Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

god’s burning love for me

The Minneapolis Star Tribune contacted me a few weeks back to see if I’d mind being featured in their “Believer” profile, a weekly sidebar in the Faith & Values section. Why not. They sent a few questions and gave me a 200-word limit. Here’s the result:

Dale McGowan, 44, Robbinsdale

Occupation: Writer.

Identifies as: Secular humanist.

Favorite work of music
Piano Concerto in G Major, Maurice Ravel. The whole bittersweet human comedy is in that one amazing piece.

What do you believe in?
This natural universe is all there is. We are all made of the same material as the stars, but unlike most of the stuff in the universe, we have the astonishing good fortune to be conscious for a short while. We should never stop dancing and singing in the face of that magnificent luck. We are cosmically insignificant, inconceivably unimportant — except to each other, to whom we should therefore be unspeakably precious.

Describe something your values have helped you navigate.
I’ve spent 30 years reflecting on my father’s death. Now that I’ve reached his final age, a naturalistic understanding of death has led me to fear it less. I’ll never experience death, since my death, by definition, will be the absence of me. I won’t be there — so what’s to fear? Our identities spring entirely from a constantly recomposed electrochemical symphony playing in our heads. Asking where my “self” goes when that electrochemical symphony ends is like asking where the music goes when an orchestra stops playing. We are living music. How wonderful is that?

Only two Baptists called to save me, followed by weeks of silence. I thought I was out of the woods — until today, when I received this letter:

Dear Dale,

I’m sending these booklets to you so that you know God loves you. When you die, you don’t die like a dog. You will go on forever!

I’m 74, & received Christ into my life at age 11. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.

Love, & Rejoicing in the Lord Jesus,
Virginia H—

Enclosed were two signs of God’s burning love for me: a Jack Chick tract, including this panel:


…and a second pamphlet:


She sent them, she said, so I could know God loves me.

If that’s God’s idea of love, Virginia…well, he can frankly go love himself.

The Relaxed Parent Film Festival

Our Friday night tradition started sometime last year. Every Friday we get a Papa Murphy’s pizza the size of a Buick and a family movie.

By family movie, I don’t mean “family movie.” I mean a movie that our whole family watches together, which believe you me is not often the same thing. And here’s where it gets interesting. It’s my job each week to choose the film. Here’s the audience:

MALE, 44, WRITER. Enjoys philosophical themes; unpredictable, non-linear narratives; line-crossing humor.
FEMALE, 41, EDUCATOR. Enjoys chick-flicks, ro-coms, foreign films. Has never seen a movie without crying.
MALE, 11. Enjoys science fiction, sports, fantasy, adventure. Hates everything he loved at ages nine and five.
FEMALE, 9. Enjoys character-driven dramas and comedies. Gets lost in non-linear narratives, requiring frequent paternal trips to the pause button.
FEMALE, 5. Enjoys an amazingly wide range of flicks, from Pokemon to war movies to comedies to space epics. Can’t read, so captions are out. Hides eyes whenever the music turns minor.

Okay now…find us a movie.

Wait wait, a few more things you should know. Neither of the parents will sit through anything numbingly stupid. Nothing that looks like That’s So Raven, and nothing of the Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh ouevre. If it’s animated, it pretty much has to be Pixar, which means actual plot and characters. And we’ve seen all of those, 4-20 times each.

As for parental concerns — well, our guidelines might strike some parents as reckless. I prefer the word relaxed. And that relaxation comes straight out of our worldview.


Conservative religious denominations often teach that humankind is inherently sinful — that beneath a thin veneer of civility lurks a boiling depravity, just itching to stretch its legs. We must erect all sorts of protections and precautions to avoid opening the floodgates, lest we crack each others’ heads open to feast on the goo inside, or worse, turn gay. “If not for the seventh commandment,” I once heard a Veneerist proclaim in a debate, “there would be NOTHING to keep me from walking out the door to cheat on my wife!” Nothing? Not love? I wondered. Or commitment? Or simple human decency? If you say so.

Most depressing of all was his wife, nodding like a bobblehead in the front row.

I don’t buy this for a minute. Though we humans do occasionally screw things up rather royally, most of the time most of us behave well, especially if we feel loved and supported by those around us. It’s yet another gift of evolution. Populations with a tendency toward self-destruction would quickly lose the selective advantage to cooperative ones. The outlook that my kids are evolutionarily inclined to be good changes almost EVERYTHING about my parenting, especially compared to those who see their kids as simmering pots of potential felony and monitoring the flames beneath them as the most urgent parental task. It allows me, among other things, to focus on drawing them out instead of beating them in.

I don’t have to psychotically protect my children from scratches to their protective layer. I want to immerse them in the colors and contrasts and confusions of the world — gradually, yes, but definitely. I believe this fearless approach is ending me up with some pretty remarkable, multifaceted, complex, wonderful kids. You should meet them. I think you’d agree. So, dinner on Thursday, then?

I once had a student, a college freshman, who had never seen a non-Disney movie. It was the standard her parents had developed to protect her from certain ideas, images, and themes — call them “colors” — that could have scratched her veneer, damaging the porcelain doll beneath, or worse yet, letting loose the she-wolf within.


