Beta Culture: A Place to Stand, and People to Stand With

Beta Culture: A Place to Stand, and People to Stand With September 18, 2012

Picture these two groups of people and see if you can guess the rule that groups each together into common classes.

A: Amish. Hutterites. Hasidic Jews. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Atheists.

B: Catholics. Scientologists. Southern Baptists. Mormons. Ku Klux Klan.

It’s this: Members of the first group are generally inward-directed. They focus their interests within their own group, and mostly don’t expect others to give way to their beliefs or practices. Of others, they expect only to be allowed to live their lives in peace.

Those in the second group add an outward focus. They feel strongly that their beliefs should be carried out in larger society. They think they have the right, possibly even the duty, to make changes in the world around them.

There’s a certain amount of slop in the way I’ve categorized the two groups (for instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses will show up at your door hoping to gather you in, but they would never politic or vote), but this is mainly about each culture’s expectations of others.

Members of Group A expect only that society’s others will allow them to live their lives and pursue their private beliefs and practices in peace.

Members of Group B, on the other hand, are confident they have every right to sway the society around them. They expect others to give way and allow them to proselytize, to politic, to schmooze and gladhand and pressure others, possibly even to propose their own political candidates, and just generally to create a social footprint that extends well outside their own group. For some, the tools for achieving that include secrecy, underhanded political or legal manipulation, and even violence.

Having grown up with a JW father, I can’t imagine a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses expecting a police officer to show up and direct traffic when services at Kingdom Hall break up. But Catholics, as a matter of course, do expect that (at least where I live).

The Amish, as far as I know, have nothing to do with the politics of the world around them. But Southern Baptists would not only run their own candidates in local or state elections, they would expect said candidates to vigorously politic for their interests. Hell, they expect the world around them to live as Southern Baptists, with their same morals, political beliefs, and even sexual positions.

Catholics and Baptists and Mormons are well known for sending missionaries far and wide, to convert the people there to Catholics and Baptists and Mormons.

The KKK – which might today consist of a handful of disgruntled old fossils dreaming of the glorious 1950s – has traditionally wanted a great deal more than to live their lives in peace and quiet. They’ve wanted to stamp out the peace and quiet of everyone around them who don’t fit their idea of the proper degree of whiteness.

When John F. Kennedy was running for president, the burning question of the day was whether or not he would allow his Roman Catholicism to affect his decisions while in the White House. Would he take marching orders from the Pope, in effect turning the country into the United States of Vatican? Or would he govern as an American citizen first? Kennedy had to make an explicit statement that, in his mind, being Catholic and being American were two completely different things, and he would take no orders from Rome.

Many Christians would disagree strongly that atheists should be placed in Group A. We aggressively political unbelievers want to stamp out prayer in schools, remove the sacred Ten Commandments from public courthouses, take those sacred crosses off the sides of the highways, even force others to refrain from participating in peaceful invocations at city hall before council meetings.

But any atheist would understand the difference. As members of Group A, their motivation hinges on the part where they get to live their lives in peace. They don’t want to get into other people’s heads and lives; they want the freedom to be left peacefully alone in their own heads and lives.

Of course you can be an atheist at home, behind closed doors and drawn curtains. But going out into society, at least here in the United States, it is damned hard to find a social space clear of religious influences and demands. Religious cultures have their stamp on public buildings, on our money, on our social practices, on our laws. None of this being enough, goddy representatives will call at your door, attempt to coopt schools into religionizing your children away from you, put up billboards, walk around wearing signs and handing out tracts, or even preach in the streets.

They expect special tax and legal advantages. They even expect – as we know too well – to be immune from laws as basic as those protecting children from molestation (and I’m not just talking about the Catholic Church).

Atheist Activism

So here we atheists are with the modern-day equivalent of the Mongol Hordes coming into our lives, wave after wave of them knocking at our doors with pamphlets, getting themselves elected to school boards, spending millions to sway elections, putting up highway billboards, building idiot “museums” to creationism, heading up city councils and state legislatures and congressional committees, appearing on television and radio, and for all I know writing their messages across the sky in smoky letters, the equivalent of “Surrender Dorothy” to all of us who don’t believe as they do.

