The Goal of Grass, and the Fate of Humanity

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.

Liberals as Labelers

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.

Continue reading “Liberals as Labelers”

Beta Culture: Honoring the Fallen … of Science

joy adamsonI’m not a big fan of that pro-military, jingoistic “Support the troops” and “Freedom isn’t free” crap, mainly because it compresses a very complex situation down to a simplistic slogan, with an added “with us or against us” flavor. When I visit Washington DC, I’m always impressed with how MANY memorials there are glorifying war, how few there are — zero — glorifying peace.

Also, in counterpoint to the two national holidays we have honoring soldiers, I’ve suggested a national holiday, SALT Day, to honor Scientists, Artists, Librarians and Teachers. You know, those OTHER people who make American freedom possible, and livable.

So I was happy to find this:

The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists

The site honors those who have died in the pursuit of KNOWLEDGE, and I can’t imagine anyone who more deserves hero status. It delights me in this way, too: It ignores the lines of nations, presenting honorees as citizens of this other country, Planet Earth.

I don’t know most of the names on this list, so it was nice to be able to read over it and gain exposure to them. (It’s weird how many died of poison darts, spears and such.)

Some of the ones I did recognize:

Adamson, Joy (1910–1980), a naturalist, artist, and author best known for the book and movie Born Free, found murdered, age 69, in her camp on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, by a former employee.

Adamson, George (1906 –1989), British wildlife conservationist and author best known through the book and movie Born Free, shot dead, age 83, in Kenya’s Kora National Park by Somali bandits.

Cousteau, Philippe (1940–1979), French oceanographer, diver, and filmmaker, second son of Jacques-Yves and Simone Cousteau, author of  Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea, died, age 38, when his PBY Catalina flying boat crashed in the Tagus River near Lisbon.

Felzien,Gregory (1965-1992), predator biologist, killed, age 26, by an avalanche in Yellowstone National Park while tracking mountain lions.  He was experienced at back country work but is said to have remarked, “If I ever have to die, I want it to be here in Yellowstone tracking cats.”

Fossey, Dian (1932-1985), leading primatologist and conservationist studying mountain gorillas, found murdered in her cabin, age 53, in the Virunga Mountains, Rwanda (case unsolved).

Gambel, William (1823–1849), American naturalist, namesake of Gambel’s quail, age 26, of typhoid fever in the Sierra Nevada.

Leopold, Aldo (1887-1948), father of wildlife ecology who helped found The Wildlife Society and the Wilderness Society, died of a heart attack, age 61, while battling a wildfire on his neighbor’s property.

And one I knew personally:

Gaines, David (1947-1988) , birder in the Sierra Nevada,  author of  The Birds of the Yosemite and the East Slope, and the main impetus behind saving Mono Lake from SoCal’s unquenchable thirst. He died, age 41, in a car accident near Mono Lake. Here’s a good biography (but disregard the dates).

I’d like to see this same effort for all of science, every field, all the researchers, boundary-challengers and explorers of reality who died in the course of their work.


Beta Culture: Updating a Previous Post

Beta-Culture-JPGI posted a 4-part piece on Beta Culture back at the end of July. Conceived as a submission for a book coming out early next year, it serves as a pretty good description of Beta, the why and the how of it.

The first version was less tight than I’d wish. Rather than post ANOTHER 4-parter, I went back and wrote over the old with a new and better version.

It starts here:

Beta Culture: New Intro — Part 1

Reason Riders Benefit for Homeless Veterans

Reason RidersReason Riders, the exclusively atheist motorcycle riding club, is holding a blanket drive for homeless vets. With winter coming on, this is a critical moment. The group will complete the drive on October 15 and hand out the blankets a few days later. The attached poster has the details.

If you’re not in Arizona but want to help, you can donate here via the PayPal button at the lower left. A $10.00 donation will purchase one blanket for a homeless veteran in Arizona, and each donor will receive a 3-inch leather Reason Riders support patch.

I had the idea for Reason Riders a couple of years back, and some really cool people took the idea and ran with it.

