Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Screwing with Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote a terrific book. Loved it the first time I read it, then read it twice more. And the more I read it, the more I liked it. Just super.

Not everyone feels the same about this book. Some were so disturbed by what he wrote that they cut whole passages out before its publication. Most people didn’t get to read the book in its complete and original form until 1958, when the excised passages were restored.

What? No no, not that Darwin book. I’m talking about his Autobiography.

Darwin sat down to write his autobiography in May 1876, “as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult,” he added, “for life is nearly over with me.” He apparently knew this from a line on the title page he had just written: Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Chills.

The idea to write a sketch of his life came from Julius Victor Carus, a zoologist in Leipzig who had translated the Origin into German and needed some bio-bits from Darwin for an encyclopedia entry. Ten years later, Darwin decided to write “recollections of the development of my mind and character,” driven in part by realizing “that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather [Erasmus Darwin] written by himself, and what he though and did and how he worked.”

He also said he thought the attempt at such a thing “would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.” Ironic, since it was one of his children who was to serve as the slicer-dicer of Charles’s recollections, and one of his children’s children who made it whole again.

The Autobiography first appeared publicly as part of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis, a.k.a. Frank, and published in 1887.

Dear Frank is our villain in this tale, his father’s own Lord Braybrooke. But the more you learn about why Francis Darwin did what he did, the harder it is to fault him too thoroughly. Unlike Braybrooke’s flaying of Pepys’ Diary, Frank acted out of primary concern for the reputation of the author, his father, and the strongly expressed wishes of his mother Emma. Usually an author’s desires are plenty clear — he or she wrote the words he wanted included. But there was some disagreement about whether Darwin ever intended to publish his Autobiography, which does complicate the sorting of intent.

It got nasty. In the five years between Darwin’s death and the publication of the Autobiography, the Darwin family tore itself up over what should appear and not appear in the book. At one point, one wing of the family considered suing the other.

So Frank did his best. Then 71 years later, with the principals in the original fight all safely dead, his niece did better.

In its original unbuggered form, the Autobiography was a genuine page-turner, full of the kind of keen observation that made Darwin Darwin. Instead of the natural world, Darwin’s eye and mind are turned on himself and those around him, as well as the sometimes agonizing and deeply honest development of his own opinions. He says both flattering and unflattering things about people living and dead and expresses opinions both kosher and heretical.

In its buggered form, Darwin is an undiscerning dodderer. He likes everybody and everything just fine, especially those alive at the time of publication. (That’s right — in an interesting reversal, the dead are the only ones of whom Frank allows his dad to speak ill.) And the wonderfully complicated ebb and flow of his opinions on religion is reduced to a hazy, misleading mumble in favor of the status quo.

Fortunately for me, it was Nora’s edition that reached me first, which is probably why I read it more than once. But I wasn’t fully aware of its tortuous history until much more recently.

Portrait of a Book-Buggering

1573928348An incredible ability to pay attention may have been Darwin’s defining characteristic. This was the guy who found it possible to study barnacles for eight years straight. That superhuman ability to observe and notice was surely the reason he was able to figure out the puzzle of natural selection. And as a result of this well-honed ability, the original Autobiography is just bursting with sharp observations of the people around him.

Sir Frank’s version? Eh, nassomush.

I’ll focus on four of my favorite passages from the original. First there’s Darwin on himself, a childhood memory:

About this time [age eight], or as I hope at a somewhat earlier age, I sometimes stole fruit for the sake of eating it; & one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, & was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighbouring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather large flower-pot, & by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches & plums, which fell into the pot & the prizes were thus secured. When a very little boy I remember stealing apples from the orchard, for the sake of giving them away to some boys & young men who lived in a cottage not far off, but before I gave them the fruit I showed off how quickly I could run & it is wonderful that I did not perceive that the surprise & admiration which they expressed at my powers of running, was given for the sake of the apples. But I well remember that I was delighted at them declaring that they had never seen a boy run so fast!

That fun bit of Charlie candor was entirely cut, lest the world learn that he picked fruit that wasn’t his when he was eight.