As a result, she hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. She hadn’t seen E.T. Is there a Disney film that deals with the longing for home as beautifully as those two?

Since we began our movie tradition about forty Fridays ago, my kids have been exposed to a fantastic variety of themes and ideas, cultural touchpoints they refer to over and over. Yes, we’ve seen Flicka and Flipper, Over the Hedge, Little Manhattan and The Karate Kid. But then there are these:

Pleasantville • Edward Scissorhands • Cool Hand Luke • The Great Escape • Jesus Christ Superstar • Rain Man • Big Fish • Empire of the Sun • Life of Brian • Groundhog Day • Walking with Cavemen • South Pacific • Raising Arizona • Intimate Universe • The Truman Show • Walking with Dinosaurs • The Pursuit of Happyness • Stranger than Fiction • I, Robot • About a Boy • Brian’s Song • Parenthood • Bridge on the River Kwai

In addition to the Gs, they’ve seen a lot of PGs, plenty of PG-13s, and a few carefully-chosen Rs (like Rain Man). That means once in a while our kids hear a good solid swear or a reference to actual human sexuality, and have somehow avoided the plunge into foul-mouthed promiscuity.

I think this kind of low-key, normalized exposure makes it less likely they’ll gravitate toward these behaviors. If instead we hide these things, we make them powerful, attractive…forbidden fruit. When a Veneerist jumps for the remote at the first deep kiss or angry curse, he underlines the message that something truly magical is afoot.

Veneerist readers will naturally suppose that I’m advocating porn and slasher marathons for toddlers. Silly Veneerists. Non-Veneerists know there’s something between Little House on the Prairie and Debbie Does Dallas — a great big juicy wonderful and textured middle. My kids have been there, and they’re all the richer for it.


In less than a year, the five of us have explored the importance of honesty (About a Boy, Liar Liar), felt deep compassion and empathy (Brian’s Song, Pursuit of Happyness), learned to care deeply about those who are different (Rain Man, Edward Scissorhands), admired courage and perseverance (Empire of the Sun, The Great Escape), contemplated the meaning of humanness (I, Robot), challenged smiling conformity (Pleasantville, Life of Brian, Big Fish) and questioned our assumptions about reality itself (The Truman Show, Stranger than Fiction, Groundhog Day, Big Fish). We even stood with Judas as he took Jesus to task for neglecting the less fortunate as he pursued his own fame (Jesus Christ Superstar), traced our origins (Walking With Cavemen) and learned never, ever to build a bridge for the enemy, even if your craftsmanship makes you proud (Bridge on the River Kwai). Can’t tell you how many times that lesson has come in handy.

My kids have cried with empathy for people who initially scared them.


Most important of all, they’ve learned that a man really can eat fifty eggs.

50 eggs

Yes yes, fine, Charlie Babbitt [Tom Cruise] says “fuck” about a dozen times in Rain Man. He does so because he’s an arrogant, selfish jerk — and arrogant, selfish jerks don’t say “boogers” when they’re mad. My kids didn’t want to be like Charlie Babbitt, so why would they emulate his language? Instead, they marveled at how his selfishness slowly transformed into first tolerance, then selfless love for his brother — something underlined by his changing use of the full palette of the English language.


About the tenth time Charlie cussed, Erin shot me a look and said, “Boy, you can tell what kind of person he is.” She had a chance to handle it, process it, and put it in perspective in our living room rather than on the schoolbus.

Best of all, they’re developing a taste for the unique, the creative, and the offbeat, for imaginative narratives and complex visions of the world.

Sure, sometimes I cringe and leap to the remote when a scene heads a little further than we’d expected. But it’s worth the risk. So next time you’re thinking about a film for the whole family, reach beyond G and PG. Let them engage the messy, fascinating world out there while you’re in the living room with them. They can handle more than we give them credit for.

GREAT RESOURCE FOR PARENTS: Netflix’s Parent Advisory feature in the left margin of the page for each film. Click on the “more” link for a terrific, detailed run-down of elements to help you decide what’s appropriate for your kids. You might care more about profanity, while I like to avoid people with their insides on their outsides. The advisory feature gives us each what we need to know. Here’s an example of the parent advisory page for Big Fish, a family favorite of ours. And here’s the advisory that helped us to green-light the R-rated Rain Man.

Kids’ behavior baffles secular dad

Help me out with this one.

My kids have been showing a pattern of behavior lately. Well, truthfully, it’s nothing new. They’ve been this way for years. But it’s only lately that I’ve come to recognize it as a pattern, and I just can’t figure out where it comes from.

My worldview is completely nontheistic, so as you know I choose my morals at random every Monday morning and teach my kids to do the same. Connor chooses his each week from a fancy wheel-of-fortune gizmo. Erin uses a dartboard. I guess I’m old-fashioned: I draw my morals out of a hat.

Which is why this pattern of behavior in my kids has me scratching my head.

