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The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

And there you have it

If it wasn’t obvious from the year of radio silence, the Meming of Life is a thing of the past. There are still about 700 posts below this one, but it’s time to stop pretending I will ever Duggar up more siblings for them.

The first post was in March 2007, just ten months after I quit my day job teaching college in Minnesota. I had nothing but time and a book to promote. I sat around Googling the book title and blogging like a guy with nothing but time and a new book to promote. My kids were 5, 9, and 12.

A lot has happened since then. All that extra time and headspace are gone, but they went to good places. In addition to the blog, I wrote four more books and started a humanist nonprofit. I’ve taught secular parenting workshops in 32 cities while ghost-writing 800+ articles for other people and parenting my kids up to 12, 16, and 19. This year — coincidentally just as my oldest started college — I added two more part-time jobs: National Director of Ethical Education for the American Ethical Union and managing editor of the Atheist Channel at Patheos.

Now I have no time, and my head is kind of broken from seven intense years of writing — more than 1.4 million public words in all. Yeah, I counted. So I need a really long and mostly wordless nap.

I am not complainingit’s all deeply satisfying work. But you can see why the Meming of Life has to be all done now. Once in a while I’ll post something at The Secular Spectrum, a new group blog I’m overseeing at Patheos. In fact, I seem to have written something there this morning. And at some point I’ll come back here and make a list of my own favorite posts from MoL.

Thanks for reading all these years. A lot of the ideas that ended up in my books and talks started here, often spurred by something in the comments. You’ve always been very decent to me and to each other, not a common thing online. The Contact link in the sidebar still works, so keep in touch!

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Hi8us!

The Meming of Life is (obviously) on hiatus while I finish writing In Faith and in Doubt.

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My Big Fat Christian Wedding

Wedding4An ever-less-frequent series of posts while I’m working on a book about the secular/religious mixed marriage.

Deep into the wedding chapter now, including examples of the three general wedding flavors for secular/religious mixed couples: Sacred, Secular, and Swirl.

Mine was Type I, a traditional religious wedding. No one there would have guessed there was an atheist in the room, much less that he was the one in tux and tails. The setting was a beautiful, historic Lutheran church in San Francisco that we’d chosen not because it was Lutheran but because it was beautiful and historic and in San Francisco, Becca’s hometown.

We upped the religious ante with not one but two ministers–a Methodist friend of the family, and a Southern Baptist uncle of Becca’s whose contribution included a rafter-rattling reference to Matthew 21:21, the assurance that faith can move mountains. The readings were all Christian, ranging from the indispensable “love is patient, love is kind” from First Corinthians to a popular excerpt from The Prophet by the Christian mystic poet Khalil Gibran.

Ten years later, I’d have probably wanted to include some secular poetry or meditations and maybe nudged the scriptures a little — a nice humanistic bit from Ecclesiastes, say, instead of a verse on the telekinetic properties of faith.

But here’s the thing: At that point in my life, even though I was no less secular in my point of view, that played a much smaller part of my identity than it would later on. At 28, I was defined by music. My degrees were in music, and I was about to begin a 15-year career as a conductor and professor of music. I’d have been more offended by lame music than by all the Psalms in the KJV. It could rain little pillows embroidered with Proverbs for all I cared. The music was mine.

Included was Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and the “Menuet” from Sonatine, both played by my insanely talented brother Ron, plus Bach’s secular cantata “Sheep May Safely Graze,” a warhorse gone awesome in an arrangement for strings and two recorders. Becca entered to Bach’s “Air on the G String,” one of the most perfect things ever written, played by the San Francisco Conservatory String Quartet. We lit the unity candle to a prelude I wrote myself, also played by Ron, and we left to the ridiculously exuberant Widor Toccata for organ played by the organist of San Francisco’s Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral.

For those of you keeping score, we had now achieved the Protestant quadfecta: a Lutheran church, an Episcopal organist, and Methodist and Baptist ministers. I was awash in Christian ritual, text, and symbols — and I didn’t care a bit. I’d made my own heaven musically.

Are you in a secular/religious mixed marriage? This is the last week to submit your wedding story for possible inclusion in my book. Do it here!

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Catch the rainbow

A golden oldie. First appeared in October 2011.