He had this to say about Charles Lyell, one of his greatest influences:

Charles_Lyell2

Charles Lyell

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. On such occasions, while absorbed in thought, he would throw himself into the strangest attitudes, often resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Frank removed the best part of that one – Lyell’s quirk with the chair. See how it reads without that:

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzngk.

In one long passage, Charles offers incisive character sketches of a half dozen colleagues and friends:

brown

Robert Brown

[Scottish botanist Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy. He was rather given to sneering at anyone who wrote about what he did not fully understand: I remember praising Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences to him, and he answered, “Yes, I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books.”

Oh, snap!

owen

Richard Owen

I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer, who was a charming man, had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day,” and so it has proved.

hooker

Joseph Hooker

At a somewhat later period I became very intimate with [botanist Joseph Dalton] Hooker, who has been one of my best friends throughout life. He is a delightfully pleasant companion & most kind-hearted. One can see at once that he is honourable to the back-bone. His intellect is very acute, & he has great power of generalisation. He is the most untirable worker that I have ever seen, & will sit the whole day working with the microscope, & be in the evening as fresh & pleasant as ever. He is in all ways very impulsive & somewhat peppery in temper; but the clouds pass away almost immediately. He once sent me an almost savage letter for a reason which will appear ludicrously small to an outsider, viz. because I maintained for a time the silly notion that our coal-plants had lived in shallow water in the sea. His indignation was all the greater because he could not pretend that he should ever have suspected that the Mangrove (and a few other marine plants which I named) had lived in the sea, if they had been found only in a fossil state. On another occasion he was almost equally indignant because I rejected with scorn the notion that a continent had formerly extended between Australia & S. America. I have known hardly any man more lovable than Hooker.

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TH Huxley

A little later I became intimate with Huxley. His mind is as quick as a flash of lightning & as sharp as a razor. He is the best talker whom I have known. He never writes & never says anything flat. Given his conversation no one would suppose that he could cut up his opponents in so trenchant a manner as he can do & does do. He has been a most kind friend to me & would always take any trouble for me. He has been the mainstay in England of the principle of the gradual evolution of organic beings. Much splendid work as he has done in Zoology, he would have done far more, if his time had not been so largely consumed by official & literary work, & by his efforts to improve the education of the country.

He would allow me to say anything to him: many years ago I thought that it was a pity that he attacked so many scientific men, although I believe that he was right in each particular case, & I said so to him. He denied the charge indignantly, & I answered that I was very glad to hear that I was mistaken. We had been talking about his well-deserved attacks on Owen, so I said after a time, “How well you have exposed Ehrenberg’s blunders;” he agreed and added that it was necessary for science that such mistakes should be exposed. Again after a time, I added: “Poor Agassiz has fared ill under your hands.” Again I added another name, & now his bright eyes flashed on me, & he burst out laughing, anathematising me in some manner. He is a splendid man & has worked well for the good of mankind.

herschel

Sir John Herschel

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to. He was very shy & he often had a distressed expression. Lady Caroline Bell, at whose house I dined at the C. of Good Hope, admired Herschel much, but said that he always came into a room as if he knew that his hands were dirty, & that he knew that his wife knew that they were dirty.

That priceless passage, including some of the best available portraits of these guys, was reduced by Frank Darwin to this yawny blob of paste:

[Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy.

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to.

Gah!

Finally, a passage that captured the personality of two major figures of the time and illustrated one of the human foibles Darwin disliked most — the craving for status and glory:

buckland

Rev. Wm Buckland

All the leading geologists were more or less known by me, at the time when geology was advancing with triumphant steps. I liked most of them, with the exception of [geologist and minister The Very Rev. William] Buckland who though very good-humoured & good-natured seemed to me a vulgar & almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science. He was not, however, selfish in his desire for notoriety; for Lyell, when a very young man, consulted him about communicating a poor paper to the Geol. Soc. which had been sent him by a stranger, & Buckland answered — “You had better do so, for it will be headed, ‘Communicated by Charles Lyell’, & thus your name will be brought before the public.

