Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning

The second installment in a nine-part series on best practices for nonreligious parenting. Back to BEST PRACTICES #1.

If the Ten Commandments had been posted at Columbine High School, the April 20 massacre would never have happened.
former Republican Congressman and current Libertarian Presidential candidate BOB BARR, at a press conference on June 17, 1999

Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion. But if it’s simply indoctrination, it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.
Dr. LARRY NUCCI, director of the Office for Studies in Moral Development, University of Illinois, Chicago

L43309ast May I mentioned a powerful study
in which 700 survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it)—were interviewed about their moral upbringing. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors note, “is the word most rescuers favored” in describing their parents’ way of communicating rules and ethical concepts.1

This echoed work by Grusec and Goodnow in the 1990s, which showed that “parents who tend to be harshly and arbitrarily authoritarian or power-assertive are less likely to be successful than those who place substantial emphasis on induction or reasoning.”2

Both the Oliners’ results and the central role children play in their own moral development are underlined by cross-cultural research from the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Children in cultures around the world tend to reach certain landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, according to lead researcher Larry Nucci, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do. “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion,” says Nucci.

The reliability with which kids hit these moral landmarks was underlined by a University of Zurich study published in the August issue of the journal Nature. Kids between 3 and 4 were seen to be almost universally selfish, after which a “strong sense of fairness” develops, usually by age 7 or 8. Fairness was most evident toward those with whom the children identified—in this case, kids from the same school as opposed to a different one.

Ideas of fairness and of in-group preference appear to go hand-in-hand. “The simultaneous development of altruistic behavior and preference of the own group provides interesting new impulses for the conjecture that both of these processes are driven by the same evolutionary process,” said Professor Ernst Fehr, one of the principals in the study. This development, which has never been shown to occur in other species, “may be an important reason for the unique cooperative abilities of humans,” he said. Unlike animal and insect societies, human societies are based on a detailed division of labor and cooperation in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals who are nonetheless joined by common concerns.

So once again, for the vast, vast majority of kids and situations, morality happens. We are wired up, however imperfectly, for cooperation and fairness. Parents can and should encourage these tendencies, but we mustn’t think we are writing on a blank slate, or even worse, rowing against a current of natural depravity. Our job is to draw out and enhance the ethical nature that evolution has already put in place, then expand it beyond the in-group by widening those circles of empathy. Knowing that our children’s tendency is toward the ethical can help us relax and row with the current, knowing that kids in a supportive, “pro-social” environment tend to turn out just fine.

Nucci’s work does point to one way in which parents can actually impede their children’s moral growth. Any guesses?

“If it’s simply indoctrination,” he says, “it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.”3

So the one practice conservative religious thought insists is vitally important in moral education, the one thing we are begged and urged and warned to do—to teach unquestioning obedience to rules—turns out to be the single most counterproductive thing we can do for our children’s moral development.

Instead, the best thing we can do is to encourage our kids to actively engage in the expansion and refinement of their own natural morality—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working to understand the reasons to be good.

Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, puts it just that clearly: “The most useful form of character education encourages children to think for themselves.”4
1 Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 181-2.
2 Grusec, J.E. and J. J. Goodnow, “Impact of Parental Discipline on the Child’s Internalization of Values: A Reconceptualization of Current Points of View,” Developmental Psychology, 30, 1994.
3 Quoted in Pearson, Beth, “The art of creating ethics man,” The Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2006.
4 Ibid.

You are the Weakest Link, Governor…Goodbye

wlg5498The most stressful moment of my life was my doctoral dissertation defense. For two hours, a committee of people who already hold PhDs in the subject do their level best to make you screw up, to reveal gaping holes in your knowledge of the field. Their tone is often contemptuous — more Weakest Link than Who Wants to Be A Ph.D. — and always with an eye to protecting their field from poseurs. The trick is to uncover any serious deficits before you walk out the door with a degree they’ve signed off on, only to show you slept through some key fundamental. If they decide you aren’t ready, you can be denied both the degree and a second chance. You can, in theory, toss away five years of effort with a single…gaffe.

