Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 1

If we lived in a society where there were stiff penalties for not going to church – say getting beheaded, or flogged in the public square and being cast out of the community  – I’d go to church.

But I’d still be an atheist.

Beyond my strong conviction that it’s better to believe true things, there’s a whole raft of benefits to the individual. See Because I Am An Atheist.

Even aside from punishments for unbelievers, some still in effect today in various parts of the world (including places in the U.S.), we atheists have traditionally been at a thundering disadvantage. Goddy people have always gotten MUCH better treatment. More leeway. Friendlier reception. A long, long list of advantages that have not been available to us unbelievers.

I can walk two blocks from my house and behold a literal castle devoted to the enjoyment of Christians. The First Reformed Church, built of warmly beautiful red stone in the early 1800s by stonemasons the likes of which may not even exist in the United States today, and all for nice Christians.

Oh, I get some benefit out of it. It’s where I go to vote, after all. And it is admittedly a scenic addition to the neighborhood.

But it’s also offensive. For one thing, it’s where I HAVE TO go to vote. For another, its very existence serves as a reminder of the extreme favoritism toward religion on the part of government (which means DISfavoritism toward people like me). There’s been a church on that spot since the 1600s, and not a cent of property or income tax has been paid in all that time, nothing at all in return for the hundreds of years of fire protection, police protection, all sorts of government services and allowances flowing into it in obvious deference to the fact that it’s a religious outlet rather than a secular one.

Yes, I get the argument that there are some social advantages – charity and so forth – supposedly flowing out of it. But … a few years back I mapped the number of churches and church-owned properties within a 2-mile radius of my house in central Schenectady, and there were close to 80 of them. In that same area, I doubt there are that many schools, convenience stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, supermarkets and libraries COMBINED.

If the number of churches somehow correlated with charitable acts, you’d think there would be a goddy sob sister on every street corner, begging to drag in every last wayward alcoholic and drug addict, orphaned child, homeless family and lost puppy for charitable assistance. But that does not seem to be the case. The orphans and families get state and local government assistance, the puppies get private volunteer and donor assistance (or killed), and the alcoholics and drug addicts get arrest records and squalid jail cells. If the churches are involved in this stuff in any big way, they’re damned subtle about it.

There does seem to be a certain occasional presence outside the local Planned Parenthood office, the Fetus Patrol valiantly saving beating hearts from pregnant teens bent on murder, but these may be volunteer bleeding-heart conservatives rather than church-affiliated ones.

But other than that, hmm. I don’t see it. I see castles. This being one of America’s older cities, growing up in a time when Jesus needed big free-standing buildings and not these upstart boutique churches shoved into strip mall storefronts, I see castles, and plenty of them.

Here, I’ll show you a few pictures from my neighborhood so you can judge for yourself. Bear in mind these are all within a 15-minute walk from where I live. (Click and click again to enlarge photos.)

What do the local atheists have? Don’t know about where you live, but around here we have a Meetup group that rents the back room of a local pub every month or so. And nothing else.

I went to the Reason Rally in Washington DC a while back, and I can’t tell you how AT HOME I felt, for the first time in my reasoning life. I also got invited to speak at Eschaton 2012 in Ottawa last November. But generally, the society in which I live offers friendly events and services for my type about as often as Great Comets appear in the sky.

So I started thinking about that “something” we atheists COULD have. You know, if we worked to create it. What I came up with, I dubbed Beta Culture.


[ Continue with Beta Culture: Patheos Intro, Part 2. ]

An Undropped Red Shoe

I’m not actually supposed to be writing this.

More than two years ago I signed all sorts of documents demanding strict adherence to the embargo date of the information. But since the embargo date has come and gone, and there has been no public announcement – and especially since the recent news story of the entire Vatican science team being killed in a bus crash in Argentina – I don’t feel bound by those agreements.

I suppose there might be some danger in this for me, either legally or via some darker threat – frankly, the bus crash worries me – but maybe that’s all the more reason I should write and post it here. If this post vanishes, or even if I vanish … well, hopefully someone will look into it. But it’s time people knew.

