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

The power of two

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me incredibly proud. That alone is not news — she continually emits a parental pride induction field, that girl. But in this case she showed a bit of courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

Erin walked into my upstairs office after school. ”Guess what happened today.”

I gave up.

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

Ooooh, here we go. I shifted in my seat.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my. What a thing that is. “Erin that’s so great. Just imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

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

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. And when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

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

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

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

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

Uniformity of all kinds is almost always an illusion. And when it falls apart, there’s a whole lot of winning going on.

Embrace the awkward

“Why did you do that? Seriously Dad.”

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

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

That’s when I learned I had embarrassed Connor (15).

“It was so awkward,” he said.

Aha. I really should have figured that. “I guess so,” I said. “But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I was.

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

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

That I get.

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

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

A nice ending, I think, and worth an awkward moment.

“This just isn’t going to happen”

RBB Poster 01_smLate last week, as I sat down to write a post about Rock Beyond Belief, I received notice that it had been cancelled.

Quick summary for those who haven’t followed this:

Last September, an evangelical Christian rock concert called “Rock the Fort” was held at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Sponsored by the Fort Bragg chaplains, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and 20 area churches, the event was promoted as an opportunity to win souls by “[bringing] the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community.” Ft. Bragg chaplain Col. David Hillis made it clear in a letter to local churches that “Rock the Fort is evangelical in nature…The concert will conclude with a clear gospel message.”

It worked. Event organizers claimed 700 on-stage conversions of soldiers and civilians.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State correctly stated that “the military has no business sponsoring a rally that is clearly designed to convert people to evangelical Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Military Religious Freedom Foundation likewise weighed in with constitutional concerns. “Churches have the right to reach out to anyone to spread their religious messages,” Boston said, “but the government is not allowed to help them do it.”

The Staff Judge Advocate soothed worried brows with a letter promising equal treatment:

Bragg1-550x204

This was echoed in a letter from the base commander.

One soldier at Fort Bragg, Sgt. Justin Griffith, decided to take the base commander at his word. If the military is going to sponsor events of this kind, they must do so for other perspectives as well. Thus was born ROCK BEYOND BELIEF, a day of fun and entertainment featuring secular bands and speakers including Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Hemant Mehta, and Eugenie Scott (and me).

Justin was a class act from the beginning. He was determined to make the event a positive expression, not a poke in the eye. Every time someone tried to paint RBB as an anti-religious event or an attempt to “spread the atheist message,” Justin slapped it down. This would be a positive celebration of secular values, but never an attempt to recruit, convince, or attack. No de-conversion or de-baptism ceremonies. High road all the way.

He pulled together a volunteer staff and began the long approval process in November. Funding was a serious concern. But a Freedom of Information Act request by FFRF revealed that Billy Graham’s Rock the Fort event had received over $54,000 in direct support from the Dept. of Defense.

The next step was simple: the base commander had promised “the same level of support to comparable events,” so a request was made for a similar level of financial support for Rock Beyond Belief.

The approval was a no-brainer, and the base legal staff recommended that Rock Beyond Belief receive the same support Rock the Fort had received.

The last step would be the signature of the garrison commander. He “approved” the event per se, but added what Justin rightly called “crippling restrictions.” Instead of the outdoor post-parade ground that Rock the Fort had used, Rock Beyond Belief would be confined to an indoor theatre that holds 700. There would be no financial support of any kind. And unlike Rock the Fort, he required that all advertising carry a disclaimer that the event carried “no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.”

Justin had no choice but to cancel.

The whole thing rang loud bells for me. Justin was attempting to hold the Army to its own stated principles, not to mention the US Constitution. And instead of progressing straight to court over Rock the Fort, he had chosen to request equal treatment. A promise of equal treatment was made, then withdrawn.

Eight years ago I tried something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. I was on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college that trumpeted an atmosphere of open inquiry and critical thinking in all of its public statements and recruitment materials. All points of view were said to be welcome in this vibrant marketplace of ideas.

The college also considers itself a feminist institution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of feminist pioneers have been atheists or agnostics was never mentioned. So when an informal student humanist group I advised wanted to bring Annie Laurie Gaylor on campus to talk about feminism and freethought, I thought it a perfect fit with the college’s stated values. Annie Laurie wrote Women Without Superstition, the definitive book on the topic.

We reserved the room, clearly stating the nature of the event, paid the required fee, and received an approved contract. We advertised openly on campus and in the papers for four weeks. But 45 minutes before the event, a security guard arrived and locked the hall, “By order of the president.”

I called Sister Anita for an explanation and was told that I had not reserved the hall. When I replied that I had the reservation in hand, she was silent for several seconds.

“Look Dale,” she finally said, “this just isn’t going to happen.”

