Beta Culture: Sometimes It’s You

Outside my bedroom window, three floors down and about 50 yards away, a car alarm began going off. At about 10 p.m. Sunday night.

Thirty blasts of the horn, then silence. For about 30 seconds. Then another 30 blasts. Silence. Again. And again. And again. For more than two hours.

I was reading in bed, as I always do, and I’m able to ignore a lot when I’m caught up in a book, so it wasn’t a big problem. But it was annoying. And it went on. And on. And on.

I finally looked out the window, and saw the flashing taillights of the car doing the thing. It was in a little open-ended garage behind the apartment building next door. And it belonged to someone I knew.

I didn’t know how to reach her, but my downstairs neighbor-lady did. We called her at about midnight, and of course she too was being kept awake by the incessant noise. After hearing whose car it was, she called the owner and told her about it, and a few minutes later, there was a bleep-twip! in the middle of a honk, and the alarm went silent.

Ah, blessed relief. For about 10 minutes. Then it started up again. Calls were made, and the lady was again notified, and a few minutes later, bleep-twip!, it stopped again. For about 5 minutes this time.

Rinse and repeat a couple more times.

Finally I got up and put on my pants and shirt. I dragged my toolbox out of the closet and my roommate made one more call to the lady. We trooped out in the freezing, icy weather, and the vehicle owner popped the hood on her car so I could disconnect the battery cable. Ah, blessed silence!

I showed her exactly what to do, how to put the cable back on, so she could drive the car to the shop when she was ready to have them fix it.

I’d wager a good 35 of my neighbors were being kept awake by the thing. They probably all thought the same thing I did: “Someone’s going to do something about that pretty soon. Any minute now.” I’d bet the police were called by more than one of them.

Someone had to go down and fix it. Eventually I realized it was me.

Talking to my local freethinker Meetup group earlier that same day, I said “There are all these problems in the world. One of the problems, though, is that we generally assume someone else is going to fix them. The government will fix things, or corporations will fix things, or ‘scientists’ will fix things. But sometimes … sometimes it’s you.”

This is pretty much the cornerstone of my motivation for working on Beta Culture.

Most of us automatically think someone else – smarter, bigger, better people, way off somewhere, people more capable or concerned – is going to fix things. But that’s really a sort of faith, isn’t it? A sort of pocket religion, the idea that Someone Else is going to make it all better.

Here’s the thing about all those Someone Elses: They can’t – and I mean it literally, they CAN’T – care about you and your personal interests. They don’t know you, maybe they don’t even want to know you, and they may well find it impossible to take an interest in the things you care about, the things you think are important, the things that are hurting you.

If your street is filled with blowing litter, or the nearby park is filled with dog poop, maybe it’s you who has to pick it up. If the vacant lot next door is a neighborhood eyesore, maybe it’s you who will have to do something about it. If a car alarm is going off at midnight, maybe you have to go out into the cold and fix it.

Even if it’s a problem the size of the world, Someone Else, busy with his/her own personal life, or possessed of a whole array of interests different from yours, may never even notice.

Here’s the other thing about all those Someone Elses: They’re just people. Sometimes they are people working together in large numbers – calling themselves government, or First National Bank, or General Electric, or Monsanto, or the Catholic Church – but they’re still just people.

And you, every bit as people-y, can do the things they do. If you only DECIDE to get them done.

Sometimes it’s you.  Sometimes it’s US.

And maybe it’s now.


Beta Culture: More About the Nexus

One of my central ideas about Beta Culture, about creating it, is that every culture on Earth, past and present, is potential source material for designing our own unique cultural environment. We can borrow, copy, or just outright steal ideas and ways of doing from any and every culture.

Borrow cultural goodies from the Mormons. Steal from the Catholics. Copy good stuff from the Romans, the Shakers, the Japanese, the Italians, the Navajo. Borrow, copy, steal … and make it ours.

If you’ve been reading these posts on Beta Culture, you’ve probably come across me making the point that culture is basically “This is how my people do things” — the real-world customs and traditions, actions and attitudes of a self-identified People.

