Atheist Culture

I’m going to wade into a subject I’m totally unqualified to discuss: Culture. But hey, it’s me — Well Meaning Doofus. It’s what I do.

I was talking to some Hopi friends in Arizona a while back about Hopi culture. The subject of Native American culture was of great interest to me back when I lived in Flagstaff, possibly because at the time I had so little sense of my own culture.

I was born into a culture, of course, the culture of my family and neighbors — call it Deep South Christian White People culture blended with East Texas Rodeo Cowboy culture, all under a sort of umbrella Complacently Ignorant American Provincial culture — but I spent some years of my life getting free of it.

Or at least parts of it. It was definitely not the case that all of it was bad, but for that kid looking for a broader stage, it turned out I couldn’t stay subject to it.

Putting it bluntly, I needed to be more than my People would allow me to be. I wasn’t content to believe, as my mother did, that lightning would come in through an uncurtained window and strike anybody who was making a loud noise. Or to believe, as my Wicked Stepfather did, that a man holding his breath was lighter than normal, or that a hole dug during a certain phase of the moon would have either too much or too little dirt to refill it later, again depending on the phase of the moon. Or even to believe, as some of my friends did, that it was okay to chase raccoons through the East Texas woods with dogs, and then shoot them out of a tree so the dogs could tear them up.

Or that there was a Heaven, occupied by an all-powerful Creator of the Universe, and that He kept a tireless ledger about my activities and thoughts, and that, whether it was the Southern Baptist version of my mother’s family, or the Jehovah’s Witness version of my father’s, it would all someday come up in a very stern moment of Judgment.

I spent years jettisoning those unreal and unhappy bits, working to replace them with things that made more sense. I was looking for ways to be more rational, more creative, more thoughtful, and hopefully even more compassionate than I’d been taught to be.

But I also continued to marvel at the value other people placed on their home cultures.

Talking to the Coochyamptewas about their Hopi dance performance group helped me think about the subject in some new ways. Whereas I had worked to get free of my parent culture, they had worked to ally themselves more closely with theirs, observing and preserving some of the traditions, dress and customs that have served as the rich soil of Hopi life.

I mulled things over later, and had some new thoughts on the subject, thoughts that eventually began to infuse my understanding of atheism. Here’s what I came up with:

Your culture shapes you for both good and ill.

Unfortunately, as I had discovered, it cuts off some of your strengths. It damps down your wilder urges and flights of fancy, your magnificent obsessions and sometimes even your best ideas.

But it also supports you in your areas of weakness. It helps you through a thousand difficult situations, comforting and protecting you when things are hard.

Learned over a lifetime with your people, it teaches you all your life about how to deal WITH life, giving you general and specific approaches to every situation. It teaches you comfortable ceremonies for opening conversations, for meeting strangers, for saying goodbye to departed loved ones, ways for dealing with grief and with guilt, and the million other moments when we need a bit of support. There are even comfortable rules and ceremonies for mundane things like eating, sleeping and — in my case — for sneezing.

Your home culture teaches you what to value, and how to treat yourself and the people around you. (Of course some of that can be “Here’s who we hate, and why. Those mutton-eating freaks.”)

Historically speaking, “real” culture has the advantage of having worked out, over generations, lubricating solutions on how to live with ourselves and others in EVERY common situation. But it has the disadvantage of shoving each of its followers down into a one-size-fits-all mold.

Compare that to the freedom of current-day popular culture, the pieced-together free-form “sort of” culture that blankets the modern world, arriving in our heads via movie screens, television, radio, billboards and Internet, a vast body of images and ways of speaking and doing that serve as a constant surround.

It’s our nature, it seems to me, to want to belong with a People. But popular culture isn’t a People, it’s cultural fragments, shattered shards of almost-meaning that we grasp and let go in grab after grab at the brass ring of “Here’s Where I Belong.” Driven by corporate advertising departments or political leaders who care about us only in a parasitical money-related or power-related sense, probably the last thing they can address is the subject of belonging.

They can own us in the way real culture does, but they can’t offer support. They can provide the appetizer of cultural attraction, but can’t follow it up with the main course of cultural acceptance. They can beckon with the flashy lure of sameness, but they can never give us the solid substance of oneness.

And they do. They demand FROM us, but they never give TO us.

Which, to me, means that you have to have your own culture, just in simple self-defense. But given that older cultures lack so much that you have to have, in the face of new knowledge or new social necessities … what do you do?

I say: Build a new one.

There’s a “something extra” in atheism, more than the simple “I don’t believe in god” that most people insist is all can ever be there. I’m pretty sure PZ Myers has touched on it, and I think it is some of what Richard Dawkins works toward. I’ve written about it more than once myself.

