Earth Day 2013: Thoughts Like Falling Leaves

[This is a repost of a piece I did several years ago, slightly edited for 2013. This essay is also part of the conceptual force driving my thoughts on the need for Beta Culture.]

Leaf One

Con games and sleight-of-hand magic work because, one, we humans only have so much attention to spare at any one moment, and two, they direct that attention deliberately in one direction. If you look at where the finger points, you miss … well, everything else.

Like the movie teen backing through a darkened doorway in the serial killer’s lair, we focus intently on one thing while something more important takes place just outside the sphere of our focus.

I’ll give you a real-life example that has bugged me for a long time.

I met Timothy Treadwell some years back in Flagstaff, when he came to give a talk about grizzlies. Tim’s the guy who got killed and partially eaten by a bear in 2003 in Alaska, and was immortalized in the 2005 film “Grizzly Man” a “documentary” by filmmaker Werner Herzog.

I hated the film (and I think Herzog is a pandering jackass for making it as he did) because it projected exactly two messages into the minds of viewers: 1) Tim Treadwell was crazy. 2) Grizzlies are deadly killers.

The finger pointed in those directions, and most of the viewers looked that way. Treadwell was in fact killed by a grizzly. But off-screen, what the finger didn’t point at, and what most of us failed to notice, was that he lived within spitting distance of these huge bears for 12 summers.




Out of all the things we might want to know about grizzlies, we already know “Any sane person knows them goldurned bears’ll kill yuh!” What we don’t know is “There’s a way to live right in among grizzlies for 12 years without getting hurt.”

I can tell you in one second which of those things I’d like to see in a film. Herzog, sleight-of-hand documentarian, wasn’t interested in it. Today we have one more titillating, somewhat stupid film pointing a finger at something we already “know,” and most of us still view bears as unpredictable, inevitable killing machines.

So here we are coming up on Earth Day 2013, equally awash in sleight-of-hand: Oh my gosh, are we ever jumping on the “green” bandwagon. You can’t watch TV for half an hour without seeing five commercials about companies going green. Corporations are going green, politicians are going green, builders are going green, banks are going green, cities are going green, for all I know states are going green. Green green GREEN — Yowzah!!

TV, billboards, radio messages, magazine ads, newspaper stories, websites — everywhere you look, clean, well-fed mommies and daddies and happy children are pitching in to cut water consumption! Save energy! Produce less trash! Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Man, I already feel better about it, don’t you? We’re DOING SOMETHING, at last, to Save the Earth. Let’s all heave a deep sigh of relief. Yessssss.

Meanwhile, in all those places where the finger doesn’t point …

Leaf Two

Was it just a dozen years or so ago I was writing an article about Baby Six Billion? She was born on or about October 11, 1999. I wrote about the world of progressive scarcity she would be born into, and I wished her well.

But we’re already talking about Baby Seven Billion, who arrived on Earth — as estimated, anyway — on October 31, 2011.

Halloween was the SECOND scariest event on that date. Even though you’d expect Baby Seven Billion to be a daughter or granddaughter of Baby Six Billion, she’s not. (Unless Baby Six Billion got pregnant at the age of 12, that is.)

Instead, Baby Seven Billion was born, give or take a few years, to the same generation that produced Baby Six Billion. The SAME generation.

Jeezus holy jacked-up shit.

Knowing that, I have to ask: What exactly is the point of going green?

I mean, if you and I conserve and recycle and stop eating endangered fish and refuse to support companies that log the Amazon, and do everything we can possibly do to keep the Earth green and growing …

And we each of us cut in half our annual environmental footprint on the Earth …

Where’s the net gain if, during that same period, our neighbors produce more than 205,000 more kids EVERY DAY?

That’s 75 million a year, in case you wondered — roughly equal to the combined populations of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah,Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Or more than the individual populations of Turkey, Thailand, France, United Kingdom, Italy or South Africa.

Or, if you prefer, more than twice the population of Canada. Each and every YEAR.

Your piddly-ass half-person conservation effort vanishes in the noise.

Leaf Three

I saw a beautifully designed book on the environment a few years back, a thick, well-researched tome about all the possible things you can do to Save the Earth. (Wish I could remember the name, but I seem to have put it out of my mind.) I was so excited, I ordered it immediately. And man, when it came, I unwrapped it lovingly, admiring its heft, its colors, its stunning cardboard slip cover. I dove into it with excitement — it was like a whole weighty library of greenitude.

But I made the mistake, within an hour of getting it, of delving into the index for articles on population control.


Huh? I couldn’t believe it. I tried different words, different combinations. In the end, I discovered the entire book seemed to contain only two PHRASES related to the subject. I mean, there weren’t three whole sentences about it. Amid stories of fish farming and water conservation and energy from wind and sun and recycling plastic and improved strains of rice, there was virtually nothing about human numbers.

It was like going through a million-word book of instructions on how to save a sinking ship, reading a thousand different formulations of “Bail faster and better,” but finding no mention at all of “Hey, stupid, plug the fucking hole in the hull!”

I instantly lost interest in the damned thing. I mailed it to a friend who’s into green stuff, and have since then entertained several brief imaginings of punching the authors in the face if I ever get to meet them.

But … can I really blame them? I haven’t had the chance to read every book ever written on saving the earth, but I’ve found few recent ones that deal with population as the real core of the problem.

Is the subject taboo? Is it simple despair that puts it off-limits?

Maybe it’s the inevitable over-reaction. The instant you start talking about encouraging people to use condoms and contraceptives, to pursue various avenues of family planning, etc., to limit human population, the shriekers slam down on you like a rain of neutron bombs — blam, blam blam! “You want to murder babies!! You want to commit genocide!! Oh my God, why do you hate human beings so much!!?”


Leaf Four

I had a cowboy friend, Tom Wood, who was an eternal optimist. I noticed the day I met him that he had this small purpley bump on the side of his face, and I asked him about it not long after, when we’d had a chance to get to know each other.

“Ah. That ain’t nothing.” Big smile, dismissive gesture with can of beer. “Been there for years! You gotta go sometime!”

Two years later, the purpley bump was bigger, but the gesture and optimistic dismissal was the same. Every time the subject came up: “Hey, you gotta go sometime!”

Except for the day he found out he had malignant melanoma, and the three or four months he lasted after.

Turns out optimism, like anything, is misusable. If you have a problem, but you refuse to grapple with it because you’d rather be optimistic and hopeful about the future … well, there are side effects.

To get well, you first have to admit you’re sick. To climb out of a financial hole, you first have to admit you’re not handling your money well. To stanch the bleeding of a gaping wound, you first have to notice the gushing blood.

Sometimes, for a while, optimism has to slide over into the passenger seat, keep its smirking mouth shut, and let pessimism take the wheel.

In the midst of an emergency, in the face of a deadly threat, you have to think more about the worst that can happen, rather than the best.

The population of Planet Earth has yet to realize this.

Leaf Five

I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t use the word “retarded.” And I get the point — it can be a callous insult to people with mental handicaps.

But like the shock value of carefully-applied profanity, it can also serve to slap people awake.