The next day, as word of the lockout spread, she sent a campus-wide email claiming that I had intentionally misrepresented the nature of the event. The day after that, the first student protest in the history of the college took place on the quad. Major media stories ensued, and I received some blistering hate mail.

I managed to stay three more years, trying to improve the climate of inquiry on campus, before nausea led me to resign and pursue my current work.

Though religion is in play in both of these situations, the principle applies to countless others as well. If a minority point of view is on the verge of gaining a fair hearing within the rules, someone in the majority will simply change the rules. The women’s movement struggled against the same kind of goalpost-moving, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 essentially said, “Okay, from now on we will follow our own rules.” The majority party in Congress regularly changes procedures to hogtie the minority. Rules are useful, goes the reasoning of the powerful, until they aren’t. At which point etc.

Some defenders of the garrison commander will surely point out that he didn’t cancel the event, Justin did. A bit like saying, “Sure, I shot you, but you’re the one that fell over.”

Eight years ago I was heartbroken that what could have been a simple, positive expression of the important place of religious doubt in our history instead yielded a melee of angry protests, accusations, and hate mail because someone decided their own rules were meant to be broken as needed. Now Justin’s attempt to create something positive is instead devolving into ugliness and lawsuits for the same reason.

The suit is justified and necessary (and, as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s Mikey Weinstein put it, “a one-inch putt”) — but once again I’m heartbroken at the duplicity and the lost opportunity.

I hope I’d behave better than the garrison commander and Sister Anita in a position of majority power. But if I were to do otherwise, I hope the minority voices I trample on would shame me into integrity.

The Empire Strikes Back

[Continued from When science goes south]

monkeylukeDelaney was all butterflies the morning of the broadcast. I assured her she’d be just fine.

“But I’m talking to THE PRINCIPAL!” she said in mock horror. “In front of the whole school!”

She was secretly adoring the whole idea, we both knew that, but the nerves were no less real. She’d never done anything like this before.

I drove her to school early, then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the principal.

“I’m here with Delaney McGowan today who won first place in a national contest,” said Mr. Robinson. “This is amazing, Delaney! Tell us all about it.”

“Well,” she said, “I won an art contest.”

Hmm.

I grinned and shook my head. After all that, she called it an art contest. That’s fine, of course — she can call it whatever she wants. But I did think it was a bit odd. She’d never called it that before, for one thing. And I never mentioned Ms. Warner’s phone call to her. What an odd coincidence.

She went on to describe the contest with the kind of engaging, articulate poise she’s always had, but somehow got all the way through without ever saying any form of the word “evolution.” Extremely hard to do, given the nature of the contest. The closest she came was the word “adapted,” which she used once or twice. Again, it’s a non-issue…if she’s choosing her own words.

When she ran off the school bus as she always does, I engulfed her in a hug. “You…were…AWESOME,” I said. “I could never have been so clear and calm when I was nine! Did you think of all that yourself, or did anybody help you with what to say?”

(Subtle bastard.)

“Well, there was one kind of weird thing,” she said. “About two minutes before the interview, Ms. Warner told me I shouldn’t say the word ‘evolution.’”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Dad?”

“Well…huh. You uh…you did an amazing job, that’s all I can say.”

(I think that’s what I said. It may not have included any actual human sounds.)

“What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”

“No, nothing, I…well, I’m, I’m, I’m…I’m kind of just wondering why Ms. Warner would say such a silly thing, is all. Why not say ‘evolution’? That just seems weird.”

“Yeah, it does.”
eaglenews2
“Didn’t Mr. Robinson say anything to her when she said that?”

“He was out in the hall right then.” Her face knotted up. “But it made me so nervous! During the whole interview, I kept worrying that I was going to say the Word.”

The Word.

Despite my silly graphics in this post — an attempt to keep things from getting too dark — this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d gone out of my way to keep Laney from getting a negative message about her accomplishment. I’d been low-key and reasonable, and the thing had happened anyway as if I’d never left my chair.

What really hurt was hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as one of the things she’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving, this amazing and unique girl had heard from an educator in her school that one of the great concepts in science was in fact a word she should not use, and by implication, a thought she should not think. Evolution, a perpetual source of wonder to her, had become The Word, a thing to avoid, something vaguely dirty.

Even worse, this woman chose Laney’s moment of excited triumph — of scientific triumph — to display her own likely ignorance of the concept that Laney understands better than most adults in any given room.

Now to fully grasp the complex challenge of that moment for Delaney, a thought experiment: Imagine you’re nine years old. You’ve won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You are invited to speak to your school principal about it on camera in front of 1,000 of your peers. You’ve practiced what you want to say, over and over. You’re nervous and excited. Then two minutes before you go on, an Authority Figure leans over and says, “By the way: don’t mention baking.”

(Only because the confectionery arts aren’t in the elementary curriculum, you understand.)