Once in a while the process fails, and we get a stealth creationist who managed to fake his way through the last gate in a biology program without revealing that he thinks evolution is “just one guy’s idea,” or a law grad who thinks Marbury vs. Madison was a football game. But the whole purpose of the grueling, humiliating dissertation defense is to find these people out and show them the door.

Political campaigns at their best serve the same purpose, ferreting out candidates who are clueless not just on this or that item of knowledge, but on the absolutely non-negotiable fundamentals of the office they seek.

There are mere gaffes — Howard Dean saying the Book of Job is in the New Testament, McCain referring to the ambassador of Czechoslovakia (which no longer exists), Obama saying he’d been to 57 states, Biden putting Roosevelt on TV in 1929. These are amusing, but all honest people know they are sideshows of little real import. Thirty seconds later, the candidate usually self-corrects, because he or she simply misspoke.

And then there are GASPERS, statements that reveal such a breathtaking deficit on the part of the candidate that all the oxygen goes out of the room, and a bug-eyed, oh-shit silence hangs like a shroud. These don’t deserve to be called gaffes because the candidate didn’t misspeak. If asked to clarify, he or she would say the same thing, over and over, because it is what s/he actually believes.

For examples of such epic, terrifying moments of revealed ignorance, we need look no further in this election cycle than the governor of Alaska.

I’m not talking about dinosaurs living 4,000 years ago. That’s bad enough, but it is at least conceivable that she could get her cladistic timescales just that wrong and still function as a head of state without doing too much damage. Not a desirable thing, but conceivable.

However…when I first read about her book banning efforts in Wasilla and the subsequent firing of the town librarian (who refused to consider such a request), I had one of those genuinely oh-shitting moments. We differ on energy policy, foreign policy, blah blah blah. Those we can argue about. But someone who doesn’t even understand why censorship is bad, inherently bad, no-matter-who-is-doing-it-or-why-or-what-books-are-involved bad, has instantly outed herself as the Weakest Link and needs a gentle shove to the exit.

When she showed for the third time that she hasn’t taken the 90 seconds required to read the description of the job she seeks, she earned a somewhat rougher shove to the door by inventing a startling new power for the VP — being “in charge of the United States Senate”:

Thank you for coming. And don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

If the camel’s back weren’t already busted enough, the last straw came over the weekend when during a speech advocating increased funding for research benefiting special needs kids, Governor Palin said:

She kids us not! Fruit flies! What kind of stupid science is that?

The, uh…scientific kind. The smart and useful kind.

It’s hard to get through eighth grade science without learning that a huge portion of what we know about genetics comes from fruit fly research. Thanks to their rapid regeneration, huge fecundity, and simple genome, fruit flies are the single most studied organism on the planet. It’s okay for Jane Sixpack to not know that. It’s not okay for a potential policymaker to state an intention to foist breathtaking ignorance of the most basic science on the rest of us. Again.

There is irony as well, of course: While urging greater funding of research to benefit special needs children, she mocks and derides the funding of research that directly benefits special needs children. Among other things, the fruit fly research she derides has recently provided breakthroughs in understanding autism. By shooting off her mouth about things she knows little about, she achieves the opposite of her intended result.

This fits into a larger pattern — a world and worldview in which this kind of inside-out thinking is a way of life.

In the religiously conservative world Palin inhabits, you can be opposed to teen pregnancy, then advocate abstinence-only sex ed, which increases rates of teen pregnancy.

You can oppose antisocial behaviors in children, then advocate corporal punishment, which has been shown to increase antisocial behaviors in children.

You can decry immorality in children, then advocate a commandment-based authoritarian moral education, which reseach has shown to “actually interfere with moral development” (Nucci, et al.) more than any other approach.

Now imagine instead a person who wants all the same things — meaningful and useful science, a reduction in teen pregnancy, and kids who are well-behaved and moral — but goes beyond what “seems” right to find out what we’ve actually learned, through careful research, about genetics, teen pregnancy, and moral development.