Our family has a longstanding relationship with the speed of light. We take care never to exceed it, for one thing, no matter how tempting. But there’s more than that.

I had all sorts of light-related fascinations when I was a kid — that light had a speed at all, for starters, and that it was so unimaginably fast, yet also finite and measurable. I knew the moon was a light-second away, the sun eight light-minutes, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, 4.2 light years. I knew the Milky Way, one galaxy of billions, is 100,000 light years side to side.

Light helped me finally grasp the real immensity of the universe and my own infinitesimalitude.

Light is SO much faster than (pfft) sound — almost a million times faster — which is why lightning is already kicking back with a light beer when thunder comes panting up behind.

This stuff gave me endless fodder for discussion on first dates. It also neatly took care of second dates.

When it came time to marry, I limited the pool to those with no more than two degrees of separation from the speed of light. Fortunately my college friend Becca attended the same high school as Nobel laureate Albert Michelson, he of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which laid the groundwork for special relativity by showing that light weirdly measures at the same speed even if you are moving rapidly toward or away from the source.

Becca and I were married in a San Francisco Lutheran church with You-Know-What streaming through the windows.

Our kids have picked up the thread. As we drove home from his football practice four six years ago, Connor (then 12) asked why time slows down as you go faster. (The previous week we had discussed the very cool Hafele-Keating experiment in which cesium clocks flown around the world differed from identical clocks on the ground by a few nanoseconds. I think I spotted the exact moment during the practice that he was thinking about Hafele-Keating instead of Offensive-Lineman.) I said our velocity through space plus our velocity through time equals the speed of light, so the faster you go through space, the slower you necessarily go through time.

In less than five seconds, he said, “So light doesn’t experience time, then.”

Holy buckets. I’d never thought of it.

A few years later, standing in the dark waiting for the school bus, I discovered that I’d never shared with Delaney (then 9) the insanely cool fact that many of the stars we see probably aren’t there anymore. Some may have blinked out before the dinosaurs went extinct, but the end of the column of photons, even at 186,000 miles a second, still hasn’t reached us. Tomorrow morning we might suddenly see a “new,” bright star in the sky, which is actually a nova that happened millions of years before. That’s what nova literally means — a new star. But it isn’t really being born — it’s dying.

She made all those astonished, comprehending sounds I’ve come to love, and we quickly re-combed her hair as the bus pulled up.

On the heels of last month’s the 2011 announcement that the speed of light might have been exceeded by neutrinos at CERN, Becca took the opportunity to give her second graders a little insight into how science works. “All these years we thought light was the fastest thing possible,” she said. “Even Albert Einstein said that was true. Now maybe, just maybe, scientists have found that it’s possible for something to go even faster. First they have to test and test again to be sure, and if it is, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we were wrong. We have to change our minds.’”

It’s true that we’re capable of upending our Newtons and Einsteins when the evidence insists, but of course it never happens quite as gladly as we sometimes claim. Individual scientists are just as prone as the rest of us to kick and scream and bite to protect their favorite conclusions, until the collective enterprise of science itself busts them upside the head. The important message for these second graders, though, is that science contains the ability, the means, even the willingness to change its conclusions in light of new evidence, despite whatever preferences individual scientists might have. (The CERN scientists assumed they made an error in measurement, by the way, something that has happened before — and a team in the Netherlands think they’ve found the error.)

All this light conversation brought me back to experiments I conducted around age seven, just inside my front door in St. Louis, Missouri. The edge of the glass on our front storm door was beveled, which formed a little prism, which at a certain time of day threw a tiny, intense rainbow on the floor.

I decided I was going to catch that rainbow. In a shoebox.

In what may be a perfect illustration of the seven-year-old mind, I knew that I would have to move faster than light to do this, but had not received the memo specifically prohibiting such a thing.

I found a shoebox and held it above the rainbow. I slowed my breathing and concentrated…then CLOMP! brought the box down on the rainbow.

Too slow. The damn thing was on top of the box.

I’d do this for a good half hour at a time before giving up — but only for that day. I remember thinking maybe light was a little slower in the winter, which was why it was colder then. So I tried in January. Even then, it was always just a liiiittle faster than I was, and the rainbow appeared on top of the box.

