Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Meaning and nonforeverness

Young Pastor: You speak blasphemy, sir!
Man in the Yellow Suit: Fluently.
What we Tucks have, you can’t call it living. We just… are. We’re like rocks, stuck at the side of a stream.
Immortality isn’t everything the preachers crack it up to be.

Quotes from the film version of TUCK EVERLASTING

Back from the Hawkeye State, where I had the temerity to hold a seminar two blocks from the University of Iowa homecoming game. Went well, as did the next day in Des Moines. Met more fabulous folks including Jaime and Brian Sabel and Becky Mason of Iowa Secularists and our very own blogreader Ei! Plus some nice Amish ladies at the airport.

Driving through corn and a lovely plague of black butterflies on the way to Iowa City, I found myself thinking about a question from an earlier seminar — Cincinnati, maybe. A young man introduced himself as a quite recent deconvert from fundamentalism and told me he’d been struggling with the problem of meaning in the absence of eternal life. If we live for a while and then cease to be, what exactly is the point?

The meaning thing is a legitimate problem. I’ve written before about the ways in which we discover meaning, but that’s down here on the local level of our experience. He was asking the larger philosophical question about the Point of It All. And that’s a much more interesting problem.

Thing is, I don’t remotely see how immortality solves it.

If I live to be eighty instead of forty, is my life more intrinsically meaningful? I think most would agree it is not. How about 200 years, or 500? Ten thousand? These are changes in quantity that don’t seem to affect the M&P question at all. No matter how long you live, right up to eternity, the basic M&P question remains in place. In fact, the excellent novel and movie Tuck Everlasting convincingly makes the opposite claim — that immortality actually robs life of its meaning.

Some suggest that religion solves the problem by means other than everlasting life. Our purpose is to do God’s will, and so on. Aside from how deeply dissatisfying this ant-farm model of meaning should be to any thinking person, it only transfers the question up one level: What is the purpose of God, and why, in the grandest scheme, is this hobby of his worth the time spent cleaning our cage?

Meaning is a legitimate human puzzle. The question is whether this abstracted, higher-level meaninglessness troubles you or not. Unlike death, I don’t find ultimate meaninglessness too arresting a thought, though I have seriously struggled at times with local, personal, self-discovered meaning. As I wrote last year (You put your whole self in, 6/5/07):

I don’t imagine other animals have “meaning crises,” but our cortical freakishness makes us feel that we need more than just the lucky fact of being — makes us imagine these enormous, fatal holes and cracks in our meaning and purpose.

Hence the use of God as meaning-spackle.

When I was a kid, my purposometer (purr-puh-SAH-mit-ter), was always in the 90s on a scale of 100. Didn’t even have to try. I knew what I was here for: getting good grades, playing the clarinet, getting Muriel Ruffino to kiss me (Editor’s note: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, booyah!), getting into college, getting various other girls to kiss and etc. me (mission roughly 17% accomplished). And so on.

Much like your need for a pancreas, you never even know you have the need for meaning and purpose until it begins to fail — which mine did, in no uncertain terms, as I sat black-robed and square-hatted in a folding chair on a Berkeley lawn, not hearing the words of some famous anthropologist standing before me and 150 other black-robed, square-hatted, non-hearing 22-year-olds.

For the first time in my life, I had no earthly idea what was next. It was my first genuine core-shaking crisis of meaning and purpose.

But for reasons I’m not sure about, that larger question — call it cosmic M&P — has never pecked too hard at my consciousness. The best I can do is acknowledge that it is legit and note that religion doesn’t cure it.

Those who aren’t as incurious as I can always imagine themselves in Yahweh’s ant farm — or engage, along with Viktor Frankl and others, in a truly difficult and probably worthwhile bit of philosophical work.

Lemme know how it goes.

Drugs are bad…m’kay?

mkay329881I had an unusual interview two weeks ago.