Let me start with my oldest. Connor, 11, can’t stand to see an animal hurt, even spiders, even insects. When a bat got into his grandmother’s house, evangelical Grandma wanted to get a tennis racket and whack it straight to Jesus. But Connor (then eight) insisted on catch-and-release — and, to our astonishment, managed it himself.

This was easy enough to explain. “Be kind to other living things” must have come up when he’d spun the wheel that week. It’s right there between “trip blind people” and “pee in the lemonade when nobody’s looking.”

He has three jars for his money. No, not JOY (Jesus, Others, Yourself), but SOY (Savings, Others, Yourself). But here’s the weird thing: He splits his allowance evenly among the jars. I first noticed this shortly after we’d seen a homeless man under a bridge on Regent’s Canal in London. Connor was deeply affected by this. He wrote a poem about that man and we talked at length about how fortunate we are. The very next week I noticed that the money in the jar for “others” was even with the one for himself. I just can’t figure out why. Even when his spending jar is tapped out, it never occurs to him to go into the one reserved for others. To date, he has saved several acres of rainforest and sent food to hurricane victims with that jar.

It gets weirder. He wanted a MySpace page. We looked into it a bit and decided, ah, no — especially when we learned that he would have to lie about his age to register. I had chosen “don’t lie” from the hat that week, so the MySpace page was out of the question. He agreed, grudgingly, so I’m guessing “don’t lie” had come up on his wheel that week as well. A funny coincidence.

When we offered instead to allow Connor to set up his own website, he leapt at the chance. I thought he might include game links, photos of himself, maybe a blog about football or Green Day, and some sketches of his inventions. But no. Instead, he immediately hit on the idea of a website that would feature one worthy cause per month, with articles and links about that cause. Connor will write to celebrities each month, encouraging them to donate money through the site to that cause. The top donor each month will be interviewed by Connor for the site.

“How much of the money will you keep for yourself?” I asked.

He looked at me, puzzled. “None. Why?”

“Why? Jeez, I dunno,” I said sheepishly. “I can’t remember where I put my list.”

See the pattern? Don’t kill, don’t lie, take care of others — it seems, in some odd way I can’t place, to be a non-random list.

I consulted friends of various worldviews — a Buddhist, a Jew, a Humanist, a Utilitarian, a Christian, a Jain — and learned that there is a name for this pattern. They all called it “goodness.” Somehow, inexplicably, even in the absence of belief in a god, my son happens to have selected values that add up to something known as “goodness.”

I just can’t figure why that would be.

He doesn’t go to church or Sunday School and does not believe God is watching him. He thinks The Ten Commandments is a thrash metal group. Yet he gravitates toward behaviors that are undeniably — lemme see, what would the adjective be? — “goodnessful.”

His sisters seem headed down the same path — showing “kindness,” expressing “empathy” for those less fortunate, hating “injustice,” planning a life of “service to others.” Stuff like that. One begins to suspect that our family’s random, blind process of moral selection is in fact…non-random.

Now I must admit, they aren’t consistent in this pattern. Last Saturday, Connor lay in wait for his sisters at the edge of the porch roof with cold water balloons and pelted them mercilessly, even when they asked him to stop. We called him inside and asked how he would feel if someone did that to him. Later he apologized to the girls. Grudgingly. We insisted on it. Not sure why, but we did.

Yesterday was Monday morning, and my curiosity about the pattern began to overwhelm me. I tiptoed to Connor’s door and quietly peeked into the room while he was spinning the wheel for the week. It slowed to a stop on “Steal and cheat.” He looked around — fortunately he didn’t see me — and then did something I simply can’t explain. He shook his head and spun the wheel again and again, until it landed on “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

That one he wrote on his list for the week.

Any ideas for how to restore moral chaos to our home will be gratefully received.

Jerry Falwell and the absent dancers

To philosophize is to learn how to die.
Michel de Montaigne

snoopy grave

Oh relax. I’m not going to impugn the recently departed Jerry Falwell. Christopher Hitchens is taking care of that, God bless ‘im. I will grant, for reasons unclear to me, the traditional period of immunity enjoyed by the newly demised. It was Falwell’s death that got me thinking, but this post isn’t really about him. It’s death itself I’m on about, not the corpse-of-the-moment. Death and the absence of dancers.

But first, that immunity thing.

My first experience of the weird immunity we grant to the recently dead was at my dad’s funeral. I was thirteen and he was forty-five, my age next year. I loved my dad. He was a good guy.

Still, the eulogies offered by Dad’s friends and colleagues struck me as…weird.

I remember one colleague of his saying, “Dave didn’t have an enemy in the world.” “He was always thinking of others, never a thought for himself,” said another. “Everyone loved him.” “He loved his family more than any man I’ve ever known.”

Okay. I guess.

Like I said, he was a good guy. But this was my first experience of the genuine canonization of the dead that is socially mandated. Although my dad was funny and smart and hardworking and endlessly curious, he also lost his temper frequently and even sprained his thumb once. Oh, while beating me, I left that part out. I had been a shit to my younger brother, again, and Dad had come off a 60-hour week, and he couldn’t find it in himself to not sprain his thumb on me.