Here’s retarded: The smug idiot who laughs “Hey, we can’t hurt the Earth! Ha-ha! It’ll be here and fine long after we’re gone!”

Here’s retarded: “Even IF we were capable of wrecking the environment, God could fix it with a wave of his hand.”

Here’s retarded: Buying into all those corporate messages that if we recycle and reuse (with their corporate help, of course), everything will be just fine.

Here’s retarded: Every environmentalist and green advocate who ever lived who failed to recognize that the foundation of EVERY environmental problem is too many people.

Here’s retarded: The guy who repeats the vague reassurance that “Educated women tend to have fewer children. All we have to do is raise the level of education and social welfare in the world, and world population will level off at some sustainable level.”

Problem is, we’re out of time on hopeful reassurances. The planet is already over the load limit on humans — there’s nothing left, no excess capacity to hold us until that optimistically hoped-for population leveling begins to kick in.

If ever there was a moment to be pessimistic, to attempt to be thoughtful and worried and to imagine the worst, this would be that moment.

We’re killing the Earth NOW.

Leaf Six

I don’t see it getting better in my lifetime.

Don’t think I don’t hate to say it.

I hate to even think it. Hey, I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was about 11 years old and first read Zip-Zip Goes to Venus.

As an SF fan, I’m a devoted futurist. For years I thought about the possibility of cloning my dog, the Best Dog I Ever Even Met, but I held off on doing anything about it. Then one day he got sick, and it hit me that I could either 1) read about all the possible technological innovations but do nothing to make ready for them, or 2) I could live and act as if these imagined futures would be real.

I picked the second option. The future is a real place, a real time, and many things will become possible. I set the wheels in motion for collecting tissue samples when Tito died. Today those samples are frozen in liquid nitrogen, providing me a doorway into one of those possible futures. When (if) cloning gets to be reliable and cheap, I’ll be ready to have them build a puppy for me, the latter-day twin of the Best Dog I Ever Even Met.

But futurist or not, no matter how much technological progress we make — on gene-engineered crops, fish farming, pollution-free energy — none of that can fix the hole in the boat, the hole of more and more people, more and more mouths, arriving daily like unstoppable civilization-smashing dreadnoughts of unthinking hunger.

Leaf Seven

The truth is — brace yourself for some carefully-applied profanity —

We’re fucked.

Seriously. We’re raping ourselves to death with our own appetites. We are bent over, grabbing our metaphorical ankles, while a dick the size of Montgomery, Alabama — population 205,764 — rams repeatedly, daily, up our collective butts.

And it looks like we don’t have the brains to stop it.

For instance: Even the idea of conservation has enemies. And not quiet enemies, but active, loud, wealthy enemies. Enemies with TV and radio shows. Enemies with audiences of admiring millions. Enemies with the backing of huge, globe-spanning churches. Save the environment? Do something about global warming? It’s un-American, it’s crazy, it’s EVILLLL!!

But even those who aren’t active enemies of possible solutions are still thinking we can do pretty much all the same stuff we’ve always done. Everybody can drive cars and live in big houses, and buy everything we buy wrapped in a disposable plastic sheath, and have two or three or four kids. As long as we all pitch in and conscientiously — voluntarily! — conserve, everything will be fine.

Even those of us who are active champions of the environment, as long as we fail to bring the subject of human population into every single discussion, are little more than enablers, co-dependents who help wreck things by failing to admit the real problem.

Taken together, we’re the battered wife who won’t admit she needs help. “I know he loves me. He only does it when he’s drinking.” Wham! “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t provoke him.” Wham! “He doesn’t really mean to do it. I just can’t leave him.” Wham! Wham!

Out here in the real world, we’re already dying. We’re already killing everything else we care about. It’s just that it’s been happening in slo-mo.

Like the stupid pigeon that stands still while the cat sneaks up on him in broad daylight — “Yeah it DOES look like a great big predator, but hey, it’s barely moving, and nothing bad’s happened SO far, right?” — we’ve sat mired in calm complacency in the midst of a slow motion crash.

But things are speeding up.

The Earth is bleeding to death under us, faster and faster, and the best we’ve managed so far is a string of very small Band-Aids.

When the real way to stop the blood loss, the only workable treatment, is the tourniquet of Everybody Stop Having Children. For a while, anyway.

Leaf Eight

Nothing I’ve said here is meant to imply that I have absolutely no hope. Even the statement “we’re fucked” is not something I feel in any final way.

But I’m not optimistic. The only hope I DO see is if we admit the problem, the real problem, and deal with that. Plug the hole in the hull first.

Stop human population growth. Now. Reverse it. Get our numbers down to four billion, two billion, whatever number really IS sustainable in the real world.

Because this is it, kids. The photo finish where humanity as a group crosses the line a split-second ahead of Mr. Death and lives as the better selves we could be, the ones who become rational adults and enter the next Age of life on earth.

Or the photo finish where Mr. Death beats us across, and stands mocking as we murder each other attempting to claw our individual selves out of the sucking pit of our own sewage and malignant runaway growth … and kill everything else we care about — all the whales and wolves, the polar bears and eagles, and even the cats and dogs and horses — along the way.

There is a possible future, maybe even a probable future, where quite a lot of us will live to see the squalid, dehumanizing background-world of Blade Runner, or Mad Max, or Idiocracy, as the depiction of an enviable Golden Age.

(Just FYI, all you rich people thinking you might survive inside some kind of walled compound, I’d bet real money that the zombie hordes will be eating you FIRST. After all, you’re the fat, juicy ones. Besides, do you really want to live in a world without toilet paper? Without coffee? Without chocolate? )

You, or your kids if you have any, will face this fact: A decidedly unpretty future of death, death and more death is coming soon to a planet near you.

Leaf Nine

And now — deep sigh — cue the shriekers. I obviously want to murder babies, and commit genocide on poor people, right? I’m crazy, I have no proof for my silly dark fantasies and I should probably just shut up — Why do you hate people so much, Mr. Gloomy? — and try not to kill other people’s optimism.

Anyway, things aren’t really that bad, and Science Will Find A Way. Like, you know, mining asteroids and colonizing the Moon, sending our surplus population into space. Stuff like that.

Besides, somewhere out there somebody smarter and better informed than you and I has the problem in hand and will fix things up.

After all, those wise strangers, wherever they are, whoever they are — you know, like government people and corporations and such — care SO MUCH about you and I and our families, right?



Beta Culture: Bonsai Civilization and the Future of Humanity

Initial conditions show up in the final product.

I’ve often thought about bonsai trees in relation to child-rearing.

In my own case, there were many brighter possible futures I might have enjoyed. In my few years of college, I was a genetics major, aimed at medical or veterinary school. But I ended up, here and now, as a sort of junior-grade bus driver.

I was wounded from an early age by … well, call it less-than-optimal parenting. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I was skipping about one day a week to drive around with friends, play pool, etc. This after years and years of 4.0 grades and honor student status. Continue reading “Beta Culture: Bonsai Civilization and the Future of Humanity”

4th Grade Quiz: Four Ways Not to be Fooled

“What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?”  goes the old joke. The answer: Elephino (hell if I know)!

