Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Ariadne’s threads [greatest hits]

delaney[Still in reruns. First appeared Sept 17, 2007.]

I was seeing my girls off to sleep Sunday night when suddenly, without warning, the Bronze Age broke loose.

It was one of those breath-holding parenting moments when you can’t believe your luck at being there to capture it. Delaney [then 5] announced that she had made up a myth of her own. For some reason I had the presence of mind to grab my laptop and transcribe as she spoke. Read it, then we’ll chat:

The Wall of Parvati

There was a girl named Medusa. And she knew this wall, a big wall, and she hated it. So one day, she sailed off in a boat with her sharpest sword and she went to that wall. When she got there, she took out her sword and destroyed the whole wall.

The god Parvati was watching her, the god of destroying, because it was her wall. So when Medusa left the wall, Parvati made the wall grow back up. When Medusa found out that it grew back up, she sailed off in her boat again, and when she got there, she cut the wall down again.

Parvati saw this happen (she’s an Egyptian), and when Medusa was gone again, she sent two of her Egyptian gods down to that wall and they made the wall grow again.

When Medusa heard about that, she didn’t want to come out in her boat again, so she put out one of her fastest snakes and made it slither to the wall. The snake used its very sharp tail to whip down the wall. But he couldn’t because the two gods were still there. He whipped the gods with his tail, and the poison went straight into them and they fell asleep, and then the snake whipped his tail against every piece of that wall and slithered back to Medusa.

Before I yak this to death, let me repaste her myth with elements cross-referenced to the myths Laney has heard as bedtime stories in recent weeks:

The Wall of Parvati1

There was a girl named Medusa.2 And she knew this wall, a big wall,3 and she hated it. So one day, she sailed off in a boat4 with her sharpest sword5 and she went to that wall. When she got there, she took out her sword and destroyed the whole wall.

The god Parvati was watching her, the god of destroying,6 because it was her wall. So when Medusa left the wall, Parvati made the wall grow back up. When Medusa found out that it grew back up, she sailed off in her boat again, and when she got there, she cut the wall down again.

Parvati saw this happen (she’s an Egyptian),7 and when Medusa was gone again, she sent two of her Egyptian gods8 down to that wall and they made the wall grow again.

When Medusa heard about that, she didn’t want to come out in her boat again, so she put out one of her fastest snakes9 and made it slither to the wall. The snake used its very sharp tail to whip down the wall. But he couldn’t because the two gods were still there. He whipped the gods with his tail, and the poison went straight into them and they fell asleep,10 and then the snake whipped his tail against every piece of that wall and slithered back to Medusa.

1 She knows Parvati from Ganapati Circles the World (Hindu). Parvati is the consort of Shiva and mother of Ganapati (aka Ganesha or Ganesh). Parvati’s also a Gryffindor, of course.
2 From Perseus and Medusa (Greek).
3 The Iliad (Greek). Much is made of the hated wall around Troy in this excellent retelling for grades 2-4.
4 Several of our recent myths included sailing quests — The Golden Fleece, The Iliad, The Odyssey (Greek).
5 Perseus killed Medusa with the infinitely sharp adamantine sword of Hermes (Greek).
6 Shiva’s pro-wrestling name is “The Destroyer.”
7 No idea. We haven’t done any Egyptian myths yet. The Disney flick Prince of Egypt, maybe?
8 This has been a theme in several of the myths we’ve read lately — the sending of surrogates on tasks — including Cupid and Psyche (Greek) and Proserpine and Pluto (Roman).
9 We’ve encountered two magical snakes recently: in the Garden of Eden (Judaic) and in the Sioux myth of the three transformed brothers. And Medusa has snakes for hair, of course, so maybe she plucked one out and sent it on a mission.
10 A jealous Venus tricked Psyche into inhaling a sleeping draught (Roman).

In that context, maybe you can see why I was all agog. My five-year-old daughter had constructed a syncretic midrash.

