Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Dissent done right 1

sign60509More than just about any other single value, I want my kids to get the importance of dissent. I want them to be willing to voice a reasoned minority opinion and to encourage the same in others.

When we moved to the red-state South, I knew (blue to the core as we are) that at some point we’d end up taking our lumps from one majority or another. No big brous-haha so far, just some minor fish-out-of-water moments: Laney having the occasional Huxley-Wilberforce in the school cafeteria; Erin coming to terms with her evangelical cousins; Connor’s outrage when his (beloved) seventh grade Life Sciences teacher assured the class that evolution is “just one guy’s idea”; Becca, in her first week as a full-time Georgia teacher, having one of her first graders say, “Mrs. McGowan, are you a Christian? ’Cause I’m a Christian. Are you a Christian?”; and my early palpitations over imagined church-state issues. Peanuts, really.

Now we’ve had our first somewhat chilling incident—not over religion, but politics.

Becca and I support Barack Obama. Thursday night, after his convention speech, we put an Obama yard sign under the tree in our Atlanta front yard. By Saturday morning it was gone. An hour after noticing it missing, we found it chucked in the street several houses down.

I’ve spent enough time dissenting from majorities to know what it gets you, so it didn’t ruffle me. But Becca, bless her Anne Frankness, is always thrown when people aren’t good at heart, or fair, or tolerant. I love her for being repeatedly surprised by that.

I also know that the occasional kook is rarely representative of the majority. I used to think pointing this out was about being nice, but eventually came to realize that recognizing that fact changes my world.

We hosted an Obama house party last month and put flyers in 200 neighborhood mailboxes. Fourteen people came. Six other neighbors mentioned it approvingly at the pool or the bus stop, including some who differ politically. And we received two scrawled notes in our mailbox informing us that Obama is a Muslim, that “the terrorists want him to win,” and that “you are helping to destroy the foundation of this country.”

It’s easy to generalize the nastiness in your mind, until every silent house on your street seems to harbor a family that wants you strung up. But then we remembered that the tally I just described was ten thumbs up for every thumb down. And as Louise Gendron (senior writer for L’Actualité) reminded me last year, angry people are at least three times more likely to make their POV known than happy or indifferent people. If she gets three angry letters for every one happy letter after an article runs, she assumes the reader response was about even.

By that logic, perhaps 3-4 percent of the folks in our neighborhood are likely suspects for the angry notes. But our limbic response pictures the reverse, and two pissy letters become the tip of a 96 percent iceberg of hate.

I found myself falling into the same dark assumptions during my dissenting year at the Catholic college where I taught. I naturally began to assume that every silent person I passed on campus was wishing me hives. I found out later that the opposite was true: the majority were either indifferent or were silently cheering me on. (Note to self: DON’T SILENTLY CHEER PEOPLE ON. DO IT OUT LOUD. Knowing how much support I had would have changed everything.)

I was also extremely depressed at the time by the angry criticism I had received for my activism (which, btw, I will write about soon). It took (philosophy professor and later PBB contributor) Amy Hilden to point out the obvious to me–that the goal is not to avoid making people angry, but to make the right people angry for the right reasons. If everybody loves you, you probably aren’t doing anything of real significance.

So I had expected the minority opinion in our front yard to provoke somebody into doing something stupid and rude. And I knew that the silent majority, even those who disagree with us politically, would not condone that stupidity. But I also knew my kids would feel violated, angry, and afraid. Their own attitudes toward dissent are being tested and formed.

So we did what we do. We talked it through.

[On to Part 2]

First Annual PBB Column Competition

In the wee hours of my sleepless nights, I edit the Humanist Parenting site for the Institute for Humanist Studies. One of my IHS duties is to solicit and/or write a monthly parenting column for Humanist Network News, which also then appears here on the Meming of Life.

In addition to my own columns, we’ve featured the writing of such freethinkers as Ed Buckner, Noell “Agnostic Mom” Hyman, Marilyn McCourt, Stu Tanquist, Jane Wynne Willson, and Roberta Nelson.

Now it’s your turn to become the quiet kind of famous. We are now accepting submissions for the First Annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition. Your entry should tackle a subtopic within nonreligious parenting (as opposed to the topic on the whole) or a personal story from your own experience.

