Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

God(s) in the classroom

ERIN (11): Mohammed is believed by Muslims to be directly descended from the Angel Gabriel.

DAD, looking up from his book: Uh…really? I didn’t know that.

ERIN: It’s a question, Dad. True or false.

DAD, suddenly interested: Is this homework?

ERIN: Yes Dad, it’s homework, social studies, world religions, I’m terrible at it, so is it true or false??

DAD: Well you won’t get better at it if I just give you the answers.

ERIN: Plee-he-he-heeease, Daddy.

DAD: First tell me who Mohammed is.

ERIN: (*Sigh*) I don’t know. Some Jewish guy.

I could barely contain my delight. Not that she had bar mitzvahed the Prophet, which gave me the shpilkes, but that she was learning about religion in school — something I didn’t think the district would dare do.

Contrary to the fears of many nontheistic parents, and despite irritating nonsense from the occasional evangelical teacher, the vaaaaast majority of U.S. public school administrators are not the least bit interested in injecting religion into the classroom. On the contrary, they are terrified of getting into a constitutional row over it. In the early 90s, Becca’s principal forbade teachers to so much as put up the word DECEMBER in alternating red and green construction-paper letters lest (by associative property) one religion be invoked above others, however distantly.

But this isn’t that. Erin is studying religions, in the essential plural, an entirely good thing when done right.

I surfed over to the Georgia state social studies standards for sixth grade and found this standard tucked away under SS6G11, “The student will describe the cultural characteristics of Europe”:

b. Describe the major religions in Europe; include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By grade seven in Georgia, “The student will

explain the diversity of religions within the Arab, Ashanti, Bantu, and Swahili ethnic groups


explain the diversity of religions within the Arabs, Persians, and Kurds


compare and contrast the prominent religions in Southern and Eastern Asia: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shintoism and the philosophy of Confucianism

and even

describe how land and religion are reasons for continuing conflicts in the Middle East.


It would be wrongheaded (and unconstitutional) to favor any one religious perspective in the classroom, though that was the practice in the U.S. for generations. But a well-designed and well-taught curriculum in comparative religion would go a long way to improving our shameful status as one of the most religiously faithful AND most religiously ignorant countries on the planet.

My co-author Jan Devor put it this way in Raising Freethinkers (emphasis mine):

Europe and the United States are diametrically opposed in not one but two religious respects: belief in and knowledge of religion. The U.S. is both the most religiously enthusiastic and the least religious literate country in the developed world. We believe with great fervor but know very little about the tenets, history, and elements of our own belief systems, let alone those of our neighbors. Europeans, on the other hand, show very low levels of religious belief but, thanks to formal religious education in the schools, tend to have a very deep knowledge of religion.

Because U.S. schools shy away from teaching about religion, religious education falls to the parents—all parents. Religious parents can take advantage of whatever religious education is offered at church but have the detriment of a single, limiting point of view. Nonreligious parents reverse the polarity—the responsibility for the religious education of their children is primarily theirs, but unhindered by an organized doctrinal system, we have a greater opportunity to bring multiple perspectives to bear. And we must. Children who are ignorant of the elements of religion will be easy targets for religious zealotry and will be hobbled in their own free decisionmaking. Ignorance is impotence. Knowledge is power. (p. 69)

Gah, that’s a good passage.

Granted, the curriculum Fulton County is using is lame and uneven. Erin’s class watched three short films about the Abrahamics, then completed worksheets full of typos and oversimplifications ( “T/F: Judaism is diferent than other religions because there is onky one sect” — oy vey).

I don’t like the fact that each of the three is presented as a single thing — “Christians believe that…” is pretty close to meaningless, given the presence of 33,830 Christian denominations by last count — nor a hundred other things about it. But I can quibble with curricula in almost every subject. The important thing is that the kids are seeing Christianity placed side by side with other religions. This simple act has an automatic dethroning effect — mild for some, startling for others. And what balance and depth is missing, I’m helping Erin discover.