Midrash is a process by which new interpretations are laid on old legends or scriptures, and/or new stories are synthesized out of elements of older ones, usually for the purpose of instruction. Though early Jews freaked about syncretism across party lines–don’t make me link to the golden calf!–the construction of fictional midrash from within Judaic sources is recognized as a vital part of Jewish teaching.

In The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty argues that the gospel of Mark was just such a midrash, and that “Mark” did not mean it to be taken as literal fact any more than Delaney did. It was a teaching fiction.

But Laney’s work more closely resembles a deeper kind of mythmaking, one common in the Mediterranean Bronze Age and beyond: the syncretic merging of elements from different belief systems into something new and useful. There is much to suggest that the later character of Jesus is such a syncretic construct, sharing as he does the heroic attributes and biographical details of such earlier mythic figures as Mithras (born on Dec 25, mother a virgin, father the sky-god, 12 disciples, entombed in rock, rose on third day, etc), Krishna, Osiris, Tammuz, and countless others.

A fascinating tangent, believe you me, but I’ll never find my way out if I start with that.

So ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures spun new tapestries from the threads of religions all around them. Now here’s a 21st century kindergartener doing the same thing. Makes you think we’re onto something fundamentally human.

If we’d exposed Delaney to just one culture, one religion, she could be forgiven for imagining a no-kidding god on the other end of that one dazzling thread. By instead following a hundred threads, she realizes there are just lots of people on the other end — just plain folks, like Delaney — each of them spinning something lovely and new from the old threads they picked up. Follow enough of those threads and you find yourself outside the labyrinth of religious belief entirely, blinking in the sun.

delaneyThe thing that left me most awestruck is that she even thought of mythmaking as a thing she could do. Picture a Sunday School kid making up his own bible story. Even though that’s just how Matthew and Luke were elaborated out of Mark, once the 4th century bishops weighed in and made it “gospel,” further creative energies have more often than not been (shall we say) discouraged. With rare but notable exceptions, we are now receivers of that written tradition, not co-creators. That’s why the experience of hearing Delaney spin her tale moved me so deeply. She recognizes other human hands in the spinning of the mythic tapestry — so why not add her own?

The Relaxed Parent Film Festival [greatest hits]

[Continuing the reruns during my busy weeks. This one first appeared on May 23, 2007, so adjust ages etc. accordingly.]

Our Friday night tradition started sometime last year. Every Friday we get a pizza the size of a Buick and a family movie.

By family movie, I don’t mean “family movie.” I mean a movie that our whole family watches together, which believe you me is not often the same thing. And here’s where it gets interesting. It’s my job each week to choose the film. Here’s the audience:

MALE, 44, WRITER. Enjoys philosophical themes; unpredictable, non-linear narratives; line-crossing humor.
FEMALE, 41, EDUCATOR. Enjoys chick-flicks, ro-coms, foreign films. Has never seen a movie without crying.
MALE, 11. Enjoys science fiction, sports, fantasy, adventure. Hates everything he loved at ages nine and five.
FEMALE, 9. Enjoys character-driven dramas and comedies. Gets lost in non-linear narratives, requiring frequent paternal trips to the pause button.
FEMALE, 5. Enjoys an amazingly wide range of flicks, from Pokemon to war movies to comedies to space epics. Can’t read, so captions are out. Hides eyes whenever the music turns minor.

(As of this reposting, we are 47, 44, 14, 12, and 8. The 14-year-old now hates everything he loved at 11, and the 8-year-old reads better than I do, but still hides eyes when the music says to.)

Okay now…find us a movie.

When it comes to parental concerns on movie night, our guidelines might strike some as reckless. I prefer the word relaxed. And that relaxation is a good fit with our worldview.


Conservative religious denominations often teach that humankind is inherently sinful — that beneath a thin veneer of civility lurks a boiling depravity, just itching to stretch its legs. We must erect all sorts of protections and precautions to avoid opening the floodgates, lest we crack each others’ heads open to feast on the goo inside.