The top entries will:

— appear in Humanist Network News (subscription over 5,000);
— be posted on the Humanist Parenting website; and
— appear in the Meming of Life (which currently averages 2500-3000 visitors per day).

Submissions should be attached in a Word document 600-800 words in length PLUS a bio of no more than 75 words, and emailed to column [at] parentingbeyondbelief dot com with the word COLUMN in the subject line. All submissions become the sole property of Major League Baseball, and all decisions are final, though a little groveling never hurt anyone.

Deadline for submissions is September 30October 6, 2008.

the iWord revisited

One last ripple to address from last week’s posts

In emails and comments, a few readers brought up another issue that cuts close to the bone for secular parents. In the conversation with my daughters, I described our condition after death as identical to our condition before birth. Some readers threw the flag at this point — Indoctrination, 10 yards against the parent, second down and 20! — because I did not say “I think our condition after death, etc.” or “other people think that when we die, etc.”


Wanna see a nonreligious parent turn cartwheels of panic? Accuse him or her of indoctrination. It’s the cardinal sin of freethought parenting. To avoid the appearance of it, we often bend over backwards to be evenhanded and neutral. Evenhanded is splendid. But in expressing ourselves to our children on these deeply-felt issues, we are not neutral, cannot be, and shouldn’t pretend to be.

Non-neutrality, however, is worlds away from indoctrination, and a source needs not be neutral to have value as a source. (My critical thinking students had trouble with this all the time, discarding one good source after another “because the author is biased” — meaning s/he had an opinion on the topic s/he was addressing.) Indoctrination is “Teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically” (WordNet) — insisting they do so, in fact, often by invoking dire consequences should one stray from the party line. A parent can express his or her perspective without doing this. It’s all a matter of the larger context in which the expression takes place.

If this conversation with my daughters stood alone, the charge of indoctrination might stick. But parent-child conversations never stand alone — they build on everything that comes before. As regular MoL readers will know, freethought, not disbelief, is at the heart of my parenting, which makes the avoidance of indoctrination my Prime Directive. So my kids have heard from me, repeatedly, that different people believe different things, that they are free to form their own opinions, that my own statements are merely expressions of my opinion, that I would rather have them disagree with me than adopt my point of view only because it is mine, and so on. These are the foundational concepts in our family’s approach to knowledge. They’ve heard these things so often now that they roll their eyes and say “duh, I know, Dad” whenever I start in on one of those.

Once children hear that message loud and clear, a parent is freed up to express his/her perspective and welcome theirs without the burden of an added paragraph of caveat and disclaimer on every conversation.

Yes, a parent’s opinions will have a disproportionate influence on the child. As I said in a post last year,

there’s no use denying that, nor would I want to…Influence is sometimes passive and sometimes a matter of intentional teaching…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 the idea. When influence exists in the context of direct encouragements to decide for one’s self and to seek out other points of view, it stops well short of that other iWord. That’s all I would ask of religious parents as well — not that they present themselves as neutral, but that they invite their kids to differ and ensure them that they will be no less loved if they do.

That’s influence without indoctrination.

Finks ahoy!

There’s plenty of nonsensical meme creation on the Internet (just so you know). One of my least favorites is what I’ll call the Fictional Narrative Cartoon (FNC, or ‘Fink’). Follow these steps to write a Fink of your own:

    1. Select a life stance you have never held or attempted to understand.

    2. Achieve a Vulcan mind-meld with people of that perspective. When that fails, simply pick a set of unflattering assumptions off the top of your head about what the world “must” look like from that perspective.

    3. Weave a fictional monologue or dialogue to describe the world through the eyes of this worldview. Include acts of puppy smooshing for maximum effect.

    4. Post!

    I’ve seen atheists do this to religious folks and vice versa. It tends not to be a true Fink if the person once shared the worldview — the atheist who was once a genuine theist, or the theist who was once a genuine atheist. In those cases, the risk of nonfiction sneaking in is too great. The true Fictional Narrative Cartoon must spring entirely from willful ignorance.

    My Google alert for “atheist parents” brings Christian FNCs about nonreligious parenting into my inbox once in a while. The gods of cyber-serendipity smiled on me yesterday, delivering a Fink about an atheist dad talking to his child about death just days after I had posted a nonfiction narrative of the same thing.

