Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Could be worse

Curriculum Night at my freshman son’s fabulous high school. I’m dazzled. Enthusiastic and intelligent teachers half my damn age but who’s counting. A sparkling clean building one NINTH my age. Nationally-ranked academics.

wsb9802All this to say that I was not looking for trouble when I stopped and scanned a cartoony poster in his science class titled “WHY STUDY BIOLOGY?”

At left is the largest photo of it I could find online.

Scattered around the poster are cute and curious children studying the natural world and giving all the reasons such study is worthwhile. The three most important reasons, judging from font size alone, are to answer the questions “Where do birds go in the winter?”, “Where do ants go in the winter?”, and “Where do snakes go in the winter?”

But in the left center, another reason caught my not-for-trouble-looking eye:

So I can decide if I believe in evolution.

Yes, I know what’s wrong with that sentence. But I surprised myself by seeing it as their explanation…not too bad.

Now anybody rushing to the comment section with the word “gravity” on your fingertips can take a pill. As much as I cringe at the phrase “believe in evolution,” it is not the same as “believing in gravity,” and we should stop making that glib comparison. Although evolution is as solidly established a fact as gravity, it’s not half as obvious. It takes effort and education to see how thoroughly established a fact evolution is. To believe in gravity, all you need is a ladder and a six-pack.

If you think about it, the common phrase “as surely as the Earth revolves around the Sun” is also citing something that’s well established but far from obvious.

What the poster is saying, really, is that you study biology so you have the education to understand the evidence for evolution. It’s saying Don’t base your decision on the gut feeling that you’re far too special to be related to a chimp. Learn, then decide. Only by stubbornly not learning about it, by not encountering that staggering evidence, can a person hope to hang on to his or her opposition to it.

So I can and do quibble with the wording — it’s not about “belief” — but the message is pretty much on the mark. At least it could be worse.

That’s what I’M talkin’ about!

After watching the Founding Fund Drive for Foundation Beyond Belief slow nearly to a stop at 37 percent of the goal, we are now back on track with a bullet. In a single day, the generosity and commitment of our supporters sent us tearing through the halfway point. As of Wednesday morning, we’re 54 percent of the way home.

We’re not finished yet, but we’re now within striking distance of establishing the first-stage web presence for this pioneering effort in humanist philanthropy on October 1. At that point members will begin registering, setting up personal profiles, learning about our first slate of beneficiaries, and planning their monthly donation strategy.

Donations received between October 1 and December 31 go to the Foundation itself to help fund the first year of operations. When the full site launches on January 1, members will begin distributing their monthly donation among ten cause areas, forming groups, debating causes, following a brand new blog — and making a profound positive impact in the world.

The renewed vigor of the Fund Drive has energized everyone working for the Foundation and redoubled our determination to justify your trust and do this thing right.

Look for a normal, non-Foundational post tomorrow soon. In the meantime, many thanks to those who have donated! For those who were waiting for the drama of the final stretch: THE END TIMES ARE UPON US! Help us reach the goal that will put the Foundation on solid ground by donating through the ChipIn widget in the sidebar.

So…are you in?

fbb321099Foundation Beyond Belief is halfway through its first fund drive—but only 37 percent of the way to the goal.

Over 1600 people expressed their support for this project by signing up for our mailing list and Facebook group—a fantastic show of enthusiasm. But just four percent of those have so far been moved to donate to this crucial fund drive. We are enormously grateful to those few—but we need the rest of you.

Here’s why.

By the end of next year, we hope to empower a new force in philanthropic giving, fuel the great work of over thirty charitable organizations around the world, and begin to transform the popular perception of secular humanism. On the educational side, we will create both a community and a resource center for nonreligious parents.

To accomplish all of this, we need a world-class web center—not just a “brochure” site with a donation button, but a touchpoint and resource center for a vibrant and engaged community of humanists.