Not a Veneerist myself. Though we humans do occasionally screw things up rather royally, most of the time most of us behave well, especially if we feel loved and supported by those around us. It’s yet another gift of evolution. Populations with a tendency toward self-destruction would quickly lose the selective advantage to cooperative ones. The outlook that my kids are evolutionarily inclined to be good changes almost EVERYTHING about my parenting, especially compared to those who see their kids as simmering pots of potential felony and monitoring the flames beneath them as the most urgent parental task. It allows me, among other things, to focus on drawing them out instead of beating them in.

I don’t have to psychotically protect my children from scratches to their protective layer. I want to immerse them in the colors and contrasts and confusions of the world — gradually, yes, but definitely. I believe this fearless approach is ending us up with some pretty remarkable, multifaceted, complex, wonderful kids. You should meet them. I think you’d agree. So, dinner on Thursday, then?

I once had a student, a college freshman, who had never seen a non-Disney movie. It was the standard her parents had developed to protect her from certain ideas, images, and themes — call them “colors” — that could have scratched her veneer, damaging the porcelain doll beneath, or worse yet, letting loose the she-wolf within.


As a result, she hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. She hadn’t seen E.T. Is there a Disney film that deals with the longing for home as beautifully as those two?

Since we began our movie tradition about forty Fridays ago, my kids have been exposed to a fantastic variety of themes and ideas, cultural touchpoints they refer to over and over. Yes, we’ve seen Flicka and Flipper, Over the Hedge, Little Manhattan and The Karate Kid. But then there are these:

Pleasantville • Edward Scissorhands • Cool Hand Luke • The Great Escape • Jesus Christ Superstar • Rain Man • Big Fish • Empire of the Sun • Life of Brian • Groundhog Day • Walking with Cavemen • South Pacific • Raising Arizona • Intimate Universe • The Truman Show • Walking with Dinosaurs • The Pursuit of Happyness • Stranger than Fiction • I, Robot • About a Boy • Brian’s Song • Parenthood • Bridge on the River Kwai

In addition to the Gs and PGs, they’ve seen plenty of PG-13s, and a few carefully-chosen Rs (like Rain Man). That means once in a while our kids hear a good solid swear or a reference to actual human sexuality, and have somehow avoided the plunge into foul-mouthed promiscuity.

I think this kind of low-key, normalized exposure makes it less likely they’ll gravitate toward these behaviors. If instead we hide these things, we make them powerful, attractive…forbidden fruit. When a Veneerist jumps for the remote at the first deep kiss or angry curse, he underlines the message that something truly magical is afoot.

Readers who tend toward Veneerism will naturally suppose that I’m advocating porn and slasher marathons for toddlers. Non-Veneerists know there’s something between Little House on the Prairie and Debbie Does Dallas — a great big juicy wonderful and textured middle. My kids have been there, and they’re all the richer for it.

TSIn less than a year, the five of us have explored the importance of honesty (About a Boy, Liar Liar), felt deep compassion and empathy (Brian’s Song, Pursuit of Happyness), learned to care deeply about those who are different (Rain Man, Edward Scissorhands), admired courage and perseverance (Empire of the Sun, The Great Escape), contemplated the meaning of humanness (I, Robot), challenged smiling conformity (Pleasantville, Life of Brian, Big Fish) and questioned our assumptions about reality itself (The Truman Show, Stranger than Fiction, Groundhog Day, Big Fish). We even stood with Judas as he took Jesus to task for neglecting the less fortunate as he pursued his own fame (Jesus Christ Superstar), traced our origins (Walking With Cavemen) and learned never, ever to build a bridge for the enemy, even if your craftsmanship makes you proud (Bridge on the River Kwai). Can’t tell you how many times that lesson has come in handy.

My kids have cried with empathy for people who initially scared them.


Most important of all, they’ve learned that a man really can eat fifty eggs.