To the question of whether the attached image is the real thing, that’s the best I can figure out. (Click to see it full-size.)

I saw it this morning on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason Facebook page, a link shared by J.O., commenter from Gothenburg, Sweden. The original image appears to be from Imgur.

The Imgur side-caption says the picture was posted 14 hours ago (from the time I write this), and has 473,915 views.

Both images are purported to be an “Actual 4th grade science test from a school in SC.”

Real or not? I’m still looking into it. The thing is, the image strains my mind enough that I’m afraid it’s a fake. Nobody could be teaching THAT, could they?

On the other hand, for entirely different reasons, I’m afraid it’s real. Yeah, they COULD be teaching that.

But is it real? Given the daily demands of our individual lives, most of us will gloss over the question and settle for our simple reaction. But … for every lie tossed out there, someone has to look into it and report back to the rest of us, and maybe sometimes that person should be you. First so you can satisfy yourself about what sorts of things take place in the real world, second so you can report back.

But also, and very importantly, so you can defend yourself against manipulation. If you have a “button” that can be pushed, so that you react in a predictable way every single time it’s pushed, there are people who will find a way to use that against you. There’ s a whole industry of button-pushers out there, sad to say, and they’re experts at getting us to jump in ways that benefit them. And jump not just as individuals, but as HERDS of us, stampeding here and there at the will of the whip-wielders driving us.

There are a few powerful tools that can keep you safe from that.

First is Reason itself. Consider the thing before you on its face, calmly and carefully looking for logical fallacies, faulty assertions, outright lies, all the hints of falseness and foolery.

Second but simultaneous is the willingness to look beneath the surface of the thing, to seriously investigate it, to follow leads in as many directions as you can, so you’ll have something to reason about.

Third is this: Band together with a community of like-minded reasoning people so you have brothers-in-arms to wade into the thing with you, or in your stead. Trust them to help you. Encourage their own trust, in return, by being trustworthy.  (Never lie to them, never fool them, never play jokes on them for your own amusement.)

Fourth is your own individuality, which serves as your personal defense against both the original whip-crackers and your own people (who sometimes make mistakes, and even conduct their own stampedes, as I hope we all know).

So here’s me investigating: I first looked at the Dawkins page, then the Imgur link, enlarging both to be sure I was looking at the same image.

The sheet looks real enough. The “Smile” sticker is a believable touch, as is the “100 A+” in red pencil. The handwriting might be a bit too good for a 4th grader (10 or 11 years old, here in the U.S.), but it’s within the range of possibility. I noted the date on the page: March 28, 2013. Recent. But again, where?

Second, I read the caption and comments on the Dawkins site. One suspicious detail is that there’s no further information. South Carolina where? Which school? Who originally found it and brought it to light?

I clicked the link and went to the Imgur site. No detail there, but there is a second page attached, a partial page showing the question “18. The next time someone says the earth is billions (or millions) of years old, what can you say?” With a scribbled-in answer: “were you there”.

Next, I opened a Google Image Search, dragging the image from the Imgur page into the search window, where I got a small number of hits, only one of which was new, and germane.

Look at comments on the Science Fact page. Though most are of the shock-and-horror variety, there is one that appears seriously sympathetic to the religious viewpoint:

Lee Swanson: There are so many theophobes and anti-religious bigots here. It’s hard to believe all the hate. I think what I am seeing is that many are offended, probably because you don’t like the implication that you were created. If you were created, you might have to change your like style because there is a God from whom you need forgiveness. Also, do all you evolutionists really think you are so logical and scientific when you believe in any idea except the one that make the most sense. For example: There are only four logical possible explanations for the existence of the universe. 1. It came from nothing by nothing, which is what many evolutionists believe. This is scientifically impossible. 2. It is eternal. Finite, contingent things cannot be eternal. We still acknowledge a cause and effect universe, so eternality is not an option. 3. It is an illusion and the universe really isn’t here. (eastern religions). 4. Someone or something (God) outside of the universe brought it into existence. Go ahead, evolutionists, pick option one, but then you have to acknowledge you are clinging to your own religion based on faith, not fact or science.

So there’s reason to believe that there are people out there willing to defend this stuff, if not on its face then at least by attacking any critics as mere haters.

I checked with, and searched “4th Grade Science Quiz” and “Science Quiz,” but got no useful hits.

I would strongly doubt it’s in a public school. Even in South Carolina, some parent would eventually react. If it’s real, this would be either a private Christian school or a home-school.

Okay, that’s the thing itself. What about the thing beyond the thing? In other words, who and why and where and when?

If it’s real, it’s scary on its own, and deserves further investigation about where and why this is being allowed. But there’s still the question of motivation.

One possible motivation is that it came from a parent who dares not get involved, but who wants someone to do something about it. So this would be someone on our side of the fence.

A second motivation would also involve someone from our side, someone not directly involved but who also wanted something done. This one seems less likely; one of us would have posted the full details of where and when this took place, so we COULD respond to it.

If it’s not real — if somebody faked it up — questions about who did it and why arise. The existence of it suggests that whoever did it would know there’d be some sort of shock-and-outrage reaction from people in the pro-science, pro-education, anti-religious-indoctrination camps. The joker’s motive is opaque, of course, but it would seem likely to be the simple tweaking of noses, the desire to stir up outrage and then laugh about it privately.

But the possibility that it’s a “herder” bears thinking about too. Just because you’re NOT paranoid doesn’t mean there aren’t people out to get you. Or control you. And this thing is rather professional looking, don’t you think?

So: Are we being herded? Who would benefit? Not enough information; shelve it for now but keep it in mind. (Also keep in mind that it could even be someone in our own camp.)

Whether the joker is churchy or freelance, he/she knew we’d react to it, and probably how. We haven’t disappointed him.

Pending further information, I tend to lean very slightly toward thinking this might be fake.

I hope it is.

Beta Culture: A Community Nexus

One of the problems I have with writing about Beta Culture is that I want it to make sense to people, but that it’s in my head as a growing gestalt – a huge, block consisting of many, many pieces (and hundreds of pages of notes) –  becoming progressively more complex and exciting the longer I consider it.

I want to write about it in a way that carefully explains it – it’s a new idea to most people, after all, and things like that are always difficult to wrap your head around – and that means I probably need to start at A with the easy parts first and move on from there to B, C, D and so forth, the more advanced bits, so the people reading all this end up in the same place. Or at least somewhere on the same road.

But there are exciting bits that pop up all the time, connections that happen in my head the more I think about it, and they’re difficult to resist.

So to hell with it. I’m going to write about it in a jumbled mess, and hope it eventually makes sense. Besides, a lot of this is included here as the pieces of a book which I hope will be the REAL introduction of the idea.

So let’s talk about a 10-steps-down-the-road thing.

Take a look at this:

It’s a former New York State “Developmental Facility” (whatever that is – some sort of government-funded residential site for the mentally handicapped? A posh resort for bureaucrats funded with taxpayer money?) that consists of six buildings on 48 landscaped acres in Syracuse, New York (not far from the Canada-U.S. border, about 20 miles from the Great Lake’s Lake Ontario, about 100 miles from Niagara Falls).