In addition to occasionally thrashing us, he wrote poetry and read Cyrano de Bergerac and smoked like a chimney and ate like a bison. He also taught me everything he knew about astronomy and yelled at my mom. A lot. And he sang with her. A lot. A mixed bag, like the rest of us.

Why do we need to pretend someone was a perfect saint in order to remember him fondly? And why the particular need to deny the mixed bag just because someone is recently dead?

Purgatory. That’s why.

In the medieval church, the recently dead were believed to stop in Purgatory before being dispatched to heaven or hell. It was during this layover that incoming prayers were tallied up and the person’s life assessed. Even marginally bad thoughts might tip the balance southward, so if you had anything bad to say, it was crucial to hold your tongue while all the hanging chads were counted. You know, if you can’t say anything nice, keep it inside, where God can’t hear it. Like saying “bless you” after a sneeze, the post-mortem immunity is a habit based in antique superstitions.

Well, whatever the reason, we can’t say anything bad about Jerry Falwell for a little while, because this terrible, tragic, unexpected thing happened to him: his body stopped working. And that was awfully sad.

Which gets me at last to the missing dancers.

President Bush issued a statement of condolence: Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family, and freedom. Various religious leaders have “mourned” Falwell’s passing or “grieved” his loss. Great rivers of tears will certainly be loosed at his funeral.

You see where I’m headed. Stick with me anyway. I want a credible answer.

According to the stated beliefs of Jerry Falwell and virtually every person who is “mourning” what happened to him, he has shed his earthly vessel and become a glorified being in the very presence of the Living Lord and Creator. He is in Heaven. This is the big time, the radiant confirmation of all his cherished hopes, the fulfillment of the promises of the scriptures to which he devoted his life, a happiness beyond anything mere words can devise.

And the proper response to this, apparently, is to be “deeply saddened.”

This question hit me for the first time not at my dad’s funeral, but at a funeral I attended for the mother of a friend one year earlier when I was twelve. The distraught sobs of the congregation and the soothing promises of the minister that she was “with Jesus, smiling down upon us, happy and free of pain” provided such a stark contrast that it suddenly hit me — they don’t believe him!

I hesitate to say such a thing. Having been confidently informed that I, a nonbeliever, really do believe in God, way way down deep, I shudder to make confident claims about what other people believe. I make this claim out of true bafflement at what else can explain the evidence. It’s the only credible explanation I can find for the day-and-night contrast between what Christians say happens at death and how they behave upon hearing someone has died. They pray like mad that a sick person’s glorious transfiguration will be put off, then weep and gnash their teeth when the person finally attains it. So I’m stuck with one hypothesis — that they wish with all their hearts to believe it and actual believe they believe it, but do not believe it.

If they did, wouldn’t they be singing and dancing and shouting praise-choruses to the sky? The funerals of children should be occasions for particular celebration — Little Suzy’s passed up the whole vale of tears and gone straight to Jesus! Instead, the loss of a child is seen as the greatest of all tragedies. Why? Where are the dancers? Shouldn’t the phrase “I’m glad Falwell’s dead” draw something other than shocked outrage? Shouldn’t a true believer who really loved him and wanted the best for him say, “I’m glad he’s dead, too!” — not as a mumbled coda, that’s common enough, but as a statement of certain joy?

The image of Snoopy dancing on a grave beneath Jerry Falwell’s name looks like the prelude to a stinging critique. You may well have assumed as much when you saw it. But shouldn’t it look like the polar opposite — like an elated confirmation of what Falwell believed to be true? Shouldn’t a Christian look at that and say, “At last, the atheist gets it!”

My wife claims that funereal tears are for the survivors, not for the departed person, and of course that’s a part of it. But why then, when a believer hears of a death — especially an untimely one — do they gasp and say things like, “Oh, that poor, poor girl”? Shouldn’t it at least be seriously mixed?

Imagine, for example, a Tutsi mother in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. The UN is pulling back as machete-wielding Hutus approach the village. After much tearful pleading, a UN peacekeeper agrees to take the woman’s four-year-old child to safety in another country. She is unlikely to ever see him again. If she survives, she will miss him terribly. But her tears would be undeniably mixed with profound joy that her son has a chance at happiness and safety. You can picture a relieved smile beaming through her tear-streaked face as the truck pulls away.

If I truly believed in heaven as advertised, that would have to describe my face at the funeral of a loved one. Right? He made it out to happiness and safety. Next time you’re at a funeral, see if you can spot even one such face.

Coming to grips with mortality is the greatest of all challenges for a conscious being. It’s a life’s work. When someone asks how on Earth I can bear the idea that my death will be the end, I want to look the person in the eyes and say, “Yes, it’s very hard…isn’t it.” I’ve never tried that, but I dream of doing that just right, just once, and connecting with the honest knowledge of mortality we all carry inside ourselves.

I’m not one of those secularists who pretend that our mortality is no big deal. It’s a very big deal. I don’t especially like it. But I’m a big boy, I can handle it — especially since I never bought into its denial, and so had no childish illusions of immortality to abandon.