murchThe services rendered to geology by Murchison by his classification of the older formations cannot be over-estimated; but he did not possess a philosophical mind. He was very kind-hearted & would exert himself to the utmost to oblige anyone. The degree to which he valued rank was ludicrous, & he displayed this feeling & his vanity with the simplicity of a child. He related with the utmost glee to a large circle, including many mere acquaintances, in the rooms of the Geolog. Soc. how the Czar Nicholas, when in London, had patted him on the shoulder & had said, alluding to his geological work — “Mon ami, Russia is grateful to you,” & then Murchison added rubbing his hands together, “The best of it was that Prince Albert heard it all.” He announced one day to the Council of the Geolog. Soc. that his great work on the Silurian system was at last published; & he then looked at all who were present & said, “You will every one of you find your name in the Index,” as if this was the height of glory.

The whole passage was cut. Everything.

I could go on and on. Over two dozen passages like these were cut out of the Autobiography, draining much of the color and humanity out of Darwin’s self-portrait.

The reason we know what was cut is that granddaughter Nora Barlow painstakingly listed the formerly excised passages in the back of her 1958 edition, about which more shortly. I do understand Frank’s impulse, even though all of these people were dead at the time of publication except Huxley. But I am terribly grateful for Barlow’s work.

It wasn’t the character sketches that put the Darwins at each other’s throats, though. It was the question of whether Charles Darwin’s description of the development of his own religious doubt should see the light of day.

Hiding Darwin’s Religious Opinions

I had a passing knowledge of evolution in high school. Better than the average bear, but still sketchy. I majored in physical anthropology at Berkeley not for the dazzling job prospects but to fill in that sketch.

In addition to changing and deepening my understanding of what it means to be human, a fuller grasp of human evolution led me to wonder how traditional religion could in any significant way be made to fit with what we now know. (See earlier post.) And I remember wondering what Darwin thought about that.

He was seriously religious as a young man, even trained for ministry and annoyed his Beagle shipmates with fundamentalist pronouncements. If, after the Galapagos and the Origin and The Descent of Man, Darwin was still a conventionally religious man, I knew I must have really missed something. So I picked up Darwin’s Autobiography in my senior year to find out.

Nora Barlow

If I’d picked up the 1887 edition by his son Francis, published five years after Charles died and reissued many times since, I’d have been puzzled but chastened. He doesn’t get into religion much at all in that one, and when he does, he seems to mostly affirm his ongoing conventional beliefs. And I would almost certainly have never looked further.

Fortunately it was the 1958 edition by Charles’s granddaughter Nora that found me. As mentioned above, Nora restored the bits that the earlier edition had expunged under pressure from Charles’s wife Emma. Nora was able to do this because all of the family members who’d nearly come to blows over what to leave in and what to leave out were now demised.

If I’d read the first edition, I might have imagined a man with religious convictions essentially intact. Some side-by-side passages, with cut passages in red:

FIRST EDITION (1887)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted.

RESTORED EDITION (1958)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. [It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.]

A 12-page section titled “Religious Beliefs” underwent the most vigorous edits. The bracketed red text was omitted from the first edition:

During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. [But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.]

It’s sometimes fascinating to see what Emma insisted be struck out and what she allowed in. She bracketed a portion of the following passage for deletion — the red below — but allowed the admission of disbelief in the first part:

I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress [and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.]

It’s not even his conclusion but the strength of his confidence that apparently unnerved his wife. As for the damnation, she wrote in the margin

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief–but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there).

Tho’ the words are there. And 130 years later, the damnable words in the Bible are still there. Some books dodge the red pen more easily than others.

Francis oversaw an even more abbreviated 1892 American edition in which the entire 12 pages exploring Charles’s religious beliefs are replaced with a single bracketed fib:

[After speaking of his happy married life, and of his children, he continues:]

Jaysus. That Ninth Commandment is always the hardest.