In February of 2011, I received an email inviting me to a private audience with an unnamed official at the Vatican. It was so out of the blue that at first I thought it was something like one of those Nigerian scams. But when the plane tickets arrived with a confirmation letter – on gold-embossed Vatican stationary! – I had to accept it was a real invitation.

Naturally I assumed the interview, if that’s what it was, would relate in some fashion to the uproar over priestly child molesting which had been recently so much in the news. I assumed that my position as a known atheist was in some way related. If there was to be an announcement of radical new policy bearing on the controversy, perhaps the announcement would be given some measure of weight if it was first reported by a neutral, or even hostile, reporter such as myself. Plus, I figured I’d be one of dozens, and that the media pool would include a number of more-friendly reporters in other media.

The subject at hand was something quite different, however, and I was the only writer there. To this day, I honestly have no idea why I was picked. Maybe it was simply a way to judge the reaction of the skeptical public before holding a more formal press conference.

I was ushered into an interview room at half past five on a Thursday, a few weeks before Easter. Literally ushered, I mean – there was an actual young man in uniform, carrying a flashlight and wearing white gloves, which I thought peculiar. But even I was awed by the overall experience – hey, I was in The Vatican! – and found it difficult to question the details.

Plus, my head was still whirling from the surreal fact of first being whisked through the Pope’s private apartments, where His Holiness was just getting out of the bath. I’d been allowed to kiss His ring while a crowd of blond altarboys held discrete towels to protect His Holiness’s dripping private bits from view as he stepped out of a sunken tub of hand-carved Italian marble.

Save for being naked – I politely averted my eyes – and being briskly rubbed by young men with plush, gold-embroidered towels, His Holiness was exactly as I pictured him: A wrinkled, saggy-assed elderly man with – in addition to the dark, almost black circles around his deep-sunken eyes – an air of almost madly sinister gravitas.

My interview, as the Pope weightily informed me while sniffing a bouquet of roses held up for his approval by an obsequious imp in a crimson toga, would be with Vatican metabiologist J. Noble Random. The flick of a gold-ringed pinky dismissed me, and I was swept out by my guide.

I almost laughed out loud when I was shown into the office of Random, who appeared to be waiting for me. In addition to being very British, as I could tell from his first words, Random was a dead ringer for John Cleese in his early Monty Python days, and I instantly thought … well, that that’s who he actually was, and that this whole thing was some sort of staged joke.

Recovering quickly, though – I could conceive of no possible way in which Cleese or any other Python could gain access to the inner recesses of the Vatican, especially not after The Life of Brian – I simply smiled as I shook Random’s hand.

Even so, I suffered throughout the interview with what could only be called cognitive dissonance. So much so that I was unable to think of good questions, and fell back on simply recording what Random said:

“I know you’re simply bubbling over with questions, but I’ll just tell you what I’ve been asked to tell you, and we can get to the questions later.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, the Vatican maintains a small but highly qualified staff of researchers. Most of the work is philological in nature, engaged in translations of ancient documents such as the Dead Sea scrolls and things of that order, but there also is a team of researchers engaged in more weighty scientific matters – biologists, physicists, and most especially archeologists and even paleontologists.

“I, as you have no doubt guessed, am one of that team.”

He paused, staring for a moment at the lavishly decorated ceiling of his office in apparent preoccupation, then seemed to come back to himself.

“Well! To the matter at hand: This most recent project basically grew out of the realization that human fecal material contains countless cells shed in the normal metabolic process.”

That was so out of left field, I was dumbfounded by it, and it was only by listening to my recording later that I was able to catch what he said next.

“Average people like you and I shed these human cells in our daily ablutions and simply flush them away, with no thought to the significance. But some of us here at the Vatican Metabiology Lab realized that this simple fact held great significance when the individual in question was in fact our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

“We immediately understood that obtaining a sample of Our Savior’s Holy Excrement from his years of wandering would be next to impossible. But one of my research team – it was I, if you must know – floated the idea that Our Lord spent his childhood in only a few places.

“There must exist, within those ancient communities where the Baby Jesus lived, 2000-year-old kitchen middens and rubbish dumps. Any modern mother will tell you that babies are virtual gushing fountains of near-liquid fecal matter” – here he waggled his eyebrows unconsciously but comically, which unfortunately reinforced the John Cleese impression – “producing anywhere from four to a dozen soiled diapers a day. The simple fact of it is that Mary, the mother of Jesus Our Savior, must have disposed of her firstborn’s cast-off diapers in some fashion.

