Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

I looove me a good correlation

correlation34209A member of the PBB Forum recently recommended The Kids’ Book of World Religions. Try though I do to keep up with these things, I hadn’t heard of this one, so I clicked over to Amazon for a look.

I scrolled down the page to the “Frequently Bought Together” feature (wherein Amazon tries to convince you to buy another particular book or two because other visitors to the page are doing so) and did a classic doubletake when I saw the two books they were bundling together with this survey of world religions: Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

“Huh,” I said, in those exact words.

These things are generated automatically, so it was a pretty reliable indication that people interested in one were often interested in the others. I scrolled down further and discovered that fully 28 percent of the people who view the page for The Kids’ Book of World Religions end up buying one of my books.

Another book linked to that page was Mary Pope Osborne’s One World, Many Religions. I clicked over to that page and found that it too was “Frequently Bought Together” with Parenting Beyond Belief. (This wasn’t completely surprising, since this title — unlike every other title in this post — is recommended in Raising Freethinkers.)

I popped ’round to Many Ways: How Families Practice Their Beliefs and Religions and learned that “Customers Also Bought” PBB. Twelve percent of visitors to The Story of Religion by Betsy Maestro end up buying PBB instead, as do nine percent of visitors to My Friends’ Beliefs: A Young Reader’s Guide to World Religions.

As of yesterday – these things do ebb and flow, of course – every book paired with the above titles by Amazon’s automatic recommendation system was either another comparative religion book for kids or a book for nonreligious parents. And here’s the thing: not a single book devoted to another individual worldview made the lists.

What does this mean?

Correct me since I’m wrong, but it would seem to suggest something I’ve long suspected — that nonreligious parents are more likely than parents of other worldviews to give their kids a broad exposure to a number of beliefs.

I certainly hope that’s what it suggests, because that’s freethought parenting. That’s what I’m always on about — teaching kids to think well, then trusting them to do so. Daddy’s so proud of all y’all. Go get yourself a cookie.

Nice label. What else ya got?

I found myself behind a home repairman’s van the other day. I don’t remember the company name, but I remember what was under it: an ichthys, or Jesus fish, followed by a tagline, like so:

The FISH says it all!

It’s not uncommon to see the Jesus fish on business cards, vehicles, signs and shop windows in the South. But this was the first time I’d seen a tagline that so clearly said, “Nuff said.”

A few months ago, I scanned the merchandise table during the break in a freethought meeting I was speaking to. Suddenly the gent selling books and T-shirts felt the call of nature. “Be right back,” he said and headed toward the restroom. Suddenly he stopped in mid-stride and looked back at the mound of cash sitting open on the table. He thought for a moment, then waved his hand dismissively and said aloud, “That’s OK. We’re all humanists here,” before scuttling off toward relief.

I’ll bet the Christian handyman really is a nice guy who never grabs an unattended wallet or has his way with the cat. And I was pretty sure that no one at the humanist meeting would help himself to the open pile of currency, either. But both have more to do with the demonstrable fact that most people, for a number of reasonable reasons, behave morally in most situations. In neither case would my confidence have anything to do with the waving of a worldview flag.

The assumption goes the other way as well, of course, when a worldview (or race, or nationality, etc) is hissed between the teeth as a self-sufficient epithet.

The fish does NOT say it all, and neither does the Happy Human. It’s possible to call yourself a Christian or a secular humanist and to be a breathtakingly unethical pig. Lots of folks on both sides manage that straddle just fine. Maybe it’s a Fred-Phelps-type Christian who finds his instructions in hateful Leviticus instead of the Sermon on the Mount, or a Joe-Stalin-type nonbeliever who seems to take the absence of divine oversight as an invitation to go homicidally nuts.

I’ve also known both believers and nonbelievers who I’d trust with my life. That trust comes not from hearing what a person calls him or herself, but from seeing what the person does with their worldview. Deed, not creed, and all that.

Worldview labels are handy shortcuts, nothing more. They save us the hard work of holding ourselves and others to a discernable standard, as if claiming the label is the same as living the highest ideals of that label.

So next time somebody flashes their worldview at you as if it means something all by its lonesome, yawn and say, “Nice label. What else ya got?”

“Values and beliefs with which we don’t agree”

I’m spending a lot of time and effort vetting firms to create the website for Foundation Beyond Belief. All in all an aggravating and slow process. Yesterday I filled out a long and detailed form about the Foundation and the site we need for a web design firm in my old home state of Minnesota.

Today I received this reply:

Hi Dale,

I appreciate the time you took to fill out our website questionnaire. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are a good fit for developing your website as we are committed Christians. I think it would be difficult for us to give our all to a website promoting values and beliefs with which we don’t agree.

Thanks again for your time. I hope you understand my reasons for declining your request.


I usually let this kind of thing roll off my back, but this one got under my skin in a way that nothing has for years. For one thing, I doubt they’d have offered the same reason to a Jewish or Muslim foundation. (On second thought, who knows.) I was also struck by the fact that our values are suspect even when we’re involved in an overtly charitable initiative.

I replied:

Hi M___,

Thanks so much for your reply. I must agree, we would be a very poor fit — but not because you are committed Christians.