Then vote for that person.

Two ways blind

Someone please pull this video out from under my eyes. I’m riveted and repelled. I can’t stop watching it, analyzing it, pausing and advancing it, trying to learn something from it. It somehow holds the key to…something. In just one minute, this woman manages to illustrate the intersection of blind faith and blind intolerance more succinctly and powerfully than I’ve ever seen:

[SIGH. Careful what you wish for. The production company has pulled the video from under my eyes. Go here to see it. You’ll have to wait for it to load and go to 8:25 to see the segment in question, but it’s worth it. I hate stingy copyright holders.]

It’s not like I haven’t seen the combination before–it’s not exactly rare–but I’ve never seen such a richly-illustrated portrait of the way faith and intolerance can, and often do, spoon. Watch her eyes. Listen to the cadence of her voice. Catch the suppressed violence in her last sentence. Most of all, watch that smug, self-satisfied blink/head-toss combo that appears first at 0:17, then again in some form six more times, in each case following a declaration of blind faith or blind hatred.

If you aren’t yet convinced that religious moderates share more in common with the nonreligious than with a wingnut like Ms. Kerlee, share this video with your religious moderate friends and watch their reactions. Recognizing our shared outrage over ignorance posing as “values” would be good for both groups–and who knows, might even get that long-overdue bridge-building underway.

(via Pharyngula.)

Tray tables up! Flights of nonsense landing in Texas schools

texflag32988The next act in the long and ugly creationist end-game will take place in Texas. After the previous two acts, my confidence is high.

One of my dearest hopes for the next generation is that they get a real shot at understanding evolution. My own teenage understanding of the theory was fuzzy around the edges, since we touched on it for all of about eight minutes in high school. I didn’t encounter it again until Anthro 1 at Berkeley–at which point it dazzled me so much I changed my major from psych to physical anthropology.

And am I ever glad I did, because understanding evolution changes everything. It is not just true but transformative and elegant and exquisitely, lastingly wonder-inducing. And the wonder is increasingly evident the deeper you dig — as opposed to religious wonder, which pales with each stroke of the spade. Yes, I want kids to understand evolution because it’s true, but I also want to gift them with the giddy perspective it brings, both humbling and exalting in its implications. It is indeed the “best idea anyone ever had,” but also the most astonishingly wonder-full.

When I fight to keep evolution in the schools and creationism out, it’s that wonder that I’m fighting for as much as fact. The fact that ignorance and cowardice among parents and educators keeps our kids from learning much about the Coolest Thing We Know simply breaks my heart.

That’s why I’m so excited to hear that creationists are busily reviewing state science standards in Texas.


You heard me. When I read about this on Pharyngula, I squealed with girlish glee. Here’s why: When lunacy flies too far below the radar, the good guys slumber, the middle shrugs, and untold damage is done. But once in a while it flies high enough and caws loud enough to wake enough of us up to do something serious about it. That’s why I’m a big fan of those flights of nonsense.

It happens in politics as well. A recent such flight was piloted by the ghastly Michele Bachmann, a fascist (and I don’t use that word lightly) from my former state who won a seat in Congress in 2006 despite my objections. She’s been a dangerous nut for two years but only came to the country’s attention when she went on Hardball recently to call for a McCarthyesque rooting out of “anti-Americanism” in Congress:

Bachmann’s no more dangerous this week than last — she’s simply visible. As a partial result, the most admired Republican in the country endorsed the man she slandered. And as a direct result, three quarters of a million dollars poured in to her opponent’s campaign.

Another example: Would the left ever have gotten its act together if John McCain had selected a sensible running mate?

So we really shouldn’t gnash our teeth too much when nonsense flies high. Pass out the peanuts and encourage them to enjoy the in-flight movie while you spread some foam (or not) on the runway.

