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

    Counting heads and changing attitudes

    graphThanks for participating in the first mini-poll of several. These polls won’t form the basis for any actual conclusions in the book, but they’ll help me think some things through, including the wording for questions in the full survey coming in a few weeks.

    Though people in secular/religious mixed marriages have always been a part of my audience, readership for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers (and this blog) skews significantly toward couples in which both partners are secular. Makes sense, since the books and blog are mostly about raising kids without religion. But even with that skew, 22 percent of the 509 respondents to this poll so far are in a secular/religious mixed marriage.

    You can roughly double that number that once you get outside of the PBB skew. Religious intermarriage has been rising steadily for a century, from 26 percent of all US marriages begun in the 1910s to 45 percent of marriages begun in the past decade.1 And nearly half of all married nonreligious Americans currently have a religious partner.2 (This comes as a big surprise to many nontheists I talk to who are convinced that secular/religious marriages are simply impossible.)

    The increase in religious intermarriages parallels an overall increase in acceptance of the idea. About 60 percent of those who reached adulthood in the 1930s felt that shared religious beliefs were “very important” for a successful marriage. For those who became adults in the 1950s, that dropped to 50 percent. And for those who came of age in the 1990s, that feeling plummeted to 23 percent.

    If you believe some of the terrible books I’m currently reading on interfaith marriage, this change in attitudes is a disaster. Many of them, including recent titles by decent publishers, bang the drum of religious uniformity as a vital component of a successful marriage. Scratch the surface and you find that many or most of these are actually more concerned about their religions than about the marriages. And it’s true — religious intermarriage has had a deleterious effect on the cohesiveness and retention of many religious traditions. But the effects on marriages, though real, are seriously overstated in the literature. (More on all that later.)

    The rest of the mini-polls, like the full survey itself, will be directed at those who are currently or formerly in secular/religious mixed marriages. I will also be creating a form to submit your own stories of dating, marrying, raising kids, and dealing with extended family across that religious/secular gap.

    Thanks for your help with this.

    ————————–

    1Cited in American Grace (Putnam and Campbell, 2010), from Gen. Social Survey
    2Faith Matters survey (2006)
    3World Values Survey, 1982 and 1990

    Help me find the right word

    photo[2]

    The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
    MARK TWAIN, Letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888

    Well into the writing and research for my book on religious/nonreligious marriages and ready to start blogging it a bit. As I did with Atheism For Dummies, I’ll be looking for your help to chew on some ideas. If you give me even half of the terrific input you gave last time, I’ll be grateful. It really helps.

    Right now I’m looking for the perfect, concise term to denote the marriage of religious and nonreligious partners.

    I can pretty much guarantee we’re not looking for an existing word, at least not one used in this context. We’re going to need a new coinage here, or at least a repurposing. The term should denote this kind of marriage without including other mixes, such as marriages between adherents of two different religions. For that reason, “mixed marriage” and “interfaith marriage” don’t do the trick, though they are useful for the larger categories.

    The ideal word would be concise — four syllables is an absolute max for a single word, maybe five for a two-word term. And even though its meaning doesn’t have to be obvious at first glance, it would be nice if it didn’t rely too much on knowledge of ancient Mediterranean languages to make sense.

    If I introduce the term up front in the book, I can then use it in place of long, tedious phrases (“When couples in which one partner is religious and the other is nonreligious…”). The new term might even make it into the title, who knows. In any case, if you coined it, you’d certainly get a loud shout in the Acknowledgements.

    So help me find le mot juste here. Help me find the lightning.

    Q&A: Black youth in secular families and the black church experience

    Black-churchesQ: I am a white mother with two fantastic African American sons who were adopted from the foster care system. I have some guilt assocated with being a nonbeliever and not exposing my sons to the culture of the traditional Black church. On the other hand, I worry that if I take our sons to a church of that nature, that they will fall prey to fear-based beliefs that could hold them back in life. I suppose I am just not 100% sure that I am doing the right thing by them. What do you think you would do in my situation?

    A: This excellent question is outside of my own knowledge or experience, which is my cue to defer to those better grounded in the topic.

    Nonbelieving black parents confront the same question you’ve raised, of course, so I spoke to Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, board member of Foundation Beyond Belief, and a mother of three.