Reason Riders has a Facebook page, a MeetUp group (with 92 members taking part in rides and events in Arizona!) and an Instagram site with a lot of photos of group events new and old, showing the patches, the members, the bikes, and the shenanigans.

Chapter One president and founder Brian Christian — “Bishop” — tells me there are several Reason Riders chapters elsewhere in the U.S. readying for official launch. If you want in, contact him directly at

More about the Reason Riders here: Get Your Motor Runnin’: Reason Riders Going National.

(Click the poster to enlarge it.)

Reason Riders Blanket Drive

Beta Culture: Transcendence

I was thinking about the concept of transcendence today as I worked on my roof. To give you some idea what I think about it, I have to tell you a couple of stories.

The Heifer Who Almost Killed Me

Calf TyingI grew up with rodeo cowboys, as I’ve said here more than once. There are cowboys who ride and cowboys who rope (this is drastically oversimplified), and my people were that second type. The riders ride either bulls or broncs or both, and are widely known to be right on the edge of crazy. Ropers are saner and more down to earth.

Nothing prevents riders from roping, but the gear for the basic skill is considerably different — if you ride, you only need to carry your rigging from rodeo to rodeo, but if you rope, you have to bring along your horse — so the crossover is less than you’d expect.

Each skill takes a LOT of practice. Tie-down roping involves casting a loop over a running calf, stopping your horse and leaping off, running down the rope to the calf, throwing it onto its side, scooping up three of its legs and tying them securely together with a little rope called a “pigging string.”

And before you comment, no, it’s not kind and gentle. But this was Texas, it was the early 1970s, and it was (is) a subculture steeped in the lore of meat production, where all cattle are categorized as Things.

On one particular day, I rolled up at the house of my cowboy friend Roger, catching him practicing tie-down skills out in his corral. Roger always kept a half-dozen calves on hand for practice, and he had a new heifer he was working with. The main rope was tied to a post, the heifer was out at the end of it, and Roger and another cowboy, Leslie, were resting between goes.

“You wanna try this calf?” Roger asked. “Sure!” He gave me his pigging string, I grasped the rope while Leslie pulled the heifer’s tail to hold her in place, and Roger said “Go!” I ran down the rope toward the heifer, Leslie let go of her tail just as I got there, and … she exploded. I swear she leaped six feet in the air, twisting and kicking and bawling.

There’s a bit of cowboy Jiu Jitsu you do on tie-down calves. I won’t describe it, but it’s a move that usually gets them on the ground with relative ease, even if they weigh as much as you do. That move, which I knew and had used many times, simply didn’t work on this calf. She hovered several feet off the ground and exploded repeatedly — bang! bang! bang! — and there was only one thing I could do to keep from getting royally kicked and pummeled. Which was: Give up. Step away. Stop trying.

I looked back at Roger in incredulity, and he was grinning broadly. I went back to it, trying over and over to get the thing done. In the half-minute or so in which all this took place, there were three separate instants when I just gave up. But each time I dove back in, not wanting to be beaten in front of my friends.

I have a permanent reminder of the battle — a crooked finger — but I got that b*tch down and tied. Roger and Leslie — who were both big boys compared to little 125-pound me — both nearly died laughing.

The Event Program That Almost Killed Me

While I was working for a resort-town magazine in California, my boss took on production of the program for a Winter Special Olympics event in Lake Tahoe. The programs were being printed in Los Angeles on Friday, and the last step was for someone to pick them up and take them to Lake Tahoe, roughly an 8 hour drive, in time for the opening of the event on Saturday.

