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Some Thoughts on the Atheist Future: Toward a Culture of Reason
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Some Thoughts on the Atheist Future: Toward a Culture of Reason
This is not a very happy piece. But I’m writing it anyway because … well, not every aspect of the real world IS happy. And this is one aspect that, in my opinion, requires some very careful thought by a lot of people willing to face a certain amount of grim reality in order to respond in a way that prevents or slows it.
Did you know grass has a goal?
It’s hard to think of a brainless thing like grass having a goal, but it does. Its goal is the goal of every living thing – to live, to survive, to keep on keeping on. One of the necessary subgoals of that is to produce more offspring than needed for replacement.
Grass is good at that. If the goal was mere replacement, for every grass plant that died, only one seed would be needed, right? In a perfect environment, that is, each plant would produce a single seed, and that would be that.
But one seed is nowhere near enough, because a LOT of things can happen to prevent one seed from germinating and growing into another grass plant. Insects, birds, weather, bad soil, no soil, no water, being crushed by herbivore hooves, too much sun – all sorts of things can come between the replication of that parent plant from a single seed. So each grass plant has to produce dozens, hundreds of seeds. Each seed that germinates will grow into a plant that does the exact same thing.
Where does it stop? When does grass stop reproducing and spreading? Never. It never stops. The goal of grass is to cover the entire surface of the earth with grass. Given no grass-eating mammals, no insects or seed-eating birds, no opposition for resources from other plants, every land mass on earth would be covered with grass.
You will understand at once that it’s a ridiculous idea. Every person reading this can come up with objections as to why it could never happen that grass, and grass alone, could cover the earth. For instance, the sand at the shore of every sea is too salty for grass to cover. There’s not enough water in the deserts. If we had a world with no animals or insects, there would be no carbon dioxide for the plants to use. Not to mention the atmosphere would eventually fill up with poisonous concentrations of oxygen. And of course there are a helluva lot of other plants competing for the same resources.
But that doesn’t change the underlying goal of grass. For some of us, just because you can’t eat all the chocolate ice cream in the world doesn’t stop you from WANTING to. And grass, conscious of none of the surrounding conditions – inescapably destined by evolution — has no choice but to carry out its programming, to grow, grow, and keep on growing … until it is stopped by some OUTSIDE force.
It seems to me human reason operates like a seesaw with human emotion. More emotion, less reason. More reason, less emotion. I even made up a saying about it, some years back:
Under the lash of strong emotion, human beings become less intelligent.
I think the evidence will bear me out. You get people angry or afraid, they’re less able to evaluate a situation and make rational decisions regarding it. It’s why the prime crowd-control tool of rabble-rousers and dictators – and Donald Trump – is intense emotion. “They hate us. They’re going to kill us all. That’s why we have to attack now!” “We have to support the troops! They keep us safe!” “The libtards want to let these illegal aliens come in and rape our women, turn our kids into drug addicts!”
Fear, anger, hate … but also love. People fall head-over-heels for partners everybody around them can see will be a complete disaster. But they, their reasoning brains overcome with emotion, carry on anyway. “I know he sells drugs and kills people, but I love him!”
I think of humans as having two general sorts of mind-traits. There are what I call our “beasty” traits (not beastLY, but beast-Y), and then there are our humany traits.
Beasty traits are pretty much all of our emotions and desires, the mental assets we share with the critters around us. Anger and fear, for instance, can be observed in dogs, horses, even crows. Curiosity, the desire to explore and learn – if for no other reason than to identify potential dangers (but also to discover new food sources) – shows up pretty much everywhere in the animal kingdom. The urge for mothering, for taking care of offspring, is something even crocodiles have.
Humany traits are things like reason, artistic creativity, inventiveness. I don’t mean to say they’re totally exclusive, that no other animal possesses such attributes, but these are some things humans can do that very few other species can. And they’re the defining characteristics of our immense success.
