Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Sleep tight

JasyjatereMy kids got addicted to myths early on. It’s the best way into comparative religion, which is the best way out of the clutches of any one brand.

We blew through the Greco-Romans in a few weeks, and I started reaching into dozens of other traditions. Eventually we ran out of gods, and it was time for monsters.

In the forest of eastern Paraguay, the Guarani people have a belief system with several elements that sound vaguely familiar. There’s a creator god in the sky (Tupa) who created the first couple (Rupave and Sypave). One of the first gifts of Tupa to his new creations was the knowledge of good and evil. As is usually the case, the Guarani consider themselves to be the first people created and therefore special in the eyes of the god, and they believe humanity quickly bungled this special relationship. Representing evil is a devil of sorts named Tau. Tupa, for reasons far beyond mortal understanding, decided to leave Tau on Earth to mess with humanity.

Guarani belief also has its unique features, one of which is the seven legendary monsters, each with its own domain. One is the god of caverns and fruits—I don’t understand how those go together, but I’ll bet the Guarani do. Another is the god of open fields. Others are the gods of sex, mountains, waterways, and death.

The last of the seven is Jasy Jateré [YAH-soo yah-teh-DAY]. Unlike his six siblings, who are reptiles and monsters of various kinds, Jasy is a little boy with shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes. He is lord of the siesta.

Kids raised in traditional Guarani homes may forget many things about their upbringing, but they always remember Jasy Jateré. Perhaps you’ll understand why. Jasy is said to wander villages at siesta time in search of children who are not asleep. Though invisible as he stalks his prey, he suddenly becomes visible at the bedside of a child who is awake and puts her into a trance with his magic staff. Jasy then leads a procession of hypnotized children to a cave in the forest, where he blinds them with thorns and feeds them to his brother Ao Ao, a cannibalistic sheep-man.

Nice touch.

It’s no surprise that at least one short, blond, blue-eyed visitor to eastern Paraguay reported being pelted with grapefruit by screaming children.

Now at first blush, the legend of Jasy Jateré just doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing more futile than trying to will yourself to sleep, especially during the day. Now add the self-defeating notion of terrifying a child to sleep, and the tale of Jasy Jateré begins to seem cruel and perverse.

And it would be—IF the point was really getting the child to sleep. But it isn’t. The actual intention is not to enforce the nap but to keep children from wandering out of their beds into the very real dangers of the rainforest as their parents sleep. A daily dose of psychic terror is thought to be better than the fate that awaits a child lost and alone in the forest.

It’s easy for me, sipping my latte in a North American subdivision, to say that nothing justifies immersing our children in this kind of terror. But I have to admit that I have any number of ways of keeping my kids safe while they nap, like locking our doors and living 4000 miles from the nearest wild pit viper. Our neighborhood has very few crocodiles and many, many lawyers. If my child is bitten by either one, there’s a hospital four minutes away.

I can only imagine to what lengths I would go to protect my kids from very real, very fatal risks. In the end, I think such warning legends say less about our cruelty than they do about the tendency of natural selection to favor the genes of those who will do anything and everything to protect their children.

At any rate, my kids ate Jasy Jateré up and begged for more monsters. I’ll bring them here in later posts.

Shorter, more often

I need to change my approach here. Damn good topics are piling up in my draft box. If I do my usual weekly 1K, they’ll all be stale by the time I get to them. So I’m going to more of a 400-word norm for a while, twice a week, with the odd novella.

Next time:

“Weird Science.” The Great Karmic Wheel threatens to run Dale over. The very same day he posts about good and bad teaching in Georgia science classrooms, his son comes home with bad news about his current high school science teacher! Hilarity ensues when Dale’s usually live-and-let-live wife insists that he “do something!” He knows she’s right, but what to do? Great fun for the whole family. TV14: PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED (Sex, Language, Bad Science)

A tale of two (Southern) teachers

Warning label formerly in biology textbooks, Cobb County GA.
Two lovely sentences bookending a howler. Gone as of 2006.

The teacher was young, hip, and hugely popular with the kids in her Georgia public middle school, a talented teacher in many ways. Everybody wanted Miss Reynolds for seventh grade science.

