Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

By the numbers

At the moment (28 April, 2:16 pm US Central Time), Parenting Beyond Belief (aka “The Book Without An Audience”)…

…is selling faster than 99.9% of the titles on Amazon — and we haven’t even started our major marketing. Sales have been so brisk that Amazon has thrown it back to preorder status until they can restock.

…is the #3 parenting reference on Amazon Canada and #4 parenting reference on

…is continuing to Google over 24,000.

One would think Barnes & Noble would like a piece of that action…

Oh, and speaking of the big booksellers:
golden ticket

Blog reader Augustus Gloo… I mean, STEELMAN has found one of the 78 PBBs planted in Borders bookstores around the US! Only 77 left! Sprint to your local Borders and snap ’em up, then report back here!
veruca salt
I want a PBB, Daddy, and I want it now!

UPDATE: make that 76 — another has turned up in Florida!

Coming out

Something rare and humbling happened to me in 2002. I had a novel released that January, Calling Bernadette’s Bluff, which got some quite lovely reviews and was well-received by both of its readers.

(No, that wasn’t the rare and humbling thing. Good reviews aren’t humbling; they make you feel like this.)

The novel explores the gradual frustrations of a tired secular humanist professor at a Catholic college, his eventual (pathetic) coming out and the hilarity that ensues. But the most incredible thing happened about four months after the book’s release. The phone rang. It was my mom.
She had finished reading my book.

Oh here we go, I thought. “And?”

She told me how much she’d liked it (and believe me, she’d tell the truth, damn her), then said: “I’m a secular humanist.”

“You…you’re…you are?”

“I didn’t have the name for it before, but…yeah. That’s what I am.”

I was floored. I hadn’t known, you see. We hadn’t discussed religion much growing up (which gave me the space to think for myself), but we did go to church regularly. I had assumed she was some sort of indemnity Christian at least, a Pascal’s Wagerer if nothing else. But no. I had to wait forty years and write a humanist novel before I could find out my mother shared my beliefs.

It was a stunning feeling for a child to have that impact on a parent. Usually goes the other way.

In the preface of PBB I describe similar scenes in book clubs I’ve spoken to about my novel. At some point in the discussion, someone will inevitably say, “Hey, you know what — I guess I’m a secular humanist, too.” And everyone says, “LIN-da!! Really?!” — not the least in judgment or condemnation, but in genuine surprise.

Then someone else chimes in “Actually, me too,” (“MAR-garet!!”), then someone else. It is electric. Everyone assumes everyone else is a believer — including those who aren’t themselves. The result of the uncloseting is a deepening of relationships as we realize how much richer is the diversity among even our closest friends.

One of the most moving and fascinating aspects of the launch of PBB has been hearing stories of self-revelations, including people who reveal to friends and family for the first time that they don’t believe when they forward an email announcement about PBB. Such revelations are almost always followed by an outpouring of supportive replies — not 100%, of course, but always more than we think will be the case.

I was touched to read a blog entry by PBB contributor Shannon Cherry in which she (somewhat nervously) came out to her readers at the same time she announced her co-authorship of the book. Her beliefs had been unknown to many in her life even though her husband Matt runs an international humanist foundation and think tank. If Shannon Cherry was partially closeted, who among us is completely out?

Another contributor, Pete Wernick, is an internationally-renowned bluegrass banjo player (listen here!) and…secular humanist. The bluegrass world is apparently extremely evangelical, so Pete, despite being a very active humanist, had kept his two identities separate. Until now. After much thought and worry, Pete sent out a broadcast email to his bluegrass circle of friends announcing his beliefs and his participation in the book.

The result? An outpouring of supportive replies — and, I’m sure, some silence. That’s OK. The cathartic honesty is worth a little uncomfortable silence.

The goal is a world in which someone can answer belief questions with the nontheistic label of choice and elicit nothing more than you’d get from saying, “Presbyterian.” A long way to go, yes, but we’re on our way.

A quick ten

Ten interesting bits about the book:

tom flynn
10. Say hello to Tom Flynn.

I just found out one of the pieces (one of my favorites) was left out of the Table of Contents: the point/counterpoint on Santa Claus between Tom Flynn and me. Tom (editor of Free Inquiry and marvelous guy) was incredibly gracious about the unfortunate and unintentional snub. If you have the book, turn right now to p.85 and dig in.
9. Borders has purchased only 78 copies of the book and planted them around the country to see how they sell before ordering more. Fetch, Gentle Readers! Fetch!
8. I asked Kurt Vonnegut — a literary and personal hero of mine — to write a piece for the book. He never answered my letter and is now with Jesus.

