Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

iPod full of sunshine

rl2309The results of my informal podcast poll are in! I’ve listened to long excerpts from 35 podcasts recommended on this blog and by friends on Facebook and in TheRealWorld. That’s all it takes, really — within 3 minutes I have a strong inkling whether a podcast is for me. If I’m still listening at ten minutes — rarely the case — it’s decided.

Here then, in no particular order, are the eight podcasts that are, at this point in my life, for me:

Clever Little Pod (comedy)
Friday Night Comedy (BBC)
Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me (NPR)
The Bugle (topical comedy with John Oliver etc)
This American Life (narrative nonfiction)
The Moth (narrative nonfiction)
RadioLab (science and culture)
The Naked Scientists (science)

…and though those are in no particular order, one podcast — after hearing just half of a single episode — has risen waaaaaay above the rest: RadioLab — “where science meets culture and information sounds like music.”

Holy shite, that’s a great program.

I first heard about RadioLab about a year ago — in fact, I think it was from Joe, the designer of the PBB website. I checked it out, thought it looked good, then filed it away, since I wasn’t into podcasts at that point.

Then another friend mentioned it, and another. Finally I put out this call for recommendations, and several people screamed RADIOLAB.

Now I see why.

Titled “Stochasticity,” the episode I’m halfway through is about randomness. And even though I was already familiar with the principles they’re talking about, I’m still eating it up alive. I also played the first bit for the kiddos, who likewise feasted on its tasty innards.

After just half a listen, I’m so well convinced that I downloaded 62 past episodes — 62 hours of RadioLab. [Cue Homer Simpson’s gargle when thinking about bacon.]

As promised, a plenary indulgence is now winging its way to kcruz, barrettc, MCable, tarrkid, Jenny, and several others who wouldn’t know what to do with a plenary indulgence even if it did windows. And a retroactive one for Joe.

I’ll be doing a post about stochasticity shortly. Thanks ever so very seriously much to everyone for your suggestions. My earbuds are buzzing with gratitude.

Pod Almighty

pod1209Always a few years behind the curve, I’m finally getting into podcasts. Not many — in fact, very, very few.

I was interviewed by DJ Grothe for the Point of Inquiry podcast last month, a well-produced show from the Center for Inquiry that I listen to once in a while. But when I got an iPod Nano for Father’s Day (poetically so, since my previous one was destroyed by an actual offspring of mine), it wasn’t science and skepticism podcasts I thirstily reloaded. It was comedy.

My almost-fourteen-year-old has had it with my sense of humor. So have I, truthfully, though I’m nicer about it. When I recently made some pointless bit of wordplay, as I do every 45 seconds (see post title), he looked at me with unforgiving eyes and said, “You know what you should do? You should, like, save them up. When something pops into your head, just don’t say it. Save up a hundred, and maybe they’ll add up to one good one. Then you can let that one out.”

I know exactly what he means.

As I’m getting older, I notice that it’s harder to really make me laugh. I see the joke coming, which kills it, or it’s no good to begin with and deserves to die. My standards were lower once. I used to laugh at things just because they were funny. Now, to get a laugh out of me, it has to be (1) funny, (2) smart, and (3) unexpected.

I have tried over thirty new comedy podcasts since Father’s Day, mostly British, which has a much higher success rate with me. Precisely zero hits. I’m still down to just two unsurpassably brilliant weekly podcasts that I’ve listened to for a year, waiting breathlessly for new episodes like the slathering, smart-comedy-starved dog I am:

Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me (The NPR News Quiz)
The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4 (Friday Night Comedy)

(Warning: This second one alternates, four on/four off, with a decent but much less funny BBC program called The Now Show).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both are comedy quiz shows based on current events. Like The Daily Show, there’s nothing better when it’s done well, and I never, ever survive either of these shows without being snuck up on, a dozen times at least, by great comedy. And that, along with my wife, my kids, and coconut red curry beef, is just about all I ask of life anymore.

Alrighty then: What podcasts do y’all favor, whether comedy or otherwise? A free plenary indulgence to the first twenty people who turn me on to something ab fab.

Why religious literacy matters

The second video for the PBB Channel on YouTube:


cello320One of the threads in Raising Freethinkers that I found most fascinating was the section on “flow” (in Chapter 5, “Ingredients of a Life Worth Living,” written by Molleen Matsumura).

We’ve all experienced the flow state—when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying and meaningful states we can enter.

Creativity researcher and psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”

After I first read Molleen’s contribution on flow, I dug into the literature a bit. It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation.

Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say I’m flowy, but not religious.

