Non Sequitur, With Prominent Thumb

hitchingI saw an actual hitchhiker a few days ago! A young woman stood on the side of the highway entrance ramp holding a sign that said NORTH. I was in my company van and couldn’t offer a ride, but I rolled down the passenger side window and yelled “Good luck!”

Talking to a friend later, we compared notes on how rare it is to see hitchhikers these days, and yet how much safer the country is today than, say, 40 years ago when I was doing so much of it.

In my hitchhiking days, I compiled 26,000 miles by actual count on long road trips, probably a good 10 to 25 percent more in short trips I didn’t count. Add another 550 for the time I hopped a ride on a freight train from El Paso, Texas to (I think I recall) Yuma, Arizona, and the total could be close to 33,000 miles — the equivalent of 10 or 11 crossings of the United States.

In 15 years or so of hitching, I got only a handful of scary rides, some from drunk people, a couple from really pushy gays, and one from a guy I’m convinced might have killed me if things had worked out differently. I was young, in shape and strong, but overall, I think it was just that the world, even back then, contained a very small percentage of bad people.

Most of the people who picked me up were just lonely on long trips, innately gregarious, or paying back kindnesses from their own lives. The job of a hitchhiker, I soon discovered, is to be good company, to listen to the driver’s tall tales, and sometimes to help keep the guy awake.

Re: Tall tales. I must have heard this story at least 20 times over the years. “Me and my two buddies had just gotten out of the Navy and we were hitching home from San Diego together when this motor home pulled over, with three beautiful women inside headed for a week in Las Vegas.”

I always believed them. To this day, I imagine there’s a big lush motorhome cruising the highways of America, three women in their 70s inside, looking for a trio of sailors standing on the roadside, perpetually headed for a never-to-be-forgotten week in Las Vegas.

Did God Mess With Biology’s Roots?

Tito & HankI’ve said many times that the true, full effect religion has had on human society is not something any of us is really equipped to notice. It’s so … everywhere … that we have little to contrast with it in order to clearly see the damage.

Even science, which escaped the grasp of religion and went off to change the world in ways religion could never have managed, still — in my view, anyway — suffers aftereffects.  For instance:

Here’s a pretty good article about something humans and beasts have in common — thoughts and feelings.

Carl Safina Makes A Case for Anthropomorphism

The subtitle, in my view, is more correct, though:

The marine biologist’s latest book uses science to show that animals, like people, have complex inner lives.

I would argue that “anthropomorphism” is a mistaken word, a mistaken concept. It springs from an error injected into biology at its founding. The mistake — the belief in a separate creation for humans alongside the more general magicking into existence of the “birds and beasts” — was a religious one. Because Christianity was the paradigm of the day, Western biologists had no way to know it was a mistake, and automatically assumed humans were totally different from all other forms of life. Which would mean that attributing “human-like” characteristics to animals would be viewed as automatically wrong unless you could present masses of evidence for it. Which is what we’ve had to do for the couple of hundred years since.

On the other hand, if that starting slant was that humans evolved from common roots with all other life forms, a more workable initial view would be to assume similarity, and lots of it. Anyone asserting we had nothing in common with other forms of life, THEY would be the ones who’d have to present masses of evidence.

Our similar traits — feelings, a sense of self, grieving, so much more — aren’t “anthropomorphic.” They’re part of a non-anthro common heritage, handed down to humans from earlier sources. Specific traits possessed exclusively by humans would have to have evolved only very recently and are likely minuscule, something like the tiny capstone on a pyramid, compared to the massive block of similarity below. That similarity occurs in areas as diverse as body mechanics and function, biochemistry, neurology, behavior, and yes, thoughts and feelings. It took us hundreds of years to begin to really understand that, when it could have been a founding principle of biology.

On a side note, the question of “language” always comes up in these discussions, and though I can’t clearly point at religion as a root cause, I see it as the same sort of a mistake. The capacity for language might have originated with us, but communication didn’t.  Communication, the conveying of information from one animal to another, that’s something pretty much everything on two legs or four does. (And it’s not always aimed at, or received only by, members of one’s own species.) Bird calls and fox barks MEAN something; when they don’t wish to convey information to the world around them, animals are generally silent. Dogs convey messages all the time to their owners — in body posture, ear position, tail movement, and vocalizations — and it seems to me that most of it is deliberate. The question of intentionality is certainly worth examining in each case, but the basic truth of communication seems undeniable.

