Beyond Babylon: Communal Culture

by Raven Glomus

Someone joining a commune for the first time will quickly notice that income sharing communities have a somewhat different culture than mainstream society (which some people in the communes refer to as “Babylon”).  The differences are both more obvious and more subtle than you might expect.

One way that the differences are more subtle is that almost everything that we will explore and that stands out from mainstream society are beliefs and behavior that are only held by a minority of folks (although often a significant minority) in the communes and almost all of it can be found in mainstream society if you look hard enough.  

There is a lot of variety in the beliefs and behavior of the people living in the communes.  About the only thing that most folks have in common is a strong belief in sharing stuff.  (After all, that’s what income sharing communities are all about.)  However, there is also a very strong cultural norm of tolerance and even acceptance of these unusual beliefs and behaviors.  What makes it communal culture is not that the majority of folks in the communes believe or practice any of the following and, as I said, it’s not that you can’t find these things out in the mainstream, it’s that you won’t find the tolerance and acceptance of this stuff out in “Babylon” (this term is controversial in the communities) that you will in the communes.

 Let me start with sexuality and gender.  

I think that the majority of folks, in at least the bigger communes, are often heterosexual, cisgendered, and monogamous, as they are in the mainstream world.  And every variation that you can find in the communes, I’m sure that you can find in the mainstream.  But queer folks (gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, just plain queer, etc) and gender variant folks (trans men and women, nonbinary folks, genderfluid, etc) as well as polyamorous people are much more visible and accepted in the communes.  You will learn quickly at the communes to pay attention to people’s pronouns and you will see a variety of relationships if you pay any attention at all.  Differences are celebrated in community rather than put up with or sometimes actively disparaged as they often are outside the communes.  What is discouraged in the communes is any sort of slighting or elevation of one type over another.

Spirituality is in some ways very similar.  Probably the majority of folks in the communes identify as Christian, Jewish, or atheist/agnostic/skeptic/humanist as do most folks in the mainstream, although I suspect that there are less Christians and more atheist (etc) folks in the communes, and most of the Christians are probably from more tolerant denominations, like Quakers, Unitarians, UCC folks, and nondenominational, than the mainstream.  You will find very few fundamentalist folks in the communes–mostly because they are less accepting of differences.  Likewise, the Jews in the communes are often from what I call the three Rs (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal) or secular Jews. It would probably be difficult to maintain an Orthodox Jewish identity in the communes. 

But beyond this there is a great variety of other beliefs including Pagan/Witch (popular in some of the communes), Buddhist, Taoist, Animist, Sufi, some types of Hinduism/Yogic practice, and general New Age.  Again, this isn’t the majority of folks in the larger communes, but it is generally accepted.  For example, Pagan rituals are often held on seasonal occasions and anyone who wants to can attend.  The community doesn’t sponsor these rituals (the communes are very clear that they don’t take any stand of individuals beliefs, except to support the tolerance and diversity of them) but they are open to them happening.

One thing that will become obvious to anyone who spends a good deal of time at any of the communes is that nudity is more acceptable at the communes than in mainstream society.  Not that any of the communes are anything like a nudist colony.  Most of the time folks are clothed in at least the amount that mainstream culture approves of (although some of the outfits are more unusual than you would normally see outside of the communes) but there are also occasions when folks are naked and this is generally accepted–for example, hot tubs and saunas.  Swimming in private places in the communes is almost always clothing optional.  (I heard someone talking about people using the term ‘skinny dipping’ and said, “At the commune, we just call it swimming.”)  At East Wind they have a recently built group shower that is used by various groupings and Twin Oaks has a ‘nudity policy’ that is four pages, single spaced, outlining where you can be naked (and when) and where you must be clothed, as well as where you can be topless–and any place that a man can walk around shirtless, a woman can walk around shirtless, and anywhere a woman is required to wear a shirt, men should also wear shirts.  (This is part of being an egalitarian community.)  And, again, there are many people in the communes that you will never see naked and that may even avoid areas where they know that nudity may occur.

And finally, there is a great variety of political views at the communes.  I would say that here the communes are in fact, a bit different overall than in “Babylon”, in that the communes definitely shade to the left.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t any centrists or even the occasional libertarian, but there are lots of liberals and progressives, as well as socialists, anarchists, communists, ecofeminists, and a large number of apolitical people.  What you won’t find in the communes are almost any right wing folks and few conservatives.  What the communes are intolerant of is intolerance.  Bigots are not welcome in the communes.

And that is the single biggest thing that creates communal culture.  We like our diversity of expression and even the most mainstream looking folks in the communes will defend it.

Beyond Babylon: Communal Culture

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