Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

PBB Top Ten for July

barack newsweek
10. Newsweek story puts PBB in the spotlight

It ends in a glowing endorsement, but first there’s some wading to do. The column starts by declaring both parenting and atheist books “useless and irresistible,” proceeds to a quick but nice synopsis of the book’s content and approach, gives the false impression that there’s an atheist backlash of some sort, then finishes by saying “parents on both sides of the culture war will find this book a compelling read.” All in all a lovely development in the promotional life of the book. (Better than Obama’s fate: appearing on the cover under the (unrelated) banner TERROR’S NEW FACE.)
amazon logo
9. Amazon rank spikes to #365

Amazon has 3.5 million titles. The average megabookstore carries the top 1% — about 35,000. In the week after the Newsweek story appeared, PBB was in the top 1-2% of that group. I hope you’ll forgive the editor-chimp for banging his chest over these numbers. Remember that I heard for four years that there was no audience for such a book.
rising chart
8. PBB confounds conventional book sales pattern

Ignoring titles by such titans as JK Rowling, Toni Morrison, and Pamela Anderson, most books do most of their sales in the first six weeks of publication, then enter a long, slow slide to the bargain table. PBB, on the other hand, premiered at 3000 on Amazon, remained in that range for ten weeks — then shot up into the hundreds. This indicates a long likely life.
7. Flood of PBB orders breaches levees of largest South American river

The deluge of orders following the Newsweek piece caused a certain online retailer to suspend ordering entirely. My initial feeling that this was a mistake was quickly put to rest when I spontaneously realized it was brilliant and far-seeing. After 11 days, the book was restored to regular status.
6. Barnes & Noble rank spikes to #185

During the period when a certain other retailer had the book offline, customers found just fine, sending PBB’s rank to #185 and into the overall Parenting Top Ten.
5. PBB is everywhere. At last.

Bookstores nationwide had an understandable wait-and-see attitude toward the book’s saleability in the early going. Now most of the major chains appear to be stocking PBB. Check the parenting section of a bookstore near you!
4. The vanishing play

Strange goings-on this month at THE MEMING OF LIFE. PBB’s editor satirically vented some frustration with a certain online retailer in his blog and was swiftly called on the carpet by unseen forces with whom, he was reminded, his destiny is wonderfully entangled. Since the point of the satire had been to channel frustration into humor, the overserious response threw the editor for a loop, whatever that means. In order to restore his perspective that life is a dish best served silly, he began speaking of himself in the third person, scotched the whole blog entry, and set aside the troubling issues of corporate control of free expression and open critique, issues that now safely fester deep in his psyche. Tick. Tick. Tick.

3. Speaking engagement at Center for Inquiry, West

Just eight days after arriving in my new hometown of Atlanta, I flew to LA to address the Southern California chapter of Atheists United at CFI West on Hollywood Blvd. Nice folks, good questions, great setting in the Steve Allen Theater.
2. Editor moves to South, meets God’s people

Two weeks after moving from Minneapolis to Atlanta, the editor reads the Four Motivating Values for his son’s (public) community football league. Value #1: GOD. Editor has fun pretending to wife that he is arming for battle.
1. Whispers of television

There are whispers — early, unconfirmed whispers between trenchcoated, chain-smoking figures in unlit parking structures — that a well-known left-leaning cable talk show may invite the editor of PBB to be a guest this fall. No, not that one. Not that one either. Yes yes, that’s the one! Now shush.

mirror, mirror, in my head

My kids hate getting in trouble. They also hate actual punishment, of course, which is why we keep careful track of the things they love so we can yank them away when the time is right. It’s what parents and all other petty gods do.

But we don’t often get to the punishment, actually, or even to the threat of it. Just knowing Mom and Dad are seriously ticked is often enough to make our kids sit in shock, staring a hole in the carpet.

A few years back, Connor went through a phase when the words “I’m so disappointed in you” could dissolve him in tears.