Beta Culture: Dealing With Conservatives

Beta-Culture-JPGHad a little epiphany today about the sense of humor, and why ultra-conservatives don’t seem to have much of it.

Humor requires a certain flexibility of mind, a capacity to quickly change mental directions. The lead-in to a joke sets up a certain expectation, then the punchline forces a radical departure from that expectation. The unexpectedness makes us laugh.

A Hasidic Jew walks into a New York City bar with a frog on his shoulder. The bartender says “Where the heck did you get THAT?” The frog says “New Jersey! They’re all over the place down there!”

But if you’re an ultra-conservative, you don’t like unexpectedness. It’s like being an extreme introvert and getting thrust into a surprise birthday party. Ultra-conservatives don’t have that mental flexibility — it’s why they’re ultra-conservatives. It’s not just that they don’t want to learn anything new, don’t want to change, don’t want to try new foods or experiences or ideas, and don’t want things around them to change, it’s that they can’t. They can’t handle it. Can’t deal with difference and newness.

I’ve toyed with the idea of something I call the “adaptive limit” in humans. People who grow up in an environment that encourages adaptability, continued learning and growth and experimentation, they have a high adaptive limit. Those who grow up in conditions of fear or stress have a low adaptive limit. Whatever one’s adaptive limit, anyone who has their limit exceeded by too much stress, trauma or pressure, they shut down and react mechanically rather than creatively or openly. They play out trusted mental patterns or reactions from the past, because they literally can’t come up with anything new.

We beat on Southerners and religious people for being “stupid” and “hateful,” but I sometimes think a better approach would be one of … kindness and understanding. Not acceptance — bad ideas and behavior don’t stop being bad. But an understanding that takes into account their limits, limits unsuspected even by themselves. They’re not bad, necessarily — they’re wounded. They have something like PTSD just from everyday life, and need a more compassionate approach to helping them open back up and begin to grow again.

And maybe a lot of them never will. Maybe — from damage too great to heal or the inflexibility of age — they’re just not up to it.

When you’re facing one of those people — with your own automatic belief that you’re dealing with a responsible adult — it’s tough to step back from their negative reaction and consider that you’re dealing with someone who is probably doing the best they can, and needs compassion rather than reactive anger.

With my impatient nature, I’m probably one of the worst people to tell others to be more compassionate and understanding.  But  strategically, I can see great value in the larger atheist community working out approaches to dealing with certain populations that will take into account their adaptive limits, and reactions they probably have little control over.



And now I’m thinking of certain inflexible and even somewhat irrational people on the liberal end of the spectrum, and it occurs to me there can be liberal-trending people who also suffer from exceeded adaptive limits.

One Billion Atheists: The Army of the Other Side

Billion Atheists copyLook at this:

Evangelicals Aim to Mobilize an Army for Republicans in 2016

One afternoon last week, David Lane watched from the sidelines as a roomful of Iowa evangelical pastors applauded a defense of religious liberty by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. That night, he gazed out from the stage as the pastors surrounded Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana in a prayer circle.

For Mr. Lane, a onetime Bible salesman and self-described former “wild man,” connecting the pastors with two likely presidential candidates was more than a good day’s work. It was part of what he sees as his mission, which is to make evangelical Christians a decisive power in the Republican Party.

“An army,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

And Mr. Lane is positioning himself as a field marshal. A fast-talking and born-again veteran of conservative politics with experience in Washington, Texas and California, Mr. Lane, 60, travels the country trying to persuade evangelical clergy members to become politically active.

That’s what we’re facing.

What Mr. Lane, a former public relations man, does have going for him is a decentralized landscape in which a determined believer with an extensive network of ground-level evangelical leaders and a limitless capacity for talking on the phone can exert influence on Republican presidential candidates eager to reach evangelical voters.

