Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

the days keep coming

Once again I’m humbled by a child. And this one’s not even mine.

One of the questions I get most often is how on Earth we can help our children to be “OK” with death. Or words to that effect. Like so many oft-repeated questions, it’s not quite the right one. It implies that I’m “OK” with death, for one thing, and I am NOT. It also implies that, when it comes to consideration of death, kids are in a more delicate position than adults.


An adult comforting a child about death is like a terminal cancer patient trying to make the guy next to him in the waiting room feel better about his restless legs syndrome. Prior to age eight, and often long afterwards, kids do not have a firm concept of the finality of death. And there’s the golden opportunity: get them pondering death while it’s a fuzzy shape on the horizon, before they really, truly get the purpose and inevitability of that swinging scythe.

But the traditional approach has been to shield kids from it during the very stage in which they could do some of their best and least fearful grappling. Then, once they’re old enough to grasp it more fully, they are blindsided by their first major encounter. Granny-in-a-box, perhaps. For me it was age thirteen, and my dad in the casket at 45 — the age I turned this morning, in fact.

Heh. I’m OK.

PBB contributor Kendyl Gibbons recommends emphasizing the continuity of life as one of her five affirmations in the face of death. The realization that life itself continues after the death of one person can be both comforting and something of a revelation for kids.

Like most such revelations, we don’t often have to feed it to them. A wondering child will find his or her way to it. Regular MoL visitor Jim Lemire dropped me a reminder that the youngest kids are capable of grappling with death in a subtle and profound way. Here’s Jim’s son Jack, three-and-a-half, discovering the continuity of life all by himself:

You know, days do keep coming even after you die. We know people who have died and the days still keep coming. So after we die, the days will keep coming.

Don’t look to adults for anything half that profound.
(Thanks to Jack’s mom Linda B. for the original post!)

Discovering Diversity: guest column by Roberta Nelson


Guest column by Rev. Dr. Roberta Nelson


Today when we welcome a child into the world, we know that it is a welcome into a constantly changing and challenging place. Our roles will include being parent, mentor, and guide. Our children, young people, and we ourselves cannot be sheltered from the many changes world presents. If we are not to stifle our children’s curiosity and questioning on this magnificent journey, we will need to be learning along with them.

Today the school system that my children attended includes a diverse Asian, African American, and Hispanic population. Within five years the white population will constitute a minority. In addition, there are new issues of class, gender, and politics

We cannot hide. This stunning diversity opens doors of understanding to religious rituals, language, foods, celebrations, clothing, and ceremonies. Being a companion and guide requires an open mind and heart. It invites us to let go of fears, misunderstandings, and prejudice. We need to acknowledge our own past learnings and experiences and to invite open conversation within the family about where we learned or experienced them and what has helped us to change. This way of being is not esoteric or removed. It is lived in the every day as we open ourselves to new understandings.

There are many doors to open:

    1. One of my family’s most memorable experiences was serving as a host family for a student from India while he attended university. In many communities there are opportunities to host high school students from other countries. Our young people could partake of similar experiences.

    2. One of our daughters served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She continues to share her experiences with groups and individuals of all ages. There are returning volunteers in most communities.

    3. I know of local schools where the whole school spends the year exploring one country through stories, music, art, food, and information. Some of the best resources are people in the community who have traveled or lived abroad. Families that travel can plan trips that provide a wide variety of discovery. For seniors, Elder Hostel is a valuable source of opportunities, some for children and their grandparents.

    4. Some of the richest and least expensive sources include your local library, PBS station, and local colleges or universities.

    5. The Yellow Pages can be a good resource for locating religious institutions in the area that we could otherwise overlook.

    6. Today, there is a wide array of stories for children of all ages that can open doors of understanding.

    7. Some museums specialize in particular cultures and groups, e.g., the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African Art are both part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Perhaps the hardest for some people to explore are the opportunities in our own workplace, schools, neighbors, play groups, and sports. The first step is often hardest. More than one overture may be necessary before a shared experience takes place.

