Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Best Practices 4: Teach engaged coexistence

strology survived Copernicus.

That’s my simple response whenever someone suggests to me that science will eventually put religion out of business.

By all rights, astrology should have been forced out of business in 1543. Among other things, astrology is founded on the necessary condition of an Earth-centered universe. Medieval treatises on astrology include sentences like “As the orb of the World is center’d in the celestial spheres, so then is it reasonable to conclude that…” So long as the other planets orbited Earth and the constellations of the Zodiac were arrayed in reference to an Earthly center, the idea that constellations determined our personalities and controlled our destinies had at least a snowball’s chance of respectability.

But after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1543 — followed by two centuries of theological arm-wrestling — Earth was decisively removed from cosmic center court. At this point, astrology, shorn of its most essential assumption, should have followed geocentrism into obscurity. The fact that it did not — that it has endured several centuries goofily unaware that new knowledge has rendered it null and void — is enough to make it ridiculous.

Yet the Harris poll shows Americans’ belief in astrology going up, not down (25% in 2005, 29% in 2007, 31% in 2008).

If astrology’s coffin needed any more nails, Hubble provided them in 1924 when he first discovered the true size of the universe and distance between stars — at which point the “constellations of the Zodiac” and all other apparent celestial patterns were seen to be associated only incidentally from our accidental vantage point. In fact, they are separated by millions of light years from each other not only in two dimensions but in the third as well. One star that appears to be snuggling another is often millions of light years behind it, just as the moon, which often appears to be right next to my thumb is actually, amazingly, not.

Yet the thing shows no signs of vanishing any time soon.

So when even so bright a light as Richard Dawkins says that the discovery of a Grand Unified Theory would “deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions,” I say, with the utmost respect and admiration, pfft.

The confident demise of religion has been predicted at least since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Several scientific commentators during the 20th century predicted the demise of religion in 25, 50, or 100 years. I think they’ve all failed to realize that precious few religious believers are assiduously poring over facts to be sure their worldview still holds water. They stick with it because it is such a dynamite cure for what ails them (adjective meant in all possible ways).

Add to that the fact that a large part of humanity will always lack access to knowledge and security, not to mention the simple awareness of any Grand Unified Theory we might discover, and I feel confident that religion will continue, forever, to plug the hole. Religion will always be with us.

I do think religion will gradually become less influential in the developed world and (on the whole) less fanatical and intolerant, thanks in part to increased access to knowledge and security. Despite the loud evangelicals, that’s already well underway. But new religious movements pop up at an estimated rate of two or three per day in developing countries. In the developed world, the thing continues to (ironically) evolve to keep pace with both our ever- and our never-changing itches.

For the record, I’d prefer this not be the case. Since it is the case, I do what I can to hasten the evolution of religious expression and practice toward the less fanatical and intolerant. It’s a process that is already going full steam in Europe, by the way (at least as far as Euro-Judeo-Christianity goes. For more on Euro-Islam, see Sam Harris).

When it comes to parenting, I’m raising kids for what I call “engaged coexistence” with other world views. It rejects both the “Everbuddy’s gwine tuh hail ceptin’ me an my dawg” attitude of the fundamentalists and the “I hold all religions in deep respect as multiple manifestations of the True” of the New Age.

The trick is to sort out the word respect.

Respect for individuals and respect for their ideas are quite different and must be separated.
People are inherently deserving of respect as human beings, and no one can be faulted for shutting you out if you declare disrespect for their very personhood. Ideas are another matter. I feel too much respect for the word “respect” to grant it automatically to all ideas.

Even if I disagree with it, I can respect an opinion if it is founded on something meaningful, like rational argument or careful, repeatable observation. The other person may have interpreted the information differently, but I can still respect the way she’s going about it. Suppose on the other hand that someone says Elvis and JFK are working at a laundromat in Fargo and offers a dream or tea leaves or a palm reading as evidence. It would render the word “respect” meaningless to say I respect that opinion. I both disagree with it and withhold my respect for it. And that’s okay. No need to degrade the other person. I know all sorts of lovely, respectable people who hold a silly belief or two—including myself, no doubt—and wouldn’t think of judging them, or me, less worthy of respect as human beings.