I used to go to town council meetings in my little mountain town and sometimes almost burst into delighted laughter at seeing the hidden political mechanics in action. I HATED the sonsofbitches and what they were doing, but I marveled at the coordination, the deftness of manipulation of the public sentiment, the streamlined perfection of the lies.

Seeing it was a daily lesson in political strategy in a small town, and beyond.

Nothing they did was done for the people of the town or the surrounding mountain environment. It was purely extractive and manipulative — a roofied drink and a followup rape in every sense but the sexual. But damn, they were good at it.

I don’t want us to ever forget that this is out there, working day and night to take advantage with lies and subterfuge, to wrest the future out of our hands and make it theirs again. To wreak short-term profit by keeping the world as it is.

One Billion Atheists: Two Additional Ideas

Billion Atheists copyAs the name of the hoped-for movement states, my interest in the free-thought spectrum is this one specific thing: Atheism. Everything else flows from that, in my view, and a coordinated effort to empower and expand atheism will throw off benefits to every one of the sub-genres of the larger field of free-thought.

Regarding which, here are a couple of ideas I’d toss into the mix for One Billion Atheists by 2025:

Atheist Leadership Academy

Years back when I was working on a magazine in It-Shall-Remain-Nameless Town, there was this thing I was invited to apply to, the Nameless Town Leadership Academy.

You had to be sponsored, and my boss sponsored me. You have to fill out a lengthy application, and I filled out the lengthy application. You had to wait while a large Most Secret Membership Board studied your application, read your applicant essay, evaluated your educational and financial credentials — hell, for all I know checked your socks and underwear drawer for its highly-indicative April-fresh scent — and then weighed in on whether or not you were proper Nameless Town material. —I wasn’t.

It looked like nothing so much as a school for wannabe-rich Republicans. They had annual classes of 25 who paid dearly for the privilege of being lectured, led, and groomed in the philosophy of the radically pro-business founders and cheerleaders of the thing, all under the guise of “community service.” It seemed like not a week passed that the local newspaper didn’t have a picture of the smiling students posing with local power-suited bankers and real estate agents, developers and elected officials, at the site of the next development, the next big deal, the next Great Big Social Concern.

NOTHING happened in the town without their approval and involvement. If you weren’t aligned with them, you were a protester, a nutcase, a nobody, relegated to the backwaters of Nameless Town flow.

Say what you will, they got things done. Now and again, some of it was even objectively good.

There are lots of other such organizations across the U.S. and, I assume, the rest of the world — both private groups and corporate entities that serve as trainers of such groups.

Which is good reason for the Atheist movement to try it — a coordinated effort aimed at turning out educated, aware, involved and motivated atheist leaders in every city, state, country and corner of the world. Leading, coaching, training, conferring, problem solving, assisting in creating stronger, more focused and more strategic activism worldwide.

Something else should happen first, though. A …

Strategic Planning Conference

The goal of a Strategic Planning Conference would be to discuss and agree on strategy, both worldwide and regionally — Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and especially the Muslim world — for the next 10 to 20 years.

So far, atheist leaders, what there are of them, are a pretty scattered bunch. There are activists within the free-thought movement who champion science and reason, transgender rights, racial equality, feminism, gender equality, activism in the Muslim world, a great deal more — either as separate issues or en masse. There are bloggers and blog commenters, book writers, professional scientists, university professors, philosophers, speakers, artists, comedians, musicians, videographers, lawyers and clients, swag merchants, local organizations, and a great deal more (see the upcoming post on Reason Riders motorcycle club!) — not to mention the huge audience of readers, convention attendees, book buyers and quiet, private rebels.

The effect is definite, but far slower and less directed than it might be. I worry that the entire thing is fragile in certain critical ways, that a single catastrophic event could set the clock back on free-thought consolidation by years, decades, or even longer. (*)

Certainly all of these people talk to each other at conferences and events, in scattershot emails and calls, and certainly local groups tend to work together on fundraising and events. But as far as coordinated large-scale action, I’m not seeing it.

I’ll freely admit I’m out of the loop on major atheist events of the past couple of years. After my Dad died, my reading of many of the major atheist blogs and organizational communiques dropped off.