Yet if you look hard enough, in all but the God-Bless-America edition, you can find one quiet sentence in which Darwin was allowed to clearly state his actual theological conclusions. Like Huxley, he utterly rejected belief in the claims and doctrines of Christianity, but said

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

The distortion of Darwin’s views continued for years. One of the most galling attempts was by Lady Elizabeth Hope, an evangelist who published a fabricated story in 1915 claiming to have heard Darwin renounce evolution and embrace Jesus on his deathbed. Francis redeemed his editorial self brilliantly. “Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317,” he wrote to a publisher in 1918. “I was present at his deathbed,” said Charles’s daughter Etty. “Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. …The whole story has no foundation what-so-ever.”

Etty’s niece Nora eventually put the pieces back together, but the genie never goes all the way back in. Several of the bestselling versions of Darwin’s Autobiography on Amazon are still the Francis Darwin edition.

Thanks for trying, Nora.

The Power of Two: How Shared Dissent Can Make All the Difference

 

First published in 2011, this article feels especially urgent in 2018. Erin is now a junior in college.

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me proud. That alone is not news. But in this case she showed courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

“Guess what happened today,” she said.

I gave up.

“I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?'”

Oh here we go. I shifted in my seat.

“So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all big, and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.'”

I looked around for popcorn and a five-dollar Coke. Nothing. “Then what??”

“Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?'” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.'”

She’s 13, old enough to try on labels, as long as she keeps thinking. She knows that. And she’s recently decided that her current thoughts add up to an atheist and a humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh my word. What a thing that is.

“Erin that’s so great,” I said. “Imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch.

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. When you are alone in a room full of people whose opinion differs from yours, the pressure to conform is enormous. But when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

One variation in the design of the study provides a profound lesson about dissent. This is the one that Erin’s situation reminded me of. And it’s a crucial bit of knowledge for any parent wishing to raise an independent thinker and courageous dissenter.

In this version, all but one of the researcher’s confederates would give the wrong answer. The presence of just one other person who saw the evidence in the same way the subject did reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: If a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into disaster. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

This plays out on stages even larger than the school cafeteria. On April 17, 1961, the US government sent 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The idea was to give the US plausible deniability—barely plausible, but still. It was supposed to look like the exiles did it on their own.

Well, it did end up looking like that. The invasion was a mess of lousy planning and execution. Most of the 1,500 were killed or captured by a force of 20,000 Cuban soldiers, and the US government was forced to essentially pay a ransom of 53 million dollars for the release of the prisoners. And that’s in Mad Men dollars—it would be $510 million today. Cuba’s ties with the Soviet Union were strengthened, and the stage was set for the Cuban Missile Crisis six months later.

In short, it was a complete disaster. And in retrospect, that should have been obvious to those who planned it. But among President Kennedy’s senior advisers, the vote to go ahead had been unanimous. Why? It came out later that several of them had serious doubts beforehand but were unwilling to express those doubts since they thought everybody else was on board. It was the height of the Cold War, and nobody wanted to look “soft.” The climate of the discussions made real dissent too difficult to articulate, so a really bad idea went unchallenged.

The presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger was there for most of the discussions, and he later said that he was convinced that even one dissenter could have caused Kennedy to call off the invasion. ONE. He said he wished most of all that he had found the strength to be that dissenter.

At least Kennedy learned his lesson. During the Missile Crisis later that year, he made a point of fostering dissent and encouraging the collision of ideas among his advisers. The resulting policy led to the peaceful conclusion of what may have been the most dangerous crisis in human history (so far).

Many think that times of crisis and war are the worst possible times for argument and dissent. Hitler certainly thought so. He often said the mess of conflicting opinion in democracies would cause the Western powers to crumble before the single-minded focus of his military machine. He got the difference right but misdirected the praise. Military historians are pretty much agreed that the stifling of dissent in the Third Reich’s military decision-making was its fatal flaw. It was entirely top-down. Only if Hitler’s plans were flawless could that system be stronger than one in which ideas contend for supremacy.

So Montgomery and Patton’s pissing contests, MacArthur and Truman’s showdowns, and the constant whirl of debate among the Allies and even among the branches of the American service was a better approach to running a war than the single-minded dictates of dictators, from Napoleon to Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Crush dissent and you will most often end up shooting yourself in the foot. United We Stand is bad policy, even in wartime.