    The blogger, a Christian father of seven, begins by describing his approach as a Christian parent talking to his children about death:

    Have you ever had a surprise party thrown in your honor? You walk through the door and the lights come on and the horns blow, close friends cheer as ribbons and balloons are thrown into the air? Have you ever watched as an athlete’s name is announced and he runs from the dressing room tunnel and onto the field as 60 or 70 thousand people cheer his arrival?…When my kids ask about death, these are some of the analogies that I use…

    What a difference it must be for atheist parents, especially for those who want to be honest with their child.

    He’s right — it is certainly different. And yes, it’s a much greater challenge than contemplating death as a stadium full of angels doing the Wave. Unfortunately he doesn’t stop with what he knows, but begins to construct a Fink:

    “Dad [says the child of the atheist], what happens when we die?”

    “Well, nothing really. We come from nothing and we go to nothing. Either your mom and I or someone else will put you into the ground and cover you with dirt and the person that we knew as YOU will just totally and completely cease to exist.”

    “But how can I just come to an end? What if I only live until I’m five years old? I won’t get to do anything important.”

    “My dear boy. Five years or five hundred years, it doesn’t really matter because none of it counts, not ultimately anyhow. Humans are part of a dying species in a dying universe. You’re an accident little buddy. An absolute accident to which we gave a name. Don’t get me wrong. We love you, and perhaps some day you can even manipulate some other people to love you too. But apart from that you’re pretty much on your own.”

    “But what are we here for? Is there any meaning or purpose to all this?”

    “Use your brain son. How can there be meaning and purpose to something that’s an accident?…Reality is, you come from nothing and you’re headed to nothing, just emptiness, a void. That’s all there is son. That’s not a bad thing son. It just is. The fact is, our life has no meaning, no context and absolutely no purpose save the purpose that you pretend to give it. Pretty cool huh?”

    “But daddy, shouldn’t I at least try to be a good person?”

    “Oh my precious little munchkin. Good and bad are just subjective words that some people use to describe things that they like or don’t like…All I know is, live good, live bad, live for yourself, live for others, none of it matters because the end of the good and the end of the bad, the end of people, pigs and insects is exactly the same, we rot away and become a different form of matter. Now, why don’t you run along. I’ve got some useless and pointless things to do.”

    “But dad, that’s absurd! How do you expect me to be happy if life has no meaning, context or purpose” If that’s the way things are, why did you make me in the fist place?”

    “Well, sweetpea, now you’re starting to ask what’s beginning to feel like a lot of questions. First of all, I couldn’t not make you. My genes compel me to reproduce. I squirt my semen here and there and everywhere…”

    You get the idea.

    I was once at a family gathering where the subject turned to gays and lesbians. I chimed in that homosexual sex is disgusting. They all nodded, mildly surprised.

    “You know something else that’s disgusting?” I added. “Heterosexual sex.” Reduce the sexual act to the physical slapping of flesh and it doesn’t matter who is involved — it’s disgusting. Gay rights opponents recoil at the idea of gay sex because they strip it of the emotional component that transforms their own rutting into something entirely else.

    Reducing a nonreligious parent’s description of death to the slapping of dirt on a coffin achieves the same brand of reductionist nonsense. The Fink starts and stays with sterile facts, never granting the atheist parent the human faculties of compassion or love except as a laugh line. I do think we die, for real, and that love and understanding can help us live with this difficult fact quite beautifully and well — even without invoking balloons and confetti.

    The best thing about the growing nonreligious parenting movement is that we no longer need be content with Finks about nonreligious parenting. We’re living the nonfiction versions. Which points to the most important difference between this blogger’s take on the atheist parent-child conversation and mine.

    Mine actually happened.

    [Link to the fictional conversation]
    [Link to the nonfictional conversation]

Ahh…you never forget your first meme

(Two serious posts already this week! Who’s up for some Friday blog candy?)
The first time my kids saw our family photo on the back of Parenting Beyond Belief in a bookstore, they were elated. “We’re famous!” Erin squealed.

“Yes,” Laney replied, “but the quiet kind of famous.”

She had once said she wanted to be “one of those famous people on the magazine covers.” Becca replied that it might be fun in some ways, but you also lose your privacy, and everyone watches and talks about everything you do. “I still think that would be fun,” Laney insisted.