The site will include detailed information about featured organizations, a forum and social network for members to debate, investigate, and help select future beneficiaries, an invitational blog on humanism and philanthropy, and profiles to allow members to distribute their monthly donations among the causes as they see fit.

So—IF you support this idea, and IF you can spare the shekels, please take a moment to help create this Foundation by making a donation of any size in the sidebar.

We’ll do our best to make you proud.

Dale McGowan
Executive Director
Foundation Beyond Belief

Fear and Loathing in Chicago

Today’s post was supposed to be the traditional Shaming of the Bystanders to encourage donations to Foundation Beyond Belief. But events have o’ertaken me.

hemantLaurie Higgins, one of an apparent two members of a group called Illinois Family Institute (italics theirs) is doing what so many conservative religious groups do best: working 24/7 to keep people terrified — especially of people who are different from themselves. Ms. Higgins has now interrupted a long screed warning about a carnival of recreational abortion and Logan’s Run-style euthanasia that the Obama adminstration is said to be working on (why doesn’t anyone tell me about these things?) so she could frighten Chicago parents about the presence of a high school math teacher whose religious views do not conform to James Dobson’s.

Worse yet, he’s an atheist. And a non-closeted one.

It’s not that he’s mentioned his views in class, or tried to recruit students, or made use of equations that always come out to 666, or worse yet, zero. The stated concern is that students might look up to him. The IFI suggests that concerned parents request that their children be transferred to another teacher, and furthermore implies that if they aren’t concerned, they bloody well should be.

“It’s all about diversity and choice,” she writes. Using the latter to flee the former, I guess.

The good news in all this is that the teacher in question is the bright, funny, and level-headed Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta. If anyone can handle this kind of nonsense well, it’s Hemant.

Like other sufferers of RFD (Religious Freedom Deafness), Ms. Higgins is making herself an incredible pain, but when there’s someone of Hemant’s caliber in the hotseat, it can all end up rather well. In the end, by simply being normal and allowing Ms. Higgins to be decidedly otherwise, he’ll bring credit to us all. And the non-crazy majority of religious folks will learn something about the non-crazy majority of the nonreligious, which means some genuine good can come out of it.

How he first caught their eye
She attacks
He replies
She issues an “open letter”

The FBB Founding Fund Drive

fbb311209Two big news items for Foundation Beyond Belief, the new humanist charitable and educational foundation scheduled to launch on January 1:

Web designer selected
Our call for web designers brought applications from 19 high-quality professionals. After a process both excruciating and exciting, the Foundation Board has selected From Concept to Completion to create the initial “pre-launch” site by October 1 AND our fully functional online community for humanist philanthropy by January 1. Our sincere thanks to all those who applied.

Founding Fund Drive
The Foundation is ready at last to accept tax-deductible donations! Our Founding Fund Drive, which begins today and runs through Sept. 1, will help create a world-class web presence for the Foundation community and spread the word about the Foundation through a professional publicity campaign.

We’re working hard to make this initiative a powerful expression of humanism at its very best. Many thanks for your support and encouragement, as well as your patience as we find our way forward.

(To contribute, please click on the big blue ChipIn widget at the top of the sidebar.)

A simple plan

Seems a bit of a donnybrook has ausgebroken in the comments on one of my YouTube videos. Don’t get excited, now – it’s mild enough. But it started with a pretty common misunderstanding of my position. And my real position on this is among my most deeply-held convictions as a parent, so I can’t stay quiet.

Here’s the argument: Because I advocate letting kids sort things out for themselves in the long run, I am saying that all points of view are equally valid. Ipso facto, I’m a relativist.

As regular Memlings will know, I do have opinions. I think some points of view are excellent, some are neutral, some are utter nonsense, and some are outrageously stupid and dangerous. I’ve come to these conclusions not because my parents fed them to me, but by using the tools and values they gave me and then sorting it out on my own. I try hard to stay open to a change of mind on each and every opinion. Sometimes I even succeed.