The thing features interconnected buildings with 10-foot-wide hallways, including a full-sized gymnasium with locker rooms, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and even its own bowling alley. Plus cafes, lounges and common areas scattered throughout. Not to mention 600-space parking, and this sweet, sweet, feature: a full-sized commercial kitchen with industrial-sized ovens, which just screams on-site restaurant and bakery!

Tell me that doesn’t sound like the ultimate headquarters of an evil genius bent on world domination. Or, you know, the central nexus of a growing, worldwide social organization aimed at making the world a better place for everybody living on it.

Assessed at $4.25 million, it was recently sold at auction. The minimum bid was $1.2 million; no word on what it sold for.

But, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to someday have a place like that for international delegates to gather and talk about Beta Culture strategy on atheism, feminism, environmentalism, social justice, Occupy-type action — and especially the Beta Culture Official Big Funny Hat — that Beta will encompass.

Give us 10 or 20 years.

[ Hat tip to Mona Albano for telling me about this place. ]

Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 4

[ See Beta Culture Intro Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

Futures Big and Small

Say there’s this future out there. And it’s … some way.

I mean, some real things are in it, and some real things are happening in it, and there are preceding real things – objects and events and people – that cause those things to be there, doing what they’ll do.

There are two futures we’re talking about. Or, really, one future viewed at two very different scales.

There’s the sort of private-life future that we ourselves plan and work and hope for. We go to college to brighten it, save money to cushion it, we eat right, exercise, all the stuff we know we have to do to get some sort of positive end result. Or we smoke, spend time on Facebook, blow the paycheck each week, but, again, get a future that, even if we hate it, is something we know we sort-of earned.

It’s that larger scale I really want to talk about, the larger public future shaped by greater forces than our small individual lives, and that takes place on a stage the size of the world. Unless you’re Abraham Lincoln or Bill Gates, affecting this future is pretty much out of your reach. As merely you-yourself and me-myself, we can neither change nor deny what’s coming. We can worry about it in vague terms, carp about it to friends, but mainly we just hang on for the ride.

The vital fact is that all our small private futures will take place in the shadow of the big public one. We will live our lives, every aspect  of them, on that larger stage where the future of the world, or of humanity, plays out.

What we do in our own lives matters to that larger future only in a statistical way. We’re like individual molecules of air and moisture in the vast pattern of history’s weather. We blow to and fro, millions of us together, and wind happens, rain happens, tornadoes happen, ethnic migrations and wars and the rise and fall of empires happen.

But then again, there are larger forces at work in creating history’s weather. Humans can band together in certain ways to become large-scale social entities, and those social entities become massively more powerful on the stage of history. The things you and I do might vanish in the social noise, but these larger players will pretty much create the future.

Glorious vs. Ugly

Let me break for a moment to tell you some of what we might well be facing, futureward.

First, a couple of my Wise Old Sayings I Just Made Up:

Bad things happen automatically, but good stuff you have to work at.

Every new roommate will automatically assume someone else is in charge of housework.

Though phrased for the individual, both statements have statistical implications. Listen:

In an after-hours bar conversation with a climatologist several years back, I jokingly asked him “Tell me the truth; are we fucked?” There was a silent moment in which he stared at me in complete seriousness, before he quietly answered “Yeah. We’re fucked.” I’d already concluded something of the same thing, but it was still spooky to hear it.

We’re not fucked because anybody planned it or worked toward it, we’re fucked as a side effect of us living our lives, doing what we do, in all our billions.

Bad things happen automatically. Not just global warming, but Peak Oil, world economic shifts, resource depletion, oceans being fished out, fracking and groundwater contamination, growing numbers of endangered species, vanishing forests, mysteriously dying bees, human population continuing to increase (even if at a less-accelerated rate), increasing varieties of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, on and on.

And it’s all happening – right now in your own lifetime – not because somebody’s deliberately DOING it, but because nobody’s deliberately STOPPING it.

Like new roommates, we all assume someone else is dealing with it. We say “Hell, we’ve been hearing these gloom and doom predictions for all of history. Scientists will do something, discover something, invent something, to fix it. They always do.”

But for reasoning people, such simple optimism is misplaced. From a rational viewpoint, optimistically saying “scientists” or “the government” or “people of good will” will fix things is only a slight paraphrasing – and an exact conceptual match –  to what godders say: “Hell, we couldn’t damage God’s creation. And even if we did, God could just fix it with a wave of his hand.”

It’s not just wishful thinking, it’s a blithe dismissal of the serious discussion that SHOULD take place. It shunts us away from the real understanding and real effort that might help fix things, if we only employed it.

So: Bad things are coming. And someone has to stop them, divert them, shift them onto some better path. Who?

The Big Three

Let’s get back to those “social entities.” Who are these larger players I spoke of? You could start to list them and never run out of list, but they fall into three main categories, it seems to me, and I list them as Government, Business and Religion.

Government is all of government, everything from the local city council, water board and school district to governments the size of nations. It’s building departments, prisons, highway paving crews, city and state parks, everything that government does or has jurisdiction over. Conceptually at least, government is there to provide services and protection, but in fact it also aims at considerable amounts of control and oversight of our private individual lives.

Business, these days, mean corporations – extra-national organizations aimed at profit.

Religion is the massed aggregate of churches, faiths, religious groups and even religious-activist individuals, ostensibly aimed at comfort and community, but really – from an atheist viewpoint – more aimed at coercion, control and profit, with reason-killing passions such as fear and hate as some of its prime tools.

All three of them also have this other main goal – continuity. Survival. Prosperity. Growth. Considering that there’s only so much to go around of what makes them up – money, power, allegiance, belief, cooperation – they work to leech more and more of the stuff out of the rest of us.

Government assumes greater power, creates new fields of regulation, runs our law enforcement and courts, starts wars, spies on private citizens and conceals information from us. Business (corporations) squeezes out more money or hours of our attention, sells us things, entertains and lies and manipulates us, seizes control of the food supply, runs our banks, keeps its secrets even when it’s in our interest to know what they know, penetrates our lives in ever deeper and broader ways. Religion pushes for greater social primacy, struggling for ways to subvert school boards, text books and classroom curricula, seeks influence over women’s intimate decisions, and works to control debates on social issues such as morality, freedom, and even science.

Think of the Big Three as vehicles into the future. They’re going there, each along their characteristic roadways, and we get to go along for the ride.

Or think of them as factories that crank out “future” in the same way auto-makers crank out cars and trucks.

So the Government Factory works to turn out a future tuned to Government needs, the Business Factory labors over a future based on Business needs and desires, and the Religion Factory turns out yet a third product aimed at Religion’s needs and mandates.

They produce futures reflecting their values and needs, and we end up living in them.

If you and I want a cure for Alzheimer’s, a city on the moon, or just a college degree for a son or daughter, we ride their vehicle, travel their road, look to their future-factory to produce the thing. Or we don’t get it.

I DO want a cure for Alzheimer’s. I DO want a city on the moon. I want a future-world where war is extinct, or just damned rare. I want radically-extended human lifespans (starting with mine!).

