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

On being awake


To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page brought this post to mind from August 2008:

I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.

“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.

“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”

Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.

So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.

For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”

I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.

Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.

Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.

Missing church

Quick coda to yesterday’s post.

Peer-reviewed research is great when you can get it, but a lot of the questions at the heart of my work fall in the remaining gaps between studies. Until those gaps fill in, I have to find other ways of ferreting out the answers.

I’ve long been interested in what people get out of going to church. I attended long enough myself and know enough churchgoers to know that one common answer — “they go to stay out of hell” — is a cartoon. True for some, but not for most of the churchgoers I know.

To find out, you can ask them directly, and I do. But in the category of You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone, you can sometimes get even better answers by asking former churchgoers what they miss about church. Sometimes I do this in person; sometimes I turn to the Goog.

A search for quoted phrases like “I miss about church,” “I miss most about church,” “I miss from church,” “I liked most about church,” and so on doesn’t turn up a lot of people missing the idea of God or heaven. Some, sure. But mostly they’re missing exactly what the Wisconsin/Harvard study said they were getting out of it in the first place: community, connection, purpose, inspiration, personal growth, support.

Listen:

What I miss about church is the feeling of community

I always left feeling inspired to be a better person

The only thing about church I miss is the instant community support 

I miss the opportunity to have a good sing

I miss joining with others to do good

I miss the feeling of belonging that I had

I miss the feeling of connection and common purpose

I miss feeling a part of something greater than myself

The fellowship and feeling of community is about the only thing I miss about church

Volunteering gives me the same satisfaction I once derived from church, a feeling of connectedness to my fellow man

Not all of us miss all of those things equally, and some of us don’t miss any of them one bit. Tom Flynn’s recent piece titled “Why Seculars Don’t Sing” gives articulate voice to the latter, even as its title overreaches on two counts, and by miles. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But a lot of entirely secular people do feel a certain sense of loss when they leave church, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with God or worship.

As a movement, we often act as if church is about God, period. If we can just pry people away from that delusion, goes the reasoning, they’ll walk away whistling. When we grasp that it’s mostly about something else and start building meaningful secular alternatives that go waaaaay beyond the intellectual, I think we’ll be amazed at how quickly God takes a powder. Until then, we really don’t deserve a bigger slice of the cultural pie. Fortunately there’s all sorts of recent action in this area, from Volunteers Beyond Belief to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and an ever-greater focus on community and mutual support among local groups.

So if you were once a churchgoer: What if anything do you miss, and have you found good secular alternatives? What do you see as the greatest need?

Lose yourself

Raising Freethinkers had to be the most rewarding collaborative project I’ve ever been a part of. Jan, Molleen, and Amanda each brought something unique and brilliant to the book, underlining how very clever I was to not just write it myself.

Molleen wrote about one idea that was completely new to me then — the flow state described by creativity researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It’s the kind of intriguing concept you’d expect from a guy who decided early on that he wanted nothing more than to understand happiness.

Describing the flow state has been one of his biggest contributions. It’s that feeling we get when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying states we can enter. As I wrote three years ago,

Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”

It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation. Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say I’m flowy, but not religious.

Now I’ve come across a TED talk by Csíkszentmihályi that includes a fantastic new wrinkle. When we refer to “losing ourselves” in a project or activity, there’s actually something to that. Csíkszentmihályi offers an example from a 1970s interview he came across with a leading American composer. When his composing was going well, he described it as an “ecstatic state” so intense that it felt almost as if he didn’t exist.

“That sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration,” said Csíkszentmihályi,

but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t understand more than two people talking to you. 


When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended.

Gotta love a naturalistic explanation for insanely cool things. When I’m completely lost in an all-consuming activity — interesting words, eh? — I don’t have enough attention left over to notice that I exist.

I’ve been there, but less and less as I get older. Since Molleen introduced me to flow, I’ve been trying to find activities that succeed in putting me there. In fact, one of my goals before I turn 50 — in 303 days, whatever — is to integrate genuine flow experiences more regularly into my daily life. And I think Molleen’s advice for parents helping kids find flow can apply to us as well:

Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.

Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible…

Yeah, that’s the trick. But it’s a hard thing worth doing.

The full talk

A holiday message from Tiny Tim (Minchin)

And you, my baby girl
My jet-lagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school…
ERIN McGOWAN (12), singing under her breath while waiting for the school bus

I still get close to tears every time I hear this astonishing, lovely song. Tim acknowledges the complexities that swirl around the Christmas holiday for nonbelievers, then lifts deep and simple meaning out of that mess, expressing what this holiday has always meant to me. What a rare and beautiful thing it is.

Enjoy — and whatever you celebrate, however you celebrate it, have a happy and peaceful holiday.

White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin
I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it
I am hardly religious
I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, to the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the Westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I’m looking forward to Christmas
Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus

I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don’t go in for ancient wisdom
I don’t believe just cause ideas are tenacious it means that they’re worthy
I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy

And yes I have all of the usual objections
To the miseducation of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,
Are taught to externalize blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
But I quite like the songs

I’m not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate is just fine by me

‘Cause I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl
My jet-lagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won’t understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if, my baby girl
When you’re twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You’ll know whatever comes
Your brother and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Waiting for you…
Waiting…

I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental, I know…

A mindgasm of scientific proportions

This is quite simply one of the most astonishing, original things I have ever seen. Ever.

I’ve said too much. Set aside 15 uninterrupted minutes.

It’s filled with phrases that express what I often find inexpressible. Add your favorites to the comment thread.

(Profound thanks to my step-nephew Dan Nolan for this one.)

Words fail me [greatest hits]

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

Words Fail Me
First appeared Sept 28, 2007

woody and diane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mawwiage

impressive clergyman

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

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

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

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

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

Not love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the children…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Wax off.)