So we began narrating her every move: “She’s picking up her spoon. Why is she holding her hand that way? Ooh, she glared at our cameraman. What does she have to be angry about? Do you think Delaney McGowan is losing her mind? Take our online poll!”

“Aaahhh, okay okay okay!! I don’t want to be that kind of famous,” she said. “I want to do something famous, but nobody knows I’m the person who did it.” She searched for the right word. “I want to be the quiet kind of famous.”

My first brush with the quiet kind of famous was in 1977. It was a thrilling year for me. I turned fourteen. I kissed Kathy Myerson on the lips. And I got myself published.
It was a single sentence, but it was published in a no-kidding book that was carried in all the best cheesy paperback bookracks in every checkout line in America. The title was Murphy’s Law, Book 2: more reasons why things go wrong!, with the word “wrong” upside down. Get it?? High-larious!

I’d read the prequel — Murphy’s Law—and Other Reasons Things Go Wrong! stem to stern a dozen times the year before. I loved it:

Parkinson’s Law
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

The Law of Margarine Attraction
The odds of a piece of buttered bread landing butter-side down are directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.

Boob’s Law
You always find something in the last place you look.

I can just hear my zitty little self snickering: “Heh heh. Boobs.”

Not until the seventh or eighth time through did I see the invitation on the final page:

Do you have a law that explains why things go wrong? Send it to the following address, and who knows—you might find your idea in the next edition of MURPHY’S LAW!

My head tipped back and drool collected, Homer-like, at the corners of my mouth. Fame, aggghghhhh…

For two solid weeks I read Murphy’s Law again and again, absorbing the basic rhythm and cynical logic of the jokes. Most were in the form conditional, comma, punch. And the punch has the zing of Comic Truth. Got it.

I started looking for Comic Truths everywhere I went. School? No—plenty of comedy, plenty of truth, but never, it seemed, in combination. Home was too familiar. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I watched for that rhythm and logic in Fred Flintstone, Speed Racer, Carol Burnett, the Professor and Mary Ann. Nothing rang the bell.

I was prepared to give it up when my mother dragged me with her to the Sears women’s department. I sat in emasculated agony outside the dressing room as she tried on several hundred skirts and blouses. A sign atop a nearby rack of clothes caught my bored eye. “ALL DRESSES ON THIS RACK UNDER $50,” it said.

“Pfft,” I thought. “If it says ‘under $50,’ you know it isn’t $19.95.”

I sat up with a shock of recognition. It was cynical. It was rhythmic. Conditional, comma, punch! I had my Law!

I tinkered with the name for a week, coming up at last with “McGowan’s Madison Avenue Axiom,” then wordsmithed the phrasing a bit. Finally I typed “If an item is advertised as ‘under $50,’ you can be damn sure it isn’t $19.95” and sent it in. Four to six weeks later, I had my answer.

I was in!

They had discreetly removed the word “damn,” but it was otherwise unchanged. My free copy arrived in the mail later that year, just weeks after I planted one on Kathy. I was published.

Thirty years passed, during which other stuff surely happened—until one afternoon in late 2007 when the words “Murphy’s Law” caught my eye in the corner of a website. I had become 44 years old and a writer of additional sentences, even whole paragraphs, in the interim. And though Kathy Myerson occasionally surfaced in the soup of memory, I hadn’t thought about my one-sentence publishing debut since the Carter Administration.

I decided on a lark to Google the name of my long-ago law. Everything seems to leave a footprint somewhere on line, even if it happened before there was an “online.” Sure enough, there was a footprint—and another, and another. And another. “McGowan’s Madison Avenue Axiom” appeared by name on over 200 sites. The phrase “you can bet it’s not $19.95” is on about 350. It is fortune cookie filler. It’s on websites of one-liners. (I always wondered who came up with those. Turns out it’s me.) People use it as a signature line in advertising discussion forums. It serves as text filler for forum spammers.

It has morphed into “McGowan’s Christmas Shopping Axiom” in, for some reason, Australia, France, and the Netherlands.

The dollar amounts sometimes change (“If an item is advertised as ‘under $40’, you can bet it’s not $9.95”) as do the manners (“If an item is advertised as ‘under $50’, you can bet your ass it’s not $19.95”).

It appears in the 26th (get it??) anniversary edition of the original book.