It was a kind of Golden Age.

Whenever an interviewer asks on Earth how kids can develop a moral compass without the punishment and reward systems of religion, I think of scriptureless Connor begging us to turn off the hot light of human disapproval.

Though I have no favorites among the essays in Parenting Beyond Belief, one of my favorites is “Behaving Yourself: Moral Development in the Secular Family.” In it, Jean Mercer lays out Kohlberg’s six-stage model of moral development. Fear of punishment is the first and lowest stage. If something an infant does is followed by some kind of nasty consequence, it’s bad. If not, it’s good. Soon we add stage two, hope of reward.

Stage three is social approval and disapproval — the one that hits my kids hardest at the moment.

Fourth is the recognition of laws or rules as valuable in themselves. The Ten Commandments crowd is big on this one. Stage five is the social contract level, in which laws or rules are seen as desirable but made by consensus and potentially changeable as the consensus changes. (Religious commentators typically scream “Moral relativism!” at this point and swallow their tongues.)

The sixth and highest level of moral development is reached when a person thinks in terms of universal ethical principles and is occasionally willing to defend such principles at the risk of punishment, disapproval, or even death. Sitting at this particular moral pinnacle are such religious figures as Thomas More, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ, and such freethinkers as Michael Servetus, Galileo Galilei, and Thomas Paine.

But there’s another model Mercer presents that really goes to the heart of things, an “essential set of skills” called Theory of Mind. Listen to Auntie Jean:

Theory of Mind allows each person to be aware that behind every human face is an individual set of experiences, wishes, beliefs, and thoughts; that each of these sets is in some ways similar to and in other ways different from one’s own set; and that facial expressions and other cues can enable each of us to know something of how others feel and what they are going to do.

The development of Theory of Mind has already begun by nine or ten months, when a well-developed baby can already show the important step of joint attention. In this behavior, the child uses eye contact and movement of the gaze to get an adult to look at some sight that interests the baby and then to look back again, to gaze at each other and smile with mutual pleasure. Importantly, not only can the child do this, but he or she wants to do it, demonstrating the very early motivation to share our happiness with others—surely the foundation of empathic responses. Without this early development, it would hardly be possible to achieve secular values such as a concern with equal rights, a principle based on the understanding that all human beings have similar experiences of pleasure and pain.

But is the “motivation to share our happiness with others” the only foundation of empathy? Turns out not. And here’s where I start to break out in intellectual giddybumps.

Once in a long while, a scientific discovery of unusually sweeping explanatory power comes along. Big Bang theory snapped countless things about the universe into place with a CRACK. Evolutionary theory does likewise. The more thoroughly you understand what evolution is (and isn’t), the more you can see great thundering blocks of reality falling neatly into place. It is astonishingly, gorgeously, mind-blowingly, jaw-droppingly powerful.

(Yeah yeah…if I love it so much, why don’t I marry it. You are so immature.)

Another discovery on the order of the Big Bang and evolution was made not long ago in the area between your ears — in the three-pound dog’s breakfast we all carry around in our heads.

In your head are some neurons that fire whenever you experience something. Pick up a marble, yawn, or slam your shin into a trailer hitch, and these neurons get busy. No news there.

But this just in: These neurons also fire when you see someone else picking up a marble, yawning, or slamming a shin. They are called mirror neurons, and they have the powerful capacity to make you feel, quite directly, what somebody else is feeling. Here they are, in green:

mirror neurons

Whoa, whoa. Wait for it, now. But you do see where we’re going with this. The implications are gi-normous, since it means we’re not completely self-contained after all. No man is an island, and all that. We’re plenty vulnerable to the experiences and feelings of others. Mirror neurons are the reason that yawns are contagious. They are the reason we wince when we see a car door slam on somebody else’s fingers.

But first things first. Why did we evolve mirror neurons? Whenever my kids ask an evolutionary ‘why’ question, I ask them to think about what the absence of the feature would have meant.

