[ Start with Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 1 ]
Pretty much every civilization and culture on Earth so far has had religion somewhere near its heart, and even those today not overtly religious are colored with it in some deep and not-always-noticeable ways. In every previous age, we would call the span of recorded time encompassing all those religious nations, city-states, cultures and tribes simply “history.” But in THIS moment, for the first time, it’s possible to imagine something different, and give names to two very different ways of living.
The foregoing array of religion-tainted cultures I call, collectively, Alpha Culture.
Beta Culture is its obvious opposite – as I say it, “Beta not because it comes second, but because it comes NEXT” – a consciously designed, crowd-sourced, reality-based culture that would serve both as a cultural lifeboat for atheists and other social-justice activists and a broad-scale social counterweight to the goddy and otherwise irrational nonsense that confronts us every day.
(The name is somewhat problematic, as you’ll discover if you Google it. But as I joked at Eschaton, pretty much any phrase you can come up with already has some meaning attached to it. Playing around on Google, the best original wordage I’ve come up with so far is the four-word phrase “scuba diving laser cats.” Given the choice of Beta Culture or Scuba Diving Laser Cats, I reluctantly gave up the concept that would have us all in fantastic spacy costumes and went with the dull one. I’m open to renaming it, but I’d also argue that if we were to really go at this, in three months the front page of Google hits for Beta Culture would be the ones with OUR definition.)
I wrote a short piece about Beta Culture back in 2010 (I think it was), and wrote at least one earlier piece about COWs – Citizens of the World – that sort of touched on the whole-world aspect of the concept, but for the most part I only thought about it.
Atheism Plus came along, and I was supportive but not overtly so. (Asked about it by a friend, I said “Hey, my blood type is A-positive — I’ve been A+ since 1952!”)
I knew right off it was both a good idea and one that would face enormous resistance, a resistance predictable because of the narrow definition that “atheism” carries. Any attempt to recast it as this larger thing – to bring feminism and other social justice subjects under the definitional umbra of atheism – was going to face a storm of criticism. And did. I didn’t think it was a good use of time to fight that uphill battle – a battle that would be not with the external forces of religiosity, but one internally divisive to the atheist community.
The A+ people had one very good idea, that it’s time for something larger, something more socially embracing. The mistake, if there was one, was one of approach.
A better approach, it seemed to me, was to come up with something new, something larger, that could CONTAIN atheism … and all these other things. Something that can include atheism as a solid foundation, but that can also encompass other values of the growing atheist and rational and social justice communities … without causing a problem for atheist definitional purists. Something that can easily include Feminism. Environmentalism. Economic justice. Reason itself. So much more. And something that would imply more than just individual convictions privately held; this new thing would speak of a way of life – and demand recognition – for an entire People.
What can do that? And maintain its existence over the long term?
That last bit is crucial, I think. One of the things atheism has faced as a movement is that it periodically dies out. I think the reason that happens is that … well, it’s not really a thing on its own. It’s the resistance to a thing – religiosity – and it exists, even today, mostly in private individual minds.
Any “movement” identified as atheist has traditionally been a loose collection of people working to achieve their own personal mental freedom. Because of this focus on individuality – hell, I’d bet most atheists STILL think it’s wrong to proselytize, to seek converts – the desire to create a something-or-other with larger social goals and mechanisms has gone wanting.
Even the current atheist movement is somewhat vaporous, less rock-solid and more like a cloud. Though it might appear from outside as a solid – a firm, cohesive community – from inside it’s often a mist of separate particles, closely associated only because of temporary conditions of social pressure and temperature. Today’s atheist “movement” exists largely only as a counterpoint to invasive religion. We might march together in the goal of being free of religion, but broader social goals seem to most of us more like personal convictions, not necessarily shared even with our closest atheist friends.
Considering that we’re still capable of heated arguments over what the word “atheism” means, the mildest forces can divide atheists into opposing factions.
It makes us weak. Ignorable. And certainly less than cohesive when it comes to connecting with people driving these other social issues.
That lack of connection sabotages our own interests. Which, in my view, at this moment in history, poses a threat to civilization itself.
Throw some strong forces into the broader social mix – say another 9/11 type event, or something even larger (Nuclear explosion in a city? Asteroid strike in a populated area? Pandemic? World economic collapse?), and atheists, environmentalists, feminists and social justice advocates will be shoved off the public stage faster than you can blink. Our voices will be drowned out by Christian statists – no time to notice the petty concerns of squabbling traitors! God help us, we’ve got to save the world! – and there will be nothing we can do about it.
Because atheism as a distinct movement exists only as long as individuals keep that movement alive by actively resisting religion, there’s the further factor that if we make peace with religion and decide to “work together” on social problems, the reality-based thinking of atheism ceases to exist as any sort of real social force. The godders win by default.
In recent history, the birth and death cycle of atheism has happened several times: Atheism springs up, dies back. Springs up, dies back. Religion and churches, though, just keep on trucking.
Why? Two reasons, I think.
First is that the godders have something atheists don’t have. Churches go on and on because the social impulse within them represents something more than individual convictions in the moment. Churches PLAN for multi-generational continuance, both of themselves and the mindsets within them.
Second is a flaw in atheism itself, something recognized by the Atheism-Plus crowd. The definition problem is part of it: If your “thing” is nothing more than “not that other thing,” you don’t really have a “thing.” But mostly it’s the problem that atheism focuses on churches and religion rather than this larger, more central social problem: Powerful, broadly-arrayed, firmly-established, INSTITUTIONAL irrationality – a force that impacts and diminishes every aspect of our lives.
The opposite of god-belief might be atheism, but the opposite of this larger thing, an established culture of malignant craziness, aggressive ignorance and a never-ending tsunami of lies, something that goes far beyond mere churches and holy books, is something else entirely.
That opposite is, in fact, another whole culture. Which – and here’s the problem – doesn’t exist yet. Has never existed.
But … you know, it could.
[ Continued in Beta Culture: Intro, Part 3 ]