By thinking hard, paying attention, and caring about getting the right answer, I’ve come to the conclusion that evolution by natural selection is true and “intelligent design” is both false and much less interesting. I’ve come to think that Catholic doctrine is one of the most grotesque collections of dehumanizing stuff we’ve ever come up with as a species, and that many of the Catholics I know are nonetheless among the best people I know. In the midst of a high church Episcopal service, I whiplash between being seduced by the pageantry and sickened by it.

I think Mormon doctrine is incredibly strange, liberal Quakerism is a beautiful expression of the religious impulse, and Pat Robertson is a pig. Ecclesiastes is lovely and sad. Leviticus is vile. Unitarians are fascinating in their self-contradictions, and their social justice work is second to none.

I think the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam are microscopic (a POV shared, it seems, by most Islamic intellectuals), and yet appears to be enough to justify an ongoing mutual slaughter a la 17th century Christian Europe. Jain principles are cool, and I wonder if most Jains follow them, or if they’re pretty much like the rest of us (i.e. great on paper).
If you’d like to know how I’ve come to any one of these opinions, I can walk you through the entire process because I was there. My parents declined to force-feed me their opinions, though I knew what they were and was surely influenced by them. Instead, my parents taught me to think hard, pay attention, and care about getting the right answer.

My kids get a hearty helping of my opinions, along with an express invitation to ignore them and find their own way. And because Becca and I spend so much time and effort teaching them to think hard, pay attention, and care about getting the right answer, I’m convinced their destination will be one of the good ones (plural), even if it isn’t the same as mine.

And you know what? It seems to be working really well.

In an earlier post on relativism, I put it this way: “A moment’s reflection makes it clear that there’s something between stone tablets and coin-flipping — between Thou shalt not and Whatever makes your weenie wiggle. It’s called moral judgment.”

Teach and model good judgment, then let them judge. It’s a simple plan, and for the sake of my kids, and everyone they will cross paths with, I’m sticking to it.

Big Brothers (1 of 2)

big4309“Dad Dad, come here, you’ve got to see this.”

I followed Connor (14) into the kitchen, where our dog Gowser, a 65 lb. Rhodesian ridgeback mix, was eating contentedly.

Connor got down on all fours and began nuzzling his face toward the food bowl, making slurping noises. Suddenly from deep in Gowser’s throat came a sound I had never heard her make – a deep, angry growl.

“Connor, stop now!” I yelled. “Back up!”

“Why?” he chuckled. He wrongly assumed I was kidding and continued slurping. Gowser’s growl deepened. I grabbed Connor by the belt and slid him abruptly away from the bowl.

“What’s the matter with you?” he snapped.

“Con, she thinks you are another animal taking her food, and she will bite you. The growl was a warning.”

“Oh come on,” he said. “There is no way she’s going to bite me. I’m the one who feeds her!”

I thought about telling him there’s a whole proverb devoted to exactly that, then realized there’s probably an actual fallacy called Argument by Proverb. “Her instinct takes over,” I said. “She’s a wolf inside. She’s not going to stop and think before she eats your face. So don’t do it again.”

“Why not? She’s not going to…”

“I gave you the answer and the reason. We’re done.”

[N.B. This brilliant coinage by my wife Becca is also the answer to a question I often get from parents: “It’s fine to say you’ll let your kids question you, but where does it end?” It ends when you’ve given them both an answer and a reason. Sometimes they have a further line of argument, and sometimes I have the energy to hear it. But if they simply say “Why?” after you’ve already given a reason, use the line and send Becca a nickel.]

The classic attack position

He skulked away, irritated that my fantasies of man-eating wolves kept him from hearing his goofy, lovable dog make that awesome sound up close again. So be it – we’re not covered for face transplants.

Connor is in that phase of development when you mask your gnawing inner doubts about a thousand things with complete outer certitude about a thousand other things, large and small. Remember those years? I sure do. You feel like you can’t afford to be agnostic about ANYTHING, lest that whole inner house of cards come tumbling down.