Our foundation is dedicated primarily to the encouragement of charitable giving among the nonreligious but will be supporting both religious and secular charities. I would only want to work with someone who shares those values of generosity and openness, who sees the importance of reaching across lines of difference. Thanks for letting me know that you don’t agree with such values.

My current website was created by two committed Christians, one of whom is a past administrator for the Campus Crusade for Christ. They noted our differences but recognized that we share the same core values of mutual respect and a desire to make the world a better place.

Here’s to more Christians like them.


(If you are a professional web designer who would like to be considered for this job — regardless of your worldview — drop me a note with a link to your online portfolio. My contact info is in the sidebar.)

Which way do your kids roll?

What is needed is not the will to believe but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.Bertrand Russell

Unwillingly back from 17 days off, with a wallet full of Post-Its full of ideas for the blog.

The first popped up when Michael Jackson’s ghost was spotted at Neverland. Here’s my favorite video clip of the event (cue soundtrack):

The debunk is easy, of course. More interesting is the question it raises for parents who want to raise critical thinkers. Some, I’m sure, sat their kids in front of the video and fed them the critique of credulity: “Look, at 0:18, see? There’s a courtyard to the left there. You can even see the windows into that room. And look look, one second later you can see a set light standing in that room! There’s obviously a crew setting up in there, and somebody just walked by that window! See? Not a ghost. Right?”

Johnny and Janey nod solemnly and power down, pending future input.

By debunking it for them, Parental Unit handed them a piece of information: this ghost was a shadow. But s/he didn’t allow the kids to stretch their own critical thinking hamstrings. S/he gave them a fish instead of teaching them to fish.

News of the ghost reached us on vacation as we drove with Grandma to the coolest kid museum in the U.S. (more on this later). One of my kids had heard it on a morning show: during an interview, a news crew had captured Michael Jackson’s ghost walking by in a nearby room. That’s how it’s generally presented, of course — never “a news crew captured something that some people thought looked like a ghost, and further assumed to be the ghost of Michael Jackson.” Too many ickily precise words. “An eerie presence at Neverland was captured on film” is the usual approach to keeping us tuned in.

“Huh,” sez I, or some such noncommital thing.

We had a fine time at the museum. Later that afternoon, I pulled out my computer and found the YouTube video I knew would be there.

“Hey, who wants to see Michael Jackson’s ghost?” I said. Yup — I left out the precision, too. I did so because I know which way my kids roll, and that they don’t need a push from me.

Present some folks with Elvis in a restaraunt, or Mary in a tortilla, or an exotic miracle juice, and they’ll roll fast and hard toward belief. As Russell would put it (after his third gin XanGo), they have the will to believe and they’re not afraid to use it. No matter how much you try to drag them back uphill, such folks will lie at the bottom of the hill cooing contentedly in the lap of Elvis or Mary, munching on mangosteen while P.T. Barnum grazes on their wallets.

My kids roll the other way. As a result of the low-key and fun questioning atmosphere they’ve grown up in, they have a serious crush on the real world. Oh they like fantasy just fine. But to paraphrase Russell again, their will to find out is reliably stronger than their desire to believe any given proposition. And they’ve blown their minds often enough by the wonders of that real world that they’ll wait patiently, tossing aside counterfeit wonder, until the real thing comes along.

The will to believe is a form of incuriosity. The will to find out is about simple, persistent curiosity. Raise curious kids by being curious yourself, out loud. Show a hunger for the actual and a delight in finding it, over and over again, and your kids will tend to roll that way as well.

Though they all roll toward reality, the steepness of grade isn’t the same for all three of my kids. Erin (11) rolls gently but steadily toward reality, and Delaney (7) makes long detours. But both eventually end up wanting to know what’s actually what.

For Connor (14), it’s a cliff. That can present problems of its own. He’s often unwilling to even consider any unconventional possibilities. That protects him from being duped by salesmen, politicians, and faith healers, but it can also keep him from seeing how deeply bizarre reality can be. He has, for example, dismissed my descriptions of quantum strangeness with a simple, “Oh yeah, I’m so sure.” In his defense, that’s pretty much the same thing Einstein said about quantum physics (“Ach ja, ich bin so sicher.”)

So we watched the video three times. Erin and Delaney toyed with the idea that Jackson’s ghost had really appeared before asking each other a few simple questions and watching it fall apart. (Connor went straight to pfft.)

To my surprise, CNN actually debunked the rumor, showing that it was a simple shadow:

…which enraged some roll-to-beliefers. My favorite comment:

Fine, so it’s a shadow. So what? Have you so-called “skeptics” ever considered the possibility that ghosts ALSO cast shadows???

“Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin’s Day already?”

The Meming of Life is taking a break from the Feast of Doubting Thomas to St. Swithin’s Day, and possibly a tad beyond. In the meantime, here’s the third in our video series on YouTube.

Coming video topics and very approximate schedule:
P.T. Barnum’s Birthday: Indoctrination vs. influence
John Paul Jones’ Death Day: “What if my child becomes religious?”
Constitution Day (Puerto Rico): The moment of the question
Francis Scott Key’s Birthday: Three myths about death
Feast of Santo Domingo: Teaching kids about evolution