The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

The A+ answer

I was interviewed very briefly on NPR’s On Point yesterday 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?”

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 (I scream at my yesterday self) 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 fancy ourselves to be. 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?

Just do it?

(First appeared May 13, 2010)

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

garciaThe passage above is from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions — and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

Moral mash-up

Finished the dreaded morality chapter. Really a challenge, but I think it came out well. Here’s 9,000 words condensed to 200:

Don’t pinch a liberal or pee on a conservative. I’m good because I want people to like me, and eleven other reasons. I say Stalin and Torquemada are bad, and Quakers agree with me. Abolitionists and feminists impress me. And how helpful those shy Scandies are! When in doubt, the tie goes to the Big Guy, and despite evolution, there are few rapes on planes. Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the fittest, you know, and Herbert Spencer isn’t Charles Darwin. (He wishes.) Violent crime is lower than ever, so stop sending me emails. Cooperation’s more adaptive than mutual slaughter, go figure. There’s about the same percentage of Protestants in the federal pen as in the U.S. population, but thirty times fewer atheists than there should be. Why are people so (generally) good, and why do we think we’re so bad? We could kill each other with space lasers in Pardus, but we mostly don’t. Oxytocin and mirror neurons make me feel your pain, morality changes (thankfully) — and JESUS! did Jesus ever say a bad thing in Mark 7:9-13. Did you know obeying orders doesn’t make you moral? Carrots and sticks and Kohlberg levels, Golden Rules around the world, and most people turn out just fine, so relax.

There’s other stuff too.

(By way of explanation: Foundation Beyond Belief clinched $20,000 in the Chase grant competition. I’m a little lightheaded. *THANK YOU* for voting.)

The easy ones and the hard ones

Preparing a talk on critical thinking and ethics reminded me of this post from three years ago.

linky“Omigosh. Some of these things are soooo easy, but this one is totally hard.”

“What things?”

“These Question Book questions. Some are just so easy they’re dumb.”

Delaney [then 7] has been reading Gregory Stock’s The Kids’ Book of Questions on and off for a few weeks now. Two hundred sixty-eight questions to ponder. And she’s right — some are so easy they’re dumb.

“Like this, listen,” she said. “Number 110: ‘If it would save the lives of ten kids in another country, would you be willing to have really bad acne for a year?’ That’s so dumb!”

“So what’s your answer, then?”

“Of course I would do it. I mean, it’s their lives, Dad.” She paused, crinkled her brow. “What’s acne?”

“Pimples.”

“WHAT?! That’s even stupider. I thought it was a bad sickness or something. Who would let ten kids die just to not have pimples?!”

I thought back to junior high school, trying to recall how many strangers I’d have whacked in exchange for clear skin, and decided her question was rhetorical.

“But this one is really hard. Listen — Number 50: ‘If everyone in your class but you would be killed unless you sacrificed your own life, would you save everyone else or save yourself?'”

Long pause.

“I don’t know! That’s soooo hard! I really love to be alive. But so do they!”

She seemed genuinely tormented by the dilemma. It’s precisely the sacrifice that makes the Christ story so compelling. The willing sacrifice of one’s own life is just so hard to fathom. Until you add the heavenly out, at which point I suppose Christs and hijackers alike gain a decided advantage in nerve.

Laney, having no such advantage, prefers to live.

linky9

DADT and the chaplains

chapA little while ago I said that accepting a certain level of facepalming human malpractice is one of the keys to passing my short vivre with some degree of joie. But I added that some nonsense is misguided and unworthy enough of respect to get me out of my chair. And sometimes, despite every effort to understand, I can’t muster anything but nauseous contempt.

Such a thing came to my attention yesterday in an action alert from the Interfaith Alliance, an outstanding organization that opposes religious extremism and promotes separation of church and state for the benefit of both. It was a letter, sent to the President by retired military chaplains, claiming that the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” would infringe on the religious freedoms of active-duty chaplains because they would no longer be able to preach intolerance of homosexuality.