And neither will my kids, I’ll wager. They know about the heaven hypothesis, and they know the oblivion hypothesis, and like their dad, they’ll spend a lifetime working it out and coming to grips with the fact that, no matter what comes next, this life ends. I hope also to instill a passionate love of reality so they’ll work to understand and accept what is rather than what goes down most easily. Heaven sells itself, for the most part. My job is to help them, and myself, find the genuine comforts in the naturalistic model. There are many, and I’ll yammer about those soon.

PBB on the air

Two radio podcast interviews coming up!

Wednesday May 16, 9:30-10 pm Eastern

  • Kristen Chase, blogger of the eye-wateringly funny and appropriately titled Motherhood Uncensored interviews me, along with PBB contributor and AgnosticMom blogger Noell Hyman. Click to listen in:
    Listen Live
    Call in number during the show: (646) 915-8634

    Thursday May 17, 1:45-2:00 pm CENTRAL time

  • Freedom From Religion Foundation co-presidents and PBB contributors Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor will interview me about PBB for their Freethought Radio program. Dan and Annie Laurie are two of the most courageous and influential freethinkers of our generation. Click here to set up your “podcatching” capabilities and to hear the program!

    I’m not worthy

    It seems someone has nominated my humble blog for a Blogger’s Choice Award:

    Though moved and flattered by the gesture, I don’t deserve it. I am, after all, just a roomful of monkeys trying to type out the complete works of Shakespeare. If you find some occasional pleasure in reading these words or in clicking on the occasional interesting link, that’s more than enough for me.


    Of babies and bathwater, Part II


    God is like the shepherd seeking the sheep, He is like the woman seeking the coin, and He is like the father seeking the son.
    — from some website

    God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore, Stevie Wonder is God.
    — Immanuel Kant

    Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.
    — James Randi, or someone else

    How we do love analogies, especially when they get us where we wanted to go anyway. But we’re often so blinded by the cleverness or beauty — or by its confirmation of our opinions — that we forget to wonder whether a given analogy makes a lick of sense.

    Is life really helpfully analogous to a box of chocolates? Is love really like oxygen? or a heatwave? or a red, red rose? Does a given analogy actually shed light on its subject, helping us to understand it better — like Sagan’s Calendar — or does it obscure, by doing an amazing impersonation of reason without actually bothering to be reasonable?

    Once in a while, poor analogies cross over from merely lame to destructively seductive. Not invading Iraq would be just like appeasing Hitler. Ooh, wouldn’t want to do that again.

    If you let gays marry, people will start marrying their appliances. Yikes. I don’t even support civil unions between humans and toaster-ovens. I’m sorry, some things are just wrong. Thanks for the tip.

    Destructively seductive in a different but no less insidous way is theologian William Paley’s “watchmaker” analogy, offered in 1802 as proof of the existence of God. If you look at a watch, goes the, uh, reasoning, you can easily tell that it was designed and created by a watchmaker. Similarly, if you look at a given natural phenomenon, you can easily tell that it was made by an intelligent designer.

    For five full seconds, this analogy has the force of an inspired illumination of fact. It’s in the sixth and seventh seconds, thanks to Darwin, that it begins to fall apart. Fortunately for “Intelligent Design,” six continuous seconds of thinking is a lot to ask of monkeys.

    I forgive Paley for his bad analogy. I’m sure I too would have nodded vigorously in 1802, fully 57 years before Darwin issued his resounding nuh-uhhhh. Less forgivable are those who, having failed to notice advances in knowledge since 1802, continue propagating this vacuous meme today under the banner of “intelligent design.” The analogy, it turns out, is a bad one. It illuminates nothing but the wishes of some that it actually accomplish what it sets out to do.

    The stamp collecting analogy, on the other hand — ZING! — actually captures something worth thinking about. I would say that though, wouldn’t I.


    There’s one bad analogy that got me started on this tangent, one I hear too often when I’m offering this or that critique of religious belief or practice. I’ve even developed the ability to see it coming, to see it making its way from the neocortex of my conversational partner, through Broca’s area, down to the larynx and up the pie-shaft. As I finish whatever I’m droning on about, I can see it balanced eagerly on the tip of the other person’s tongue, like a diver standing with toes curled over the edge of an analogy.

    And then, at last, the moment we’ve been waiting for.

    Well, s/he will intone, one must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Before I continue, let me make clear my sober opposition to throwing babies out with bathwater.

    This useful phrase first popped up in a 1512 satire by a German monk named Thomas Murner. To “throw the baby out with the bath water” (or “Das kind mit dem badwasser schitten,” as Murner put it, for some reason) is to rid one’s self of a bad thing while destroying in the process whatever good there was as well.

    I stare first at the diving board protruding from my friend’s face, still juddering, then at the surface of our conversation, still rippling from the impact of the analogy (which had rudely pulled its knees up into a cannonball just before entering the water). I am abashed. That poor baby. How could I even have considered doing so wretched a thing?


    It always takes me a moment to realize that I hadn’t.