Mirror neurons make teaching and learning much easier, for one. All primates have them, so it turns out monkey see, monkey do is a matter of hardware, not just software.

monkey see

When Cave-Kid saw Mom or Dad starting a fire, or picking berries, or spearing dinner on the hoof, mirror neurons would have made it much easier to duplicate the task him/herself. Populations without this cool adaptive anomaly would have had a selective disadvantage, resulting in fewer survivors over time, and voilà! Mirror neurons become the norm.

chimp and goodall

I have the absolute HOTS for evolution’s explanatory power. It still gives me the howling fantods after all these years.

Yummiest of all, the discovery of mirror neurons also provides a tantalizing hypothesis for why we seek to be good without gods. Without the hard-wired ability to feel what someone else feels, we really could be islands unto ourselves, indifferent to each other’s pain and suffering. Picture one population of mutually indifferent, self-centered creatures, and another in which empathy is the norm. Which population is going to survive to pass on its genes?

Oooooh, Darwin honey. Explain that to me one more time.

And look where we are now — we backed straight into that moral foundation. The single most powerful human moral imperative is the Reciprocity Principle: TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED. Christians may recognize their Golden Rule in there, but its origin is much older and its presence much more universal, from Brahminism (“Do not unto others what would cause you pain if done to you”) to Buddhism (“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”) to Humanism, clunky and wordy as usual (“Humanists acknowledge human interdependence, the need for mutual respect and the kinship of all humanity”) to Wicca (“Ain’ it harm none, do what thou wilt”).

I’ve always felt that empathy was a natural enough thing — but for those who need convincing, mirror neurons are the ticket. It takes very little to see, in this remarkable neural system, the root of empathy, sympathy, compassion, conscience, cooperation, guilt, and a whole lot of other useful tendencies. It explains my kids’ tendency to wither under disapproval, and the weight in my own chest during the recent fracas with my publisher. Thanks to mirror neurons, the accused feels the condemnation all the more intensely. Empathizing with someone else’s rage toward you translates into a kind of self-loathing that we call guilt or conscience. Once again, no need for a supernatural agent.

If nothing else, mirror neurons can put some meaningful data into one of those unbearably fuzzy old beer-besotted college dorm room discussions: Are humans inherently good, or inherently evil? We have tendencies toward selfishness, of course, but survival also requires tendencies toward cooperation. Mirror neurons don’t guarantee good behavior, but what does? What they do is all they need to do for our survival as a species: By allowing us to feel what others feel, they incline us away from pure selfishness and toward mutually beneficial behaviors, which works out well for everybody.

It’s just one more reason we’re still here, after all these years.

onward and upward

I’m going to show an uncharacteristic degree of self-control by commenting no further on my posting, deletion, revision, reposting, and redeletion of a brief satire about recent events in the book’s release. Even my apology was deemed problematic by certain people wiser than myself in such matters, so I just can’t go into it any further. Sorry, I know curiosity is probably killing both of my loyal readers, but life is too short and potentially fun to get mired in nonsense. Onward and upward.

Coming up instead: a fascinating entry on empathy and mirror neurons in which no corporate self-esteem is damaged! Stay tuned!

the iWord

[Creepy cover image from The Manipulated Mind:
Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination
by Denise Winn.]

There’s a smart and funny dad-blog across the pond (no no, the other pond — veer left and go long) at the Sydney Morning Herald called “Who’s Your Daddy.” Author Sacha Molitorisz blogged about parenting and religious issues in WYD the same week as my SMH interview about PBB.

(Okay…pulling back from the abyss of acronyms…)

How religious Sacha is himself I dunno — but with advice like this, who cares:

Both Jo and I want to give [our daughter] Edie the best education possible, and both of us want her to learn about religion and spirituality. Ultimately, we want her to make up her own mind about her beliefs, but we want her to do so from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. Ideally, we’d love her to know a little about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and more.