I helped her get past her confusion of Judaism and Islam in part by putting them in historical perspective with this insanely cool flash map showing the spread of the five largest religions:

Even this required supplementing, of course. For one thing, I had to point out that the grey areas certainly had beliefs of their own before they were subsumed into one or another of the corporate faiths, and that not everyone in a given color believes the same. I, for example, am not (at least in this respect) blue.

So I’m with Steven Prothero in supporting MORE religion in schools. Let’s call it Worldview Studies to include the nontheistic perspective. If the worksheets linked below are any indication, the current curricula vary from lame to awful. But done well, such a thing would enhance the ability of kids to make informed decisions in the long run.

I’ll expect your curricula on my desk by Friday.

The worksheet on Islam used by our district
The worksheet on Judaism
The worksheet on Christianity

International Day of Peace 2009

(A revised and updated post from September 2007.)

peacedove32209War is most often unnecessary, ineffective, immoral, or all three.


Let’s define necessary as “something essential; something that cannot be done without,” and effective as “something that accomplishes its stated objectives.” I believe war most often fails to meet both of these criteria. It’s usually unnecessary, because there are almost always alternatives that have been proven to work brilliantly if the intervention happens early enough. It’s usually ineffective because it most often exacerbates the very problems it seeks to solve. And it’s usually immoral because (among other things) it brings with it massive unintended consequences for the innocent — my main objection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some stats to consider:

One in seven countries are currently at war.

More than half of war deaths are civilians.

There are now over 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.

Children account for two-thirds of those killed in violent conflict since 1990.

An increasing percentage of world conflicts involve poor nations (formerly one third, now one half).

The average civil war drains $54 billion from a nation’s economy.

25 million people are currently displaced by war.

Mortality among displaced persons is over 80 times that of the non-displaced.

Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years.

[SOURCE: UN Development Programme Human Development Report, 2005]

Yes, stopping Hitler was a terrific idea. Unfortunately, our public discourse now evokes WWII as the justification for all wars instead of recognizing it as one of the very few necessary wars in our history. (See Ken Burns’ documentary THE WAR for a powerful condemnation of the ongoing misuse of WWII to justify discretionary wars.)

Here’s a nice nutshell: Except in the rare cases when war is necessary AND effective AND morally defensible, peace is preferable.

Seems reasonable — which may be why so many atheists and humanists have added their voices to (among others) the Catholic, Quaker, and Unitarian Universalist peace traditions in opposing war.

This position isn’t universal among the religious, of course. Nearly every day I wind up in traffic behind someone with a bumpersticker collage in praise of God, Guns, Country, and War.

Nor do all nontheists agree. Bob Price lays out an opposing POV in a piece that is surprisingly weak for him. Among my several objections to his essay: he doesn’t mention unintended consequences, my MAIN reason for opposing war; he seems to oppose atheist pacifism in part because it “seem(s) to embrace social ethics that mirror in startling ways the stance of Christianity,” as if any common ground is automatically “startling”; and he presents a straw man of moral equivalency that bears zero resemblance to my position — nor Bertrand Russell’s, for that matter. No surprise that WWII was the sole exception in Russell’s opposition to war. (Price’s depiction of anti-capital punishment positions is somehow even weaker. I oppose capital punishment not because I refuse to “cast the first stone” at a murderer, but mainly because of the high error rate in convictions.)


So why bring up war and peace today? No, it’s not Tolstoy’s birthday. Today is the International Day of Peace, an observance created by the UN in 1982 “to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of mankind [sic], to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways… (The International Day of Peace) should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.” (from General Assembly Resolution UN/A/RES/36/67)

News organizations have offered their annual yawn. A Google News search today brings up all of 399 references to the phrase “International Day of Peace” and 355 to “Peace Day” — mostly in non-U.S. media.

Not only do the stats and history seem to support the futility of war, but the foundation of secular ethics is this: in the absence divine safety net, we are all we’ve got, so we ought to try very hard to take care of each other. If war generally fails to accomplish its objectives while impoverishing and killing millions of innocent bystanders, secular ethics ought to oppose it — except in the rare cases when there really is no alternative.

When it comes to this standard, most of our national violence is far more analogous to the Mexican-American War than to the fight against Hitler.

