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

Being Toto

The Wizard of Oz is a secular humanist parable.

I’m not the first to suggest this possibility. But the eye roll I got from my 17-year-old son when I said it at dinner the other night could have cleared the dishes from the table. He’s currently soldiering through an AP Lit class in which the teacher earnestly insists that no cigar is ever, ever just a cigar. When one of the short stories they read described a red ovarian cyst in a jar, the teacher looked searchingly at the ceiling. “Red,” she said, drawing out the syllable and shaping her next thought with her hands. “Passion.”

“OR,” said my boy in the exasperated retelling, “red — the color of an ovarian cyst!!”

So I knew I was in for it when I claimed that The Wizard of Oz isn’t just a story about a girl and her weird dream.

But it isn’t.

Frank Baum (who wrote the book) was a religious skeptic and Ethical Culturist. Yip Harburg (who wrote the screenplay and songs) was an atheist. That doesn’t mean a thing by itself, of course. But it takes very little ceiling-gazing and hand-gesturing to see the Oz story as a direct reflection of a humanistic worldview.

Dorothy and her friends have deep, yearning human needs — for home, knowledge, heart and courage. When they express these needs, they’re told that only the omnipotent Wizard of Oz can fulfill them. They seek an audience with the Wizard, tremble in fear and awe, then are unexpectedly ordered to do battle with Sata… sorry, the Witch, who turns out pretty feeble in the end. (Water, seriously?)

When they return, having confronted their fears, the Wizard dissembles, and Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a mere human behind all the smoke and holograms — at which point they learn that all the brains, courage, heart, and home they sought from the Wizard had always been right in their own hands.

It’s really not much of a stretch to see the whole thing as a direct debunk of religion and a celebration of humanistic self-reliance. And as a bonus, Connor actually granted me the point.

Scooby meets The Shining

Back from an EPIC two-week family vacation in California, probably our last big trip as a family unit.

We ended in Yosemite, the most sock-off-knocking place on Earth, staying outside of the park in the tiny Gold Rush town of Coulterville at the Hotel Jeffery. It was an unmissable opportunity. The Jeffery, you see, is haunted. In my enthusiasm for the idea, I even booked Room 22, “the most haunted room in the hotel.”

Right after I booked and paid for it, I ran and told the kids about this fun thing I’d done, thinking they’d jump up and down. What a putz. Connor (16) thought it was cool, but the girls pretty much jumped up and down on my head.

“What were you THINKING?!” Laney asked. “Seriously, Dad, jeez!”

“Well most of the hotels near the park are already booked!” I said defensively. “And this one had a lot of rooms available, and they’re uh…they’re cheap.”

“Gosh I wonder why.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me. My kids have a healthy skepticism, partly because I’ve been pulling their legs continually since birth. (Hey, they were having a hard time out of the canal.) But their well of experience and reading and thinking about the supernatural isn’t much deeper than mine was at their ages, and I would NOT have jumped at this chance if my dad had come up with it. Hell no. I’ve worked it all out since then, so I no longer register more than a distant, limbic twinge at this stuff. Oh yes, still that.

But I’d already handed over my gold nuggets for the rooms, so we were going to be staying at the Jeffery. But to avoid a revolt in the parking lot, I knew I’d have to offer the girls something from my own well.

My biggest breakthrough in thinking about religion was realizing I didn’t have to search for the deity to decide whether I believed; I just had to look at the reasons other people believed and decide whether they were any good. (SPOILER ALERT: Nope.) The same thing works with the paranormal. So before the trip, I showed Erin and Delaney the first two minutes of this video:

“Oh, please!” Laney said when the door opened (1:30). Erin laughed with relief. Now they were dipping into their own wells of experience. Both of them grew up in a 115-year-old Victorian house in Minnesota. Like the Jeffery, none of our door frames were quite squared, and the slightest change of air pressure would cause a door to drift open, even if you couldn’t feel it. The silliness of somebody else’s evidence helped their concerns melt away. “You’re just people like us in the universe” became one of the catch phrases of our trip.

So I thought we were done. Oy, putz!

The last leg of the trip arrived. We drove straight from LA and pulled up in front of the Jeffery, which has a very cool, fairly authentic, unpolished feeling. Gaudy wallpaper, dim lighting. Wood creaks and paint peels. No check-in counter — you get your keys from the bartender at the period saloon downstairs, which was nicely filled with bikers. And upstairs we went.