50 eggs

Yes, fine, Charlie Babbitt [Tom Cruise] says “fuck” about a dozen times in Rain Man. He does so because he’s an arrogant, selfish jerk — and arrogant, selfish jerks don’t say “boogers” when they’re mad. My kids didn’t want to be like Charlie Babbitt, so why would they emulate his language? Instead, they marveled at how his selfishness slowly transformed into first tolerance, then selfless love for his brother — something underlined by his changing use of the full palette of the English language.


About the tenth time Charlie cussed, Erin shot me a look and said, “Boy, you can tell what kind of person he is.” She had a chance to handle it, process it, and put it in perspective in our living room rather than on the schoolbus.

Best of all, they’re developing a taste for the unique, the creative, and the offbeat, for imaginative narratives and complex visions of the world.

Sure, sometimes I cringe and leap to the remote when a scene heads a little further than we’d expected. But it’s worth the risk. So next time you’re thinking about a film for the whole family, reach beyond G and PG. Let them engage the messy, fascinating world out there while you’re in the living room with them. They can handle more than we give them credit for.

Words fail me [greatest hits]

Six busy weeks coming up, including a week unplugged at the beach, a speech to the UU General Assembly in Minneapolis, a visit to Camp Inquiry in New York, and moving. Rather than let the blog grow all weedy, I’ll run a few of my own favorite posts from long ago.

Words Fail Me
First appeared Sept 28, 2007

woody and diane

Love is too weak a word for what I feel – I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you.
WOODY ALLEN in Annie Hall

I was born in the Sixties. My first two kids were born in the Nineties. But try to name the decade my youngest was born in, the one we’re in at the moment, and you’re left muttering clunkers like “the first decade of the twenty-first century,” or sounding like Grandpa Simpson by referring to the “aughts.” It’s called a lexical gap, a concept for which a given language lacks a concise label. German is said to lack a precise word for a person’s “chest,” while English speakers are left speechless when it comes to Fahrvergnügen.

When I first heard Alvy Singer struggling to express his feelings for Annie Hall, I thought it was just for laughs. But I’ve begun to struggle in recent years with precisely the same lexical gap — so much so that I’ve almost entirely stopped telling my wife and children that I love them.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The problem is the overuse of what was once, I suspect, a more sparingly-used, and therefore more powerful, word. The fact that Paul McCartney’s only response to the problem of “silly love songs” was to sing the phrase “I love you” fifteen times in three minutes seems to prove my point.

As a result of using “love” to express our feelings about everything from self-indulgence (“I love sleeping in on Sunday”) to food (“I love Taco Bell’s new Pizzaburgerrito”), I find the word “love” now entirely inadequate to describe the feeling engendered in me by my wife and kids. I don’t love them. I luuurve them.

No no, come back. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic. I’m zeroing in on a practical, lexical problem, that’s all.


impressive clergyman

Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togevah today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam wifin a dweam. And wuv, twu wuv, wiw fowwow you, fowevah.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN from The Princess Bride

Whenever I think of the reasons I luuurve my wife, I recall an event I attended two years ago — a debate between an atheist and a theist. I described the scene in PBB (pp. 96-7):

When the discussion turned to morality, [the theist] said something I will never forget. “We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,” he said. “If not for the seventh commandment…” He pointed to his wife in the front row. “…there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!”

His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.

I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?

Not love?

How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn’t want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don’t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone?

I first dated Becca because of conditional things. Non-transcendent things. Had she not been so unbearably attractive to me, had she not had the most appealing personality of anyone I knew, had she not been so funny and smart and levelheaded, I wouldn’t have flipped over her like I did. It may sound off to say it this way, but she fulfilled the conditions for the relationship I wanted, and I, thank Vishnu, did the same for her. I asked her to marry me in large part because of these not inconsiderable things.

But then, the moment I asked her to marry me, something considerably more transcendent began to happen between us. She said yes — and I was instantly struck dumb by the power of it. This splendid person was willing to commit herself to me for the remainder of her one and only life.