I sleep through most media interviews now, since the questions tend to be the same, and in about the same order: Tell me a little about your book, Why do nonreligious parents need their own separate resource, How do you deal with moral development, How can you help kids deal with death without an afterlife, Isn’t it important to believe in something greater than ourselves. Before I know it, I’m being thanked for a fascinating hour I can’t quite remember.

It’s a bit like teaching. In my last few years as a college professor, I’d hear my brain stem doing the teaching while my neocortex was planning dinner. I’d come back just in time to dismiss. That’s when I knew it was time to do something else.

But the interview two weeks back snapped me out of my usual snooze. I was a little wary anyway, as the station runs syndicated neocon culture-warrior nonsense of the Medved/Prager variety most of the day. Even so, I was not prepared for the very first question to come out of the host’s mouth:

“Without a higher power,” he asked, “how are you going to keep your kids off crystal meth?”


Now I can see this kind of thing coming up at some point…but right out of the starting gate? This, of all questions, was knocking on the back of his teeth? When he heard he would be interviewing a nonreligious parent, the first thing that bubbled up was, “B-b-but how’s he gonna keep them off meth?”

I answered that instead of a higher power, I encourage my kids to engage these questions with the power of their own reason, the power of their own minds. There are many compelling reasons to stay away from self-destructive things, after all — including the fact that they are, uh…self-destructive.

He threw it to the other guest, a minister at a private junior high school, who answered confidently that the higher power was the one and only option. Without Jesus, he’d have no way whatsoever to keep his kids from whirling out of control and into the black abyss. Only by staying tightly focused on biblical principles, he said, can kids avoid utter annihilation.


Ready for the follow-up? Trust me, you’re not:

“Now Dr. McGowan,” said the host with a chuckle, “I gotta tell you, when you talk about the Power of the Mind, it sounds an awful lot like Scientology to me. Can you tell me what if anything distinguishes your worldview from Scientology?”

What, if anything.

This is what we’ve come to as a culture. When you advocate teaching kids to reason things out, it sounds to some like the process of auditing past lives to become an Operating Thetan, casting off the evil influence of Xenu (dictator of the Galactic Confederacy) and battling the alien implants from Helatrobus that seek to control our thoughts and actions.

I apologized for being so very unclear, assured him I had intended to evoke nothing alien, supernatural, or magical by encouraging my children to think. I’ve also never “informed” them, a la Mr. Mackey in South Park, that “drugs are bad, so you shouldn’t do drugs, m’kay?” That’s commandment-style morality, and it’s weak as hell. Instead, we’ve talked about what they stand to lose, what others have lost, how addiction works, and what a fragile and fantastic thing the mind is.

I remember drawing that last connection vividly as a teenager. I knew that my mind was the key to any eventual success I might have, an asset to protect. I didn’t want to risk screwing it up for any kind of pleasure or thrill, and drugs were just too unpredictable in their effects. It was a simple risk analysis, clinched by the death of my dad as an indirect consequence of smoking. I got the message: When you put poisonous stuff in your body, you risk too much for too little. And I never touched so much as a cigarette. My kids have received that same message: Grandpa David never got to meet them because he became addicted to poisonous stuff, couldn’t stop, and paid with his life.

I came out of my study after the interview and Connor (13) asked how it had gone. “A little weird,” I said, “but fine.”

“What was weird?”

I looked him in the eye. “Well, his first question was how I’m going to keep you guys off crystal meth without religion.”

“Pfft,” Connor said. “As if it’s an issue.”

It was nice to hear his quick, dismissive snort. I know my kids really well, and though anything’s possible, I don’t see drugs as a serious threat. In addition to reasoning through it, we’ve talked about craving and addiction — that your body can be chemically tricked into thinking it needs the drugs, and that this can be hard to reason your way out of once you’re in the middle of it. That, plus a number of personal, family, and community assets, kept me from using. And all without a Savior in sight. I figure it has a good chance of working with my kids as well.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that both the host and the minister had gone through the requisite “lost years” of sex and drugs, only to be gloriously saved by coming to Christ. It can and surely does work for some. I’d just love to hear someone on that side acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways as well — ways that involve no magic, no demigods, no thetans, no fervent, focused distractions — just the ability to draw on our own natural resources.