Religion — the formalized way of relating to the supernatural — is a subset of culture, I think you’d agree, and most cultures throughout human history have had religion at or near their hearts. The most basic argument for the creation of Beta Culture is that we haven’t yet had a culture that has NOTHING of religion or faith, the supernatural or mystical, about it … and that this is worth doing.

The Nexus, a church-like meeting place which is nothing like a church, is one of the central ideas to creating this new culture.

Speaking of which, there are several repurposed former churches here in Schenectady. One, a beautiful modern church near downtown, now houses a graphic design firm. Another, also downtown, is home to an acting company. Within just a few blocks of my house, there’s a VACANT church, with another vacant-looking one about a mile away.

Given my choice, I would steal the hell out of the “church” idea, and create — in some of these old churches — a Nexus in every major town in the United States. Of course Nexus would have nothing at all to do with religion or unsupported belief, everything to do with enhancing the culture and interactions and freedoms of Beta community members.

I wrote briefly about repurposing a former government office compound here: Beta Culture: A Community Nexus.

The [facility] 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.

So say there was this community center owned by Betas — atheists — with all sorts of interior goodies for unbelievers. What might some of those things be?

1) A meeting place where members can get together for planning, for discussion, for socializing.

2) A public freethinker library and reading room, for community outreach and proselytizing.

3) A media center and digital lab for creating online and printed support media.

4) A coffee house for networking among local college students.

5) A child care facility and preschool for working Beta parents.

6) Classroom(s) for teaching Beta ideas and values, among other things.

7) At least one small apartment for visiting atheist/freethinker speakers.

This all probably seems a bit utopian, but I see it as desirable, and even do-able. Every organization, no matter how large, starts somewhere small, with an idealized plan that one day — given the investment of enough time and effort and good ideas by the people who want to see it happen —  becomes the reality.

Or, you know, it fails and vanishes.

But the truth is, a certain amount of blue-sky optimism at the outset is the only way anything EVER happens.



Beta Culture: The Necessity of Change

This is a bit more heated than I’d say the thing …

Burn the Fucking System to the Ground

… but there’s one quote I view as absolutely accurate:

The system is not fixable because it is not broken. It is working, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to give the insiders their royal prerogatives, and to shove the regulations, the laws, and the debt up the asses of everyone else.

I don’t see “burn it to the ground” as a workable solution. This is more a cry of impotent rage — the same thing we did in the 60s that changed pretty much nothing. But I can see this other approach as a real solution:

Step away from the system and do your own thing. Do it so well other people, more and more of them, join in. Do it so well and so long that it becomes the new system — more reasonable, more humane, more fair, more livable.

Yeah, About That “Atheism as Intellectual Luxury” Thing

So … THIS got written: Atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy

It starts with the writer’s Reasoning Guy bona fides. An atheist at 16, Chris Arnade sneered at religion, even later becoming an actual scientist.

Three years later I did escape my town, eventually receiving a PhD in physics, and then working on Wall Street for 20 years. A life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments.

During that time I counted myself an atheist and nodded in agreement as a wave of atheistic fervor swept out of the scientific community and into the media, led by Richard Dawkins.

I saw some of myself in him: quick with arguments, uneasy with emotions, comfortable with logic, able to look at any ideology or any thought process and expose the inconsistencies. We all picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies. It is the skinny 85lb (35.6kg) weakling for anyone looking to flex their scientific muscles.

And then this man of science and reason started photographing homeless people. Talking to them, he discovered they were all strong in their religious faith. Takeesha, Sonya, Eric, Sarah, Michael — decades on the streets as addicts and prostitutes, they know that God is with them, watching over them, keeping them together when nothing else will. According to Arnade, every crack house — in addition to its “needles, caps, lighters and crack pipes” — contains a Bible.

In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners.

We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has numbed their understanding of our fallibility.

Yeah, about that.