“You may have noticed in your syllabus that we’re talking about evolution today,” she began one day, a few weeks in. “Now,” she said — I picture the palms out, eyes closed, head cocked, the posture of assured commiseration — “I know this is a controversial thing. But I want you to understand that this is just a theory. There are lots of other theories too. This is just one guy’s idea. M’kay?”


My son Connor was in the class. He was raised on the wonder of natural selection and sees the implications of it everywhere. He felt a bit betrayed to hear a teacher he really liked giving evolution the “just a theory” treatment.

It wasn’t for long. Within days, she was on to something else.

This, it turns out, is standard operating procedure in US classrooms. A NYT article written around the time of the Kitzmiller trial noted that even if evolution is in the curriculum, science teachers nationwide generally downplay, gloss over, or completely ignore it.

Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers in Birmingham, Alabama recently when he met a young woman who had just begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the state. Their conversation turned to evolution.

“She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she’d get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it,” he recalled. “She told me other teachers were doing the same thing.”

Dr. Gerald Wheeler, a physicist who heads the National Science Teachers Association, said many members of his organization “fly under the radar” of fundamentalists by introducing evolution as controversial, which scientifically it is not, or by noting that many people do not accept it, caveats not normally offered for other parts of the science curriculum.

It isn’t usually the beliefs of the teacher that screw things up but a desire to sidestep a firestorm from parents. And though opposition is almost entirely religious parents, not all religious parents are opposed. In fact, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education has observed that it’s a non-issue in Catholic schools — at least since John Paul II gave the infallible okie-doke in 1996.

Last year Connor was a freshman in high school and hit Life Sciences and evolution again. Once again it was a teacher he really liked, an affable coach who taught science brilliantly as well. But once again, Connor knew the odds of a strong presentation were not good.

Sure enough, on the first day of the evolution unit, Coach Davis strode to the front of the room, cleared his throat, and said: “Today we’re starting the unit on evolution. Evolution, as you know, is just a theory.”

I can just picture my boy’s eyes, the only part of his face that betrays his feelings when he’s holding the lid on tight.

The teacher paused. “Now,” he continued, “let me tell you what the word ‘theory’ actually means.”


Connor described it to me with obvious relief. “He said a theory is something that explains what facts mean, and that ‘theory’ doesn’t mean something is just a guess. He said there are strong theories and weak theories, and that evolution is one of the strongest in science. He said that gravity is a theory, but it doesn’t mean we’re not sure about gravity. It was awesome.”

According to the ongoing Fordham Foundation studies of science education, it’s not strictly a North/South thing:


But even that map reflects only the quality of state science standards. What happens in the classroom is anybody’s guess. Miss Reynolds and Coach Davis are three miles apart in a state with the highest grade in science standards, yet one of them is hitting it out of the park while the other settles for a bunt. One thing is for sure — by presenting evolution intelligently and in depth, my son’s more recent Southern science teacher is doing better than many of his counterparts, even at the higher latitudes.

It’s not about the defense of the concept for Connor. It mostly just pains him to hear people he likes and respects, and who should know better, saying dumb things. I’ve seen him flash the same disappointed face at me. And half the time he’s right.

Hopefully we’ll both carry away another lesson, something Kurt Vonnegut once said. Considering what a mess of nonsense and bad wiring we are, I don’t get too depressed anymore by the dumb things we say and do. That’s normal. Instead, I’m mostly gratified that we ever get ANYTHING right.

And we do, despite ourselves. Despite the fact that evolution so decisively dethrones us, that it so deflates our mighty self-importance, we still figured it out, and we’re still passing it on. Incompletely and inelegantly, yes. But given the sorry way evolution actually threw us together, I say woohoo.

Evolutionary awesomeness for kids at Charlie’s Playhouse

Give Phil Plait 31 minutes

Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion there as well. Persuasion isn’t always, “Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,” but, “Here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind,” and it’s the facts plus the sensitivity, which convolved together, create impact. — Neil deGrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins, 2006

You’re a busy person. But Phil Plait needs 31 minutes of your time.

