Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

No cats were harmed (Greatest Hits)

My daughter Erin (12) plays Pandora in a class play today, which reminded me of this post from 2008.


Mother: Don’t ask so many questions, child. Curiosity killed the cat.
Willie: What did the cat want to know, Mom?
Portsmouth Daily Times, Mar 1915

An interesting character pops up in religion and folklore around the world and throughout history: the curious and disobedient woman. Here’s the story: A god/wizard gives a woman total freedom, with one exception—one thing she must not do/eat/see. She battles briefly with her curiosity and loses, opening/eating the door/jar/box/apple and thereby spoiling everything for everybody.

Curiosity didn’t just kill the cat, you see. It unleashed disease, misery, war and death on the world and got us evicted from a Paradise of blank incuriosity and unthinking obedience.


That this cautionary tale is found in religions worldwide leads me once again to conclude that religion isn’t the source of human hatreds, fears, and prejudices—it’s the expression of those fundamental human hatreds, fears, and prejudices, the place we put them for safekeeping against the sniffing nose of inquiry. And since the story includes three things powerfully reviled by most religious traditions (curiosity, disobedience, and women), it’s not surprising to find them conveniently bundled into a single high-speed cable running straight to our cultural hearts.

I could do pages on Eve alone and her act of disobedient curiosity with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Was she really punished for wanting to know the difference between right and wrong, or just for disobedience? How could she know it was wrong to disobey if she didn’t yet have knowledge of good and evil? etc). Then there’s Lot’s wife, poor nameless thing, a woman (check!) who was curious (check!) and therefore disobeyed (check!) instructions to not look back at her brimstoned friends and loved ones. Islam even coined a word for a disobedient woman – nashiz – and decreed a passel of human punishments for her in sharia law.

But neither Eve nor Mrs. Lot was the first nashiz woman to cross my path. Lovely, nosy Pandora was my first.


Pandora was designed for revenge on humanity by the gods, who were angry at the theft of fire by Prometheus. According to Hesiod, each of the Olympians gave her a gift (Pandora = “all-gifted”). She was created by Hephaestus in the very image of Aphrodite (rrrrrrowww). Hermes gave her “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and filled her mouth with “lies and crafty words.” Poseidon gave her a pearl necklace, which (unlike the deceitful nature, for example) was at least on her registry. But the real drivers of the story were the last two gifts: Hermes gave her an exquisitely beautiful jar (or box) with instructions not to open it, while Hera, queen of the gods, blessed her with insatiable curiosity.


Long story short, once on Earth, Pandora’s god-given curiosity consumed her and she opened the jar/box, releasing war, disease, famine, and talk radio into the world. Realizing what she had done, she clamped the lid on at last, with Hope alone left inside.

(This is usually interpreted as Hope being preserved for humankind as a comfort in the face of the terrors, but even at the age of ten I realized that by trapping Hope in the jar, she kept it out of the world. Are there no mythic traditions with continuity editors?)

This week I came across the anti-curiosity tale in yet another form, one I’d never seen before–a Grimms’ fairy tale called Fitcher’s Bird:

Once upon a time there was a sorcerer who disguised himself as a poor man, went begging from house to house, and captured beautiful girls. No one knew where he took them, for none of them ever returned.

One day he came to the door of a man who had three beautiful daughters. He asked for a bit to eat, and when the oldest daughter came out to give him a piece of bread, he simply touched her, and she was forced to jump into his pack basket. Then he hurried away with powerful strides and carried her to his house, which stood in the middle of a dark forest.

He gave her everything that she wanted. So it went for a few days, and then he said to her, “I have to go away and leave you alone for a short time. Here are the house keys. You may go everywhere and look at everything except for the one room that this little key here unlocks. I forbid you to go there on the penalty of death.”

He also gave her an egg, saying, “Take good care of this egg. If you should lose it, great misfortune would follow.”

She took the keys and the egg, and promised to take good care of everything.

As soon as he had gone she walked about in the house, examining everything. The rooms glistened with silver and gold. She had never seen such splendor.

Finally she came to the forbidden door. She wanted to pass it by, but curiosity gave her no rest. She put the key into the lock and the door sprang open.