Some thoughts from Molleen in Raising Freethinkers about how parents can facilitate the flow experience in their kids—and how we often get in the way:

Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.

Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible…

Helping your child have flow experiences that are both inherently satisfying and enhance other aspects of life will depend on identifying his or her particular abilities. Practice is a good thing, but practicing hard at a particular activity, such as playing the piano or playing basketball, will be more worthwhile to some kids than others. It takes careful observation to know whether a child really needs to try a little harder, or needs to try something different.

Writing fiction is a flow experience for me. Nonfiction, no. And writing music, for me, is never a flow experience. More like forcing a marble through a Cheerio. Playing the piano, yes — playing clarinet, nein. Hiking, yes — sports, nyet.

I want to help my kids find their flow. While I’m at it, I need to find and engage more of my own.

What are your flow experiences?

Parenting Beyond Belief Channel on YouTube

laughing3201It has taken me a year and a half to bring the Parenting Beyond Belief Seminar to 19 cities. I currently have requests from 106 more.

Time for a more efficient way of doing things.

In 2010, I hope to be training seminar leaders across the country through Foundation Beyond Belief. In the meantime, I’ve just learned of a new medium called the “Inter-nets” through which I can post “viddy-ohs” about nonreligious parenting. Thought I’d give it a go.

The first in a planned series of 8,403 short, informal videos on nonreligious parenting is now on YouTube (and embedded below). We’ll start with a brief history of PBB, then dive into content with an average of one 7-10 minute video per week. The tentative summer schedule:

June 15: The, uh… “Genesis” of Parenting Beyond Belief
June 20: Four reasons kids need to be religiously literate
June 25: How to teach kids about religion…and how not to
June 30: What indoctrination is…and what it isn’t
August 5: “What if my child becomes religious?”
August 26: Introducing kids to evolution

We’ll continue with understanding moral development, talking about death, reaching across worldview lines, relaxing family tension, teaching kids to interact well with religious peers, talking about the body and sexuality, the pledge of allegiance, the “mixed marriage,” Santa Claus, and more. I hope they’re occasionally useful.

Subscribe to PBBChannel on YouTube

Keeping forbidden fruit from taking root

From the series “The Seven Deadly Vices”
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1557
(#8, “Bench”)

It’s funny/sad/scary how many things we humans get not just wrong but precisely backwards.

We try to make ourselves safe from terrorism by military force—in the process, creating deeper anger and much more fertile ground for terrorism.

We try to raise moral kids by inculcating unquestionable rules and commandments—which turns out to be “worse than doing nothing” because “it interferes with moral development.”1

We try to prevent teen pregnancy by abstinence-only sex ed, which results in equal or greater rates of teen pregnancy. 2

Some of us try to protect our kids from religious fundamentalism by shielding them from all exposure to religion—an ignorance that results in many secular kids being emotionally seduced into religious fundamentalism.

And in our fervor to protect our kids from risks, we often deny them the chance to develop their own risk management smarts—which then puts them at far greater risk.

The whiplash reply to this line of thought is often, “Oh, so you’re saying we should raise kids without rules, encourage them to enjoy unprotected multispecies sex at age twelve, and let them cartwheel down the middle of the freeway while smoking?”

That’s right. Those are the two choices–ya diametrical, dualistic, black-and-white, not-more-than-two-options-seeing putz.

(Sorry, that was harsh.)

One of the decisions parents have to make is how best to approach the issue of alcohol. Since most of us can be assumed to share the goal of raising kids who will use alcohol responsibly and safely once they are of legal drinking age, the question is about how best to get there.

Once again, it’s research to the rescue. And once again, it turns out that the advice of our jerking knee is precisely wrong. Children are more likely to develop dysfunctional and unhealthy habits regarding alcohol if it’s made into forbidden fruit and a magical rite of passage into adulthood.

“The best evidence shows that teaching kids to drink responsibly is better than shutting them off entirely from it,” says Dr. Paul Steinberg, former director of counseling at Georgetown University. “You want to introduce your kids to it, and get across the point that this is to be enjoyed but not abused.” 3

In his landmark 1983 study The Natural History of Alcoholism, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant found that people who grew up in families where alcohol was forbidden at the table but consumed elsewhere were seven times more likely to be alcoholics that those who came from families where wine was served with meals but drunkenness was not tolerated.

Vaillant also looked at cross-cultural data, finding a much higher frequency of alcohol abuse in cultures that prohibit drinking among children but condone adult drunkenness (such as Ireland) and a relatively low occurrence of alcohol abuse in countries that allow children to occasionally sample wine or beer but frown on adult drunkenness (such as Italy).