The question is: Which school is going to give Edie a balanced education about the world’s religions? In fact, is there such a school? Jo went to a Catholic high school, where she learnt, predictably enough, about Catholicism. I went to a secular public school, where I learnt nothing at all about religion. Perhaps the best Jo and I can hope for, rather than a school with a comprehensive spiritual syllabus, is a school that teaches some religion, and is unbiased in its lessons.

Edie’s a lucky kid. She’s growing up with a far-better-than-average chance to think for herself when it comes to religion, since she has parents who know that broad-based religious literacy without indoctrination is an indispensible part of that.

Sacha did get me a bit tetchy with this passage:

McGowan says that in his family there are no taboo subjects when it comes to spirituality. As he says, “My goal is to keep [my kids] open and off-balance until they are old enough to start deciding on their own position”….McGowan’s position raises an irony that’s often unspoken. People such as McGowan think they’re being completely impartial and inclusive in their approach to religious instruction. But the child of an atheist is being just as indoctrinated as the child of a devoutly religious person….One dad’s atheism will probably influence his child as profoundly as another dad’s Greek Orthodoxy – and a child will ultimately either absorb that spirituality or react against it.

I’d have nodded uncontrollably at that passage if Sacha had modified a single sentence:

But the child of an atheist is at no less risk of being indoctrinated than the child of a devoutly religious person…

The difference between the two phrasings is huge. The first is unintentionally cynical. It implies that there’s just no way to raise a child without indoctrination. Yet Sacha’s description of his own plans for Edie’s religious instruction sounds remarkably free of the iWord.

His plans also sound remarkably similar to mine.

What Sacha is recognizing is the inevitability of influencing our kids. There’s no use denying that, nor would I want to. I hope to influence my kids positively by what I do and say. And I wince in recognition of the dark side of influence when my less attractive mannerisms, words, opinions, and attitudes begin surfacing in the kids. Nothing quite as horrifying as seeing yourself through the glass of your children, darkly. Likewise, there’s little as thrilling as seeing positive seeds you’ve planted — patience, empathy, gratitude, honesty — bearing lovely fruit in a moment that could have gone either way.

Influence is sometimes passive and sometimes a matter of intentional teaching. In those moments of active instruction (“Don’t throw your gum wrapper out the window!”), we try to follow up with reasons (“What if everybody did that?”) to help the kids develop independent moral judgment. The first sentence only proscribed a single act. The second invoked a universal principle that can be applied again and again. That’s influence at its best: Teach a man to fish, and all that.

My kids know — and are surely influenced by — my religious views. But I go to great lengths to counter that undue influence, keeping them off-balance while they’re young so they won’t be ossified before they can make up their adult minds:

“Dad? Did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?”

“I don’t think so. I think that’s just a made-up story so we feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth about a hundred times if you want.”

That’s influence without indoctrination.

Indoctrination is another ball of cheese entirely. Princeton’s WordNet hits it right on the head, in my humble:

INDOCTRINATION (n.) Teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically.

Here’s one of my own:

INDOCTRINATION (n.) The pre-chewing of someone else’s intellectual food.

“Because I/God/the Pope/Scripture said so” is the frame in which indoctrination is most often hung. Non-religious parents should be less likely to parent by indoctrination, if only because they’ve seen the iWord from the outside. Yet many fall into it anyway. Silly monkeys. Take a lesson from Sacha, who has recognized the iWord from inside religion.

At the heart of indoctrination is the distrust of reason. The indoctrinator simply can’t entrust so important a thing as [insert doctrine here] to the process of independent reasoning.

But freethought parenting should have confidence in reason at its foundation. We ought to know that either reason leads to our conclusions or our conclusions ain’t worth the neurons they’re written on. Teach kids to think independently and well, then trust them to do so. And part of that education is encouraging them to resist indoctrination of all kinds — even if it’s coming from Mom and Dad.

