All the civilizations I ever heard of had this in common: Somewhere right near each one’s heart was religion.
It seems impossible to get away from. And yet it shouldn’t be. After all, it’s never been true that religion is ALL people do.
And it’s not as if religion is food, or water, or air. It’s just this … idea. Hideously embroidered, massively wrapped in confusing, fanciful language, aggressively forced upon people in their vulnerable years and moments … but still just an idea. If it’s possible for one person to be free of it, it’s possible for anyone – maybe even a majority of us – to be free of it. And yet, it seems, we’ve never really tried.
This may be the moment in which that begins to change. This is the “maybe” revolution I spoke of in Part 1.
Let me toss a couple of arbitrary labels at you:
View the countless civilizations and cultures of human history through this one filter – religion – and give it a single label.
Collect together all the shamans and seers, cult leaders and crazies, priests and popes and prelates. All the churches and choirs, hymns and hosannahs, idols and icons, relics and rosaries, ceremonies and sacraments and sacrifices. The entire bamboozling barbarous bullshittery visited upon the hapless victims and willing accomplices in every culture through all of human history.
Call it Alpha Culture.
The second you picture it, the minute you give it a name, the possibility of another culture, a never-before-seen opposite, becomes conceptually possible. With no idea what it might look like, nevertheless give that a name too: Beta Culture.
“Beta” not because it comes second, but because it comes NEXT.
Imagine a culture deliberately designed not only to lack religion, but to consciously avoid or reverse the effects of religion on human society. And then to do a whole lot more.
In my book Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith, I tried to describe the ultimate goal of atheism in the individual mind.
That goal is not to go through life repeating daily “There are no gods, no gods, no gods.” The goal is to get religion out of your mind so completely that you become, in regards to religious belief, a complete innocent. You not only no longer have religion in your head, you don’t even have the lingering side-effects – the fears and doubts and worries – of it. You go back to that starting point in childhood, before you’d even heard of religion, and you enjoy a mind unsullied – unworried, untroubled, unstained – by religion. You reach that moment of perfect freedom where you no longer even think of gods, heavens, hells, etc. You start fresh, working your way forward through your life, freeing yourself of religion’s after-effects while discovering what it’s like to be purely human, rather than a human tainted by ecclesiastical fantasies and fears.
Picture building from scratch an entire culture that features that same degree of freedom of thought, action and discovery for its people, and which then takes its place in the world, beside all these other cultures, and begins to have some effect on the future, just as all the others have had their effect on the present.
Beta Culture. (*)
One thing very clear to me is that Beta Culture would not simply be about atheism. Because that condition already has a name – atheism. And because, as I’ve already pointed out, atheism isolated from a sustaining social matrix may have a limited shelf life built right into it.
Beta Culture is this vastly broader thing, a CULTURE. Which is, loosely speaking, a body of practices, principles and values that makes the statement “This is who we are. This is what we are. This is what we do, and how we do it.”
My admittedly limited experience with culture suggests a few conclusions.
For one, your culture serves simultaneously as a cradle and a box. It is both the platform that supports you and a boundary that limits you as you go through life.
For instance: Though I am fully aware my cowboy finery looks ridiculously quaint and affected to some people, I feel perfectly comfortable wearing it in public. After all, this is the hat and boots and jeans MY people wear. Among my people, I EARNED this stuff. I could stand on stage with it, in full view of a cruelly-laughing audience, and still feel confident and at-ease. My being in the cowboy culture, knowing I’m okay by the standards of my people, gives me that confidence.
On the other hand, one of many things I can’t do, from the containment of my cowboy-culture box, is walk around wearing flip-flops. I can be a cowboy, or I can wear flip-flops, but I can’t wear flip-flops and be a cowboy. Not among my people. As our culture doesn’t allow it, I am bound not to wear such things. If I drove up to the house of one of my cowboy friends and stepped down from my pickup wearing flip-flops, I would be embarrassed in the first second.
Undeniably, inevitably, culture does expect something from you. You have to give something of yourself in order to be a part of it. It can’t be easy, for instance, to be a Hasidic Jew, or Amish. The side curls alone must take a lot of work, and having to go everywhere in a horse and buggy … well. Not to mention the thousand other things you’re expected to do, or not do.
On the other hand, the payoff in safety and belonging, in community, must be very high.
I’d like to see us design a culture that focuses more on the belonging and enhancing “cradle” aspect, and less on the box. I’d like to see a culture that allows you to maximize your potential as an individual. Through education, through encouragement, through equality, through building a worldwide community that both guarantees and demands these social rights. Through establishing a protective place for us and our values.
What, specifically, will Beta Culture be like? Oh, boy, THAT is a subject for the next hundred years or so.
But in part, it will be the same as every other culture. Those of us within it will find support there. We will have to give something to be a part of it.
I see it as the social vessel that will carry our values into the future. Not just atheism, but feminism and the other social justice issues involved in Atheism-Plus (as well as humanism and its package of values, if you happen to see those as different).
But also environmentalism, economic justice, so much more. Not just as fragile separate issues, but as the ineradicable and un-ignorable parts of OUR defined culture.
Because I don’t see Beta as some sort of shy, quiet culture that says “Um, excuse us. If it’s alright with you, we’d like you to notice we exist. Okay?” I see it as a meaty, muscular culture that says “YOU WILL DAMNED WELL NOTICE AND RESPECT US.” So much so that, eventually, no decision gets made, no public comment is offered – on any of the issues we hold dear – without the person making the comment thinking before speaking, “How will the Betas react?”
The basic choice is: Let this new culture happen on its own, if it’s going to. Or … make it happen. Direct it. Design it. Cause it to be the conscious reflection of our values, lived in the real world and in our daily lives, and – just as every other culture does – identify with it and demand respect for it from others.
I know this is all pretty fuzzy right now. Like I say, the whole thing has to be defined and worked out by those of us who intend to be part of it. In the coming weeks and months, I’d like to explore the idea. Write about what it might be, how it might work.
I invite comments, lots of them. Ideas, suggestions, criticisms, any further thoughts you have on the subject.
Here we are in this moment, on the threshold of Beta Culture, a worldwide culture free of religion and its influences, and infused with progressive, rational values.
Let’s see what we can make of it.
( * By the way, I’m aware that “beta culture” already has a meaning in software-speak. Fine. I’m redefining it. Nobody ever said a word or phrase can have only one meaning … he said gaily.)