The Root of Transcendence

Dan MountainsAs an atheist, you hear it all the time – the in-your-face assertion that Humans are “wired for God.” We believe in gods, we’re told, because it’s natural to us. Because we have something in us that NEEDS a god or gods. Maybe because it carries some evolutionary advantage, so we evolved to have it.

The conclusion, in the mind of any faith-professing Christian, is that we’re this way because there really is a god, or at least some sort of “something bigger out there somewhere” that makes it so. We believe because we need to, because we have to, because to do anything else makes us less viable organisms. Lacking a god-need is an evolutionary dead end.

In how many conversations have I had someone tell me “Well, I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I think there’s something out there. Something beyond anything we know.”? I’ve heard that a LOT. Even people I would otherwise consider full atheists have said such things to me.

I’ve felt that pull myself. I’ve thought many times, “We live our lives on a human stage. Everything we do is for other people. But is that enough? Isn’t there anything … more?”

I actually think there is. But it’s not God or gods or mystical superbeings of any sort. It’s this whole other thing, something real. But it’s something so much a part of us we fail to notice it.

I’ll tell you what I think it might be.

First, here’s me: Atheist. Beyond atheist, in fact. I independently came up with the term “antitheist” to describe myself 20 years or more ago, long before it was in vogue. Rather than the current fashionable pronunciation, “an-tee-THEE-ist,” I pronounced it “an-TITH-ee-ist.” I described it humorously as “Not only do I not believe in gods, but I don’t think you should either.”

But I’m also a realist. You have to face the real world and take what it gives you, even if you don’t like it, even if it flies in the face of things you think you know. So whenever I’m presented with a woo-woo idea, something I know isn’t right as presented, but which nevertheless seems to have some sort of substance to it, rather than dismiss it with “No, despite what it looks like, there’s nothing there,” I have to 1) accept whatever realness it presents, and then 2) see if I can figure out a real-world explanation for it that makes sense.

So do we have a need for gods? Are we wired for that? If not, what is it we DO have? Let’s explore a couple of conceptual trails and see where they lead.

Most of us, when we talk about going hiking in the woods, or camping in the wilderness, talk about it in terms of “going out there.” We live in cities, and we “go out” when we head away from the city into the wilds.

But it’s the other way around, isn’t it? Because cities are NOT our natural environment. Our natural environment is … the natural environment. It’s where we grew up, where we evolved to be. We’re not going OUT when we go to the wilds, we’re going BACK. The only time we go OUT is when we trek from the wilds into a city.

Our home, our real home, is in the woods, on the mountains, in the midst of trees and creeks and blowing wind. It is out in the sun and rain, in the dirt and dust, the pollen and bugs and mud. It’s out where we can stomp around in our bare feet, filling our toes with mud, seeing wild animals and birds and distant valleys, blue sky and fluffy clouds, nights filled with full moons and stars. Where we can taste berries and ripe fruit, where we can smell waterfalls and flowers and our own sweat, but also skunks and even blood and death.

I know you’re thinking all this is some kind of artsy-fartsy poetic allusion, but I’m dead serious. CITIES ARE NOT OUR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT. Cities are alien. Artificial.

They’re not even all that good for us. Yeah, we’re comfortable in our engineered and sanitized ’burbs, but we’ll also eat until we weigh 300 pounds, and then whine that we feel sick all the time. We’ll tolerate noise and pollution and chemically-adulterated foods until it weakens and kills us.

Think about all the animals we’ve invited out of the wilds, bringing them into towns and cities to live with us. Compared to their wild cousins, domestic animals are almost invariably weaker and dumber. More fragile.

Wild animals are generally tougher, stronger, faster and fiercer than our pets and livestock. We’re used to how soft and cuddly kittens and puppies are, but pick up a baby raccoon – which I did, years back – and you’ll be shocked at how hard it is. The little bastards are tough as boiled leather.

Just as our pets are, we humans here in cities are soft. Less robust. And probably a lot dumber than whatever wild cousins we once had.

But there’s a deeper point than that our real home is in the wilds. It’s this: That we’re a part of the world around us – profoundly inseparable from it. We’re no more alive without the world around us than a toe is alive when removed from its foot.