Ideas are another thing entirely. It’s not only wrong to grant respect to all ideas, it can be downright dangerous. So I teach my kids to work toward a better, saner world by challenging all ideas AND inviting the same challenge of their own, explicitly, out loud, no matter what worldview they adopt.

That’s engaged coexistence. We recognize that we’re going to be sharing this apartment for the long haul and work together to keep each other’s feet off the furniture.

[CORRECTION: This post initially claimed that the New York Times has an astrology column. It has no such thing. I regret the error.]

Skewed Views of Science

Sorry, sorry, it’s a busy time, writing day and night for my lovely clients and prepping seminar trips to Colorado Springs, Connecticut, and New York City. I’m also at work on a couple of long-ish posts (the next two Best Practices), but let me at least pop a video in the VCR for y’all while Daddy’s working.

It’s another from QualiaSoup, my new favorite YouTuber. (Is it just the British accent, or is this guy ab fab?)

Petition: Thank Politicians Who Say “No” to Creationists

fishyfishI am occasionally asked by religious friends why I make such a fuss over evolution. Some have suggested that secular types beat the drum for evolution only because it sticks such a sharp object in the eye of theism. One went so far as to suggest that “If you guys would just let that one go,” we’d have a lot better luck building bridges with the religious.

The question is a good one. Fortunately the answer is even better. And it’s nothing so trivial as making Churchy Eyeball Kebobs, nor nothing so grand and simple as “I champion evolution just because it’s true.” It’s also true that George Washington had no middle name, but I’m unlikely to devote much of my life force opposing someone who insists that yes he did, and it was Steve, and that only Martha called him George, and only when she was drunk. Even if this hypothetical Stevist insisted on teaching the middle name in American History classes, I might think it daft, but I’ve other fish to fry.

Evolution is a fish I choose to fry. It’s an idea that I want my children and as many others as possible to know and care about.

A list of reasons to champion evolution education, each building on the last:

First, it is an everything-changer. If knowing about evolution by natural selection hasn’t changed almost everything about the way you see almost everything, dig in deeper with the help of the great explicators and know that I envy you the journey.

Second, it inspires immense, transcendent awe and wonder to grasp that you are a cousin not just to apes, but to sponges and sequoias and butterflies and blue whales.

Third, it annihilates the artificial boundaries between us and the rest of life on Earth.

Fourth, it puts racial difference in proper perspective as utter trivia.

Fifth, when taken as directed, it constitutes one of the four grandest-ever swats of humility to the pompous human tookus.*

Sixth, it contributes enormously to our understanding of how and why things work the way they do.

Seventh, that understanding has led in turn to incredible advances in medical science, agriculture, environmental stewardship, and more.

The list goes on.

I’ll turn it over to Clay Burell, education editor at, for the call to action. Hit it, Clay.

Petition: Thank Politicians Who Say “No” to Creationists
by Clay Burell
First appeared 18 February at

WE COUNT OUR INJURIES far more closely than our blessings, the old saying goes. That might be especially true in our dealings with politicians. They surely hear far more complaints than thank yous. Let’s change that for once.

texastwoLet’s say thanks to these two in Texas:

It takes courage for a politician in Texas to speak out against religious fundamentalism. Texas state Senator Rodney Ellis and Representative Patrick Rose deserve the thanks of all Americans – or those who value real science, anyway – for showing that courage.

Whether you’re a Texan or not, if you want creationism out of high school science textbooks – and evolution in them – please take a moment to thank Sen. Ellis and Rep. Rose for fighting the Discovery Institute/creationist-dominated Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).

As I reported last week, Rose and Ellis proposed legislation “to place the board under periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission and hold them accountable for their performance, just as we do the Texas Education Agency and other state agencies.”

Why? In their own words:

The decisions of the SBOE not only impact millions of young lives on a daily basis, but impact the economic progress of our state as well.

For these reasons and many others, the public has a right to full disclosure and oversight.

The board has escaped such scrutiny for far too long. The disregard for educators, instructional experts and scientists can’t continue. It’s time to take a closer look at the operations and policies of the State Board of Education.

Our state, and especially our kids, deserve better.

Again, please take a moment to send them your thanks in this petition. It will also be cc’d to your own state and federal representatives, asking they show the same courage in your state.
clayburellCLAY BURELL is an American high school Humanities teacher, technology coach, and Apple Distinguished Educator who has taught for the last eight years in Asian international schools. According to law, he’s married to his wife. According to his wife, he’s married to his Mac.