It is crucial for nonreligious parents to include exposure to religious diversity. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

[I]n order to understand current world events, coworkers, neighbors, and friends, we need to be religiously literate. Parents especially need to help their children to be aware of the great diversity of faiths and cultures….Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from [religious] questions—you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them.…Regardless of whether we call ourselves religious, we are our children’s first and primary educators….If you do not provide the answers, someone else will—and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.

If you wish to visit a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, be sure to make arrangements in advance to explain that your children will be with you and why you are interested in coming. Be sure to have a family discussion when you return.

The challenge of our time is well summed up in words often attributed to Søren Kierkegaard, “To venture causes anxiety, not to venture is to lose oneself.”
THE REV. ROBERTA M. NELSON, DD is Emeritus Minister of Religious Education at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. She is coauthor of the curricula Parents as Resident Theologians, Parents as Social Justice Educators, and Parents as Spiritual Guides. She authored the essay “On Being Religiously Literate” in Parenting Beyond Belief. This column also appears in the February 20 issue of Humanist Network News.

wild thing

Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness

by Chris Mercogliano


Note the author’s hair and shirt:


Read the subtitle of his book.


Recall high school English:

Children reverting to their natural murderousness
in Golding’s LORD of the FLIES


Recoil in horror.


Send your kids to military school.

Mercogliano is to John MacArthur and Reb Bradley (of the previous post) as a walk in the woods is to a caning. They could hardly be more starkly opposed. He rightly rejects the notion that children are boiling pots in need of a lid, painting a well-supported picture instead of children as dough in need of yeast and room to expand.

I began reading In Defense of Childhood two weeks ago, only to have it snatched away by Becca, who is devouring it and feeding me selected, pre-chewed bits. The book is essentially a howl of protest against the current regime of one-test-fits-all education and the use of drugs and regimentation to beat what Mercogliano calls the “inner wildness” out of children.

Hes quick to counter what that phrase brings to many minds. He is not advocating chaos. He is, however, advocating a wider definition of what is acceptable and even what is good in our children’s emotional and intellectual explorations. And he backs it all up not with the hunches and personal preferences so many parenting authors use, but with sound research in the social and behavioral sciences. (I’ll post about some recent research shortly.)

One of his most heartfelt pleas is for parents to create some unstructured space and time around our kids — to limit, among other things, the two things that most constrict our kids’ freedom to explore the world and their own minds: electronic screens and organized activities.

Both of those things can be greatly beneficial to kids in reasonable doses, of course. But I agree with Mercogliano that we’ve tended in the direction of overdose in recent years. I have friends who carry their family schedule like a proud cross, noting that their daughter goes straight to piano lessons after school, then straight to swimming, then dinner, homework, and bed, with soccer and gymnastics on the weekend.

One such friend recently called on a Saturday afternoon to ask a favor. “What do you guys have going today?” she asked.

“Just hanging out,” Becca said.

“HA! Oh my gosh, you must be kidding.” She then rattled off the mind-juddering structure for her family’s day, with more than a hint of martyred pride.

Our kids do participate in group activities, and get a lot out of them, but we’re keen on protecting their unstructured, self-guided time as well. A few days ago, with Mercogliano on my mind, I decided to watch how Delaney (6) spent the five hours between getting home from school and bedtime. Here’s a very rough sketch:


Rode her bike.

I went outside to find yellow nylon ropes tied from the mailbox to a tree in the front yard, then up to the porch railing. I have no idea what they were for, but she loves to create worlds in her head and act them out.

Found Delaney on the couch in the basement, reading aloud to her dolls.

Laney played “Purble Place” on the computer.

Laney walked dog around the house on 16-foot leash. Several priceless Ming vases smashed to ruins.

Dinner (Mongolian beef and fried rice). Talked about the circus we saw on Monday and our planned trip to the beach in June. Laney told about a post-President’s Day exercise in her class. Each kid said what s/he would do as President. Laney said she would fix global warming and help ducks get through the ice on lakes to find their food. (Damned liberal! Say no to the duckish welfare state.)