Phil (of Bad Astronomy) gave a talk at TAM8 in July that is one of the most important and resonant messages I’ve heard in ages. It’s about being heard.

It’s an obsession of mine lately, this topic. I tried to write a simple blog post about it last year and ended up instead writing 11,000 words in an eight-month series of posts called “Can You Hear Me Now?” The thrust of that series, and of Phil’s talk, is that content is all well and good, and argument is lovely, but it’s all for nothing if we don’t think about how to get ourselves heard. And when it matters most, we’d better think not just about how tight our arguments are, but how to stand any chance of having them received on the other end.

This isn’t just about religion. It’s also about politics, social issues, alternative medicine, the paranormal — everything people get hot and bothered about. Discourse is nothing more than shouting down a well if we merely compose zingers for the applause of our stablemates and fail to create a receptive mind in the listeners we hope to persuade.

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to this in a rebuke to Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief in 2006 (which Dawkins accepted with grace and good humor):

Tyson’s precise point is well-taken: “I felt you more than I heard you.” (Many other critiques of Dawkins, et al. are not, as I noted in 2007.)

Now Phil Plait has made a magnificent, deeply personal, effective and well-titled plea along the same lines. Please set aside 31 minutes at the end of your busy day to hear what he says.

But also note what he does NOT say. He doesn’t say that being heard requires us to respect the unrespectable, or bury our passion, or deny our convictions. He’s not calling for a moratorium on religious satire or political outrage, or I’d tell him to bugger off. I intend to continue treating ideas themselves with whatever respect or contempt they earn. But when it comes to discourse with our fellow mammals, the Tyson Equation nails it: facts plus sensitivity equals impact.

I’ve said too much. Take it Phil.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Help bring IT’S ALIVE! to life

bangcoverRemember BANG! The Universe Verse, the brilliantly conceived and illustrated comic book I blogged about in April, the one with the cartoon Einstein explaining the origin and development of the universe in verse? ‘Member?

Well a sequel is on its way. And to bring it to life, series creator Jamie Lu Dunbar needs a little help from his friends.

Jamie isn’t backed by a powerful international consortium of science comics moguls. He creates and publishes these beautiful things himself. And to make the second volume everything it needs to be, he needs a bit of venture capital.

Volume 1 was gorgeously illustrated in black and white. The setting was space, so that worked out just fine. But the second in the series, titled IT’S ALIVE!, is about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, so it’s crying out for full color. And producing spectacular four-color illustrations will require a wee upgrade in Jamie’s technology.

That’s where we come in. Jamie has set up a Kickstarter website with a five-minute video making his case and a button where we can chip in to help him create life. (If Jehovah had had a Kickstarter drive behind him, he might have managed a better design.)

Here’s the kicker: If Jamie raises the $5000 he needs, he will make the second book available as a free pdf on his website, just as he did for the first. He’s about a third of the way there. (Note: The Kickstarter site shows his goal as $1000. As Jamie’s text explains, that was only the first phase. The total needed is $5K, and we can help him get there, $5 and $10 and $20 at a time.)

Jamie’s work is clever and accessible and accurate and great fun. So let’s click through and help spark that primordial soup!

Progress on corporal punishment?

cpThe possibility of a comprehensive ban on corporal punishment in U.S. schools has the issue back in the spotlight where it belongs.

I wrote about corporal punishment quite a bit in 2007 and 2008, noting among other things that I once spanked my kids. Though seldom and long ago, I’m still aghast and ashamed in the face of the evidence against it — evidence that made me stop on a dime.

A quick rehash of those thoughts before we look at the new developments:

Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, that parent is saying You cannot be reasoned with. In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more confidence in the former than in the latter.

A second failure is equally damning. Spanking doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse. A meta-analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies compiled by Elizabeth Gershoff at Columbia found that ten negative outcomes are strongly correlated with spanking, including a damaged parent-child relationship, increased antisocial and aggressive behaviors, and the increased likelihood that the spanked child will physically abuse her/his own children. The study revealed just one positive correlation: immediate compliance. That’s all. So if you need your kids to behave in the moment but don’t care much about the rest of the moments in their lives–hey, don’t spare the rod!