Dissent is often discouraged in the corporate world as well. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s research found that corporate boards that punish dissent and stress unity among their members are the most likely to wind up in bad business patterns. It’s corporations with highly contentious boards that tend to be successful. Not always—it depends on the nature of the contention—but when boards generate a wide range of viewpoints and tough questions are asked about the prevailing orthodoxy, they tend to make better decisions in the end. All ideas have to withstand a crossfire of challenge so the bad has a chance of being recognized and avoided.

A list of corporations with boards that valued conformity and punished dissent reads like a Who’s Who of corporate malfeasance: Tyco, WorldCom, Enron.

There’s something so counter-intuitive about all this. It seems on the face of it that uniting behind an idea or position or plan is the best way to ensure success. And it can be, if the idea or position or plan is good in the first place. And the best way to ensure that it is good is by fostering dissent from the beginning.

And “from the beginning” really means long before the meeting even begins — while the decision makers are still in the eighth grade cafeteria, learning to accept the presence of difference in their midst.

Had the other girl in my daughter’s story not mustered the courage to self-identify first as a person with a different perspective — in this case an atheist — Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

A Bump in the Fence Line: One Step Further from Bigotry

I love finding out that a concept I’ve had in my head for years has a name.

Example: Someone dislikes all gays, then learns that his brother is gay. Instead of dropping the prejudice altogether, he will often grant an exception: “I don’t like gays, but Kevin’s okay.”

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell call this the Aunt Susan principle. Even people in relatively homogeneous families and social groups often (and increasingly) have an Aunt Susan or a “pal Al” who is different from the rest — a Jew among Christians, gay among straights, atheist among believers — and still a good egg. Granting the exception can be a first step toward dismantling assumptions and stereotypes.

Multiple studies have shown that support for same-sex marriage is strongly linked to having close friends or family who are gay. It’s less a comprehensive change-of-heart than a willingness to accommodate someone in your own circle.

I learned from Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard  that social psychologists have an even better name for this kind of exception-making. It’s called re-fencing. Instead of tearing down the fence that separates us from a disliked or distrusted group, we build a little bump in the fence line to accommodate the one we know and love.

It’s not always a positive thing. Re-fencing can also be a way of resisting that bigger step, a form of “stereotype maintenance” rather than stereotype change.

But it can be a start. The key to helping someone move past this middle step, to encourage a more complete dismantling of the prejudice, Shoots-Reinhard says, is to “confront people with multiple instances of disconfirmation, like multiple friends coming out as atheist.”

In time, hopefully, the fence becomes too curvy to stand.

Age Stories: How My Kids Met Me One Year at a Time

“Twenty-eight!”

“Hmm, okay, 28. Ooh, that’s a good one.”

Despite living with him for 13 years, I knew very little about my dad. He worked three jobs and traveled a lot. When he was in town, he came home exhausted from a hundred-mile round-trip commute. I didn’t even know he was a nonbeliever until long after his death at 45.

My mom spoke very little of him, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of working full-time while raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other family.

I’ve wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I died today. The situation is different — I’m more involved in their lives than my dad was able to be in mine, for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing my life with my kids that was natural and unforced.

At some point, without even meaning to, I found a way, starting a tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise: At bedtime, in addition to books or songs, the kids could pick an age (“Twenty-eight!”) and I would tell them about something that happened to me at that age. For a long time it was one of their favorite bedtime options.

Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm from walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (broke up with my first girlfriend and got dumped by the second one), 23 (my crushing uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the strange and cool job in LA that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other celebs), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the Air Force pilot she was allllmost engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — eventually just about everything — in-between.

They know how I tricked a friend into quitting pot (for a night anyway, at 15), the surreal week that followed my dad’s death (13), how I nearly cut off two fingers by reaching under a running lawnmower (17, shut up), my battles with the administration of the Catholic college where I taught (40), the time I was nearly hit by a train in Germany (38) and nearly blown off a cliff in a windstorm in Scotland (42).

Age stories can also open up important issues in an unforced way. Delaney happened to ask for 11 — my age when my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA — right before we moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta. It was a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage at 11, and the fact that I held on to my bedpost the day of the move — and how well it turned out in the end. I wasn’t surprised when she said “11” again and again during that hard transition in her own life.