We like to think of ourselves as humany humans, but … mostly, we’re not. We’re beasty humans. In my day job, I work with the drug using population, a lot of them out of New York City, and some of them are such bundles of irresistible, irrational drives they seem barely human. (And if you think that’s unfair and uncompassionate, you haven’t met these people. Some of them are uncanny-valley, inhumanly SCARY. And the ones I interact with have already gone through an extensive screening process that weeds out the worst of the worst.)
“Beasty” and “humany” applies not only to mind traits, of course. Most of our physical makeup is also beasty. You think of your elbow as a human elbow, but it’s an evolutionary hand-me-down so common it’s shared by bears and raccoons. The deepest and most critical parts of our brains, however humany we want to think brains are, are beasty. And this is where all our emotions and drives originate.
So the thing is, our beasty mind-traits are PRIMAL. They are basic and insistent in a way that takes considerable effort to overcome. When you stand on a tower ready to slide down a 100-foot high zipline, you might know intellectually that the thing is safe, but the gut-fear that urges you NOT to do this thing is almost irresistible. Your rational, evaluative mind can see the thick steel cable, the strong metal hardware that holds it together, the obviously safe military-grade strapping of your harness, but letting go and zooming out along that line is still something most of us can do only with great effort.
This “great effort” is an important detail of the discussion underway. All of us have these emotions and drives that arise from the deepest parts of our brains, not all of us have the higher-brain ability to resist them. Or if we do, it takes serious effort.
Witness the obesity epidemic in America. Too many of us have this powerful beasty drive to eat and eat and eat, sweet and salty and greasy, and never stop eating. Too few of us have the humany higher intellectual capacity to resist – at least enough to keep our weight in line. And some of us – Jesus! – have no resistance at all.
We’re like dogs left alone with a 20-pound Christmas turkey. Twenty minutes later, the family would find a turkey skeleton and a VERY uncomfortable dog. There’s no thought involved in the scenario, there’s just driving, perfectly-natural, beasty APPETITE.
So: Beasty emotions and drives – Easy. Humany self-restraint – Hard.
Man and Grass
Bear in mind that this beasty-easy/humany-hard divide applies not simply to individuals, but to the statistical field of humans as a whole. Worldwide, we’re damned good at fucking and fighting, damned poor at going to college and getting higher educations, damned poor at THINKING RATIONALLY about anything.
We actually have to hire and train people – cops and soldiers, but also priests, coaches, etc. – to keep us from leaping at each other’s unprotected backs.
Colleges, on the other hand, are open to everyone. Any pro-college people we hire work to get us INTO the experience of college rather than keep us out of it.
The point is, our beasty drives are present in full force in pretty much every human alive. But our humany traits take work to develop and use, and are, as a result, comparatively scarce.
Worldwide, and in humans as a whole.
The goal of grass, to put it in Saturday morning cartoon terms, is to NYAH-AH-AH!! RULE THE WORLD!! To cover the earth. It is a goal programmed in by evolution, due to the fact that all strains of grass that followed a circumspect one-seed policy no longer exist. Only the ones who learned to avidly advance and keep advancing survived the fierce competition of nature’s predators and devourers, and all other destructive counter-forces, whatever they might be.
But RULE THE WORLD is also the goal of humans. To grow, to reproduce, to increase in numbers, to spread out, to explore and conquer and make safe all the places in the world where humans can possibly exist. It’s why there are houses and lawns and roads every place in North America, where once were vast tracts of wildlife-rich wilderness. It’s why we have to make a special effort via national parks and designated wilderness areas to have anything approaching “wild” left in America. It’s why there are 7.5 billion humans on planet Earth today, where there were slightly more than 3 billion when I was born.
And here’s the thing. Resisting that urge “to grow, to reproduce, to increase in numbers, to spread out, to explore and conquer and make safe all the places in the world where humans can possibly exist” takes a special CONSCIOUS, DELIBERATE AND SUSTAINED effort. Not just of one person or a thousand people, but pretty much every single person on the planet.