I work peripherally with drug users and alcoholics, and I get to talk to a lot of them. Most of the ones I deal with are normal, everyday people who also happen to have this problem. Some are literal street people, hookers and hustlers and worse, others are family men and women with homes and careers. Some are even a bit upper crust, people flying high in life until they suffered auto or motorcycle accidents and got addicted to pain killers.

I’m always 100 percent careful to keep my opinions — of which I have few, because I know I have an 8-year-old’s knowledge of addiction, and I’m not qualified to draw conclusions with so little information — to myself.

But I’ve wondered more than once if this type of deep, deep faith has some direct connection to the addiction and hopelessness. If it’s not just another addiction, or at least an enabler of addiction. If multi-generational exposure to religious unreason, coupled with an equally senseless and abusive government approach to addiction, AND rehabilitation and treatment programs which perpetually emphasize the importance of religion, is what delivers families and individuals into these unimaginably harsh lives, cycling through years of drug use and rehab, drug use and rehab, on and on. I’ve wondered if people not taught to think, or taught NOT to think, are especially vulnerable. I strongly suspect they are.

But no, according to Arnade, this is all Richard Dawkins’ fault, that cold, inhuman, privileged sonofabitch.

I also see Richard Dawkins differently. I see him as a grown up version of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to understand why anyone would believe or think differently from himself. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from the ambiguity of life that he finds himself judging those who think differently.

I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point.

Judgmental pot, meet faith-based kettle.

Beta Culture: Self Defense in the Medical Arena

So you go into a hospital and it looks like every other, right? Doctors, nurses, beeping monitors, an overall air of concern for patient well-being. And for most of us, it’s probably even true.

But for one targeted class, women in need of emergency, or sometimes even routine, reproductive care, one in ten hospitals in the U.S. take a radically different approach to medicine.

Read this paragraph from Miscarriage of Medicine – The Growth of Catholic Hospitals and the Threat to Reproductive Health Care:

With the rise of Catholic hospitals has come the increasing danger that women’s reproductive health care will be compromised by religious restrictions. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (the Directives), issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), govern care at these facilities. The Directives prohibit a range of reproductive health services, including contraception, sterilization, many infertility treatments, and abortion care, even when a woman’s health or life is in danger. Moreover, they often restrict even the ability of hospital staff to provide patients with full information and referrals for care that conflict with religious teachings.

That highlighted bit means that not only will they not provide certain “sinful” medical services, or even give you correct medical information on which your health may depend, they also won’t tell you where you can go to GET that information and those services.

They will lie by omission, even when your life and health hangs in the balance.

Why is this important? Because the number of Catholic-owned hospitals is rapidly increasing.

While the number of secular non-profit and public hospitals fell by 12 percent and 31 percent, respectively, in the ten years of 2001-2011, the number of Catholic hospitals grew by 16 percent. In that same period the total number of hospitals in the U.S. declined.

The real scare quote for women needing emergency reproductive care is this:

  • In 2011, one in ten acute-care hospitals were Catholic-sponsored or -affiliated.
  • That same year, 10 of the 25 largest hospital systems in the country were Catholic-sponsored.

This is understandable, of course. Hey, souls hang in the balance, right? And what are your annoying little rights, your petty little health and safety, compared with that?

Doesn’t matter that you’re not Catholic. Doesn’t matter that it might cost you your life, or the life of your wife. What matters is THEIR set of moral rules, enforced on US.

Considering that the Catholic Church appears to be actively acquiring more hospitals and hospital systems, it’s hard to say any of this — the enforcing of their moral rules, at times when patients are most defenseless and frightened — is unintentional.

Yet another reason why a new social engine — Beta Culture — is needed. If there are people in positions of influence over you who fail to consider one of the most basic social promises — that in a time of desperate need, your medical care will not be compromised or sold short — it’s time to get out from under and go your own way.


Lest we forget one who died from this this kind of “care”: Savita Halappanavar


Things I’d Like to Take Home on the Eve of Christmas

The impulse, I suspect, is in all of us.