Moderate exposure coupled with mature adult modeling is the key.

Vaillant concluded that teens should be allowed to enjoy wine on occasion with family meals. “The way you teach responsibility,” he noted in 2008, “is to let parents teach appropriate use.” 4

Religious and cultural traditions that forbid forbid forbid often end up with more dysfunction per acre than those that teach and encourage moderation. Southern Baptists joke even amongst themselves about their hypocrisy regarding alcohol. My mother-in-law once went to a hotel that was completely filled with conventioneers — yet when she went to the hotel bar, it was completely empty.

“Where is everybody?” she asked the bartender.

“It’s a Baptist convention,” he said, “so they’re drinking in their rooms.”

Fascinating article about the Baptist resolution condemning alcohol consumption
— complete with a demonstration of the weak art of argument by scriptural cherrypicking (on all sides)

1Quoted in Pearson, Beth, “The art of creating ethics man,” The Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2006.
2Abstinence Education Faces An Uncertain Future,” New York Times, July 18, 2007; Bearman, Peter and Hannah Brückner: “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 106, No. 4 (Jan 2001), pp. 859-912.
3Quoted in Asimov, Eric, “Can Sips at Home Prevent Binges?” New York Times, March 26, 2008.

So crazy…it just might work

[Walking downhill toward home with Delaney after seeing if Kaylee could come over and play. She couldn’t. The conversation that ensued is so improbable that I feel the need to pinky-swear that it is nonfiction. Here’s as close a transcription as I could manage 90 seconds later when I found a piece of paper.]

link2309DELANEY (7): Kaylee’s family goes to church.

DAD: Mm hm.

DELANEY: And Rachel’s family is Jewish.

DAD: Yup.

DELANEY: I like to have friends who believe different things.

DAD: I don’t know where you get your crazy ideas. Everybody has to believe the same.


DAD: But it needs to be my exact way, of course.

DELANEY: Dad. I know you’re joking. There have to be different ideas or the world would never get any better.

[A new one. DAD pauses.]

DAD: And why is that?

DELANEY: It’s like this. If there are a hundred different ideas, then the person with the best idea can talk to the other people and…you know, convince them about it. But if you have just one idea, it might not be the best, and you would do it anyway. And things would get worse and worse in the world from doing ideas that aren’t the best.

DAD: Holy shit, girl!

DAD, out loud: Wow.



DAD: What if somebody had an idea to kill or hate people?


DELANEY: Maybe he never heard any other ideas, so he doesn’t know a better one. The other people can show him their ideas. And then they vote.

(This defense of the marketplace of ideas precisely parallels a line of thought in Stephen Law’s excellent book The War for Children’s Minds. But Laney has not (to my knowledge) read his book. And Law is not (to my knowledge) seven, so I’m not quite so impressed with him.)

Fighting the fallacies of friends

The author, captured in a moment of his own chest-thumping hypocrisy

I have a guilty pleasure: It’s watching my chest-thumping rationalist friends commit the human errors they can’t forgive in others. I do the same thing myself at times (see image at left). Hoo-hoo-hoo-HAAA!

Since Foundation Beyond Belief went public last week, I’ve received a lot of encouragement and a lot of priceless constructive advice. But there’ve also been a few angry sneers — few, but loud — always from the nonreligious so far, always written in the Snark dialect, and at the moment favoring a single whopping logical error.

In the announcement, I said that religious people in the U.S. give away a greater percentage of their income than those self-identified as nonreligious. I said it because it is both true and well-documented by reliable research.1 I quickly followed by noting that this is NOT a question of character, but a natural result of one group passing a plate 52 times a year and the other not.

Still I knew, even as I wrote it, what snarky fate awaited me.

A few folks told me, with great irritation, that my claim is nonsense because most of the money donated by the religious goes to run religious institutions. Their facts are correct — churches absorb 74-78% of the offerings and donations of their members — but it’s irrelevant to the claim that religious individuals give more.

They go on to say that if the money kept by the churches were removed from the equation, the disparity vanishes. This, I’m afraid, is both irrelevant and false. The very same surveys show churchgoers beating non-churchgoers in levels of giving to secular charities.

But whether true or false, this argument’s irrelevance is what kills me. The original claim is about the personal act of giving, not how the money is used by those who receive it. So my chest-thumping friends have responded to one claim by refuting something entirely else — just the sort of thing they can’t abide in the religious.

In a related fallacy, several point out that this or that source is a conservative, or a Catholic, or an evangelical, and therefore not worth listening to. Since I don’t trust ANY secondary source out of hand, I looked at the primary sources. And in this case, Brooks and Barna, et al. were right.