[N.B. Wikipedia also has a very thoughtful entry on indoctrination.]

vive la différence

First, a bit of news: We’ve arrived in Atlanta and tentatively found our new home, and (following the Newsweek article) Parenting Beyond Belief hovered between 350 and 700 on Amazon — the top two hundredths of a percent — before cooling off a bit.

More on all that later. Right now I’ve a blogligation to fulfill. Several weeks back, a reader asked a great question: Why do I consider the line between “religious parenting” and “nonreligious parenting” to be meaningful? Isn’t the kind of parenting I advocate (unbounded questioning, a scientifically-informed, evidence-based worldview, questioning of authority, rejecting the notion of “sinful thoughts,” developing moral judgment instead of simple rule-following, etc. etc.) really just “good parenting”? Am I really saying that religious parents can’t do these things?

No, I’m not saying that — partly because I can’t.

Really. I can’t. It’s an absolute statement, you see — and twenty years immersed in the liberal arts, first as a student, then as a professor, left me completely incapable of making an absolute statement. (Well, not completely.) Go back and read my blog so far. I constantly use qualifiers like most, many, almost, and some because I am painfully aware that all generalizations are wrong.

Well…not all.

There is nothing that religious parents “can’t” do, nothing that is the exclusive purview of secular parenting — just as there is nothing that religious parents can achieve that I can’t.

So why make the distinction at all, then? Why describe something called “secular parenting” if it’s pretty much the same as good religious parenting?

Because though we can end up pursuing the same ends, they really aren’t the same. There is a profound difference in the context — the space in which religious parenting and secular parenting happen.

Both secular and religious parents can raise kids to value fearless questioning, require genuine evidence, question authority, and reject paralyzing ideas of “sin” and the demonization of doubt. But one of these worldviews encourages and supports those values, while the other discourages them. One lends itself to them; the other chafes against them.

(Psst: I’ll tell you which is which in a minute.)

Being a freethinking Christian is something like being a pro-choice Republican. Opposition to legalized abortion is one of the central, defining policy planks of the Republican Party platform. There are pro-choice Republicans, of course, but they surely recognize that their pro-choice position is at odds with their party’s ideology. They can still do it, of course, can still hold that dissenting position within a Republican identity, but when it comes to that issue, they’ll be swimming upstream, struggling against one of the defining values of their group.

Same with pro-war Quakers, acrophobic window washers, and Danny, the claustrophobic tunneler in The Great Escape. “Jeez, good luck with that” is about all I can think to say.

My hat’s off to any religious parent who encourages unrestrained doubt, applauds fearless questioning and rejects appeals to authority. Such religious parents are salmon swimming against one helluva mighty current. At the core of religious tradition and practice are the ideas that doubt is bad, that certain questions are not to be asked, and that church and scripture carry some degree of inherent authority. This varies among the denominations, of course, but some degree of these three will be present in virtually every flavor of the faith. (Five extra points for each weasel word or phrase you can find in that sentence.)

The great glory of secular parenting is that it embraces several key values that religion has traditionally suppressed and feared, allowing parents and children to turn away from that pointless, mind-juddering dissonance, to dance in the light of knowledge and to revel in questioning and doubting as the highest human callings, rivalled only by love.

Parenting Beyond Belief is about the ecstasy of parenting from a worldview that supports and encourages some of our most deeply-held values. That, then, is the difference. And vive la it.

As for those religious-parent salmon, swimming against the unhelpful currents of church tradition, heed this wisdom from the Book of Dory — just keep swimming, follow your conscience, and do what you can to help others see the light:

the red herring of relativism

red herring
Last week I watched from our front porch as my five-year-old daughter Delaney received a moral lesson on a subject that has fascinated philosophers for centuries: ant squishing. Her brother Connor — eleven years old and pro-life in the deeply literal sense — found Laney busily stomping her way into ant mythology on the front sidewalk.