And here’s the other thing: We can’t do it. We can be beasty and reproduce because it takes no thought at all. By our own natures, we are urged to do it.
But we can’t be conscious and deliberate over the long term to control our basic urges because it takes immense sustained effort … and we’re just not up to it. The evolutionary cards are stacked against that result.
Brainless grass never gets to rule the world because there are plenty of counter-balancing forces that stop it. But brainy humans … there’s not a lot to stop us.
Because of our relatively high intelligence here on planet Earth, we are succeeding at ruling the world. Because of the limits of our intelligence in comparison to our basic drives, we are failing to notice that we are killing the planet under us.
And again, there’s not a lot to stop us.
The point of this entire essay is a grim one: We’re using up the Earth and we can’t stop ourselves.
We’re not smart enough to stop ourselves.
We have basic drives that are more powerful than our intellects, and those drives are EASY, whereas dispassionate reason is HARD.
Of course, some of us will complacently insist, there are natural forces – disease, resource depletion, etc. – that can stop us. This human over-growing of the world’s resources will all come to an end someday.
My lament in the face of that assertion is that even if those forces leave alive some few of us, it will be the beasty humans – ready to fight and fuck and consume – and not the humany ones.
The ones I care about, the ones who stand a chance of creating a sustainable human future, will either all die or survive as an attenuated, powerless minority.
Earth will be filled again with beasts and beasties rather than reasoning, intelligent humans. And it will start all over again.
The blog is going fallow for an indefinite period while I work on a big project. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of a horse.
Ouch. Just realized a couple of disturbing things about “my” people.
I’ve been very liberal pretty much all of my life. Thinking about it right now, I don’t think you can be hypersensitive and not be liberal. You feel too much of what other people and other creatures feel to ever just casually dismiss them.
But I broke with the liberal fold a year or two back when I had a couple of disturbing discoveries forced on me:
1) There are a certain number of liberals who are really not very nice people, (sometimes, it seems, especially to other liberals).
2) Though I had unconsciously connected “liberal” and “rational” in my head, it turns out that’s not automatically the case. Liberal people can be crazy as shit-house rats, and mean about it besides.
Guardians 2 was really, really good. It takes a while for the main conflict to show up, but the wait is worth it. This movie has a LOT of humor in it — I laughed a dozen times or more — and it’s perfectly placed within the story so that it draws nothing away from the seriousness of the main plot.
There’s some unexpectedly touching stuff involving Rocket Raccoon (and Yondu, among other characters), both midway through and at the end. Yeah, you’re gonna cry. The main theme of this movie is family, loved ones, and every character participates in developing that theme.
I could gush for a long, long time here, offering spoiler after spoiler, but … I’ll let you see the thing on your own. It’s good, believe me.
Stan Lee has TWO cameos, one an after-credits scene, and I laughed to recognize the people he was talking to — a trio of Watchers, those enigmatic high-collared baldies who exist to watch and record the events of the galaxy.
Oddly, there are a couple of Howard the Duck cameos. I can’t imagine Marvel plans to do anything more than shove him in as an occasional Easter Egg. Surely there’s not a Howard remake, right? I actually liked the silly original Howard the Duck movie, and was sorry it got such a bad rep. But it’s not worth another movie.
There are FIVE afterscenes, if I remember correctly, so you’ll want to stay through the credits.
One of the trailers before the movie is for Wonder Woman, and I’m really looking forward to that movie too.
I’ll be slightly surprised if any of my readers made the trip with me, and respond to this post. Obviously I haven’t been doing justice to the blog, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for tuning me out. Mainly, I’ve been working on that next book, BrainDrops. I’m doing a final proofing run now, but I plan to send review copies to a number of people, hoping for some good comments for the back cover or whatever. So don’t expect it before … oh, early June.
