Already described above, full cultures cover every aspect of life, providing both game and gameboard for living. They present an elaborate social framework with all the details worked out.
In New York state where I live, full cultures include the Amish and Hasidic Judaism. However confining or silly they might look to those of us outside them, from the inside they provide a place of warmth, safety and familiarity, which most would only reluctantly leave.
But other than these, which make a deliberate attempt at island-like isolation and purity, few of us have anything even close to a complete culture. Here in the United States, they’re actually hard to come by. Instead we have the other two types.
Harley Davidson culture, gamer culture, NASCAR culture, Star Trek and Star Wars fan culture, Renaissance Festival culture, countless others. They contain certain rules and traditions, but those rules address only that one small part of life. Everything else has to be borrowed.
Fractional cultures, it seems to me, arise because they satisfy the yearning for a tribal home-place, a sense of inclusion with ‘My People.’ You and yours have a team, a band, a sport. But they fall apart on the rest of life. Science fiction fandom might provide you with the details of how to conduct yourself during late-night filking, but it’s mostly silent on funeral traditions, or what to wear to work. As an avid Yankees fan, you might attend all the games, go to after-parties with fellow Yankees fanatics, wear Yankees caps, and for all I know drink Yankees beer and dance the Yankees dance. You might even be enough of a Yankees fan to have a Yankees-themed wedding — all the while feeling included and safe in the cherished Yankees traditions—but you’re not going to ask for the Yankees meal on an airplane. You’re not going to confine yourself to exclusive Yankees positions for sex (I’m guessing catcher’s mitts and face guards are involved), or send your kids to Yankees school every day.
All of us outside full cultures live in a huge, blended mess of subcultures I call U.S. Overculture. Overculture provides guidance for every aspect of life, but it does so in fractured, massively oversupplied form, presenting us with many different models for weddings, scores of courtship rituals, diverse ways of bidding goodbye to the departed, a dozen traditions for observing holidays — including distinctly different holidays — and countless potential suggestions for every other aspect of life.
You can have a cowboy wedding, a Catholic funeral, a Hello Kitty birthday party, Goth hairstyles and makeup, biker clothing, Montessori schooling for your kids, Wiccan holidays, any of thousands of other traditions, ceremonies and activities … without actually belonging to any specific home culture. All of us in fractional cultures, or no culture at all, call on this Overculture every day of our lives in order to fill sociocultural needs.
Overculture provides ton lots of traditions and foods and clothing, songs and dances and everything else, but the one thing Overculture fails to provide is any sense of belonging. It gives you no Home, instead leaving you adrift in a choppy cultural sea. Most of us manage only some vague identification as “American.”
The Worm in Overculture
We might think living in U.S. Overculture is perfectly fine, and miss a home culture not at all. We might even interpret the lack of a home culture as the ultimate freedom. After all, we don’t have to wear a beard and work a farm our entire lives. But that freedom comes with a degree of exposure and vulnerability. Because a great deal of U.S. Overculture arrives as purely predatory marketing. Rather than socially-useful traditions, corporate-supplied culture is an extended sales pitch aimed at nothing but profit.
On the streets of any large city, some large percentage of the faces you see will have a cigarette stuck in them. This pricey, health-destroying practice wasn’t something that got passed down by generations of wise elders, it was relentlessly advertised into existence by tobacco companies. We might imagine “A Diamond is Forever” to be cherished, ageless tradition, but it arose out of an ad campaign begun in 1947, before which sensible brides-to-be much preferred husbands to spend limited household money on washing machines or cars. Yet today, the central element of a “proper” proposal is a diamond engagement ring, the pricier the better.
Do either of these customs truly benefit the people who follow them? Not in any way. People trade money for illusion.
Full cultures serve as guardians for the people within them, but those of us living in U.S. Overculture have little or nothing to perform that function. An active ad campaign can be projected at us or our children, and there is no social mechanism, no equally active protective force, to oppose it. Left to evaluate the thing as lone individuals, many of us simply adopt whatever it is because it is new, different, and briefly entertaining. For every new thing presented, lottery tickets or vape sticks, Beanie Babies or Pokemon Go, car surfing or brain piercing (any day now), large numbers of us are right there, sucking it up.
Even if you as an individual detect the falsity, the uselessness, the actual physical harm of something, any public show of resistance will meet with instant unthinking opposition from those already under the spell. “Hey, vape pens are awesome, man! They’re way healthier than cigarettes!” “But Beanie Babies are a great investment!”
—No, new things are not automatically bad. But they’re not automatically good, either. Having a home culture with a collective of smart, trusted advisors helps you breast the daily flood of marketing, huckstering, and outright lies.