Allow me to argue the point:

Say we wanted to define “human.” We’d probably have a fairly involved description, possibly accompanied by a picture of some individual person, maybe some other animals for comparison. But what we wouldn’t have is a full understanding of what being a human means. Because we never really even think about it.

You’re sitting there right now believing yourself to be a complete individual, a discrete quantity of personness, probably picturing your exterior, your skin, as the boundary between “you” and “everything else.”

But your skin is NOT the boundary. In fact, when you really think about it … well, think about this:

Take a human. Hang a large sign around his neck, “Human.” Have him stand on a stage with no other person around, and take a picture of him. QED, this is a human, right? This is all a human is, all there needs to be. No, because you still haven’t separated him out from a great deal of other stuff.

But take that same human and drop him through a portal that deposited him someplace where he could REALLY be alone – say 50,000 lights years away, out in the space between galaxies. What do you have? A dead person.

We never think about it, but the definition of “human” has this hidden implication – that the human is alive, and that quite a lot goes into that aliveness. We never think about the food and water, the gravity and atmosphere, a solid place to stand, other people around to make life work, other animals and plants, a lot of them, somewhere nearby to eat.

The atmosphere we breathe doesn’t just go in and out of our lungs, it seeps into and out of our skin, penetrating us on a cellular level, maintaining a pressure without which we’d die in seconds. The food and water we consume, and later excrete, forms a flowing river of input and outgo, without which we’d also die in short order. And the thing is, the food and water comes from somewhere, the air comes from somewhere.

So we are linked, bound into, an entire system of processes that extends backward in time and outward in complexity in a way that no end can really be found. The oceans? Part of us. The mountains? Part of us. The rainforest, the arctic, the deserts? Part of us. The clouds, the rain, the snow, the bees, the plants, the rocks, the crustal plates, all part of us.

The sun? Oh, yeah, part of us. BIG part of us.

And WE are part of IT. We don’t just live on Earth, we’re nailed into it, soaking in it, connected to it in a way that allows no separation. Even the International Space Station astronauts can live for only a brief time before they start suffering serious health effects – and they get continuous supplies from Earth.

There is only one way to define “human” without also including all this other stuff – the way that specifies “dead human body.” To have a live human, you have to include everything else … at least as far out as the sun.

We say “we” and we say “I” but those are rhetorical conveniences that have no true reality. The view of ourselves as separate and individual is purely subjective – a view which is fantastically, stunningly, titanically oversimplified from the real situation.

The truth is, our mysterious and powerful “something out there” is the natural world. Yet here we are off in cities, acting in our vast ignorance as if we’re discrete individuals, separate from our larger inclusionary selves.

On some level, I think we know this. We yearn for that larger part of us. We reach for it. We desire to be a part of it, to touch and be touched by it.

But divided from the natural world in cities, ignorant of it, we think the missing “something out there, something larger” is a god, or gods, or some other mystical formulation.

It’s a drastically wrong, tragically misleading answer. But sadly, it’s all most of us can understand or accept.

Beta Culture: Culture Itself

Beta-Culture-JPGIn pursuit of my Beta Culture concept, I’ve been thinking a lot about Culture over the past couple of years, and I’ve recently been making some interesting connections. I like to think I’m getting close to understanding the meat of it. Here’s a recent thought:

Your culture offers you Values, Ways, and Place.

VALUES are obvious: Honesty is the best policy. People are suckers and deserve what they get. Hard work is the stuff of life. Honor your mother and father. Family above all. Never stop learning. Being gay is an abomination. A wife must meekly obey her husband.

WAYS are all the things your people do, and the way they do them: Wear boots, a big silver buckle and a cowboy hat. Volunteer to serve your country. Every funeral must include a lengthy sermon about Jesus. Cut the end off your little boy’s dick. Go to school only until you’re 14, then work on the family farm. Hold your fork with your left hand, your knife with your right. Shave your hair into a Mohawk and braid feathers into it.

PLACE is the home your culture provides you. It’s where your People accept and welcome you, protect and defend you, and where you do the same for them.

There are “full cultures” that provide Values, Ways and Place for every aspect of life. You could live on an island with a full culture, totally isolated from the rest of the world, and still live a full life. Think of the Amish, or Hasidic Jews, who actually create isolated social islands for their people.