The doors of unoccupied rooms are left ajar. Of the 22 rooms in the hotel, 22 were ajar. We were the only guests for the night, and we had one room on each of the two floors — at opposite ends. Becca noticed there were no phones. And we hadn’t had cell reception for twenty miles. This was getting good.

And then it got better. Once the saloon emptied out, even the staff left. Locked the door and left. We were now the only people in the building.

Despite all this, and the sun going down, everybody was still fine fine fine…until Becca opened a little black case we’d been given with the key for Room 22. It was a ghost detection kit, with instruments like a “GaussMaster electromagnetic field meter,” a motion detector, and a laser thermometer.

Delaney had been sitting on the bed, reading the instructions, which she slowly lowered into her lap.

“I don’t want to do this.”

All of her earlier fear was right back on her face. It’s easy to dismiss mediums cooing over a door that opens by itself — literally kid’s stuff. But this looked an awful lot like science.

I wasn’t going to force her to do it, of course. But I also thought we should try to defuse her fears before the lights went out.

I picked up the instructions and read. “Hmm. Um hmm. Looks all official and sciencey.” She nodded. “Well there’s a word for that. It’s called pseudoscience. Guess what ‘pseudo’ means.”

“I dunno.”

“Fake,” I said. “Pseudoscience means fake science. Something pretending to be science that isn’t.”

Now this was interesting. From nothing more than that, she suddenly looked visibly relieved. Not completely, but better. Somehow knowing there was a word for the fakery, a whole category, gave skepticism a form of its own, something she could hold on to.

Of course having this long, fancy word didn’t really confer legitimacy any more than the sciencey words in the instructions did, any more than calling something “transubstantiation” makes it less goofy. But in that moment, having a name for “fake science” helped her see that it might be exactly that.

I read the instructions aloud for one of the gizmos. “‘If the reading is between 0.3 and 0.5, you may be in the presence of a spirit.'” We turned on the meter and pointed it at a corner. The needle went up and down from 0.0 to 0.6. “They said that means there’s a ghost there. How do we know that isn’t the normal variation?” She shrugged. “We don’t. And they know we don’t know that, so they make up numbers to freak us out and sell ghost detection kits.”

Two minutes later, we each had a device and were tiptoeing, Scooby-style, down the intentionally dark hallway, humming scary organ music, pointing at shadows and giggling. We went into dark guest rooms, scanning everything as we went, needles bouncing and lights flashing. By the time we got back to our rooms, they were back to the reaction they’d had to the video of the self-opening door.

The next day we talked about the incentive the Jeffery has to bill itself as haunted — hell, it’s what snared me! — and came up with a few ways they could do it better. I think their skeptical wells are a little fuller for the experience. And it was damn fun.

(If you have a minute, go back and enjoy the video of “orbs” around 4:00.)

In which a really smart man makes me sad

I just finished writing a short piece on the ways in which “atheist” and “agnostic” can both describe the same worldview: it is my considered opinion that God does not exist (atheist), and because you can never be quite sure of such a thing, I’m not quite sure (agnostic).

While doing the research, I came across a February interview in which philosopher Anthony Kenny asked Richard Dawkins why, if he admits to being less than certain, he doesn’t call himself an agnostic.

“I do,” he answered.

A planetary gasp ensued. The next morning, the religious affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote breathlessly that Richard Dawkins, “the most famous atheist in the world…admitted he could not be sure God did not exist [and] preferred to call himself an agnostic rather than an atheist.”

Not only has Dawkins said the same thing countless times, including in The God Delusion (p. 74), but he said nothing whatever about preference. Like a Christian who is also Lutheran, he was laying claim to two entirely compatible labels. Russell did warn about putting that kind of nuance in front of a general audience, but oh well. (Dawkins has clarified, for all the good that will do.)

I read about the Dawkins flap the same day I saw a BigThink video by Neil deGrasse Tyson plowing similar ground, though at right angles to Dawkins. For nearly three minutes I was in nodding agreement with Dr. T — then, in the final seconds, he lost altitude rapidly, finally slamming hard into Mt. Misconception. Here it is with my play-by-play:

0:10 Totally cool with that. No one should force anyone else’s hand on this, ever.

0:18 (Okay, that’s unfortunate. Though you have to be careful, belonging to a movement does not have to mean leaving your brain at the door. Was there no one thinking for himself or herself in the civil rights movement? The women’s rights movement?)

0:20-0:45 One of the best descriptions of this problem I’ve heard.

1:17-1:30 This describes me, and almost every atheist I know. Word for word.