At bedtime that night, Laney told her mom something that simply broke our hearts. Mr. Hamilton, Laney’s dynamic and gifted teacher from first grade, a HUGE favorite of hers, had popped into her classroom late in the day. “He said he saw me on the Eagle News,” she said, “but his class was too loud and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So he wants me to come by his room and tell him all about it some time.” Her eyes watered. “But…I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”

I hope we’re agreed that this is a very big deal.

I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.

I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways (in the email, if not in the darkest corner of my heart). I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.

As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.

No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.

We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.

We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.

We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.

We wanted damage control for Delaney.

We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.

But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.

Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.

It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belong — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.

Next time, the meeting. (SPOILER ALERT: it goes well.)

When science goes south

link2My daughter wants to be a scientist. It’s all she’s ever wanted to be. And though she’s only nine, I have a pretty strong feeling she’s going to end up there.

When Charlie’s Playhouse announced an Evolution & Art Contest last fall, she was all over it. Imagine an island with a unique environment. Choose an existing animal to put on the island. Fast forward a million years or so and imagine how the animal would evolve as a result of that environment. Draw a picture of the evolved animal. Awesome.

monkeySoon the sketches were flying. Finally, with just days to go before the deadline, Laney showed me her entry.

“The island has purple polka-dotted trees and bushes and quiet predators,” she explained. “And the only food is hard nuts. So after a long, long time, the monkeys evolve to have purple polka dots, huge ears to hear the predators, and sharp teeth to crack the nuts.”

She might not know an allele if it jumped up and mutated all over her, but her grasp of natural selection outstrips that of most adults. And she got this grasp not through lectures but by observing the results of natural selection all around us, and caring enough to think about it.

I described our approach in Raising Freethinkers (p. 17):

If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it. What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

[Then] imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

When she does eventually encounter allele frequencies, cladistics, the modern synthesis and all the rest, it’ll glide into place on the foundation she’s laid for it. The key for now is to keep her engaged.

Winning the contest didn’t hurt that one bit. She nearly passed out in excitement. We let her teacher know about it, and he showered her with kudos, then forwarded the news to the front office.

Last week we received a call. It was Ms. Warner, an assistant administrator at the school. Becca answered. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but it was obviously good news of some sort.

Until it wasn’t.

When she hung up, she was clearly upset.

“Laney’s going to be interviewed by the principal on the Eagle News” — that’s a closed-circuit TV program that starts each school day — “about winning the Charlie’s Playhouse contest.”

I waited.

“But Ms. Warner said they’re not going to call it an ‘Evolution & Art’ contest — just an ‘Art’ contest. When I asked why, she said, ‘Because evolution is not in the curriculum.’ I said yes it is, it’s in the high school curriculum, and she said, ‘But it’s not in the elementary curriculum, so it’ll just be described as an ‘Art’ contest.’”

The heat started in my neck and spread to my ears, then into my face. Becca began swearing a blue streak. I sat down and wrote the most fabulously profane email of my life to a friend. Venting is good. Not sure if I was madder about the ignorance or the cowardice or the dishonesty — or the fact that this educator was dismissing the truly exceptional nature of what Laney did.

It wasn’t an art contest, you see. Delaney’s accomplishment had been scientific, not artistic. The drawing is dandy, but it’s just a way of expressing her grasp of the science. To have her school — savor that for a moment, her school — not only disregard her achievement, but send her the message that it’s something to be hidden, to be ashamed of…

sciencegradesI know what you’re thinking. Yes, this is Georgia. But as I’ve said before, in the four years we’ve been here, I’ve had far more opportunity to be pleasantly surprised than not. In addition to living in an area even more culturally and religiously diverse than the one we left in Minneapolis, our kids are getting an incredible education in top-ranked schools.

evolutionAfter many years in the national basement, Georgia’s latest science standards are excellent. And when it comes to the teaching of evolution itself, it ranks in the top tier of the Fordham study (see maps) — above Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and 24 other states.

Science standards don’t have to be in the South to go south. As Lawrence Lerner put it in the NCSE Journal,

although there is a disproportionate concentration of ill-treatment of evolution in the Bible Belt, geography is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for such treatment. Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, treated evolution very well while New Hampshire and Wisconsin did not.

The most relevant anti-science spectrum in the US (and elsewhere) is not North-South, but urban-suburban-rural. The suburbs of Atlanta have more in common with the suburbs of Philadelphia than either has in common with the small towns in its own state. The quality of science education tends to drop in sync with population density.

But that’s on paper. As Ms. Warner and Mr. Taylor clearly show, individuals in the system will do their level best to undercut even the best standards.

A deeply depressing Penn State study released two weeks ago found that only 28 percent of high school biology teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred. About 13 percent of biology teachers explicitly advocate creationism in the classroom, while 60 percent use at least one of three strategies to avoid controversy: (1) pretending that evolution applies only on the molecular level; (2) telling students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, only that they know it for the test; and/or (3) “teaching the controversy,” which one researcher noted “tells students that well-established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.”