There are “fractional cultures” like Nascar culture or Star Wars culture, gamer culture or Jimmy Buffett fandom, which offer Place, but not a great deal in the way of Ways and Values. In other words, they offer some specialized Ways and Values, but not the full set for all of life. Most of the people in Nascar culture, for instance, wouldn’t have a Nascar wedding, and few Star Wars fans would consider a Star Wars funeral. But on the plus side, there’s the Place: You feel comfortable — you feel HOME — when you’re with your fellow enthusiasts.

Then there’s something I call “U.S. Overculture,” which provides a huge Chinese menu of Values and Ways, but almost no Place. You can live in it, as most of us do, but it includes no welcoming “tribe” of your own.

U.S. Overculture has two very significant features to it:

1) It contains a blended mess of pieces from all the cultures and fractional cultures within it, but ALSO contains a very high percentage of artificial features, Ways and Values which are created by the marketing departments of big corporations, or faddish movements that sweep through the population somewhat spontaneously. —No proposal is complete without a diamond ring. Collect all the Pokemons! Wear your pants sagging below the curve of your butt. Cigarette smoking is what the really cool people do. Take the grandkids to McDonald’s. Oh my GOD, you have to see the TWILIGHT movies! They’re, like, SEW KEWUL!!

2) As it contains no specific People for you to belong to, no Place to welcome and protect you, you’re pretty much on your own as far as figuring out what’s good and bad for you and yours. Standing full in the blasting fire hose of stuff thrown at you every day, you’re at such a loss to evaluate it all, you end up thinking nothing is all that bad, everything is pretty much okay. Sugary sodas, cigarettes, heroin, tongue piercing, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, throwing garbage on the sidewalk, Donald Trump for President, joining a street gang — it’s all just a matter of personal choice, right? And there’s nobody, no wise elder or more-experienced cultural peer to tell you any different.

It seems to me Culture is a need roughly as important to us as breathing, but without Place, the need for Culture can, in the modern world, be easily diverted and perverted to serve the needs of corporate parasites.

But Culture itself can control you to your detriment. Full cultures buoy you up in times of difficulty, but they also cut off all your wild flights of creativity. For instance, though artistic and musical talent is probably evenly distributed in every race and people, there are no Hasidic Jewish rock bands, or internationally known Amish photographers.

Regarding which, I know of no specific culture that focuses as strongly on empowerment of its members as it does on control of those members.

Even my own East Texas Cowboy Culture was pretty strict on what you could and couldn’t do, and in a fairly repressive way. For instance: Cowboys don’t read books, or if they do, it darned sure isn’t science fiction. Cowboys drive pickup trucks and not, Lord save us, Volkswagen Beetles. Cowboys don’t fly on planes, and Cowboys would never, ever eat sushi.

Another thing most cultures do not seem to have is goals — other than the obvious one of keeping people in line, or serving as that protective Place. Some of my recent thoughts about where Culture sits in the world, though, have it as something of an equal social force — in the sense of how much effect it has on our lives — with Government and Business. But Government and Business DO have goals. And I want Beta Culture to have goals.

So: In the design of Beta Culture, two more topics to think about — Goals and Empowerment.

Anyway … still thinking.

Beta Culture: Movement Cuckoos

cuckooI’ve said many times that every time atheists put up a billboard or other public display, they should absolutely expect it will be vandalized, and should set up cameras to record the vandals in the act. Anytime we think “billboard,” we should also think “vandalism preparation.”

It’s probably impossible to prevent the vandalism, but we could start a YouTube video collection to argue that nice Christians vandalize atheists’ property about a thousand times more often than evil atheists target Christian properties.

But I really want to talk about something else at the moment. Rather than enemies and backpressure forces outside the atheist movement, I want to talk about enemies WITHIN atheism. Or indeed, within any new organized social movement.

You’re probably aware of the European cuckoo, a “brood parasite” which lays its eggs in the nests of other species of birds. It’s a pretty creepy little bastard, actually. After the cuckoo chick hatches, it shoves the smaller eggs or nestlings out to die, and then obliges the hapless instinct-drive parent birds — which can be a fraction its size — to feed it to adulthood.