I heard the sound of the Macarena coming from the living room. I didn’t even know we owned a recording of the Macarena. Laney had taped a string across a wide doorway and was doing the limbo to the music. We all joined her. As with all things requiring physical skill, I suck at limbo. Down came the string on my chin, and they laughed at me. So I put it up again and stepped over it. Who’s laughing now??

She played Candyland with Erin and Mom.

She read Oh, The Places You’ll Go! aloud to Mom.

Bedtime. Sang So Happy Together by the Turtles. What an unbeatable song.

The ability of my kids to play creatively and independently has come to pass mostly in spite of me, not because of me. I have many shortcomings as a dad, but Mercogliano and his trusty sidekick, Becca, have finally mostly cured me of one in particular, one that I’ve been fighting for years. When my kids climb a tree, I tend to yell, “Be careful!” When they climb the monkey bars, I tend to stand beneath them like a mother hen. When they start running up the sidewalk toward the park, I almost ALWAYS yell, “Don’t trip!” Stupid! Stupid! I am convinced that I do more harm to their inner wildness, sense of exploration, and personal confidence with all my clucking than any harm a skinned knee could ever do. I was kidding about the Ming vases, but there was a time when I would either (1) follow Laney around, fussing and fretting about damage both actual and possible, or (2) simply ask her not to walk the dog in the house. There was also a time when I would have tsked about tape on the woodwork and taken down her limbo string. Not kidding! I can be a complete idiot.

I’m getting better. She broke nothing, and the tape came off the woodwork just fine. And even when there is a broken glass or spilled juice or skinned knee, I’ve begun to accept it as a very small price to pay for the acres of freedom all around that little casualty. Laney had a great day, in part because it was hers to create and run around in. And because we try our best not to overhover or overschedule, she knows how. As she gets older, she’ll lose some of that freedom to homework and organized activities. But if we can get her hooked on unstructured, self-guided play now, she’s likely to jealously protect whatever free minutes she can to be a wild thing at every age.


A post by Judith Warner about the overscheduling issue
The Social Policy Report study to which she refers, which claims the syndrome is a myth
The Over-Scheduled Child by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD

drips under pressure

Christian parenting expert John MacArthur

I have no use for experts. An “ex” is a kind of has-been, and a “spurt” is just a drip under pressure.

That was one of my favorite jokes for several weeks in junior high. Ahh, such sophisticated wordplay, thought my be-pimpled self, something Gene Kelly’s wise-ass Hornbeck might have said in Inherit the Wind, cigarette bouncing at the corner of his smirk.

I’m up to my own smirk in experts right now — mostly parenting experts — as I continue the writing and research for a second book on parenting without religion, tentatively titled Building Satan’s Army, One Lil’ Soldier at a Time. I rarely read something that isn’t useful. Sometimes it’s solid and smart — I promise I’ll give you some excerpts from those eventually — but there are also the howling whoppers, terrifying nonsense from top-selling parenting authors, useful in a kind of don’t-let-this-happen-to-you way. I mentioned Joyce Meyer’s million-selling Battlefield of the Mind a few weeks ago— the one that warns us that reasoning can be harmful or fatal if swallowed:

Satan will look for your child’s weakest area and attack at that point. He will attempt to fill your child with worry, reasoning, fear, depression and discouraging negative thoughts.

I’ve run across some similarly ridiculous advice recently. The theme this time is the inherent depravity of our children. I’ve come to call this “boiling pot parenting” — the notion that, unless sat upon with great force, our kids will tend toward murderous psychopathy of the Lord of the Flies variety, and that our primary job as parents is to clamp the lid on the seething kettle of evil that lurks in our spawn.

You think I’m exaggerating. I can tell by your expression.

Here’s evangelical superauthor (170+ books) and radio minister John MacArthur from Successful Christian Parenting (Thomas Nelson, 1999):

The truth is that our children are already marred by sin from the moment they are conceived. The drive to sin is embedded in their very natures. All that is required for the tragic harvest is that children be allowed to give unrestrained expression to those evil desires.