Put a 5-year-old on a beach with his mother, and he will spend some large part of his time picking up shells, one by one, over and over, running them back to her, proclaiming in awe and delight, “Mommy, look at THIS one!”

You find a great new eating place, you go back and TELL everybody. You discover a beautiful little waterfall on a hike, you take pictures and go back and SHOW people. You hear some juicy, or sad, or amazing, bit of news, your first impulse is to find a friend and SHARE it

So there are some things I’d like to take home. Things I’ve done. Things I’ve seen. Things I’ve discovered, out here in the wide world.

And though I don’t exactly think of the place I came from — that house, that neighborhood, that school, that town — as Home anymore, there are people back there who are home-y, and whom I’d enjoy sharing things with.

Because I’ve seen so much.

I don’t doubt that every person back there, and every person reading this, has lived a life as rich and full as mine is to me. But I’ll bet there are some things, maybe even a lot of things, that I’ve done that none of them have experienced. Because I left home, made my way in a somewhat larger world than the one we all grew up in, while some of them are still living right there, right in their home neighborhoods, right in the same part of town. With those same middle-class, white, Christian, English-speaking, Houston, Texas, CITY people.

Hey, I grew up with people who’d never been on a plane before. People who would never get on one. People who thought (think?) wildlife is for shooting, and nothing else. People who thought tacos were exotic foreign food. People who thought tea came in one style – iced – and to whom the very idea of hot tea was silly and foreign.

So here are some things I’d like to take Home and share with my people:

Sushi. Lagavulin single-malt scotch and George Dickel whiskey. A sip of apricot brandy after dinner.

Sitting in a natural hot spring and watching the full moon rise. Seeing the Great Sky River from the slopes of a 10,000-foot mountain. Lying on rocks at Yosemite National Park and watching a meteor shower. Walking outside and seeing the Aurora Borealis overhead, shimmering, flickering, dancing in the night sky. Rainbow rings around the full moon. Sunrise over the mountains. Sunset over the ocean.

Coyote song. The distant music of the bull elk. The roar of an African lion. The unearthly call of a mountain lion in the night. The bark of a red fox. The quork of a raven. The group howl of a pack of sled dogs under the full moon. The sight of a pika with a mouthful of harvested grass. The slick feel of a dolphin’s skin, and the pebble-grain roughness of a grizzly’s paw. The boom of a blue grouse taking flight overhead.

The smell of a Jeffrey pine. The crisp scent of falling snow. The smell of rain on mountain trail dust. The taste of water cupped from a trailside creek.

Bathing in an ice-cold mountain waterfall on a hot summer day. The view from 3,000 feet, under a parachute. The sound of the wind against the skin of a sailplane. The feel of a steady trail horse under you, patiently plodding along, and the view as you crest a rocky pass and see a mountain lake spread out below you. Waking to pre-dawn firelight, and coffee, and camaraderie on a wilderness horseback expedition. The feel of bone-deep weariness as a day of ranch work ends. The splashy spectacle of a mountain-bred rainbow trout snatching a fly from the surface of a creek, and the taste of it minutes later fresh from a campfire frying pan.

The rush and thunder of a wild river under a rubber raft. The this-is-where-I-belong comfort of a mountain hike with two good dogs.

You people back home, I know you’d love all this stuff. Oh, it might take an effort to get you to try sushi, but if you did try it, I’ll bet you’d like it. The rest of that stuff, even if you never get to do it, I could describe it to you, and if you’d listen, you could enjoy it vicariously.

There’s one thing more I wish I could bring home to you. Something I know most of you wouldn’t believe, wouldn’t accept. But if you trust me just a little bit, if you find any of the rest of this stuff interesting, or alluring, or just thought-provoking, I promise you this thing is a LOT better. Or at least as good.