7. Michael Shermer’s excellent Foreword to the book refers to a priceless scene in the movie Parenthood: Keanu Reeves’ character (“that Tod”) bemoans the fact that you need a license to drive or catch a fish, but anyone can be a father. In his initial draft, Michael quoted the character verbatim:

“You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car – hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”

It works beautifully coming out of Tod Higgins, but I had my doubts about a parenting book. As it turns out, all direct quotes from films must be cleared, and we had no time to get permission. So alas, ours did not become the first parenting book of all time to include the phrase “butt-reaming asshole” on the first page. The world will just have to wait for James Dobson’s next book for that.

church lady
6. When I picked Delaney up from her Lutheran preschool yesterday (the day after Laney shared my book for show and tell), her teacher pulled me aside to say (genuinely) how wonderful it all was — that I was so open about my beliefs, that I brought my kids to a church school instead of avoiding religious ideas, and that Laney was so unbearably proud of me. A great lady to whom this photo does no justice.

5. I just got the news that Barnes & Noble will not be stocking the book in their stores. This is NOT about the content — they just have to make decisions based on projected sales, so the book needs to prove itself. If we show them there’s a market, I’m sure they’ll jump on board. It’s all about the bucks.

mn sun
4. I did my first press interview this week for a small local paper and was so distracted by the incredible speed of the reporter’s laptop typing that I completely lost my train of thought. I type with the middle finger of my left hand and the first three fingers of my right. She uses at least six others. I continued yammering while my mind searched for the right simile — which turned out to be “like rain on a rubber roof” — then had to beg her pardon and start a sentence over. I’m mostly but not entirely sure I didn’t say, “My Dark Lord Satan shall guide my parenting with his cloven hoof” during the simile search. I guess we’ll see when the piece comes out on April 26.

3. The Minneapolis Star Tribune did a profile on me in the Faith and Values section of today’s paper. It’s a regular feature called “Believer,” and they apparently went back and forth a bit over whether to call mine “(Non)Believer.” In the end, it posed too many problems for the template, so they said, “Well, you do believe in things, just not God.” Okie doke.

2. We’re starting to work on small local tours before I permanently leave the Upper Midwest for the Lower Mid-Southeast. Madison WI and Mankato MN are in my sights at the moment.

1. PBB has received a FABULOUS review from Library Journal. This is one of the most important possible review venues, since a good review can ultimately lead to the acquisition of scads of books for libraries across the U.S. What? Oh, the review? If you insist:

Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.
AMACOM: American Management Assn. Apr. 2007. c.288p. ed. by Dale McGowan.

McGowan, a professor, freelance writer, and novelist, has collected essays from some of contemporary secularism’s big names, e.g., Richard Dawkins, Margaret Downey, in support of those nonreligious American parents who seek to “articulate values, celebrate rites of passage, find consolation, and make meaning” sans religion. Contributor Ed Buckner writes that secular means “not based on religion” rather than “hostile to religion.” Though a few entries do evidence anger or resentment, it is clear that all of these astute essayists have thought carefully about God’s nonexistence. Most of the 30-odd contributors recommend imbuing children with the ability to think well independently; when pressured or rejected by real and figurative institutions that tend to favor the religious (e.g., schools, scouting, holidays), parents are advised to stick to their nontheistic guns. The book considers parents as pedagogues, recalling Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal’s Motivated Minds: Raising Children To Love Learning. Engaging and down-to-earth, this collection balances the scores of religious parenting titles shelved in the average library and is highly recommended for large public libraries and parenting collections.
— Douglas C. Lord, Connecticut State Lib., Hartford

Resisting the eraser, Part II

There are two pieces in Parenting Beyond Belief — an essay by Annie Laurie Gaylor and a silly song lyric of my own — that are devoted to the introduction of great figures who were religious doubters of one stripe or another. I included these because it’s important for kids to know that not everyone believes — that in fact, some of the greatest minds of every generation were doubters. And it’s important to do it overtly because of that busy, busy eraser.