I tried something new in the atheist book genre; I hope it’s something readers will find both fun and thought-provoking.
Just setting up the new site. I moved all the posts from my Patheos address, but apparently the comments didn’t make the trip. I’m looking into it.
—Ah. Seems it just took a while for them to show up.
I’m leaving Patheos in the near future. I’m working on a book and a separate large project (Senior Adventure Quest)—not to mention my full-time JOB—and though I have no shortage of ideas for posts, I’m having real trouble finding time to devote to blogging.
Many other bloggers have made the jump to blogging as a business, and can afford to do it. If you have enough posts—several a day—and you get enough reader hits, you can actually get paid for blogging. I don’t fault them for taking that path, but I have seen the clear effect of a commercial motivation, and it’s not for me.
There is a philosophy behind atheism, something … quite different and larger than anything we’re doing now, and we really need to winkle that out and explore it rather than writing the same >>OMG Police Dept. Bumper Stickers!!<< story.
Not saying that stuff isn’t important. It’s just that there’s this OTHER stuff that needs to be thought about and covered too. That has been one of my main goals in blogging. And, for me at least, figuring that stuff out is time consuming.
Thinking about those things, mulling over ideas and teasing out new conclusions, new viewpoints, new realizations, takes hours and days and month and years, but pays literally nothing. If I’ve made twenty dollars from atheist-blogging over the 15 or so years I’ve been doing it, I’d be surprised. It’s a labor of love, sure enough, and I DO get to explore and tease at these ideas. In addition, I have really loved the reactions of readers, telling me I got them to think, that I gave them new ideas and new arguments.
But sometimes, the money really matters. So I need to pull back a bit and refocus on some of this other stuff.
(Here’s yet another of my time-consuming activities that pays literally nothing. But I love doing it, so there’s that.)
I will be transferring the entirety of my blog over to a new site — A Citizen of Earth — in the near future, and posting when the mood and the time coincide, but probably not very often.
Also, for near-future reference, the book I’m working on is called (tentatively):
BrainDrops: The One & Only Ungodly Bathroom Reader—An Astounding Compendium of Wit, Wisdom and Complete Goddam Nonsense from a Complete Goddam Atheist (for Hellbound Mockers of Every Heinous Persuasion).
In case you didn’t know about it, my first book, Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith, is still up on Amazon.
—And yes, you want to buy BOTH 😉
Somewhen—end of March, early April—you’ll see BrainDrops on Amazon, and wherever else I can manage to get it distributed.
There are a couple of other books in the works, Saying Goodbye to Dad: An Atheist Deals With Death, and a so-far unnamed book on Beta Culture.
Anyway, it’s been cool, being here. Thank you to the nice folks at Patheos for giving me this chance, as Ed Brayton at Freethought Blogs gave me a podium and a microphone before them. When I get the Beta Culture book written, expect to see me out there at atheist conferences, promoting the book and the ideas in a big way.
Until then …
I found these Medium listicles today, and they are well worth reading, if you have the time. The point of the weekly lists is to … well, to cut through the overflow of information and to keep you from normalizing all this stuff in your head.
The hazard in the early stages of every authoritarian process is that we humans are 1) generally too busy to pay attention to all that’s happening, and 2) damned adaptable. Adaptability is normally one of our better traits, but it’s something to resist in yourself when what you’re adapting to is a steady wave of outrages you fear may grow into a defining act of horror.
Refreshingly, they don’t pretend to the staid formality of regular news. When Trump or his toadies lie, the articles use the word “lie.”
They all carry the same title:
… and cover events either happening or uncovered during that week.
I haven’t found any past Week 12, dated Feb. 4, but I’m hoping there’s at least one more out there, and that they’ll keep coming.