    “There is often a misconception that [the Black church experience] is something that all Blacks must embrace, which is simply not true,” Thomas said. “My suggestion is if the boys do not express an interest in attending a Black church, then don’t make them go. So it isn’t something that she HAS to expose to her sons, unless they ask her. Then it would be fair to take them to a service for the experience.”

    Author and activist Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson notes that the black church is not a necessary element of the black experience for all African Americans, though there is a common misconception that it is. “Despite high-profile sex abuse and financial scandals, the Church is still perceived as the ‘backbone’ of the black community,” she writes in Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011). “[But] the notion that there is a ‘marching in lockstep’ black religious community is outdated,” she adds. And for all the community and identity benefits found in black church communities, there are also troubling downsides of involvement, especially for kids. Hutchinson cites the overwhelming opposition among many prominent black churches to marriage rights for gays and lesbians as a “morally indefensible” position with which many others in the African American community, including black atheists, strongly disagree. She goes on to cite regressive gender attitudes and other undesirable messages frequently woven into the black church.

    So it seems that there are at least as many pitfalls as advantages in connecting them with the black church, and that most of the advantages of cultural connection can be had by other means. I strongly recommend you pick up Sikivu’s book, which addresses many of these issues brilliantly. But as Mandisa Thomas suggests, going with them to an AME or other traditionally black church — not as regular members, but on occasion, as part of their religious and cultural literacy — and talking about it afterward, can be a valuable experience.

    Finally I spoke to Ayanna Watson, an attorney in New York and founder of Black Atheists of America, who offered alternative ways to expose young African Americans to their cultural heritage.

    “While the church is extremely influential, there are ways to get around it,” she said. “She can most certainly take her children to events that are outside the church. While the influence of religion will still be there, it will likely not be as much. Some examples include museums, art exhibits, performances, and plays. If she has not already, she should make sure she has plenty of books/online articles that she can proffer to her children discussing prominent members of the black community. Black nonbelief is nothing new, it’s simply a topic that is often avoided by the masses. By exposing her children to these individuals and instilling (and reinforcing) critical thinking skills, I would think she would be fine.”

    Atheists of color – a list (Greta Christina)

    (Submit your own question for the blog)

    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?

    6000 days

    Part 3 of 3.
    Go to Part 1
    or Part 2.

    The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
    Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

    We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

    I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

    Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

    I want my kids to get that very good news.

    Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

    At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

    Not the answer we were expecting.

    For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

    Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

    I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

    I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

    I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

    Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

    These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

    Now isn’t THAT nice.

    We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

    Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

    I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.

    Unnatural

    (Part 2, continued from “Born This Way?“)

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade / You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught!

    –from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (1949)

    It’s a riveting horror — no caption required, just the immensely sad, unaware eyes of the younger girl. There’s no reason to believe they’ve embraced the messages on their shirts yet, but every reason to assume their environment is primed to lead them there.

    But is it really true that we’ve got to be taught to hate those who are different from us? Answer one way and parents can simply decline to teach them to hate. Answer the other way and there’s something we need to actively do to help them avoid it.

    I think we’re more naturally inclined to hate and fear difference than not. Religion isn’t the only parting gift we got from the Paleolithic. A lot of the things we are, including some of our worst pathologies, were once strongly adaptive traits. Evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up to our circumstances. As a result, we’re a whole panel of buttons waiting to be pushed. And one of the best things a parent can do is to help those buttons rust.

    Before I get to that, let’s look at more of our inheritance:

    GOT TO BE TAUGHT?
    A million years ago, food was desperately hard to come by, and cooperation within a small group was advantageous. But cooperating with the group next door would have doubled the mouths to feed without moving the needle much on available food. Genetic tendencies toward in-group cooperation and out-group hostility would have provided a selective advantage, as would distrust of people who dressed, looked, or acted differently from you. The more different they were, the more likely their interests conflicted with yours.

    Aggressive nationalism, militarism, racism, and the exaggerated fear of immigrants and of all things foreign are modern expressions of what was once a sensible approach to staying alive. But in an interdependent world, these same characteristics can be downright harmful.

    BE AFRAID
    It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon a million years ago. Two Homo erectuseses are walking through the high grass on the African savannah. Suddenly there’s movement off to the left. One of them assumes it’s something fun and goes in for a hug. The other jumps 15 feet straight up and grabs a tree limb. Even if it’s just a fluffy bunny nine times out of ten, which of these guys is more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation?