Evolution education has benefited tremendously from such high-visibility nonsense in recent years. The Dover trial was a lopsided victory for evolution, and the judge, a Bush appointee, wrote the most devastatingly powerful and scornful evisceration of “intelligent design” in the history of the issue. (If you haven’t seen the NOVA program about the trial, oh my word, people, click here.)

Without that high-flying attempt by the creationists, a crucial moment of progress couldn’t have occurred.

Then there’s Kansas, where the state Board of Education’s attempt to throttle evolution education ended with evolution more firmly ensconced in the curriculum standards than before and every last one of the creationist board members out of a job. Again, progress not in spite of, but because of, overt lunacy.

Now the flight is landing in Texas, where the Texas Board of Education (itself stocked with two creationists for every science-literate member) has named a six-person committee to review science standards — three science-literates and three high-profile creationist activists. The committee is headed by a seventh member, Don McLeroy, a creationist dentist (of all things).

See where this is going?

So why should parents outside of Texas care? Here’s why, from the Texas Freedom Network:

Publishers will use the new standards to create new textbooks. Because Texas is such a large market for textbook sales, publishers typically craft their textbooks for this state and then sell those books to other schools across the country. So the results of this curriculum process could have consequences for far more than just the 4.6 million children in Texas public schools.

Unsurprisingly, the National Center for Science Education is on it. They’re the good folks who coordinated the brilliant victory in Dover.

So be glad the lunacy is flying high where we can see it — but don’t be complacent, especially y’all in Texas. If nothing else, get yourselves informed before the board election by listening closely to this incredibly clear message from a well-informed Texas gentleman whose resemblance to Satan is almost certainly coincidental:

“What happened in Kansas and in Dover, Pennsylvania is about to happen here in Texas, too,” he says. Well I certainly hope so. It won’t be easy or smooth. The fable purveyors will do some damage along the way. But I’ve never been more confident in our ability to win in the end.

Inside Charlie’s Playhouse

Guest column by Kate Miller
President, Charlie’s Playhouse

kate3498982KATE MILLER is a mother and scientist with a PhD in demography from U Penn, and a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University. In response to the terrible scarcity of toys and games to help kids understand evolution, she launched CHARLIE’S PLAYHOUSE this very month. I wrote a brief but glowing review of the company for Raising Freethinkers. In this column, Kate describes the process that led to the creation of this exciting and brilliantly-conceived resource for science-jazzed parents and their lucky kids.

Dinosaur-mania washed over my two boys a couple of years back, and in its wake came some wonderful discussions about evolution, natural selection and Charles Darwin. We turned toy boats into the Beagle and sailed around the playroom collecting plastic animals for inspection. We unfurled a roll of paper on the floor and drew ancient animals along a billion-year timeline.

Delighted by their interest, I went online one day in search of some educational games or toys on the subject. I easily found fun stuff for kids about physics, chemistry, astronomy and every other branch of science you can think of, but nothing on evolution. Yes, some wonderful children’s books about evolution, and some great videos for grownups, but no toys, no manipulatives, nothing involving physical movement or the sheer insane joy of the history of life on this planet.

I dug deeper into the market. I checked out natural history museums, suppliers of teaching materials, professional biology associations. Nothing. I made phone calls, read toy industry publications, inquired at specialty stores. Nothing. Some toys that focus on the natural world walk right up to an invisible line but will not cross over to actually use the words “evolution” or “natural selection.” Even the vast dinosaur-industrial complex doesn’t touch it. Check out the next dino toy you pick up.

timeline44095My curiosity rose, along with my indignation. Why is there no infrastructure for presenting evolutionary ideas to young children? No doubt it’s due to political concerns in corporate America, yet for most people evolution does not contradict their beliefs in any way. Many parents who have been looking for evolution-themed toys have found their way to me; these parents are religious, they are secular, they are homeschoolers, they are mainstream, they are everyone. Why should this majority be deprived of educational fun stuff for their kids because of the few who politicize the issue? At the very least, kids have to be aware of evolutionary ideas for the same reason that they need to know about religion: it’s basic cultural literacy.

shirts44095I also discovered that our national science standards recommend that students should not be exposed to evolution until high school, or middle school at earliest. I was raised in a household where evolution was normal, like gravity, so hearing about evolution for the first time in high school strikes me as odd, like learning that the Earth revolves around the Sun sometime around your junior prom. As member of the standards panel later told me over coffee, that recommendation was driven not by children’s inability to grasp the concepts but by elementary teachers’ discomfort with the material.