If you get religion out of your head and you simply stop there, you become the kind of atheist those simple-atheism definers describe.

But if you keep going, keep thinking about it, new things begin to fill the space occupied in your head by god-belief and church and even other things.

New things like, it seems to me, the first stirrings of an entirely new culture.

It’s a subject I’d like to write about in the coming year.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on it. What atheist culture is, what it could be. Maybe what it has to be. Or if it can exist at all.

  • John Morales


    If you get religion out of your head and you simply stop there, you become the kind of atheist those simple-atheism definers describe.

    Suits me just fine.

    Some people apparently need to ‘belong’; good for them. Not I.

    • Robert B.

      … he said, participating in an atheist community.

      I admire the will to independence, but everyone has a cultural frame around them, a pattern of interactions with other people that shapes their life. You can’t just not have a culture. What Hank’s talking about here, I think, is taking control of that frame, and consciously reshaping it to something more correct and moral.

      • John Morales


        … he said, participating in an atheist community.

        Had I been a Christian or Islamic commenter responding, I would have no less have participated in “an atheist community” than I have done so as an atheist.

        You quite sure that participation implies membership? :)

        I admire the will to independence, but everyone has a cultural frame around them, a pattern of interactions with other people that shapes their life. You can’t just not have a culture.

        If my lack of belief in any given proposition is shared with someone (or some group) implies membership of that someone’s (or group’s) culture, then I belong to pretty much every extant, past and future culture.

        (Pretty otiose, that)

        What Hank’s talking about here, I think, is taking control of that frame, and consciously reshaping it to something more correct and moral.

        Yeah, I know. But I’m not an ideologue — I’ll leave such reshapings to those to whom it matters.

  • Roxane

    Apart fro a brief stint as a catholic as a child I’ve never been religious. I was the child of a British soldier so as a family we moved to diifferent countries as he took up new postings. As a teenager we emigrated to Australia and moved a few times until my parents found somewhere they wantted to settle. I left home at 18 and married a soldier myself at 23. Our family moved to different places around Australia up until 11 years ago when my husband discharged. We are now living in our third house since the, the second one we have owned. I am now 53 and have lived here a little over 5 years. The longest time I have lived anywhere in my life.
    While one could say we have never stayed anywhere long enough to adopt the culture of a place, i think this is also becoming the case for many people. Cradle to the grave work used to keep people tied to a particular geographic location, but this is no longer the case. Perhaps for many this has caused a disconnect and they don’t know what to replace it with.
    Australia is very different to America, even though the two countries were populated by immigrants a similar length of time ago. While America was predominantly populated by immigrants fleeing religious persecution, Australia was populated by convicts and the empire that served as their gaolers. It is perhaps understandable then that America still has a population which prodominantly describes itself as religious. Australia too has a large number of people who call themselves religious (latest census poll results pending), but only around 7% of us attend a church etc. So turning to a religious institution each time we moved for continuity of culture and community was never seen as necessary. We have built our own family traditions; for example each of us makes a little speech when gathering for christmas dinner (I’m calling it summer solstice this year) and says something that that they were proud of or made them happy during that year, and says something about their goals for the next. My point is that my husband and I have a set of values that we cherish; integrity, honesty, etc and a role we each have as people who want to live amoung others in a society; responsibility, respect, inclusiveness. So we have many interesting discussions around the dinner table, and we don’t always agree. We value disagreement, it helps us grow and has instilled an appreciation of difference in all of us as a way to keep monotony at bay.
    So, culture dictated by society has been uninfluential in our lives; instead we and the children we have raised move about the world living by our values and hopefully those values will influence the society in which we live – wherever that may be.

  • grafnackles

    It’s been said that we participate in religious rites to reinforce a sense of community and belonging in our lives. These rites are prescribed and immutable and, therefore, mentally confining.
    To be an atheist is to drop away those rites and rituals and allow ourselves to witness and participate in the world as it is without the filters that color our perceptions and legislate our responses.
    In becoming free of that outside, judgmental voice and allowing ourselves to participate in living, free from anything but our own self analysis, we develop our interactions with the world in a more natural fashion. It allows us to react, without reservation, to the necessities of life and this freedom is exhilarating.
    We are able to replace rote responses with considered thought and compassionate action without first stopping to see if our intentions meet all of conditions of an external moral construction.

    • John Morales

      grafnackles, I’ll quibble with one aspect of what you wrote but heartily endorse the remainder: “without the filters” → “without some of the filters”.

      (I think atheism is but one small domain in the totality of one’s attitudes and beliefs)

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