“Of course, this is based on the assumption, by no means automatic, that Jesus had a normal human metabolism and ate and excreted as you and I do. Pemberton, an unfortunately youthful member of the team, gave a great impassioned speech providing numerous citations from the Man of Steel Canon, in which Superman receives his powers, and presumably a certain amount of nourishment, from exposure to Earth’s yellow sun. The good man insisted that Superman eats, if he does, only as a courtesy to friends and coworkers, and perhaps as a theatrical prop to his Clark Kent identity. Likewise, Jesus the Son of God may not have needed to eat.

“However, at some point you have to simply accept – on faith, as it were, ha-ha! – that Jesus the man, being born of an earthly mother, had some human traits in addition to his godly ones, at least in his early life.

“Although some members of my team thought it possible that these diapers may have floated up to Heaven, possibly surrounded by a glowing aura of holiness, some of us reasoned that the most likely scenario was that Mary simply tossed them in the garbage with the chicken bones and whatever passed for pizza boxes of that time.

“Fortunately funds were available to do the actual research. An American billionaire had recently donated $30 million to mount yet another expedition to Mount Ararat to look for Noah’s Ark, but we were able to divert the funds into this project.

“And a good thing too! The rich bastard was initially incensed over the diversion of his donation. But I ask you! Does a mere layman know the best use of donated funds? No! We are the Vatican, after all. We sent the local Bishop over to explain that the preliminary expedition to Ararat was turned back by a burning wall of fire, probably because the money was tainted by the sin of the donor. That shut him up right quick, you can imagine!

“Anyway, using Biblical citations and records surviving from the time, we undertook excavations in a half dozen sites, mining the kitchen middens and stable dumps of area villages and towns.

“We ended with something like 70 tons of raw material, which we shipped, for security purposes, in a number of individual boxes, each weighing less than a pound, to the Vatican. It was expensive as hell, of course, but as the Vatican owns a substantial interest in the shipping company, the whole thing balanced out fairly well.

“Using a sophisticated extraction technique involving the Vatican ultracentrifuge – it’s quite proprietary, old chap, no need to even ask! – we extracted progressive samples of a substance which our official records refer to as Extract 390, but which I and certain members of my team waggishly call Jeezium.” He looked alarmed for a moment and added quickly, “You won’t tell His Holiness I said that, I hope.”

“However! No doubt you’re eager to see it, eh?”

Stepping over to a wall safe hidden behind a Caravaggio painting depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, he keyed the combination and the safe door swung silently open. Inside was a single item resting on a black velvet box, a faceted glass sphere something like the one that Harry Osborne gave to Doctor Octopus in the second Spider-Man movie, the one with the deuterium sample needed to power Doc Ock’s disastrous fusion generator.

He pulled the sphere out reverently. “And here it is! Imagine! Almost 60 grams of pure Jeezium!”

I stepped closer to observe it. Floating within the sphere was a blob of what looked like something you’d see in a Lava Lamp, or possibly the Red Matter from the  Star Trek reboot featuring the two Spocks. It was a liquid-appearing mass, less than an inch in diameter, and it gave off a gentle glow of pearly pinkish light.

“Eh? Eh? It’s something, eh? Fair takes your breath away, doesn’t it? The actual immortal and Holy living cells of the Baby Jesus!

“And look at this!” he exclaimed excitedly, pointing at the back of his thumb. “See this spot, here? I had a huge wart there, not two days ago. Had it since I was a child growing up in Brighton. It simply fell off yesterday, leaving only this reddish spot! Amazing, eh? And this! I slammed this finger in a drawer while I was at seminary as a young man, hastily hiding away a copy of Sorority Vixens 2 when the dorm counselor came through, and the nail hasn’t grown right since. But look! Today it’s perfect!

“Even without the actual conscious presence of Our Lord and Savior, his full healing powers are still present in this Holy tissue!