More modestly, I want a computer printer that can crank out a quarter of a million pages without breakdown, one that uses ink cartridges I can buy – for about two dollars per thousand pages – at any drug store or supermarket. Who’s going to create that for me? I mean, ever? Right, nobody.

The printer is technologically conceivable, therefore do-able. But I will never, ever, have one. Because the Big Three either have no interest in it, or a negative interest.

So we’ll face not only the looming disasters they ignore, but also the loss of all the good futures that might have been reached, but that they have no interest in. On the large public scale, we can have only those things that are accomplished – or unimpeded – by Government, Business, or Religion.

Also on this large public scale, there are some things I DON’T want, but will get anyway, because one or more of the Big Three have an interest, and because I can’t stop them. Unlabeled additives in my food, for instance, but also growing restrictions on women’s health resources and reproductive rights. Growing prison populations. Fascist-level police presences anytime you want to disagree in numbers with “your” government. Economic meddling. And never-ending efforts to shove religion into schools, textbooks, legislation, political rhetoric, every aspect of our lives.

The Lifeboat

As things stand, the future is in their hands. Almost every path into it will be controlled by these three entities. Which means … whatever future WE dream of, or hope for, or work toward, will be mediated – with controlling yes or no power – by THEM. We’ll all get to some sort of future, but we’ll get there in their boats, with them as captains charting the course.

I’m proposing something to put it at least partly back into ours: A fourth entity, a fourth road, into the future – a consciously created, crowd-sourced culture, a motivated aggregate of humans who not only direct their own future, but command the social room in which to do it.

This proposed fourth entity is the lifeboat from those others, our best hope for getting to some sort of future WE want to live in.

This is what I call Beta Culture.

I can’t see how it could hurt. I can see a lot of ways it could help.

And in fact, I think we desperately need it.

The Freedom of Vanished Ripples

I Carried the Stone the first time when I was 3 years old.

I don’t remember it, of course, but my father was so proud he filmed it and I watched it years later. There I was, all 35 pounds of me, carrying a 10-pound Stone. I managed to carry it almost all the way across our living room before I fell with it and chipped one of my baby teeth. In the movie, my mother picked me up and inspected the broken tooth, glancing angrily at my father, but of course she stayed silent. A chipped tooth is nothing compared to devotion to the Stone. Since I shed the tooth later anyway, it didn’t really matter.

When I was 5 years old I started Catechasm classes and began carrying a Stone in earnest. By the time I was in regular school at 6, I carried the Stone all the time. I could set it down when I was in private by myself, but anytime I was out in public, I carried it.

Like all in my family did. Like all my people did. We’re Lithians, you see, and that’s what we do. We Carry the Stone.

All through elementary school, my Stone sat in the center of my desk as I did my schoolwork, and I showed proper reverence by working and writing on the small corner of my desk the Stone didn’t cover.

By the time I was 15 years old and in middle school, I carried a 45 pound Stone in my arms all day long. My brother at 15 had carried an 80-pounder, and some judged me as less devout, but it was all I could manage for an entire day. Better to carry a lighter Stone than to drop one, or to falter.

I could see the other kids playing sports, riding bikes, or just walking carefree in the hallways, and I envied them. But I never said anything. Eventually I understood: We Lithians are proud of our difference. Carrying the Stone is our strength, and our purity, and all the other children were weak and impure compared to us.

I had a couple of friends for a while who were not Lithians. We all used to walk home along the same streets, and eventually we became friends. Some days we went under the bridge at the river and sat and talked. The two of them would throw flat rocks into the river and sometimes make them skip three or four times, but I had to hold my Stone and couldn’t throw. But one day it started raining heavily just as we reached the bridge, and we ran under it to get out of the rain. We were stuck under the bridge for almost an hour, and in that time, Tom and Freddy skipped rocks and talked about TV shows that I was forbidden to watch because they were blasphemous.

Tom gave me a flat rock. “Just throw one. What can it hurt? I know you have to carry the Stone, but if you sit here with it on your lap, that’s carrying it, isn’t it? Then you can use your right hand to throw the rock.”

I was reluctant, but eventually the two of them talked me into it. I threw the rock and made it skip three times! I tried another and another, but I was never able to get another one to skip. I wanted to, really badly, and both my friends could see it.

“Okay, get up right now,” Freddy commanded. “Give me your Stone and take this rock. Look, it’s just for two minutes, max. I probably can’t carry the thing more than a couple of minutes anyway. Besides, this is what friends are for. They help you out. Tom and I aren’t gonna tell anybody, and nobody else is coming out in this rain. Nobody will know. Just do one or two.”

I felt strange without my Stone. It was scary, but also a little exciting. Freddy stood right next to me, so I could reach over and touch my Stone if I wanted. I held one of the rocks in my right hand, swung my arm and threw it 50 feet! I didn’t even care that it didn’t skip – it was amazing just to be able to throw it like that.

But just as I reached for another rock to throw, my older brother came around the edge of the bridge abutment and saw me standing with a rock in my hands, rather than my Stone. He saw my Stone in Freddy’s arms and stood there with an expression of horror on his face, trembling with the effort of supporting the huge Stone he proudly carried.

When I got home, I was forbidden to talk to Tom and Freddy again, and my brother began driving me to school and back. Worse, during the holiday dinner a few weeks later, my grandmother began crying in front of everyone. Crying about me.

She came around the table and clutched at me around her light Stone, sobbing. “I wanted your Stone to rest with mine someday in the Chasm! My favorite little grandson, what if your Stone is lost to us? My Stone will be without yours for all Eternity!” She broke down into wordless sobs while the entire family stared at me, angry for hurting her this way. I vowed I would never again put down my Stone.

And for three more years, I never did. I discovered a way to sleep sitting up with my Stone in my arms, and despite the fact that I slept badly and it affected my schoolwork, and I sometimes even developed pressure sores on my forearms from my Stone lying on them all night, I almost never did it any other way.

Seeing my devotion, my parents permitted me to go off to college. There are only certain jobs my people can do – my father was a truck driver, for instance, balancing his Stone on the steering wheel of his truck as he drove – but many of us are unable to work out in the world with the non-Lithians, and my family needed the money I could bring in once I graduated.

I went to college to learn accounting. As long as the Stone rests in the center of my desk as I work, and my forearms constantly touch it, I can do my duty to my people and our customs, but also learn a skill to make a good living.

My second year in college I met Anya, from the Lithian colony in the next town. She dressed modestly, as we Lithians do, and carried a Stone almost as big as mine. We started dating. We began going to the local pizza parlor, sharing a pizza across one of the large tables built for serving Lithians. Our Stones rested in front of each of us, with the pizza platter between us, and we ate and talked and laughed.

We both won a place in the collegiate Regional Honors Contest, and were allowed to travel to the big city to compete. We stayed in a hotel, both of us sharing rooms with non-Lithians, a boy and a girl who were also a couple. All four of us were eliminated from the contest on the first day of competition, and Melody and John decided to head to the hotel pool together to swim.