(From “Reason vs. the Rod,” Humanist Parenting column, Oct 17, 2007)

I later addressed the well-meaning but false claim that the Bible’s reference to using “the rod” is about guidance, not beatings, and linked to a very nice piece by a Christian parent who decided not to spank her children and gave the reasons why.

Still, influential Christian parenting author James Dobson is one of several voices on the religious right continuing to applaud the practice. In his book The New Dare to Discipline, Dobson writes that “Spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears” (p. 35). He recommends painful squeezing of the trapezius muscle on the neck to obtain “instant obedience” (36) and using paddles to hit children as young as 18 months old. He advises parents to hit a toddler whenever he “hits his friends” (66), and if a child cries more than a few minutes after being spanked, Dobson says, hit him again (70). “When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion,” he adds, “you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier” (6).

His advice frequently lapses into sneering contempt for the child. “You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it,” he says (p. 21). “Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here If you do not conclusively answer these questions for your strong-willed children, they will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again.”

Carefully avoiding reference to actual research, Dobson prefers to blame the media for the growing consensus against corporal punishment. “The American media has worked to convince the public that all spanking is tantamount to child abuse, and therefore, should be outlawed. If that occurs, it will be a sad day for families . . . and especially for children!”

We now return to the sane(r) world, currently in progress.

In Spring 2008, I was asked to draft a resolution on corporal punishment for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). On June 8, 2008, the resolution was passed unanimously by the General Assembly of the World Humanist Congress in Washington DC. Humanism now has a formal consensus position on this important issue, and I am honored to have been a part of that.

This year, on the heels of new research suggesting that regular spanking has a measurable negative affect on IQ, Congress is due to consider the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act this year. The proposal would “prohibit the Secretary of Education from providing education funding to any educational agency or institution that allows school personnel to inflict corporal punishment upon a student as a form of punishment or to modify undesirable behavior.”

mapThirty states currently ban corporal punishment in public schools. Only two of those ban the practice in private schools. Over 220,000 kids were subject to violent punishment in U.S. schools during the 2006-07 school year, with three states managing to do more than half of the total damage: Texas (49,100), Mississippi (38,100), and Alabama (33,700).

The federal act would ban the practice in all public and private schools that receive federal funds of any kind, which is virtually all.

The big news is the inclusion of religious schools in the ban. But despite recent warnings of pushback from that direction, there’s been very little. Though the practice was common just a generation ago, many religious schools have voluntarily joined public schools in abandoning corporal punishment abandoned hitting as a punishment. “Whether you believe it’s right or wrong, it’s just too big of a liability or legal issue,” said Tom Cathey, a legislative analyst for the Association of Christian Schools International, in a recent RNS article.

So we can and should oppose the undue influence of Dobson et al in the debate. At the same time, we should notice the quiet progress of the mainstream, both religious and secular, toward the obvious. It’s how most social progress happens.

[Hat tip to Secular Coalition for America for great work on this issue!]

-My Nov 2007 interview with Elizabeth Gershoff
-Learn about the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act, contact your representative
-Resources from Center for Effective Discipline (incl. alternatives to corp. punishment in schools)
-Dobson’s views fascinatingly juxtaposed with those of actual experts in the field

Pretty memes never die

praychildI remember it like it was yesterday. April 2007. Fox News announced that a sociologist in Mississippi had come out with a study on the benefits of religion for kids… (harp music and waaaavy lines…)

Religion Is Good for Kids” said the headline. I scanned the story for anything that might temper the triumphant certainty of that headline. The source was Fox News, whose fairness and balance are legendary, so I breathed a relieved sigh at the guaranteed absence of spin. “Religion” (everything from voodoo to Unitarianism, presumably) had been confirmed as “good” for “kids.”

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be less clear-cut.

I expected the study, authored by sociologist John Bartkowski, to show a correlation between membership in a religious community and certain positive outcomes for children. Other studies have explored this (though even the best studies are oversimplified in the media). The correlation has nothing to do with Jehovah, of course, but simply and unsurprisingly points to the benefits of raising kids in a cohesive and supportive community.