Talk to your kids about your preference for peace, the futility of violence, the situation of child victims of war — and the fact that all of these opinions flow quite naturally from a secular worldview. Donate to Nonviolent Peaceforce, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, or another organization that’s out there doing the heavy lifting for humanity.

New video from Nonviolent Peaceforce


I’ve written before of my love of distillations that capture the essence of otherwise ungraspable things.

One of my favorites is the concordance, which ranks the frequency of words in a given text. In that long-ago post, I compared the concordance of Parenting Beyond Belief with that of What the Bible Says about Parenting by John MacArthur. It’s a word-wonky post, but I had a ball writing and researching it.

Words like THINK, QUESTIONS, and IDEA are prominent in Parenting Beyond Belief (#14, 22, and 31 respectively) while OBEDIENCE, SIN, DUTY, EVIL, FEAR, AUTHORITY, DISCIPLINE, COMMAND, COMMANDMENT, SUBMIT, LAW, and INSTRUCTION are all in the top 100 in What the Bible. I find that revealing.

You’ve probably seen wordclouds as well — a kind of graphical concordance. The more often a word occurs, the bigger it is. A few months back, I generated a wordcloud for this blog using Wordle. Liked it so much oi hung it on the wall in me study, oi did:


Struck me funny at first that the most common word I use is “one,” but looking back I see that it’s among my favorite ways to start a paragraph, as in “One of the most…” or “One way to…” That word is followed by Just, Religious, Kids, Parenting, Know, Like, and Children, with Religion and The Great I Am rounding out the top ten.

Erin (11) was apparently the most mentioned of my kids at that point, followed by Delaney (7), then Connor (14). And my dearest love and co-parent is mentioned about as often as Jesus and Santa. That just ain’t right. She’s done infinitely more for me than those two put together. Let me correct her infrequency here and now for later wordclouds:

Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca
Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca Becca

(Good luck catching up with that, J.C.)

Wordcloud for Parenting Beyond Belief
Wordcloud for Raising Freethinkers. (God gets a severe demotion in RF.)
Generate your own wordcloud from any text

Oh hey P.S. In response to repeated requests from Memlings Who Tweet, the Meming of Life is now on Twitter! I don’t plan to tweet much, but I’ve set up a nice application that sends followers a tweet every time there’s a new post here. So if you’re into it, follow me. (And tell me if it works. I don’t follow myself, so I wouldn’t know.)

Atheist Etiquette

etiquette329898I stumbled on a compelling new blog a few weeks back, and I’m afraid I must insist that you check it out.

Atheist Etiquette is the blog of “an atheist who’s interested in exploring the ways atheists and agnostics can relate to the rest of society without compromising their own integrity, harming the atheist cause (if there is such a thing) or causing unnecessary and inappropriate harm or discomfort to others.”

He continues: “I’ve learned over the years that getting along with people is a good thing to do when you can manage it, and that etiquette isn’t only (or mainly) about doing the ‘proper’ thing, but often about just showing some consideration for the other people who share the world with you….I’m not particularly interested in the ’cause’ of atheism — promoting atheism as a worldview or taking a big stand for atheists getting the rights and respect they deserve. I think it’s good that there are people doing that, but I’m more interested in the questions that affect ordinary, run-of-the-mill atheists and agnostics as they try to navigate life in a world where most people believe in gods and magic, and often assume that everyone else does as well.”

I wouldn’t have the least interest in this blog if it advocated a kind of indiscriminate respect for religious ideas. The narrower and far more interesting straits explored by Atheist Etiquette are revealed in its subtitle: “How to get along with real people and their imaginary friends.” There’s nuance and wisdom in there. It is possible to treat people well even as you withhold respect for, or actively challenge, their ideas. In fact, this blogger seems to fully grasp that it’s desirable — that we stand a far better chance of getting good people to reconsider bad ideas if we separate the people and their inherent worth from those ideas.

Atheist Etiquette isn’t always consistent on that score — but who is? And I’m not even certain he would quite agree with my own way of looking at this, which is fine. The main thing is that he’s hard at work sorting out this important but under-explored topic.