It’s just this: The freedom you feel when you break away from religion. The cool comfort you get when you understand that the entire world is this honest, trick-free place with no hidden powers, no demons, no eternal torment. The fact that the only person in your head is you, and you can think anything you want; there is no lightning-wreathed fist waiting to smash you for your independent, irreligious thoughts. That there is no such thing as SIN, and that WE get to decide how to be good. That church-inspired charity – bargaining chips for your own selfish eternity – can be replaced by acts sparked by true compassion. That you can put the Bible down and never again worry about what it says … about anything.

That evolution is real, that we are risen apes, kin to every other lifeform on the planet – every bonobo and bear, every redwood and rhino, every dolphin and dingo and dragonfly – and that there is warm, radiant glory in knowing that.

That the fate of our neighbors, and ourselves, and our planet, is in OUR hands, and not those of some disembodied supernatural superbeing.

If I could bring that home to you …

It would be the best Christmas ever.



Cross-Posting Frank Schaeffer

Not a HUGE fan of Patheos co-blogger Frank Schaeffer (“Why I Still Talk to Jesus”) but this is worth reading: The Slow-Motion Lynching of President Barack Obama.

Go over there and take a few minutes with it. For me the title alone was an eye-opener; “slow-motion lynching” opened doors in my head, giving me an A-Ha! that had been 6 years building.

One of the comments:

This president is as good as it gets. And more. I am with you ALL the way—he is part of the 99% but when it comes to character, ethics, compassion, intellect, and personal behavior, to name just a few attributes, President Obama is in the top 1% of this country’s presidents as people around the world easily see. But his backbone is yet another reason why he is beloved by most healthy and honorable Americans…

Tell you what, I’m amazed by the guy. I voted for Obama twice, and I have very few regrets. Because I saw what we had before, and because I looked at all the candidates since (Sarah Palin? Rick Perry? Rick Santorum? Michele Bachmann???). But also because of what he’s done, and tried to do, and said, and tried to say.

I’m amazed at a great deal of what he’s accomplished, and doubly amazed at how little traction those accomplishments continue to get. (If Bush had gotten Bin Laden, we’d be carving his presidential likeness on a mountain by now. )

Hell no, I don’t like everything government’s doing right now. But behind the noxious smoke being cranked out 24/7 by FOX News, and Congress, and the GOP, and the slithering tangle of beer-bellied trailer-trash shitheads who sat grinning and waving flags through 8 years of Bush but who now think they’re political experts who deserve deep input into how government operates … there’s a bright, calm, decent guy trying to do his job.

And making a pretty good go of it, in spite of it all.

Years back when I was involved in small-town politics, I watched the local power players control the town council and the water board, sometimes literally winking and laughing when they pulled off dirty political shenanigans in full view of an enraged and fully-aware public. Now I see that scaled up and on the national stage.

We have a seriously twisted public square right now, something that scares the hell out of me. I’m just boggled that things can be this crazy, this out-in-the-open insane. I mean … FOX News can really DO this crap? Congressional Republicans can wreck the government at will, just for grins? And walk away smiling? And we LET them? Knowing some of what’s at stake?

It’s like we’re all stuck inside this weird media force field where nothing of outside reality can get through, where the only truly critical feedback we get is through comedians. And we’re okay with it. We’re letting it go on.

After all the smoke dies down, and assuming the country survives this — that what’s happening is not already a sign of unstoppable disintegration — I believe Obama will be seen as a truly great president.

I like to think he’s the herald of an extended period of reasonable government, an accidental statesman who got through a system created to filter out statesmen, and who helped shift things back toward sanity.

Rather than, say, a figure known to future history as the last dying gasp of working Democracy.


BTW, I wouldn’t mind talking to you Frank. The — well — SANITY of this piece impressed and surprised me, and also gave me a little wake-up regarding preconceptions about religious people. It would be interesting to talk about possible preconceptions about atheists from the goddy side.

Atheist Christmas Present from William Lane Craig

Eye roll. Fox Snooze gives us William Lane Craig writing A Christmas gift for atheists – five reasons why God exists.