That’s not as much of a paraphrase as you might hope. From the letter:

If the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men. This forced choice must be faced, since orthodox Christianity—which represents a significant percentage of religious belief in the armed forces—does not affirm homosexual behavior. Imposing this conflict by normalizing homosexual behavior within the armed forces seems to have two likely—and equally undesirable—results.

First, chaplains might be pressured by adverse discipline and collapsed careers into watering down their teachings and avoiding—if not abandoning—key elements of their sending denomination’s faith and practice. Such a result would be the very antithesis of religious freedom and inimical to the guarantees made by our First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Second, chaplains might have their ability to freely share their religious beliefs challenged and torn away in a variety of everyday situations. For instance, chaplains who methodically preach book-by-book from the Bible would inevitably present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral. Thus, while chaplains fulfill their duty to God to preach the doctrines of their faith, they would find themselves speaking words that are in unequivocal conflict with official policies.

(The chaplains had the cojones to footnote this with Leviticus 18:22 but weirdly neglected to mention the required punishment.)

The letter is a festival of fallacies, including the slippery slope, special pleading, ad populum, and argument from authority. But poor argumentation and bigotry are not the real problem here. The chaplains are asking not just for the private right to hold these beliefs about homosexuality, which are theirs to keep, but that their beliefs be given pre-eminence — that military policy be bent and shaped to reflect their beliefs, first and foremost, and that the rights of others be foregone to accommodate them.

Balancing private and public rights is tricky, but a lovely body of law and policy has defined that balance over the years. Better yet for the current debate, the Pentagon’s recent DADT report already examined and dismissed First Amendment concerns:

…the reality is that in today’s U.S. military, Service members of sharply religious convictions and moral values…and those who have no religious convictions at all, already co-exist, work, live, and fight together on a daily basis. This is a reflection of the pluralistic American society at large…

Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and co-exist with others who may hold different views and beliefs… [p. 135, emphasis added]

It’s heartening to see the Pentagon grasping the balance of private and public rights that eludes so many of their retired chaplains. Unfortunately it also eludes some of the current ones. Again, from the Pentagon report:

In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual. [p. 134]

I had to read that three times. I hope and assume that any chaplain following up on that disgusting threat would be dishonorably discharged.

But there are others:

In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that ‘we are all sinners,’ and that it is a chaplain’s duty to care for all Service members. [p. 134]

I could do without the gratuitous crap about sin, but accepting a certain base level of facepalming human malpractice is etc. Still other chaplains, and many religious laypeople, have come out unequivocally in favor of ending the prohibition, and without the backhanded sin-slap. “[Gay soldiers] were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me,” said Rev. Dennis Camp, a former Army chaplain. “It was horrible. Right from the beginning, I was saying, ‘This is bad. This is wrong.”

Mindless, pointless hatred is bad enough, but asking others to feed and water it is outrageous. Little by little and against the odds, we’ve pulled ourselves up out of the tar of so many of our old fears despite the resistance of orthodox religious traditions claiming the special right to preserve those fears. As others have pointed out, the same dynamic was in play when the U.S. military introduced racial integration.

It must be difficult to find yourself doctrinally bound to the wrong side of the great moral issues of our time, chaplains. But while you wallow in the tar, don’t expect the rest of us to offer you an ankle.

The retired chaplains’ letter
The Pentagon DADT Report
“Chaplains’ views on gays strong, varied” – WaPo “On Faith” blog
Countries that allow gays in the military
Countries that disallow gays in the military
The other one

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 http://levitrastore.net/? 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

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.

bigfish

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.

pleasantville

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.

edscissorhands

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.

rainman

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.

Just do it? / best practices 8

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

My favorite image of my least favorite story.
Dad’s blank expression says it all.
AandI

I’m already on record recoiling from the Worst Story Ever Loved — Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s command that he kill his son.

Lot (he of the condiment wife) establishes himself as the most jaw-dropping of moral menaces in Genesis 19, a story that once again exalts the willingness to sacrifice one’s child without hesitation. But within pages, Abraham steals the crown, proving there’s no crime he would not commit, no act too vile or unjustified, so long as God ordered him to commit it. And we applaud.