A few favorite posts to get you started:

Etiquette Rules #1-5 (starts here)
To bow (your head) or not to bow?
“I’ll pray for you”
Third-party insults
Being polite vs. being respectful

The All-American rollercoaster

creationfilm211209It’s been one of those rollercoaster weeks for fans of intelligence in the U.S. On Wednesday, we watched a US President deploying bone-crushing intelligence and rhetorical gifts in pursuit of progress in health care policy, one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.

Now there’s this:

New Charles Darwin film is ‘too controversial’ for religious American audiences
Daily Mail Reporter (UK)
12th September 2009

A new British film about Charles Darwin has failed to land a distribution deal in the States because his theories on human evolution are too controversial for religious American audiences, according to the film’s producer.

Creation follows the British naturalist’s ‘struggle between faith and reason’ as he wrote his 1859 book, On The Origin Of The Species.

The film, directed by Jon Amielm, was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has now been sold to almost every territory in the world.

But US distributors have turned down the film that could cause uproar in a country that, on the whole, dismisses scientific theories of the way we evolved.

Christian film review website described Darwin as ‘a racist, a bigot and a 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder.’

The site also stated that his ‘half-baked theory’ influenced Adolf Hitler and led to ‘atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and generic engineering.’

Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On The Origin of Species was published.

‘That’s what we’re up against. In 2009. It’s amazing,’ he said.

‘The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.

‘It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There’s still a great belief that He made the world in six days.

‘It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.

‘Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn’t saying “kill all religion”, he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people.’

I suppose it’s time to change the last few seconds of the trailer to “Not coming anytime soon.”

One of the most beautiful and creative websites I’ve ever seen
A marvelous review by the incomparable Eugenie Scott
Roger Ebert waxes rhapsodic about Darwin
Darwin in five minutes

Big Brothers (2 of 2)

my3Older siblings can have a strange and scary power over their youngers. So experienced, so judgmental, and so good at pushing buttons.

I was the middle of three, and so both receiver and wielder of that power. I could get my younger brother to completely lose his mind with a well-timed twitch of my eyebrow and rarely missed the chance (sorry, Randy). My older brother could do the same to me.

Ron’s five years older, so I was in kindergarten when he was in fifth grade and therefore automatically an Ewok to his Obi-Wan. By the time I entered junior high, he was halfway through high school. I started college right after he finished. There was just no catching up.

I know Connor (14) has the same effect on his sisters. They try to dismiss his teasing or criticisms, but it’s not easy. He aims, he fires, they fall.

The same is true with his observations about life in general, which are always delivered with the devastating finality of Judge Judy. He tells them how it is; they mutter “nuh uhh,” then collapse into brow-knitted self-doubt.

That dynamic was only one of my concerns when Connor delivered one of these pronouncements a few days ago. From the next room, I heard Delaney (7) sharing a conversation she had with a friend at school. “I told her I didn’t really believe in God, but I was still thinking about it. She said she didn’t know anybody else who…”

“Lane…” Connor said, then sighed with exaggerated patience.

She stopped. “What?”

“Lane, you really shouldn’t talk about religion at school.”

“Why not? It’s interesting.”

“You shouldn’t talk about it because you gain nothing and it gets all your friends to hate you.”



“Nuh uhh.”

“Yes. It does, Lane.”

It took every bit of my strength to stay in my chair.

I had at least three reasons to be concerned about this. First, I wanted to know if he was speaking from painful experience. If not, I wanted to be sure Delaney completely disregarded his advice, since these astonishing conversations are a big part of her unique engagement with the world. And if it WAS something he experienced, I might need to revisit the advice I give to parents around the country — to encourage their kids (and themselves) to discuss belief and disbelief openly in hopes of moving us toward that world in which differences in belief are no big deal. The whole idea of engaged coexistence turns on questions like this.

I waited until after dinner, then told Connor I’d heard their conversation. I said this was something I needed to know the truth about because parents come to me for advice on these issues, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Had this ever happened to him? Had he ever had friends begin to hate him because of religious differences or conversations?