I feel particularly strongly about this because I grew up oblivious to the fact that I was not alone in my doubts, as most of us do. Even in college I had not discovered any significant presence of articulate disbelief in our cultural history. And it really made me doubt my own doubts. How could I disbelieve when all of my greatest intellectual heroes believed? I’d heard it said the Founding Fathers were Christians – when in fact very few were. I had heard that Charles Darwin found no contradiction between evolutionary theory and Christian belief, when in fact he did. (He made that clear in his autobiography – though those pages were removed from the first edition by his wife, with the best of misguided motives.) I assumed that Einstein’s references to God were literal reflections of a personal faith, only later discovering his several irritated denials of that claim.

I was in my thirties before I discovered, in the works of AN Wilson, how many of the greatest intellectual and moral minds of every generation were freethinkers of one stripe or another – Seneca, Diderot, Voltaire, Jefferson, Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Thomas Edison, Einstein, Freud, Twain, Hume, H.L. Mencken, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertrand Russell. They had all written eloquently of their doubts and their reasons. But those writings had not reached me, despite every possible predilection on my part to receive them.

One of the other ways believers mask disbelief is by taking every passing use of the word ‘God’ as proof that the speaker believed in God. Albert Einstein said, “God would not play dice with the universe.” He was immediately and jubilantly proclaimed a Christian, which irritated him so much that he wrote this answer in 1954: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Kurt Vonnegut did not believe in God (and expressed it clearly), but once said that “The only proof I need of the existence of God is music.” He meant this as an ironic tribute to music, not as a statement of belief in God, but it was leapt upon so effectively that National Public Radio – NPR! – ended its tribute to him last week with that quote. Why? Because that’s what we do: We mask disbelief in the appearance of belief. A giddy listener quickly posted a claim that Vonnegut, in his last years, was “arguing with his own atheism.”

Vonnegut foreshadowed this in 1992 when he began his eulogy for (atheist/humanist) Isaac Asimov with, “Well, Isaac is up in heaven now…” But he wasn’t erasing — he was being funny. And by all accounts, it slew the gathered throng.

UU humanist and minister Kenneth Phifer said, “Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us.” In context, what he was saying is this: Whether or not there is a God, passivity is immoral. But many leapt on the statement as proof that this prominent nontheistic humanist believes in God. You can just hear the squeak, squeak of the eraser, trying desperately to make us all the same.

Here’s Kenneth Phifer trying to be abundantly clear:

“I am a humanist. The humanism I espouse is materialist, naturalistic, religious, rational, responsible and inclusive. I hold with the conviction of humanism that the scientific method is the best means we have discovered for advancing truth…I have faith in that part of humanism which sees the human being as the highest form of life, an end not a means, the creator of moral values, the maker of history… It is the human race that has invented religious communities in order to share the burden of our aloneness as individuals…

He continues: “Religion is a human enterprise. It is the human race that has created religions out of that unique self-awareness that drives us to ask questions about our origins and our destiny.”

Materialist. Naturalistic. Humans as creators of moral values, religion as a human enterprise. It is the human race that has created religions. Phifer calls himself a religious humanist, but it seems pretty clear that he is not a theistic one. He supports the coming together of humanity to do and be good as the fullest expression of religion. It’s an important difference.

A systematic cultural suppression of the rich heritage of religious doubt keeps that heritage out of view. Thus is doubt rendered unthinkable by the stripping of its intellectual tradition. Once I discovered that tradition in AN Wilson’s work (and in The Humanist Anthology, edited by James Herrick, a PBB contributor), I literally wept at times as I read the courageous works of these great thinkers of the past, many giving voice to their honest convictions at a far greater risk than any I will ever encounter. In the span of a few weeks, I went from isolation to the company of giants.

I embarked on an ecstatic engagement with the words and lives of these men and women, taking their intellectual and moral courage as my own inspiration.

Just like gays and lesbians, women, ethnic minorities and others, we have to resist our erasure every bit as insistently as the hand of the mainstream culture pushes that eraser forward.

Resisting the eraser

jackie Robinson

At the risk of making a second analogy to the struggle for racial equality: Sixty years ago this week, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball.

But imagine someone suggesting that he didn’t really integrate baseball because he wasn’t really black — he was just very, very, uh…dark white.

My editor at Amacom (a very good folk, by the way) continues to wring her hands over a statement of mine on the website, in the study guide, and in the book itself, that the majority of Unitarian Universalists are nonbelievers, noting that the UU website puts the number at 19%.