    The baby, in the current analogy, is all that is good and noble and life-affirming in religion, like frequent instructions to not kill or lie or hate. The bathwater is all that is ignoble and life-destroying in religion — like frequent instructions to kill and lie and hate. My conversational partner rarely offers a middle path, because religious sytems lack procedures for compromise. Real change is accomplished only by calving off denominations (which is why the current estimate of Christian denominations on Earth is 33,000). Within a given church, it is silently implied that one must take the bad with the good, all or nothing, or risk losing the good entirely.


    There is something between throwing out the baby and letting it marinate endlessly in the cold and filthy water. My intention is to do what any parent does: discern which is the baby and which the bathwater, then lift the baby gently from the water, dry her off, dress her in warm jimmies, feed her, nuzzle her, and sing her to sleep.

    My single greatest complaint with religion is not that it contains both good and bad, but that it has no procedure for separating one from the other. My highest praise for science is not that it is devoid of bad consequences but that it comes complete with ways to discern, that it is founded on a method for separating wheat from chaff — that it tries, however haltingly and imperfectly, to perfect itself.

    The next time someone invokes babies and bathwater, stop the conversation, define the baby — and reach for a clean, dry towel.

    (No babies were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

    Of babies and bathwater, Part I

    (I love a good analogy and despise a bad one. This post is about two unforgettably eye-opening analogies, neither of which includes babies or bathwater, and both of which can help kids grasp an otherwise ungraspable thing: how recent is our arrival in the universe. My next post will look at the unfortunate seductive power of the bad analogy. That’s where you’ll get your wet baby.)

    When I was ten, I knew the universe was really, really, really, really old, and that we had only been here for a small part of it. The unarticulated picture in my mind was of universal history as a half-hour TV show, with humans arriving during the second commercial break saying, What’d I miss? What’d I miss? (I picture the Universe rolling its galactic eyes, saying Oh, nothing. Couldn’t very well start the party without baboons. Ooh, hey everybody, the baboons are here! Let purpose commence!)

    I had the sequence right, but the proportions were cartoonish: the Big Bang bangs, stuff congeals, life appears, dinosaurs, cavemen, Greeks, Columbus, me.

    Then came Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar— and suddenly, vividly, I got it.

    Compress the 13 billion year history of the universe into a single year, starting with the Big Bang on January 1 at midnight and ending in the current moment, midnight on New Year’s Day the next year. When did humans appear in the past year? Sometime in the summer, maybe? Fourth of July weekend good for you? That seemed about right to me at age ten.

    Even that was progress compared to the biblical version, of course, which at this scale pops humans into the mix ninety seconds after midnight on New Year’s Day, before the last of the noisemakers has even stopped bleating. But even at July 4th, I was still a full paradigm shift away from getting it.

    Sagan took care of that in three pages of The Dragons of Eden, and in the process blew my hair back in a way that I wouldn’t even want to recomb.

    When you boil 13 billion years down to one, each day is thirty-five million years long. We all have days like that. The Milky Way galaxy forms around May 1st. The Earth is born on September 14th. So for the first two-thirds of the history of the universe, our planet didn’t even exist.

    Humans can be safely considered unimportant during this eight-billion-year period.

    Life on Earth appears just half a billion years after the planet itself, on September 25th. No, not dinosaurs. Microscopic, single-celled life. They rule the Earth with a tiny iron flagellum until November 12th, when minuscule undersea plants appear. By December 1st, these plants have created an oxygen atmosphere.

    For us, you’re thinking, deep inside. They’re getting the world ready…for us. You’re funny. Stop it.

    Ready for dinosaurs now? Keep waiting. Thirty-ton lizards do not spring into being from microorganisms. There’s work to be done, and this kind of work takes time. By December 16th – just eight shopping days until Christmas – we’ve reached a critical step on the road to Us.


    By December 19th we’ve got fish. Not yet grillable, but stay tuned. Land plants thirty million years later on the 20th, insects on the 21st, amphibians on the 22nd…

    Wait a minute. Surely I’ve made a mistake. Only nine days left in the year, and still no Lords of the Universe?

    On the 23rd, the first trees come to pass. And at last, on Christmas Eve, the dinosaurs begin their 180 million year reign. Christmas Eve. December 28th, wham, an enormous asteroid slams into the Yucatán. Also flowers are invented.

    Oh, and humans? Lemme check.

    Okay…here it is. On the scale of a single cosmic year, your species – Homo sapiens, was it? – okay, Homo sapiens enters at 10:30 pm on December 31st. That’s ninety minutes ago. Ninety minutes out of a year.

    That’s Finding Nemo with one potty break.

    The Pyramids were built ten seconds ago. The birth of Christ was four seconds ago. Copernicus, one second ago. So much for the grand human pageant marching across the span of all time.

    Richard Dawkins has another spectacular time-grasping analogy. Stretch your arms out to represent the span of the history of life on earth. Now this is not even the whole history of the universe, mind you, just the last quarter of it, the time since life began on Earth just over three billion years ago. You’d need three other people standing to your left with arms outspread to represent the universe prior to life’s emergence on Earth.