So my kids and I stumbled upon this vacant market niche, and I had what one friend calls “the entrepreneurial seizure.” Against my better judgment, we decided to start a business. Of course I hope to make a buck with this venture (wouldn’t it be nice if the kids get to go to college?) but I also hope to contribute to the scientific literacy of future generations. Oh, and also have some laughs with the kids along the way. So here is Charlie’s Playhouse. Welcome!

Visit Charlie’s Playhouse
Contact Kate

Cross purposes


“Yeah, B.”

“I want to wear something to school tomorrow but it makes me feel weird to wear it. I don’t know if I should.”

It’s completely in character for Erin (10) to open with a “should” question. Erin is as tightly concerned with values questions as the other two are with empirical ones. Most of all, she is intrigued, fascinated, curious, and ultimately repelled by the dark side.

I wrote last year about her long-ago entrée into this ambivalent dialectic, watching Snow White at age four:

Her epiphany came as Snow White entered the deep, dark forest, fleeing the wicked Queen. The Queen had certainly gotten her attention, but Erin’s eyes didn’t pop – and I mean POP — until Snow White fled into the storm-whipped forest.

“Daddy, LOOK!!”

“Oooh, yeah, look at that.” The whipping branches of the trees had transformed into gnarled hands, which were reaching ever closer to Snow White as she cowered and ran down the forest path. I looked over at Erin, whose dinnerplate eyes were glued to the screen.

“What ARE those?!” she asked, breathlessly.

“Looks like some kind of evil hands, B.”

“Daddy,” she said in an intense hush, “…I want to BE those evil hands!”

(For the record, she now talks about pursuing a Pre-Med course of study in college, with only a minor in Evil.)

I wasn’t surprised to hear that she was puzzling over the morality of clothing choice, pondering the implications of spaghetti straps or a too-short skirt. It’s her stock in trade. But this time, there was a twist.

“What is it you’re thinking about wearing?” I asked.

She slowly revealed a pendant necklace, and dangling at the end, a cross.

I remember when she bought it at the dollar store on a Florida vacation last year, selecting a cross of pink plastic beads from a huge display of hundreds of cross necklaces. (I remember the sign over the display reading ALL CROSS NECKLACES $1. I’d added a line in my mind: Jesus Saves—Why Shouldn’t You?)

“Why does it make you feel weird, B?” I assumed she was feeling out the reaction of her secular dad. And there was a time I would have frozen like a moose in the headlights at such a thing, unsure of the right response. But this isn’t some church-state issue. This is about letting my child explore the world for herself. I don’t have to engage anything higher than the brain stem for these situations anymore. But it wasn’t about my views–it was about hers.

“I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in god. Like I’m not being honest. But I just like to wear it.”

“It’s fine, sweetie. It’s a pretty necklace.”

She paused. There was more, I could tell.

“It makes me feel good to wear it.”

Uhhh, okay, there’s at least one unfortunate way to read that sentence. “You mean it makes you feel like a good person to wear a cross?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “It just…” She smiled sheepishly. “It makes me feel good to rub it.”

I’ve been ready for that sentence for years, but the context is all wrong.

“When I’m worried, I rub it with my fingers and it makes the worry go away.”

Aha, okay. It’s a simple talisman. And Erin does spend more time worrying than she ought to. I told her about the jade worry stone I carried in my pocket throughout middle school. Same deal. It did make me feel better. Her cross has no more connection to God than my worry stone. In fact, her concern is that people might think it did when it didn’t.