I bring it up to make a point about movements, which is this: Every movement or social justice organization which presents any sort of challenge to the status quo — or, indeed, a new idea of any sort — will inevitably end up with cuckoos. Or so I suspect.

The FBI in the J. Edgar Hoover era was notorious for infiltrating all sorts of organizations. The civil rights movement, anti-war protesters, environmental movement, hell even major political parties, had FBI plants within them, gathering information and sometimes actively sabotaging the movement from the inside.

Some years back, I had an extended conversation with an undercover cop, a massively-muscled man covered in tattoos, who’d spent more than two years inside a motorcycle gang. He worked his way into the post of second-in-command, not only gathering incriminating evidence, but assisting in, and even instigating, criminal acts. (The personal price of it, he said, had been damned high, as he necessarily alienated himself from his wife and children, but also because he developed a great deal of sincere liking for the men he would later betray.)

I watched the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement gather momentum and then diminish into apparent insignificance, a progression helped along by people I suspect were cuckoos. At a major demonstration in Washington DC, a drum circle sprang up, an extended effort that did nothing more than vigorously and monotonously bang on drums, but which disrupted and destroyed the thrust of the movement.

I’m not CERTAIN these weren’t all well-meaning drum enthusiasts, there to present their own attention-getting version of protest, but the fact that they could not be moved to stop leads me to think some part of the incursion was deliberately staged. Add in this data point from the linked Gawker article:

Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, and disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not ‘on her side’ “Uncle Tom”, “the 1%”, “Barbie” “not Palestinian enough” “Wall Street politicians” “not black enough” “sell-outs”, etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.

A plant sent there by the FBI/Wall Street/some other government agency? It’s not all that hard to believe, is it? Yes, this is a conspiracy theory, but … conspiracies do exist. If you don’t believe that, in the age of tobacco and petroleum, Fox News and the GOP, you haven’t been paying attention.

Cuckoos don’t necessarily arise from enemy camps. They can spontaneous spring up from within the roll of faithful members, and perhaps completely unintentionally create major rifts in the solidarity of the movement.

The atheist movement was early-on a very friendly club of people discovering the pleasures of freethought and reveling in the newfound freedom to think and express themselves. I was one of those early celebrants, writing and commenting variously in Yahoo chat rooms, on my own GoatOnFire and Hank Fox blogs, on Unscrewing the Inscrutable, in my book Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, and finally on FreeThought Blogs, taking a rather meek place alongside PZ Myers, Ed Brayton and other notables. The excitement of atheist solidarity eventually led to the first Reason Rally, and I never felt so HOME as on that one drizzly day in Washington DC.

And then Atheism-Plus came along. The idea was atheism PLUS social justice causes. I was already working on my concept of Beta Culture, and didn’t immediately jump in, but I was sympathetic at least as far as not offering vocal opposition.

I wanted to believe in it. I disagreed somewhat with atheist purists whose response to Atheism-Plus was pointedly negative, insisting that atheism was this ONE thing — atheism — and nothing else. One FTB blogger responded with the equally pointed “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” In my view, that statement was the tipping point for creating a major rift within the movement, where we became “these atheists” and “those atheists,” rather than just “atheists.” FTB was suddenly presented with a seeming tidal wave of hate — not from religionists, but from other atheists.

Add in the fact that the major fraction of Atheism-Plus was an aggressive feminism which came to actively target other atheist bloggers — I got to see this from the inside at FTB, and I can tell you it could be nasty as hell (I seem to recall one astonishing declaration that no man should speak or write about feminism unless a woman was present, essentially to check his work!) — and we soon had a situation where you couldn’t be an atheist in good standing unless you were FIRST an ardent feminist. You might agree on every point in the feminist cant, and yet become an enemy with a single “wrong” word. And whoo! They would COME AFTER YOU.

I talked to other bloggers and commenters around the atheist web, and eventually had something like a dozen writers who said they would never again engage with the issue of feminism, because the price of making a mistake — which, again, could hinge on a single, often deliberately-misinterpreted, word — was too high.