“Laney!!” he screamed. “Stop it!”

“What for?” she asked without pausing. “There are lots of others.”

He spluttered a bit — then a classic grin spread across his face. He raised his foot and aimed the sole at her. “Well there are lots of other little girls, too!!”

She screamed and ran. The ants huzzahed, and Monkey-Who-Pointed-Foot-at-Other-Monkey-And-Saved-Many entered the colony lore.

My boy had applied a great critical thinking technique by using the faulty logic of his opponent to generate a ridiculous counter-example. I wondered from the sidelines if it would stick.

A few days later, as I loaded the last of the boxes for our move, I got my answer. Laney walked with her head hung low, doing the aimless, foot-scraping walk of the bored child in midsummer, then announced her intention to “go squish some ants.”

“Hm,” I said.

She stopped walking. “What?”

“Well, I dunno. Does that seem like a good thing to do, or no?”

She shrugged.

“Tell you what,” I said. “You think about it for a minute and let me know what you decide.”

“Okay.” She took a little walk around the yard and thought.

A person of a certain perspective will see in that moment the spectre of moral relativism. Such a silly person will claim that instead of informing Delaney of the right answer, I gave her permission to pick and choose her morality at random — to declare ant squishing good or bad on the toss of a coin.

That’s a red herring.*

A red herring is an argument used to distract attention from the real question at hand. I hate red herrings but love the origin of the term. British foxhunters kept a stinky smoked red herring in their saddlebags with a long string tied around the tail. When the sun was setting and the hunt was done, one rider would get ahead of the hounds and drag the fish across the fox’s trail so the dogs would be thrown off and retire for the day. I hope that’s a true story.

To prevent secular parents from pursuing the moral instruction of their children without religion, religious advocates often drag the stinking red herring of relativism across the trail. The invocation of moral chaos is so unsettling that many parents sign their kids up for Sunday School…you know, just in case. But a moment’s reflection makes it clear that there’s something between stone tablets and coin-flipping — between Thou shalt not and Whatever makes your weenie wiggle.

It’s called moral judgment.

I knew that Delaney knew the answer. Everyone knows the answer. Like most basic moral questions, knowing what’s right is not the hard part when your foot is raised above the skittering dots on the sidewalk. The challenge is to do what we already know is right. And the best foundation for that right action is the ability to say why something is right.

Not knowing right from wrong is so rare that it is a complete felony defense. Think about that. You are rightly considered barking mad if you fail to recognize the distinction. It’s so thunderously rare that the defense rarely succeeds. So why do we continue to pretend that our children’s moral development is best served by merely dictating lists of rules? Why could Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) say, with a straight face, that the Columbine shootings would have been prevented had the Ten Commandments been posted at the entrance? How can our understanding of moral development be so pit-scratchingly inept?

Instead of simply listing “thou shalt nots,” we ought to encourage our kids to discover and articulate what they already know is right, then ask them why it’s right. This, not the passive intake of rules, leads to the development of moral judgment, something that will allow them to think and act morally when we aren’t in the room with them.

Delaney came back after two minutes. “I’m not gonna squish ants anymore,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s what you decided?”


“Why did you decide that?”

“Because they should get to have a life, too,” she said. “Like me.” That old reciprocity principle. You can’t beat it.

Next time someone drags out that old red herring of “moral relativism,” nod and smile, knowing that you’re giving your kids something much richer than commandments — the ability to think morally.

*Critical thinking nitpickers (like me) will protest that this is really a straw man argument, not a red herring. I counter that the straw man is a type of red herring argument, and the Fallacy Files agree with me. So there. Plus I wanted to tell the story of the origin of the term. Plus “straw man of relativism” makes me yawn, whereas “red herring of relativism” — zing!
Oh, still reading, eh? Then I’ll tell you that Parenting Beyond Belief is profiled in the Beliefwatch column of the current (July 16) issue of Newsweek .] Now shoo.