“Why don’t you two come with us?” begged Melody. “Come on. Nobody will know.” She looked at me slyly. “I know you’re not going to tell on Anya, are you, Lamiel?”

I clutched my Stone, embarrassed, and muttered, “Well, no. I’d never tell on her.”

“And Anya, you’re not going to tell on Lammy are you?”

Anya laughed and grinned at me, excited. “No, I’d never tell. Lammy, let’s do it! I’ve always wanted to try it! Let’s go swimming!”

We borrowed suits and towels and trooped down to the pool. Melody and John leaped into the pool with whoops and splashes, but Anya and I just stood there, holding our Stones.

She looked at me and bit her lip, then looked shyly down at her Stone. “I will if you will.”

I walked over to a lounge chair and just looked at it. Then, taking a deep breath, I bent over and sat my Stone on it. Anya gasped when she saw me take my arms away from it. She stared into my eyes in shock, and I had the terrible feeling I was in trouble again, but then she did something exciting and strange. She DROPPED her Stone on an adjacent chair and stepped back from it. She stood rubbing her hands together for a moment with an odd expression on her face, as if she’d never felt them touch together before, and I could see the calluses and scars on her forearms from the years of carrying her Stone.

Then she RAN and jumped into the water. I watched her for a moment, feeling naked and strangely light without my Stone. I couldn’t bring myself to run, but I walked to the edge of the pool. I looked down into it while Anya watched me expectantly. Then I smiled uncertainly at her and slid in.

Melody and John taught us a game called Marco Polo, and we played it for almost two hours, laughing and splashing, swimming and gasping, while our two Stones lay on the lounge chairs, completely forgotten.

When we returned home from the competition, I avoided Anya for days. I was both excited and ashamed by what we’d done. But eventually I began seeing her again, both in class and out of it. We never spoke of the afternoon at the pool, though several times she almost said something to me, and I thought it might be about Marco Polo, and swimming.

I began having dreams of walking on the street in the daylight, of swinging my arms freely, of hurrying, of running, of JUMPING – all without my Stone. I dreamed of playing baseball with the other young men, of batting a ball over the fence and running the bases, then holding my arms over my head with hands clasped together in triumph.

During the day, though, I carried my Stone ever more fiercely, even trading up to a heavier Stone. I began to berate Anya for her lack of devotion, telling her she should get a heavier Stone too. We started arguing all the time, and our relationship deteriorated. One day I told her I was sorry we’d ever gone to the competition, and I wished we’d stayed home instead.

Anya and I broke up, and she began seeing another young man, a non-Lithian. She began sitting as far from me in class as possible, and we stopped talking altogether, acting like each other didn’t exist. I heard things about her and her new boyfriend, about places they’d been seen together, and her occasional lack of a Stone. I refused to listen to such stories, though. She and I might no longer be friends, but I would never believe her a traitor to our People, and our customs.

One day when she came to class, she did not have her Stone. I was dumbfounded and could only stare at her. She caught me looking and glared back, rubbing the calluses on her arms and flipping her hair angrily.

For the remaining months of the school year, I never again saw her with her Stone.

One day I woke up and looked at the Stone in my arms. “Why am I carrying this? I mean, it’s stupid, isn’t it? Nobody else does.” But I was suddenly scared, and clutched my Stone to me. “No,” I whispered fiercely. “This is who I am. I’m a Lithian and we Carry the Stone.”

I met another girl, a gum-chewing non-Lithian named Lilith who worked at the pizza parlor, which I now went to alone. She served me a pizza one day when there was nobody else in the place, and when I asked for the Parmesan shaker, she came from behind me, pressing her chest familiarly into my shoulder as she placed the shaker on the table next to my Stone. She snapped her gum and winked at me when I looked up at her, and then lowered her eyelids. “You know, you should totally go out with me. I really like Stoner boys. Besides, my name’s Lilith, and that’s practically Lithian with the letters rearranged.”

We started dating. Soon we were making love every night in her apartment, with my Stone resting on her abdomen or chest. I caressed her body intimately around my Stone, and was both excited and disturbed by the feel of the Stone as we made love. I loved the way her breasts looked when they were free and natural, and I came to hate the way the Stone pressed them flat.

One night a few weeks into our relationship, I suddenly put my Stone to the side. She raised up on her elbows, concerned. “What are you doing?”

“I … I want to see you, touch you,” I answered. “Without my … without that stone in the way.” I paused for a moment in surprise as the phrase “that stone” echoed in my head. I’d never referred to it in any way but MY Stone, and suddenly I’d called it THAT stone, as if it wasn’t an intimate part of me.

But I did it more and more often after that, leaving the Stone on the side of the bed. One night near the end of the school year, I put the Stone back on her chest, and it looked strange and ugly there. I took it off and put it on the nightstand.

Lilith looked at me with raised eyebrows, and I grinned at her. “I don’t think we need that thing, do we?” She laughed and grabbed for me.

One night when I was studying, I took a break to walk down to the store for ice cream. It was only after I came back that I realized I hadn’t been carrying my Stone. I was scared. I had forgotten – forgotten! – my Stone. Who had seen me without it? What if word got back to my parents? Or my grandmother?

It happened again. And again. There came a night when I got back to the dorm with the ice cream and saw my Stone sitting on the side of my desk, next to my open notebook and computer. I moved it to the end table next to the sofa, and then to the floor under the table. I turned away from it. I was amazed at how much room there was on my desk.

I studied that night with my Stone under the table, and when I went to bed I slept lying down, hugging myself with my callused arms and rolling freely from side to side, feeling deliciously ALONE in my bed. I drifted off with a smile on my face, and woke up several times during the night, just feeling of my chest and arms without the Stone, and smiling.

I called Lilith the next day. “I need you to do something with me.”

We drove down to the big walking bridge over the river.

“You sure you want to do this?” she asked.

“I … I think I’m sure. If I go back home, I might never do it.”

“What will they do when they see you without it?”

“I’m not sure.” I paused. “Wait. Yes I am. They’ll throw me out. They won’t … they won’t be my family anymore.”

“That’s a big deal, Lammy, believe me, bigger than you know.”

“No, I do know. But I know I can’t carry the Stone anymore. I can’t.”

“Oookay,” she said, snapping her gum. “I’m here with you, kiddo. If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it.”

I walked out onto the bridge, carrying my Stone. We got to the exact center, and I leaned out over the railing, looking at the water below. I rested the Stone on the flat-topped railing and stepped away from it.

I looked at my forearms, at the scars and calluses from long years carrying the Stone. I looked at Lilith’s forearms, smooth and soft.

I searched her face. “Why … why do they make us do this? I mean, why? It’s not …” I started crying.

Lilith gathered me into her smooth, beautiful arms, caressing me and kissing the top of my head. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay to cry. Let it out.”

“Why does anybody do it?” I sobbed. “I mean, there’s no REASON!” I shouted the last word. “THERE’S NO REASON, DAMMIT!! IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!!”