I visited the UUA site. Here are the numbers from the most recent survey in which UUs were asked to choose just ONE label (something UUs hate to do, God bless ’em):

Humanist: 46%
Atheist: 19%
Earth/nature-centered: 19%
Theist: 13%
Christian: 9.5%
Buddhist: 4%
Jewish: 1.3%
Hindu: tiny %
Muslim: tiny %

…etc etc. Only a tiny fraction of people who choose “humanist” or even “religious humanist” as their primary label believe in a god. Even if we leave the mostly non-god-believing pagans and Buddhists behind, these numbers indicate that about two-thirds of UUs are nonbelievers.

Those of you who are not new to this kind of discourse might know what my editor did next: she began redefining words. From her message:

“The term ‘believers’ refers to whether you believe in a religion, not whether you believe in God. Therefore, by definition, all religious humanists are believers…so you can’t call them non-believers.”

Now let me point out that her intentions are entirely good. She does not want the book to draw unnecessary criticism that would divert attention from substantive things. Still, this reasoning frustrates me. I’m pretty confident that “nonbeliever” in a religious context reliably means “does not believe in a god.” This kind of thing is why my head feels like it’s splitting apart at the midline whenever I get into religious discourse. Just as you put their king in check, they simply bump the table and scatter the pieces, then claim that’s how they were to begin with.

And this is the way disbelief gets gradually erased from the culture: We ignore it, or deny it, or redefine it out of existence. Everybody’s a believer, even those who don’t believe.

Even more troubling is the frantic impression I get from her messages (her subject line was YIKES!) — as if we had called these fine people a terribly dirty thing. If she believed I had mistakenly called the majority of UUs lefthanded, I doubt it would have been a problem. And even implying that all of those humanists are actually God-believing humanists strikes her as erring in the “right” direction. But nonbeliever — why, them’s fightin’ words!

Most of the UU humanists I know would be just as offended by the attempt to call them “believers” as Robinson would have been by the suggestion that he was essentially white.

One of the central purposes of this book is to normalize disbelief, and one of the central tasks in that game is taking the eraser away from those who feel the need to mask the presence of disbelief.

invisible man

Parenting “as if”

What’ll it be tonight? It’s been an impressive 24 hours. Maybe I should tell y’all about the book climbing into the top 0.1% on Amazon — pretty good for a book without an audience — or the quintupling of traffic to the website. Or maybe I should blog about the secular Tin Foil Hatter who has launched a classic and baseless MSTT attack on one of the book’s contributors, saying s/he discredits the project because said contributor once knew someone who stood next to someone who thought an unrigorous thought. Get a hobby.

Then there’s the flurry of frantic emails from the publisher (very good folks, by the way), fretting because I claimed on the PBB website that Unitarians are “majority nontheistic” while the UUA website claims it’s only 19 percent. YIKES! You have to change that, you didn’t send the study guide to the UUs already, did you?? (In fact, the UUA says 19 percent are atheists and 46 percent are humanists. 19+46 = 65% = majority.) Once again we get our undies in a bunch over nothing much. (And a good thing, too, since they seem not to have noticed I said the same thing in the book…)

Forget all that. I’d rather tell you about Delaney:


This is my five -year-old Delaney, a.k.a. Linky, and I love her so much it hurts.

Linky came to me at my usual station (hunched over the laptop) and threw her arms around me. “I’m so proud of your book, Daddy.”

Oh, for meltin’ out loud. “Aren’t you a sweetie! Thanks, butterbutt.”

“I wrote a book too.” And she showed me The Bigist Pumkin Anybode Saw — nine stapled pages of instant classic. I read it aloud, oohed and aahed, told her I was even prouder of hers.

“Thanks, she said. “And I’m gonna take your book and my book to show to my class tomorrow.”


Instead of an ellipsis, the proper response of any good father would have been “Of course, my precious little Blossom Bottom! I’m so glad you’re so proud!” But…well, there are complications. Stuff to dance around. You know, grown up things to consider…

I’ll cut to the chase. Here’s a picture of her preschool:

st pats

Okay, I couldn’t get a picture of her actual school, but you get the idea. She goes to preschool at our local Lutheran church. Why? Because the program is the best pre-K in town, the teachers are wonderful, and she gets a basic low-key introduction to religious literacy without a hint of damnation. All of my kids have gone there, then into public schools. Please direct all MSTT concerns to your local proctologist at his place of employment.