Takes a village, and all that.

Religious communities are just one way of achieving this, but they are indeed one way. I could easily see a well-conceived study coming to such a conclusion, then carefully defining what is meant by “religion, “good” and “kids,” noting that this is just one type of supportive community, that more research is needed, and all the other common earmarks of rigor and prudence.

bartBartkowski (author of The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men and Remaking the Godly Marriage) opens his article on the study with three admirable caveats: (1) The benefit is defined primarily by how well-behaved children are, (2) the data, based on parent and teacher interviews, are entirely subjective, and (3) the data were gathered from a survey conducted for a different purpose and from a cohort consisting almost entirely of first graders.

I consider the first to be the most damning. I want my kids to behave, but that’s sixth or seventh on the list behind many, many other qualities on my list of constituents of the good.

Having acknowledged these three caveats, Bartkowski largely disregards them. By the middle of the paper, he has declared that “the findings that emerge from the present investigation are robust and quite clear.”

In fact, the data are a bit too robust. The study’s data tables indicate that many variables other than religion show significant effects — some even greater than religion — but those go undiscussed in the study. Bartkowski cherry-picked religion and declared it the cause of the child’s “goodness” — a classic example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

Parenting Beyond Belief contributor Dr. Jean Mercer wrote a response to the Bartkowski piece at the time for the Institute for Humanist Studies. “Bartkowski acknowledged that the direction of causality (if any) was unclear… A study of this type is severely handicapped with respect to interpretation, making it impossible to conclude that one of the measured factors caused another.”

An argument could just as easily be made that cause and effect have been reversed — that the intention to raise compliant kids can lead to church attendance, not the other way around.

Dr. Mercer also considers the subjective data problematic. “It appears that there were no objective measures of child development employed. Instead, parental and teacher assessments of children’s emotional characteristics and ‘approaches to learning’ were analyzed.” Add to this the third element — that a cohort of first-graders represents all kids — and the study’s credibility falls to pieces.

“Membership in a religious group…may have functions similar to those of membership in secular groups such as the Sierra Club or a bowling team,” Mercer concludes. “The appropriate comparison may not involve religion, but the organization of family life around shared interests.”

Given the fatal flaws in the Bartkowski study, I’d suggest the evangelical leanings of the researcher colored his research design and skewed his conclusions, which were then lapped up by an eager Fox. At the very least, the headline should be reworded:

Study: Religion May Make Some First Graders Marginally Easier to Manage

Waaaavy lines…and we’re back in 2010, awakened by the sound of an email hitting the bottom of my inbox (“Have you seen this?”) with a link to an article from the Christian News Wire: “Religious Families Raise Better Children.”

Another study? Well, no. A gentleman by the name of David Beato has written a book testifying to the power of religion in his own life. Religion helped him through personal setbacks and tragedies (among them “deceptive family members who tried to ruin him”), and he suggests it will do the same for others. Fair enough. But to support his case, Beato dredged up none other than the weak Bartkowski study and sent press releases to the usual suspects declaring that “religious families raise better children.”

Hundreds of religious news outlets and church websites have now posted the claim.

“What the research suggests is what many of us have known all along,” Beato says in another release. And there’s the problem. Pretty memes never die. Most people most of the time will pass on claims that reinforce what they want to believe, no matter how weak the foundation. We are ALL prone to this. In most cases, once preference has spoken, no argumentative stake penetrates the heart of a pretty idea.

I usually accept this kind of unkillable thing without retort, and increasingly so as I age and become ever-less-convinced of the ability of argument to pierce the armor of confirmation bias. I know that the most effective response to (for example) the idea that you can’t be good without gods is not to whang on about the Euthyphro dilemma, but to be good without gods.

In this case, the resurrected idea that religion is an essential good for families goes too directly to the heart of Parenting Beyond Belief for me to sit quietly by. I don’t harbor delusions about killing the pretty misconception, but it’s worth making this message available for those who care enough to look for it: Not only is it possible to raise ethical, caring, confident and well-adjusted children without religion, but millions of us are doing so already. The perfect reply. Onward.