Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Q: The Question question

Here’s another one for all y’all.

In one of the early chapters, I use one of my favorite Russell quotes as a hook for a section on questioning: “What is needed is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.”

Questions about religion posed from the inside are a lot like questions about Santa posed from the inside of that belief. The will to believe trumps the will to find out, so the questions are timid and ancillary (“How do the reindeer fly?”, “Why do the innocent suffer?”) and even the most pitiful answers are readily accepted (“Magic corn!”, “No one is truly innocent”).

If/When the balance tips toward the will to find out, the central question is finally asked: Is Santa/God real?

Once you decide God does not exist, the tendency is to go back and ask all those old questions in a new light (like the brilliant ending of Letting Go of God). Then once that process is done, the newly-minted atheist begins to ask some entirely new questions — things that didn’t even occur to him or her to ask while a believer.

My question for you: What are some NEW questions you asked once you began to identify as an atheist?

Thinking follows chaos?

The responses to the meaning of life question are terrific — just what I needed. Watch for many more questions to come. Special thanks to James R. for introducing me to Quora, my new BFF.

Kept tripping on a historical pattern today, one I’d never noticed before — that “golden ages” of philosophy seem to coincide with or immediately follow periods of violence and instability. China, India, Greece, early Islam — each culture gets the greatest explosion of ideas during or immediately after these epic convulsions. I doubt I’m the first to notice this. Anybody?

It also can’t be a coincidence that philosophies and religions emphasizing nonviolence and order (Jainism, Confucianism, etc) dominate the conversation right after the national knickers have been in a major twist. Also interesting that they’re so often nontheistic.

(This will be maybe one sentence in the book, if that, and I spent hours today pursuing it. I’m a day behind schedule, and I’m convinced it’s because I keep chasing shiny, irrelevant objects. Ding.)

Q: Meaning

As I was saying yesterday just as the timer dang, I have my own opinions about all of the questions I’m dealing with in Atheism for Dummies, but I’ll occasionally throw a question in the air to hear your thoughts as well. When I do, the post title will start with Q.

Concise comments only, please. Give me only your best thought whittled down to a tiny, singing sentence or three. Just a link is great too, but please include a brief summary of where it’s going. Also, please try not to get into extended discussions. It’s OK to build on someone else’s comment, but don’t feel the need to convince, rebut, or dissuade.

Here’s the first question:

How does an atheist find meaning and purpose in life?

I have two separate comment sections now, Regular and Facebook. I’m sure there’s a way to combine them, but please don’t tell me how right now. Just use the one that pleases you.

This is an unmissable opportunity to plumb our collective mind — I’m looking forward to hearing from you. DING!

Two tracks

The manuscript is due in quarters, a really good idea. Keeps the feet in the fire.

I’m working on two tracks at once. History and Great Works sections are very straightforward. I just finished writing a historical anthology, so that material is at the tips of my neurons already.

But the rest — ethics, death, community, responsibility, meaning and purpose, spirituality, labels, rules of discourse, church-state issues, religious extended family, rites of passage, religious literacy, choosing battles, wonder, indoctrination, stuff like that — requires more chewing. I’ve already written or spoken about all of these, but there’s still a massive bunch of research to be done for each one before I can write an effective, accessible nutshell. It’s a much more complex process.

So while I power through History and Works, I’m also doing the deeper work on the rest. Along the way I’ll throw the occasional question in the air for your input and will appreciate any


Cookie woofing for zendiqs

Did some work today on unbelievers in medieval Islam, a.k.a. zendiqs, which translates to “Man, those are some titanium cojones you’ve got there.”

Abu Nuwas, a 9th century Persian poet, stars in my favorite zendiq story. An imam is reading from the Qur’an. When he gets to the line, “Oh, you infidels!”, Abu Nuwas yells out, “Here I am!”

Oh, that tears it. He’s dragged to the authorities by an angry mob. It’s assumed he’s a follower of Manichaeism, the crosstown rival. They give him the standard test, producing a portrait of the prophet Mani (founder of Manichaeism) and ordering him to spit on it.

I’ll do you one better, he thinks, then sticks his finger down his throat and vomits on the portrait.

Confused, the magistrates let him go, never realizing that he finds Mani and Muhammad equally silly.

(Hat tip to Jennifer Hecht for introducing me to that story in Doubt: A History.)



Five parts to this book, by the way: Understanding atheism, history, great works, living the atheist life, and a Dummies staple called the Part of Tens. More on that later.

Working on history at the moment, including something that always fascinates me — China and India. So two things. Both had thriving schools of nontheistic philosophy and religion cheek and jowl with theism, right from the Axial get-go. And it continues right through the Middle Ages while Europe goes into the orthodox deep freeze.