But again, I don’t see the world-spanning, cross-border organizational action I’d like to see. The Richard Dawkins Foundation comes closest to what I have in mind, but I don’t know that even they have organized the sort of planning conferences I imagine, seeking to take some of the disparate voices of the movement and aim them at a large-scale uber-goal such as One Billion Atheists by 2025.

I would dearly love to see it. It would be even better to be a part of it.



( * I also worry at the trend which consolidates major voices of the movement into blog networks aimed at income rather than broader matters. I’ve seen good blogs descend into the rapid-fire posting of outrage click-bait rather than the calmer ideation and analysis that informs and educates readers to the benefit of the larger movement. )

One Billion Atheists

Billion Atheists copyWhen I started as an atheist activist 15 or 20 years ago, one thing was clear to most of the atheists I talked to: Every person had to get here on his/her own.

In other words, it was decidedly wrong to proselytize. The thought was that atheism — the good, solid, workable kind — was this conclusion reachable only after much personal introspection and observation. That merely getting people to say “I’m an atheist” was empty and useless. Such an atheism would be no different from religion — a faith position, without proof or grounding, which said “There are no gods” in the same way the religious position was “There are gods.”

I didn’t always argue, but I never agreed. It seemed to me the thought and introspection one person went through was something that could be conveyed to another person, or thousands of them. That you could tell people, “Hey, why not be an atheist? Here’s why you should, and here’s how it should work in your head once you start that way.” You’d convince them of the conclusion, and then backfill with the reasons, the evidence, the mental mechanics of freethought.

We seem to now know this to be the truth, and we’re becoming progressively more confident in our own style of proselytizing and evangelism. We understand the value of getting people free of religion, getting them out from under that yoke, and that if not every person who says “I’m an atheist” fully understands the path they’ve set themselves on, numbers alone can be important. Once you get a critical mass of people arguing publicly — politicking — for the kind of freedom we work toward, that freedom sets up a safe zone into which more and more of us can feel comfortable moving. And it’s within that growing safe zone the greater numbers of us can imagine and discuss and come to more fully understand what it is we’re doing, where we’re going with it and where we should go with it.

Because “I don’t believe in God/gods” is just the first step, isn’t it? Once you reach your own personal understanding that religion is false and silly, that’s when the really cool stuff starts to happen in your head, and — as a result of numbers — in the society around you.

I’d like us to kick it up a notch by setting a numerical goal for the quantity of fellow atheists on Planet Earth: One Billion Atheists By 2025.

One Billion Atheists

Knowing us, you have to know the idea is immediately arguable. Less so these days on the basis of proselytizing than on the actual number presented. As Wikipedia says in the Demographics of Atheism:

Studies on the demographics of atheism have concluded that self-identified atheists comprise anywhere from 2% to 8% of the world’s population, whereas irreligious individuals represent a further 10% to 20%. Several comprehensive global polls on the subject have been conducted by Gallup International: their 2012 poll found that 13% of respondents were “convinced atheists” and their 2015 poll indicated that 11% were “convinced atheists”.

The median of those two polls, 12 percent, already would equal 840 million in today’s 7 billion population. One billion atheists — 14 percent, or only 160 million more — might thus be a somewhat uninspiring goal for the ten year future.

But here’s Wikipedia again, on Irreligion by Country:

Irreligion, which may include deism, agnosticism, ignosticism, antireligion, atheism, skepticism, spiritual but not religious, freethought, antitheism, apatheism, non-belief, pandeism, secular humanism, non-religious theism, pantheism and panentheism, varies in the different countries around the world. About 36% of the world population is estimated to be atheist or not religious.

Wait, 36 percent? That’s 2.5 billion already! So, uh, what would be the point of One Billion Atheists?

Without getting into a lengthy definitional debate on a lot of these terms, it immediately strikes me that many of them are nowhere near what I think of when I say atheism. Deism and pantheism, for instance, seem purely religious positions, and what are we to make of “non-religious theism?” It appears this 36 percent more likely expresses the number of people who don’t go to church rather than the number of, you know, atheists.

I’ve known people who didn’t go to church but who were as religious as any Sunday-go-to-meetin’ Catholic. You might not see them in a suit on the Sabbath, but they carried around a church in their heads, applying it in every moment of daily living.