Home again, for a sec

igwt4398Back in town after two talks, one seminar, and 1134 driving miles through gorgeous country in the western Eastern Time Zone.

Though I didn’t cross into Illinois (“Land of Lincoln”), I was hardly starved for references to the 16th President, whether in Indiana (“Boyhood Home of Abraham Lincoln”), Kentucky (“Birthplace of Abraham Lincoln”), Tennessee (“The State with the Same Number of ‘N’s in Its Name as Abraham Lincoln”) or Ohio (“Home of Many, Many Pennies”).

Listened to the audiobook of The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, a presidential candidate with one year more experience in government than the man widely viewed by scholars and the public alike as our greatest president.

Cincinnati is recovering from a hurricane. That sentence shouldn’t even make sense, but sadly does.

Once again, meeting the people was the highlight, including Skeptic Dad blogger Colin Thornton, some top-notch freethought organizers in Cincinnati (FIG’s John and Fran Welte) and Indianapolis (CFI’s Reba Boyd Wooden), Camp Quest founders Edwin and Helen Kagin, children’s author and illustrator Craig Gosling and aspiring freethought author Chris Edwards — not to mention longtime blogreader and all-star PBB supporter matsonwaggs — and several others who are now mad at me for not mentioning them.

Special hat-tip to The Rathskeller in Indianapolis, a restaurant built by Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather, where I was treated to the best traditional German meal I’ve ever had. That includes the six weeks I spent in Germany and Austria.

(This content-free blog post was brought to you by My Personal Exhaustion®. Tune in tomorrow for a somewhat more meaningful quickie before I head off to Iowa.)

Back on the blue roads

No Meming for a while–I’m back on the road. Seminar in Cincinnati Saturday morning, a talk to Free Inquiry Group in the afternoon, then a talk in Indianapolis for CFI Indiana. Best of all, I’m actually driving, not flying. Gas didn’t creep over $2 a gallon while I was in my study, did it?

Listening material on the road: Audacity of Hope audiobook; Radiohead; Imogen Heap; conservative talk radio of Tennessee and Kentucky; and the heartbeat of America (or, at the very least, the muffled gurglings of its gastro-intestinal tract).

Upcoming posts: The strangest opening interview question ever; Best Practices 2; Name the Brazilians!; Age stories; Vox populi (or why we can relax).

Need something to look at? I’ve added two pages in the menu: Videobamarama (a collection of videos and other graphics in support of Obama and, yes, opposed to McCain) and Why I support Barack Obama.

Reminder: the First Annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition is heading into the final weeks. 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. 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. Because Labor Day delayed the announcement in Humanist Network News, I’ve pushed the deadline back to October 6.

See you Tuesday.

David Foster Wallace

They can kill you, but the legalities of eating you are quite a bit dicier.
–from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Just twice in my life have I not wanted a book to end. Twice. No matter how much I love the book I’m reading, I reach a point where I get it, I’ve had my fun, and I start looking forward to looking back at the experience of reading it.

The two exceptions: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

In both cases, the author had put me into a space so compelling and original that I hated to leave. In both cases I riffled the remaining few pages with such regret as the end approached that I actually backed up, rereading previous pages, slip-stepping on a wet hillside to avoid the inevitable.

That was all the more surprising in the case of Infinite Jest, which runs to 1,079 pages (including nearly 100 pages of footnotes, some two words long, some four pages) with a vocabulary like the OED and famously dense sentence structures. But I knew, as I read the maddening last sentence, that every other book in my life would be in its shadow. I wasn’t at all surprised when TIME Magazine named Infinite Jest one of the top 100 English language novels.