During my ellipsis (if you’ll forgive a presumptious and ultimately shameful comparison), I flashed on the most heartbreaking passage in Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.


My little girl is proud of my work, and there’s nothing at all wrong with my work or her pride in it — yet I know that the potential exists for bigotry and ignorance in the next layer to set “ominous clouds” in my own daughter’s “little mental sky” when she flashes a secular parenting book in a church school classroom. It isn’t right, it isn’t just, but there it is. I looked at her beaming face and knew that she was aware only of what made sense, not of the nonsense that demands to be danced around.

After what was actually only a second or two, I decided to opt for parenting “as if”: Act as if the world were sane and reasonable, and see if it just might rise to the invitation.

I gave her a tight hug. “Well if you aren’t the best! Of course you can do that. I’m just so flattered for my book to be there with yours.” And we set my book and her book in her plastic bucket for show and tell.

I picked her up from school the next day and she ran out, elated. This is good, because that’s what she always does. “Hey, how was show and tell?” I asked.


“What did you say about the books?”

“I said, ‘My daddy wrote a book, and it’s about raising great children without religion.’ My teacher was so surprised!”

“Oh, uh…oh yeah? How was she surprised?”

“She didn’t know it was already out. She said is was really great.”

Now see? Once again I gave the next layer too little credit. “What about The Bigist Pumkin?

She smiled. “They said that one was great too. Did you bring a snack?”

And so, thanks to some slow, aching progress over the centuries, instead of preparing for a mob with pitchforks, we were dealing with the fact that, once again, I forgot to bring her snack.
link and me

Giving kids permission to gamble with Pascal

calvin and hobbes pascal

One of my favorite interview questions is this: What is the one things you hope to give your kids by raising them without religion? The answer is freedom from fear.

No, not all fears, ya tyke — but several of the most parasitic and life-destroying. Scratch the smiling surface of a good many people with strong religious convictions and you’ll find stark raving terror. Many (not all, dammit, never all) are convinced that only the grace of God, moment to moment, protects us all from catastrophe.

A relative of mine clipped out a prayer and taped it to his/her fridge. It begins: O Lord, please give me the strength to face another day… Even though said fridge is in a comfortable upper middle class home in the suburbs, it keeps my relative bowed and feeling somehow spared, like an abused wife. Husband or wife, I mean. Life, it says, is unbearable. Only God spares us from its horrors, and the horrors beyond.

My kids will have their share of fears, but I’d like to help them see life as an amazing privilege, not as a source of terror from which we must be saved.

When a believer tells me that he simply can’t bear the thought of a world without God, or that without God we would all crack open each others’ heads and feast on the goo inside — I get a glimpse of his terror, his absolute distrust of himself and of the rest of humanity. This person genuinely believes that we’re all felons-in-waiting, just itching for the Cop to look away for one second so we can stick a shank in the ribs of the next guy.

This is my cue to inch away from this person, and by all means to stop challenging his beliefs, since I’m the next guy. Yikes.

But this post isn’t about all the reasons that idea is silly — they are countless, and several essays in PBB (Mercer and Koepsell among them) go into it just fine. This post is about why that’s sad — and why I’m so eager to help my kids avoid those particular shackles.

Imagine you’re sitting in class, struggling with a single true/false question on the paper in front of you. The teacher stands behind you with a loaded gun. Picture Snape, if you wish. True or false? he asks. Mark your answer carefully. Oh, and one more thing. Choose ‘true’ and there’s no penalty, even if you’re wrong. But if you choose ‘false’ and you’re wrong — I’ll shoot you in the head. Concentrate, now…

It’s Pascal’s Wager — one of the more cynical things ever uttered by a smart person. Once that gun is cocked, getting it right is no longer the issue, is it? Instead of thinking about the question, you’re focused rather tightly on not getting shot.

The one message I try to instill in my kids above all others is not that God is pretend, but that even if God exists, it is silly to think that the most important thing to him would be your belief in his existence. Honestly, can you imagine anything more petty, more outrageously egotistical — more human? So I tell my kids this: If there is a God, he’s not gonna care if you guess wrong about him.

I had to discover that one on my own, and it took many, many years. Too many. Once I did discover that simple and obvious fact, the freedom from fear allowed me to actually think. At which point I had a chance to get it right.