Historically, we’ve avoided overt fights. We’ve gone home and closed the door, read our books, grimaced and changed the station when the majority Christian view invaded our homes through the TV or radio, and contented ourselves nervously that at least they couldn’t get into our heads. Rarely have we become activists, and then only for specific issues and small-scale goals.

This has changed only very slightly, and only very recently. Starting only about 10 years ago, atheist interests began to coalesce into a poorly coordinated and rather shy movement.

A few legal battles have been won here and there, but mainly, the change seems to be that it’s now slightly more acceptable to be an “out” atheist.

Atheism being what it is, any goals of a movement based on it would still fit only in Group A. Even the core issue of atheism, the rescuing of the human mind from religion and superstition, continues to be carried out in a very lazy, hands-off way. Mostly, after rescuing ourselves from the clutches of religion, we either mutter anonymously on the Internet or do nothing at all. Despite the obviously damaging effects of religion on our societies and governments, we still largely seem to feel we have no right to interfere with the “beliefs” of others.

Worse, as I’ve written elsewhere, pure atheism contains almost nothing of built-in moral or social mandates. However, counterposed as it is against religion – which has typically commanded the field with often-misguided ideas about morality, social justice or other conscience-related issues – atheism does strongly imply the need to develop some sort of ethical code.

The point is: Atheists NEED to be on List B.

And yes, here in the past 10 years or so, we’ve moved very slightly in that direction.

We have this other problem, though. Whether we place ourselves on List A or List B, we’re still at a severe disadvantage compared to the others.

The Envelope of Protection

Look at the two lists again:

A: Amish. Hutterites. Hasidic Jews. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Atheists.

B: Catholics. Scientologists. Southern Baptists. Mormons. Ku Klux Klan.

Except this time let’s sort the lists by a different rule:

A: Amish. Hutterites. Hasidic Jews. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Catholics. Scientologists. Southern Baptists. Mormons. Ku Klux Klan.

B: Atheists.

Can you guess the rule? It’s not religion. It’s something else.

Here’s a clue: Members of the first group have an “envelope of protection,” a defensive justification for the things they do, and that justification is respected even by law enforcement.

The last group in the first list, the KKK, is today widely identified as a racist hate group, but once upon a time they were accorded a considerable amount of leeway both by the law and southern society. (Isn’t it interesting that the one group in the second list – atheists – is ALSO identified, by plenty of people, as a hate group? But in the case of atheists, there has never been any sort of leeway.)

To point up the extra-legal protection some of the groups get, call to mind the Catholic molesting scandal. The details of the situation – the fact that priests really were molesting children – was known for YEARS before the public started recognizing that the church’s stand on the matter, that this was all purely an internal matter for the Catholic Church, was grossly wrong, and that it was instead a law-enforcement matter.

Legally speaking, atheists have no envelope of protection, no defensive justification for the things they do.

Note that the Catholic Church claimed immunity even from law enforcement INVESTIGATION, in the first years of the scandal. In other words, just making the claim that it was an internal church matter, something already being adequately handled, forestalled arrests and charges by law enforcement. Law enforcement officials themselves backed off from any investigation.

Compare that to the Dover case on creationism in schools, or the recent case involving Jessica Ahlquist and the prayer banner in her school.

Whereas in the Catholic case, the Church and the molesting priests received the automatic benefit of the doubt, and it was only after some very laborious work by those seeking prosecutions that the thing eventually began to make its way into court …

… in the Dover and Ahlquist cases, atheist claims were treated with automatic dismissal UNTIL they went to court.

The subtle point here is that the atheist cases hinged only on existing law, law which really had nothing to do with atheists being atheists, and had to be proved in court before anything was done. But the Catholic position hinged on this other thing – the very fact that it was the Catholic Church defending it. Law enforcement and courts came into it only after considerable public pressure was mounted to get them involved.

In my view, the extra advantage is not that religion is involved, but that a religious GROUP – a church – is involved. It’s the group, not the religion, that tips the balance in their favor.