My favorite of all was seeing it quoted as the opening line in the Washington Post Bridge column just a few months earlier.

Okay then. I’ve mastered the quiet kind of famous. Now to work on the rich kind.

Where all roads lead (2)

[Back to Part 1]
We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.

“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.

She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:

“I don’t want to die.”

Now let’s freeze this tableau for a moment and make a few things clear. The first is that I love this child so much I would throw myself under Pat Robertson for her. She’s one of just four people whose health and happiness are vital to my own. When she is sad, I want to make her happy. It’s one of the simplest equations in my life.

I say such obvious things because it is often assumed that nonreligious parents respond to their children’s fears of death by saying, in essence, Suck it up, worm food. When one early reviewer of Parenting Beyond Belief implied that that was the book’s approach, I tore him a new one. I am convinced that there are real comforts to be found in a naturalistic view of death, that our mortality lends a new preciousness to life, and that it is not just more truthful but more humane and more loving to introduce the concept of a life that truly ends than it is to proffer an immortality their inquiring minds will have to painfully discard later.

But all my smiling confidence threatens to dissolve under the tears of my children.

“I know, punkin,” I said, cradling her head as she convulsed with sobs. “Nobody wants to die. I sure don’t. But you know what? First you get to live for a hundred years. Think about that. You’ll be older than Great-Grandma Huey!”

It’s a cheap opening gambit. It worked the last time we had this conversation, when Laney was four.

Not this time.

“But it will come,” she said, hiffing. “Even if it’s a long way away, it will come, and I don’t want it to! I want to stay alive!”

I took a deep breath. “I know,” I said. “It’s such a strange thing to think about. Sometimes it scares me. But you know what? Whenever I’m scared of dying, I remember that being scared means I’m not understanding it right.”

She stopped hiffing and looked at me. “I don’t get it.”

“Well what do you think being dead is like?”

She thought for a minute. “It’s like you’re all still and it’s dark forever.”

A chill went down my spine. She had described my childhood image of death precisely. When I pictured myself dead, it was me-floating-in-darkness-forever. It’s the most awful thing I can imagine. Hell would be better than an eternal, mute, insensate limbo.

“That’s how I think of it sometimes too. And that frrrrreaks me out! But that’s not how it is.”

“But how do you know?” she asked pleadingly. “How do you know what it’s like?”

“Because I’ve already been there.”

“What! Haha! No you haven’t!”

“Yes I have, and so have you.”

“What? No I haven’t.”

“After I die, I will be nowhere. I won’t be floating in darkness. There will be no Dale McGowan, right?”

“And millions of worms will eat your body!!” chirped Erin, unhelpfully.


“Well they will.”

“Uh…yeah. But I won’t care because I won’t be there.”


I turned back to her sister. “So a hundred years from now, I won’t be anywhere, right?”

“I guess so.”

“Okay. Now where was I a hundred years ago? Before I was born?”

“Where were you? You weren’t anywhere.”

“And was I afraid?”

“No, becau…OMIGOSH, IT’S THE SAME!!”

It hit both girls at the same instant. They bolted upright with looks of astonishment.

“Yep, it’s exactly the same. There’s no difference at all between not existing before you were born and not existing after you die. None. So if you weren’t scared then, you shouldn’t be scared about going back to it. I still get scared sometimes because I forget that. But then I try to really understand it again and I feel much better.”

The crisis was over, but they clearly wanted to keep going.

“You know something else I like to think about?” I asked. “I think about the egg that came down into my mommy’s tummy right before me. And the one before that, and before that. All of those people never even got a chance to exist, and they never will. There are billions and trillions of people who never even got a chance to be here. But I made it! I get a chance to be alive and playing and laughing and dancing and burping and farting…”

(Brief intermission for laughter and sound effects.)

“I could have just not existed forever — but instead, I get to be alive for a hundred years! And you too! Woohoo! We made it!”

“Omigosh,” Laney said, staring into space. “I’m like…the luckiest thing ever.”

“Exactly. So sometimes when I start to complain because it doesn’t last forever, I picture all those people who never existed telling me, ‘Hey, wait a minute. At least you got a chance. Don’t be piggy.'”

More sound effects, more laughter.