As atheism in my own mind is defined as “no faith-based beliefs at all” — which rules out not just Jesus-God-in-Heaven, but all the sorts of superstition and vague faiths of daily life — it’s a certainty that the 36 percent is inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of reliability.

Ignoring that and setting up our own definition of atheism, and then aiming for one billion of those seems the wisest course.

Of course I’m not the defining authority of atheism but, as I say above, my own view of the meaning of the word is fairly narrow. It includes not just those who have abandoned formal religion, but those who operate in their daily lives solely on evidence-based reasoning. Atheists of the type I’m thinking about thus give no time to ghosts, afterlives, a Higher Power — but also disdain such concepts as luck, karma, fate, all the daily sorts of faithy and superstiony positions that demand a giving up of reason and an acceptance of folksy woo.

Those are the One Billion Atheists I want us to aim for. I don’t think there are anywhere near one billion of them on Earth. In fact, I’d suspect we’re well less than half the way there.

The definition and counting are something to occupy a much larger discussion than this one. But only by setting the goal — One Billion Atheists by 2025 — will that discussion-toward-clarity really proceed as it should.

So yes, let’s do it.  Set the goal, hammer out the details as we go.

If we find no other fully acceptable way to define One Billion Atheists, identifying one billion who have, in the next ten years, taken thought at least enough to depart their local religion or church might be a workable fallback. Hey, if we can’t perfectly  identify one billion atheists, One Billion Fewer Godders would still mark measurable progress on Planet Earth.

Dismantling Christianity

In his recent Boston address, Richard Dawkins said something that particularly caught my attention. I’ll paraphrase, because I don’t have his exact words:

“I worry that if we dismantle Christianity in the West, we will lose a useful ally in the fight against militant Islam.”

As Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world (!), that is no small worry. An article from NPR states:

“As of 2010, Christianity was by far the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth,” the Pew report says. “Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population.”

Those numbers are predicted to shift in the coming decades, as the world’s population rises to 9.3 billion by the middle of this century. In that time, Pew projects, Islam will grow by 73 percent while Christianity will grow by 35 percent — resulting in 2.8 billion Muslims and 2.9 billion Christians worldwide.

In a letter to Dawkins, much altered from the version I posted here not long back (and then un-posted), I suggested it might be possible to create that “useful ally” within Islam itself.  To set up a back-pressure, a resistance to militancy, right in the Islamic world.

The larger goal of One Billion Atheists could contain within it target numbers for different parts of the world. In the Islamic world, that might start with 50 million. Pitch the idea to individuals within Islam that they do not have to be devout Muslims, that they could instead be Muslim-in-culture but abandon the specifically religious parts of Islam for a more open, reasoning understanding of the real world.

Regarding regional target numbers for One Billion Atheists, I could really get behind aiming for a simple majority of atheists in the United States. Of the 300 million or so people in the U.S., why not get more than half of them living and thinking as active, involved atheists? Not just those who have abandoned church-going, but those who understand the larger issue — that religion itself is dangerous, and better off jettisoned, both in their own minds and in the larger country and world.

Religion vs. Culture

Finally, in the pursuit of One Billion Atheists by 2025, we in the atheist community need to expend some skull-sweat in parsing the difference between religion and culture. Though all religion is culture, not all culture is religion. It’s certainly possible to have a defined culture without it being the least bit religious. In fact, as I argue, we in the atheist world are already creating a culture of atheism, and might as well consciously recognize that and begin formalizing it, fleshing it out, creating the Beta Culture I aim for.

We also need to begin to understand that enlightened cultural values and practices can stand on an equal footing with religious values and practices. You can be a member of a culture and be as stoutly definite about your values and the energy with which you defend them as, say, Sikhs are about defending the practice of carrying ceremonial knives. I’m thinking mainly about how we in the West tend to avoid “imposing our beliefs” on Islamics — backing away from openly opposing Sharia law, for instance (and faint-heartedly failing to defend our own beliefs about human rights), excusing it with “Well, it’s their religion,” when we should be actively saying “No, religion or not, here in this place, you really don’t get to do some of that shit.”



Note to religious people: You have absolutely no reason for worry. Once we get that One Billion, we’ll stop there. Totally.