1:45- He’s right — this is maddening bullshit. HE gets to choose his identity, no one else. It’s like a believer telling you you’re really a Christian, deep down. Maddening.

2:15 A really clever response to the problem. I would never have thought of that.

2:30- It’s easy to react against what he’s saying here, but listen closely. He’s talking about a pragmatic difference, and he’s right. Calling himself an atheist would be an enormous distraction from his work. Agnostic is also accurate and allows him to focus on his primary work.

2:38-2:48 Listen to the weariness in his voice here. I am completely with him on this.

2:55 Uh oh.

2:58 Oh. No no.

3:01 Oh please don’t do that. Please stay smart.

Picture saying to Gandhi, “Nonviolence? What’s up with that? I don’t play cricket, but is there a word for non cricket players? Do non cricket players go on hunger strikes and allow themselves to be clubbed?” It’s a thoughtless, vacant analogy from a really brilliant guy. Tyson doesn’t have to agree that the act of stepping outside this overwhelming cultural norm is worthy of a name, but to so thoroughly fail to grasp why others might think it is, even to the point of demeaning caricature, is really hard to watch.

3:30 This is an indictment worth hearing. Tyson is not the first accomplished agnostic or atheist to say this kind of thing. It’s worth asking if there’s something we can do as a movement to make it easier for people like Tyson to stand anywhere near us without losing their ability to do their work.

I do wonder if Tyson would so easily shrug the movement away if his own area of science was still under siege by geocentrists. Nowadays it’s mostly biologists struggling to keep religious assumptions out of their work. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Einstein, Sagan, and Tyson have all shoved the atheist label away with great irritation, while people like Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne see it as a point worth making, despite the enormous distraction from their other work.

Also: The Telegraph redeems itself a bit

Coming (religiously) unglued


The religious shall inherit the earth.
Last sentence of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann

Between his titular question and confident answer, Kaufmann lays out his reasons for thinking recent gains of secularism and liberalism in the developed world will gradually be reversed, an argument captured in an article of his that’s currently meming its way around.

The arguments are brutally simple: (1) Children tend to adopt the religious identity in which they were raised; (2) The religious have more children on average than seculars; and (3) The more conservatively religious they are, the more children they tend to have.

All true.

Now I’ve rather enjoyed the progressive achievements of the last 50 years and was looking forward to more. But math says no. As long as the assumptions in those statements remain unchanged, we’re stuck with a more conservative and more religious future, even in the developed world.

Fiendishly clever, that Darwin fella.

I’ve seen it suggested with varying degrees of seriousness that secular progressives need to get busy indoctrinating their kids and having more of them. I’ve already written at length about the misguided lunacy of the first idea and will again soon. But the second one is a particular knee-slapper. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories! We have fewer kids for good reasons, thangyavurrymush, including the desire to focus parental attention on fewer kids, financial constraints (including the high cost of education), awareness of population issues, and access to family planning resources. We’re not going to reverse that sensible progress to win some fuzzy demographic struggle by pumping out more puppies.

Fortunately we don’t have to go into Shockley mode after all, in part because…well, because it’s a weird and creepy suggestion, first of all, but also because the assumptions underlying Kaufmann’s work are shifting on their own, and by a lot.

A Pew study from 2009 on “faith switching” included an under-reported finding that the glue of family faith is losing its stick. While just 7 percent of respondents 65 and older have ever left the faith in which they were raised to become unaffiliated, that number rises to 13 percent for those in their 30s and 40s and 18 percent of those currently under 30. That’s 18 percent who have already left religion at a pretty darn young age. Doesn’t even count those millennials who will leave in their 30s and 40s — numbers already available for the older brackets.

Another assumption shift: Kaufmann points to the high religiosity and birthrate of recent immigrants, especially Hispanics, as a key driver. But the birthrate of US immigrants drops dramatically once they are here — presumably as they and their children gain more of the advantages listed above, including improved access to family planning resources. And as the Pew study shows, they are much more likely with each generation to dissolve the glue that holds them to their family religion.

Finally, it’s silly to think an increase in diversity is ultimately going to make us more conservative. The increasing nonwhite slice of the American pie has a strong progressive effect that overwhelms the residue of family-of-origin conservatism for everyone. Conservatism thrives on sameness. The more we are surrounded by genuine difference, the less able we each are to cling to fantasies of the One True Faith or the master race. It’s harder to keep the cartoons in place when you are cheek-and-jowl with real people of other cultures, creeds, and colors.