I broke gently away from her and looked at the Stone I’d lugged around for all of my conscious life. I wiped the tears off my face and reached for it, but then drew back away. Lilith only stood and looked at me. I leaned back and KICKED it off the railing. It made a loud splash. “I am never touching another of those damned rocks, the rest of my life. They’ll understand or they won’t, but my life is MINE.”

The two of us leaned over the railing to look for the ripples of my vanished Stone, but there was nothing there but river.



Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 3

[ See Beta Culture Intro Part 1, Part 2 ]

So if we’re talking about culture, let’s talk about culture. From Wikipedia:

“In the 20th century, ‘culture’ emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term ‘culture’ in American anthropology had two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively. Hoebel describes culture as an integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance.

Distinctions are currently made between the physical artifacts created by a society, its so-called material culture and everything else, the intangibles such as language, customs, etc. that are the main referent of the term ‘culture.’

What the hell does that mean? Just this:

Culture is what people do. What they wear. What they eat, what they say and the language in which they say it, how they cut their hair, the teams they cheer in their chosen sport, how they act toward each other, and toward outsiders. The books they read … if they read books. How they marry, how they have children, and what they teach those children. How they deal with death. Sometimes it includes such obscure things as where they vacation, and what they do there – or even the underclothes they wear, the sexual positions they allow each other!

And by the way, there’s an important point here: Religion itself is a subset of culture. If culture is the things people do and the way they do them, and religion is one of the things they do, religion is contained within culture. For most of us, religion is only a part of – by no means all of – our culture.

But culture is also the people themselves. It’s how they think of themselves, how they define themselves AS a people in the act of doing all their distinctive cultural things.

In a circular and self-referential way, the people within a specific culture are defined as a People by the culture they inhabit, and their culture is defined by the fact that they are within it, doing what they do.

Every New Yorker can recognize a Hasidic Jew (the ones with the long, curly side-locks). Hasidic Jews are the people who look and act like Hasidic Jews. But also, Hasidic Judaism is created by the acts of the people within it doing the things – dressing and acting and thinking certain ways – that Hasidic Jews do in order to identify themselves.

Likewise the Amish culture both defines and is defined by its people. Amish is not just Amish people, it’s what Amish people think and say and DO to be Amish.

Cultural stuff need not be written down. But it is passed along from person to person with a certain conservative definiteness. Culture preserves and propagates itself, or it passes out of existence. Hasidic Jews teach their children to be Hasidic Jews, Amish people teach their children to be Amish, and even, apparently, White Southern Ignoramuses teach their children to be White Southern Ignoramuses (here in the U.S., that is; and don’t go sniping at me about bringing them into this — I grew up among them, and I still know a few).

Here’s an example from my own life of both cultural propagation and the obvious benefit of culture:

I grew up in an East Texas rodeo cowboy culture, and I could have recognized one of “my people” in a crowd a hundred yards away. There’d be the hat, the jeans, the belt buckle, the boots, the shirt, the way the man (or woman) carried him-(her)-self. Somewhere nearby would be a mud-spattered pickup truck with a gun rack, possibly a horse trailer with a horse inside. Get closer to the guy and you’d pick up certain attitudes, certain specific interests, political and religious convictions, the way he sounded when he talked, and so much more.

There were the places we lived, what we did on Friday and Saturday nights (went to the Circle 8 Rodeo Arena, or one of a half dozen other rodeo grounds within a couple of hours’ drive) the stuff we talked about, the way men and men, and women and women, related to each other. The way men related to women, and vice versa (with a considerable amount of unabashed magnetic vigor on both sides, undeterred by literally skin-tight jeans). The things we ate and drank, and the things we didn’t (even today, don’t even try to suggest sushi to one of my people).

There were even the things we allowed – or didn’t allow – each other to do: I rolled up at a friend’s house one day in some soft comfortable shoes I’d just bought. I wasn’t out of my truck for two seconds before he looked incredulously down at my feet and asked “Where’d yew git them pimpy shoes?” In my culture of cowboy-boot wearers, I was not allowed to wear those shoes … not without a certain amount of unspoken threat of social ouster. I could be an accepted member of my cowboy culture, or I could wear those shoes, but not both.

As to the benefits of culture: By walking the walk and talking the talk – and wearing the right footwear! – I could be guaranteed a certain measure of instant acceptance anywhere in the country my people live. And so I was, in Texas, California, Nevada, Arizona, and even to some extent here in New York. Moreover, by being emphatically ourselves, my cowboy culture people have an undeniable place in the world.

That bit about acceptance — both among ourselves and in the larger world — is one of the many things I want with Beta Culture. I envision a worldwide family of atheists and rationalists, looking out for our own interests by growing a safe, friendly place for people like us to live, to work, to learn, to socialize, to enjoy the freedom to be ourselves.

Most especially, I want our own avenue into the future – a future we have some say in creating, and in which we have an undeniable place.

One of the first questions that probably comes up in your mind is “Why do we need this Beta Culture thing? As far as having our own place in the world, aren’t we already there, or at least getting there?”

After all, we’re making progress, we’re free to be atheists in public now, right? There are all sorts of books on the subject, sold right out in the open, and we even have conventions now, too many to go to, in North America and Europe. These days, nobody has to listen to the Pope, or go to church. And from all reports, people are flocking from organized religion in droves.

But let me tell you what I think we’re facing: A future that looks especially dark, with no real social mechanism for stopping it.


[ Continued in Beta Culture Intro Part 4 ]

Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 2

[ Start with Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 1 ]

Pretty much every civilization and culture on Earth so far has had religion somewhere near its heart, and even those today not overtly religious are colored with it in some deep and not-always-noticeable ways. In every previous age, we would call the span of recorded time encompassing all those religious nations, city-states, cultures and tribes simply “history.” But in THIS moment, for the first time, it’s possible to imagine something different, and give names to two very different ways of living.

The foregoing array of religion-tainted cultures I call, collectively, Alpha Culture.

Beta Culture is its obvious opposite – as I say it, “Beta not because it comes second, but because it comes NEXT” – a consciously designed, crowd-sourced, reality-based culture that would serve both as a cultural lifeboat for atheists and other social-justice activists and a broad-scale social counterweight to the goddy and otherwise irrational nonsense that confronts us every day.

(The name is somewhat problematic, as you’ll discover if you Google it. But as I joked at Eschaton, pretty much any phrase you can come up with already has some meaning attached to it. Playing around on Google, the best original wordage I’ve come up with so far is the four-word phrase “scuba diving laser cats.” Given the choice of Beta Culture or Scuba Diving Laser Cats, I reluctantly gave up the concept that would have us all in fantastic spacy costumes and went with the dull one. I’m open to renaming it, but I’d also argue that if we were to really go at this, in three months the front page of Google hits for Beta Culture would be the ones with OUR definition.)

I wrote a short piece about Beta Culture back in 2010 (I think it was), and wrote at least one earlier piece about COWs – Citizens of the World – that sort of touched on the whole-world aspect of the concept, but for the most part I only thought about it.

Atheism Plus came along, and I was supportive but not overtly so. (Asked about it by a friend, I said “Hey, my blood type is A-positive — I’ve been A+ since 1952!”)