In other words, children do not go bad because of something their parents do. They are born sinful, and that sinfulness manifests itself because of what their parents do not do.…There’s only one remedy for the child’s inborn depravity: The new birth — [to be ‘born again’].

More in this vein turns up in Reb Bradley’s innocuously-titled Child Training Tips: What I Wish I Knew When My Children Were Young (Foundation for Biblical Research, 2002):

Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered: he wants what he wants, his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncle’s watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He is dirty; he has no morals, no knowledge and no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children, but all children are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a killer, a thief, and a rapist.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that Reb, a “biblical parenting” enthusiast, is also wild about hard and frequent spankings, with paddles and other weapons. I don’t know if his subtitle (“What I Wish I Knew When My Children Were Young”) is meant to imply that his kids have turned out criminals, killers, gypsies, tramps or thieves. I rather doubt it. But if they did, I also doubt that insufficient thrashing was the cause.

Okay. Next time, I promise I’ll bring you some of the good guys — intelligent, insightful folks like Lucy Calkins and Chris Mercogliano. But for now, lemme just register my vote for the unintentional sad comedy of John, Joyce, and Reb:


ECCLESIASTES and SONG OF SONGS (bookin’ through the bible 9) – guest column by Timothy Mills

[back to EXODUS]

The Wise King’s Fans

Guest column by Timothy Mills at Friendly Humanist

I have the good fortune to cover two of the most humanist books of the Bible: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, both traditionally attributed to wise King Solomon. Ecclesiastes is a philosophical reflection communicating an old man’s existential angst; Song of Songs is an erotic exchange between two lovers.

My wife, Deena, put it this way: “Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes before he went on Prozac and Song of Songs after he went on Viagra.”

Let’s look a little deeper.


Identifying King Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes “is no more than a conventional literary device; the author commends his thoughts to the public under the name of the greatest sage in Israel.”1 I’ll follow David Plotz and the folks at Humanistic Texts in simply calling the author Koheleth (“teacher, leader of the assembly”), the original Hebrew word


which translates to Greek as


Hence “Ecclesiastes”.

The main theme of the book is Koheleth saying of many things “This is vanity”2, and his repeated declarations that “All is vanity”3. That’s 12 near-identical phrases, plus the odd use of the word “vanity” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes. The slightly punchier NIV translation uses the word “meaningless” here. The New King James version offers “Absurdity, Frustration, Futility, Nonsense” as further alternatives in a footnote. When we look at the original Hebrew, we find that “The roots of the word hebel


indicate vapor, fog, steam, breeze or breath…. they all describe something that is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent.”

Aha! “Vanity”, “meaningless”, and the others are editorial extrapolations by early translators. Now we see the original sense more clearly: Everything is ephemeral; Everything is transitory. This is a difficult fact of life faced by humanists and others who do not believe in an eternal afterlife.

No discussion of Ecclesiastes would be complete without mentioning the first eight verses of chapter 3. You’ve probably already heard them – here’s the start:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;

And so on. Some of the lines are questionable (“a time to kill”, “a time to hate”, “a time for war”), but the overall sentiment is reassuring – even to a humanist. Farmers must accept the seasons as they come; living creatures must accept the cycles of life. Naturally, these lines are popular for funeral readings.

The lines that follow, however, say that God ordains the time to do each thing. Is it possible to read the first eight verses without the taint of divine predestiny?

Here’s another recurring theme in this philosophical retrospective on a wise man’s life: we are told six times that the really good things in life are eating, drinking, and enjoying your work and its fruits4. Rather than simply calling this shallow hedonism, we could reasonably interpret it – especially the “enjoying your work” bit – as promoting human flourishing. Humanist philosophers and religious skeptics such as Socrates and Paul Kurtz express similar sentiments, coining words like eudaimonia and eupraxsophy to express the idea. Combine this with what we learn from his repeated use of the word “ephemeral”, and it’s easy to think of Koheleth as an early existential humanist. Cool.5


Unfortunately, a later editor felt that such religion-free morality was not appropriate for the Jewish scriptures, and added these two verses: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ec 12:13-14)

Twelve chapters of telling us that there is no ultimate good, nothing lasts forever, and the greatest worldly good is human well-being, and then we get the old obedience mantra that we first met in the Garden of Eden, as if it is the natural conclusion to draw from what went before. This complete U-turn suggests to non-believers and believers alike that the God-fearing stuff was tacked on some time after Koheleth composed the main body of the book.