Here in my Atlanta suburb, for example, which a generation ago was easily 95 percent white conservative Baptist, my five most immediate neighbors are from Indonesia, Turkish Armenia, Korea, India, and Ukraine. Last week, my daughter’s Saudi-born fourth grade teacher taught her students how to write their names in Arabic. This is Atlanta, folks. And the same thing is happening pretty much everywhere I go.

So when you see articles like Kaufmann’s, relax. The picture is much more complex and promising than a simple birthrate analysis suggests. And rather than throw out our own family planning, do the obvious — support family planning for everybody.

As for religious identity, it’s becoming less of an automatic inheritance, thanks in large part to the churches themselves, which are falling over themselves to alienate their young folks and succeeding at an incredible rate. If we want to help the process of dissolving that glue, there’s no better way than creating a happy, normal place for those leaving religion to land and thrive.

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?

Born this way?

It is an interesting and demonstrable fact that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so…[T]here is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal. —ERNESTINE ROSE, “A Defence of Atheism” (1861)

Boy do we secular parents love us a quote like that. It says my atheism is just a return to my natural condition, a rejection of something artificial that had been blown into my head by human culture. Like!

But in the last few years, I’ve come to think of the idea that we are born atheists as a seriously misleading one, and correcting it as Job One for secular parents.

It’s obviously true that we are born without religious belief. But this equates to what is called weak or negative atheism, the simple absence of belief in a god or gods. But what about the other major assertion there — that without inculcation, that absence would remain?

This gets at the very basic question of what religion is. The Rose quote implies that it’s a cultural construction, pure and simple. But if Ernestine Rose was right and atheism is so damn natural, why is the inculcation of religion received so eagerly and pried loose with such difficulty?

I’ve spent years chasing this question through the work of EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer and more. The result has made me less angry and frustrated and more empathetic toward the religious impulse, even as I continue to find most religious ideas both incorrect and problematic. It has also deeply informed my secular parenting in a very good way. Yet I’ve never expressed it out loud until a few months ago, when I reworked part of my parenting seminar to include it.

Thinking about religion anthropologically has made me a better proponent of my own worldview, a more effective challenger of toxic religious ideas, and a much better secular parent.

Why (the hell) we are the way we are

If you want to understand why we are the way we are, there’s no better place to look than the Paleolithic Era (2.4 million years ago – 11,000 years ago). Over 99.5 percent of the history of the genus Homo120,000 generations — took place during the Paleolithic. For the last 10,000 of those generations, we were anatomically modern. Same body, same brain. The brain you are carrying around in your head was evolved in response to conditions in that era, not this one. The mere 500 generations that have passed since the Paleolithic ended represent a virtual goose egg in evolutionary time.

To put it simply: we are born in the Stone Age. Childhood is a period during which we are brought — by parenting, experience, and education — into the modern world. Or not.

So if we were evolved for the Paleolithic, it seems worth asking: What was it like then? In short, it sucked to be us.

In the Lower Paleolithic, starting around 2.4 million years ago, there were an estimated 26,000 hominids on Earth. The climate was affected by frequent glacial periods that would lock up global water, leading to severe arid conditions in the temperate zones and scarce plant and animal life, making food hard to come by.

The average hominid life span was about 20 years. We lived in small bands competing for negligible resources. For two million years, our genus was balancing on the edge of extinction.

Then it got worse.

About 77,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, (apparently created by a seven-year-old boy), this eruption was a “mega-colossal” — the highest category. Earth was plunged into a volcanic winter lasting at least a decade. The human population dropped to an estimated 5,000 individuals, each living a terrifying, marginal existence.

Now remember that these humans had the same thirsty and capable brain you and I enjoy, but few reliable methods for filling it up. The most common cause of death was infectious disease. If someone is gored by a mammoth, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. But most people died for no apparent reason. Just broke out in bloody boils, then keeled over dead.

Imagine how terrifying such a world would be to a mind fully capable of comprehending the situation but utterly lacking in answers, and worse yet, lacking the ability to control it. It’s not hard to picture the human mind simply rebelling against that reality, declaring it unacceptable, and creating an alternate reality in its place, neatly packaged for the grateful relief of subsequent generations.

The first evidence of supernatural religion appears 130,000 years ago.

Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.

Conservative, traditional religion is a natural response to being human in the Paleolithic. Whether it was a good response or not is beside the point — it was the only one we had.