That someone was me. I was test-driving 4WD vehicles at the time, and I had a good-sized Chevy pickup that week. The plan was I would drive down early Friday, pick up the 20,000 or so event programs, then drive them to Lake Tahoe that night. Everything went fine until I got there — late because of traffic — and discovered …

Challenge 1:  The place was closed. Oh, crap, oh crap, oh CRAP. I walked around the huge building trying doors and pounding with my fist. Finally I found one that was unlocked and went inside, to find ONE person still there. He agreed to load the programs with a forklift. But then …

Challenge 2: The programs weighed close to a ton. WAY over the carrying capacity of the truck. I’d have to rent a trailer. The problem was …

Challenge 3: My boss had given me no money for this trip, and had GONE ON VACATION. I had no way to reach him. So okay, I’d use my own credit card. Then …

Challenge 4: It was already late, like I said, and the U-Hauls were closed. Fortunately, I found a nearby U-Haul which still had one guy there willing to answer the phone. He agreed to rent me a trailer. Also fortunately, the truck bumper had a hole for a trailer hitch ball. But as the guy was screwing on the big nut while attaching the trailer hitch ball, he cross-threaded the nut and damaged the whole thing. And …

Challenge 5: It was the last trailer hitch ball he had in that size. Argh. He was able to call another U-Haul and locate another hitch ball. I called the printer and begged the guy to stay until I got there, then drove over to get the ball. The guy installed it flawlessly this time, attached the trailer, and I got to the printer for loading the programs. Whew. Already damned tired, I started driving. But six hours into the trip, I was well up into the mountains, and …

Challenge 6: It started snowing. Bloody hell! I’ve driven trailers before, but not trailers carrying a ton of cargo, and damned sure not on windy mountain roads IN THE SNOW. But the event started first thing in the morning. I had a co-driver with me, another guy who worked for the magazine, but …

Challenge 7: It was already after midnight and he wasn’t willing to drive in the snow at night, preferring to be dropped off in our hometown, which was along the way. “Just tell the boss we weren’t able to do it. He can’t expect you to drive through snow all night.” But he could expect it, I knew. Considering these programs carried advertising, which dozens of Tahoe merchants had committed to pay for, and which they would NOT pay for if the programs didn’t arrive in time, and considering this was the Winter Special Olympics, which a LOT of kids and parents had traveled great distances to be in … Well, hell, I had to try.  I started driving. I drove through the snow, sometimes creeping along in near white-out conditions, for EIGHT HOURS.

I got to Lake Tahoe just before 9 a.m. Volunteers unloaded the programs, I returned the trailer to a local U-Haul, and then, practically hallucinating from exhaustion, looked for a motel room. But …

Challenge 8: There were no motel rooms to be had near where I was. I had to drive all the way around the lake to find one. But I did finally find one, and I slept for more than 10 hours.

Fake Transcendence

The word transcendence means something like “surpassing ordinary limits.” But it carries almost inseparable religious and/or spiritual implications of moving beyond reality or physicality.

It has that same old conceptual mistake built into it, the idea that we’re ghostly beings who reside — temporarily — in physical bodies. The thing is, we’re not. We’re not selves that live in bodies, WE ARE THE BODIES.

Every philosophical or religious or spiritual formulation that has someone “going out,” leaving behind their body, is an absolutely empty set. It’s false at its base. If you are your body, you simply can’t leave it. There’s nothing in you that can leave, and there’s no thing that can be left. In my view this “going out” idea CANNOT lead to any useful thought or practice within the human experience.

Real Transcendence

There’s this other possible type of transcendence that has nothing at all to do with minds and bodies diverging. But as usual, the religious/mystical field’s wrong answers mask this much more useful one.

The transcendence I’m talking about here is the kind where you go beyond your own psychological limits. The sort I described above, where I did two things that were well beyond what I normally think I’m capable of. I transcended. Not my body, but my own imagined limit. I was able, in each of those moments, to get closer to my REAL limits and do things that were, for me, amazing.

Military training, as I understand it, is in some part about just that. Teaching young men and women to experience the pain, the exhaustion, the hunger and thirst, and yet continue to stay on mission. To face immensely difficult situations and keep going no matter what. There are situations in non-military life that can teach that same thing — farm and ranch work, for instance, or parenting a 2-year-0ld — but it’s probably something everyone should know.

The type of incidents related above, where I transcended my own imagined limits, have actually been pretty rare in my life. I might be able to dredge up half a dozen, possibly as many as 10. For the rest, I’ve stayed well inside a line of comfort, avoiding fear and difficulty and challenge way too much of the time. I suspect most people are like me in this way.