Coming to grips with mortality is a lifelong process, one that ebbs and flows for me, as I know it will for them. Delaney was perfectly fine going to sleep that night, and fine the next morning, and the morning after that. It will catch up to her again, but every time it comes it will be more familiar and potentially less frightening. We’ll talk about the other consolations — that every bit of you came from the stars and will return to the stars, the peaceful symphony of endorphins that usually accompanies dying, and so on. If all goes well, her head start may help her come up with new consolations to share with the rest of us.

laneypianoIn his brilliant classic The Tangled Wing, Emory psychologist Melvin Konner notes that “from age three to five [children] consider [death] reversible, resembling a journey or sleep. After six they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one” (p. 369). Though rates of development vary, Konner places the first true grasp of the finality and universality of death around age ten—a realization that includes the first dawning deep awareness that it applies to them as well. So grappling with the concept early, before we are paralyzed by the fear of it, can go a long way toward fending off that fear in the long run.

Laney, for better and worse, is ahead of the curve. All I can do is keep reminding her, and myself, that knowing and understanding something helps tame our fears. It may not completely feed the bulldog — the fear is too deeply ingrained to ever go completely — but it’s a bigger, better Milk-Bone than anything else we have.

Where all roads lead (1)

I have 22 posts jostling for attention at the moment, but a Saturday night conversation with my girls has sent all other topics back to the green room for a smoke.
The three of us were lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling and talking about the day. “Dad, I have to tell you a thing. Promise you won’t get mad,” said Delaney (6), giving me the blinky doe eyes. “Promise?”

“Oh jeez, Laney, so dramatic,” said Erin, pot-to-kettlishly.

“I plan to be furious,” I said. “Out with it.”

“Okay, fine. I…I kind of got into a God fight in the cafeteria yesterday.”

I pictured children barricaded behind overturned cafeteria tables, lobbing Buddha-shaped meatballs, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and Jesus tortillas at each other. A high-pitched voice off-camera shouts Allahu akbar!

“What’s a ‘God fight’?”

“Well I asked Courtney if she could come over on Sunday, and she said, ‘No, my family will be in church of course.’ And I said oh, what church do you go to? And she said she didn’t know, and she asked what church we go to. And I said we don’t go to church, and she said ‘Don’t you believe in God?’, and I said no, but I’m still thinking about it, and she said ‘But you HAVE to go to church and you HAVE to believe in God,” and I said no you don’t, different people can believe different things.”

Regular readers will recognize this as an almost letter-perfect transcript of a conversation Laney had with another friend last October.

I asked if the two of them were yelling or getting upset with each other. “No,” she said, “we were just talking.”

“Then I wouldn’t call it a fight. You were having a conversation about cool and interesting things.”

Delaney: Then Courtney said, ‘But if there isn’t a God, then how did the whole world and trees and people get made so perfect?’

Dad: Ooo, good question. What’d you say?

Delaney: I said, ‘But why did he make the murderers? And the bees with stingers? And the scorpions?’

Now I don’t know about you, but I doubt my first grade table banter rose to quite this level. Courtney had opened with the argument from design. Delaney countered with the argument from evil.

Delaney: But then I started wondering about how the world did get made. Do the scientists know?

I described Big Bang theory to her, something we had somehow never covered. Erin filled in the gaps with what she remembered from our own talk, that “gravity made the stars start burning,” and “the earth used to be all lava, and it cooled down.”

Laney was nodding, but her eyes were distant. “That’s cool,” she said at last. “But what made the bang happen in the first place?”

Connor had asked that exact question when he was five. I was so thrilled at the time that I wrote it into his fictional counterpart in my novel Calling Bernadette’s Bluff:

“Dad, how did the whole universe get made?”

Okay now. Teachable moment, Jack, don’t screw it up. “Well it’s like this. A long time ago – so long ago you wouldn’t even believe it – there was nothing anywhere but black space. And in the middle of all that nothing, there was all the world and the planets and stars and sun and everything all mashed into a tiny, tiny little ball, smaller than you could even see. And all of a sudden BOOOOOOOM!! The little ball exploded out and made the whole universe and the world and everything. Isn’t that amazing!”

Beat, beat, and…action. “Why did it do that? What made it explode?”

“Well, that’s a good question. Maybe it was just packed in so tight that it had to explode.”

“Maybe?” His forehead wrinkles. “So you mean nobody knows?”

“That’s right. Nobody knows for sure. “

“I don’t like that.”