I’ve started talking to people, strangers out in public. I live in a fairly wealthy, fairly pro-Trump area, and I just decided I’d start saying some of the things I’m thinking in casual conversations. I generally think people will see this as tedious and inappropriate, but I’ve been surprised at how receptive people seem. They listen, at least. One has already told me he regrets his vote for Trump; several have expressed the “at least he’s not Hillary” sentiment. I argue with that last, and though I’m more interested in convincing people rather than shutting them up, the arguments have at least shut some of them up.
Here’s another article worth reading, to give you a little context about lies in media, the manufacturing of political “stories” — BY THE MEDIA — during the Iraq War.
This sort of crap is what instantly pops into my mind when I hear someone say we have a “liberal media.” I paid attention during the Iraq War, and the media had its collective lips so stuck to George W. Bush’s ass it was surreal. This was the moment when all that “Support the Troops” crap got thrown out into the public spotlight, and anyone who didn’t support the troops was a traitor.
[ Continued from Part 2 ]
You probably never consciously think about The Bargain. And it’s written into no law I know of. But it’s there, and you sort of know it. It’s that bargain we all make with the Powers That Be.
Society around us is actually a complex web of agreements and compromises – and repercussions. For instance, part of my deal with the neighbors is that I will not start up my Harley at 2 a.m. and rev the engine. In return, they will not come out at 4 a.m. and pour a gallon of molasses on my Harley. (If I had a Harley, that is.)
This web of agreements is a big part of what keeps us from a Lord of the Flies / Mad Max situation, where every one of us is an individual survivalist with only his own interests at heart, and every neighbor is an enemy we must guard against.
But The Bargain is this other thing. It’s the deal we make not with our neighbors, but with the Powers, the Big People in our lives.
Here’s our part: We will study hard, we will work hard, we will play fair. We will obey laws, pay taxes, vote and participate with honesty and compassion. We will go peacefully about our daily lives, treating each other with kindness and respect. We will not take anything we don’t deserve. We will do our small part to make the world work.
Here’s their part: They will treat us fairly, tell us the truth, deal with us in good faith. They will help us in certain ways when we really need it. They will hold back the darkness, keeping us safe from the two-legged animals who don’t observe social bargains. They will sell us products that work, and that last, and that give good value for what we pay for them. They will allow us to prosper, to raise families and make for ourselves a place in the world.
Okay, how well are some of them keeping their side of it? Let’s see:
The Catholic Church broke the bargain when it allowed generations of children to be molested.
Cops and courts and legislators broke the bargain when they endeavored to make harmless things illegal, deadly things perfectly acceptable, and the court system itself a playground for the rich, a gauntlet of fear and difficulty for the poor.
The government broke the bargain when it began to treat us all like potential terrorists, and paid off banks after they almost destroyed the economy. It broke it when it worked to convince us our best chance of getting ahead was a lottery, rather than saving and investing.
The military broke the bargain when it sent young men and women off to die protecting corporate interests rather than our freedom and safety.
Corporate CEOs broke the bargain when they began to accept hundreds of millions in annual salary, but paid their workers minimum wage. When they decided fair competition was less lucrative than lobbying Congress for sweetheart deals.
Corporations themselves broke the bargain when they began to meddle in government, lobbying for favorable treatment at the expense of voters and citizens and the environment. Corporations and rich people further broke the bargain when they stopped paying taxes.
Product designers and marketers broke the bargain when they designed products to fail, or sold us shiny garbage, or persuaded us to eat food that makes us fat and sick.
The news media broke the bargain when it began to lie and manipulate and propagandize us, leaving us defenseless against all those others. When they lazily defaulted on digging into the hard stories, instead tossing out the easy, titillating stories, the ones that provoke outrage and fear and weepy sympathy.
If YOU break The Bargain, there are consequences. They can send you to jail, or prison. They can humiliate you in public in a way that never heals. They can kill you.
But here’s the thing: If The Bargain is broken by THEM …
Why should you continue to act as if it’s still in force?