Which gets me to the real point of the post. I value the freedom to think for myself above just about anything else (other than the love of a good woman and about six other things, shut up). I get (as my Baptist/Episcopal mother-in-law would say) pissed to the tits when someone tries to force me to accept the prefiltered product of their own thinking. As I edited PBB, I kept this cardinal value in the forefront of my mind. I had one central goal for content editing: that every statement in the book should be reasonable. I didn’t say I would agree with every statement in the book — I don’t, by the way — but unless I’ve missed something, I am prepared to defend the reasonableness of every jot and tittle that made it in.

Not every j&t made it in, you see. I worked with several of the contributors to revise or remove statements I considered to be unreasonable or insufficiently grounded. And all of the writers, with one exception (oh DROP it WILL you PLEASE), were extraordinarily generous and willing to collaborate to that end.

Some of the essays are harsher than I’d choose to be. I think some are too forgiving of certain religious ideas. Some give way too much credit to atheists as a group. Others I just flat disagree with. But if I had edited those elements out, there goes your chance to think for yourself. If you read something with which you disagree, be sure to be glad for the chance to do so.

We’re used to being fed a single predigested POV. If that’s what you were expecting in this book, there’s just one thing I can say: You’re welcome.

Monkey Mirror

Unholier than thou

Okay, I’m ready. Becca tells me to watch what I say, so I’ll type with my eyes open.

One of the less helpful notions in orthodox religious thought is the idea that there is a very small circle in which we may dance.

Some of the sillier extremes of this are the various sects who try to live by the literal dictates of Leviticus. Never mix two kinds of thread in the same garment. Never plant two different crops in the same field. Wash your pots just so, don’t touch a menstruating woman, etc etc etc. So very many ways to bring down God’s fist.

For later sects, it became simpler but more insidious, since it moved inside your head: don’t lust, don’t covet, and most of all, don’t doubt. But the message was the same: every moment of your life, you are one false move away from the abyss.

Hard to enjoy being a conscious thing when consciousness dreams up this kind of self-paralyzing crap.

One of the frankly hilarious features of the freethought world is our tendency to reproduce this irritating feature of religion in our own way by twisting ourselves in knots just as Gordian, just as asphyxiating, defining ever-smaller circles around ourselves and spurning those outside the circle as insufficiently pure.

Let’s call this syndrome “unholier-than-thou” (UTT).

Do you have UTT? Some symptoms to watch for:

1. Insisting that anyone who does not share your taste for slurs and epithets against religious believers is “gutless.”

2. Arguing endlessly about labels (atheist vs. humanist, humanist vs. secular humanist, atheist vs. nontheist, disbeliever vs. nonbeliever vs. nonreligious, ad infinitum). Insisting that any one label is obviously right or obviously wrong is a classic sign of UTT. Seek professional help.

3. Attempting to banish another person from the (un)sacred circle by claiming s/he has a connection to some form of thought or way of life less rigorously rational and secularly pure than one’s own. The secular equivalent of screaming WIIIIITCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As you may have guessed, I’ve dealt with all three of these so far regarding Parenting Beyond Belief. I will surely hear more of it in the months ahead. Here’s my carefully-considered response to all of them, once again quoting Python:


If you want freethought to be forever marginalized, forever a minuscule percentage of humanity, by all means, continue with your petty proscriptions. And if you want your kids to grow up with the same fear of the fatal misstep, teach them that there’s a very narrow path to secular salvation.

Myself, I have other plans. I want to normalize disbelief, to make it something that regular, non-zealot types can consider. That means setting up a big tent. Get used to people who do disbelief in a different way from you. Stick your loyalty oaths and litmus tests and pet labels where it’ll take a sigmoidoscopy to find them.

There. I feel ever so much better.

(Damn Duncan Crary, by the way, for realizing, before I did, that ‘unholier than thou’ is much, much better than ‘more secular than thou.’)

Suffering fools

I should wait. I should not sit down and blog when I am this irritated. On the other hand, I said this would be a good place to allow my less-filtered thoughts some room to , and waiting until I can edit out all of my perfectly valid emotions (thank you Dr. Phil, *deep breath*, *happy place*) constitutes filtering.

On the other hand, I’m an editor. I filter. For example: I originally had “pissed off” in the second sentence, but changed it to “irritated” — largely because I have yet to define my audience in my head, which is certain death for writing.