That the founder of Judaism is the first on record to make use of the Nuremberg Defense is an irony too painful to contemplate. That this is then celebrated as the ultimate founding moment of three world religions is a fact that has held me in its grip for decades.

But then the anthropologist in me pops his wee head out, blinking like a mole, and asks why we love these stories, why we recast and retell them, over and over, and clutch them to our hearts, and find them inspiring.

Not all of religious stories are sickening. One of my favorite gospel scenes is Jesus’s very human cup-shunning moment in Gethsemane, praying to God and his favorite Swedish pop group to change the plan (“Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me”). I’m guessing those who love unquestioning obedience can forgive him (!) for this because he followed so quickly with an assurance that, yes yes, he knows after all that orders are orders. “I want your will to be done, not mine,” he says.

A weird sentence for a trinitarian to make sense of, but then again etc.

garciaI started with a passage from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

Out of the Shadows

Guest post by ANDREW PARK
Author, Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not)

I first learned about Dale McGowan in 2007. My initial reaction was utter panic as it appeared he had already written the book that I wanted to write. A year later, knowing a bit more, I attended a Parenting Beyond Belief seminar in Cambridge, Mass., an experience described in detail in the last chapter of Between a Church and a Hard Place. I took a liking to Dale and his easygoing, regular-guy manner immediately. After the seminar was over, we stayed in touch as he graciously helped me with my account, and I came to appreciate the passion and thoughtfulness that suffuses his advice as well as the humble and funny style with which he communicates it. During a reading at my local independent bookseller recently, I said that I had a “giant man-crush” on him. I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but there it is.

I am one of those rare non-religious parents today who is himself a product of a faith-free family. Once, when I mentioned this to someone at a cocktail party, he replied matter-of-factly, “Were your parents academics?” Well, duh. As they had come of age in the 1950s and 1960s, my mother and father had shed the mainline Protestantism in which they were reared. By the time I came along in the early 1970s, they didn’t bother with religion at all. Occasionally, my mother’s misgivings about this choice would result in my brother and I being rounded up for Sunday-morning visits to the Unitarian Church or a Quaker meeting, but the habit never seemed to take, for her or for us.

My mother and father are both dead, so I’ll never know what it felt like for them to be on the vanguard of secular parenting. But I doubt it was easy. In my research, I talked at length with a couple who had been friends with my parents and shared their distaste for organized religion. He is a former Episcopal priest, and as newlyweds, they had been missionaries in Southwest Africa. But they had left church behind by the time they moved up the street from us in my Bible Belt hometown. The father, who taught religious studies at the university with my parents, had even written an academic volume on bringing up children in a “post-Christian age.” So I was surprised to learn that even they, probably the most dedicated Nones we knew, hadn’t felt entirely comfortable in this decision:

They moved in to neighbors greeting them with questions about where they were planning to go to church. Even at the colleges where they taught, where there were many non-churchgoers, they sometimes felt they were on the fringe of society, and there was no one interested in discussing how to handle religion with children when you yourself weren’t religious. When Carol saw other parents on the playground or at school, she avoided all talk of it. Ron, who rejected the term atheist because he didn’t want to be defined by opposition to a worldview that was no longer relevant to him, sometimes called himself ‘modern,’ but more often than not he just kept quiet about it.

Times have changed. Through books and blogs and meetups, non-religious parenting is enjoying much wider acceptance. There’s even one of our own occupying the White House, as Dale pointed out in Cambridge. As it was just a few weeks after the presidential election, that made my heart swell a bit. Yet I get the sense that many people are still hesitant to proclaim that this is a valid way to bring up their children. I see them at my readings, sheepishly approaching me for advice on how to celebrate holidays or fend off a more pious relative. Perhaps it’s the rude rebukes of believers that keeps them quiet. Perhaps the infrastructure to support secular moms and dads hasn’t reached their town yet. Or perhaps we just need a few more Dale McGowans in the world to coax them out of the shadows.

ANDREW PARK is the author of Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) (Avery, 2010). He is a former correspondent for Business Week whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Slate and other national publications. Andrew lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife, Cristina Smith, and their two children.

