[ The original posting date of this was July 30. It was updated with a substantially rewritten version on Oct. 15. ]
I had a request for more information on Beta Culture, to help readers better understand where I was going with the idea. Coincidentally, I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter on the subject to an upcoming book written by Patheos Atheist writers.
I worked for weeks to get that chapter-piece complete, to make it so that it introduced the whole concept, and yet fell within the length parameters given me. I failed at both. There’s SO much more to be said about the idea. As I think I’ve said in the past, I have hundreds of pages of notes full of ideas I want to get out there, and that will require a book-length treatment.
It’s longish — more than 8,000 words — so I’ve split it into four parts.
The day I left home to go to Reason Rally 2016, a friend — who knew I’d be driving 8 hours to get to Washington DC and another 8 hours to return that same night — asked me “Why are you going to this thing?” I gave him a flip answer as I stepped out the door: “Hey, it’s the Atheist Woodstock!” Thirty seconds later, I poked my head back in and answered seriously: “Because when I went to the one in 2012, it was the first time in my life as an atheist I felt welcome, and free, and HOME.”
If our one desire as atheists is to be a loose body of free individuals, nothing more need be done. We’re there and getting more there all the time. But if we want to have our own place in the world, a permanent place, a home, we need something bigger than atheism. Something sturdier. Longer-lasting. Self-perpetuating. Because atheism alone can’t get us there.
Here’s why I think so, and what I think that ‘something’ is.
Think of the future as an archipelago of possibilities, with all the things-to-come each on its own island. One island might contain a future of clean beautiful cities and unspoiled wildlands, of education and wealth; another might present a future of grit and poverty, overpopulation and starvation; a third might lack humans altogether; a fourth … you get the idea.
Every one of us will eventually arrive on one of those islands, to live in some sort of future. But most of those futures will be, in broad terms, of someone else’s making. In that future, whichever one we reach, we’ll pay whatever they charge us for our student loans. We’ll dress in what they sell in the stores. We’ll listen to the music and see the movies and read the books they provide. We’ll vote for the candidates they offer us. We’ll eat the foods — and the ingredients in those foods — they put on the shelves, in stores they own. We’ll celebrate their holidays. We’ll receive the medical care, or lack of it, offered by their hospitals. We’ll tread lightly under the scrutiny of their cops. We’ll obey their laws, or go to their prisons. Because the only boats going to that distant archipelago are theirs.
Who are the owners of those vessels? Who are they? Government. Corporations. Religion.
Government: Organized and powerful, government can and does direct money, labor, and planning toward large-scale projects that can span decades or longer. Supposedly created to serve its citizens, it can have goals that have nothing at all to do with long-term benefits to ordinary people. It can create laws, operate police forces, courts and prisons. It can interfere in the lives of its citizens in ways large and small. It can even engage in wars, sending young men and women off to die for no good reason.
Business: Large corporations plan for their own future, a future of survival and profit in an environment of competition and scarce resources. Corporations have goals to benefit themselves first, customers second. Yes, they have to keep customers happy in the short term, but that doesn’t mean they actually have to benefit — or even keep from harming — those customers in the long. If there’s more money in sugary carbonated soda than in fruit juice or tea, guess which product will get the advertising budget? If lottery tickets are a more profitable sell than savings accounts, what’s going up on all the billboards? Which will be available in every convenience store? If a profitable product like tobacco actually harms the customer, but nobody can prove it without a protracted legal fight pursued over decades, will they sell it? You bet they will.
Religion: Not just people in random Brownian motion, but tens or hundreds of millions gathered together with common beliefs and goals — dictated, supposedly, by an actual god — operating out of one or more churches in every city, town, hamlet and neighborhood in the U.S. Religion can set and enforce social mores with real consequences that might range from public censure to shunning — in the past, even to death — and it functions across generations.
