Compared to religion, atheism is really rather fragile. It has sprung up and died out several times in the U.S. alone. Its recent resurgence is probably due to the existence of the Internet. Outside that, there’s really not a lot to support and preserve it.
Here’s the eye-opener I realized a few years back: Under the lash of strong emotions, humans become less intelligent.
Scary, right? But true. If the Internet goes down for some reason — a solar flare or some such event — if there is an incident of nuclear terrorism anywhere in the world, if even some small version of the imagined Dark Singularity happens, a majority of our panicked fellow humans will leap toward the certainty of religion and churches and authoritarian government, utterly supported by a pliant, uncritical corporate-owned media.
Churches will gleefully snatch up these new devotees, telling them to clasp their hands and close their eyes, to read their Bibles and chant its magic verses, to get down on their knees and pray, to give and give and give in order to bribe that Big Magic Juju Guy in the sky into letting them and their loved ones live.
Anyone casting the least doubt on that mindset will be the enemy, unAmerican traitors to all things good, and a lot of scared, angry fellow citizens will jump in to intimidate them into silence.
That would be the end of the noble mind-adventure of atheism. Bye-bye, outspoken atheists, hello religious fascism.
You’re sitting there right now, intelligent and educated, and you probably can’t imagine a mob coming to your door and dragging you out, or a riot that sets your home or business on fire. But I can imagine it, because I grew up in the Deep South among people who were not all that far advanced from the lynchings and murders of the KKK’s worst days. The witch burnings of yesteryear are absent today not because we humans have evolved beyond them, but because our culture disallows such acts at this moment.
But that culture is maintained by humans. It can be abandoned and replaced by humans, sometimes in days. You saw what happened after 9/11 — suddenly we were discussing the merits of torture, arguing whether we had too much freedom in public places, and launching off into a war that killed and terrorized hundreds of thousands of real people who also thought nothing bad would happen to them on any near-future day.
The more afraid and desperate we are, the crazier it will get.
Making It Happen
Here’s the rub: How do you create an entire culture?
I suspect it would take very little effort. Cultural creation already happens, and on a near-daily basis. At the least prompting, people take on actions and beliefs that become cultural traditions, perpetuating them indefinitely. Some years back the song ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ made a splash on the radio, triggering a sudden leap onto the public stage of ribbon-tying as a way of welcoming returning soldiers. Now ribbons and ribbon-shaped magnets are everywhere, tasked for every social cause.
The way attendees at Reason Rally 2016 reacted with smiles and selfies to a strolling Flying Spaghetti Monster, it was obviously already a much-loved icon of the movement. Yet it arose sheerly out of a sense of fun.
We figure out the basic framework and put it out there. If it’s a good idea, people will show up and be part of it, commenting, contributing, coming up with fun or useful things to include, arguing over the details and the aims, and one day there it would be. The short-term challenge might be in laying down the foundation, the basic concepts, before its growth outraced the underlying goals of reason and reality.
The larger challenge would be in creating something that was livable long-term, and paid off on the promise of enhancing the lives of people who join in it.
For years and years, evangelism was a taboo in the atheist community. Deliberately trying to get people to give up religion was seen as a self-thwarting shortcut. If people were seduced into atheism simply because it was the latest fad, without working it out for themselves, they’d be no better than religious people, right?
But in this case, that’s not a problem. People coming into it would either want to be there, or they wouldn’t. Besides which, we’ve already started selling atheism. We know we have the right; our problem is in believing we have the duty.
Moreover, considering that religion and religious observances are such an integral part of even modern cultures — Catholicism for example — and that most prospective atheists will come from such cultures, by inviting them into atheism we’re basically asking them to give up not only their religion, but their home culture, and often even the loving closeness of their families. To offer them none of the same tribal inclusion in return seems both morally shabby and counterproductive. How many who might otherwise be open atheists stay where they are in order to enjoy the continued safety and warmth of their home traditions and tribe? For millions, especially the weaker and more vulnerable among us, atheism by itself might seem a poor trade.
Where and how do we get the features and attributes of our own culture?
Two ways: 1) Make them up. 2) Steal them.
Make them up: If we decide every Beta middle schooler should go off every morning with Great Humanist Quotes fortune cookies to share with other kids, that’s doable. If we want every partner bonding (wedding ceremony) to include a traditional bat’leth fight with designated champions to determine who cleans the bathroom for the first five years, nothing would stop us. The limits are human nature, and our own imaginations.
Steal them: The entire world, now and for all its history, is a mine of ideas for designing our own unique cultural environment. We can borrow, copy, or shamelessly expropriate customs and lifeways from any and every culture on Earth, past and present, real and fictional. So yes, we could all wear Star Trek uniforms. Or sporrans and black plaid kilts (with underwear, my people, please!). Or leather jackets with flaming skull insignias and embroidered patches saying ‘Born To Raise Questions.’
Borrow cultural goodies from the Amish. Steal from the Catholics. Copy good stuff from the Romans, the Mormons, the Japanese, the Italians, the Navajo. Borrow, copy, steal … and make it ours.
Cultural appropriation? —Eh. No. Nobody has a copyright on culture, and borrowed traditions take nothing away from the source. I wouldn’t expect the group to flaunt yarmulkes, feathered headdresses or dreadlocks, but cultural appropriation is a moot issue, it seems to me. Lots of people wear cowboy hats, and—as someone who grew up with real cowboys, a group no less fiercely proud of our cultural apparel than Hasidic Jews or Sikhs — I find some of them fairly annoying. But I would never tell people they have no right to wear a cowboy hat, that I’m somehow mortally offended by it. I wouldn’t join in any screaming chorus of thin-skinned offense junkies, demanding those people instantly cease all cowboy-hat-related activities and apologize to us delicate, sensitive cowpokes.