    From your left fingertip all the way across your middle to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria. At your right wrist, the most complex form of life on Earth is worms. The dinosaurs appear in the middle of your right palm and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole story of Homo sapiens is contained in the thickness of one slim fingernail clipping.

    As for recorded history – the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Pharoahs of Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Jesus, Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and George W. Bush – they and everyone else who lived since the dawn of recorded history are blown away in the dust from one light stroke of a nail-file.

    Feeling special?

    99.98% of the history of the universe happened before we arrived. You cannot maintain a worldview in which we are the central actors without utterly disregarding that fact. And a fundamental premise of the three Abrahamic religions is that humans are the universal Main Event. Try to make the New Testament work without that idea. Or the Old, for that matter. It all falls to tatters in this context.

    We don’t have to indoctrinate our kids away from religion. We really don’t. Theistic religion is a round peg in the square hole of reality. But fortunately for religion, most folks tend not to put too much effort into seeing reality clearly — which makes it much easier to kinda sorta still force that round peg into place. Powerful analogies, carefully applied, can form a relatively effortless bridge between us and otherwise ungraspable concepts. Several great ones appear in the pages of Parenting Beyond Belief, and I’ll include more in upcoming blog entries. Use them to help your kids discover the honest depth and breadth of our remarkable reality and they won’t even go looking for a place to put that silly round peg.

    Once their hair is blown back by the real world, they’ll toss that peg over their shoulders with a yawn and never look back.

    Keeping the ‘Hell’ away from my kids

    No God and no religion can survive ridicule. Mark Twain
    Meet my 9-year-old middleborn, Erin, a.k.a. “the B”:

    erin mask

    Oh, she’d KILL me. Heh. Lemme try again:

    Yep, that’s the same kid — a radiant flower one moment and a complete bassoon the next. She’s a typical middle child, a pleaser and a peacemaker, a moralist and a goofbag. I adore her socks off, not least because I’m a middler (and therefore all those things) myself.

    So my stomach sank yesterday when she came home from school with the news that her three best friends all agree she’s going to burn in hell.

    Holy horseshit! I thought, mentally springing to the Bat Cave and firing up the Mach 5. Or whatever. I simply can’t bear to see my kids hurt, nor Becca, my wife. I just can’t take it. I have made Becca cry precisely three times in seventeen years, and it unhinges me so thoroughly that I will apologize for my very existence if only she will STOP.

    Same with the kids. I’m not talking about fall-down-go-boom tears, now. Those mostly irritate me, since the child usually did something (shall we say) ill-advised just beforehand. But tears of genuine emotional pain — those are something else entirely. You know, like the tears that would result from the unanimous judgment of your three best friends that you are destined for the Lake of Fire.

    And though all three kids’ wounded tears slay me, none are harder for me to take than the tears of the B when her heart’s been broken. I swear, the very first boyfriend to break her heart will live just long enough to see his own little cardiac balloon quivering in my outthrust fist.

    (Sorry, that was massively heterosexist. Feel free to reread with “girlfriend…her own little cardiac balloon quivering etc.” See, I’m cool.)

    So I knelt before the B to get the full story. “Sweetie, what’d they say that for?”

    “They were talking about church and stuff, and they asked if I believe in God and go to church. And I said no, I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church. And then their eyes got really big and they said, ‘Oooh, you’re gonna burn in Hell.'”

    I waited for the first teardrop to appear, flexing my hand in preparation for holding three quivering little hearts at once.

    “I’m so sorry they said that, B. How did that make you feel?”

    Instead of tears, she shrugged. “It was pretty mean. But also silly.”

    I looked at her in amazement. It is silly, of course, a profoundly stupid and childish idea, but how did she come to that so directly? It took me years and years to shift Hell from terrifying to terrifying but unlikely to silly.

    And then I remembered. Of course. She’s been inoculated.

    If I had hidden the idea of Hell from my daughter all these years, protecting her from the very concept, the sudden invocation of the flames by her friends could have burned a fear into her that would take some serious undoing. But we’ve talked about religious ideas for years. I’ve always made my opinions clear, but I go to great lengths to let her know that other good people think differently. “Dad, did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?” “I don’t think he did, no. I think that’s just a made-up story to make people feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara, I know she thinks it really happened. Then you can make up your own mind, and even change your mind back and forth about it a hundred times if you want.” That’s the usual approach.

    But there are exceptions to this evenhanded treatment, and one of them is Hell. Hell gets no hearing from me. I will not allow my children to be terrorized by anyone with the sick fantasy of an afterlife of eternal punishment, especially one meted out for honest doubts. If ever there was a religious idea with human fingerprints all over it, Hell is it. So I’ve always told my children that Hell is not only fiction, it’s also…

    That’s right. She was using my exact word. Silly.

    Even if there is a God, I’ve told them repeatedly, he’s not going to care if you guess wrong about him. That sounds like a human king, not the all-wise creator of the universe. He might care about how good you are, or even respect your honest doubts more than the dishonest belief of people who are just trying to avoid Hell. But in any case, the idea that any god worth his salt would create a Hell to punish his children is just plain silly.