None of these “boats” travel alone. They rope together to smooth the journey. The boat of business sails in close touch with the boat of government. Considering there are something like 15,000 lobbyists in Washington DC, allegedly spending $3 billion a year to influence legislators, and most large corporations pay little or nothing in taxes, the corporate boat is not only well-fueled and -powered, it is avidly assisted by the vessel of government. Government, in turn, leans heavily on business for navigational cues.
So where’s the boat that has room for atheists, or atheist goals? Say we want to reach the island where schools — all schools — teach evolution. Not as some also-ran topic covered in a day, not as a suggestion given no more weight than creationism, but as the rock-solid heart of every discussion of Earth biology. Who’s going to make that happen? Who’s going to get us there?
Government? Uh, no. They’re going to waffle and sniff the air, veer off and carefully not get involved. Corporations? Nope. They’re gonna sit this one out too, kids. Churches? Ha! Not on your life. They’re the ones who got us to this island, the one where teachers are afraid to teach.
How are we going to get those actual science classes for every kid in America — the ones that explicitly say creation didn’t happen but evolution did? Answer: We’re not. It’s not going to happen. There is no boat going there. Generations of schoolkids will come and go with inferior science education.
There’s this island we want to get to, but there’s some whole other island — another future entirely — we’ll arrive at. We’ll get the future that government, business and religion will take us to. You and I might want a cure for Alzheimer’s in five years, but if government won’t help fund the research, if universities, hospitals and pharma companies won’t do the research, and if religion blocks the research, or owns the hospitals that might otherwise apply or test the treatment, there will be no cure for Alzheimer’s in five years. Not here, anyway.
But isn’t it enough just to be atheists? If we free ourselves and others from the grip of religion, won’t good things automatically follow? No. Atheism alone isn’t going to get us to any particular future because, beyond the bit about individual freedom (no small thing!), it has no built-in direction. Atheism by itself isn’t even a thing. It’s a non-thing, an opposed-to-this-other-thing thing. It can work immense changes on individuals, but as a larger social force, a force aimed at some particular future, it is dramatically rudderless.
If atheism isn’t going to get us there, and the three boats aren’t going to get us there, what can we do?
How about we build our own boat? To have any hope of creating a future of our choice — possibly any hope of having a future at all — we pretty much have to.
So let’s talk about this imagined boat of ours. Let’s talk about culture.
In simplest terms, culture is all the things you learn from your parents, peers and elders, and then pass on to your own children and grandchildren. Culture is just about everything you do. Your culture is the unwritten handbook on how to live life on scales both large and small.
It’s what you eat, the utensils you use to eat it. What to wear, what language you speak and the regional accent with which you speak it. Where to live, how to relate to your fellow men and women and children, what to learn and what to do with it once you’ve learned it.
It’s the haircut you sport, the songs you sing, the dances you do, the way you court and wed and cohabit, the way you welcome children into the world and bid farewell to departing elders. It’s the games you play, the slate of acceptable careers laid out before you, the jokes you tell. It includes your ceremonies and holidays, the things you read and don’t read. It presents you with life goals — a lion skin, a sheepskin, an eagle feather, a position of respect and honor within your tribe. Ways to deal with strangers and outsiders. Entertainments, contests, rules for interpersonal conflict. Women’s ways, men’s ways. It offers something for every social and psychological need humans have. For some of us, it’s the protective underwear we don at night, and even the short list of positions acceptable for (married-only, heterosexual-only) intercourse!
The substance of culture is taught to each new generation, but culture itself is probably automatic. Drop a group of ignorant kids on an island, isolate them for a hundred years or so, and their descendants would emerge possessing a complete culture, containing every possible thing they needed to live day-to-day — every ceremony, recipe, song, and article of clothing.
At its best, culture provides you a Home, a place of acceptance, support, and stability. It gives you an identity, an automatic sense of self. At its worst, it acts as something of a cage, trapping its people within it, oppressing them, offering the threat of punishment or ouster to those who don’t stay in line. But to most of us throughout history, the price has apparently been worth it.
Here in the U.S., it seems to me culture comes in three general “grades” — which I label Full Culture, Fractional Culture, and U.S. Overculture.
Continue to Part 2