When you’re done signing the petition, it’s time to support our troops at the National Center for Science Education. These are the heroic and seemingly tireless folks who do the heavy lifting for the rest of us.

*Copernicus, Lyell, Darwin, Hubble.

The Instruction Manual

The Parable of the Cupboard, courtesy of my new favorite YouTube channel. One of a series of high-quality videos from this incredibly imaginative and thoughtful guy. Enjoy, share them with your kids (of sufficient age and/or grasp), and expect more of them in this space in the coming weeks.

A non-issue

no32209091I simply can’t stand us. Really I can’t. We crack me up.

I’ve written before about the endless obsession of the freethought community with labels: atheist vs. humanist, atheist vs. agnostic, humanist vs. secular humanist, nonreligious vs. nonbeliever vs. Bright.

I don’t mind someone saying why they choose one over another, or why they switch back and forth in different situations. What I’ve had enough of is people insisting, loudly and self-righteously and endlessly, that one or more of the labels is an affront to all things good and mustn’t be used, period.

It’s not that I don’t find the discussions interesting, even revealing. They are. And I do have my own carefully-considered preferences. But in flinching and thrusting and parrying every time someone attempts to denote something, we run the serious risk of gazing so intently at the labels in our Laputian navels that we never get to substance.

The latest entry in this silly and counterproductive grumblefest came after Barack Obama chose, in the first twenty minutes of his presidency, to acknowledge the existence of nonbelievers — to say, in no uncertain terms, that this is our country too.

Most of us fell over in (what else?) disbelief. But how did some members of our fine community respond? By whining, in blogs and comment threads across the country, because he used the word “nonbelievers.”

“I DO have beliefs, thank you very much,” said more than one of these into-gift-horse’s-mouth-lookers, unable to bear the fact that “belief” is easily understood in this context as “religious belief.”

I get similar umbrage from Unitarian Universalists (UUs) on occasion — a few, not most — about the subtitle of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion. “We are a religious organization,” sniffed one UU minister in turning down my offer of a seminar. That’s right — she went for the emphatic trifecta, bolding, italicizing, AND underlining the word.

I can stand knowing that various groups and individuals understand the word “religion” in various ways. I have my preference and even my arguments for why I prefer it. But I am comfortable living in a world where “religion” means different things to different people. I now always use “theistic religion” to make myself understood to UU audiences. Non-UUs understand my meaning without it.

I digress.

Much of the protest over “nonbeliever” is that it defines us in terms of religious believers. I care about this no more than the fact that “nonsmoker” defines me in terms of smokers and “non-idiot” defines me in terms of idiots. You don’t find many non sequiturs up in arms about being defined in terms of the hated sequitur, nor are the nondescript or noncommital often irate about comparisons to the descript and commital.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed not to find their advocacy of nonviolence diminished by the lexical negation of violence. Nor does Nonviolent Peaceforce, the nonpartisan, nonprofit, non-governmental organization for which I work. For each and all of these terms, the prefix is a non-issue.

So why do we continue to waste our pique on such terms as “nonbeliever” and “nonreligious”? I find them both useful and economical. Pile on your polysyllables and modifiers as you wish. I have things to do.

This is not a post

shifty6500(Mustn’t post today. Bad juju. Shoo.)

Jesus on the jury

jurybox222I’m sitting in the jury pool in downtown Atlanta, trying not to splash too much. Eavesdropping on conversations around me, mostly devoted to what we have to say to be disqualified.


Favorite overheard conversation:

GUY 1: I was here two years ago. Got on an assault case. Got all the way to the questioning part. The “voy dear,” something like that, where the lawyers figure out who they want on the jury.

GUY 2: Huh. Wha’d they ask?

GUY 1: They asked if there’s any reason you couldn’t hear the evidence and pass judgment on somebody if they broke the law.

GUY 2: Huh.

GUY 1: This one lady said, “I follow Jesus, who said, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.'”

GUY 2: Really.

GUY 1: Yeah.


GUY 2: They booted her?

GUY 1: Hell yeah. Gone.