Holy (though I try to keep this blog free of both these words) shit.

bexNo, I am not waxing, dammit, I am making a point. We were moving into the unconditional, you see. She had moved from being one of the many attractive, magnetic, funny, smart people I knew to The One Such Person Who Committed to Me. See the difference? And then, once she actually took three small packets of my DNA and used them to knit children — well, at that point, it became hard to look at her without bursting into song. I’m still not over it. What was a strong but technically conditional love moved decisively into unconditional luuurve.

So yes, there are things beyond the seventh commandment that keep me from cheating on my wife. Like the hilarity I feel at the thought of finding any other woman with any amount of those conditionals more attractive.

As for the children…

You’re an atheist? So then…you think your children are…just a bunch of…processes?
JEHOVAH’S WITNESS at my door last year

Last week a radio interviewer asked about my kids, with mild facetiousness: “So how about your own kids? Good kids, ya love ’em and everything?” In addition to the pure silliness of answering such a question, I fell head-first into that lexical gap once again — and the resulting three seconds of dead air probably did me no favors with the audience. I finally sputtered something about them being amazing kids, terrific kids, but it fell short, as it always does, of my real feelings.

I don’t make up for this lexical gap with the kids by telling them I luuurve them. Instead, almost every single day, I tell them, “I do not love you.” And they smile and say, “Oh yes you do!” — and all is understood.

kidsThey know in a thousand ways that I am transported by being their dad. They’ve become accustomed, for example, to the sudden realization that Dad is staring again. They’ll get that prickly feeling and turn to see me lost in a contemplative gawk. They’re very good about it, usually returning a smile rather than a roll of the eyes, which I think is very nice of them.

Recognizing that the love of our children is rooted in part in biology — that I am, in part, adaptively fond of them — does not diminish the way I’m transported by contemplating the fact of them, and of our special connection, of their uniqueness, and of the generational passing of the torch.

But it’s interesting to note that, unlike my relationship with Becca, this meditative gawking began on day one. The order of things is reversed. My marriage started in the conditional and added the unconditional. I loved her from the beginning, but only slowly came to be so completely slain by her.

Kids, on the other hand, begin in the unconditional and add the conditional. From the moment they emerged from my wife — seriously, reflect on that for a moment — they were unconditionally wonderful to me. They were half me and half she. They were our connection to the future. Etc.

Gradually we formed additional bonds based on their actual attributes. They are smart as whips, wickedly funny, generous and kind and fun to be around. But that’s all frosting on an unconditional cake. Marriage, on the other hand — if it goes well — starts with frosting and gradually slips the cake underneath.

So yes, my kids are “processes,” whatever that means, and so is my wife. But they are also the main reasons I wake up grateful and filled with meaning and purpose every single day.

(Wax off.)

An EPIPHENOMenal blog


Ever wonder what college majors lead to the greatest decline in religiosity? (It’s not what you think.)
Does anxiety and insecurity lead to religion?
Why does Mormonism transplant so well overseas?
Do religious prompts increase racism?
Are relatively atheistic nations always healthier and happier?
Why are atheists more intelligent on average? (Again, not what you think.)
Did religion help create complex societies?
What kind of human stampede kills more people each year—sport-related, political, or religious?

And the question on everyone’s mind: What part did fornicating farm girls play in the rapid secularization of Britain?

This will be a short post. I’ve discovered a blog so fascinating and engaging that every blathering, pointless key stroke I add to the Internet now fills me with self-loathing.

Epiphenom: the science of religion and non-belief is a humanist blog that speaks my language. Its author is Tom Rees, a British medical writer and co-founding member of Humanists4Science. The blog consists of smart, engaging commentary on the intersection of science and religious belief /non-belief. And it has me nursing on my monitor in a way that must surely void the warranty.

So go. Turn away from my ridiculous parody of a blog. I’ve wasted enough of your time. Click on any link above and say hello to Tom.