    In a world bent on killing you, no characteristic would have been more useful for survival than perpetual, sweaty hypervigilance. We’ve inherited a strong tendency to assume that every shadow and sound is a threat, which in turn kept us alive and reproducing. By the time elevated blood pressure killed you off at 22, you’d already have several jittery, paranoid offspring pounding espressos and cradling stone shotguns all through the long, terrifying night.

    Fast forward to a world of 7 billion people in close quarters. Suddenly it’s no longer quite so adaptive to have everybody all edgy and shooty all the time. But our brains don’t know that. One of the resulting paradoxes is that fear often increases as actual danger diminishes. If you can’t see and name it, it must be hiding, you see, which is ever so much worse. Violent crime in the U.S. recently hit the lowest level since records have been kept — in every category — but who’d ever know? Instead, we take every violent news story as proof of the opposite. We insist things are worse than ever in “this day and age,” keep cradling those shotguns…and keep forwarding those urban legends.

    When you get an email warning that rapists are using $5 bills or recordings of crying babies or ether disguised as perfume to lure and capture their victims, or that child abduction rates have risen 444% since 1982 — all untrue — you’ve just received a message from the Paleolithic. But by constantly naming dangers and sounding the alarm, we feel safer.

    (Think for a minute about how 9/11 — a death-dealing sneak attack by the Other — pushed our collective Paleolithic button. It was a massive confirmation of our oldest unarticulated fears, and we dropped to our collective knees.)

    I could go on and on. In addition to magical thinking, fear of difference, and hypervigilance, we can add categorical thinking, enforced gender divisions, the love of weapons and authority, and much more, all of which had clear adaptive advantages during the long, dark night of our species. These things are, in a word, natural.

    Which is not to say good. Rape is also natural. “From an evolutionary perspective,” says biologist/philosopher David Lahti, “considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it.” Yet it happens, ten thousand times a day, because we’ve developed a frankly unnatural social morality that trumps the natural a gratifyingly high percentage of the time.

    Secularism, comfort with difference, a reasonable relaxation of vigilance, the blurring of categories (sex, gender, race, etc), the willingness to disarm ourselves and to challenge authority — these are all unnatural, recent developments, born in fits and starts out of the relative luxury of a post-Paleolithic world. I’m sure you’ll agree that they are also better responses to the world we live in now — at least those of us privileged to live in non-Paleolithic conditions.

    Of course our limbic brain differs on that, but it would, wouldn’t it?

    Now — the astute reader may have noticed that the things that kept us alive a million years ago line up incredibly well with the nationalistic, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, pro-authority, pro-gender-role, anti-diversity talking points of social conservatives. But if you think my point is to belittle conservatives by calling them cavemen, not so. I think there’s a lot to be gained by recognizing social conservatism, including religious conservatism, as the activation of ancient and natural fears, and to respond accordingly.

    My circumstances have allowed my Paleolithic buttons to remain unpushed. That’s why I’m not a social conservative. Growing up, I was made to feel safe. I was not frightened with Satan or hell or made to question my own worth or worthiness. I was given an education, allowed to think freely, encouraged to explore the world around me and to find it wonderful. Unlike the vast majority of the friends I have who are religious conservatives, I never passed through a disempowering life crisis — a hellish divorce, a drug or alcohol spiral, the loss of a child — that may have triggered that feeling of abject helplessness before I had developed my own personal resources. So I never had to retreat into the cave of my innate fears.

    In short, I’ve been lucky.

    A lot of people with the same luck are religious. But in my experience, those strongly tend toward what Bruce Bawer has called the “church of love” — the tolerant, diverse, justice-oriented side of the religious spectrum, grounded in a more modern perspective but still responding to the human problem that science, admittedly, has only partly solved.

    It’s rare for a person with all of the advantages listed above to freely choose the “church of law” — the narrow, hateful, Paleolithic end we rightly oppose. Those folks, one way or another, are generally thrown there, like the girls in the photo. Sometimes they find their way out, but their road is tougher than mine was.

    Seeing things this way has made me more empathetic to conservative religious believers, even as I oppose the malign consequences of their beliefs. Understanding our natural inheritance also makes me frankly amazed that we ever do anything right. Given the profound mismatch between what we are and what the world is, we should all have vanished in a smoking heap by now. Instead, we create art and cure disease and write symphonies and figure out the age of the universe and somehow, despite ourselves, hang on to an essentially secular government in a predominantly religious country.

