discipline by
threats of force. A corporation exercises power by economic means; and it maintains
disciple by offering high salaries. A political, religious, or philosophical organization
exercises power by persuasion; so it must maintain internal discipline by persuasion.
This is why the first duty of these organizations is to institute study groups, so each
individual is thoroughly informed. But this is also why there has been so much emphasis
on stamping out "heresy," and why they continually keep splitting up and multiplying.
Galbraith points out that conservative groups always have more power than liberal ones,
because it's the nature of the conservative personality to obey authority and follow orders.
Lack of discipline is the greatest weakness of any freethought organization. Members
cannot be unified by ordinary mind-control techniques because that's contrary to their
whole purpose. And they cannot be motivated to support the organization by supernatural
threats, as religious people can. So decisive action is often replaced by endless
bickering, as each individual puts his own ego above the interests of the whole.
What we lack in unity and strength of numbers, however, we make up for in quality. Our
members are far more intelligent and creative than those in religious groups. We have
seen that proved in a number of scientific surveys. And the nature of our cause is easier
to promote, because it is based on reality rather than fantasy; we have the whole
academic and scientific establishment behind us. Furthermore, there are two kinds of
propaganda: white and black. White propaganda is simply the dissemination of truth.
Whereas, black propaganda is based on lies, threats and censorship. So it's much
harder to sustain in the long run.
The next most important element in effective organization is unity of purpose. A single-
issue organization (such as ours) inherently has more power than one which tries to go in
all directions at once (such as the Humanists).
Finally, the ultimate strength of any organization lies in its access to all the sources of
power: leadership, money, and legal sanctions.
XI. The Dialectics of Power
Society always maintains equilibrium. So any exercise of power automatically generates
opposition. The growth of atheism in America is a direct response to the growth of
religious power. In the Soviet Union, of course, there is the opposite situation.
There is a symbiotic relationship between power blocks. The existence of each
organization generally depends on the existence of its enemy – either real or imagined.
For example: The Christian church could not exist without the concept of Satan. The
American military-industrial complex could not exist without the bogeyman of the Soviet
Union. And we would not exist without the churches, the Moral Majority, and other
Furthermore, the type of power exerted is normally countered with the same type. Threats
of violence are countered by threats of violence. Economic giants are kept in check by
competing economic giants. Organizations such as Political Action Committees are
opposed by competing PACs, and so on.
But there are exceptions. And a-symmetry can sometimes be more effective. For
example, threats of violence can sometimes be overcome by non violent resistance. And
in our case, lies, fear, threats and hysteria can be more effectively countered with truth,
and calm rationality.
Galbraith devotes an entire chapter to religion. But he concludes that religious power is
gradually decreasing. The church is no longer monolithic. In America, we have thousands
of different sects and cults all competing with each other for believers. It no longer has the
authority to arrest and torture non-believers into submission. It no longer has complete
control over the media, as it once did. And it has a relatively smaller share of the total
wealth than it used to.
The resurgence of fundamentalism in America and elsewhere is just a predictable
reaction to Future Shock. Many people cannot cope with the rapid changes created by
science and technology, so they regress to a more infantile type of behavior. And the
great noise created by religionists during the last few years is just a dying gasp. The
main danger, of course, is that one of these hysterics may decide that God has told him
to push the Doomsday Button, to rid the world once and for all of Satan's "Evil Empire.”
Galbraith concludes that manipulation of the media through carefully organized public
relations is the single most important key to power in today's world. But even that is not
as powerful as it once was – because of the proliferation of media. The fact is that in
recent decades there has been a gradual decentralization of power all over the world. So
no single individual, or organization has as much real power as they, or the public, may
The remainder of Galbraith's book is devoted to illustrating these points as he traces the
changes in economic systems through history.
XII. Mass Movements
I'd like to end with some additional observations that I have made after spending many
years of studying mass movements and propaganda techniques. I can't attribute these
ideas to any one source.
1. First of all, there must be a "holy book." This is the basic source of conditioned power.
It establishes the movement by explaining the basic concepts. Ideally, this book should
have been "divinely inspired," like the Bible, the Koran, the Avesta, the Book off Mormon,
the Bagavad Gita, etc. But that isn't absolutely essential. The Nazis had their "Mein
Kamph." The communists had "Das Kapital." The Red Guard had their "Little Red Book
of Quotations from Chairman Mao," and so on. In our case, I frankly think my book,
"Lucifer's Handbook," serves that function. That's why I wrote it. It covers all the
philosophical arguments you'll ever hear, and it does so in a very concise, easily
readable form. The other essential "holy book" for Atheists is Madalyn O'Hair's book,
"Freedom Under Siege." This one covers the legal situation in the United States
regarding the violations of State/Church separation. And for dedicated scholars, willing to
struggle through four hundred pages of turgid prose, there is "Atheism, the Case Against
God," by George Smith. It doesn't cover as much territory as mine, but what it does cover,
it treats in exhaustive detail.
