[I’m afraid I’m not going to explain this very well. I have the idea in my head in a way that makes sense to me, but this post runs long because I’m having a problem getting the concept into words. I’m hoping readers can help me refine the idea into some simpler form that will be more easily understandable. Collaborative comments are welcome!]
As I think I’ve said here in the past, I believe atheism is, in some ways, rather fragile. Give us one good civilization-wide scare and I fear we’d jettison it like a broken anchor, leaping for the illusion of safety with churches and fascistic leaders. (No, it wouldn’t be you and I giving in and joining up. But if a majority of others did so, and saw atheism as a danger to their safety, you can bet we’d be back in the shadows, keeping our mouths safely shut, pretty much instantly.)
This is the main reason I continue to think we need a little something more than atheism. We need a durable permanent vehicle for atheism, a cultural container within which it can flourish.
But that cultural container can’t contain JUST atheism. In order to be a complete self-perpetuating culture, it has to have a great deal more — traditions and ceremonies, holidays and ways of living that go beyond the mere rejection of religion.
Speaking of which …
Say there’s this thing called Legacy.
And say we define it as something like “cultural wisdom that helps you live better.”
The “live better” part might include things like coexisting more comfortably with others, being better within yourself FOR yourself — stronger, more productive, more confident, more loving — and, oh, living on the planet without consuming too much of it.
The “wisdom” part implies useful lessons that can only be acquired as a result of 1) being passed down by a thoughtful elder, or 2) you yourself living a long time, having a great variety of learning experiences — including lots of painful mistakes — and thinking deeply about life and how to live it.
The “cultural” part includes that material maintained and handed on to you by your People.
Your father teaches you how to treat a woman in order to create and maintain a strong, lasting relationship. That would be Legacy.
A rap song teaches you to Fuck Dat Bitch. That would not.
You learn in school how to read and do geometry, how to have a scientific mindset and conduct a debate. That would be Legacy.
You learn on TV to buy lottery tickets and to “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.” That would not.
You develop an intense love of ham radio with the help of a retired music teacher who lives in your neighborhood. That would probably be Legacy.
You develop immense expertise in Pokemon from watching episodes on YouTube. That would not.
Hopefully you have Legacy in your own family. If your grandfather tells you “My grandaddy told me this when I was a boy. ‘Horace, you stick up for family. Don’t matter what they done, you stick up for ’em.’ ” you have a Legacy lesson four generations deep about family solidarity.
On a larger scale, Culture, when you think about it, is all about Legacy. Most of the time it operates without conscious direction, but it is nevertheless a body of deliberately-taught lessons about The Way Our People Do Things. You might learn to build a waterproof hut out of banana leaves or birch bark, the safe way to gather and shuck oysters, or how to bargain sharply so as not to be cheated.
Not all Legacy is good. People might intend for it to be good, they might think it’s good, but there are cultural practices handed down that are useless or even harmful. I’d consider circumcision to be a harmful Legacy. Ditto for the mandatory wearing of burkhas.
Culture and Religion and Legacy, Oh My
Religions are all about Legacy. As I think I’ve also said here in the past, religion itself is a subset of culture, which means the larger container is culture, and religion exists within it. Thus all religious acts and rituals are culture, but there is quite a lot of culture which is not religion.
There is even a great deal of what we consider religion which is actually culture. For instance, Christmas, which is technically a religious celebration, is in large part merely cultural. For most Americans, I would wager, the religious part of Christmas takes a distant second place to the secular, cultural part of it. We might pray with the family at dinner, go to church on Christmas morning, delight in each year’s Nativity, but mostly we enjoy the gift-giving, the music, the decorating and shopping. And of course all of this gets passed on as Legacy.
How important is Legacy? I’d consider it the true core of human civilization. Legacy is the civilized part of civilization. If you’ve ever read the book (or seen the movie) Lord of the Flies by William Golding — in which a group of British boys stranded on an island without adults descend into savagery — you’ve witnessed a scenario of people deprived of Legacy. Lacking any better ideas on how to survive as a group, they form a primitive, violent, superstitious tribe, and the results are not very pretty.
Atheism and Legacy
I bring up Legacy mainly to relate it to atheism.
Think of the civilization around us. It contains ways to live and die and everything in between — celebrations, holidays, cultural costumes, foods to eat and not eat, the details of how to pursue and acquire a mate, a great deal more.