I dedicated Calling Bernadette’s Bluff, my own first novel, to Wallace. It was only fair, since his influence is on every page, from namefreaks like Genevieve Martin (the Dean of Faculty, therefore Dean Martin) to sentence-pairs like my description of Martin’s voice:

Half a dozen words in that stainless steel Voice and ambiguity evaporates, padlocks fly open, and underlings collide headlong, Stoogelike, in a frenzy of wish-fulfillment tinged with an inexplicable but highly motivating terror of consequences.

Lovely thing, really.

A shameless theft of technique. Same with Chapter 10, a play rehearsal within a play. Then there’s one of my favorite devices of his, the ellipsis as passive placeholder in unmarked dialogues. Here’s a conversation in Bernadette’s Bluff between two college roommates (an aggressive atheist and a gentle Christian) that is pure homage to Wallace, right down to the speakers’ identities being revealed only in context:

“I know you’re awake.”


“You forgot to switch your halo off.”


“Never did answer the Question of the Day, you know.”


“Ooo looky, there’s an angel hovering over the TV!”

“Ha ha.”

“I knew it. Now answer the Question.”

Even the unresolved ending of CBB was shoplifted in spirit from Wallace. And my travel writing is full of self-referential footnotes, something I learned at his literary teat.

I’m offering my own derived material rather than quotes from Wallace’s work because, as one blogger recently put it, his work “resists encapsulation.” And how. It is the most context-dependent stuff I’ve ever read.
It’s not too much to say that I’m a writer because of the way David’s writing blew my mind in every possible meaning of that phrase. My fiction, my nonfiction, my satire, my talks, and this blog are soaked in his influence. (Example: “I start looking forward to looking back at the experience of reading it” is me channeling Wallace. I don’t even know I’m doing it anymore.)

His nonfiction is frankly incredible in its ability to strip a subject to its essence. He has written about cruises, state fairs, television, tennis, depression, infinity, oblivion, and American material culture, and I’m jolted over and again with the shock of recognizing something I had never seen before. A brilliant piece of reportage about the McCain campaign of 2000 ( “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope”) has been called one of the most incisive looks at modern politics ever written — and also underlines the tragic difference between the John McCains of then and now.

In the span of a few seconds yesterday, I learned that David Foster Wallace had taken his own life at 46 and that he had suffered from crushing clinical depression for over 20 years. His wife came home and found him hanging.

I don’t give much of a damn that “the world has been deprived of his immense talents and his future literary masterpieces,” as someone somewhere is surely saying. Like Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, Infinite Jest was more than enough. I never needed another thing from him.

But I wish like hell — for him, not for me — that he hadn’t been consumed.

Best of David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

An Inconvenient Commandment

lie43092One of the common worries I hear from religious commentators about nonreligious people is the absence of a solid, reliable, unchanging moral compass. Lacking that…why, folks could make up the rules as they go along.

I’ve written about this nonsense before (“The red herring of relativism,” July 8, 2007), so I won’t go too deep into the silly idea that moral relativism follows from the absence of religious guidance. I’m more struck at the moment by just how quickly the “solid, reliable, unchanging moral compass” of religion is cast aside when it’s inconvenient.

The Ninth Commandment, for example — which prohibits lying, or “bearing false witness” — is taking quite a hit at the moment among the most fervently religious of my fellow Americans as the presidential campaign heads into the final weeks.

Some will note that all politicians lie, as if that makes my outrage moot. Even if that’s true, it seems clear to me that they don’t do it with equal abandon. Jimmy Carter, who found it difficult to lie, declared the country had fallen into a “malaise” and was booted for his honesty. Ronald Reagan followed up by declaring “Morning in America,” then ushered in the most corrupt and scandal-ridden Administration in memory.

Secular, un-compassed me is furious when my own party lies or cynically stretches the truth, which is little different. About a decade ago, the Democrats in my then-home state of Minnesota ran a television ad with a little girl struggling to read a sentence on a blackboard: “Republicans in the state legislature cut 32 million dollars from education funding.” A tiny asterisk led to the following at the bottom of the screen:

*(Cuts forced by Governor’s memo of 03/08/99.)