I doubt transcendence is something that can be taught with words. You have to DO it, experience it for real by actually pressing on in real life past fear and exhaustion and pessimism. But the lesson of “You can do more than you think you can” should be in the forefront of our minds, every one of us, for all of our lives.

Something worth teaching, I’d say.


The Book of Good Living: Left Lane Driving

BGL copyThe Book of Good Living, if you’re new here, is my concept for a broad, basic guide to living well and living with others. It’s all the stuff we SHOULD know about living life among other humans and on Planet Earth.

Rather than some silly Ten Commandments focused on duties to a mythical god, this would be a searchable online multimedia encyclopedia something like Wikipedia, constantly updated by users and powerfully cross-referenced, covering every area of life, everything from basic morality to practical everyday health and safety. A how-to guide, completely voluntary in use, but packed with crowd-sourced wisdom about every little thing.

Elsewhere I recently wrote:

I imagine a Book of Good Living collected online with non-religious guidance for daily life, for anyone who chose to read and consider it. With tidbits such as “Take pictures of your parents, lots of them, something to keep you company in the long years alone,” or perhaps “Live your life in such a way that nobody has to pick up after you.” Or maybe even “Never leave your dog in a hot car.” But definitely, “Hey, dummy, if you’re on the freeway and people are passing you on the right, get the hell out of the left lane.”

Regarding that last, I came across this video last night, and it’s practically perfect for The Book.

Beta Culture: New Intro — Part 1

Beta-Culture-JPGPart 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

[ The original posting date of this was July 30. It was updated with a substantially rewritten version on Oct. 15. ]

I had a request for more information on Beta Culture, to help readers better understand where I was going with the idea. Coincidentally, I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter on the subject to an upcoming book written by Patheos Atheist writers.

I worked for weeks to get that chapter-piece complete, to make it so that it introduced the whole concept, and yet fell within the length parameters given me. I failed at both. There’s SO much more to be said about the idea. As I think I’ve said in the past, I have hundreds of pages of notes full of ideas I want to get out there, and that will require a book-length treatment.

It’s longish — more than 8,000 words — so I’ve split it into four parts.


Beta Culture

The day I left home to go to Reason Rally 2016, a friend — who knew I’d be driving 8 hours to get to Washington DC and another 8 hours to return that same night — asked me “Why are you going to this thing?” I gave him a flip answer as I stepped out the door: “Hey, it’s the Atheist Woodstock!” Thirty seconds later, I poked my head back in and answered seriously: “Because when I went to the one in 2012, it was the first time in my life as an atheist I felt welcome, and free, and HOME.”

If our one desire as atheists is to be a loose body of free individuals, nothing more need be done. We’re there and getting more there all the time. But if we want to have our own place in the world, a permanent place, a home, we need something bigger than atheism. Something sturdier. Longer-lasting. Self-perpetuating. Because atheism alone can’t get us there.

Here’s why I think so, and what I think that ‘something’ is.

Three Boats

Think of the future as an archipelago of possibilities, with all the things-to-come each on its own island. One island might contain a future of clean beautiful cities and unspoiled wildlands, of education and wealth; another might present a future of grit and poverty, overpopulation and starvation; a third might lack humans altogether; a fourth … you get the idea.

Every one of us will eventually arrive on one of those islands, to live in some sort of future. But most of those futures will be, in broad terms, of someone else’s making. In that future, whichever one we reach, we’ll pay whatever they charge us for our student loans. We’ll dress in what they sell in the stores. We’ll listen to the music and see the movies and read the books they provide. We’ll vote for the candidates they offer us. We’ll eat the foods — and the ingredients in those foods — they put on the shelves, in stores they own. We’ll celebrate their holidays. We’ll receive the medical care, or lack of it, offered by their hospitals. We’ll tread lightly under the scrutiny of their cops. We’ll obey their laws, or go to their prisons. Because the only boats going to that distant archipelago are theirs.