    Just as we inoculate our kids against diseases by putting small amounts of the bad stuff into their arms to build resistance, we have to inoculate them against toxic ideas that can paralyze their abilities to think freely. Specifically invite fearless doubt and they can live without medieval ignorance and fear trailing them through their one and only life. Tell them about Hell, then don’t just ‘disagree’ with it: laugh it to smithereens.

    Wondering and questioning, Part II

    Meet my boy, Connor.

    the boy
    Connor is nearly twelve, wickedly smart and funny, endlessly creative and thoughtful and kind. I’ve had more outright conversational joy from Connor in the nine years since he started talking than from most of the rest of our species. Combined.

    He wants to be an engineer. Sometimes he shares with me his plans for reversing global warming. Once he shared an idea for exceeding the speed of light—and I still can’t figure out why it wouldn’t work, at least in theory. Last week he sketched an ingenious idea for an inexhaustible light bulb. (I know why that one won’t work, but importantly, kept my pie-hole shut.) At the age of seven, he proposed a device that could identify which person in a packed elevator had farted. A panel in the floor would then light up under the perpetrator.

    (We were alone in an elevator when he came up with that one, of course—and when the door opened and admitted an elderly lady, we vibrated with swallowed laughter, imagining the floor lighting up beneath her.)

    But sometimes—much of the time—the topic is philosophical. Connor wonders about consciousness, death, ethics, time, and the idea of gods. One of his favorite riffs is to marvel at the fact that he was born at all, which brings us to one of the central differences, imho, between the religious and secular worldviews.

    Let’s begin with a song, one that captures a large whack of my own worldview—so much, in fact, that it is one of our favorite lullabies:

    It’s inherently humbling, that scientifically-informed worldview. Instead of being specially made in the image of the creator of the universe, given dominion over the world and all that’s in it, and having God’s only son take our form to come to Earth and die so we could live forever, it turns out we’re one transitory species among millions, an unimaginably small blink in time on an unimaginably small dot in space—trousered apes who will disappear into complete non-existence upon the death of our bodies.

    But remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely was your birth. And it was this thread that my son and I riffed on the other day, picking up an inexhaustible thread.

    It started with boxer shorts.

    Connor needed boxer shorts immediately. I’ll spare you the reason, a familiar hash of peer pressure and arbitrary norms and middle school locker rooms. I ran him to the mall and we bought a few pairs. On the way home, I suddenly flashed on something from long ago. I turned and mentioned to Connor that he owed his existence to (among many other things) boxer shorts. What follows is, I submit, a definitively secular exchange of wonder.

    Boxer shorts? This was news to the boy. Not the general idea of owing his existence to countless small happenstances, mind you. He has long enjoyed the knowledge that several hundred things could have prevented his parents from meeting, from finding each other attractive, from dating, from marrying, and from staying married long enough to spring off. He understands that one particular sperm and one particular egg had to meet for him to ever exist. And he vibrates with dawning excitement as he extends these had-tos back through the generations, back to his Confederate great-great-great grandfather who was felled by a Yankee bullet through the neck at nineteen and bled profusely—almost, but not quite, enough to erase the great-great-great grandson he would one day have. Connor has worked his way back through a million generations of humans and prehumans to imagine two ratlike creatures rocking the casbah at the precise moment the asteroid slammed into Chicxulub 65 million years ago, further clinching the existence of their great-great-great etc grandson. (Oooh, baby, one rat says to the other. Did you feel that too?)

    But boxer shorts—that was a new one. He demanded to know what I was talking about.

    We’ve already done the sex talk (went very well, thank you). So now I told him that the sperm can get sluggish if they are too warm, that briefs hold the testicles against a man’s warm body, and that four months after his mom and I started trying to create him, without luck, I saw this article that suggested switching to boxer shorts, and boom…

    His eyes were wide. “You got pregnant.”

    “Well Mom did, technically, but I…”

    He clutched his head. “Oh my GOSH! What the freakin’ heck!” (His current favorite pseudo-swear.) He seemed to get it. He turned toward me with an electric look, the look of a person who just missed getting hit by a train. “What if you saw that article a month EARLIER?”

    Oh yeah, he gets it. “Or later.” We’d added another casual causal coincidence to the march of time—his father stumbling over some random magazine article…at GreatClips, I think it was, while I waited for a haircut…


    Boy does he get it.

    I have several religious friends who think that God fixes these things for us. He put the mag there, you see, and kept the haircut going until I could read it. We each have one ideal mate, and God works things out so we meet, fall in love, have the children we’re supposed to have when we’re supposed to have them. Setting aside the revolting idea that God wanted an abused woman to marry her abuser, etc etc, we still end up with a world that makes me yawn, a world with a good measure of the wonder stripped out. In that world, we are Jehovah’s chesspieces, moving in preordained patterns, how exceptionally tedious. Tedious in a holy way, I mean.

    Meditating instead on how amazingly unlikely was your birth—well, if you haven’t done it, please be my guest. It’s hard to take existence quite so much for granted once you realize how very, very, very close you came to missing the dance entirely.