What did she see when she stepped inside? A large bloody basin stood in the middle, inside which there lay the cut up parts of dead girls. Nearby there was a wooden block with a glistening ax lying on it.

She was so terrified that the egg slipped from her hand into the basin. She got it out again and wiped off the blood, but it was to no avail, for it always came back. She wiped and scrubbed, but she could not get rid of the stain.

Not long afterward the man returned from his journey and asked for the key and the egg. She handed them to him, and he saw from the red stain that she had been in the blood chamber.

“You went into that chamber against my will,” he said, “and now against your will you shall go into it once again. Your life is finished.”

He threw her down, dragged her by her hair into the chamber, cut off her head, then cut her up into pieces, and her blood flowed out onto the floor. Then he threw her into the basin with the others.

It gets worse, believe it or not, this charming children’s tale. Now I have to go away and leave you for a short time. You may read anything you wish on the Internet, but you may NOT, on pain of death, click on this link to read the rest of the story.

Given this glimpse into our cultural terror of curiosity, is it any wonder that religion and science are so often at loggerheads? One is fueled by the very thing the other has traditionally feared—the opening of interesting and forbidden jars.

Fitcher’s Bird is very closely related to (and probably the source of) the tale of Bluebeard.

The phrase “Curiosity killed the cat” is in fact a much later corruption of the original “Care (i.e., worry) will kill a cat,” which appears in a Ben Jonson play of 1598.

What, Me Worry?

gallSamuel Pepys had surgery to remove a bladder stone when he was twenty. He had seventeenth century surgery, the only type available in his day. Joseph Lister was busily pioneering antiseptic surgery less than a mile from where Pepys lay tied to the bedposts, but Lister refused to offer his new techniques to Pepys’ physician, using all the old excuses – “my techniques are too new, my methods are untested, I’m living two hundred years in the future,” blah, blah, blah.

The pioneers of anesthetic surgery were likewise unhelpfully unborn, but had the additional excuse of working in a whole different country. So Pepys’ doctor used what science he had: he got his patient drunk, tied his legs to the bedposts and stabbed and sawed away until, in a gush of blood and urine, out rolled a stone the size of a tennis ball.

Pepys survived the surgery, for some reason, and celebrated the removal of the stone each year with a party on the same March day. And each year at that party, in the center of the table of hors d’oeuvres, mounted in a stunning teak box, sat the guest of honor, the founder of the feast – the stone itself.

I had my gall bladder removed yesterday. Thanks to a hundred medical advances since the 17th century, I don’t even remember being tied to the bedposts. Four standard Band-aids now cover the relative pinholes through which a tiny camera and three tools were deployed to remove the mutinous thing. I was advised to avoid fried chicken for a while and sent home.

In the weeks leading up to the surgery, I had to decide whether to worry about dying on the table. There’s no such thing as minor surgery, of course. Google the phrase “routine gall bladder surgery” and you’ll find the phrase “what was supposed to be” pinned to the front of it, over and over, in articles on the deaths of Andy Warhol, Dan “Hoss Cartwright” Blocker, and Congressman John Murtha. Another gentleman was rendered paraplegic by the same surgery, and a woman sustained severe brain damage. It happens when one of the tools nicks the large intestine. Infection sets in, then sepsis, then, sometimes, death.

Connor (14) caught wind of these stories somehow — possibly by overhearing me — and began to worry about his dad. It was a great opportunity to chat about one of my all-time favorite insights: the news paradox.

I don’t even remember who first brought the news paradox to my attention, but when it comes to ramping down our collective paranoia, it’s hard to beat. There are countless real dangers in the world, things that have a high statistical likelihood of taking us out of the game. But those common killers (like car accidents and smoking) don’t make the news, because they are common. Something that actually hits the collective radar is uncommon by definition — otherwise it wouldn’t be newsworthy.

So a good rule of thumb: If you read about a threat in the newspaper or hear about it on TV (like terrorism or mad cow disease), you can generally relax. It’s almost certainly not going to find you. It’s those things you don’t hear about, those pedestrian everyday killers, that you should worry about.