Connor is handling that inner/outer conflict MUCH better than I did at 14.

One of the main challenges of multiple kids for me is giving the younger ones all of the advantages the oldest had when he was their age. This is where Connor’s confident certainties can sometimes get in the way.

When he was growing up, he was allowed to explore ideas and float hypotheses with complete freedom. I described one such moment of his at age six, and my response, on page 14 of Raising Freethinkers. I cleverly changed the dog’s name to keep Gowser from getting too much fan mail:

KID: I think Bowser can read my mind.

DAD: Oh? Why do you think that?

KID: I was gonna give her a crust of bread, and she started wagging her tail as soon as I thought of it!

(Here’s the moment we typically wind up the correction machine, making sure the child knows that there’s a non-paranormal explanation. Resist!)

DAD: Hmm. Well, we better watch what we’re thinking, then!

Good Dad! I’m so proud of you. You didn’t say it was true or false, and she didn’t ask you to (yet). You simply made her feel good for thinking and guessing and inquiring about the world. There’s plenty of time for insisting on the right answers. First we need to build the desire and the tools to find them on her own.

Connor has long since developed that desire, and his thinking tools (with the occasional exception, see above) are really sharp. Problem is, he reached that point while his sisters were still in the free-hypothesis stage. A typical conversation a couple of years back:

ERIN (9): I think I know why the Earth turns.

MOM: And why is that?

ERIN: I think the wind is pushing against the mountains.

CONNOR (12): No.

The “no” was always delivered with crushing, dismissive confidence. Erin’s face would fall, and she would cede the floor to his greater knowledge. It always broke my heart.

My awesome boy

After hearing this a few times, I pulled him aside and explained that no one had shut down his hypotheses when he was that age. As a result, he has developed a great mind, a love of questioning, and powerful curiosity. I told him he was not to shut the girls down either so they too could develop that love of questioning.

“But the things they say are just…”

“…just like the things you said,” I answered. “Exactly like them.” I knew he wanted to join these conversations at the level he was at, and that it would kill him to stay out entirely. “Tell you what,” I offered. “Instead of saying, ‘No,’ why don’t you say, ‘Actually, I think it’s like this.”

The next time Erin floated a hypothesis, Connor rolled his eyes, mustered all the patient condescension he could, and said:


Oh well. You do what you can.

I’m not complaining

Really I’m not. First of all, it’d be pretty damn cheeky to complain of too much work when so many people, including several of my friends, have too little right now. Plus I can’t stand people who define themselves by how busy they are.

So I am ex-, not com-, plaining.

My freelance writing puts me at the computer way too much. My keyboard’s A and L keys are worn completely blank, and O and M appear to be next, even though I have never (until now) typed LMAO. I have, however, ghostwritten over 170 articles and 105 blog entries for clients since January. I’m U.S. Communications Coordinator for a fantastic civilian peacekeeping organization. And I’ve written or edited 9 newsletters, 26 columns (mostly about banking), and an annual report.

And you thought I sat around thinking seculo-parental thoughts all day. It is to laugh.

That is part of it, of course. I did 16 PBB events in 11 cities so far this year. Then there’s the new YouTube channel, the Foundation, and this blog. No surprise I’ve been bathing in the glow of this screen 12 hours a day and seven days a week since New Year’s.

The work itself is (mostly) very satisfying and interesting. But I have a real and growing fear that my kids will remember me, only and always, behind a laptop. That makes me ill. So I’ve made some promises I intend to keep. I now stop working at 5pm on the dot and no longer open the laptop on weekends at all. That way I can be a parent again instead of just playing one on the Internet.

Among other cutbacks, I’ll now be posting blogs only about once a week and YouTube videos about once a month. (I just filmed #5 and have to completely reshoot because I look and sound like Ben Stein.)

I’ll give y’all a real post (on the downside of older siblings) in a couple of days, then start the weekly schedule. Thanks!