“Think of what could be done with this in hospitals all over the world! It could revolutionize medicine, jerking it out of the hands of doctors and scientists and placing it …” – here he sighed blissfully – “back into the prayerful domain of the Church, where it rightly belongs!”

“Why,” and here he leaned over and fixed me with a piercing look, “it might even be the answer we’ve sought to the amputee-healing controversy you unbelievers blather on about.”

He leaned back in his chair and gazed at the glowing sample cradled in his hands in deep reverie. “The nights I’ve lain awake pondering the question! And now at last, we may be able to silence that glib insistence that mere severed limbs disprove the Kingdom of God! Ah, well. Ah, well …”

That was basically the end of the interview, as Random trailed off into blank silence. A moment later a security guard herded me from the room, and I was escorted to the main entrance. The whole thing was a bit surreal, and it was only later as I was transcribing my notes on the flight home that I really believed it had all happened.

I never heard from the Vatican again, either about the interview, the embargo, or the supposed announcement. And after the bus crash that killed Random and other members of his team, I don’t dare attempt to contact anyone.

However, I do notice the recently-retired Pope looking fairly youthful of late.  The dark circles around his eyes are almost gone, and his normally cadaverous yellow skin is looking unexpectedly pink.

I have to wonder …

Drum Roll, Cymbal Clash, Fanfare of Vuvuzelas!

picture of red fox

Hey there! Say hello to another FreethoughtBlogs alumnus, moving over to further infiltrate Patheos with steely determination, pointed wit, and violent, wanton godlessness.

For those of you discovering Hank Fox (me) for the first time, an intro:

I’m the author of Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith. I’ve blogged as the Blue Collar Atheist at Freethought Blogs and elsewhere for a couple of years, but I recently changed my blog banner to A Citizen of Earth to reflect some new conceptual territory I’m venturing into.

[ Shameless self-promotion: I have two other books upcoming – and hopefully even a third one I’ll mention later in this same post. The first should be out in late May, early June: “BrainDrops: The One and Only Ungodly Bathroom Reader – An Astounding Compendium of Wit, Wisdom & Complete Goddam Nonsense from a Complete Goddam Atheist.” The second, “Saying Goodbye To Dan: An Atheist Deals With Death,” should be out sometime in early 2014. ]

In case it escapes you, yes, I’m an atheist. More than that, I’m an antitheist. I started calling myself that way back in the last century, before I’d ever heard anyone else use the term. I still pronounce it in my own peculiar way: An-TITH-ee-ist, rather than the upstart modern an-tee-THEE-ist.  To me it means “Not only do I not believe in gods, I don’t think you should either.”

As the book title and former blog name indicate, I got into atheism from a slightly different direction than most: I grew up in Texas with rodeo cowboys and hard-core religious types, working as a truck driver, roofer, carpenter and a lot of other blue-collary and outdoorsy jobs. The cover of my book sports a picture of me riding a bull (my brief dalliance with rodeo included getting on – and coming off! – eight of them) but cowboying was also one of my formal professions: For years I worked with riding horses, draft horses and mules in the wilderness of California’s Eastern Sierra mountains.

Later I got to be a newspaper and magazine editor, but I have golden memories of my days in the saddle, and still think of myself as more blue-collar and red-neck than white-collar and citified.

Growing up in an East Texas home with a Southern Baptist mother, a Jehovah’s Witness father and later, a Born-Again Christian stepfather, I also had something of an unusual home life. From about the age of 13, I started having my doubts about gods and the supernatural, but after one slip with my stepfather that resulted in years of low-key torment, I kept it wholly to myself for years and years.

Completely on my own, I gradually became a full nonbeliever. Watching myself change, observing my own thoughts on the matter of gods and such, and eventually blogging about it, I realized there was an unfilled niche in the atheist library, a book that spoke not just to the Why of atheism, but the How. So I wrote Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, a sort of handbook on how to think as an atheist – the kinds of things that do, or maybe should, go through one’s mind as you make the Atheist Journey.

As to the question of the logical defensibility of atheism, I am comfortably and absolutely certain there are no such things as supernatural superbeings – no gods or devils, no heavens or hells for them to inhabit – but also no ghosts, spirit mediums, telepaths, garden fairies, or zombies (although I’m still watching John McCain and Dick Cheney with interest, and would not be surprised to see shambling, lurching brain-tropism at any moment).