I eventually gave up my dream of catching the rainbow. But these experiments at CERN have given me hope. I just need to find a box made of neutrinos, and I’m back in the game.

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The Southern Baptist cafeteria

An ongoing series of posts while I’m writing In Faith and In Doubt, a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

trayA few weeks ago I wrote about the difference between official Catholic doctrine and the actual beliefs of most Catholics. Later on I’ll write about the wide variation in nonreligious beliefs. Today it’s a quick peek in the Southern Baptist cafeteria.

There’s a Southern Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas that holds the Letter of Baptism for my wife Becca. She was willingly baptized into the church as an adult in 1990, the year before our wedding, with her fiancé in attendance.

She was not a Mainline Protestant when we married — by affiliation, she was a Protestant Evangelical. If she ascribed to every piece of the denomination’s creed, the Baptist Faith and Message, we could still easily have been friends, but I doubt we would have dated, much less married. She agreed with many elements of that creed, but the Baptist Faith and Message includes a few important things that I was pretty sure Becca wouldn’t ever have endorsed, any more than I would endorse every tweet of Richard Dawkins.

I printed out the BF&M and asked Becca which of its positions she remembered holding true at that time, and which she would have rejected. Here’s a sample of her response:

She believed there is only one God and that he is perfect, all-powerful, and all-knowing. But she never believed that man brought sin into the human race by disobedience, nor that “as soon as [people] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

She believed that Christ was the son of God, but not that he was born of a virgin, nor that salvation is available only through him.

She did not agree that “all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”

She did believe that baptism is “the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus,” as well as a testimony to “faith in the final resurrection of the dead.”

But she didn’t believe it is “the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ” to evangelize others to the faith.

She agreed that “Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice,” “work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick,” and “do all in their power to put an end to war.” But she did not agree that homosexuality is a form of “sexual immorality,” that Christians should “speak on behalf of the unborn,” nor that the strict definition of marriage should be “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

One of the statements of the Baptist Faith and Message that surprises outsiders (and insiders, come to that) is clear support for church-state separation. “Church and state should be separate,” it says, and “the state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind.” She agreed.

As for marriage and parenting, she never believed that it was her place to “submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” nor that she had “the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

The contents of her cafeteria tray made her a perfect representative of the Evangelical Left, who affirm the basics (atonement, incarnation, resurrection) but reject the conservative social platform of the evangelical churches.

The moral of the story? Aside from the God-and-Jesus theological frame, my own tray of humanist values and beliefs wasn’t all that different from Becca’s. And when she dumped theology off her tray nine years ago, most of her values stayed put.

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The cover

I really wondered what direction the publisher would go for this cover, and once again, the design team at AMACOM Books did me proud.

IFAIDcoverEvery cover design process gives me hives. So far they’ve all turned out really well: The non-praying mother-child hands of Parenting Beyond Belief, the curious kid on Raising Freethinkers, the solo questioner on Voices of Unbelief, and the nautilus on Atheism For Dummies… So many ways to go wrong on these topics, and every time they’ve gotten it right.

But for this one, I didn’t even know what to recommend to them. How do you capture the religious side of the topic without evoking a specific religion? How do you depict the nonreligious side? I didn’t want any cheese-bag thing like one person standing outside of a church, holding hands with someone inside. I wanted something that included people without being heteronormative. Racial diversity. Positive. Interesting. Something that evoked warmth and affection and normalcy without being boring. Some reference to parenting would be good, since so many of the issues relate to that.

I gathered my notes over the course of several weeks. Then suddenly my editor sent the cover you see here, saying, “Here’s the jacket. I hope you like it!”

Wha…here’s the jacket?! My heart sank. I steeled myself to roll back a creative process that had already run its course without me.

I clicked on the attachment…and fell in love.

Crafty buggers. They skirted the questions about depicting religion by not depicting religion, or irreligion. You don’t have to — it’s in the title! It never would have occurred to me to do that, which is why design is best left to designers.

It’s interesting, fun, warm, informal, personal, affectionate. The anonymity is awesome. Didn’t get racial diversity, but it’s at least deniably heteronormative.

I’m happy. Onward.

