For a long time now, my fellow Patheos atheist blogger Hank Fox (of A Citizen of Earth) has been acutely aware that secular people can use some cultural institutions and identity that can rival the religions in the areas of life that religions still have hegemony. For a while now he has been sketching his ideas or a rival, self-consciously irreligious and progressive culture that he calls “Beta Culture”. In a post this weekend, he tried to boil down his vision to its essence and answer 13 fundamental questions. For just a sample, here’s his answer to one question:
9. How is this different from Humanism? How is it different from Atheism-Plus?
For all I know, Beta Culture may be point-for-point the same as Humanism, and I have no problem with that. My experience of Humanism, though, is that it’s mostly focused on the convictions and choices of individuals. Though it carries larger social implications, I rarely see humanists coming together and angling for greater social influence (It may just be that there aren’t enough of them!). One of the core implications of humanism as a personal choice seems to be that, as a matter of respect for the individual, other people have the right to make their own choices, other choices.
Of course I agree with that, but my agreement radically ends when the choices made by large numbers of others impact not only my life, but the lives of everyone and everything around me, for the worse. And that’s what we’re facing – not just a slide into a problematic future, but a zooming, rocketing race into it.
It’s long past time for a new social force to enter the game, an assertive culture of individuals who want to stop the bad stuff and quicken the good stuff. People who can’t wait for change to simply happen along, but want to exert pressure to make it happen now, or in the very near future.
Atheism-Plus, in my view, is a step along the way to Beta Culture. (I joke about my blood type: “Hey, I’ve been A+ since 1952!”)
One of the problems with atheism is that we’ve only recently reached a critical mass of social thinkers attempting to see its full social implications. One of the understandings coming out of that massed effort is the realization that atheism isn’t enough. After you’ve reached complete understanding that no such things as gods exist, you’re still faced with the rest of life, the problem of defining your non-religious values, establishing your non-religious social practices, pursuing your non-religious future.
Religion has this huge advantage over us there. Not only is all that stuff already worked out, religion provides automatic family, community and culture that enfolds and guides every member within it. Religious culture tells you how to be born, how to die, how to live in your daily life, how to find mates and marry, how to conduct family life, often even how to learn and work.
Atheism provides none of that. And yet we social beasts do need those things, or at least some of them.
Atheism-Plus was (or is) an attempt to define certain social values that atheists might hold, and make some progress toward pursuing them.
It suffers from two unfortunate stigmas, in my view. One is the definitional problem of trying to add meaning to a word already possessing a strong and definite meaning to people who self-identify under it. Initial opposition to the attempt to redefine it, even if only by adding a dash and a second word, was predictably fierce. The second problem was defensiveness on the part of those within the initial movement, a baldly stated exclusionary “with us or against us” mentality that instantly created an avid opposition.
It suffers from a third shortcoming, that it’s still only a partial answer to the underlying question. Religion has all this good stuff – influence and power on our social stage, but also that enfolding protection and guidance for its members – but what do we atheists have? Even with Atheism-Plus, the answer is still little or nothing.
But we could have something. A dramatically different, affirmative, energetic culture that gives us protection as individuals and demands social change as a group.
Hank also answers the following questions about Beta Culture:
1. What is it?
2. Why do we need it?
3. Why is it called Beta Culture?
4. Isn’t there a problem with the name?
5. Isn’t it just another religion?
6. What’s the difference between a religion and a culture?
7. What are the values and goals of Beta Culture?
8. Will Beta Culture have some sort of “church” or meeting place?
10. Who can join Beta Culture?
11. How do you actually create a culture from scratch?
12. What can we do with it?
13. Why do it now?
Read Hank’s thinking on these questions.