2. The second essential element is a charismatic leader: someone with the stature of a
Robert Engersall or Bertrand Russell. Unfortunately, Madalyn O'Hair is the closest thing
we have to a national leader, because she is the only full-time, professional Atheist. That
is how she makes her living. She’s an excellent writer and speaker, but personal "charm"
is not one of her strong points. She drives away as many people as she attracts; and
those who have tried to work with her over the years report that she’s not a very good
administrator either. What we need is a Carl Sagan, or Isaak Asimov, or Paul Kurtz. If we
had someone of that caliber, an excellent way to get publicity would be to run for public
office on an Atheist platform. He isn't likely to win, but he would get millions of dollars
worth of free headlines and air time.
3. The next essential element is a well-disciplined, national organization, interlinking local
chapters with newsletters and magazines. The Unitarians, the Humanists and American
Atheists have all done excellent work in that direction. But the weakness in the Unitarians
and the Humanists is that they try to be all things to all people. And the problem with
American Atheists is incompetent management – issuing conflicting orders, not allowing
enough local autonomy, etc. – which led several chapters to break away – including our
4. There must be a well-defined enemy. This can be used as a scapegoat, so that all the
evils of the world can be blamed on it. We have no problem there. It is the god concept –
as promoted by organized religion. I think we can be excused for sometimes overstating
our case; I don't think religion is the cause of all problems, but I can't think of a good
candidate for second place. And at least for the time being, the chief spokesman for this
concept happens to occupy the oval office.
5. There must be some martyrs who have died for the cause. Again, we have plenty of
those to choose from during the inquisitions and witch hurts. But with a little research, we
can find some more recent examples. This is a subject we should be working on.
6. The organization must have a logo. It should be a pleasing design and, ideally, it
should be simple enough to scrawl on a wall in a few seconds. We discussed this for
several months, and never reached a decision. The Christians have their cross, the Jews
their star of David, the Unitarians, their flaming chalice, the Humanists, their happy man,
American Atheists their atomic energy symbol. But we still have nothing.
7. There must be a slogan. Ideally, it should consist of seven syllables, or multiples of
seven. We already have two good ones: "Atheists United, The Rational Minority." That's
14 syllables. Perfect. Or: "Religion's Not the Answer; Religion is the Problem." Again,
8. Finally, there should be a song which expresses the ideals of the organization. And,
ideally, it should be written to a march tempo. So if we have any composers, there is an
important project for you to work on.
Well, these are the main points I thought you might be interested in. And perhaps they will
help stimulate your imagination for more ideas about how we can increase our
The Anatomy of Power
by Milt Timmons
[Delivered at a meeting of Atheists United some time in early 1983, shortly after
we had broken away from American Atheists and established our own
independent organization. My sine-wave logo had not yet been adopted]
2007 Addendum: As Atheists United celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, many
things have changed, but much remains the same.
1. John Kenneth Galbraith is long dead, but his words live on.
2. "The Evil Empire" no longer refers to the defunct Soviet Union; instead, we now have
the "Axis of Evil."
3. "When I spoke of the decentralization of power, that was long before the Internet came
along and decentralized it even more.
4. To the list of atheist "holy books" we should now add: "The End of Faith" and "Letter to
a Christian Nation," by Sam Harris; "The God Delusion," by Richard Dawkins; and "God
is Not Great," by Christopher Hitchens.
5. Madalyn Murray O'Hair is also long gone. Ellen Johnson is certainly an improvement
over Madalyn, but the de facto "charismatic leader" of the atheist movement now seems
to be Richard Dawkins.
6. Shortly after this speech, AU finally adopted my sine-wave design as their official logo.
You can see it on the last page of my photo album.
7. The de facto official song of the freethought movement now seems to be John
Lennon's "Imagine," even though it's a ballad rather than a march. Dan Barker has also
written several albums of freethought songs. One particularly rousing one is "We Gotta
Fight the Battle of Church and State," sung to the tune of "Joshua Fit the Battle of