“Well, you can become a scientist and help figure it out.”



“Dad, is God pretend?”

“Well, some people think he’s pretend and other people think he’s real.”

“How ’bout Jesus?”

“Well, he was probably a real guy for sure, one way or the other.”

Pause. “Well, we might never know if God is real, ’cause he’s up in the sky. But we can figure out if Jesus is real, ’cause he lived on the ground.”

“You’re way ahead of most people.”

“Uh huh. Dad?”

“Yeah, Con.”

“Would you still love me if all my boogers were squirtin’ out at you?” Pushes up the tip of his nose for maximum verité.

“No, Con, that’d pretty much tear it. Out you’d go.”

“I bet not.”

“Just try me.”

I told Laney the same thing—that we don’t know what caused the whole thing to start. “But some people think God did it,” I added.

She nodded.

“The only problem with that,” I said, “is that if God made everything, then who…”

“Oh my gosh!” Erin interrupted. “WHO MADE GOD?! I never thought of that!”

“Maybe another God made that God,” Laney offered.

“Maybe so, b…”

“OH WAIT!” she said. “Wait! But then who made THAT God? OMIGOSH!”

They giggled with excitement at their abilities. I can’t begin to describe how these moments move me. At ages six and ten, my girls had heard and rejected the cosmological (“First Cause”) argument within 30 seconds, using the same reasoning Bertrand Russell described in Why I Am Not a Christian:

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

…and Russell in turn was describing Mill, as a child, discovering the same thing. I doubt that Mill’s father was less moved than I am by the realization that confident claims of “obviousness,” even when swathed in polysyllables and Latin, often have foundations so rotten that they can be neutered by thoughtful children.

There was more to come. Both girls sat up and barked excited questions and answers. We somehow ended up on Buddha, then reincarnation, then evolution, and the fact that we are literally related to trees, grass, squirrels, mosses, butterflies and blue whales.

It was an incredible freewheeling conversation I will never, ever forget. It led, as all honest roads eventually do, to the fact that everything that lives also dies. We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.

“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.

She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:

“I don’t want to die.”

[Go to Part 2]

Welcome to the World on PBS

The PBS series Religion & Ethics Newsweekly ran a nice segment on August 15 about the nonreligious baby naming ceremony I co-hosted at last September’s convention of Atheist Alliance International. The guests of honor were Lyra and Sophia Cherry, two-year-old twin daughters of Shannon and Matt Cherry (director of the Institute for Humanist Studies at the time). Several prominent freethinkers participated, including Richard Dawkins.

The ceremony itself was very well conceived, with readings, gifts, music, rich symbolism, a choked-up dad, and the pledging of mentors for each of the girls.

Matt wrote a lovely and thoughtful column about the event for On Faith, a site sponsored by the Washington Post and Newsweek. (Read the column here, and if you find yourself enveloped in a warm feeling about humanity when you finish it, do not go on to read the extremely depressing comment thread.)

The brief PBS video segment is here. Don’t blink and you’ll see and hear someone the script calls “UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1.” Hey Ma, c’est moi!

More on secular celebrations, including the complete script of the Cherry event, is here.

The Facelift

Welcome to the facelifted Meming of Life!

In addition to several minor tweaks (font color, title style, no more mysterious pseudo-Masonic MW&R logo, author mug, etc), I wanted a banner.
I’ve had a thaaang for Canadian artist Glendon Mellow’s beautiful blog The Flying Trilobite since I discovered it last summer. It’s awash with examples of its subtitle—Art in Awe of Science—which is why, when I wanted a banner for The Meming of Life, I turned immediately to Mr. Mellow.

As you can see from the incredible oil painting at the top, Glendon did NOT disappoint.

Glendon has posted a piece about the evolution of the banner on The Flying Trilobite, complete with early sketches, so I won’t go into that side of things too much. Suffice it to say that I gave poor Glendon almost no guidance whatsoever. And thank Thor for that! He immediately came up with four great ideas, two of which ended up combined in this rich and complex image.

I am deeply smitten with images that have multiple meanings. My publisher, for example, could not have pleased me more with the cover design for Parenting Beyond Belief (see sidebar). I’ll try to describe the layers of significance the banner has for me.