Cuckoos. Feminists in the atheist nest, shoving out other atheists. It certainly worked on me! I moved to Patheos and largely stopped reading FTB, because I couldn’t bear all the heat and light of victim-feminism. (I find it interesting that Ed Brayton, one of the founders of FTB, also eventually joined Patheos, possibly for much the same reason I did.)

[ Side Note: Typically, any male blogger who addressed feminism in any even slightly critical way would preface every post with immense protestations of agreement and solidarity with the feminist cause. But I’m not going to do that for two reasons: 1) It never helped. You could be 99.95% in favor of women’s rights, equality, safety and choice, but that 0.05% disagreement would bring attacks which could be literally vicious. And 2) If you don’t know me by now … eh. Go read some other blog. ]

In the end, I think I have to agree with the atheist purists.  Social justice issues, no matter how greatly worth pursuing on their own, dilute and poison the ATHEIST movement when they are shoved in as part of it.

But to conclude with what is really my main point: Too often, those of us working toward progressive social or political goals are naively unprepared for the sophistication of opposition, or even the fact of it. Some level of opposition will likely come from outside, but it can also come from inside and be no less destructive.

But just as with the strategy suggested for atheist billboards (go into it with the absolute expectation of vandalism), every social justice movement should START with the expectation of aggressive, often deceptive, opposition and consider how to deal with it.

Definitely expect opposition from outside, but don’t neglect the possibility of enemies of internal origin — cuckoos — and plan some sort of approach to their potential arrival.


Get Your Motor Runnin’: Reason Riders Going National

Reason Riders 2If you are 1), an atheist, and 2) ride a motorcycle, you seriously need to join and support Reason Riders.

I first wrote about the idea of an atheist motorcycle club a little more than two years ago. I tinkered up a rough logo and a name — Reason Riders — and just dropped it out there.

Pierino Walker picked up on it soon after, redesigning the logo and turning it into patches for his motorcycle jacket. He sent me a couple, and supplied them for fellow riders in Northern California and elsewhere.

Brian Christian, fellow rider in Buckeye, Arizona, joined in, and the two are now co-founders, stepping up the pace to take the idea national.

Christian has a Meetup group — Reason Riders of Western Arizona — and hosts road trips for enthusiasts in his state. Walker rides in northern California.

Apparently it’s common for riders to be known either by their last name or a road name. As the leader of a group of atheist motorcycle riders, and ironically named Christian, Brian’s riders have given him the road name “Bishop.” So:

founders 1












There is a Reason Riders Facebook page, where riders post announcements of cross-country rides and pics of bikes and friends, as well as thoughts on atheism, religion, life and such.

Anyone interested in joining — either as riders or as organizers for local chapters — can contact the two founders (who are also local-chapter Presidents) either through the Facebook page or via email:

Walker: ktown1213 [at]
Bishop: darknightdad [at]

There will be additional Reason Riders swag coming soon, but meanwhile you can order the large back patches, shown below, from Bishop.

Look for a near-future post on the group’s Mission Statement, but don’t let that stop you from RIGHT NOW becoming a part of the world’s only, first-ever Godless Atheist Motorcycle Group.

Side Note: Speaking of riding clubs, Bishop clued me in to an important point that I wasn’t aware of, but that riders thinking about joining in — or forming a chapter in their home territory — should know. There is a neighborly etiquette regarding already-established riding groups and motorcycle clubs in each area. Anyone forming a group in their area will want to introduce themselves to the local clubs, maybe take a few rides with them, before leaping out onto the road with the new patch. It’s an important issue with all the large clubs, and not one to be taken lightly if we want Reason Riders to find its own place out there.

And when Reason Riders goes INTERnational, you’ll see it here first.

front back

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.


Insight Into A World Without Gods

COE 235Today I located the Facebook pages of a handful of old friends, some from my cowboy years, some from my Texas years. None of them know me on Facebook, because I’ve kept that account secret from most of them.

Part of it is because I don’t like people looking over my shoulder as I engage in an ongoing freestyle quest to figure out this thing I’m trying to figure out — you know, Life. Part of it is … I know if they see who I am now, the kinds of things I think and say, we can’t be friends anymore. And I still like to think of them out there, ready for a visit or a phone call, ready to smile as they see me coming up the road. There are people I want to see at least one more time before we all start dying.