I asked if I could feel the cross. The pink beads are threaded on two axes and revolve pleasantly beneath the fingertips. “Hey, that is nice,” I said. “Better than my rock!”

She laughed. She’s worn the cross for a week now. And if I know my girl, the compulsion to explain what she does and doesn’t believe is eventually going to surface. It’ll be a conversation starter for her. I could have found a reason to disallow it — something about disrespecting the beliefs of others, perhaps — but I wasn’t fishing for a way to disallow it. On the contrary, I fish for ways to allow things. Here’s a chance for her to engage and think about issues of identity and belief and symbolism. Why miss that chance?

Most important of all, I know it isn’t likely to cast a spell on her—in part because I didn’t treat it like fearful magic, and in part because I know my girl.

Circumcision Decision

Three winners have been selected from the gratifyingly multitudinous and high quality submissions to the first annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition. The winners are:

BLAKE EVANS, “Circumcision Decision”
ROBBIN DAWSON, “Look at the Bird”
ROBYN PARNELL, “Grandmas Gone God-Wild”

The winning entries will be presented here and in Humanist Network News in no particular order over the coming three months. Thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to Blake, Robbin, and Robyn!


Circumcision Decision

by Blake Evans

“I’ve decided to let you decide whether or not to circumcise.”

Sally said this to me one night, about six months into her pregnancy.

“Only if it’s a boy, though, right?”

One side of her mouth turned up. “Yes. Only if it’s a boy,” she said patiently.

Obviously, we had chosen not to learn the gender of the fetus. So few surprises in life and all that. But, apparently, that did not absolve me from making this decision.

“Why do I have to decide?” I asked.

“OK, I’ll tell you what: if it’s a boy, you decide. If it’s a girl, I decide.”

Didn’t seem quite fair somehow.

In the interest of too much full disclosure, I should note that I am circumcised, as are most men who were born in the US between the mid-1870’s and the mid-1970’s. According to Edward Wallerstein, author of Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy, the practice started in the US as a way of discouraging masturbation, and only started to wane in the 70’s after the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “…there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” Still, neonatal circumcision in the US is believed to be as high as 60% of all male newborns.

Why is it still done? Part of the answer lies in religious and traditional beliefs.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. — Genesis 17:10

And Herodotus, the Father of History, writing in the 5th century BCE, said of the Egyptian priests, “whereas other men… have their members as nature made them, the Egyptians practice circumcision.” I doubt, though, that either of these explains why my Unitarian parents chose to have me and my brother cut.

“If you decide not to circumcise him, I don’t think I’m comfortable cleaning it.”

“What? Why not?”

“I don’t know how!”

“Well, what makes you think I do? I’ve never had to clean one that wasn’t cut.”

Some people point out that most cultures that practice circumcision come from desert environments, and perhaps this practice prevented infections, called balanitis, that might occur when sand gets under the foreskin. In fact a nurse practitioner at the OB’s office mentioned this when I asked for her opinion.

“They said they see an increase in infection in uncircumcised males over in Iraq, so there does seem to be some benefit.” I was never able to confirm this, and I found it stated as a reason for circumcision going back at least as far as World War II, but there was never any evidence for it. Preemptive cutting to avoid balanitis seemed a bit like removing his appendix on the off-chance he gets appendicitis.

“Plus,” continued the NP,” there is reason to believe it reduces the transmission of HIV and other STDs.” Well, so do condoms, but much more effectively.

“So, have you decided?” Sally’s sister was visiting and had just been told that it was all up to me.

“Not yet.”

“Well, if you want my opinion, I haven’t seen many that were uncut. But… they’re kinda weird.”

Aesthetics is definitely about what one is used to seeing. As Herodotus said further about the Egyptians, “they circumcise themselves for the sake of cleanliness, preferring to be clean rather than comely.” Apparently circumcised penises looked weird to the ancient Greeks. I, as with most of my generation, am used to the circumcised look.