Who are the owners of those vessels? Who are they? Government. Corporations. Religion.

Government:  Organized and powerful, government can and does direct money, labor, and planning toward large-scale projects that can span decades or longer. Supposedly created to serve its citizens, it can have goals that have nothing at all to do with long-term benefits to ordinary people. It can create laws, operate police forces, courts and prisons. It can interfere in the lives of its citizens in ways large and small. It can even engage in wars, sending young men and women off to die for no good reason.

Business: Large corporations plan for their own future, a future of survival and profit in an environment of competition and scarce resources. Corporations have goals to benefit themselves first, customers second. Yes, they have to keep customers happy in the short term, but that doesn’t mean they actually have to benefit — or even keep from harming — those customers in the long. If there’s more money in sugary carbonated soda than in fruit juice or tea, guess which product will get the advertising budget? If lottery tickets are a more profitable sell than savings accounts, what’s going up on all the billboards? Which will be available in every convenience store? If a profitable product like tobacco actually harms the customer, but nobody can prove it without a protracted legal fight pursued over decades, will they sell it? You bet they will.

Religion: Not just people in random Brownian motion, but tens or hundreds of millions gathered together with common beliefs and goals — dictated, supposedly, by an actual god — operating out of one or more churches in every city, town, hamlet and neighborhood in the U.S. Religion can set and enforce social mores with real consequences that might range from public censure to shunning — in the past, even to death — and it functions across generations.

None of these “boats” travel alone. They rope together to smooth the journey. The boat of business sails in close touch with the boat of government. Considering there are something like 15,000 lobbyists in Washington DC, allegedly spending $3 billion a year to influence legislators, and most large corporations pay little or nothing in taxes, the corporate boat is not only well-fueled and -powered, it is avidly assisted by the vessel of government. Government, in turn, leans heavily on business for navigational cues.

The boat of religion gets all sorts of perks from the government, and does everything it can to reflect influence back into government. It succeeds: Government officials pay constant homage to religion, treading carefully on any issue that even remotely relates to it. Case in point: The Catholic molesting travesty was out in the open for years before law enforcement slouched into action.

So where’s the boat that has room for atheists, or atheist goals? Say we want to reach the island where schools — all schools — teach evolution. Not as some also-ran topic covered in a day, not as a suggestion given no more weight than creationism, but as the rock-solid heart of every discussion of Earth biology. Who’s going to make that happen? Who’s going to get us there?

Government? Uh, no. They’re going to waffle and sniff the air, veer off and carefully not get involved. Corporations? Nope. They’re gonna sit this one out too, kids. Churches? Ha! Not on your life. They’re the ones who got us to this island, the one where teachers are afraid to teach.

How are we going to get those actual science classes for every kid in America — the ones that explicitly say creation didn’t happen but evolution did? Answer: We’re not. It’s not going to happen. There is no boat going there. Generations of schoolkids will come and go with inferior science education.

There’s this island we want to get to, but there’s some whole other island — another future entirely — we’ll arrive at. We’ll get the future that government, business and religion will take us to. You and I might want a cure for Alzheimer’s in five years, but if government won’t help fund the research, if universities, hospitals and pharma companies won’t do the research, and if religion blocks the research, or owns the hospitals that might otherwise apply or test the treatment, there will be no cure for Alzheimer’s in five years. Not here, anyway.

But isn’t it enough just to be atheists? If we free ourselves and others from the grip of religion, won’t good things automatically follow? No. Atheism alone isn’t going to get us to any particular future because, beyond the bit about individual freedom (no small thing!), it has no built-in direction. Atheism by itself isn’t even a thing. It’s a non-thing, an opposed-to-this-other-thing thing. It can work immense changes on individuals, but as a larger social force, a force aimed at some particular future, it is dramatically rudderless.

If atheism isn’t going to get us there, and the three boats aren’t going to get us there, what can we do?
How about we build our own boat? To have any hope of creating a future of our choice — possibly any hope of having a future at all — we pretty much have to.