The question of peremptory challenges based on a prospective juror’s religious views is a lively topic in the legal community.

The Supreme Court outlawed peremptory challenges based on race in 1986 and on gender in 1994. Some argue that the same protection should be extended to religion.

In the wonderfully-named case United States v. DeJesus, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals created an interesting distinction: “Assuming that the exercise of a peremptory strike on the basis of religious affiliation is unconstitutional, the exercise of a strike based on religious beliefs is not.”

So you can’t be dismissed for belonging to (say) a Baptist church, but you can be dismissed for holding Baptist beliefs.

Anthony Foti, author of Could Jesus Serve on a Jury?, explains — and objects:

Attorneys fear deeply religious people. Defense lawyers worry that deep religious beliefs signal a conservative, law-and-order orientation, while prosecutors are concerned that intensely religious jurors will be overly compassionate and hesitant to sit in judgment of others.

So defense attorneys worry about the Old Testament, while prosecutors worry about the New.

“Heightened religiosity” has become a proxy to allow lawyers to exclude jurors based on their religious affiliation. For example, few lawyers would challenge a non-practicing Catholic or Protestant on a jury, but issues will often arise with Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. By definition, these groups exhibit “heightened religious involvement,” and now, according to DeJesus, a lawyer may exercise a peremptory challenge against nearly any member of these groups on the basis of heightened religious belief.

This effectively destroys any protection for religious affiliation because the groups most in need of protection are the same groups that can be excluded [on the basis of] “heightened religious involvement.”

I’m sure my atheism would also be considered a “heightened” thing. It’s a Goldilocks situation, then: In God We Trust, but only if you’re not too serious about it.

As for Jesus — who Foti calls “a definitive example of ‘heightened religiosity'” — he would almost certainly be headed home in time for Oprah. In that way, I’m hoping to be Christlike today.


Our show of shows

Mythbusters4403909Six months ago, our family got cable TV for the first time. In addition to learning that it actually wasn’t always snowing on every channel, my kids quickly discovered a favorite show.

The show is Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. Just in case you aren’t familiar, in each episode, two former special effects guys named Jamie and Adam set out to test several of “those” stories. You know the ones: Can a person who is buried alive punch out and dig up to the surface? Can a glass be shattered by singing? Is it easy to shoot fish in a barrel? Does a bull charge at the color red? If you sneeze with your eyes open, will they pop out? Is it possible to survive an elevator freefall by jumping up at the last second? Are the moon landing conspiracy theories legit?

The answers to these, by the way, are no, yes (the shattered glass), no, no, no, no, and no. But even more interesting to me than the answers themselves is the unstated assumption of the show: that knowing the truth is always better than believing even a really cool but untrue thing.

It helps that they test these things in the most entertaining way possible, and that they seem to find a way to blow something up in every show. But that basic assumption that knowing the truth is always better—that, I think, is the most powerful thing in the show.

Also interesting is the fact that the vast majority of the myths are busted, debunked. And the show’s popularity is still huge. Part of that, of course, is the fact that once in awhile, they confirm rather than bust a claim. And because they’ve willingly busted so many others, those confirmations are cool and meaningful.

So the whole show can be seen as the systematic attempt to get the right answer–which, by the way, is my favorite definition of critical thinking.

These are the same premises that energize science. It’s hard to think of a better motto for the scientific enterprise than “Knowing the truth is always better than believing a fiction.” It gets at what I see as the essential difference between traditional religion and science. The religious point of view is often premised on what I have called the conditional love of reality. Science is premised on the unconditional love of reality.

I’m thrilled if there is a god, for example, and I’m thrilled if there isn’t. Same with charging bulls and shattering glasses and popping eyeballs. The truth is automatically more attractive to me than either possibility by itself. And I’m thrilled that there’s a show, and a popular one to boot, that embraces the same love of reality.

So when an argument among my 7, 11, and 13-year-olds about what to watch is settled (as it almost always is) by Mythbusters, I pull up a chair myself and chalk up another point for the real world.

The other shoe

shoe32200I mentioned last time that I’m getting a sudden flurry of conversion attempts in my inbox.

One is particularly persistent. It began last November:

Dear Dale,
I’m writing an essay on the negative effects of spanking children and while researching I couldn’t help but come across your web site. I skimmed through it and I’m kinda confused; you mentioned your religious beliefs and I can’t help but wonder if you are an anesthetist or a Christian?