We’ve talked about love, lust, death, fear, joy, lying, courage, cowardice, mistakes, triumphs, uncertainty, embarrassment, and the personal search for meaning in ways that no lecture could ever manage. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the aging monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twenty-something, stumbling up the very path they’re on now.

And they keep coming back for more.

Give it a try. Make it dramatic. Include lots of details and dialogue. Have fun. Then come back here and tell us how it went.

Owning Einstein

One of the great games in the culture wars is claiming the good and smart for your team and pushing the monsters away. Picture Christian and atheist captains in a sandlot choosing basketball teams.

ATHEIST: Einstein, we get Einstein!
CHRISTIAN: No way, he used the word God!
ATHEIST: Well Jefferson then.
CHRISTIAN: You WISH!

And so it goes until only Hitler is left, standing alone in short pants.

The push-me-pull-you process is done by cherry-picking quotes, and Albert Einstein is the three-point shooter everybody wants. To complicate that, I’m including five excerpts from Einstein’s correspondence, adding up to a clear and nuanced picture by the end. We’ll start by picking the atheists’ favorite cherry, then keep moving around the tree.

Five excerpts from correspondence and interviews of Albert Einstein

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Letter of March 24, 1954 to a correspondent asking him to clarify his religious views [source]


I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

Letter to Guy H. Raner Jr., September 28, 1949 [source]


My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.

Letter to M. Berkowitz, Oct. 25, 1950. Einstein Archives 59–215.00


I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

From a 1930 interview with poet, writer, and later Nazi propagandist G.S. Viereck. [source]


The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism…With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

With friendly thanks and best wishes
Yours, A. Einstein

Letter from Einstein to author Eric Gutkind, Jan. 1954, in response to receiving Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.” [source]

It’s curious to see people like Einstein (and Sagan and Tyson), whose views are apparently identical to mine, framing atheism as something it almost never is –a position of absolute certainty — and rejecting the label on those terms. If theism can include strong conviction rather than certainty, atheism should as well. It’s an opinion strongly held for good reasons, not an immutable dogmatic claim.

At least Einstein makes his reasoning clear in these letters. You know, I’ll bet that puts an end to all of the confusion.

When Being ‘Out and Normal’ Mortifies the Kids

 

“Why did you do that?? Seriously Dad.”

It was late summer 2011, and we were driving back to Atlanta from the North Carolina reunion of Becca’s mostly Southern Baptist extended family. Even though we differ about as much as can be imagined in politics and religion, it’s a family I’m grateful for. It’s a real pleasure to watch each other raise families and get older.

As we drove, Becca and I did our usual post-game show in the front seat, with the kids chiming in from the back. At one point we hit on something that happened at dinner on the last night.

That’s when I learned that I had embarrassed my fifteen-year-old son.

“It was so awkward,” he said.

Ah. I really should have seen that coming. “I guess so. But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”

“But this didn’t break ice!” he said, exasperated. “It MADE ice!”

Though it’s almost never mentioned, my worldview seems to be common knowledge in the family. I don’t push too many points, but neither do I leave the lowest-hanging fruit completely unplucked. Most of all, I follow the advice I give in workshops: be out and normal. Act as if there’s nothing unusual about the religious and nonreligious sharing a world, a country, a family, a table, a marriage, a friendship. There isn’t, of course. What’s unusual is for religious people to know they are sharing all these things with nonbelievers, all the time. It’s a good opportunity to see that the world spins on.

Whenever I have to figure out whether and what to say or do this or that as an atheist among the religious, I tend to operate from that one principle: be out and normal. Things usually go just fine. Once in a while, though, I end up embarrassing the progeny.

After that last supper (stop it), the family patriarch, a good-humored Baptist minister in his 70s, gave away some prizes he’d brought with him — T-shirts, pins, that sort of thing. He asked everyone to write down a number between 1 and 100. We all did.

“Now,” he said, “what I didn’t tell you is that each of the numbers I’ll read off has something to do with me.” He smiled. “The first number is…73. That’s my age.” Woohoo, someone hollered, and won a T-shirt.