I knew right off it was both a good idea and one that would face enormous resistance, a resistance predictable because of the narrow definition that “atheism” carries. Any attempt to recast it as this larger thing – to bring feminism and other social justice subjects under the definitional umbra of atheism – was going to face a storm of criticism. And did. I didn’t think it was a good use of time to fight that uphill battle – a battle that would be not with the external forces of religiosity, but one internally divisive to the atheist community.

The A+ people had one very good idea, that it’s time for something larger, something more socially embracing. The mistake, if there was one, was one of approach.

A better approach, it seemed to me, was to come up with something new, something larger, that could CONTAIN atheism … and all these other things. Something that can include atheism as a solid foundation, but that can also encompass other values of the growing atheist and rational and social justice communities … without causing a problem for atheist definitional purists. Something that can easily include Feminism. Environmentalism. Economic justice. Reason itself. So much more. And something that would imply more than just individual convictions privately held; this new thing would speak of a way of life – and demand recognition – for an entire People.

What can do that? And maintain its existence over the long term?

That last bit is crucial, I think. One of the things atheism has faced as a movement is that it periodically dies out. I think the reason that happens is that … well, it’s not really a thing on its own. It’s the resistance to a thing – religiosity – and it exists, even today, mostly in private individual minds.

Any “movement” identified as atheist has traditionally been a loose collection of people working to achieve their own personal mental freedom. Because of this focus on individuality – hell, I’d bet most atheists STILL think it’s wrong to proselytize, to seek converts – the desire to create a something-or-other with larger social goals and mechanisms has gone wanting.

Even the current atheist movement is somewhat vaporous, less rock-solid and more like a cloud. Though it might appear from outside as a solid – a firm, cohesive community – from inside it’s often a mist of separate particles, closely associated only because of temporary conditions of social pressure and temperature. Today’s atheist “movement” exists largely only as a counterpoint to invasive religion. We might march together in the goal of being free of religion, but broader social goals seem to most of us more like personal convictions, not necessarily shared even with our closest atheist friends.

Considering that we’re still capable of heated arguments over what the word “atheism” means, the mildest forces can divide atheists into opposing factions.

It makes us weak. Ignorable. And certainly less than cohesive when it comes to connecting with people driving these other social issues.

That lack of connection sabotages our own interests. Which, in my view, at this moment in history, poses a threat to civilization itself.

Throw some strong forces into the broader social mix – say another 9/11 type event, or something even larger (Nuclear explosion in a city? Asteroid strike in a populated area? Pandemic? World economic collapse?), and atheists, environmentalists, feminists and social justice advocates will be shoved off the public stage faster than you can blink. Our voices will be drowned out by Christian statists – no time to notice the petty concerns of squabbling traitors! God help us, we’ve got to save the world! – and there will be nothing we can do about it.

Because atheism as a distinct movement exists only as long as individuals keep that movement alive by actively resisting religion, there’s the further factor that if we make peace with religion and decide to “work together” on social problems, the reality-based thinking of atheism ceases to exist as any sort of real social force. The godders win by default.

In recent history, the birth and death cycle of atheism has happened several times: Atheism springs up, dies back. Springs up, dies back. Religion and churches, though, just keep on trucking.

Why? Two reasons, I think.

First is that the godders have something atheists don’t have. Churches go on and on because the social impulse within them represents something more than individual convictions in the moment. Churches PLAN for multi-generational continuance, both of themselves and the mindsets within them.

Second is a flaw in atheism itself, something recognized by the Atheism-Plus crowd. The definition problem is part of it: If your “thing” is nothing more than “not that other thing,” you don’t really have a “thing.” But mostly it’s the problem that atheism focuses on churches and religion rather than this larger, more central social problem: Powerful, broadly-arrayed, firmly-established, INSTITUTIONAL irrationality – a force that impacts and diminishes every aspect of our lives.

The opposite of god-belief might be atheism, but the opposite of this larger thing, an established culture of malignant craziness, aggressive ignorance and a never-ending tsunami of lies, something that goes far beyond mere churches and holy books, is something else entirely.

That opposite is, in fact, another whole culture. Which – and here’s the problem – doesn’t exist yet. Has never existed.

But … you know, it could.


[ Continued in Beta Culture: Intro, Part 3 ]

Hawking T-Shirts at Funerals (More or Less)

If I die and somebody shows up to sell “Hug Me – I’m an Atheist!” T-shirts at my service, it would tickle me to death. (If I wasn’t already dead, I mean, and was, you know, capable of being tickled.)

[ Note: If you do this, you have to donate the money in my name — all of it — to a black bear rescue operation or sanctuary. ]

But if it happened at any other funeral, I would expect the family to be furious.

I feel the same way about selling religion at funerals. Even at second hand, it offends me. I mean, if people are religious, and it’s a family member, I have no problem with the local pastor comforting them in religious terms. But to USE the funeral to SELL religion to the other attendees, that bothers me more than a bit.

Rev. Randy Campbell apparently did just that, using the funeral of Buckwild star Shain Gandee to hawk God to the younger crowd.

The Rev. Randy Campbell told the many young people in the crowd he understands that life bombards them with difficult choices. But he urged them to follow Shain Gandee’s lead and embrace their faith now, while they are energetic and engaged.

“This life will hand you a lot of things and call it pleasure, but there is nothing that brings greater joy to a person’s heart than serving the Lord,” Campbell said. “You may think at this point, you’re having fun, but those days will pass.”

When they do, he said, God is all that matters.

I could give you half a dozen reasons this irritates me, but mainly it’s the bullying nature of selling religion in this way. Campbell is preying on Gandee’s young friends and neighbors at their weakest, using the death of a good buddy as a lever to pry open their heads and pour in his religion.  Already shocked by his death, they’re getting a big heaping serving of “If you don’t go to church and believe in God, this could happen to you. You’ll also be betraying the memory of your friend.”

I’d rather see T-shirts.

Atheism In The News

Columnist Lee Dye made the front page at yesterday, with a book review titled

Do We Need God to Be Moral?

Are we moral because we believe in God, or do we believe in God because we are moral?

Frans de Waal argues in his latest book that the answer is clearly the latter. The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion, he argues.

Most religious leaders would argue it’s the other way around: Our sense of what’s moral came from God, and without God there would be no morality.

But this is a column about science, not religion, so it’s worth asking if de Waal’s own research supports his provocative conclusions, documented in the newly released book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist.”

Only a year ago you would not have seen such a story, and certainly not worded in this “we’re sure it’s not God” way.

Much as I detest for their Freak of the Week stories, this was a nice sign that atheism, the open doubting of god-belief, is no longer off-limits to mainstream media.

This bit also caught my attention:

[de Waal] is an atheist, although he disparages the efforts of other atheists to convince the public to abandon all beliefs in the supernatural. Religion serves its purpose, he argues, especially through the rituals and body of beliefs that help strengthen community bonds.

“Religion serves its purpose” — if it does — only because most people throughout history haven’t had a choice. My own thinking on Beta Culture convinces me there’s another way to strengthen community bonds — or at least there’s going to be — and one that doesn’t require you to give up your critical mind by giving in to religion.