Which was exactly why I was having such a problem deciding. Wasn’t my hesitation ultimately about my son looking like me? If there “are no valid medical indications for circumcision,” why on Earth would I do it? If I were uncut, or if I was from a religious tradition that required it as a covenant, I doubt this would even have been a question in my mind. But based purely on aesthetics, with no medical evidence to validate it, nor religious tenet to guide me, how could I justify removing something that could never be replaced? How could I surgically alter “his member as nature made it?”

In the delivery room, Sally asked me again, “Have you decided about the circumcision?”

“I’m about 80% sure I’ll leave it intact.”

What did I eventually do?

I had a daughter.
BLAKE EVANS recently left a consulting practice to become a stay-at-home dad. He lives in New York City with his partner Sally, their child CJ, and a brown dog. During nap-time, he runs the blog domestic father, a site dedicated to skeptical parenting and critical thinking.

The white-bearded red herring…or YES, I’m talking to YOU, Lisa Miller

pythongod340909The world is full of ignorant nonsense, and that’s okay. Well, it’s not okay, but it seems to be part of the unavoidable deal, what with unequal access to education and a thousand other things. What I’ve had quite enough of is ignorant nonsense from people who really have no excuse.

Newsweek Religion Editor Lisa Miller (who interviewed me for a Beliefwatch column in July 2007) set me off with a recent column ( “Arguing Against the Atheists,” October 6) regarding her irritation with “the new generation of professional atheists.”

She begins with a variation on the ad populum fallacy (“If 90-odd percent of Americans say they believe in God, it’s unhelpful to dismiss them as silly”), but it’s her second “argument” that had me shaking my head in frustration at the confident sloppiness of someone with the chops to know better:

When they check that “believe in God” box, a great many people are not talking about the God the atheists rail against—a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, who lays down inexplicable laws about sex and diet, punishes violators with the stinking fires of hell and raises the fleshly bodies of the dead.

Generally phrased as “I don’t believe in a white-bearded man in the sky either,” this shameful dodge is the current favorite of religious moderates. It neatly sidesteps all challenges by saying, “Sorry, wrong number” and thereby avoiding the messy business of meeting those challenges. One small detail: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the rest of those whose persistence Miller dislikes have all made it achingly clear that their critiques are NOT limited to literalists. But even aching clarity must be read to be understood. At best, Miller must have skimmed this passage from The God Delusion:

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise—as sure as night follows day—turn up in a review: ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don‘t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.’ That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)

A good effort, Richard, but I’m afraid Lisa Miller only read the dustcover.

Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett have also gone out of their way, again and again, in writing and in interviews, to make it abundantly clear that they are talking to moderates as well, Lisa. Harris built it right into the opening pages of The End of Faith and, when that was ignored, Letter to a Christian Nation. They all voice two different but related critiques for moderates and extremists. They think religious belief itself, in however attenuated a form, is unworthy, undesirable, even harmful. They further suggest that moderates, by offering blanket endorsements of “faith” as a concept and practice, provide ongoing cover and succor to malignant fundamentalism. These authors offer not just the statement of these opinion, but reams of evidence and argument.

Mustn’t look too closely at that, though.

After placing moderate religion safely out of harm’s way, Miller offers a thought that demonstrates precisely the confident nonsense Dawkins, et al. are concerned about among moderates and literalists alike:

Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don’t know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once.

If there’s a single thrust and focus of the “professional atheists,” it is challenging the unsupported declaration that faith “defines a reality” and yet is immune to the requirements of proof. She couldn’t have created a better encapsulation of the dangerous nonsense of faith if she had tried. That the nonsense itself occurs in the process of simply saying “nuh-uhhh” to the arguments against it is as ironic and unworthy a retort as I can imagine.

You may legitimately disagree with Dawkins and the rest, Ms. Miller. But they’ve worked ever-so-hard to frame clear and concise arguments. Would it be okay if we all read them, then discuss those arguments on their actual merits instead of pretending they are talking to someone else about something else?