Invitation from a screwball

beckGlenn Beck’s latest and greatest departure from sanity is an opportunity not to be missed.

No, I’m not talking about jeering at this exceedingly small man with the big microphone. He’s no smaller in his views than a dozen people I know and love. And he has the microphone only because we the people gave it to him.

The opportunity is to notice that the sane religious have a helluva lot more in common with the sane nonreligious than with their screwier co-believers — and that in this case, they’re drawing the line themselves.

For those who haven’t been following the story, Glenn Beck pleaded with Christians on his March 2 show:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” I don’t care what the church is. If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “Yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing,” I’m in the wrong place.

He repeated this revealing nonsense on radio and TV, and clarified what it is that “social justice” is code for: communism and Nazism.

People from a wide variety of denominational perspectives have condemned the remarks as an attack on the central message of Christianity.

Now I could take this opportunity as some have to argue that there are several central messages in Christianity, many of them contradictory and some immoral. But that knee-jerk tangent would miss the real beauty of this moment, which has nothing at all to do with this tiny, tiny man and the frightened little echo chamber between his ears.

The beauty of the moment has to do with the forceful statement by churches across a wide spectrum that social justice is at the heart of their identity and mission, not to mention Jesus’s message. Not judgment. Not fear. Not the enforcement of social categories or rules about who we can love or what seafood we can eat. Not the demonization of doubt or the prohibition of thought. They say that the desire for social justice is, and should be, at the heart of who they are.

And there’s the beauty. Given an invitation to clarify what they are about, this is what they chose to claim and defend. An attack on social justice from a fellow believer drew a more potent and broad-based response from the churches than any other critique I’ve ever seen.

It’s true that social justice is not at the heart of things for some churches. Author Bruce Bawer (Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity) wrote a piece in the New York Times long ago while the Presbyterians were tearing themselves apart over the ordination of gays — just like the Episcopalians have done more recently. It was a sharp and illuminating piece that instantly snapped the American religious landscape into perspective for me. As I blogged in August ’07 (quoting Bawer):

“American Protestantism…is being split into two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity. These two religions — the Church of Law, based in the South, and the Church of Love, based in the North — differ on almost every big theological point.

“The battle within Presbyterianism over gay ordinations is simply one more conflict over the most fundamental question of all: What is Christianity?

“The differences between the Church of Law and the Church of Love are so monumental that any rapprochement seems, at present, unimaginable. Indeed, it seems likely that if one side does not decisively triumph, the next generation will see a realignment in which historical denominations give way to new institutions that more truly reflect the split in American Protestantism.”

Though Bawer is talking about Protestants, the same fault line runs down the middle of American Catholicism, between venomous literalists and social justice-loving practitioners of genuine agape — unconditional love.

Many Christians I know are too quick to dismiss the “Church of Law” as an aberration, something unfortunate but…you know… over there somewhere. And atheists are often just as quick to overlook the presence of the “Church of Love.” My major complaint with that side of American Christendom isn’t that they have supernatural beliefs. As long as they do good with them, who cares? My complaint is that the church of love does far too little to confront its ugly fundamentalist stepsister. Worse yet, it arms her by indiscriminately promoting faith as a value in and of itself.

But take heart, Me of the Past! Here in 2010, in its strong condemnation of an unhinged conservative commentator, we have the Church of Love standing up and decisively separating from those who would underline the petty, hateful messages of religion at the expense of the uplifting and ennobling.

Beck is a Church of Law guy. He is afraid, and makes his living keeping others afraid as well. No surprise that a quick scan of his homepage brings up the words PROTECT, CRISIS, FEAR, WAR, ALERT, and WATCHDOG. Always “under attack,” he simply isn’t at liberty to extend any generosity (a.k.a. social justice) to others. Predictably, he has already begun sputtering that he is under attack on this issue as well, that his words were taken out of context, oh and etc.

Whatever. This isn’t about him anymore. It’s about a church that, in defending its values, has accepted a priceless opportunity to clarify and embrace them.

I for one send a loud shout-out to the Church of Love. Jesus would be so proud of all y’all.

Lest anyone think Beck’s thought is original