It flashed by too fast and small to read, which I’m sure was an oversight.

They were forced to do it by our governor, Jesse Ventura, an Independent. I dashed off an angry note to my state party, which thanked me for (and ignored) my petty plea for integrity.

Barack Obama has offered at least one wincing, bald-faced lie in this campaign when he claimed that his comment

“it’s not surprising then that [some voters] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”

was really just an acknowledgment that in tough times, people turn to “the things they can count on,” traditional values that “endure.” Even without the obvious disproof of this (anti-immigrant sentiment is an enduring value?), it was obvious to all but those blinded by bias on the left that he had meant something much less flattering. The original statement, though impolitic, was true; the cover-up was false, and that diminished him in my eyes.

The half-hearted, embarrassed reaction from much of the left at the time shows that liberals tend to wince when their candidates lie so shamefully. At the very least, we tend not to line up behind him or her and repeat the obvious lie.

See where I’m headed, do ya?

How many supporters of Sarah Palin’s candidacy are wincing with embarrassment at the astonishing, breathtaking stream of lies (both half and whole) coming from her and her surrogates in the past ten days? The Bridge to Nowhere (“thanks but no thanks”) lie is just one of a dozen or more towering fabrications that have again raised serious questions about not just our collective gullibility but also the willingness of the Right to bear false witness whenever it suits the needs of the moment.

There’s a term for this — situational ethics. It also goes by the name of moral relativism. And the fact that it displays itself so dazzlingly in conservative Christian evangelicals — those whose God devoted fully ten percent of his ethical instruction manual to forbidding it — should give any sane person pause before yammering on about the rock solid reliability of that unchanging moral compass.

When Charles Gibson asked Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine last week, any thinking observer could see that she had no idea what he meant. She paused awkwardly, then asked if he meant “[Bush’s] general worldview.” To cover themselves and perpetuate the larger lie that Palin is prepared for the national stage, the McCain campaign engineered a whopper: Palin knew the Bush Doctrine so well that she wasn’t sure which of its many facets Gibson wanted her to address.

And a shriek of needles on paper was heard across the land, and countless polygraphs now sit sweating in straitjackets, their needles quivering fearfully, humming “Give Me Some Truth” loudly to themselves for fear they will hear the Republicans say…it…again.

When (Roman Catholic) Sean Hannity interviews (Assemblies of God) Sarah Palin this week, there can be little doubt what they will do to their beloved Commandment. He will ask her (no doubt with “respect and deference“) about the Bush Doctrine, and she will faithfully parrot the lines she has learned since Thursday about its many, many facets, pretending to have known this all along, locking the inconvenient truth away with a click as decisive as the syllables of “Ahmadinejad” she had so faithfully learned the week before.

And afterward, all talk will be about whether she hit a triple, a home run, or a ground rule double, measured not against a standard of truth, nor what it takes to be Vice-President of the U.S., but against “expectations” and the dial-in-your-vote-for-the-next-American-Idol perceptions of three hundred million marionettes.

Maybe we can’t ask for an administration that doesn’t lie. I don’t know. But is it too much to hope for one that feels some semblance of shame when they do it?

[Your City Here] Power!

Okay, folks, I’m throwing out the old algorithm for scheduling the seminar tour. Finding out firsthand where the interested folks are is ever so much more fun, and much more likely to build successful events.

Since posting Wednesday about the blizzard of requests I’d had from Austin to bring the parenting seminar there, the storm front has widened. I’ve received requests from 27 cities in the U.S., three in Canada, and one each in Belgium and the Netherlands. Woohoo! Time to get my shots!

But five cities stood out:

…so these folks are getting the first seminars in 2009.

If you’re in one of those cities and haven’t yet sent in your email address, please click on your city name above to do so. When the schedule’s set, you’ll be among the first to know. And I’d like to hear from anyone in those five cities who might be connected to a potential host organization that can provide the room and help with promotion. Click here to drop me a note.