It happens, you know.

I do think we have an opportunity to be better stewards of individual generosity than churches. We have no buildings, choir robes, or parking lots to pay for, no youth retreats, no missionaries. But while we’re acknowledging that church-based donations don’t go very far out the door, let’s restate and underline the original point: Religious folks give away a (much) greater percentage of their personal income than the nonreligious. We do several things better than they do. This is one of several things they do best. It’s not a question of character, but of the need for a systematic means of giving as an expression of worldview outside of those church doors.

Either way, it’s a problem worth tackling. Church attendance is declining rapidly in the U.S., and if churchgoers give a lot more to charity, this constitutes a genuine concern for philanthropy.

It’s time to acknowledge the facts, set our diversionary tactics aside, and learn from anyone who has something to teach us. That, among other things, is what Foundation Beyond Belief is about.

Join the Foundation Beyond Belief group on Facebook Causes, or click here to join our mailing list.
1Surveys by Independent Sector, the Giving Institute, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 2002 General Social Survey, American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, and more.

Loving paintings more than frames

ph6509I don’t remember the commencement addresses I heard in college, but I’ll bet the University of Portland Class of 2009 will remember theirs.

Part of the problem for my grad speakers was that UC Berkeley is huge, so it holds separate commencements by department. I was a double major, so I had not one but two forgettable events – one for music, one for anthropology. The speakers spoke as and to musicians and anthropologists, I’ll bet, not as and to humans with their toes at the edge of a cliff and a hang glider on their backs.

When it comes to commencement addresses, specialization murders inspiration.

The University of Portland is about a tenth the size of UC Berkeley, so it makes sense that they got ten times the speech – this year, at least. The speaker was Paul Hawken, author, environmental activist, and co-founder of Smith & Hawken, as well as Erewhon and several other environmentally progressive firms.

Though the speech is peppered with religious terminology and ideas – unsurprisingly, since University of Portland is a Catholic institution — I’m struck by the similarity between his ideas and mine. Some excerpts:

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.


When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.


The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours.

Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe – exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.

I respond differently to the religious bits than I once would have. In my thirties, while teaching at a Catholic college, my high wince-factor at lines like “The world would become religious overnight” would have blinded me to the incredible insight of the lines around it (“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course…Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television”). I might also have failed to notice that he was doing no harm – in fact, that his speech was a call to positive action in perfect alignment with my own values.

Now I’m more inclined to notice that Paul Hawken and I agree on the painting rather than fussing quite so much about the frame.

Full text of the Hawken address

(Hat tip to Facebook friend Debra Hill Frewin for bringing the Hawken talk to my attention!)

What a day

Some days it just plain pays to get out of bed.

npFor the past 110 days, Nonviolent Peaceforce, the global civilian peacekeeping organization for which I work, has been traumatized by the kidnapping of one of our peacekeepers on Basilan Island in the Philippines, a Sri Lankan national named Umar Jaleel. Since his abduction on February 13, I have had the privilege of watching from the inside as this frankly amazing organization worked tirelessly to bring about his release without violence or ransom. I can finally talk about it publicly because today, at 1245 UTC, Jaleel was released and is now receiving medical attention before returning home to his family. We are all beyond relieved.

Jaleel is one of a team of 17 International Civilian Peacekeepers (ICPs) serving in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, where fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and an Islamic separatist group has put tens of thousands of civilians in the line of fire. The ICPs offer accompaniment and protective presence to displaced persons while working with local peacebuilding groups to create lasting structures for nonviolent conflict resolution. The idea is to protect civilians during this conflict while building civil society structures to prevent the next one. A new model for managing and resolving conflict — and it works.

csm44309This afternoon I talked for over an hour with Jeff MacDonald, a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor. He’s working on a piece about how the nonreligious movement in the U.S. is not only growing but changing in character — becoming more humanistic, as it were, more comfortable with and interested in the emotional side of things — less exclusively focused on the intellectual. More Sally than Harry, you might say.

fbbThen there’s the growth of Foundation Beyond Belief. Since the announcement on June 1st, over 550 600 650 people have signed up on either the Facebook Causes page or the mailing list. I was hoping for 1,000 Foundation members by January 1. While mailing list does not equal donating members, I do think it’s time to upgrade my dreams a bit.

In addition to the general interest, I’ve been blizzarded with messages from people wanting to help in one way or another, and even a few from organizations hoping to be considered as beneficiaries.

I daresay we’ve struck a chord.

I’ll keep you all updated as we hit major landmarks. Much fun and sweat ahead!

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