Once I heard the names of the same three celebrity gall bladder victims for the fifth or sixth time — Andy Warhol, Dan Blocker, John Murtha — I knew the news paradox was in play and began to relax. When someone dies during open heart surgery, it’s sad, but it doesn’t shock. But when a handful of people go down after a “supposedly routine” operation, it leaps to the top of our consciousness.

Over 500,000 gall bladders are removed each year, 99.9 percent of them without incident. So yes, there was a risk, but the very newsworthiness of the times it went wrong comforted me. And my boy.

BANG! The Universe Verse

bangcoverOh I love this.

bang1BANG! The Universe Verse Book 1 is unique comic book that illustrates scientific theories about the origin of the universe as Dr. Seuss might have done. Best of all, though it’s set in verse delivered by a cartoon Einstein, there’s no dumbing down of content. Instead, Jamie Dunbar has given the reader permission to not fully grasp it all. “This book is intended for all ages,” says the preface. “If you don’t understand everything, don’t worry, no one does!”

Amazing what a powerful sentence that is.
bang2In other good news, it’s available FREE as a PDF direct from the author (email him here) or in a low-res version on his website. You can also download the e-book for $5 from his site or get the physical book for just ten bucks. (It’s also on Amazon for $15. Don’t buy it there, but if you like it, drop in and write a nice review.)

Secular parent survey results!

To help set the course for our parent community program, Foundation Beyond Belief conducted a survey of nontheistic parents in February of this year—the first of its kind, as far as we can tell. The survey was unscientific (e.g. subjects were self-selected and the survey was advertised on websites that skew in the direction of organized secularism), as is the following analysis. But the project has given us a fascinating and sometimes surprising window into the world of secular parenting.

A total of 1740 people completed the survey, including secular parents in 49 U.S. states (87% of total respondents), 10 Canadian provinces (6%), and 19 other countries (7%).

Respondents were primarily women (60/40)—interesting because organized freethought skews heavily male. Most respondents are raising 1-2 children (38 and 39%, respectively), most are in a two-parent home (89%), and the largest percentage (39.4%) are in a big city suburb.

The largest percentage of respondents (27.4%) report that they themselves were raised in a mainline Protestant denomination, followed closely by Catholic (24.3%) and a poetic tie between atheist and evangelical (11.6% each). These numbers are somewhat muddied by the fact that of the 23% of respondents who checked “Other,” about half listed a denomination that fit one of the listed categories. That’s what an unscientific survey design will get you.

Of those in mixed worldview marriages, 47.8% report very little tension between the parents over issues of parenting and religion, and 41.1% report some tension and occasional issues. Just 6.7% reported frequent issues and 4.4% experience significant, severe conflict over parenting and religion.

I was surprised and pleased to see that only 11 percent of mixed secular/religious marriages in the survey seem to be grappling with these issues on a frequent or severe basis. It’s no less troubling for those people, of course, but as the Foundation develops its parent support program, we can be more effective and efficient in offering solutions if we know the extent of the problem.

The next question also produced something of a surprise to me:

Just over a quarter of respondents (25.5%) report an extended family that is moderate to intense in its religiosity. My surprise is partly an artifact of reportage—the vast majority of my own correspondence and contact with secular parents comes from those in a deeply religious extended family.

Over a third of respondents (35.2%) are in an extended family that ranges from secular to mildly religious, while the largest proportion (39.2%) are in a situation of significant variety, either split along two or more sides of the extended family or scrambled up within the whole.

I think this can be an ideal situation for raising kids who genuinely think for themselves. If your extended family is too uniform (either strictly religious or strictly secular), a parent has to expend more effort to be sure other points of view are represented. When my wife Becca, a fairly conventional Christian believer for most of our marriage, came to self-identify as a secular humanist, it eliminated what small tensions we had over those questions but also deprived us of what had been a handy safety valve against unintended indoctrination. Fortunately we still have a variety of views in the extended family to provide that diversity.

Fewer than half of respondents report significant religious pressure or indoctrination directed at their kids. Family members, unsurprisingly, are the source of most pressure from those who do report it:

(Totals exceed 100% because respondents were free to choose more than one source of pressure.)

And what’s the pressure about? You can probably guess:

How do secular parents expose their kids to religion?