One thing I notice, when I see the divide between us — the political divide, the philosophical divide — is that they’re ALL religious. They ALL believe in an afterlife, and God, and Eternity.

There are times when I have trouble imagining how different the world might be without religion. How it might be better, or possibly worse. There’s no way to tell how things might be, most of us would say, because we have nothing to compare it to. We have no history without religion, and so we can’t say whether it might have been better or worse.

But we DO have something to compare it to. We have each other — those of us with religion, and those without. We have the lives of staunch believers, the kinds of things they do in the world, how they react to things that happen to them. We know what sorts of things they believe, in parallel with their religion. We know the kinds of ideas they fiercely give themselves to, to defend and advance, and the kinds of things they fall for. And even the kinds of things they’re capable of understanding, or even listening to.

Sometimes when I talk to some of these old buddies, I actually feel guilty. Guilty that I wasn’t a better friend, that I let them get to where they are. Guilty that I wasn’t there for them, maybe helping them see a larger world outside religion and conservatism, or — whether they ended up agreeing with me or not — at least helping them learn to ask their own questions about gods and devils, holy books and traditional beliefs.

Herd Immunity: The Internet vs. Education

COE SquareRather than amplifying intelligence, I think the Internet and TV are taking the place of intelligence. Because information is available in instants, you don’t have to actually learn things, to commit them to memory and have them become a part of your own thinking processes. A great deal of the time, for too many of us, we don’t even have to THINK. We become less practiced at it. We become lazy data-tourists rather than farmers of knowledge.

Of course we don’t ALL become less practiced at thinking, at working to understand the world around us. But a significant number do. This is bad because, socially, the thing is a lot like vaccinations and herd immunity: The more kids who are vaccinated in any population, the less chance of the target disease catching on in that population.

If you have a population of 100 kids in a school, but only 10 of them are vaccinated, the chance of whooping cough sailing in and hitting every kid — except the few vaccinated — is very high. If 90 of those kids are vaccinated, you have a much lower chance of any kid — even the unvaccinated — catching it.

Just so, the more people in a group who are educated and thoughtful and rational — the more who learn to THINK — the greater the herd immunity against stupidity.

A conspiratorial idea might flow out of Fox News and catch on with one person, but other people in the same family, or school, or neighborhood, will shut it down with educated arguments. Rather than stupidity or paranoia catching on and raging out of control, the intellectual herd immunity will protect even those who are NOT educated and thoughtful.

The Internet makes it easy, not only to not think, but to become exposed to mind-pathogens — the wild ideas, conspiracy theories, hate memes and violent sectarian rants — that infect us with damaging craziness. And in this case, the epidemic is panic, unthinking followership, mob action.

I like the idea of education as a vaccination against stupidity, and even more that widely-available education, training in reason and thinking, provides herd immunity against craziness and stupidity.

But I worry that our intellectual herd immunity — likely due to the bullshit commonality of so much of the Internet — is dangerously low.

Rather than intelligence and thoughtfulness, we seem to be amplifying pugnacity, stupidity and rage.

Dawkins and Dennett in Boston

Dawkins ExplainsI got to see noted scientist, atheist and author Richard Dawkins and philosopher/author Daniel Dennett in Boston this past Thursday, June 11. I first saw Dawkins at the Reason Rally in Washington DC, so this was my second eyes-on viewing of him, but it was my first time seeing Dennett in person. I traveled down with three members of the Capital Region Atheists & Agnostics — Lizz Lloyd, Jim Piren and Ken Spencer. (A big thank-you to them for the company and the wheels.)

The format of the event, held in Boston’s Chevalier Theatre and the third of a 3-city tour featuring Dawkins and different co-speakers, was a fireside chat — a rambling, amiable hourlong talk between Dennett and Dawkins, followed by an hour of Q&A, then a book signing in the lobby.

The thoughtful talk covered mostly science-related issues, only dipping into atheism and freethought near its end.