    Okay, I just have to stop writing, even though I haven’t reached the punchline — what this all means for parents. So there will be a Part 3.

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: After further research and smart reader input, I've yanked the section "Every Sperm is Sacred" from this post, which was based on hypotheses that have apparently been superseded. Science marches on!]

    Owning Einstein

    I’m itching to write about the UC Davis situation. There’s something important to be said that isn’t much being talked about. But it’s too important to rush, and the book deadline is seriously looming, so I’ll wait until December when no one cares anymore. For now, another teaser from Voices of Unbelief (ABC-CLIO, August 2012).

    One of the great games in the culture wars is claiming the good and smart for your team and pushing the monsters away. Picture Christian and atheist captains in a sandlot choosing basketball teams. “Einstein, we get Einstein!” say the atheists. “No way, he used the word God!…Well Jefferson then.” “Oh you WISH!” And so it goes until only Hitler is left, standing alone in short pants.

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

    Excerpts from the personal correspondence and interviews of Albert Einstein

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

    –Letter of March 24, 1954 to a correspondent asking him to clarify his religious views. Dukas, Helen, and Banesh Hoffman, eds. (1981). “Albert Einstein: The Human Side.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 43.

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

    –Letter to Guy H. Raner Jr. (28 September 1949). Isaacson, Walter (2008). “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 390.

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

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

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

    –From a 1930 interview with poet, writer, and later Nazi propagandist G.S. Viereck. Frankenberry, Nancy K. (2008). “The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 153.

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

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

    With friendly thanks and best wishes
    Yours, A. Einstein

    –Letter from Einstein to author Eric Gutkind, January 1954, in response to receiving Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.” Quoted in “Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear,” The Guardian, May 13, 2008

    It’s interesting to see Einstein and others (including Carl Sagan) whose views are essentially identical to mine but who see atheism as a position of certainty (which in practice it almost never is) and reject the label on those terms. If theism can accommodate strong conviction rather than certainty, it seems that atheism should be allowed the same latitude. But at least Einstein makes his reasoning clear in these letters. I’ll bet that’ll put an end to all the confusion.

    Just regular

    Remember this story from a few weeks back, when Erin (13) overheard another girl being gently grilled by a couple of peers about her atheism? It’s apparently ongoing. Fortunately the tone is much more inquisitive than Inquisitive. Here’s a bit from the middle school cafeteria earlier this week:

    BOY: So what’s it like to be an atheist?

    GIRL: What do you mean? It’s just regular.

    BOY: But — what do atheists do?

    GIRL: What do we do? We do regular stuff.

    BOY: I mean like what do you do on Sunday?

    GIRL: Probably about what you do on Saturday. But I get two.

    (Who IS this kid? Somewhere in 1976, my 13-year-old self just wet himself in shame.)

    BOY, after a thoughtful pause: So you can do anything you want then because you don’t have to obey God’s law.

    ERIN, interjects: Well…you still have to obey THE law, you know.

    Oh how I love these things. I think this kind of low-impact conversation between peers has incredible power to rock preconceptions and give kids permission to think independently. It’s also about 30 times more bloody friggin’ interesting than most of what gets itself talked about, no matter what your age.

    Kids vary in their desire to do this, which is fine. As I’ve said before, Connor (16) has no interest at all, while Delaney (9) has done it continuously since she was four. Erin is just beginning to toe-dip and finding out how cool it can be.

    I know this can be dicier in some areas and situations. But I also know that we often falsely assume that’s the case. We’re in a pretty conservative area here, both religiously and politically, and still (the occasional brief freakout aside) the conversations my kids have had across belief lines have gone really well. I’ve heard the same from score of parents in places you’d think would go the other way. It almost always goes better than you think it will.

    I suggest raising kids who love to engage ideas and know how to do so in a way that respects the people who hold those ideas — then let them decide whether and how to have these conversations.

    An unreliable Witness (Part 2)

    (Read Part 1 first.)

    Previously on The Meming of Life: I expressed concern to a Jehovah’s Witness over my (allegedly) disobedient son. She confirmed that the Bible is completely reliable and accurate, and that its advice applies even today. We now return to our story, already in progress.

    “I’m relieved to hear you say that,” I said. “You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

    Her reaction was immediate — a loud nervous laugh. “HAHA! Well we don’t want you to do THAT!”

