First Person Revolutionary — Part 4

[ First read Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3 ]

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.)


First Person Revolutionary — Part 1
First Person Revolutionary — Part 2
First Person Revolutionary — Part 3
First Person Revolutionary — Part 4

Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Catholic Church Flexing Muscle in U.S. Hospitals
Thoughts on “Privilege”
Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
  • douglaslm

    Thanks Hank.
    How about a culture were the TV doesn’t have “Just Believe in Jebus” commercials every 10 minutes. Unfortunately I have no idea how to make this happen. Although I, at least, would like to see an Atheist commercial on the TV.
    The god thing is every where. Even on the TV news, the reporters ask “wasn’t it a Miracle that you survived”.
    The only thing I can do personally is try to counter the “god pushing” as much as I can with the people I know. That’s how I am (locally) know as the (much feared :P ) vocal, militant Atheist.

  • ik

    I’ve often wondered about intelligently designed culture: I want to rebuild European/American culture to make atheism, sex positivity, tolerance of sexual deviance, and gender equality so conservative as to be nearly invisible, but keep what good things do exist and tie it to our ancient history.

    Mostly I end up crying because it cannot be imbued with the antiquity that I want it to have within my own lifetime.

  • Randomfactor

    SF writer Spider Robinson alluded to this kind of culture in a short story whose title I’ve forgotten. Not much about the culture itself, the article focused on the morality of actually setting up such a thing deliberately, experimentally, to see how things developed. The time-traveler involved refused to divulge any details until satisfied that his listener considered it a moral thing to have done.

  • machintelligence

    Two observations:

    No matter what you think the Beta Culture might look like, it is probably wrong. However you view human nature, it is not likely to change overnight, so its bad features are likely to persist.

    On the other hand, cultural change can happen faster than you might expect. If you had predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago, you would have been greeted with laughter. Still, it managed to fall like a house of cards, despite how solid it seemed. The Russians seem to be reverting to their old ways, however, so see observation one.

  • Cornelioid

    Occupy Culture? (As always with Occupy, i’m not sure if i mean that as a phenomenon or as a command.)

    Since humanist values (broadly speaking) are perfunctory components of a variety of modern organizations or movements, i get the sense that what you’re after is a movement that is consciously, intently — intrinsically, perhaps — reflective, adaptive, and self-corrective. It reminds me of Natalie Reed’s essays on fourth-wave feminism. But then i might easily be projecting.

    Maybe i’ll have some insightful thoughts when i’ve had more than three hours of sleep. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

  • douglaslm

    My question is: Can religion and eventually god be removed from the culture at all. Or is the very concept to deeply ingrained. Religions (in one form or another) have had thousands of years to evolve their own methods of propagation and continuation.
    As I see it science and rational thinking have only the fact that they are true. And describe reality in the most accurate manner possible. The problem is are opponents (the religions and their believers) are not interested in the truth. Most believe they already know the one and only truth, and can’t handle any distention.
    Thanks for reading my rant.

    • Susan Aker

      douglaslm – it’s called education. I’m sure it isn’t quite that simple, but it might be. If the Beta Culturalists could take over the department of education, if we could keep the Alphas out of control in this one very important institution, a LOT of religious zealotry might be countered.

      Even now, if you look at the most educated Americans – that is where the highest concentration of unbelievers rests. Why do you think the Texas Republican Party Platform doesn’t want kids to learn critical thinking – why the National Republican Party Platform wants to keep liberal thought out of universities? Because education is the enemy of religion and dogma (and to some large degree, political conservatism.)

      Betas would need to crowd Alphas out of the system, end the voucher program for private schools and make parents pay the full amount of an alternate education for their children. Require such things as evolution and critical thinking and civics to be taught even in private schools in order to get accreditation.

      It may not pay well right now, but if you want to change the world, the place you need to be is in front of the young as an educator. Today, we’re probably stuck with the persistent presence of the believer, but there can be hope for tomorrow.

      • douglaslm

        I completely agree. Education is the key. I try to do this in my own home with the grandchildren. Trying to teach them how to think for themselves and not believe something just because someone told them to. Even if that someone is a Teacher, Mommy, or even Me. :) The oldest grandson does Google searches and can find out things on the internet better than I can. And wants to be a Paleontologist.
        So hopefully I can counter some of the bunk that his Mom and Grandmother are teaching him every Sunday.

  • xowarsxo

    5000 whining atheists vs the Great Prophet

    how the divine pen of Michel N. crushed the international atheist movement

    one applicant right here…

    get the POINT, Randi….

    for lies on top of lies

    do you think you can threaten my right to FREE SPEECH?

    what if I told you that I am not who you think I am….

    Not Dennis Markuze – but a FAN!

    you’re not the center of the universe!

    a dishonest liar

  • RW Ahrens

    One question.

    How do you see this working alongside of or as part of Atheism+? Or do you see the two as being complementary – or competitive?

    • Prof.Pedant

      Beta Culture and Atheism+ are two different views or aspects of the same compilation of social movements. And since they are both intrinsically leaderless movements that pro forma value the views and experiences of every individual: schisms, cross-overs, multiple roles, and hybridization, are features of the movement and not bugs. And the ultimate expression of competition is the search for ‘win-win’ opportunities.

  • karla

    I’m in.

  • nohellbelowus

    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.

    And then in the second second, you’d hopefully realize how silly it is to judge someone on their choice of footwear.

    Easy there, cowboy. I know you were just making the analogy.

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