Civilization is a complex web of all sorts of Legacy. Historically, the people within each culture inherited the Legacy of their own culture and very little else, but today, in the mixed bag which is western overculture, we’re now exposed to a big Chinese menu of cultures, and can take from one or the other at will. But we’re also exposed to a great deal of other stuff which is neither culture nor Legacy, but is instead … marketing. The tidal wave of sales pitches and suasions, propaganda and lies washing over us daily leaves in the dust whatever lessons we might learn from our parents or teachers.
(For some of us, say city kids raised in single-parent-with-two-jobs homes and immersed in street culture, life can be almost devoid of Legacy. One’s entire view of life and how to live it could be shaped by advertising, song lyrics and whatever you picked up on the street today. There are young people in New York City — I’m pretty sure I’ve met some of them — who really believe beating and robbing elderly people, as long as you can get away with it, is a GOOD thing.)
Again, atheism by itself has almost no Legacy. We atheists have no holidays, no ceremonies, no meeting houses, no characteristic clothing or foods, no ways of dating and marrying and family-making. We have no atheist-inspired life GUIDANCE.
And, mostly — immersed in the near-infinity of western overculture — we don’t yet have any feeling that we might need something like that. After all, we seem fully able to conduct our lives, right? We live, we go to school, we get jobs, we marry, have kids, go on vacations, all the stuff of day-to-day life. And we still get to be atheists.
Atheism vs Predators
But the fact is, we live inside cultural conditions just about 100 percent borrowed from others. Some of it is religious, and we make an effort to avoid that part, but a great deal of it is irrational without being religious, and goes unnoticed. As I said, when I talk about “western overculture” I’m also talking about all that non-Legacy stuff, the churning mix of in-the-moment messages and ideas that come from mass media and business marketing.
Who among us doesn’t know “A Diamond is Forever”? Picture generations of young men and women absorbing that assertion, spending thousands of dollars on little clear rocks as a way to express true love. Considering that we defined Legacy as “cultural wisdom that helps you live better,” what is there in “A Diamond is Forever” that does that? Nothing. “A Diamond is Forever” is, in fact, not only non-rational but almost purely predatory. Rather than adding to the lives of those who accept it, it takes from them. It’s a statement deliberately engineered to benefit diamond merchants, a way to suck money out of hopeful youngsters seeking a way to express love and permanency, youngsters who lack Legacy to assist them and who are thus helpless against the clever marketing.
The difference between Legacy and marketing is that the one is a body of ideas worked out over centuries as a way to (mostly) help people, while the goal of marketing is to USE people. If I work for Del Monte and I put an ad on TV about green beans, I’m not there to tell you to eat green beans, any green beans, for the sake of your health. I’m there to tell you to eat DEL MONTE green beans. I might accompany the message with a rhyming jingle to help it stick in your head, or a Mr. Whipple-like character to make it fun and memorable, but the amount of help I give you in the living of YOUR life is close to zero. And there is nothing in my advertising that lends itself to passing on to help any future generations you produce.
Whereas a strong home culture might give you tools for protecting yourself from the predatory parts of overculture — picture the Amish or Hasidic Jews as extreme examples — we atheists have nothing like that. Having rebelled against the brainwashing of religion, we feel all safe and free and smart. Yet we are still subject to the great mass of other non-rational, sometimes even anti-rational, influences that permeate overculture.
How many atheist men buy diamonds for their wives-to-be, and how many atheist women happily accept them? I’ll bet the number is lower than the general population, but still unfortunately high.
And just how free are we on a holiday like Easter? Free to celebrate it in private as we ourselves choose, but given a traditional family event, there many of us are, joining hands around the table for the family prayer. Given a Christian funeral with a minister, goddy eulogy and prayerful observance, few of us are going to raise our voices in rejection.
The point is, we fancy ourselves outside “it” all, but we’re often on the edges of it, and sometimes even in the heart of it. Because we have nothing of our own, other than individual atheism, to protect and guide us.
But we COULD have something of our own.
Yes, some will say atheism speaks to this ONE point — a lack of belief in gods. But the PEOPLE who espouse atheism, the atheists themselves, are free to create any sort of social structure they want. Something distinct from western overculture. Something that self-regenerates. Something that defends and maintains itself even in the face of extreme social pressures. Something that provides a home, a safe place, for both the people and the philosophy. Something — a Legacy — that can be passed on to following generations.
I continue to believe we must.