My recommendation: do as they do at Humanistic Texts. Lop off the unnecessary addendum, and take this as a good work of humanist philosophy, poetically-presented.

Song of Songs

Now, let’s see what we can make of Solomon’s other masterpiece, Song of Songs. Reading through from Ecclesiastes into the Song, you have to agree that either these two books were written by different people, or Deena was right that there was a severe shift in the author’s pharmaceutical habits between books.

In fact, the Song is probably no more Solomon’s work than Ecclesiastes was. As its Wikipedia page notes, “It was common practice in ancient times for an anonymous writer seeking recognition for his work to write eponymously in the name of someone more famous.”

What about the content? The Song is packed with a wide variety of romantic and erotic images. It is clearly an exchange between two lovers, with some comments thrown in by others. It is not always obvious who is speaking where, though the NIV and NJB translations try to suggest divisions, with headings like “Lover” for the man, “Beloved” for the woman, and “Friends” for other speakers.6

The man compares his lover to a mare; her eyes are doves; her lips taste like honey.7 She says his eyes, too, are like doves; he is like a gazelle or young stag. His skin is golden, his hair is dark and wavy, his legs are like marble.8 So far so good – modern poems and songs contain similar (sometimes identical) imagery.

But not all of the metaphors are so familiar, nor so complimentary to modern eyes.

Hair like a flock of goats”? From a distance, perhaps a big flock of goats flowing down a slope could evoke cascading hair. Teeth like a flock of shorn ewes”? From the context (“all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved”), we must presume he’s telling us she has all her teeth, and maybe that they’re white. Fair enough if you’re living with bronze-age dentistry, but don’t try it in a Valentine’s Day card these days!9


I’m afraid I don’t know exotic fruit well enough to speculate about cheeks like pomegranates, and I’m completely lost when it comes to a neck like the tower of David with a thousand warriors’ shields hanging on it. Breasts like twin fawns may sound cosy and pleasant, though my knowledge of infant ungulates suggests they’re rather scrawny and leggy rather than round and bosom-like.10


With all that, you can’t blame the translators for trying in small ways to translate the imagery to contemporary romantic themes. The rose mentioned in 2:1


is a crocus in the original Hebrew.


There’s other imagery – gardens, locked gates, myrrh – but you get the idea. I’ve left the sexiest metaphors for you to find and enjoy on your own (or, preferably, with a companion).

We now have some idea what images the ancient Jews considered sensual or erotic. We can also infer that the author of this book found sex to be fun.

Which it is! Sex is a delight, physiologically and socially. Humans are adapted to wanting and enjoying sex. It is wired into us as a way of reinforcing pair bonding and maximizing our reproductive chances.

It is also at the root of what we value most: human life. The ancestors of every human on the planet (every animal of any kind, and most plants, for that matter) have been reproducing sexually for about 2.5 billion years. No sex would mean no life as we know it.

The author of the Song didn’t know just how long the history of sex is, but he almost certainly knew that sex leads to children. Even that, however, is not mentioned in the Song – and rightly so. When desire is upon us, it is not the consequences of sex that consume our minds, nor the historical precedents, nor its role in abstract moral philosophy.

It is the act itself. The raw, physical union of two people. This is what caresses the minds of lovers, what tempts and lures and pleases.

And this is what the Song is all about. It is about the fire that awakens in adolescence and, properly honoured and nurtured, doesn’t die until we do.

“Solomon’s” books

In Ecclesiastes we have a work of non-theistic moral philosophy, and in Song of Songs we have an erotic cavort through the poetic metaphors of a pastoral culture. The authors of both were big enough fans of Solomon, the wise king, that they credited their books to him. Both made it into the central canons of the Jewish and later the Christian scriptures. And both books, for the most part, convey secular humanist sentiments. What a pleasant reprieve to find, in a collection of bad science, repressive laws, and unlikely miracles, the odd book of humanist-friendly wisdom and joie de vivre.

[forward to LEVITICUS]



1From the commentary in print version of the New Jerusalem Bible – see also Wikipedia’s entry on Ecclesiastes.

2Ec 2:15, Ec 2:19, Ec 2:21, Ec 2:23, Ec 2:26, Ec 4:4, Ec 4:8, Ec 5:10, Ec 7:6

3Ec 1:2, Ec 3:19, Ec 11:8

4Ec 2:24, Ec 3:12-13, Ec 3:22, Ec 5:18, Ec 8:15, Ec 11:8

5This is leaving aside, of course, Koheleth’s brief lapses into nihilism (Ec 7:1-4) and misogyny (Ec 7:28).

6The feminist in me would love to rant about the linguistic sexism implicit in these translations that give the male the active label “Lover” and the woman the passive label “Beloved”, but I have too little space to make it more than a footnote.

7So 1:9; So 1:15, 4:1; So 4:11

8So 5:12; So 2:9, 2:17, 8:14; So 5:11, 14, 15; So 5:11; So 5:15

9So 4:1; So 4:2

10So 4:3; 4:4; 4:5

the hurrier i go

My harried spin through early spring continues, and now I see the blog’s been idling curbside for a full week. Can’t be good for global warming.

Just returned from a terrific trip to DC, where I (along with Nothing author Nica Lalli) spoke to a large and attentive crowd at the Center for Inquiry there. They’re hoping to get a secular parenting program jumpstarted there, and I’m always happy to help such a thing.

February 17 is the first topical webinar — Secular Family, Religious World — and I’m busily finishing the PowerPoint and notes for that one while prepping for the Seminar Tour, which launches in Minneapolis on March 1 before continuing to Raleigh on the 15th and Albuquerque on the 22nd. And the first draft of the second book is due on February 29th.

Not whining. Just freaking out. Not the same.

At any rate, the last thing I can fit in is an intelligent discursion on Leviticus and Deuteronomy for the Meming of Life, so I’m forced to shuffle the order a bit. Later today I’ll post a guest column by the fabulous Timothy Mills on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. It’s extremely well done, so do check that out.

the best kind of ignorance


Connor (12) came across the word “dogma” in his social studies homework the other day and asked me what it means.

“Hmm, dogma,” I said. “Well, a dogma is a religious belief that a church says must be accepted without question.”


If I tagged the html correctly on the word above, it’s an inch high and bright red, which is how it came out of his mouth. It made me jump.

“What…what do you mean, What?”

“If you can’t question it,” he said, incredulously, “how can you find out if it’s really true?!”

I was completely taken by surprise. He was literally standing there in slack-jawed disbelief.

My regular readers might be surprised by my surprise. There’s a line I include in all of my talks and many of my articles — something about my children never having heard of unaskable questions. It also occurs in the intro to the “I’m *so* glad you asked” page of the blog, phrased like so:

My hope in creating this page is to capture just a little of the electric thrill I get from being the father of three bighearted and curious kids who’ve never heard of such a thing as an unaskable question.

But when I’ve said my kids have “never heard of such a thing as an unaskable question,” I’ve always meant it a tad…you know…hyperbolically. I meant that they wouldn’t recognize the validity of such an idea. It never occurred to me that my kids — least of all my twelve-year-old — had literally never heard of such a thing as an unaskable question. I mean, come on.

But when I asked him, he assured me that he had never, ever heard someone say a certain question could not even be asked. Ever. My definition of dogma had shattered the best kind of ignorance for my boy. The unaskable question was quite literally a new (and completely asinine) concept to him.

My work is done here.

buddy x

123 meme

I’ve been tagged by Tim Mills at The Friendly Humanist with the 1-2-3 blogmeme. Because memetics is one of the founding concepts and namesake of this blog (and because it’s quick), I’ll dood it!

The rules are these:

1. Pick up the book nearest you with at least 123 pages. (No cheating!)
2. Turn to page 123.
3. Count the first five sentences.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five other bloggers.

Ladies and gentlemen, the nearest book at the moment is none other than the NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition.

*flip flip flip*

Page 123 is in the heart of Exodus. Moses has received the Ten Commandments (and then some); now the question is where to put them. God gives very precise instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, the table for the bread of the Presence, and the tabernacle (“Make loops of blue material along the edge of the end curtain in one set, and do the same with the end curtain in the other set”). The three sentences I am supposed to quote relate to the building of the table:

Overlay it with pure gold and make a gold molding around it. Also make around it a rim a handbreadth wide and put a gold molding on the rim. Make four gold rings for the table and fasten them to the four corners, where the four legs are.

Words to live by.

(I’ll tag others in a few days.)

Bertrand Russell’s other value

First, for the record: I intend to post on Leviticus and Deuteronomy soon, soon. I am wrestling with the triple difficulty of (1) rolling too many stones up too many different hills at once, (2) dealing with an increasingly severe cold, and (3) feeling repulsed by the books in question every time I open them. I will combine the two into a single entry and be done with it. Soon. Then you’ll get to read Timothy Mills’ truly terrific take on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. In the meantime…


Just finished reading The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. A fascinating person, clear thinker, lucid writer, and tremendous influence on me. All nonreligious parents would enjoy and ought to read the first two chapters (Childhood and Adolescence).

My stubbornly naive tendency is to picture such people as Russell gliding through life on a cloud of philosophy, observing the human condition from a higher elevation, untrammeled by the things that so trammel me and my ilk. A good look at Russell’s life cures a chap of this nonsense plenty quick. What a mess! Bertrand Russell was one very trammeled and very human guy.

One passage in particular would have been worth reading the whole book just to get:

Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness. (vol 2, p. 232)

I touched on this several weeks ago in a post about what Christians generally do better than secularists:

[Freethought groups] fret and fuss over the urgent need for more rationality in the world, completely ignoring more basic human needs like unconditional acceptance. Most people do not go to church for theology—they go for acceptance. They go to be surrounded by people who smile at them and are nice to them, who ask how their kids are and whether that back injury is still hurting.

Freethought groups are not often good at making people feel welcome and unconditionally accepted. Whenever I walk in the door of a new group, either to attend or as a speaker, I mill around and look at the walls for ten minutes before someone says something. It’s a painful ten minutes for anyone, and makes them less likely to return. Get a greeter at the door to welcome new faces in and introduce them around.

Until we recognize why people gather together—and that it isn’t usually “to be a force for rationality”—freethought groups will continue to lag light years behind churches in offering community.

Nonreligious folks are not unkind. Many are the gentlest and kindest people I know. But as a movement, we too seldom recognize the importance of talking once in a while about human emotional needs — until those moments when we are feeling “the opposite of triumphant” and find ourselves, as individuals, looking for a kind word or thought or deed to come our way.

As a parent, I find myself more upset by the unkindnesses my children do — especially to each other — than by any fuzziness of thought. And I find it harder to forgive my own lapses in the former than in the latter.

rule, britannia

union jack

I love the UK. The six months I lived there were the best of my life. When I return — and Zeus knows I will — I will hug a lamppost in Charing Cross, and all the Queen’s horses and men will not budge me. Enough intelligence, wit, history, beauty, eccentricity, originality and ennui is packed into those little islands to satisfy my many hungers for the rest of my days.

One reason I find it attractive (not by any means the most significant, but one) is the normalized presence of religious disbelief. For a small taste of how deeply different the British religious situation is, watch this recent PSA by the British Humanist Association. You’ll want to see it more than once to take in all of the information and implications:

Now picture anything remotely like it in the U.S.