But we’re not in the Paleolithic anymore, you say. You certainly have the calendar on your side. We began to climb out of our situation about 500 generations ago when agriculture made it possible to stand still and live a little longer. Eventually we had the time and security to develop better responses to the problem, better ways of interrogating and controlling the world around us. But the Scientific Revolution, our biggest step forward in that journey, was just 20 generations ago. Think of that. It just happened. Our species is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of 120,000 generations in hell. And like the battle veteran who hits the dirt when he hears a backfiring car, it takes very little to push the Paleolithic button in our heads.

Yes, your kids are born without religious belief. But they are also born with the problem of being human, which includes a strong tendency to hit the dirt when the universe backfires. One of the best things a secular parent can do is know that the Paleolithic button is there so we can help our kids resist the deeply natural urge to push it.

(Part 1 of 3. Go to Part 2.)

Squinting in hindsight

Delaney (10) is on an awesome winning streak with fantastic teachers all the way back to preschool. Her current one has her all lit up about the American Revolution, and she gets off the bus every day and regales me (in the fluent Lightspeedese of an excited fourth grader) with the implications of the Intolerable Acts or Paul Revere’s provocative engraving of Occupy Boston the Boston Massacre. (That’s Revere’s propaganda piece to the left.)

So I wasn’t surprised when she came home last week with news that Ms. Monsour had asked the kids a really good question: If you were alive in the Revolution, would you have been a Patriot, a Loyalist, or a neutral?

The question comes from way up in the nosebleed section of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s a higher-order question, one with ten times more educational potential per square inch than the leading brand. And in this case, it’s one with an obvious answer, which is not to say an accurate one: I’d have been a Patriot, of course, how dare you.

If Mrs. Burks asked me the same question when I was in fourth grade — and maybe she did, I don’t remember — I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d have said. I’d have sided with the revolutionaries. They were after all the good guys. And I wouldn’t have been a nasty slaveholder in the 1850s, I’d have helped run the Underground Railroad, duh. I certainly wouldn’t have sat silent during the Nazi atrocities in the Third Reich either. I’d have had ten Anne Franks in my attic. And so on.

The moment hindsight assigns the white and black hats, we “know” which side we’d have been on with such confidence that we rarely even think to pose the question. “Would I have been for or against Hitler? WTF??!”

This doesn’t mean slavery and genocide were somehow “okay” in the context of another time. But the question of what “I” would have done and believed as a product of that time is a different one. “I” can’t be plucked from the here and now and inserted into some long-ago there and then in any meaningful way. My values and convictions flow from my knowledge and experience, two things that would have been entirely different then. It’s a tenfold version of “If I could be 18 again, knowing what I know now…” A nice game, but in the end not all that enlightening.

“So what’d you say?”

“I was the only one who said I’d be a Loyalist. Everybody else said they’d be Patriots.”

“Ooh, interesting. Why would you have been a Loyalist?”

“Well not because I think they were right,” she said. “But the British army and navy were SO much bigger, and they had all these resources, and the colonists just had a little. I probably would have wanted to be on the winning side, and it would have looked like the colonists were going to lose. I might have also thought the colonists were like terrorists fighting against my government, you know? So yeah, I would have probably been a Loyalist.”

Raymond Taylor, my 7th grade history teacher, was the first to help me to see history as something other than a parade of inevitabilities — helping me squint my 20/20 hindsight into a blur until I felt what it must have been like to dump that tea in Boston Harbor or sign that Declaration or march against Hitler or sit at a segregated lunch counter without the benefit of a known outcome. History suddenly becomes a whole different animal, pulsing with uncertainty and populated with scriptless actors.

I’d like to think I’d have always been on the side of the now-bloody-obvious, but I doubt that. I’ve played a game with my kids for years, imagining how future generations might facepalm at us: “Just imagine, Mergadink-5,” says the mother to her 24th century child. “People in the 21st century kept animals in their homes as pets, gave them demeaning names like Goober and Mister Tickles, and walked them on leashes. And children weren’t even allowed to work! Their parents gave them money in little bits called ‘allowances.'” And so on.

That game is a nice little slice of humble pie to complicate our smug hindsights, and my kids love to generate their own examples. It’s hard to be too cocksure about your position in the past when you’re not entirely sure you’ve got the present right.

The year of reading biblically

New Year’s resolutions are a big deal around our house. Everybody writes them down, reads them aloud on New Year’s Eve, and posts them for the Mid-February Shaming.