You are dying of curiosity, admit it, possibly even assuming that I’ve been ticked off by a religious correspondent decrying the book. Not even close. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that my headaches in this release are going to come almost exclusively from the other side.

I don’t mind fools one bit. Foolishness is a human birthright. Read The Praise of Folly, seriously, find a good recent translation and read it. It’s one of the most influential books in Western literature. Anyway, fools are just fine. I’m a fool. But self-righteous fools I just can’t stand.

More later. I have to both cool off and define my audience.
angry monkey

PBB is released…and the meme struggles to get past my mother

Okay, folks — PBB has been released! The trick now is to get the meme propagating.

One of the most interesting questions in memetics is the variable rate of propagation. In other words, why does one idea get passed around like a giggle at a slumber party, while another spreads haltingly, inefficiently — like a giggle at a funeral?

Take the Ashley Flores story, an email launched in May 2006 to help find a girl who was somehow abducted in Philadelphia despite the fact that she doesn’t exist.

At one point, the urban legend site was receiving 25,000 inquiries per day about this story. And that’s just the people who actually cared enough to try to find out if it was true — surely a tiny percentage indeed. Nearly a year later, the Ashley Flores hoax is still the #1 forwarded email message in the U.S., hitting several hundred thousand inboxes a day and rebounding effortlessly into several hundred thousand more.

Why? Because it speaks to our deepest fears, gives us an opportunity to do good with little effort, and includes a photo of an attractive, happy young teenage girl. Unfortunately, those are the characteristics that trigger our compassion and get the meme spreading like [insert simile here], a fact the Onion neatly satirizes here.

This is relevant to the book, by the way. Be patient.

How fast does a forwarded email spread? Suppose I send the Ashley Flores hoax to 20 friends at 8 am, and each of them forwards to 20 more one hour later, and the forwarding continues at that rate, every hour on the hour.

At 8 am, 20 people have the message.
At 9 am, 400 people have the message.
At 10 am, 8,000 people.
At 11 am, 160,000 people.
At noon, we’re up to 3.2 million.

At this rate, by the time I clock out at 5 pm, a hypothetical 10.2 trillion people are looking for a nonexistent, non-missing girl. That’s 900 messages for every man, woman and child who has ever lived. I just filled Genghis Khan’s inbox with crap! That should slow down the conquest of Asia Minor a bit.

Fortunately, even a meme that pushes all the right buttons doesn’t have that rate of success. Let’s say I send the Ashley message to 20 friends, but only one in four continues to forward it to twenty friends, and so on — a mere 25% rate of success per round:

At 9 am, 100 people have the message.
At noon, 62,500 people have the message.

Pfft. Sixty-two thousand people? Hardly worth getting out of bed. But not to worry: Before I get back into bed tonight, 6.1 billion people will have received the message. That’s everybody.

Compare this, now, to a meme without the pushbutton advantages of the Ashley message — one that asks us to think, for example, or make an effort of some kind, or one that challenges our preconceptions. Or suggests that you can raise ethical, caring kids without religion. Something like that.

Let’s do the math on this one. I recently forwarded an announcement about the book’s release to twenty close friends and family — including my mother, a very sharp, non-conforming secular humanist of whom I am immensely proud.

The next day she replied: I’ve gone through my entire address book, and I just can’t find a single person that I can send the announcement to!

She is concerned, of course, about the reaction from the next layer. Even though the book advocates co-existence and religious literacy and all sorts of other good and noble things, the very idea of living without religion has been anathematized so successfully over the millennia that the very idea causes some people to shut down. But — and here’s the thing — I think we tend to grossly overestimate the number of such people in the next layer.

Back to our memetic calculus. Given the fact that the woman who carried the author in her womb for nine months and who shares his worldview entirely forwarded his book announcement to no one… well, let’s calculate the likely success rate of this email meme:

At 8 am, 20 people will have received the message.
At 9 am, 20 people will have received the message.
Six months later, 20 people will have received the message.

This, for those of you without a calculator, is a slower rate of propagation. Because we tend to forward e-memes only to those whose worldview is reinforced by the message, ideas that challenge us to see the world in a different way tend to die on the vine.

Lest I’m being too subtle: Why not make a stop at the PBB home page and use the Tell a Friend feature to send the link around to twenty people? Just skip my mother.