The point is even more obvious in the case of the Amish, which enjoy a number of advantages – being able to drive horse-drawn vehicles on public highways, for instance – that have little or nothing to do with their religion and much more to do with the fact that they’re a settled, recognized GROUP seeking those advantages.

That “groupiness,” I would argue, and the thing that divides the second A and B lists, is culture.

Religion is a thing that any individual can do on his/her own, but when you get an established religion practiced by a number of people in concert, what you have is not simply religion, but culture.

In the Catholic case, it’s a culture that includes a great deal of religion, but that is not wholly religious. Catholics in Mexico observing the Day of the Dead – as Catholics – demonstrate differences that probably shock Catholics in England. Yet both groups are accepted in court as members of a culture deserving of automatic respect.

Take note of this, because it’s important: Cultures gain a degree of automatic social respect. Individuals presenting themselves as members of their culture gain a certain amount of social and legal armor in almost every case.

When a state trooper considers stopping an Amish man for not having an orange Slow Moving Vehicle triangle on the back of his buggy on the highway, he faces the somewhat uncomfortable fact that he is not stopping an individual breaking the law, but an AMISH man breaking the law.

The parents of a  Sikh boy demanding the right of their son to carry a knife on his person in elementary school – a right accorded no other child in the state – came to court not simply as individuals, but as SIKHS. And won the case.

But an atheist, in every case, is simply an individual. Even pursuing a legal case which can have only one honorable, legal conclusion, he has to go through with the case in court.

Atheists do not have the automatic armor of culture. Whereas members of all these other groups are treated – very carefully! – as members of their culture, atheists are treated – and automatically dismissed – as individuals.

Beta Culture to the Rescue

To have any sort of effect at all – even in simple, obvious issues like the freedom to protect their children from in-school religious huckstering – atheists have had to become activists.

But to have any sort of large-scale effect, atheists have to be more than a collection of individuals. To build that envelope of protection, we have to have our own socially-recognized culture.

To take Catholicism as an example again: Catholics assume – and rightly so – they have every right to be Catholics. But they go one step farther: They assume they have the right to carry their beliefs outside their own group into the society around them. Influencing. Lobbying. Changing. Interfering.

In building Beta Culture, the rest of us have to borrow that lesson. We have to build something that gives us the confidence that we have every right to attempt to effect changes in our larger societies. In the society of the entire world. We have to know we are the equals of Catholics, and others.

But to make our culture simply about atheism, or simply about the freedom to be atheists, would be a mistake, in my view. Because there is so much more to be done, and because we have a number of natural allies, social activists already working on issues of importance which we, as people of reason, already support.


In a society of smothering religion, the second step is atheism.
In a society of racial prejudice, the second step is the demand for equality.
In a society of female repression, the second step is feminism.
In a society of prejudice against sexual orientation, the second step is a demand for acceptance.
In a society of economic exploitation, the second step is solidarity.
In a society of environmental destruction, the second step is concern.

The FIRST step is understanding. The recognition that you as an individual have the right to exist – to be as you are, to think as you think, to feel pride in yourself as you are, to keenly feel the injustice of the world as it is.

But the THIRD step is to join together.

Beta Culture is not simply about atheism, because the culture of people of reason must be about this much larger group of ‘-isms’ – racism, feminism, environmentalism, etc. – the heart of which is not just freedom from religion, but freedom from foggy thinking in every aspect of society.

All these movements, so far separate, are really aimed at the same goal. All are natural allies of the others, fighting against this larger foe: Unreason. Injustice.

To pursue that larger goal, we have to build a social structure that holds these values in common, an international nation of people of reason, an interconnected whole that goes beyond churches, beyond nations, beyond propaganda, beyond banks, beyond corporations, beyond militaries, beyond the established privileges of race and gender and heredity.

The goal of Beta Culture is to provide a cultural surround, both a community – solidarity with a broad array of social activists – and a recognizable, defensible social platform for social activism.

Beta Culture is freedom from foggy thinking … in action.

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