So let’s talk about this imagined boat of ours. Let’s talk about culture.


In simplest terms, culture is all the things you learn from your parents, peers and elders, and then pass on to your own children and grandchildren. Culture is just about everything you do. Your culture is the unwritten handbook on how to live life on scales both large and small.

It’s what you eat, the utensils you use to eat it. What to wear, what language you speak and the regional accent with which you speak it. Where to live, how to relate to your fellow men and women and children, what to learn and what to do with it once you’ve learned it.

It’s the haircut you sport, the songs you sing, the dances you do, the way you court and wed and cohabit, the way you welcome children into the world and bid farewell to departing elders. It’s the games you play, the slate of acceptable careers laid out before you, the jokes you tell. It includes your ceremonies and holidays, the things you read and don’t read. It presents you with life goals — a lion skin, a sheepskin, an eagle feather, a position of respect and honor within your tribe. Ways to deal with strangers and outsiders. Entertainments, contests, rules for interpersonal conflict. Women’s ways, men’s ways. It offers something for every social and psychological need humans have. For some of us, it’s the protective underwear we don at night, and even the short list of positions acceptable for (married-only, heterosexual-only) intercourse!

The substance of culture is taught to each new generation, but culture itself is probably automatic. Drop a group of ignorant kids on an island, isolate them for a hundred years or so, and their descendants would emerge possessing a complete culture, containing every possible thing they needed to live day-to-day — every ceremony, recipe, song, and article of clothing.

At its best, culture provides you a Home, a place of acceptance, support, and stability. It gives you an identity, an automatic sense of self. At its worst, it acts as something of a cage, trapping its people within it, oppressing them, offering the threat of punishment or ouster to those who don’t stay in line. But to most of us throughout history, the price has apparently been worth it.

Here in the U.S., it seems to me culture comes in three general “grades” — which I label Full Culture, Fractional Culture, and U.S. Overculture.


Continue to Part 2

Beta Culture: New Intro — Part 2

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Beta-Culture-JPGFull Culture

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.

Fractional Culture

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.

U.S. Overculture

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.

Culture, Rebooted

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

Beta Culture: New Intro — Part 3

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Beta-Culture-JPGCulture’s Gifts

The Home-feeling — which I call “Place” — is only one of the assets of a home culture. Cultures also offer Values, Ways and Goals.

Values serve as the guides and arbiters of good behavior: Honor your mother and father. Be generous to the less fortunate. Never lie to a child for any reason (which apparently is not a widespread cultural value!).

Ways are all the outward physical displays of culture: Wear a cowboy hat and a big silver belt buckle. Quit school at 14 and work the family farm. Never eat pork.

Goals are the menu of personal aims, careers and benchmarks of success: Raise a big family. Go to college. Kill a lion all by yourself.

What would Beta Culture include?


Every culture has a set of core values — its basic concepts of who and what “we” are.  What we hold dear, what we’re proud of in contrast to all other, lesser cultures. In building Beta Culture, the easy part would be finding things to include. The hard part would be making it work, deciding on the various traditions and values and making them stick.

Of course its most basic value is atheism. Rationality. A reason-based lifestyle and view of the world. In attempting to create a fully non-religious, non-superstitious, non-mystic-woo-woo culture, this is something on which it could not afford to compromise. Loosen that rule and you end with just another religio-mystical culture, and damn, it’s been done.

In Beta Culture, there would simply be no place for the faithful, the superstitious or the woo-woo mystical. Prospective members would be either firmly convinced the universe works by physics and chemistry—that there are no such thing as gods or ghosts, spirits or mystical forces — or not. Only one of those positions gets you through the door.

There are values that flow out of reason. I picture Beta as powerfully oriented toward education — not just school and college, but some degree of permanent, ongoing studiousness throughout life. This educational emphasis would be one part of a broad push toward empowerment and support for its individual members.

I see Beta as equalitarian, as post-racial and, necessarily, as futurist. It would also be basically activist — including a muscular humanism aimed at making the world a better place.