“Well…no,” he said. “Not anymore. But younger kids do that.”

“Someone stopped being your friend when you were younger?”

“Well…no. But one time this kid freaked out because I told him I didn’t think God was real.”

“And he hated you from then on?”

Laney’s approach to life

“No, I guess not. He just freaked out for a minute, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you don’t believe in God, how can you not believe in God?’ blah blah. Then everything was fine. We were still friends and everything.”

I was relieved. This is exactly what I’ve heard from countless parents–the vast majority of the time, kids engage, they freak out, they move on. I asked Connor not to discourage Laney from talking about these things with friends, and he agreed.

At bedtime I asked Laney what she thought about Connor’s advice. She shrugged. “It’s not true. My friends don’t hate me. They think it’s interesting.”

I told her that I’d chatted with him and found out that it had never happened to him. I encouraged her to keep it up as long as she found it interesting.

“I know. It doesn’t bother me when he says things like that,” she assured me. “I just think…” She shook her head dismissively and sighed. “…brothers.”

Science from Giants

hcstmbgA big dino-roar to Kate Miller of Charlie’s Playhouse for tipping me off to an unbearably cool new thing for kids–a CD/DVD by the brilliant and unpredictable band They Might Be Giants called HERE COMES SCIENCE. The tracks:

1. Science Is Real
2. Meet the Elements
3. I Am a Paleontologist
4. The Bloodmobile
5. Electric Car
6. My Brother the Ape
7. What Is a Shooting Star?
8. How Many Planets?
9. Why Does the Sun Shine?
10. Why Does the Sun Really Shine?
11. Roy G. Biv
12. Put It to the Test
13. Photosynthesis
14. Cells
15. Speed and Velocity
16. Computer Assisted Design
17. Solid Liquid Gas
18. Here Comes Science Bonus Track
19. The Ballad of Davy Crockett (in Outer Space)

19 tracks of music on the CD, and animated music videos for each of them on the DVD.

Preorder now — releases on September 8.

Preview the music video for Science is Real. Be sure to enjoy the comment thread on Amazon below the video.

Oh, you beautiful people

The Foundation Beyond Belief Fund Drive finished gorgeously. Including direct contributions outside of the ChipIn system, we came within two percent of our goal, raising an astonishing $8590 from 194 contributors in two weeks.

It’s one thing to hear people expressing casual interest in a new idea and quite another to see them digging into their resources — especially during the current economic unpleasantness — to make it happen. And that’s just what you did.

There’s something startling and moving about the realization that this is money freely given in support of an idea. It’s one thing to give to an organization with a track record, but there’s something special — overwhelming, really — about seeing this kind of support in advance.

So a heartfelt thank you from the Board, our volunteer staff, and me. We’ve had plenty of willing feet on the pedal. Now, thanks to our donors’ generous support, we have gas in the tank to finish out 2009 and launch on time.

What’s that you say? You missed the drive? Or you want to donate again? No worries. A brand-new widget seems to have grown in the sidebar for ongoing donations to help us pay for logo design, bookkeeping, and all sorts of other necessary things both sexy and unsexy. Thanks for considering it when you can.

Last Day — let’s bring it home!

We’re in the final hours of the Foundation Beyond Belief fund drive. As of 10AM noon 8PM on this the final day, we’ve raised an amazing 81 percent 85 percent 90 percent of the funds we need to see us through to January 1!

It’s getting exciting now. The Board has selected two of the featured causes for the launch and will announcing them (and the rest) beginning in October. Both the website and brand new logo are under construction. And our publicist is feverishly working on a promotional campaign that will swell the ranks of our membership.

Thousands of atheists and humanists coming together to make a positive change in countless lives around the world–THAT’S the vision we’re building here. And it’s working because of your generosity in this fund drive.

If you haven’t chipped in yet, I hope you’ll help us reach the goal. Click on the ChipIn! button in the sidebar to give whatever you can manage. Thanks for your support and encouragement.


(NOTE: The widget says the drive ends Sept 2 — that means midnight tonight.)