Another question asked about the parent’s feelings about his or her child’s eventual worldview. I’ve often said that it seemed to me that most secular parents are genuinely committed to raising their kids to make their own choices, and the survey seemed to bear this out. Even most of those who hope their kids choose atheism affirm a desire that the choice be their children’s own:

(Complete purple question, which was very carefully worded: “The choice is theirs, and though some religious identities would make me heartsick, others would be fine”)

Finally, two related questions that are of central importance as we build the Foundation’s secular parent support program:

The greatest need of nontheistic parents by far seems to be simply finding and connecting with other nontheistic parents. This result was profoundly influential for the Foundation. It became clear that our original plan to train seminar leaders would not meet the most common need. What is needed is ongoing support for local groups that can help remove the crushing sense of isolation that so many secular parents feel. What’s needed is not a lecture but an opportunity to socialize, to mingle, to informally share experiences and ideas—to simply be with other parents who are raising their kids with the same challenges and opportunities.

Best of all, nearly 1,000 respondents expressed an interest in being contacted if a secular parenting group formed in their area, and nearly a third of these were willing to help start such groups. Ute Mitchell, our parent community coordinator, is currently using the contact data from the survey to help form groups in the ten U.S. states with the most survey respondents (some obviously the result of higher population):

…after which we’ll continue with other states and provinces SOON. We’re also continuing to build the parent resource section of the Foundation website, which will launch in the coming weeks.

Thanks again to all participants! More surveys to come.

Foundation Beyond Belief in NYT

Atheists’ Collection Plate, With Religious Inspiration

ALPHARETTA, Ga. –– Four or five Sundays in 2005, his own atheism notwithstanding, Dale McGowan took his family into the neo-Gothic grandeur of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis on a kind of skeptic’s field trip.

Mr. McGowan went because he wanted his three young children to have “religious literacy.” He went because his mother-in-law, Barbara Maples, belonged to the congregation. He went because, as a college professor with a fondness for weekend sweatpants, church gave him the rare chance to wear the ties she invariably gave him for his birthday.

Something else began to strike Mr. McGowan on those visits. He listened to the vicar preach about ministering to the poor, and he learned that the cathedral helped to sponsor a weekly dinner for the homeless. Most importantly, he watched as the collection plate moved through the pews and as his mother-in-law, who volunteered at those dinners, dropped in her offering.

All those details added up to a nonbeliever’s revelation. The theology and the voluntarism and the philanthropy, Mr. McGowan came to realize, were part of a greater whole, a commitment to charity as part of religious practice. And on that practice, this atheist felt lacking. To put it in church slang, he was convicted.

Rather than adopt faith, however, Mr. McGowan set out to emulate it, or at least its culture of giving. He set out to, in effect, create the atheist’s collection plate. By now, five years later, that impulse has taken the form of a nonprofit foundation that solicits donations from atheists and bundles them into contributions to organizations in fields like public health, environmentalism, gay rights and refugee aid.

Within the next week or so, Mr. McGowan expects to cut checks for a total of $12,025, the first benefits collected and disbursed by the Foundation Beyond Belief.

Read the full article

Interesting times

itMay you come to the attention of those in authority
May you find what you are looking for
May you live in interesting times

Three (alleged) Chinese curses

Life is a bit too interesting at the moment. Since some of it relates to my books and other things of potential interest here, I’d like to file a brief report.

Foundation Beyond Belief ended its first quarter after raising $12,500 for charities and started its second with a brilliant new slate of beneficiaries. An extensive article about the Foundation is scheduled to appear in the New York Times this Saturday and another in the Chronicle of Philanthropy next week.

I submitted the final draft of my self-published second novel this week and learned that a (frankly) wonderful book I was planning about Radiolab will not go forward after all. I am trying desperately to finish my long-promised sixth video for the PBB Channel on YouTube, preparing for a seminar in Albuquerque, and co-teaching an online course on humanism for the Center for Inquiry this month.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned that my gall bladder has resigned in disgust and that steps must be taken to evict it from the premises, and soon. And we are planning to shortly make an offer on a house.

It’s all a bit much. But aside from the gall bladder and the dead Radiolab book, it’s good. Just know that posts will continue to be sporadic until I can clear this deck a bit.