Just as Einstein’s use of “God” to mean “no, not really God” confuses people into thinking he’s a theist (see how I’m stuck in present tense??), so Chinese philosophy is obsessively focused for centuries on t’ien or tian, which translates loosely as “heaven,” but really means “no, not really heaven.” Nothing to do with a place for human souls after death. Instead, t’ien means “that which causes the world to be as it is.” Theistic philosophers use it to mean a god or spirit realm, while the nontheists use the same word to mean natural, physical law.

(Tiananmen Square = gate of heavenly peace, uh…square)

I’ve also learned why Confucius was obsessively focu

DING! Goodbye!

The ‘For Dummies’ Style

One of the most interesting things about this project is the series concept. After 1,600 books in the For Dummies series, Wiley knows EXACTLY what it’s doing. It’s called “The Dummies style.”

The Author Guidelines is a massive 53-page doc covering everything from language to structure to procedure. You want to be conversational but NOT condescending. Lots of contractions, no royal “we” (“Now we will look at the development of blah”). Use “I” and “you” instead, like you’re talking to a friend. No citations, no academic style.

Readers aren’t assumed to be “dummies” in general, just less knowledgeable in this one area than they’d like to be.

There’s also a strong preference for the present tense — which is a challenge when you’re writing historically. Not “Socrates said,” but “Socrates says.” Keeps the text more active. They like gerunds in headings for the same reason: Exploring X, Thinking About Y, Challenging the Z.

Blogging the book

As you may know, I’m currently researching and writing the book Atheism for Dummies. If you close your eyes tight and believe in faeries, it’ll be available for purchase in March 2013.

The project is incredibly fun, a combination of several things I love, but the deadline is wicked. I have to write 145,000 words by Ryan Gosling’s birthday. I’ve finished 14,000 so far (doing the verbs first), so we’re looking at about 1200 words a day for the next 111 days. (That assumes I don’t rest every seventh day like some People. Pfft.)

I finally decided that rather than nurse the delusion that I’d ever get to this blog during the next four months, I’d just go on a full hiatus, lights out. But I’d hate to contribute to the word drought that’s plaguing the Internet. I also know that when I turned the lights back on in November, both of my regular readers would be out somewhere in bed with other blogs, and I’d be left here in the corner all alone, choking the digital chicken.

Can’t have that.

Becca (who was nicely aghast at the idea of putting the blog in a coma) suggested that I go into reruns of old posts. I like that. A lot of my favorite posts from a few years ago have only been read by my mother and the FBI.

Then my friend and colleague Noelle George added a cool wrinkle: why not blog my process of writing the book? Every day I’m running across new ideas, blogs, articles, books and concepts, as well as struggling with this or that issue in the writing itself. Might be interesting to keep you all in the loop with frequent, very short, erratic posts, a kind of stream-of-consciousness cyber-diary of the most insanely fun and impossibly difficult writing challenge of my life.

I’ll do a combination of the two. Ya with me? Feel free to comment any time, but I probably won’t be able to answer questions. We’ll see how this goes.

Intern for Foundation Beyond Belief!

(You know you want to.)

Foundation Beyond Belief is now accepting internship applications for Fall 2012! The internships run Aug 1 – Jan 31 and average 8 hours per week on a volunteer basis. Interns assist the Foundation with membership development, researching and selecting featured charities, donor management, outreach, communications (including blog and social media), program design, and creative organizational development.

Desirable characteristics include:

• Self-discipline, self-direction, reliability
• High personal motivation and perseverance
• Enthusiasm for and commitment to the Foundation’s mission
• Demonstrated familiarity/involvement with the freethought community
• Clear written communication skills
• Creative problem-solving abilities

Experience in the nonprofit sector is not a requirement. Experience in grant writing or other development capacities is a plus, but is also not a requirement.

To learn more about the intern positions or how to apply, go here. Deadline July 23.


Last summer, a shadowy consortium of atheist bloggers joined forces against PZ Myers and the hordes of Pharyngula to see who could raise the most money for Camp Quest. Against all odds, the scrappy youngsters won.

Now PZ wants revenge.

This year, the Meming of Life is teaming up with Greta Christina of Greta Christina’s Blog, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag, JT Eberhard of WWJTD, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism, Sikivu Hutchinson of Black Skeptics, Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience, Cuttlefish of Digital Cuttlefish, C. L. Hanson of Letters from A Broad, The Chaplain of An Apostate’s Chapel, and Phil Ferguson of Skeptic Money to make PZ ink himself yet again.

Camp Quest has over $37,000 in matching funds from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, so donations up to that amount are instantly DOUBLED.

If you want to support PZ’s Horde…well, I can’t seem to find the URL for that. If instead you want to support the Forces of Hope, Sex, and Candy, and in the process support the rapidly growing awesomeness that is Camp Quest, hit that sidebar widget or click here to SQUISH THE SQUID!

Learn more about Camp Quest