We face two hazards already in our own psyches — complacency and misplaced optimism.
Rich and safe and well-fed, we’re prone to be complacent about dangers. Hey, nothing could really go wrong, right? We went to college, we know how to read and think and figure out this atheism stuff, and pretty much everybody else is just like us — same values, equivalent intelligence, same fearless approach to life. All we need do is be patient and rational, and explain things to them, and they’ll come around.
Living in the modern age, we’re optimistic that someone else — Brighter People Out There in the World — will work out all the problems. Scientists will solve the challenges of food and water and energy; educated, Empowered Women will spontaneously have smaller families and solve the population problem; Environmental Activists will save the whales; and the coming generation of smart, engaged Youth will burst out into the world and fix everything else that’s broken. Yeah, and all those public-spirited multi-national corporations will pitch in and help, even if it means reducing their bottom line.
Riiiiight. All we have to do, we happy optimists, is sit back and live our lives, go green and recycle, pick up our litter, continue to drive our SUVs to the grocery store to buy organic fruits and vegetables, and it’s all going to work out.
Except it isn’t. Complacency and optimism, when you have real problems, can kill you.
Forging ahead, we’ll make mistakes. Not every bright idea that pops into our heads for inclusion will be viable. Not everything we add at the beginning should stay forever. Continuous discussion and self-checking has to be a part of it. But hazards and all, we shouldn’t be afraid to make the experiment.
Target for Tomorrow
Sooner or later, there has to be that civilization that embraces science and reason and rejects superstition, don’t you think? I mean, really, shouldn’t we have that at some point?
But we don’t have it yet. We do not live in that civilization.
Get that? You do not live in a rational society. No, it’s not a living hell. Not for you. But for a lot of other people, and the planet itself, it’s pretty bad. Rather than casually accepting this status quo, I think you have to reject it almost violently. Every one of us has to reject it, to establish some bare minimum for being humans on Planet Earth. And until we start figuring some of this stuff out — for instance, “What is the basic intellectual and moral set every person must be required to have?” — we’ll continue on as we have been.
On a planet of diminished resources, radical human overpopulation, vicious inequality and mistreatment of women and minorities, all that, there’s a demand for this basic human society. But we don’t have it yet. Considering present-day politics and media, we may even be moving away from it.
Some of us might say “People have the right to believe whatever they want.” And I’d say yes, that’s true — if they stay home and don’t buy anything, don’t participate, don’t vote, don’t have kids they will subject to their idiot beliefs and behaviors.
In a real world, we can have a civilization based on reason and science and reality in which everyone participates, or we can have one based on fantasy and suffer the very real consequences. So far, we’ve had one based on fantasy and — in my opinion — it’s been an utter disaster. And it’s going to get worse, probably quickly.
I want a society that survives the disaster-in-progress, that picks up the pieces afterwards with this new way of thinking. What I don’t want is a society that reboots using all the old software. I want something that kicks us out of the cycles of mystical thralldom, something that allows us to live on this planet into the distant future, without wrecking it or ourselves.
Who do you want at your side in the midst of a civilization-wide disaster, working to live through it and later repair it? Goddy mystics who will react with screaming panic, or fall to their knees and pray for the Rapture? Or people who will look at the falling bits with, yes, deep regret, but also with calm determination and say “Let’s fix this, and then find a way to never let it happen again”?
I know who I want. I want a community of cooperative, rational individuals. What I emphatically don’t want is a bunch of faith-professing strangers telling me I need to get right with Jesus or, equally poisonous, a bevy of “Don’t tell them the truth; they might panic” government officials.
We’ve already taken a step back from the negative religious fantasy culture. Now we need to take a step forward, with a positive reason-based culture of our own making.
I expect the movement to have enemies. There are people — even a lot of atheists — who will instantly hate the idea of creating an atheist culture. But it’s a club you don’t have to join. Nobody has to be a part of it. It’s also not some sort of horrifying nightmare that needs to be stomped with lug-soled boots. It is one option among many in response to an uncertain future.
But reality-based thinking and living is not just a luxury to be possessed by the few, or some flickering candle that can be allowed to go out every few years. It’s important. It’s a light that must be kept burning, that must grow.
In the end, I believe atheists have a lot to offer the world. I think people would see that. If we did this thing, we might be surprised at the number of people who’d want to be a part of it.
So here’s this airy-fairy fantasy someone had, right? This impractical utopian dream. Probably best to sneer and turn away. Get back to the real world.
Except the real world — as it really is — is why we should be thinking about this. Look around and tell me everything you see is all peachy-keen with you, and all we need is more lovey-love-love, kumbayah. That things will all work out in the end because of fate or something. Because stories always have happy endings, and because somewhere out there, the smart, rich people are working out all the problems. Hey, any day now we’ll all have flying cars and robot housekeepers, immortality and world peace.
Except sometimes — too often, as every mom and dad knows — the person who has to fix things, or pick up the mess, or be the grownup, is you. Or it doesn’t get done.
Someone has to be the responsible party, the person or the group with an eye on the future of Planet Earth, a planet that could be unburdened by irresponsible consumption, irrational beliefs, blithe lies and destructive craziness.
It could be you.
It could be us.
It could start now.