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Back from the Hack

hackedWell that was nasty. As some of you were kind enough to point out, my blog was infected with the dreaded Pharma Hack, which loads the site with invisible links to trick search engines into thinking the companies on the other end of those links are All That. The hacked site gets flagged by Google as “compromised.” Hilarity ensues.

The fix is complicated, requiring the help of someone who knows things. I called my fella, and now it’s fixed.

Content resumes tomorrow.

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Engage paddle drive!

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

paddledriveEver pedal a paddleboat? No you haven’t. No you haven’t, because the pedals on those damn things are attached to nothing. It’s like the DOOR CLOSE button on an elevator, or the pedestrian crossing button — just there to make you feel relevant to the outcome. Forward progress in a paddleboat is a fluke, more to do with random currents or the Butterfly Effect than anything you’re doing.

But you tell yourself you had fun, and that the other side of the lake didn’t look that interesting anyhow.

The first half of every book project feels like that to me. Then the paddles catch. Funny thing: no matter how long the contract is, it happens right around the halfway point. I had about 20 weeks to write Atheism For Dummies, pedaled like a sumbitch for the first ten weeks, then caught a nice tailwind in the eleventh week.

I have a year for this one, 52 weeks. Last week was Week 27…and yesterday the pedals actually engaged the paddles, and I’m flying across the effing lake.

It won’t last, but for now, woohooooo!

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STATURDAY: More inclusive, period

diffThe Riley survey (conducted for Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part) asked married respondents to choose between the following statements:

1. It is better for everyone involved if a married couple have the same religion.

2. What really matters is that a married couple have the same values regardless of their religion.

An overwhelming majority (79 percent) chose #2.

This apparently irritates the author, who was after all writing a book saying mixed-belief marriage is a bad idea. So having sampled the public opinion, Riley then derides it: “Americans…are not willing to put religion ahead of ‘common values,’ a more inclusive-sounding phrase.”

No, it’s not “more inclusive-sounding” — it’s more inclusive, kind of period. And putting “common values” in scare-quotes doesn’t change that.

It’s encouraging to see so many people, including religious believers, agreeing that common values can be found outside of a single tradition. That’s why successful mixed-belief marriages are much more common than Riley and other proponents of same-faith marriage would have you believe.

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The Chill Grandma

grandmaContinuing to plow through the survey data, and I’ve come across a surprising result that relates to extended family.

Of the four sides of our own extended family, one is gone, one is a mix of secular and religious, and two are very religious in belief and practice. Yet Becca and I have experienced very little interference or pressure regarding religion or our kids’ upbringing.

I’ve always assumed that was a rare and lucky thing. Some of the stories I hear from nonreligious parents make my toes curl. Shunning, tirades, threats, using kids as a wedge, pitting one family member against another, I’ve heard it all.

But if the survey is any indication, our situation may be lucky, but it isn’t uncommon at all. When asked to identify any sources of tension or conflict in their secular/religious marriage, just ten percent of respondents identified “Extended family pressure, actions, or concerns.”

Ten percent.

I actually started wondering about this last year when I asked people in one of my secular parenting workshops to raise their hands if they’d experienced pressure or conflict from religious extended family. In a crowd of about fifty, maybe 7 or 8 hands went up. Curious, I asked the same thing in the next workshop. Same result.

Given my work, you’d think I would already have had a clear view of the issue. But my skewed perception results from something I’ve mentioned before called the news paradox. You hear about something terrible on the news, or in your inbox, and you think it’s something to worry about. But the fact that it’s on the news means it is newsworthy, which in most cases means it’s rare and you don’t have to worry about it. Car crashes happen every day, so they don’t usually make the news. Plane crashes are rare, and we hear about each and every one in graphic detail. So we race down the freeway, risking a very common death, but fear air travel, the safest of all major modes.

I get a constant stream of emails from secular parents struggling with extended family issues, but I almost never hear from parents saying, “Grandma’s still being great about the religion thing. Thought you’d like to know.”

For those who do experience it, extended family pressure can be a huge and important problem, and the book will address ways to manage such pressure and conflict productively. But it’s good and important to put it in perspective, especially if that can help people to be less fearful of entering a secular/religious mixed marriage.

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