Other places climbing the list:

ST. LOUIS and KANSAS CITY: I’m already in conversation with the Ethical Society of St. Louis and All Souls UU in Kansas City for a pair of Missouri seminars, probably in January.

FLORIDA: A good number of Florida parents have expressed interest. Unfortunately they are literally all over the map, in seven different cities. If any one Florida city can organize a strong enough blizzard of interest, I’ll point my Honda south.

ASHEVILLE/CHARLOTTE NC: About eight requests from western North Carolina. That’s a quick drive for me, so double that number and I’m there.

DENVER/COLORADO SPRINGS: Weather delayed my plane and forced the cancellation of my Colorado Springs seminar in June. We’ll get that horse back under sail soon.

MINNEAPOLIS (again), PHOENIX, and LOS ANGELES: I’ve received just a handful for each of these. I’ll need a larger indication of interest before I happily submit to the airport security cavity search for y’all.

And a few more remain to go in 2008:

CINCINNATI on September 20
IOWA CITY on September 27
DES MOINES on September 28
PALO ALTO CA on October 25

…and BOSTON on December 6, in conjunction with my Alexander Lincoln “Harvard Humanist of the Year” Lecture at Harvard. (Registration info to come.)

If you’d like to see the half-day seminar come your way, fill out the general request form and get other interested parents to do the same.

Here’s what some past participants have said about the event:

“Very positive, practical, humorous, ethical presentation!”

“Eye-opening, interesting…fascinating”

“Wonderful seminar, wonderful book!”

“Very powerful to be given these tools to help our children…fabulous!”

“I have never felt less alone. Thank you Dale”

“I wish we could have gone on all day!”

“An effective combination of humor and powerful information”

“The family spectrum exercise was so revealing. I don’t see myself as an island anymore”

“I came away with a more positive attitude about parenting than I can remember having, ever.”

“Exhilarating, informative, fun”

Put down the knife! Now back away, slowly…

The leaves are falling, temperatures are falling…and foreskins, apparently, are falling as well.

Circumcision is in the air! I received two emails recently asking for my thoughts on the procedure, both from fathers who are making the decision soon for a newborn son. Then yesterday I came across a very thoughtful post about it on the Domestic Father blog. He says most of what I would say, but I’ll go on the record here as well.

We had our son circumcised, and I wish we hadn’t. The question just snuck up on me in the form of a nurse and a clipboard when I was exhausted. “Most people do,” she said. Baaaaaa, I replied.

It was originally a religious ceremony, a (quite strange, if you think about it) symbol of faithfulness to God. But interestingly, circumcision was not common outside of Jewish and Muslim practice until the 1890s, when a few religious enthusiasts, including the strange character JH Kellogg, recommended it as a cure for “masturbatory insanity.” Kellogg spent much of his professional effort combating the sexual impulse and helping others to do the same, claiming a plague of masturbation-related deaths in which “a victim literally dies by his own hand” and offering circumcision as a vital defense. “Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as this pernicious habit,” warned a Dr. Alan Clarke (referring to masturbation, not circumcision).

Given these jeremiads by well-titled professionals, the attitudes of American parents in the 1890s turned overnight from horror at the barbarity of this “un-Christian” practice to immediate conviction that it would save their boys from short and insane lives. It was even reverse-engineered as a symbol of Christian fidelity and membership in the church.

(Isn’t it a relief that we’ve left this kind of mass gullibility so very far behind?)

The supposed health benefits and other red herrings were created after the fact, in the early 20th century, to undergird sexual repression with a firm foundation of pseudoscience.
Anyone interested in the non-pseudo variety might look to the Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Medical Association, and dozens of similar organizations around the world who have issued statements calling the practice of circumcision “not recommended” because of associated risks. Others, including the British Medical Association, have articulated a slight possibility of slight benefits. Even so, The U.S. is the only remaining developed country in which the practice is still somewhat common — though many American HMOs no longer cover it.