He starts out, annoyingly enough, with this:

For atheists, Christmas is a religious sham. For if God does not exist, then obviously Jesus’ birth cannot represent the incarnation of God in human history, which Christians celebrate at this time of year.

However, most atheists, in my experience, have no good reasons for their disbelief. Rather they’ve learned to simply repeat the slogan, “There’s no good evidence for God’s existence!”

I know that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 45 years or so. Because fuck thinking, right? Far easier to parrot what I’ve been told, repeating stock phrases, kneeling, singing hymns, counting the Rosary … oh, wait.

And by the way, the dismissive presentation of that “slogan”? It’s not exactly false, is it? There is no good evidence for the existence of a supernatural superbeing in the mold of the Christian God.

But then again, Christmas — the religious part of it, anyway — IS a religious sham, even to some Christians. Take this article from Good News, United Church of God’s online magazine: The Top 10 Reasons Why I Don’t Celebrate Christmas … some of which are: Christmas is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Jesus wasn’t born on or near Dec. 25. The Christmas holiday is largely a recycled pagan celebration. And the cool one:  You can’t put Christ back into something He was never in.

But as a cultural celebration, Christmas is one of a category of fun mid-winter events (think Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and at least 32 other Winter Solstice celebrations). I have fond memories of it as a kid, and fond feelings for it now. Sham or not, we can celebrate the hell out of it. Christians don’t own it. Christmas is not an item, it’s something people DO. And you can do it however it suits you.

I tend to think of it as Krismas, named after Kris Kringle, and my Nativity Scene would probably have a baby Skettymon cooing cutely from a large colander, but hey, the sentiment of joy and togetherness is there.

Back to Craig and his 5 reasons:

1.  God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe.
2.  God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe.
3.  God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.
4.  God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
5.  God can be personally known and experienced.

I am not well equipped to argue physics, nor is William Lane Craig. Items 4 and 5 seem so irrelevant to anything real they’re not worth answering. But I can argue with Craig’s craptastic conclusions in point 3:

Even atheists recognize that some things, for example, the Holocaust, are objectively evil. But if atheism is true, what basis is there for the objectivity of the moral values we affirm? Evolution? Social conditioning? These factors may at best produce in us the subjective feeling that there are objective moral values and duties, but they do nothing to provide a basis for them. If human evolution had taken a different path, a very different set of moral feelings might have evolved. By contrast, God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness, and His commandments constitute our moral duties. Thus, theism provides a better explanation of objective moral values and duties.

I doubt there are “objective” moral values. We’re sort of working our way toward it, aren’t we? Muddling along as best we can. For instance, we no longer care all that much about Exodus 20:4-6

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Arrogant puffery. Such a god would be unworthy of worship, or even admiration, and every person reading this knows it … in perfect opposition to what it says in the sourcebook of Christianity. We no longer believe such stuff because we’re better than the Bible. Because our morals, at least in some things, have progressed in the past few thousand years. So much so that even Christians are now forced to ignore large parts of their own sourcebook.

But this was puffery written by PEOPLE (rather than gods) — humans who sought to control other humans with slippery arguments, subtle misdirection, and blatant lies.

Just as William Lane Craig does:

The good thing is that atheists tend to be very passionate people and want to believe in something. If they would only put aside the slogans for a moment and reexamine their worldview in light of the best philosophical, scientific, and historical evidence we have today, then they, too, would find Christmas worth celebrating!



Actual Proof There Is No God

Probably the best banana-eating, beer-drinking, nose-harmonica player in the world today:

This is actually pretty cool, don’t you think? Kudos to the gentleman for developing the act!

And I’m sure he got there — just as do all the skilled surgeons and rescue workers, nurses and firefighters who come second to Jesus when the thanks get given out — with a lot of mundane, absolutely non-mystical, very hard work.

Don’t Eat This.

Okay, pretty much anything with a dog on the label is going to make me think “Not food.” You don’t really have to go any farther with lots of descriptive verbiage on the label.

But this …


No, no, no.




That’s the last time I send the roommate shopping.