Next he called the first two digits in his address, then his phone number, then his Social Security Number, giving away prizes to the closest number for each.

Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.

It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.

“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”

I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.

When at last Uncle Bill raised his fingers to indicate the number he had chosen, I hoped that the family atheist was not the only one in the room who figured that a Baptist minister giving away a cross would choose the number 3.

But I was.

As I unfolded the paper and slowly raised it for all to see, a small gasp went up in the room, or in my head, I’m not sure which. Pastor Bill’s face went ashen, and he looked down, then up again, and sighed, then smiled resignedly. “Okay. It’s yours.”

Here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won by way of religious insight from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table with his Baptist cousins.

That I get.

Still, I can’t picture myself doing it differently — like not writing a number down, or taking Connor’s later advice — “You could have just not shown it!”

But I did show it. And I accepted the cross respectfully, praised the craftsmanship — it really is a striking piece — and later restored color to the pastor’s face by telling him I would give it to his devout sister in recognition of her 20 years as my mother-in-law.

Worth an awkward moment, I think — even if my boy would disagree.

The Eclipse of Darwinism

As an anthro major, I learned that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection underwent a barrage of criticism after the Origin was published and before the modern synthesis with genetics clinched the deal.

But I didn’t know until years later just how bad it got.

In his 1942 book about the modern synthesis, Julian Huxley described the 1880s to 1920s as “the eclipse of Darwinism.” Support for the theory actually dwindled during that period, with ever more biologists feeling it was inadequate to explain all the evidence. Probably didn’t help that Darwin kept putting out ever-weaker new editions as he bent over backwards to answer concerns without access to the evidence that would eventually put the theory over the bar. For a while, it was plausible that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would be completely thrown over as alternatives were explored, including

• Orthogenesis (the idea that life has a natural tendency to change over time in a single direction without external cause)

• Neo-Lamarckism (that the features acquired by parents during a lifetime are passed on to progeny)

• Mutationism (that new species are created in a single step by mutation)

• Theistic evolution (that a supreme being causes the gradual change of forms according to a divine plan)

What Darwin’s theory had lacked was a recognized mechanism for heredity. That mechanism had been figured out by Gregor Mendel and even published in the Proceedings of the Society of Nine Isolated Moravians in 1866. But it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that biologist William Bateson and the statistician Udny Yule connected Mendel and Darwin, setting in motion the modern synthesis that would eventually snap everything into place. By the time Huxley’s book named the synthesis in 1942, no substantial dissent remained among biologists. Darwin’s theory was the accepted explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.

It’s an even better example than I thought of how science works.

When Someone Asks How You Raise Moral Kids Without the Bible, Here’s the A+ Answer

A few years ago I was interviewed briefly on NPR’s On Point about moral development without religion. I managed to get my major point made — that moral development research shows that the process is aided more by a questioning approach than by passive acceptance of rules. But I gave a B- response to his next question, which was basically, “Without the Bible, what books do you use to guide moral development?”

I’m still kicking myself for my answer. Like a second-rate interviewee, I accepted the premise of his question: that moral development has something to do with books or other static sources of insight. I jibbered something about a wide range of sources being available, from Aesop’s Fables to even religious texts read humanistically — The Jefferson Bible and all that.

The A+ answer is that it isn’t a book thing at all. Moral development research — Grusec, Nucci, Baumrind, the works — has shown that moral understanding comes first and foremost from peer interaction. That’s why kids start framing everything in terms of fairness around age five, right when most of them are starting to have regular, daily peer interactions — including the experience of being treated fairly and unfairly, and making choices about how they will treat others, and feeling the consequences of those choices.

There’s also a slice of humble pie for parents in that research. As much as we would like to think we’re inculcating morality into our kids, that’s mostly rubbish. Sorry. We have a role, we’re just not as central as we’d like to think. We can and should help kids process their experiences and articulate their thoughts about them, but it’s the experience itself that provides the main text from which they draw moral understanding — not us, and not a book.

So there’s my rewrite. Extra credit, at least?