Dennett spoke at length about The Clergy Project. He and fellow researcher Linda LaScola interviewed numerous clergymen who no longer believed, yet were still working in their field – mostly because they were unemployable anywhere else – and produced a study published as Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. Though the two researchers were careful to maintain the anonymity of respondents, some of the clergy members interviewed found each other and founded The Clergy Project, which now, Dennett said, has more than 600 core members – working clergy who are nevertheless atheists.

One questioner asked Dennett about plans for including some sort of safe house for women attempting to escape fundamentalist groups and families. Dennett admitted that The Clergy Project contained nothing of the sort at present, but he thought it a good idea.

Dawkins at one point during the Q&A said something surprising. The question was “Should atheists work with moderate Christians and churches to oppose fundamentalists?” The main part of his answer was that a team-up with moderate Christians could certainly be useful in certain circumstances, but he wasn’t in favor of it as a main strategy. He followed up by saying his primary concern at present is Islam, and added he had a quiet worry that “dismantling Christianity” might eliminate a powerful ally in opposing Islam.

A couple of beefs on my part:

First, the sound system in the theatre was subpar. Ear-piercing feedback squealed out into the auditorium for many minutes – and randomly throughout the talk – visibly annoying both Dawkins and Dennett, who soldiered on as well as possible. Dawkins even got out of his chair more than once to tinker with an on-stage speaker box. I have to wonder how it’s even possible to have such amazingly bad sound in an old, established auditorium.

Second, the ladies handing around the mikes during the audience Q&A session ignored me. I waved my hand in the air a LOT during the Q&A hour, and I watched the nearest mike-carrier’s eyes slide away from me several times. True, I was there wearing my cowboy hat, and I suspect she thought I was there to cause a scene, and didn’t want to give me the chance. (I DID consider making a joke by saying in my Deep South accent “If human bein’s came from monkeys …” before asking my real question. Ah well.)

With close to a thousand people attending, a LONG line developed for the book signings at the end. Dawkin’s final comment after the Q&A was to ask the people at the beginning of the line to be generous with the time of those at the end, and suggested no selfies, to general laughter.

Dawkins and Dennett sat approachably at a small table, and signed book after book, hundreds of them. This time I did get to make a joke, by first handing Dawkins The God Delusion to sign, then giving him a copy of Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, explaining quickly that it was my own book, and that the bull rider on the cover was me. I’m pretty sure nothing like that had ever happened to him – he looked momentarily baffled as he examined it, then smiled big and graciously thanked me.

In the end, I got to personally thank both Dawkins and Dennett: “Thank you for existing! And for all you do.”





Boston Scenes:


Post-Teen Guilty, Middle-Aged Goddy

COE SquareI have friends in Texas who did some pretty questionable stuff in their wild teen years — we’re talking lying, stealing, animal cruelty, just plain meanness to each other, and yes, a certain amount of socially-unapproved sex — who have become extremely religious as they’ve gotten older. I often suspect there’s a direct mechanism that makes this happen. Here’s how I imagine it working:

Inevitably when you’re younger and you have a childish sense of right and wrong, a childish sense of other people’s or other creatures’ feelings and rights, you do stuff that seems fun or exciting in the moment, but which can spark remorse in later years.

The thing is, if you’re a decent person at all, your level of understanding and compassion rises throughout your life, and things that seemed cool when done in your teens can later disturb you very much. An adult-level conscience looking back on teenage acts can generate immense amounts of guilt. But most of us have no idea how to process that guilt.

My view of how to deal with it is this: You just have to feel the guilt, live with it, to keep it as a reminder that you have to do better. But also, you have to understand that kids do crazy shit. If you’d forgive — or at least understand — some other kid that age doing the same thing, you can somewhat forgive yourself for those early-life acts that now bother you. And after all, the guilt is an indicator that you already are a better person. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel bad about things you did 30-40-50 years ago.

But not everybody is this self-aware, or thoughtful. And certainly we have no formal social organ to propagate that message.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have religion, which replaces wisdom with faith. The religious paradigm that God will forgive those bothersome acts — IF you devotedly believe and pray and all that — provides a tool that allows believers to imagine forgiveness (*). But it also locks them into the goddy framework. If they give up the belief, it brings the guilt surging back into consciousness.


(*) That there may be a drawback to the practice — it could make repeated acts more palatable — is a mere side-effect.