When it comes to Freedom of Speech – MY FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS!!! – we’re all over that like a chicken on a June bug. Yes, yes, yes, you have the RIGHT to speak up. To write. To protest. To tattoo the shit out of yourself, and to walk around with the ugly crack of your ass showing.
But there’s another freedom – sort of the counterpoint to freedom of speech – that never made it into the Constitution. It never occurred to the founders to include it because they were educated men, dealing with educated men. They were self-reliant, and assumed others would look out for themselves in the same way.
But the freedom is this: The freedom not to be lied to. The Freedom of Truth.
If I tell you a lie, that’s one thing. It’s wrong, and we know it, but it affects you and I and very few other people. That lie, assuming it doesn’t violate other legal rights and responsibilities, falls within the freedom of speech.
But if the GOP tells you a lie, or FOX News tells you a lie, or Exxon-Mobil tells you a lie, that’s something else. It affects millions, possibly billions, of people. It parasitizes and manipulates them – disrupting their very understanding of reality – in favor of that small group of people who stand to profit.
And it does it, usually, via the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum. So the government essentially stands by and allows it.
You think they should have the exact same Freedom of Speech you and I have, except amplified a billion times by publicly-owned media?
If your freedom of speech includes the right to lie to one or a dozen people, but THEIR freedom of speech includes the right to lie to and manipulate 300 million of us, does that make any sort of sense?
If you ever have any doubts about this, ask yourself: “Do I have a RIGHT to know what’s true and what’s not? Do I have a RIGHT to know what’s going on?”
Answer yourself, “You’re goddam right I do.”
“Do they have a right to lie to me? To keep me in the dark, believing lies and propaganda?”
“You’re goddam right they don’t. And I’m tired of this shit.”
She should have been our next president.
She was brought down by the media, by that asshole in the FBI, by the lies of the right, by decades of the most vicious attacks. Allegedly, believably, she was brought down by Russian interference in our American election. She was also brought down by us.
She tried hard. She worked her ass off. She cared. And half of America shit on her. Most of us have no idea of the emotional toll something like this has on a person. But here:
Imagine you work for a company that has a big plum position coming open, and you have your heart set on winning that position. Imagine you spend two years working with that one goal in mind. Not just for the money, or the power, but because you know you can do the job better than anybody. You learn the things you need to learn, and you learn them better than anyone before you, ever. You do the things you need to do, and you do them fantastically well. All your performance evaluations are aces, your employer is incredibly impressed with you, all the people in your department respect and admire you, all the people in the industry are looking forward to working with you. But also, your company benefits like never before, climbing to the top of the entire industry.
You spend TWO YEARS caring and hoping and sweating to get that position, and everybody around you agrees you’re a shoo-in.
Okay, now imagine that three weeks before the final decision, your company is bought out by a billionaire. On the big day, the new owner announces his nephew, just out of business school, never held a job in his life, is taking over that position.
Take a second and think about how you felt when your dad died, your grandmother died, your dog died. The emotional impact of losing that position, or this election, is damned near the same. When you think about it, it might even be worse – because this was not some accidental death, it was something of a murder, and the killers are walking around out there smirking and laughing, high-fiving each other and smoking Cuban cigars.
When someone loses something they love, you don’t get in their face and tell them this is all their fault. You don’t get all grabby and selfish and demand they do something to make YOU feel better. You reach out to give THEM comfort.
Hillary is strong as hell. But she’s also human. You can’t care about something like this, really care, and just walk away when it gets snatched out of your hands at the last second, and in such an ugly way. She deserves something better in this moment than being shoved to the side and forgotten.
Send her a card. Write her a letter. Tell her how much you value her effort. Thank her for all her work, and for trying. She’s one of us, and she deserves at least this much.
Post Office Box 5256
New York, NY 10185-5256
Office of Hillary Rodham Clinton
120 West 45th Street, Suite 2700
New York, NY 10036
Trump Resistance Reference Guide
And yes, this stuff is being used on you, against you, every damned day: