Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

hopeful music

Last night a memory bobbed to the surface of Delaney’s brain — something I’d said in passing a good two years ago when she was four.

The Halberstadt organ

“Remember that music that’s been playing for my whole life?” she asked at bedtime. “I wonder if it’s still playing.”

“Huh? Oh…that! Yes, it is!” I retold the story, thrilled that she finds it as cool as I do:

“There was a composer who lived a long life and died not too long ago. His name was John Cage. His music wasn’t like anyone else’s because he didn’t just want to entertain people. He wanted them to think and wonder and even laugh. Mostly he wanted them to think about music in a new way.

“He wrote one piece I especially like. Wanna hear it?”


I sat in silence for thirty seconds. “Okay, that was it. Well, just part of it.”

She looked puzzled. “Just…being quiet?”

“Well…was it really quiet?” I asked.

“No! I heard Max [the guinea pig] making little noises. And the ceiling fan going whoosh whoosh.”

“That’s the idea. This composer wanted us to hear all the sounds around us and to think of it as music that’s playing all the time. So he wrote a piece of silence to make us hear all the stuff we usually ignore.”

“That’s so cool.”

Many of you will have heard of this piece, which is called 4’33” and consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It can be performed, Cage said, on any instrument or combination of instruments and in any number of movements. But that’s not the piece she was asking about. “And he wrote another piece for organ called ‘As Slow as Possible.'”

“That’s the one!”

“And then some people decided to play it really slow — so slow it would last for 639 years. They found a little church in the middle of Germany that wasn’t used anymore, and they built a special organ just to play this one piece of music.

“It started playing seven years ago on September 5th, 2001. But the music starts with a rest — a silence in music — so the first thing you heard was nothing! For seventeen months!”

“Haha! Weird!”

“And right in the middle of that silence — you were born.”

“Awesome,” she whispered.

She was right. Somehow, juxtaposing her birth and that silence was awesome. Even better: The bellows sprung to life on that day in September, and pumped away for twenty months as the only sound in the church. Once again, music without music.

“Then one day in the middle of the winter, when you were one and a half, the first notes started to play. Hundreds of people gathered in the little church to hear the notes start. Most of the time, though, the notes are playing with no one there. Little weights hold down the keys. Then every two years or so, it’s time for the notes to change again, and people come from around the world to hear it.”

You Are Here: the first chords and their dates (day-month-year)

“And it’s still playing right now?”

“Yep, it’s playing right now. And here’s the thing: It will be playing on the moment you graduate from high school and when you graduate from college. It will be playing when you get your first job, when you get married, and when your kids are born.

“The music that started the year you were born will still be playing at the end of your life. It will be playing when your grandchildren are born and when they die, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and on and on, for 639 years.”


“Just think how different the world will be then.”

“I wonder if they will be different creatures from us then [one of her favorite ponders]. Like we used to be different animals a long time ago.”

“Fun to think about, eh?” I kissed her on the head and she drifted off.

The Cage project will strike some people as bizarre or silly. There was a time it would have hit me that way, back when I thought 20th century art and music was one big con game. But the more I think about the slowest piece of all time, the more it moves me.

The church is in Halberstadt, Germany. Suppose someone had started playing a piece of music in Halberstadt 639 years ago, in 1369. The Ming dynasty in China was one year old. Europe continued to reel in disorder one generation after the Black Death. The music would have ushered in the dawning of the Renaissance, the voyages and outrages of the New World explorers, and the scientific and artistic revolutions of the 16th century.

Luther’s Reformation and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries would have raged around it. It would have been playing as the town itself changed hands from Prussia to Napoleon’s Westphalia and back to Prussia before becoming part of Saxony, then Germany, playing as Allied bombs fell in 1945, as the town was closed into communist East Germany and as it was returned to the heart of reunified Germany.

Would that piece have found its way to the last barline?

Starting a piece of music implies an intention to finish it. So starting a 639-year piece is, among other things, an extraordinary statement of human hope. it implies that we may still be here in 639 years, and that the intervening generations, with all their own changing concerns and values and ordeals, will nonetheless pick up the baton and run with the project we have begun. It is, in other words, a perfect metaphor for human life itself.

The aesthetics of the piece, as with so much of the music of Cage, are immaterial. It’s the idea that moves me. To hear the chord currently being played is to connect yourself to the recent past and the distant future in a way never before quite possible. That’s part of the reason that every time the chord changes, hundreds of people come from around the world to hear it happen.

The last chord change was in May of 2006, the month I resigned my college professorship. The next change is this Saturday, July 5, 2008.

Thanks to the hopeful gesture of even beginning such a thing, I can picture it finishing. So long as we can keep from killing each other, cooking the planet, or blowing up Halberstadt with technologies still undreamt — and if Jesus can hold off a little longer on his glorious return — then maybe, just maybe, our optimism will have been justified.

Hear the current chord

A nice piece in the Times

An audio slideshow

thinking by druthers 2

[Second installment in a series on confirmation bias. Back to Part 1.]

An audience member at my Austin talk asked a good and common question. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris apparently made the case that those who do not hold religious beliefs must be willing to challenge the irrational beliefs of their friends and neighbors. (I say “apparently” because I started but didn’t finish EOF. I am the choir, he had me at hello, and I had other fish to fry.)

Dogged by doubts? Try rose-colored glasses

“So,” asked Audience Guy, “do you agree that we should more actively challenge the irrational beliefs of friends and neighbors?”

I said no.

I know this will strike a lot of y’all as heresy, and it depends on the relationship in question — but I don’t think we should make a general practice of confronting people we know and challenging their beliefs uninvited. I am opposed to aggressive evangelism of ALL kinds. And not because it isn’t “nice.” The reason is that uninvited personal critiques of belief, especially of irrational ones, are almost never effective. Of the scores of people I know who have given up religious beliefs, approximately zero did so as the result of an uninvited challenge by another person.

There are all sorts of things we can and should do to make it more likely that they challenge themselves, but you can’t force another person to think. You can help another person become curious enough to invite the discussion, in part by being a visibly contented nonbeliever yourself. Once you have an invitation from the other side, a lot is possible. Otherwise, forget it.

“But but but…I have such a great argument!” You crack me up. Sit down and listen. The very idea of argumentation is based on the premise that you’re after the truth. It works brilliantly when a person is convinced of the virtues of the scientific method, convinced that there is nothing so beautiful as reality and nothing so ugly as self-deception.

But traditional religious belief isn’t arrived at by a critical determination to avoid error. It is arrived at by the focused determination to confirm one’s biases. Now, quite suddenly, you are asking a person to switch pole stars — to reorient his or her entire way of thinking from confirmation bias to a love of reality wherever it lies.

You’re funny. No no, in a good way.

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift, supposedly. If you have ever tried to argue a religious point with a fervent believer, only to see the goalposts move and terms redefine themselves in midair, you know what he was talking about. But you may not have known why: the other person is working from an entirely incompatible operating system. Stop being surprised that he can’t open your attachments.

A lifetime of cherry-picking evidence on the basis of its confirmation value rather than assessing its value as evidence can lead people into unintentional hilarity. The more they surround themselves with nodding people who are busily confirming the same biases, the more hilarious it gets. The nonreligious are by no means excluded from this disease — more on that in part 3. But traditional religion, founded as it was on the principle of confirmation bias, is an especially fun source of rib-tickling.

Search ye in vain for a more perfect title

During some down time in my room before my May presentation at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst NY, I indulged in one of my favorite masochistic pastimes: watching EWTN, the Global Catholic Network. A panel discussion was under way, and a priest was going off on the evils of condoms, of homosexuality, of abortion — anything, really, other than unprotected-face-to-face-one-man-on-top-of-one-woman-he-is-married-to-resulting-in-baby-sex. (You know…like the kind priests have.) There was never a risk that the rest of the panel would do anything but nod, so of course his statements got ever-stranger and ever-less-supportable.

Finally he hit bottom. “And why do you think there is a priest shortage?” he asked. “That’s right: abortion! Nothing could be more obvious.”

Nod, nod, nod.

The next topic was end-of-life care. “Too many doctors are woefully ignorant of Catholic bioethics,” said an expert on, presumably, Catholic bioethics. “They will, for example, pull the plug on a patient merely because all brain activity has ceased.”

Nod, nod.

“What they fail to realize is that the suffering of the body in those final hours may be necessary to get that person into Heaven.”

Nod, nod.

“By denying the person that suffering, the doctors, in their ignorance, may be contravening God’s will by denying a chance at redemption.”

Nod, nod.

“And by moving so quickly, they may be denying God the chance to intervene miraculously to bring that person back.”

Nod, nod.

These are very close to verbatim. I was writing as fast as my little paw could push the pen.

An outsider looks at such a fatuously silly misuse of the neocortex with astonishment — and out spill the arguments. Wasn’t the plug contravening God’s will, and the removal of the plug restoring God’s intended situation? Does God, who exists outside of time and space, actually need “time” to perform a miracle? How much, exactly? Yes, yes, yes. Fine.

But those around her are having their own biases confirmed — so nod go the many heads, and she digs deeper and deeper for nonsense.

WE ALL DO THIS, myself included, as noted in the last installment. The key is to make yourself vulnerable to disconfirmation, to be in the room with people who will call you on it when you make a bias error, and to be properly embarrassed when it happens.

Need more? Enjoy this, remembering all the while that the arguments apply only to bananas — especially at 0:19, 0:41, and 0:51:

“Seriously, Kirk,” he says — which is how you know he’s serious.

Yes, fine, these are fairly extreme examples. But I think the essence of religious thought as confirmation bias is nicely captured, as is the essence of the difference between religion and science. Next time I’ll finish up by showing what it is that makes science work differently. And psst…it isn’t the superior moral or even intellectual fiber of scientists.

[On to Part 3.]

reaching out to harry AND sally (3 of 3)

by Dale McGowan

[Third and final installment of the cover story in the current issue of Secular Nation. Back to part 1 and part 2.]


But what do we need to do to move farther? For one thing, we need to serve the needs of people who are quite different from Harry.

Harry was a freethought pioneer because he did not have the same needs or wants as most other people. He was able to leave the church behind because he was exceptional in this way. When people talk to me about the need for community or wax poetic about “something larger than myself” or seeking the “spiritual side” of life, my eyes glaze over. I mutter something about all the other ways in which I achieve community, about how I walk in the woods to get in touch with the transcendent, and so on. It’s all a tad forced. The truth is that I don’t feel these needs in quite the way I hear others express them.

As a result, I and all the rest of those with Harry personalities — whether male or female, and of whatever age or ethnicity — get together and talk quite happily about science and truth and reason. It’s not me I’m worried about—it’s Sally, left standing awkwardly by the coffee urn for ten paragraphs now.


Desperate for something to do, she ambles over to a table of books for sale. Every book without exception is about science, philosophy, critical thinking, or the debunking of religion or the paranormal. She meekly drifts to a group in conversation. Some religious dogma or other is being debunked with a flurry of critical argument and a smug, chuckling sneer.

Is there anything in the world less bearable than smugness, whether religious or secular? Anything?

I don’t know if I can keep up, she thinks. Rather than being welcomed into an accepting community, she has the distinct feeling she’d better watch what she says, lest she reveal some substandard thinking. Most of all, she is painfully aware that the chuckling sneer is directed at who she was the previous week.

The meeting begins to coalesce. After a few announcements, the speaker is introduced. And what will our new visitor hear for the next 45 minutes? Here’s a quick sampling of recent freethought meeting topics around the country:

    Jesus of Nazareth—Historical, Mythical, or Some of Each?
    Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
    Revelation Trumped by the Constitution
    The Enlightenment and the Self
    Who Wrote the Gospels?
    Church/State—Strict Separation or Accommodation?
    Debate: “To Believe or Not to Believe”

I’m interested in every one of these topics. Of course I am—I’m Harry. Sally though, not so much. If she comes again and has the same experience—an indifferent reception, an atmosphere of critical disdain, and a debunking lecture—the third time will rarely be a charm. Our brilliant, attractive outreach efforts will have been in vain.

I’ve heard it protested that I’m comparing apples and oranges. Freethought groups are not churches. They can’t be. This is true, of course—but if our prospective members seem to be allergic to oranges, might it be wise to take a closer look at them apples?


Rather than being welcomed into an accepting community, she has the distinct feeling she’d better watch what she says, lest she reveal some substandard thinking. Most of all, she is painfully aware that the chuckling sneer is directed at who she was the previous week.

A recent post by SecularFuture, a moderator on the Internet Infidels discussion board, summed it up very well:

Religious communities are often filled with social events, music, poetry, inspiration, and life advice. It can be very difficult for someone to give all of this up for a few science books, Internet forums, and an arsenal of ammunition to use against the religious. Where is the poetry? Where is the inspiration?… Although many of us have already found meaning without religion, we should probably try to help those who haven’t.1 [Emphasis added.]

Fortunately, and at long last, many groups across the country are doing just that—expanding their topics, improving the atmosphere of their meetings, and turning to ever-greater involvement in good works. In addition to sponsoring a strip of highway, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry began a marvelous “revolving charities” campaign last September, designating one charity each quarter as a spotlight beneficiary. In less than a year, thousands of dollars have gone toward orphan relief, domestic violence support services, medical research, and a residential facility for troubled youth. A few other groups are doing likewise. And from Portland to Albuquerque to Raleigh, nonreligious parenting groups and ethical education programs for kids are springing up, adding a family focus, more gender equity, and young blood.

The future of outreach

In one way, I worry that our current positive outreach efforts are too friendly—that they advertise a kinder, gentler freethought than actually exists yet on the ground. I hope both the sizzle and the steak can progress in tandem toward an even more humanistic future. I’d like to see soup kitchen, food pantry, and Habitat volunteering2 added to the freeway cleanups. I’d like to see a Tree of Compassion to complement the Tree of Knowledge. And I’d like to see a future billboard that moves beyond the lovely “you are not alone” to “you are warmly welcomed, just the way you are!”

“The good life,” said Bertrand Russell, “is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Thanks to Harry, we’ve got knowledge tackled. In the interest of Sally, and the millions like her, it’s time to match our beautiful outreach efforts with greater emphasis on compassion, emotion, humanity, and love.

[N.B. Though I’ve tried to make it explicit throughout this article, I feel the need to reiterate that both Harry and Sally are archetypes. There is certainly gender, age, and ethnic variation on both sides. But I think it is especially important to recognize that organized freethought tends older, whiter, and maler than the population average.]
1Thread begun by forum moderator SecularFuture.
2 All of which are currently done by a few locals, and kudos to them.

reaching out to harry AND sally (2 of 3)

by Dale McGowan

[A continuation of the cover story in the current issue of Secular Nation. Back to part 1.]

The public response

It’s always dicey to draw conclusions from the more obvious public responses to our efforts. The disgruntled are much more likely than the gruntled to make their opinions known. A journalist I know estimates that an angry reader is eight times more likely to go to the trouble of making her views known than a happy one. If the mail she receives after an article runs 8-to-1 negative, she figures public opinion was evenly split. If on the other hand the negatives are only 3-to-1, she reads it as an overwhelmingly positive response.

When we measure the success of an atheist outreach effort, it’s crucial to shrug off a certain amount of noise. It’s a given that some wingnut will take it upon him or herself to throw the occasional Holy Hand Grenade. So it’s not surprising that highway signs for Atheists United have been vandalized, nor that the Tree of Knowledge display was repeatedly damaged. Reacting calmly to such nonsense can win even more hearts and minds.

Now consider the fact that all three efforts report a considerable number of positive comments and positive press coverage and you begin to realize just how effective it can be to promote our worldview in a major key.

The third step
The third step in the courtship is the real challenge. Once freethought has made itself noticed and won hearts with our lovely smile, it’s time to deliver the goods. Though there’s movement in the right direction, I’m still concerned about our readiness for prime time. There’s a long way to go before we can call ourselves fully enlightened on the subject of what people are looking for—but at least we’re fumbling mightily for the light switch.

Until very recently, I didn’t even see too much of that. I’d hear the occasional grumble at freethought meetings about why the numbers remained so low, the median age so high, and the modal gender so male. And then, in a dismissive grunt, I’d hear the same conclusion, over and over: They’re all just brainwashed.

This is our very own God Delusion.

The persistent delusion I hear from freethinkers is that people go to church for God. If we could just break through their belief in God, goes the argument, they’ll walk away from church. It isn’t true, and we need to grasp this, once and for all, if we are ever to capitalize on these brilliant outreach efforts, bringing people in the door and keeping them there. If we don’t have what they are looking for—and by and large, we don’t yet—they will walk right out again. And by and large, they do.

I mentioned this disconnect to a gentleman in a freethought meeting last year and he scoffed. “Sorry,” he said. “If eternal life and pretty fables are what they need, we’re fresh out.” He didn’t seem inclined to question his assumption. In fact, I’m convinced the revolving door on freethought meetings isn’t about the absence of God but the absence of something much more human.

The human hug

In a recent Gallup poll, only 27 percent of respondents directly mentioned God when giving their primary reason for attending church. They go to be a part of a loving community, for a sense of belonging, to be inspired and supported, to be involved in social justice and good works. One friend told me she goes so she can be surrounded by friendly people once a week. Simple as that. Yet we harp and harp on theology and epistemology.

Suppose our outreach efforts are successful. A young woman—let’s call her Sally—sees the Tree of Knowledge or one of the freeway signs. It’s that last little nudge she needed. One Sunday morning she decides to check out a freethought meeting instead of pewsitting. She finds a local group and goes to a meeting.

Sally walks in the door of the meeting with a nervous smile. A few men are setting things up. No one acknowledges her. Ten minutes after milling about awkwardly, reading scattered pamphlets and counting ceiling tiles, she crosses paths with one of the men.

“Visitor?” he asks.

“Yes, I am, hello!” she replies.

“Hello, good to meet you,” he says. “Help yourself to coffee and nametags over there.” And off he goes to set up the chairs.

Sally has just met Harry.

I heart Harry…but does Harry heart Sally?
Imagine for a moment a future theocracy in the U.S. (Go ahead, make your jokes about the word “future” being unnecessary. I’ll wait.) Freethinkers have been implicated in a series of thought crimes, and the police have been ordered to pull over every driver who fits the standard American freethought profile. So who are they looking for? Young Hispanic women who garden? Hippies with large vinyl record collections? Families of four in minivans?

No. There are surely freethinkers who fit those descriptions, but that’s not how profiling works. We’re looking for the typical freethinker. Fortunately, one of our operatives intercepted a profile advisory from the state police. Here it is:

    Scientifically-oriented, well-read and well-educated white male in his early seventies. Grey-to-white hair and beard. Driving mid-sized vehicle with multiple incendiary bumperstickers. Officers are cautioned to expect an argument. Suspect may be armed with syllogisms.

Aside from the car, they’re essentially looking for Socrates.

Harry, God bless ‘im

The guy they are looking for—let’s call him Harry—is the backbone of organized freethought. The majority of our membership fits a good three-fourths of that profile, regardless of gender, race or age. Harry was there when Madeleine Murray O’Hair first stated the obvious, and he’s still here, staffing the tables, giving the talks, bringing the cookies, and just showing up, even when the rest of us have turned into the nonreligious equivalents of Christmas and Easter Christians.

I love Harry. Without the dedication and courage of Harry and those like him, the freethought movement would never have made it this far.

But what do we need to do to move farther? For one thing, we need to serve the needs of people who are quite different from Harry.

[Continue to part 3]

Reaching out to Harry AND Sally (1 of 3)

by Dale McGowan

[An essay in three parts on current atheist outreach. Appears in the current issue of Secular Nation.]

The scene was the ballroom of the Kansas City Airport Marriott at the 2006 convention of the Atheist Alliance. On stage was the smart and articulate Hemant “Friendly Atheist” Mehta.

Hemant was talking about his book I Sold My Soul on Ebay. He was also, unsurprisingly, talking about friendly atheism, suggesting that atheists show a friendlier face to the religious world than we often do.


Intentional ridicule and insult directed at religious folks, he said, are especially counterproductive. Included among his examples was the “Smut for Smut” campaign at the University of Texas San Antonio, in which atheist students offered to trade pornography for Bibles.

“BULLSHIT!” screamed an audience member near me. “THAT’S BULLSHIT! Those people have courage, they’re out there fighting for your rights, and you ought to be honoring their courage!! For you to stand up there and…”

You get the idea. A kind of atheist “Support Our Troops” thing.

It was a seminal moment, a genuine clash between two different heartfelt visions of atheist activism. Both seek to move atheism out of the margins, but only one of them sees force as the way to get there.

Mr. Bullshit isn’t alone in thinking that a two-by-four between the eyes of religious folks is the best tool for advancing freethought. But neither is Hemant alone in thinking otherwise.

Each of the two approaches can be effective, just for very different receivers. I have met a few formerly religious people who said they needed a little cranio-lumber contact to rattle the fillings of their faith. They couldn’t hear Corliss Lamont or John Stuart Mill with an ear trumpet, but a good wedgie from Hitchens got them kicking the tires of their belief system at long last. There are also the silent, anonymous atheists among us who finally found their voice once someone like George Carlin or Pat Condell assured them that yes, it’s okay to call breathtakingly stupid things breathtakingly stupid.

These things can certainly go a bridge too far. David Mills’ response to the Blasphemy Challenge (in which Mills uses a bible to pick up dog feces, smearing the feces on a picture of Jesus while swearing a blue streak in front of his laughing 10-year-old daughter) leaps to mind. But it’s much more often the case that atheists are accused of playing too rough—Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens—when in fact they have merely refused to pull punches in a fight that genuinely matters, and the entrails on the ground are evidence not of excessive force but of the opponent’s refusal to go sensibly to the mat for anything less.

But there’s another audience out there, one that dwarfs the fans of the two-by-four by a good many multiples. This includes believers cautiously open to disconfirmation and closeted nonbelievers cautiously open to coming out. Numbering in the millions, they are predisposed to our message but unwilling to gird for culture war.

Though both approaches have long been available, only the two-by-four has generally been audible. Lamont’s joyful Humanism was there at the same time as Madeleine Murray O’Hair’s “Religion is induced insanity,” but only O’Hair’s efforts made it to the general radar. She achieved great and noble things, Madeleine did, but her approach, even as it emboldened the True Unbelievers among us, also made the cautious, silent majority of the nonreligious slump ever-further down into the “no comment” pew.

There is an audience that is well-served by the no-prisoners approach, and I count myself among them. But I’m thrilled to see that the “friendlier” frequency is gaining bandwidth of late, beginning at last to tap that huge reservoir of potential self-identified freethinkers who are reached more effectively on that wavelength than the other.


All three of the outreach efforts featured in this issue [of Secular Nation] — the Tree of Knowledge (Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia), the turnpike billboards (FreeThoughtAction and now PhillyCOR), and the highway cleanup (Atheists United and dozens of other groups nationwide) are operating on this less abrasive frequency. I believe that in doing so, they are moving us into the second of three phases in our courtship with the population at large.

The Courtship Challenge

Though we need to make ourselves visible to the public, visibility is not enough. A four-car pileup is also visible, but that doesn’t mean you want to be a part of it. We need to engage in something beyond exhibitionism—something closer to courtship.

Courtship is a three-step process: (1) be noticed; (2) be attractive; and (3) deliver the goods. In the all-too-recent past, freethought was stuck in step one, trying desperately to convince the public—and each other, for that matter—that we exist. As recently as 2003, when I began floating the proposal for a book on nonreligious parenting, agents and publishers shrugged it off, saying “there’s no audience for such a book.” Then the Four Horsemen took care of visibility once and for all.

Now for step two.

To make yourself attractive to the beloved, you’ve got to see yourself through that person’s eyes—an effort organized freethought has too seldom made. Too often we spend our time ranting in frustration at the general public’s inability to see how darn good-looking we are instead of finding out what really turns them on.

All three of the featured outreach efforts are giving consideration to attractiveness. Each is positively focused and speaks to one or more of the specific human hungers that church has traditionally satisfied.


The highway cleanup by Atheists United and others sends a message of civic responsibility and a desire to work for the greater good.1 FSGP’s Tree of Knowledge (a holiday tree decorated with freethought bookcovers) makes use of a familiar, attractive holiday symbol with happy and loving associations, underlining what is shared between worldviews rather than what differs. Finally, the billboard by FreeThoughtAction speaks to the desire for the embrace of community while at the same time cleverly addressing the existential fear of human aloneness in the absence of the divine—i.e., “you are not alone” in your disbelief and “you are not alone” despite the absence of God.


All three also invite the public into the third step in the courtship—assessing the substance of organized freethought. The FreeThoughtAction billboard provides a prominent and memorable web address, leading to a brilliantly-designed site with well-organized links for additional exploration of the world of freethought.2 The book covers on the Tree of Knowledge represent invitations to explore freethought. And the Atheists United name on the freeway adoption sign provides an easy-to-remember, Googleable point of contact.

These three efforts share another crucial feature: simple clarity. In five seconds, I get it. And I know I’m not alone in finding wit—especially nuanced wit—to be an intellectual aphrodisiac. The Tree of Knowledge names and celebrates precisely the thing that Yahweh forbade in Genesis 2:17, while the FTA billboard is a gentle (and cheerier) counterpoint to the white-on-black messages signed by God.3

[continue to part 2]

1Though I winced hard when one spokesman for the group was quoted as saying they made the efforts “so we get to keep the sign.” A nice benefit, but if exposure is all it’s about, that’s more than a tad duplicitous.
2And, through the use of the capitals, turns the potentially unfamiliar concept of “freethought action” into three positive and lively words: FreeThoughtAction. Brilliant!
3Which I must admit to adoring. It’s fairly rare to see religious folks making effective use of humor.

blasphemy, the game

I don’t ask for much from my entertainments, but what I do ask for, I insist on. Among these are wit, intelligence, and most of all, originality. Favorite movies: Memento, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich. My favorite book is narrated by a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who tries to solve the pitchfork murder of a giant poodle. You get the idea.

So when I was asked to take a look at a new game called Blasphemy, I was hoping for something funny, clever, and out of the ordinary. And holy mother of pearl, did I ever find it.

A Faith-Off

Blasphemy™ is an amazingly clever, well-made, and carefully-researched board game that manages to provide religious literacy and skewer the sacred at the same time. The game builds on the fact that there were many claimants to the title of Messiah in ancient Judea. Each player maneuvers one would-be Messiah through six phases in the life of Jesus. Whoever can attain baptism in the Jordan (you have to catch John the Baptist first), resist the devil in the wilderness (without losing all of your Faith cards), give the greatest sermons, perform the most impressive miracles, discredit his rivals, and make his way first to the cross wins the game.

Every last detail of the game has been thought out by someone with that rarest of combinations: biblical smarts and a sense of humor. Equally stunning is the craftsmanship of the game itself, from a gorgeous silk-screened cloth playing surface to the tiles, the cards, and the Messiahs. You’ll find yourself stroking the lovely little pieces as you play (a sin in 14 denominations). As for the cost ($99.99), the game’s website FAQ is absolutely correct: “It’s worth every shekel. The manufactured components for the game are both unique and top of the line. If you treat the game properly, it should easily last well over two thousand years.”

The Jesi

Be advised: this is not a game for anyone who lacks patience, a sense of humor, or a high tolerance for complexity. Not difficulty — it isn’t difficult to play. But if you (or your teens) don’t like multifaceted, multilayered games with the potential to stretch into the wee hours of the night, this isn’t for you. If on the other hand that last sentence made you drool, and you think of sacred cows as excellent skewer-holders, this is the game for you.

If you do tend toward the opinion that religion should be protected from a good-natured ribbing, other games are more likely to be your cuppa. [Not sure where you land on the blasphemy tolerance spectrum? Here’s a test.]

Myself, I think a game built around the essence of a big idea is a delicious thing. Wouldn’t you love to see a game in which simple life forms compete and evolve until one of them ends up as Charles Darwin? Me too. In the meantime, have a spot of fun following the evolution of a Messiah.

website for Blasphemy the Game

Humanists weigh in on corporal punishment

Shortly after I put together the ONE SAFE GENERATION initiative for the Institute for Humanist Studies, I got a note from Institute director Matt Cherry.


The London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union (or IHEU, the worldwide union of humanist organizations) convenes a World Humanist Congress every three years. One of the tasks of the Congress is to consider resolutions and statements submitted by member organizations. Passed resolutions then serve as a kind of evolving statement of generally accepted humanist positions on issues of the day. If you want to know what the consensus is among humanists on abortion, euthanasia, contraception, reproductive rights, the environment, armed conflict, women’s rights, and a host of other issues, the IHEU resolutions offer the best available summary.

Matt had noticed that the organization had not yet taken a position on corporal punishment and asked that I draft a resolution. Here’s the text:

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) supports worldwide efforts to abolish the use of corporal punishment for the discipline of children.

Corporal punishment is defined as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing bodily pain or discomfort so as to change the subject’s behaviour or to punish them.”

Corporal punishment teaches children that violence is an acceptable means to make others do something, thereby perpetuating violent behaviour from generation to generation.

A growing body of research strongly indicates that corporal punishment is ineffective as a disciplinary measure and has strong associations with multiple undesirable outcomes, including an increased risk of depression, aggression, antisocial behaviour, and the continued use of violence in subsequent generations.

Nonviolent disciplinary techniques have been shown to be as effective as, or more effective than, corporal punishment. As humanism teaches the preference for nonviolent means whenever possible, IHEU supports efforts to educate parents and teachers regarding these disciplinary alternatives.

In response to growing evidence against corporal punishment, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNESCO, American Academy of Pediatrics (USA), Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (UK), and many other national and international organisations have condemned the practice. Twenty-five countries to date have declared corporal punishment illegal, and bans are under consideration by several others. Most national statutes already prohibit violence against adults, including family members. A corporal punishment ban seeks to extend the same protection to children.

The IHEU calls on all Member Organisations and Individual Members to promote opposition to corporal punishment at the national and international level by means of publicity, discussions, and education, with the aim to secure the abolition of the practice.

On June 8, the resolution was passed unanimously by the General Assembly of the 2008 World Humanist Congress in Washington DC.

The next phase of ONE SAFE GENERATION — an orchestrated campaign to focus attention and action in the humanist blogosphere on a series of child protection charities — is scheduled to launch on September 1. Watch for it.
Related posts:

Interview with corporal punishment researcher Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D.
Article: Most Parents Condone Spanking — Child Development Research Doesn’t (from Civitas)
Alternatives to corporal punishment

thinking by druthers 1

First installment in a series on confirmation bias.


“I disagree with what you’re saying, frankly. Strongly disagree.”

I guess I ought to delight in this kind of challenge, critical thinking enthusiast that I am. But I’m a chimp, too, which means instead of delighting, I have to suppress an urge to fling feces and hoot.

The disagreement came from a gentleman in one of my early seminars. I had suggested we allow our kids to try on different worldviews without pushing one direction or another. I put it this way in an earlier post:

I encourage my kids to try on as many beliefs as they wish and to switch back and forth whenever they feel drawn toward a different hat, confident that in the long run they will be better informed not only of the identity they choose, but of those they have declined. Were I to disown my kids each time they passed through a religious identity, I’d have to keep a lawyer on retainer.

He didn’t like this one bit. “Children need to be made to recognize the difference between faith-based thinking and EVIDENCE-based thinking,” he said. “They need to hear the word EVIDENCE from the very earliest age, as often as possible. ‘What’s your EVIDENCE? What is the EVIDENCE for that?’ Allow them to ‘try on the hat’ of mythical thinking and they just might not take it off!”

Hoo boy.

I gave my usual answer about having confidence in reason, but I knew there was more to it than that. I know my kids really well, and despite my failure to sprinkle the word EVIDENCE throughout my parenting, I know that all three would laugh at the idea that an opinion without evidence is worth squat.

One anecdotal exception doesn’t disprove his assertion, of course. Maybe my kids lucked into their rational hats despite my dippy incompetence. But I had the nagging feeling that this guy had made a more fundamental error — and that night, on the plane home, I realized what it was.

The evidence-free worldview is a straw man. A myth.

It’s the rare believer indeed who tethers belief to faith alone. Religious folks have evidence to support their beliefs — mountains and mountains of evidence. No one says, “I have absolutely no evidence for the existence of God, but I believe anyway.” If the man in the seminar were to offer his challenge (“What’s your EVIDENCE?”) to these folks, they’d offer the human eye, a sunrise, a seemingly answered prayer, a feeling of transcendence, a near-death experience, the Bible, a random act of kindness, Mother Teresa, “the starry heavens above and the moral universe within.” These add up to evidence of a particular kind: bad. It’s all gift-wrapped and insured by statements of faith, but it’s also evidence.

I’m not playing word games here. If we really want to understand the difference, it’s crucial to recognize that both the religious and scientific worldviews are evidence-based. That science does so well at uncovering reality and religion does so poorly is mostly due to the different ways in which the two approaches handle evidence.

The scientific method is largely devoted to neutralizing a single fallacy called confirmation bias — our strong tendency to find and collect whatever evidence supports our preconceptions and desires while ignoring the rest. Francis Bacon and the rest didn’t invent the idea of evidence — they laid the foundation for a systematic method of controlling the incredibly strong human tendency we all have to cherry-pick evidence to confirm our biases.


Both the religious and scientific worldviews are evidence-based. That science does so well at uncovering reality and religion does so poorly is mostly due to the different ways in which the two approaches handle evidence.

In a post two months back I demonstrated my own ability to put on the blinders of confirmation bias. I had come across the most amazing statistic…(wavy lines and harp music)…

I recently came across a statistic about scientists that, given my own background, ranks as the single most thought-provoking stat I have ever seen.

As I’ve mentioned before, my dad died when I was thirteen. It was, and continues to be, the defining event in my life, the beginning of my deepest and most honest thinking about the world and my place in it. My grief was instantly matched by a profound sense of wonder and a consuming curiosity. It was the start of the intensive wondering and questioning that led me (among other things) to reject religious answers on the way to real ones.

Now I learn that the loss of a parent shows a robust correlation to an interest in science. A study by behavioral scientist William Woodward was published in the July 1974 issue of Science Studies. The title, “Scientific Genius and Loss of a Parent,” hints at the statistic that caught my attention. About 5 percent of Americans lose a parent before the age of 18. Among eminent scientists, however, that number is higher. Much higher.

According to the study, 39.6 percent of top scientists experienced the death of a parent while growing up—eight times the average.

While researching the chapter of Raising Freethinkers on dealing with death, I had come across some random website [RED FLAG 1!] that mentioned the claim that 39.6 percent of scientists had lost a parent as a child. The website also cited the 1974 Woodward study.

“Wow!” I thought. “This precisely bears out my own personal narrative as a person whose thirst for knowledge was fueled by my father’s death! [RED FLAG 2!] Better still, it joins me at the hip to the great scientists I admire! [RED FLAG 3!] In short, this huge and unexpected percentage [RED FLAG 4!] dramatically confirms all of my dearest biases!”

If I had actually thought that in those words, or thought for a moment about what Huxley might say (“Science warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile. My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations”), I might have spared myself the public error. Instead, I made a halfhearted attempt to confirm the stat, couldn’t easily access the original article, and decided to swallow the thing whole without looking further.

The Woodward article, it turns out, was largely devoted to debunking the claim. As blogreader Ryan pointed out, the parent-loss stat was a rough estimate based on a small sampling of scientists in the 500-year period from 1400 to 1900 — a span during which 40 percent of garbage collectors and astrologers also surely lost parents when they were young. The same article notes that 20th century records show little difference between scientists and non-scientists in parent loss.

We ALL do it. The trick isn’t to lead our children into a magical life free of confirmation bias, but to get them to fall so deeply in love with reality that they work hard to fight this tendency in themselves and others — precisely because it deludes us and blinds us to reality more than any other error.

[More on confirmation bias next week.]

ACTS (bookin’ through the bible 12)


A few years ago, a Catholic friend and neighbor of mine put the foundation of her belief into words for me. There are lots of reasons to doubt the divinity of Christ, she said, but one powerful thing continues to keep her doubts at bay. During Jesus’ life, the apostles were doubtful, denying, noncommittal. Then something happened to transform them, and they were willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of their newfound convictions.

The Stoning of St. Stephen,
Rembrandt (1625)

“I find it hard to account for that kind of radical transformation unless he really rose from the dead and was really the son of God,” she said with a shrug.

I didn’t say the obvious thing — that using one part of a book to prove another is meaningless. If I said I know Chapter 49 of the Koran is true because Chapter 50 says so, she would rightly laugh at me. But it wasn’t that kind of conversation, so I kept my mouth shut and gained a powerful insight into which book is the keystone and linchpin of the New Testament—the Acts of the Apostles, a.k.a. Acts.

Though its significance hadn’t hit me before, I’d already heard that argument several times before and have heard it since in various forms. The “Easter faith” of the apostles is the clincher. If you want to know something about Christianity, read a gospel. But if you want to understand Christianity, to get a sense of what makes it tick (and fizz, and shine, and honk, and occasionally explode), read Acts. Christ is born in the gospels, but Christianity is born in Acts.