“To focus, encourage, and demonstrate”…what the Foundation is (really) all about

fedby Dale McGowan, Executive Director, FBB
[First appeared in the Foundation Beyond Belief blog]

It’s been interesting to watch news of Foundation Beyond Belief spread around the blogosphere. Most of the descriptions I’ve seen are pretty accurate, but there’s one persistent misconception: that the sole purpose of our charitable giving program is to demonstrate the generosity of atheists and humanists.

Time to fix that broken meme.

Our mission statement includes not one but three main purposes—”to focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.” Demonstrating our generosity as a community is important, but it’s arguably the least important of the three. Far more important is focusing and encouraging that generosity and compassion in the first place.

FOCUS
“I am a humanist,” said Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country, “which means in part that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.” And most of the time, this is how humanism plays out—in a million individual acts of decency, generosity, and kindness. The Foundation exists in part to create from those million individual decent acts a powerfully motivated community of philanthropic humanists, making the world a better place not in spite of, but because of, their worldview.

ENCOURAGE
As I’ve noted before, when it comes to charitable giving, churchgoers give a much larger percentage of earned income to discretionary causes than non-churchgoers. Arthur C. Brooks (author of Who Really Cares) sees in this statistic “evidence of a gap in everyday virtue” between the religious and nonreligious (p. 40).

There’s a more obvious explanation. Fifty-two times a year, churchgoers pass a plate full of the generous donations of their friends and neighbors and make the decision whether to add to it or not. Non-churchgoers have no such regular and public nudge. So it seems reasonable that the difference in overall giving has much more to do with whether or not you have systematic opportunities for giving than some “gap in virtue.”

One of the central purposes of Foundation Beyond Belief is to create that opportunity, thereby building a systematic culture of giving among nontheists. By doing this, we hope to encourage humanists to be better humanists and to energize a previously under-represented sector of philanthropic giving.

It’s not a zero-sum game, taking dollars that individuals already donate on their own and “putting an atheist stamp” on them. The idea is to create new income for good charities by encouraging the nontheistic community to give more.

DEMONSTRATE
Our worldview makes our virtue no better or worse than anyone else’s. But when we focus our efforts and encourage each other to express the best impulses at the heart of our worldview, that will demonstrate to others the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.

Tell your friends and family about the Foundation. And when you do, be sure to mention all three purposes. We’re not just looking for credit—we’re also creating a focused community of giving and encouraging each other to the best possible expression of our inspiring worldview. We think those are things worth doing and hope you’ll agree.

And if you haven’t joined yet, NOW’S THE TIME!

Full launch at last

fbbFoundation Beyond Belief — a non-profit charitable and educational organization created to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists and to provide a comprehensive education and support program for nontheistic parents — is alive.

Foundation membership is now open, and our first slate of beneficiaries is in place.

And what a slate it is. There’s an organization of scientists committed to biodiversity, another providing health care to marginalized communities on five continents, and a secular alternative for addiction recovery. There’s a non-profit bringing safe drinking water to five countries in desperate need, an advocacy group for refugees fleeing war, and an advocacy group for asylum seekers fleeing torture. There’s a scholarship fund for GLBT students who have been disowned by their families, an organization protecting children in war zones, and another protecting the environment by working toward “greener” buildings and cities.

Selecting these has been a challenging and powerful experience. In the end, we chose a wide range of organizations in size, budget, mission, and scope. Members will now in turn choose which of these organizations they will support with a percentage of their monthly donations—which in turn will inform our future selections.

It’s a chance to watch the evolution of humanist philanthropy.

No more words. Time for pictures:

Now go. Join up.

UPDATE: As is to be expected with a site and project as complex as FBB, we’ve had some technical hiccups. If you’re having any trouble signing up, give it a couple of days and our brilliant webster Airan will have it all ironed out.

Foundation Beyond Belief website goes LIVE!

treeY’all have been SO patient. At last it’s October 1, and thanks to your generous support in the recent Fund Drive, the pre-launch website for Foundation Beyond Belief has gone LIVE!

This site will carry us through to the full launch on January 1. During this period, you can sign up for membership, watch a video about the Foundation, learn about our first featured causes as they are announced, nominate charities for future consideration, donate to the Foundation itself, apply for volunteer positions, and follow the development of our multi-author blog.

In January we get the whole magillah: a vibrant social network, a discussion forum on these great issues, a full slate of beneficiaries to support, and a member profile panel so you can distribute your monthly donation as you wish.

But for now, let’s get our oars in the water. See you there!

Flow

cello320One of the threads in Raising Freethinkers that I found most fascinating was the section on “flow” (in Chapter 5, “Ingredients of a Life Worth Living,” written by Molleen Matsumura).

We’ve all experienced the flow state—when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying and meaningful states we can enter.

Creativity researcher and psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”

After I first read Molleen’s contribution on flow, I dug into the literature a bit. It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation.

Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say I’m flowy, but not religious.

Some thoughts from Molleen in Raising Freethinkers about how parents can facilitate the flow experience in their kids—and how we often get in the way:

Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.

Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible…

Helping your child have flow experiences that are both inherently satisfying and enhance other aspects of life will depend on identifying his or her particular abilities. Practice is a good thing, but practicing hard at a particular activity, such as playing the piano or playing basketball, will be more worthwhile to some kids than others. It takes careful observation to know whether a child really needs to try a little harder, or needs to try something different.

Writing fiction is a flow experience for me. Nonfiction, no. And writing music, for me, is never a flow experience. More like forcing a marble through a Cheerio. Playing the piano, yes — playing clarinet, nein. Hiking, yes — sports, nyet.

I want to help my kids find their flow. While I’m at it, I need to find and engage more of my own.

What are your flow experiences?