Thinking sideways

It’s parent-teacher conference time, which I love. There always seems to be a moment in these conferences when I’m reminded that my kids think sideways.

Present any one of them with a question or problem and they tend to choose the least conventional solution that’s still a solution.

Mr. H, Delaney’s first grade teacher, showed us an assignment in which the kids were asked what superpower they would want to have. Informal web polls tend toward mind-reading, flight, super-strength, super-speed, invisibility, and the rest of the Marvel Comics arsenal. Mr. H said the other kids had generally chosen from that traditional list.

Not Delaney. “If I could have any supper power,” she wrote, “I would want the power to help other peple. Like if some one was blinde, I would make them see again. Wenever I would here HELP!, I would come.”

I wonder where “reversing disabilities” would be on a frequency graph of power preferences. Then there’s the fun fact that the children of Christian parents were busily emulating Superman while the child of humanists chose to essentially emulate Christ.

Last Thankgiving, Erin’s fourth grade class did the usual “what are you grateful for” assignment, and again we heard our child’s sideways answer in the teacher conference. Most of her classmates were grateful for health, family, sunshine, food, a home, our country, our soldiers, our freedom. All marvelous answers.

And my daughter?

“Pain,” said Mr. J. “She said she is most grateful for pain.”

I smiled. “Really.”

“Yes, pain. At first I was a little, uh…concerned,” he said, “but then she explained it. She said that pain warns us when something is wrong, and without it, a little injury or sickness could get worse and we’d never know. We could die from something small. So she’s grateful for pain.” He smiled and shook his head. “I never thought of it that way.”

We’d talked about this once when she had a bad splinter in her foot. If it weren’t for pain, I said as I worked the tweezers clumsily, she might not have known the splinter was there. It could have become infected, even dangerous.

But here’s the thing: that splinter came out four years ago, when she was six. I had no idea at the time that the idea of pain as our friend had made any impression, much less a deep one. Unlike the splinter, that sideways idea worked its way in and stayed.

Pick a number


“Hmm, okay, twenty-eight. Ooh, that’s a good one.”

Despite living with him for thirteen years, I knew very little about my dad. He worked three jobs and traveled a lot. When he was in town, he came home exhausted from a hundred-mile round-trip commute.

My mom spoke very little of him after he died, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other relatives while working full time.

I’ve often wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I keeled over today. The situation is different — I’m much more involved in my kids’ lives for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing myself and my life with my kids in a natural way.

About five or six years ago, without even meaning to, I found a way. We started a storytelling tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise–the kids pick an age, and I tell about something that happened to me at that age. It’s become one of their favorite bedtime story options.

Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm, courtesy of my hobby at the time–walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (I stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (when I dumped my first girlfriend and got dumped by the second one), 23 (my crushing fear and uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the cool job that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other famous types), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the studley Air Force pilot she was practically engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — really, at this point, just about everything — in between.

They know how I tricked a friend into quitting pot (for a night, anyway, at 15), the surreal week that followed my dad’s death (13), how I nearly cut off two fingers by reaching under a running lawnmower (17, shutup), my battles with the college where I taught (40), the time I was nearly hit by a train in Germany (38) and nearly blown off a cliff in a windstorm in Scotland (42).

Age stories can also open up important issues in an unforced way. Delaney happened to ask for “eleven” (the year my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA) right before her parents moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta — a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage, and the fact that I had held on to my bedpost the day of the move — and how well it turned out in the end. I wasn’t surprised when she asked for “eleven” again and again during that hard transition in her own life.

We’ve talked about love, lust, death, fear, joy, lying, courage, cowardice, mistakes, triumphs, uncertainty, embarrassment, and the personal search for meaning in ways that no lecture could ever achieve. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the middle-aged monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twentysomething, stumbling up the very path they’re on now.

And they keep coming back for more.

Give it a try. Make it dramatic. Include lots of details and dialogue. Have fun. Then tell us how it went.