    I blinked. “But Jesus does.” I flipped open to Matthew 5:17 and pointed.

    “I…I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know what translation you’re using there.” She pulled out her own bible — most likely the New World Translation, a JW version published in the 1950s — and flipped to Matthew. “And I see yours is in red letters,” she said. “I’m not sure what that indicates…”

    “The words of Christ.”

    “Oh, okay.” She scanned her own Mt 5:17. “Okay, yes, it’s basically the same. But it’s important to read the Deuteronomy verse in context. It is not suggesting that you can kill your son.”

    “You’re right, it doesn’t say I can. I says I shall. I don’t see that I have a choice. In fact, in Mark 7:9 *flip flip flip* Jesus specifically criticizes the Pharisees for not killing their children as the Old Law commands. What context are you talking about?”

    “You can’t just look at the words and say, okay, I’m done, I’ll do that. God was speaking to Ancient Israel. Our time is not the same.”

    “I see. So you can’t read the Bible exactly as it is, you have to interpret it.”

    “Yes. Well no! It’s a matter of context, not interpretation.”

    “And in the context of Ancient Israel, it was moral to kill your disobedient child.”

    “Yes. But not today.”

    “So God’s moral law has changed.”

    The eyes of the moon-faced boy were becoming enormous white craters. Voldemort was apparently toweling off. The smile was unchanged.

    “No. God’s law is eternal. Only man’s law changes.”

    “And Deuteronomy is whose word again?”

    She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

    “Ma’am, if one of us is struggling, I don’t think it’s me.” I dropped my pretense. “Look — I’m not planning to kill my son. It’s immoral now, and it was immoral in ancient Judea. The Sixth Commandment covers that. There’s no ‘context’ that makes it okay to kill a disobedient child. It’s also a bit of a problem to say that a book including such a clear instruction is to be followed to the letter.”

    She paused. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Let me just say this. When I discovered the Bible many years ago, when I learned that this is the Truth” — she pressed her hand into the cover with soft intensity — “it made such a difference in my life. It helped me, and it can help you. We cannot possibly know what is right without it.”

    I shook my head. “What you just said is not true. You’ve just shown that you are better than that.” I held the Bible up. “There’s a lot of really good stuff in here, but there is also a lot of absolutely wretched, immoral stuff. And you recognized that it was wrong to kill my son, despite what the Bible said. You used your own moral reasoning to sort that out. That’s a really good thing. It’s what we should all do.”

    No reply.

    “If you had come to my house two weeks ago and handed me a letter that simply told me to kill my son, I would have been justified in calling the police. Of course you would never do that. But you essentially gave me that same letter with a lot of other pages around it, and told me it was the perfect word of God.”

    It was obvious that she had never had an experience like this. Though the boy was hard to read (or even to look at directly at this point), the Talker was clearly intelligent and seemed intrigued. We talked for another ten minutes at least. She asked if I wasn’t astonished by the perfect fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the Gospels. I asked if she was astonished by the perfect fulfillment of predictions from the first Harry Potter book in the seventh Harry Potter book. The gospel writers had the OT in their laps and shaped their retelling of the life of Christ to fulfill those prophecies — a common practice in Mediterranean religious literature. We talked about midrash and syncretism, which she had never heard of. I told her about the Jesus Seminar, which she had also never heard of.

    “Do you believe in God at all?” she asked at last. I do not, I said, but I’ve always been fascinated by ultimate questions. The people I don’t understand are the ones who are indifferent to those questions. She agreed.

    “Well,” she said, “I guess we can leave it there.” I apologized for keeping her so long, and she said, “My no. I’m the one who wanted to stay. This has been so interesting.” We shook hands, and off they went. I’d like to think they’ll remember it, and that it will nicely complicate their task from now on.

    That night I told the story at dinner. While Connor (who is not, by the way, a difficult child) and I were clearing the table (see?), he said, “I can’t believe what you did to those people.”

    Uh oh. Yeah, I wondered about that. Remember the cross necklace story a few weeks ago? Connor is a classic apatheist, and the collision of religious ideas makes him uncomfortable.

    “Con, don’t worry, I was very gentle about it.”

    “No no, that’s not what I mean. I mean…it was awesome how you did that. I can’t believe it.”

    Well that did it. Now the stoning is off for sure.