I amazed myself by foregoing about 37 different wiseguy responses to “anesthetist.” Instead, I replied Here are some useful links to corporal punishment studies. And I am an atheist. All the best to you.

The reply:

Thanks for replying Dale and just to let you know, you and your family will be in my prayers. Maybe one day soon you will open your hear to God.

I sure hope you do

God Bless

Fair enough. On Thanksgiving I received this:


I just wanted to wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope that one day you and your family will find God in your lives.

God Bless and your all in my prayers

I haven’t the slightest objection to this kind of thing. But I knew, from long experience, that the other shoe would drop. It took less than thirty minutes:

Just wanted to say one more thing, I know you don’t believe in God, but one day he will return and when he does it will be God, who you will explain yourself to God. Not me or anyone else.

This is the carrot and stick — first the appeal to love and comfort or high principle, and then…The Stick.

One of my favorites happened in May 2007. After a profile about me and my work appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I got a letter:

Dear Dale,
I’m sending these booklets to you so that you know God loves you. When you die, you don’t die like a dog. You will go on forever!

I’m 74, & received Christ into my life at age 11. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.

Love, & Rejoicing in the Lord Jesus,
Virginia H—

Again, very nice. But enclosed were two signs of God’s (shall we say) burning love for me: a Jack Chick tract, including this panel:


…and a second pamphlet:


As I said — I’ve seen that second shoe drop too many times to be surprised anymore.

I’ve always found it curious, and telling, that Christianity offers release from our greatest fear — death — but is so factually implausible that it’s been necessary to back up the gift with the threat of eternal hellfire if you don’t accept it.

Morality works in the same carrot-and-stick fashion. I saw this at work last summer as I stood in an endless line at Six Flags Over Georgia. A teenage scamp with a Christian day camp T-shirt ducked under several of the rails and cut in front of us in line.

Two minutes later his bright pink tie-dyed Jesus-fish shirt was spotted by one of the camp counselors. The counselor sidled over and reasoned with the lad, using the reciprocity principle:

“Michael, what are you doing? How would you like it if these nice people all cut in front of you?”

Wait for it, now…

“If I see that again, you’re out of the park.”

Whenever somebody insists that anyone who lacks the guiding example of Christ in their lives will quickly arm himself and bloody the streets, I

1. Note that I, though bereft of Jesus’ influence, have (so far) resisted this temptation, and
2. Note that street bloodying has actual, legal consequences beyond the Tsking of the Christ.

In other words, even if all positive appeals to principle failed to reach me, there is an earthly stick ready and waiting right behind that carrot.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is how effective the appeal to principle and conscience generally is — how well, on balance, we tend to behave. But when we don’t — and sometimes we won’t — there’s another shoe.

Conditional joy in my inbox

doorknockers44509I’m the sudden subject of a flurry of email conversion attempts. Not sure why that is. There was a bit of that when Parenting Beyond Belief launched in April ’07, but it’s been mostly quiet on the saving front since then.

Maybe it’s the release of Raising Freethinkers that’s put me back on the proselyscope.

I’ll share one of the more persistent correspondents sometime soon. But one recent message was less a conversion attempt than (I guess) a matter of content confusion — much like the Australian reporter who interviewed me for ten minutes about Parenting Beyond Belief before asking, “Now, you do believe in God, right?”

This one happens to be from the same corner of the world:

Dear Dale,

I am a preacher from Manila, Philippines. Aside from holding pastorate I am teaching in a Bible School. Quality books hone my life and ministry. Can I request your book PARENTING BEYOND BELIEF as a compliment? I know that there are generous authors that give books as complimentary copies. Your book could be the best gift this 2009.

Touching lives for Christ,
Pastor David

I thanked him for his interest and apologized for the need to decline. At this point in a book’s life, comps go out only to reviewers or media, if at all. I gave him the Amazon link. His gracious reply:


Thanks and God bless! Celebrate life because God is amazing.

Pastor David

Now on most days I would let that go entirely, if only to avoid gumming up my already gummy inbox. But in certain moods, on certain days, I just can’t seem to leave well enough alone:

You are most welcome! And I celebrate life because life is amazing.