I imagine it as very much an international thing — not just in the culture itself, but in those who chose to be members. Every Beta — while legally remaining a citizen of his/her home country — would first consider himself a ‘citizen of Earth’ rather than of historic tribes and nations.

I picture Beta as a champion of evolution, not just the subject, but the broader implications — the interrelatedness of all life on earth. I also see it as a strong proponent of real sex education — including contraception, safety and permission from an early age.

I would expect it to be oriented toward health, fitness and longevity for all its members. Considering the opposition it will face, every member will be something of a warrior. Being healthy and strong helps not just us as individuals, but everyone around us.


In the U.S., we have two national holidays — Veterans Day and Memorial Day — honoring soldiers, nothing at all to recognize the other heroes of civilization. Allow me to float the idea of an international SALT Day, a day to honor Scientists, Artists, Librarians and Teachers.

How about Conscience Day to recognize the warriors of conscience and justice — the whistleblowers, war protestors, and fighters for social justice who have carried us forward into betterment, but who’ve been treated like traitors and criminals for their labors? —Hell, we could honor people who choose not to have children.

Superhero Day would remind us annually (quarterly?) to devote time to volunteering, cleaning up neighborhoods, assisting the elderly or handicapped. Memory Day would be an annual event to come together for remembering friends and relatives, sharing with each other the stories and pictures of the otherwise unheralded people who have shaped our lives and communities. I can even see some merit in a just-for-the-hell-of-it Aunts, Uncles and Cousins Day.

In place of Christmas, why not Krismas? Jokingly devoted to the fictional Kris Kringle, it could be a weeklong celebration at the end of each year, with gift-giving, visiting, gathering, singing, dancing, performing, formally honoring the accomplishments of friends and family over the year, with lots of eating and drinking included.

Speaking of joking, maybe humor should be a part of any deliberately-designed rational culture. The Flying Spaghetti Monster could be a permanent ‘patron saint,’ a gently sarcastic counterpoint to god-belief. To poke fun at the pompousity of priestly costumes and other church frippery, there might be a tradition of Big Funny Hats worn on at least one annual occasion. Rather than Easter we could observe Wester, a western-themed dig at the religious holiday, held on the same weekend.

More seriously, we would have our own ways to observe births and deaths, graduations and other milestones of life. We could have all sorts of daily and annual and special-occasion Ways  that were not just secular, but that celebrated reason.


A sense of Place, the homey feeling culture provides, would happen simply by Beta Culture existing. But I’d like us to also have our own meeting place. Inevitably, the idiots will call it the “atheist church.” I call it the Nexus.

If my own small town can have nearly 80 churches, many of them occupying pricey downtown properties, there’s no reason why there can’t be one permanent meeting place for Beta Culturists. Every city and town of any size should have a tax-free Nexus. It might contain a freethinker library and reading room, a coffee house or networking center (free coffee for math and science majors!), plus rooms for meetings, discussions and classes. I picture a media center and digital lab, maybe a room for a visiting speaker to stay the night, or even safely secular child care for working Beta parents.


Addressing the theme of empowerment, I’d want the Nexus to offer regular classes in leadership, public speaking and assertiveness — not only to advance the atheist cause but to enhance and strengthen individual members in their own personal lives.

Considering what I said earlier about asking for a Yankees meal on an airplane — when it comes to Beta Culture, I do want a Beta meal on an airplane. For myself I want a sandwich made in the past two hours, with whole-grain bread and a couple of slices of fresh-roasted free-range chicken breast. I want it to have a fresh salad alongside, with unwilted lettuce, crunchy croutons, tasty avocados and fresh, flavorful tomatoes — all of it made with no artificial ingredients.

That meal is an assertion that Beta Culture must have at least the same sort of determined impact on the world as Jews and Muslims — with every public act a statement of “We exist, we demand others honor and respect our customs and traditions.”

There would be both initial and ongoing World-Café-type sessions to iron out details and values of the culture and the goals of the people within it, including gender ethics, dietary observances, the focus of activism in broader society. Beta Culture might include integral side projects such as media watchdogging or issue activism — possibly a flatly stated opposition to genital mutilation for both girls and boys.