The night before New Year’s Eve, Becca told me that one of her resolutions is to read the Bible this year. Though now a secular humanist, she was raised Baptipiscobyterian, and like most BPBs her scriptural knowledge was pretty much limited to pre-masticated pastoral nuggets, Fortified with Vitamin J and 99.7% Atrocity Free.

Reading the actual thing on your own is a good idea — if not the whole actual thing, then a few key parts. I managed the whole thing, with difficulty, over the course of about a year and a half when I was 13 and 14. And by the time I was done accompanying John of Patmos on his chemical field trip, I had a much more solid foundation under the feet of my growing skepticism.

One of the hopes I’ve had for my kids is that they get some unmediated experience with the Bible. But I didn’t want to lead them there by the nose, and my one early attempt to do so by reading Genesis aloud to them about eight years ago (“Gather ’round, children!”) ended mercifully around Genesis 2 in a hail of rolled eyes and groans of agony. It was clearly not the way, but I’ve wondered ever since how we would get to that deeper level of literacy.

So I was (quietly) thrilled when Connor, now a high school junior, announced his own resolution to read the Bible straight through this year. After years as an apatheist, Connor has begun engaging more actively, often expressing a baffled, how-can-anyone-believe-this-stuff consternation at the religious assumptions of everyone from presidential candidates to rapture predictors to kneeling QBs. I take it as a really good sign that his response to bafflement is not just a dismissive snort but a desire to figure it out by learning more about the baffling thing.

On New Year’s Day, Erin (14) said she’d like to give it a try as well. Holy smokes.

I doubt that many people who pledge to read the Bible get past the begats, and a fraction of those ever finish the whole thing. And no wonder — for every verse that’s poetic, dramatic, or horrific, the Bible has half a dozen that are tedious lists of names or numbers, or instructions for washing pots or getting your Bronze-Age business done. So without being heavy-handed, I wanted to improve the chances that my kids would actually stick with it — if not to the last Amen, at least to the point where their religious literacy would get a serious boost.

The first question is version. King James is poetic, but the archaic translation won’t keep those pages turning. On the other end of the scale are efforts like the NRSV Children’s Bible (loaded with silly, happy cartoons) and The Message, which puts accessibility ahead of pretty much everything else.

To get a sense of this spectrum, here’s the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13) in King James:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

…and in The Message:

Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

If you can read that without mentally inserting “dude” every few words, you’re a better person than I.

Then there’s accuracy. Some translations simply rewrite the ineffable word of God to suit their preferences. This is important to know for critical reading but not my biggest concern in this case. Such translations end up pasting over little inconsistencies and leaving enormous, rancid horrors in place.

I’m more concerned with the use of euphemisms to help readers gloss over uncomfortable moments. Take Genesis 19:4-8:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

That’s the New International Version with one of the great jawdroppers of Western lit. Instead of “have sex with them,” King James says “so we may know them,” while The Message says, “Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!” Erin, who has a more than a hint of Amelia Bedelia in her, couldn’t be blamed for reading those last two as respective requests for conversation and tennis.

In the end, I gave Erin an NIV/Message Parallel Bible. Each page has the NIV running down the left column and The Message running down the right. She asked what the difference was, and I told her, suggesting she read the left column and use the right if she ever gets stuck. Comparing the two will keep her engaged and occasionally amused. I gave Connor the NIV Study Bible, the one I use most for reference. The translation is clear and readable, and every page is full of footnotes on historical context, alternate interpretations, and etymology.

I also gave them both a suggestion that I think is the real key to success: Start by reading Genesis and Matthew, just those two, then keep going if you want. Takes about five hours. And as Stephen Prothero points out, a good 80 percent of the religious references in our culture and politics can be found in those two books.

Now I plan to butt out completely.

A ‘Yes Virginia’ two-fer

Last year I had a go at one of the most execrable things we culturally love — the “Yes, Virginia” letter:

santabelieveOne thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, [in which] a little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry….For two years my son Connor intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.

This is THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right. When asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.

“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Now the inimitable Greta Christina has added her voice, penning the answer she would have given Virginia. (For full effect it must be read immediately after reading the original piece of dreck):

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

Read the full piece at Greta Christina’s Blog

Santa Claus: The ultimate dry run

This year, the annual reposting of my take on Santa is brought to you by Justin Bieber, whose mother didn’t want to do Santa because she was worried that Justin might draw parallels between Santa and another magical being. Now ain’t THAT a kick in the jingle bells…

IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
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First appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief, p. 87. For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see p. 85.