Religion and Culture
Speaking of the Amish and Hasidic Jews, note that both cultures are rooted in religion. In fact, every tribe, city-state and nation I ever heard of throughout human history had religion at or near its heart. Every culture had holy men, monuments, temples, gods, complex myths of afterlives and paradises and places of eternal punishment, plus numerous everyday rules and injunctions about how to relate to the supernatural—some of which you broke on pain of death.
Except for the part about death, that very much includes the society we live in here and now. As every atheist knows, you can’t sneeze without a chorus of god-bless-yous — often from complete strangers. The U.S. is well-salted with 10 Commandments monuments, many of them still on public land, police vehicles in some jurisdictions defiantly carry goddy bumper stickers, military leaders pressure subordinates to attend religious services, goddy signs and billboards are everywhere, biology teachers are nervous about using the word “evolution” in science classes, and there is a never-let-up insistence across the nation to say prayers at public meetings. Every disaster has people giving thanks to God for their survival, no matter how many others died in the event. With “In God We Trust” on every bill and coin, we ourselves hand out religious tracts with every cash transaction.
A few years back I drew an imaginary 2-mile-diameter line around my house in a town of 60,000 people, and discovered close to 80 churches and church-owned properties inside it. More than schools, more than libraries, more than gas stations and convenience stores!
Where has that left atheists? Out in the cold. There has never been a time or place we could truly feel welcome. If you’re an atheist, probably most of the people you know — including your own family — tolerate rather than welcome you. In some countries, being an atheist can be a death sentence. Even here in the United States, there are places where you’d be wise to hide it. There is no place we fit. Non-god-believers are not safe, or free, or home in most of the “civilized” world today.
We even take part in borrowed holidays. Those of us who enjoy Christmas do so only by resolutely telling ourselves it’s a mostly secular occasion. You know, with the gift-giving and Santa and all. And yet, as we are frequently reminded by goddy neighbors, it remains CHRISTmas.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We could have our own holidays. We could have our own everything.
Religion itself is cultural. Draw a Venn diagram of Religion and Culture, and the circle of Religion would be wholly contained within the circle of Culture. It might occupy only one small area of the Culture circle, as it does in U.S. Overculture, or it might almost completely dominate it, as it does in conservative Christian or Islamic sects.
Culture is not religion; culture is the container religion comes in. There might be a lot of things people think are religious, but which are only cultural, things that can be teased out and considered separate from religion. A perfect example, understandable by just about any atheist, is morality, which might be presented as specifically religious, but really isn’t. You no more have to be religious to care about others, to attempt to be a good person, to not lie and steal and kill, than you have to be able to ride a bike in order to get to work.
But! There’s nothing that says the Venn circle of culture must contain a circle of religion. It’s just that we’ve never tried it. Maybe never even been in a position to try it. Until now.
Imagine a specifically, emphatically non-religious culture, created — for the first time ever in the world — by newly freed and connected atheists. Imagine a culture founded in reason and science rather than superstition and mysticism. A culture that reveres education, excellence and careful thought, that has as its champions teachers and intellectuals rather than ridiculously costumed priests and jingoistic uniformed “heroes.” Something that helps guard us from the lies and silliness projected at us daily via TV, radio, Internet, magazines, newspapers and billboards.
Give it a working title: Take all the religious cultures collectively, past and present on Planet Earth, all the tribes, city-states, kingdoms and nations, and call that Alpha Culture — Alpha because it came first. Call this new non-religious culture Beta Culture. “Beta” not because it comes second, but because it comes next.
(Yes, I’m aware there’s already a ‘beta culture.’ Doesn’t mean the term can’t be repurposed. If it’s a problem, think of the two as Culture 1.0 and Culture 2.0.)
So what is this Beta Culture? It is, or could be, a crowd-sourced, deliberately-constructed culture with the specific aim of providing a permanent socio-cultural home for reason-minded people — atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secular humanists.
In the islands-of-the-future metaphor, it would be a new boat aimed at that far archipelago, a cultural tool to carry us to a future in which we have a place. It might not get us there directly, but it could influence the courses of the other three boats, a lot more than a demographic of rootless individual atheists who currently have no choice but to catch a ride with others.
Beta Culture would be a first in at least two ways: First in that it contained no religion or mysticism. Second, it would be the first culture deliberately constructed by the (hopefully) rational people who were to live within it. Built up one piece at a time from within, it would presumably possess an important third difference: It would be one of the few cultures that deliberately sought to empower and strengthen its members, rather than to control and limit them.
Continue to Part 3