I imagine a Book of Good Living collected online with non-religious guidance for daily life, for anyone who chose to read and consider it. It might include tidbits such as “Take pictures of your parents, lots of them, something to keep you company in the long years alone.” Or perhaps “Live your life in such a way that nobody has to pick up after you.” Or maybe even “Never leave your dog in a hot car.” But definitely, “Hey, dummy, if you’re on the freeway and people are passing you on the right, get the hell out of the left lane.”

I’d like there to be deliberate efforts at recruiting and youth outreach, at least as aggressive as that done by churches in every city and town in America. I go further in picturing religion-superstition detox classes for young and old, for those interested in discovering and removing the last remnants of religious unreason out of their heads. I’d like to see such things as Beta Scouts (possibly arising out of Camp Quest) and Reason Riders (a motorcycle group already poised to go national) as public aspects of the culture.

Beyond local efforts, I want us to undertake a worldwide push for increasing the numbers of “out” atheists — 10ex9 by 2029 — one billion atheists by the year 2029.

More than any other goal, I’d like it to be a culture of strength, empowerment and independence rather than one of weakness and fear.

The Way of the World

In the era of mass communication, which has pretty much reached maximum saturation with the Internet, most of what we and our young people internalize comes from someone else — corporations, pundits, professional liars and manipulators. The persuasive pitches are everywhere. And everything in them, every word and musical note and motto, is aimed at gaining profit or power. Helping anyone live a better life is a distant second.

Which means: If you don’t teach your kids your culture — your values or ideas or wisdom — someone else will come in and teach them theirs. If you don’t have your own culture, other people will decide the way you and yours live large parts of their lives, often to the very thoughts that occupy your mind.

With no home culture, you yourself won’t be immune to it. Sooner or later you’ll fall for one of those seductive pitches for inclusion and coolness and victory. If you do this thing, buy this thing, wear this thing, you will win, you will succeed, you will belong.

I might feel fewer reservations about all of this if the world was full of good people, generous and compassionate, interested in your welfare and the welfare of your kids, but the fact is, much of the content of U.S. Overculture is exploitative rather than supportive.

Already in the Pipeline

To repeat, there’s the future we want, and the future we’ll get. As literally nobody but freethinkers give a damn about a specifically rational future, the future we most want Will. Not. Happen. Churches, other cultures, broadcast media, corporations, and even governments will pursue their own self-interests, with no concern for your needs and desires, but worse, no long view of human survival on planet Earth.

For those of us in science fiction or tech fandom who happily imagine the Technological Singularity, that moment when advances take place so rapidly the rising curve of change goes completely vertical and all predictive models break down, let me present this alternate concept: The Dark Singularity.

The curve of negative change accelerates until it goes vertical in the other direction — downward to chaos. Human population continues to rise, human appetite and carelessness finally outstrips the ability of our planet to recover, all the elephants and rhinos, lions and wolves, whales and dolphins and mountain gorillas go extinct, shortages of energy, food and clean water spark riots, war breaks out pretty much everywhere, martial law is declared everywhere, and those few sitting pretty in an ugly, diminished world are either government officials and billionaires in fortified retreats, or survivalist fanatics dug in with guns and Bibles.

You think that can’t happen? Point to one coordinated worldwide social force aimed at preventing it. Hell, the main issue causing a lot of this — still-rising human population, with 62.5 million extra people per year, a city the size of Los Angeles added every 3 weeks — is a subject we can’t even bring up without being shouted down with cries of “Genocide!” and “Baby killer!”

If we were 200 years in the future, looking back for details of the fall of civilization, I’m convinced we’d see people of this time as very much in the midst of it. The drowning of New Orleans, the decay of Detroit, global warming, extinctions and invasive species, broken ecosystems, the rise of global terrorism, the electing of messianic figures to public office rather than competent public servants, damaging technologies used to pursue progressively scarcer petroleum, on and on.


Continue to Part 4