For me, the questions don’t even arise. Because I realized some time back that a great deal of each of our lives consists of thought experiments – the proffering of one concept or another as a guiding principle, and then living that idea to see what sort of fruit it bears.

The simple fact is the thought experiment of god-free reality and reason has, in the fields of science and technology, produced true miracles. I’m communicating with you, across an entire world, with a number of them right now. Computers, the Internet, lasers, fiber optics, satellites, microwaves, so many real things working together to produce this seamless technological feat of me writing this blog, and you reading it.

NONE of those things were possible through the thought experiment of religion. As to actual technology that arose from religious mindsets, it consists, unflatteringly, of torture devices that flourished during the Inquisition and the witch hunts of Colonial America. Speaking of Colonial America, even something so apparently primitive as the Native American birchbark canoe comes into being only through a technology undergirded by a mercilessly real-world mindset; faith plays no part in its invention or construction.

The thought experiment of reality and reason bears equally useful results in individual lives, and I’ll tell you some of my own experience of that as we blog along together.

My stock in trade is commentary on current events, ventures into amateur philosophy, and my own doofus-level survey of the state of the world. But it is also very much this new idea I have – that there’s a next step for the atheist community

That next step is probably already being taken without us being aware of it. Which means it is undirected, largely accidental, and probably hugely less effective than it could be.

One of our underlying atheist assumptions is that when you get religion out of your head and out of your life, reasonableness and goodness somehow flows in and fills the hole. But as I know from watching the atheist community, and those on the cusp of abandoning their home religion for something else, that process is never a given. One craziness can all too easily be replaced by another; witness the number of people who become uncomfortable with their sedate hometown church but who think the solution is to join a born-again evangelical megachurch.

I’ve even met a few atheists – not a lot, but some – who have seemed nutty as hell. And certainly the reasonableness we seem to think ourselves blessed with doesn’t make us unfailingly capable of calm communication, even with each other. I’ve seen people who self-identify as godless uber-rationals spit out ad hominem insults like a machine gun, and never notice.

But hey, we’re young. A young movement, a young community and, as I’ve realized, a young culture.

It’s that last I want to focus on in the coming years. I’m convinced that something special is happening right now, something never-before-seen on Earth, and something probably necessary to human survival.

It’s just this: Us. We atheists. Not as individuals, but as this community, and beyond it, this new culture. Something to fill the hole left by dying organized religion.

While speaking in Ottawa at Eschaton in November, 2011, I was on a panel that was asked if we were optimists or pessimists about the future. All the other panelists said they were optimists. In my own answer (which I worded badly, and still flinch when I recall it) I tried to express that the question necessitates a more nuanced answer. Optimism can be misused, I said, because … well, because bad things happen all by themselves, but to have good things happen, you have to MAKE them happen.

Which means a negative future may well be a greased-chute certainty in a very few years, whereas a positive future demands a shit-ton of very hard work and some damned difficult decisions. The optimistic idea that “something good is going to happen” – whether we lay it at the feet of miracle-working Jesus or of miracle-working Science – can be poison to the understanding that we have to put on our big-boy boots and DO things.

I started exploring the idea of an atheistic culture back in 2010. I’ve blogged about it briefly and infrequently, but I’ve done a LOT of conceptual work on it. I have something like 500 pages of notes I want to turn into blog posts, public talks and eventually – after I get input from a great number of people – a book.

More than that, I want to see progress toward that culture. As I say in my first book:

There is a saner, more reasonable future awaiting us, a time and place where a majority of people aspire to see things for what they are and then choose to deal with them realistically. It will replace what we have now, where too many of us can’t get over believing that some eternity-spanning fantasy makes our own lives cosmically important and everything else – distant stars, a broad universe, and even the civil rights of our neighbors – totally insignificant.

More than anything, I’d like to live in that sane future. Failing that, I’d like to think I can help make it happen.

Anyway, here I am. If you’re new to me, welcome, and I hope you’ll enjoy my writing and my ideas. If you’re a reader following me over from FTB, double welcome.

And away we go.