The practice almost completely ended in the UK with the publication of a 1949 paper noting that 16-19 infant deaths per year were attributable to complications from the procedure.

One of my correspondents told me that “all the doctors we talk to say that it doesn’t matter one way or the other.” This seems to answer the question. No invasive medical procedure should be undertaken that does not have demonstrable benefits.

Add to that the strong possibility that sexual sensitivity is diminished, and I’d advise against it. It’s a form of genital mutilation, after all — just a more familiar one.

There’s also no rush. The boy can choose to go under the knife at 18 if he wishes. Considering just how likely that is should give any parent serious pause before greenlighting a pointless ritual relic when he’s an infant.

Circumcision Information and Resource Pages (CIRP), UK

Austin Power!

I get occasional email questions about the nonreligious parenting seminar tour. It’s usually a request to bring it to a particular city, but once in awhile someone wants to know (as one gent put it) my “algorithm for selecting locations.”

Okay. I hesitate to give away too much to the competition, but here it is:


…where x=population divided by number of churches and A= “cheese.”

For some reason, the answer is always “Wisconsin.”

An apparent grass-roots effort in Austin, Texas now has me reconsidering this time-honored approach.

There’s a form on my Seminars page inviting folks to submit the name of their city or town to have it considered for the seminar tour itinerary. If I get a dozen inquiries from a given city, that’s a good indication that interest is high enough to consider an event there. I’ve received hundreds of inquiries from over thirty-five cities in the U.S., three in Canada, and one in The Netherlands.

I gave a talk in Austin in May, but not the seminar. Then three days ago, a request came in from Austin via that online form. And another. And another. In one two-hour period, I received fifteen messages. By last night I’d received thirty-two requests to bring the seminar to Austin. Woohoo!

Austin has now leapt to the tippy-top of the waiting list.

If you’re hoping to bring the seminar your way, you might consider the Austin technique. Each seminar takes an enormous investment of time and effort. Knowing that there’s an audience chomping at the bit makes it well worth it.

Click here for the Add Your City page, or here for the general description of the seminar. Get a gaggle of friends to do the same and believe me, you’ll get my attention. Austin sure did. Yeah, baby!
A new category has opened up in the Parenting Beyond Belief Discussion Forum: POLITICS 2008! It’s a place to vent, exult, cathart, convince, discuss, or commiserate about this election season with other nonreligious parents. Local, state, or national. Any perspective welcome. No worries about relevance — this affects EVERYTHING else, so have at it!

Harvard honors the Sarah Palin of humanism

It’s always interesting when someone unexpectedly breaks from the backfield and grabs a high-profile plum from more worthy contenders. Dan Quayle, Harriet Miers, and Clarence Thomas leap to mind. Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, or Art Carney (!) beating Dustin Hoffmann, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino for Best Actor.

Sarah Palin recently joined the ranks of those unexpectedly thrust to the front of the line, to be met with a collective shout of “WHO??”

Now Harvard has given us another one.

Among many other fine programs and services, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University selects one person each year as Harvard Humanist of the Year — someone who has made a significant contribution to the promotion and understanding of humanism. The list of past recipients is impressive, including

Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, author of Consilience, The Ants, and On Human Nature, winner of two Pulitzers, the Crafoord Prize, and the National Medal of Science;

Courageous Bengali human rights activist and feminist Taslima Nasreen, poet and essayist, winner of the Sakharov Prize and multiple international human rights awards;

UN Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian senator and humanitarian best-known for his attempts to halt the Rwandan genocide in 1993-94;

Rice University’s Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities Anthony Pinn, author and Humanist liberation theologian;

Representative Pete Stark, the first openly-nontheistic member of the U.S. Congress.

This year, the good folks at Harvard chose someone so obscure that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Just think of that. Even Numa Numa Guy has a Wikipedia page.

Click here to see this year’s choice for Harvard Humanist of the Year.