The basic narrative is this: A Neolithic parent’s careful painting of an aurochs is echoed in the child’s imitation. Satisfied with their work, parent and child walked off together across the beach.

Ahh, but then there are the layers of meaning for me:



    As an anthro major at UC Berkeley, I was gobsmacked by the opportunity to connect with individual human beings across 16,000 years through the paintings at Lascaux. The paintings represent one of oldest surviving expressions of human experience captured in a meme, or unit of culture—and is therefore an early example of the “meming” of life.


    Evokes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which raises questions about reality, illusion, and the human willingness to be deceived.


    I am terrified of cows. You herd me. I think Glendon knew this, somehow, and felt I should see one every time I went to my own damn blog.

    The Laetoli prints


    In addition to the parenting metaphor, two sets of footprints side by side are a simultaneous allusion to (1) the incredible 3.7 million year old hominid footprints at Laetoli in East Africa, which were excavated in part by my first anthropology professor, Tim White; AND (2) the sappy glurge “Footprints” ( “It was then that I carried you” ) which in turn never fails to remind me of the chokingly hilarious point-counterpoint version in The Onion.

    > HUMOR

    In addition to the hidden Onion reminder, the child’s Far-Side-like cow completely cracks me up.


    I’ve always loved this ocean metaphor of Isaac Newton’s–a nice metaphor for the humility of science properly conceived:

    I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

    The ocean also represents the POO (point of origin) for all life, including the aurochs/cow, the humans, the moss dangling at the entrance.


    Older than science, religion, art and culture.

I could go on. I’m just thrilled with it. Undying thanks to Glendon. Now go see his blog. Just remember to come back.

[HEY! If you haven’t read Becca’s second post, scroll down. It was bumped after a day and a half by the facelift, but it’s a must-read.]

Looking back…and it’s about time (2 of 2)

Guest column by Becca McGowan

[Back to Part 1]

I don’t think there is a God; but I wish there was one.

There it is. I said it.

I had never actually said this to anyone until my seven-year-old daughter asked me point-blank, “Mom, do you believe in God?” It had been easy to avoid a concrete answer up to that point because virtually all religious conversations in our home were between Dale and the kids. I was content to listen during family discussions and participate only in the easy parts: Everybody believes different things…the bible is filled with stories that teach people…we should learn about other people’s beliefs…we should keep asking questions so we can decide what we think…those were the easy parts. I told myself that I was still thinking about it.

The problem is that deep down, I had already decided. And I had decided that God was not real. God was created from the human desire to explain what we didn’t understand. God was an always-supportive father figure, able to get us through difficult times when human fathers were insufficient. I now believed what I had only toyed with in Mr. Tresize’s high school mythology class: A thousand years from now, people will look back on our times and say, “Look, back then the Christian myth held that there was one God and that his son became man…”

But wait a minute! This can’t be! Did I actually say this out loud to my daughter?! I am a GOOD person. I am a KIND person. I help OTHERS. As I left for school each day as a little girl, my mother always said, “Remember, you are a Christian young lady.” That’s who I AM!

Now, here I was, a mother, encouraging my children to keep asking questions, keep reading, keep talking with others. I want my children to think and learn. Then, I tell them, decide for yourself.

But had I ever asked questions about religion? Had I ever read about religion or talked with others? Had I actually decided for myself? No. I became a church-attending Christian as a way to rebel against my stepfather. I hadn’t thought about it for a day in my life.

Flash back eight years, driving home from church in our minivan, when Dale said to me, “I just can’t go to church anymore.” I was devastated.

I continued to attend church on my own for a couple of years. I also began reading Karen Armstrong’s In the Beginning. And I began to think about why I believed. The more I read and talked and debated, the more I realized that my belief was based on my label as a “Christian young lady.” My belief was based on uniting with my mother against my stepfather.

I now consider myself a secular humanist, someone who believes that there is no supernatural power and that as humans, we have to rely on one another for support, encouragement and love. Looking at religious ideas and asking questions, thinking and talking and then finally coming to the realization that I was a secular humanist—that was not the difficult part. Breaking away from the expectations and dysfunctions of my family of origin has proven to be the real and ongoing challenge.

BECCA McGOWAN is a first grade teacher. She holds a BA in Psychology from UC Berkeley and a graduate teaching certificate from UCLA. She lives with her husband Dale and three children in Atlanta, Georgia.