The Conversion of Saul, Michelangelo (1545)

It’s in Acts that we get several post-resurrection appearances by Jesus; the Great Commission, in which Christ instructs his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world (the origin of evangelism); Pentecost, speaking in tongues, exorcism, and the raising of the dead; the first stories of persecution of Christians and the first Christian martyrs; the conversion of Saul/Paul (who was alleged to have been a persecutor of Christians), his early ministry, and his arrest and imprisonment; and the first glimmer of the spreading, enthusiastic, universal church that continues to motivate evangelists today.

As a result of all of this passionate and very human action, Acts delivers some of the best mythic narrative in the Bible. But by the end of the book, something more profound has been achieved than the gathering of heroes and transformation narratives: Christianity is converted from a Jewish sect to a religion in its own right. The teachings of Christ are now said to be for all humanity, not just a local group.

My neighbor may (or may not) be surprised to hear that the book in whose testimony she places such unsinkable faith is perhaps the most altered, amended, and interpolated book in the New Testament. Here’s bible editor and theologian Bruce Metzger writing in The Text of the New Testament: Writing in The Text of the New Testament, bible editor and theologian Bruce Metzger noted (disapprovingly) the position of many theologians including Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort regarding the Book of Acts:

Words, clauses, and even whole sentences were changed, omitted, and inserted with astonishing freedom, wherever it seemed that the meaning could be brought out with greater force and definiteness…. Another equally important characteristic is a disposition to enrich the text at the cost of its purity by alterations or additions taken from traditional and perhaps from apocryphal or other non-biblical sources… Another impulse of scribes abundantly exemplified in Western readings is the fondness for assimilation… But its most dangerous work is ‘harmonistic’ corruption, that is, the partial or total obliteration of differences in passages otherwise more or less resembling each other.

That such a well-traveled and freely-altered book continues to convince smart people like my neighbor of anything is testimony to the incredible power of confirmation bias and provides a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming blog series. Acts also provides a handy lens through which Christians can see and “understand” nonbelievers: we are Paul before the Damascus road, the apostles before the Resurrection. They saw the light — someday, surely, goes the narrative, we will too.
Next and final episode of the series, thank the Lord God Jehovah: REVELATION (date TBA)

Believers on REVELATION
Skeptics on REVELATION

the giddy geek

We live in a universe made of a curved fabric woven of space and time in which hydrogen, given the proper conditions, eventually evolves into Yo Yo Ma. — from Parenting Beyond Belief

Last year I wrote about Major Tom and the way the Apollo program lit up my imagination and fueled my wonder in the 70s. I always shook my head in pity at anyone who shook his head in pity at the “coldness” and “sterility” of the scientific worldview.

I touched on this in one of my essays in Parenting Beyond Belief called “Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder”:

Religious wonder—the wonder we’re said to be missing out on—is counterfeit wonder. As each complex and awe-inspiring explanation of reality takes the place of “God did it,” the flush of real awe quickly overwhelms the memory of whatever it was we considered so wondrous in religious mythology. Most of the truly wonder-inducing aspects of our existence—the true size and age of the universe, the relatedness of all life, microscopic worlds, and more—are not, to paraphrase Hamlet, even dreamt of in our religions. Our new maturity brings with it some real challenges, of course, but it also brings astonishing wonder beyond the imaginings of our infancy.

I offered a short list of the kinds of scientific revelations that make me woozy with awe:

If you condense the history of the universe to a single year, humans would appear on December 31st at 10:30 pm. That means 99.98 percent of the history of the universe happened before humans even existed.

Look at a gold ring. As the core collapsed in a dying star, a gravity wave collapsed inward with it. As it did so, it slammed into the thundering sound wave heading out of the collapse. In that moment, as a star died, the gold in that ring was formed.

We are star material that knows it exists.

Our planet is spinning at 900 miles an hour beneath our feet while coursing through space at 68,400 miles per hour.

The continents are moving under our feet at 3 to 6 inches a year. But a snail’s pace for a million millennia has been enough to remake the face of the world several times over, build the Himalayas and create the oceans.

Through the wonder of DNA, you are literally half your mom and half your dad.

A complete blueprint to build you exists in each and every cell of your body.

The faster you go, the slower time moves.

Your memories, your knowledge, even your identity and sense of self exist entirely in the form of a constantly recomposed electrochemical symphony playing in your head.

All life on Earth is directly related by descent. You are a cousin not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales.

Now that, my friends, is wonder.

I’ve tried to pay attention when geeks (a term of genuine endearment from me) of one stripe or another are enraptured at the poetry or wonder of something I can’t see. I know they are experiencing something transcendent, something that I lack the language or knowledge to apprehend directly.

I remember a student of mine, a math major/violist, walking into a rehearsal with a look of utter bliss, as if drunk on a mantra.

“What on Earth happened to you?” I asked.

Laplace transforms,” she said. “Laplace transforms happened to me. They are so beautiful I can hardly stand it.”

I knew she was right, and that I would never know why. I was envious.

So imagine the fellow-feeling I felt when I saw this wonderful video by Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy. Next time someone starts into the drone about the cold, passionless world of science, show them this:

The awe-inspiring picture isn’t even my main point — it’s what the picture has done to Phil, someone who knows what it means, and better still, takes the time to share his amazement with the rest of us. Thanks, Phil!

[Thanks to Tim Mills at Friendly Humanist for leading me to this video.]