According to the researchers, these conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

The Principal of the Thing

I like to keep my posts to about 5 reading mins, so last week I posted only that part of the story and promised two more. But the (understandable) outrage began to spread like wildfire in minutes. Since I’m trying to make the case for a certain kind of approach, I didn’t need an online tsunami. So I’m going long today so you can see that it gets better. Then it gets much, much worse. Then better again. But that’s for next time.

I did the whole Mr. Taylor thing by email, which I now think was a mistake. Email lacks tone and visual cues, so it tends to read more harshly, especially in these situations. I decided to do this one in the flesh.

Seymour_SkinnerBecca suggested I talk to the principal, Mr. Robinson, rather than Ms. Warner. He’d be interviewing Laney, for one thing. It isn’t about Ms. Warner as such, but about seeing to it that Laney’s accomplishment isn’t misrepresented. Finally, he is among the most skilled, reasonable, and student-centered of the weirdly high number of principals I have known. A likely ally.

I asked for a quick meeting.

I knew that the best approach would be to focus on our shared interest — in this case the students and the educational messages they receive — so I started with the cool fact that a nine-year old girl in his school wants to be a scientist. She entered this contest to demonstrate her understanding of evolution and won. “Sandy Warner called and said you’d be interviewing Laney, but said it would be called an ‘Art’ contest rather than ‘Evolution & Art.’ When my wife asked why, she said evolution was not in the elementary curriculum.”

(I still can’t type that without shaking my head in amazement that anyone would try an explanation quite so obviously silly.)

It’s certainly in the middle and high school curriculum, I said, handing him a highlighted copy of each. If a third grader won a national calculus competition, no one would say, “Dagnabbit, if only that was in the elementary curriculum we could celebrate it!”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not the reason anyway,” I said. “She was trying to avoid conflict. That’s an understandable impulse, but not when it damages the educational environment.” I handed him a summary of the deeply depressing Penn State study suggesting that conflict avoidance is the strategy currently doing the most damage to the scientific literacy of our kids.

Then there’s my kid, and the interview the following day. Among many other problems, I said that Delaney would be completely unable to answer his questions in any terms but evolutionary ones. Even a question like, “So tell me about this monkey” would lead to a description of the three adaptations she devised, since that’s what the contest was about.

He was nodding vigorously. “Absolutely. There’s not the slightest reason for her to hide any aspect of her accomplishment. But the curriculum is irrelevant in any case because…”

Oh my word, he was going to say it himself. Before I could even mount the slam-dunk argument against Warner’s ridiculous attempt, he would say it himself.

“…it’s student-initiated. Teachers have to stay within the curriculum, sure, but if a student initiates a project or has an outside accomplishment, they are absolutely able to talk about it freely without any regard to curriculum.” He explained that he is trying to encourage even more of this, to get the school celebrating outside accomplishments of all kinds to integrate the students’ outside lives into their school life. “This fits into that perfectly.”

See? Principals tend to know things. Actual educational policies. Court precedents. Best practices.

Total elapsed time: 7 minutes.

Now step back a minute and see what happened here. We (GOOD GUYS!) sent notice of Laney’s contest win to her teacher, who thought it was fantastic and submitted it for inclusion in the broadcast. GOOD GUY!

A middle administrator attempted to screw it up (both out of a misplaced sense of her responsibilities and, I have reason to believe, a reflection of her own point of view). BAD GUY!

The principal immediately recognized that the middle admin had screwed up and put it right. GOOD GUY!

Pretty good ratio, eh? But we often take our cue from the one person who did something dumb and respond with a scorched-earth policy that engulfs potential allies and puts everyone in a defensive crouch. Once I do that, they’re only looking to survive the attack. They can’t hear what I have to say, much less see that they have more in common with me than with the perp.

More often than not, the perp is surrounded by people who agree with you that the act was wrong, people who can join you in condemning the act and fixing the problem if you let them.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story. (Continue to Part 2)

DADT and the chaplains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are others:

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

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

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

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

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

“My Christian wife” – a guest spot by Larry Tanner

A self-described “hard-line Atheist” interviews himself about his strong, loving marriage to a fervent Christian. A great read, and plenty to discuss.

beckyMy wife is the most special and wonderful person. She is a Christian of deep belief. She enjoys being part of an evangelical church. She likes the people of the church, the community, and the many opportunities for participation.

She and I are very different in some respects, but together we work. We met in 1995 and have been building a life together ever since.

I figure some might be curious about the relationship of a hard-line Atheist and a fervent Christian, so I put together a self-interview. That is, I wrote some questions and answered them myself below. If folks like the subject and format, perhaps I’ll ask the wife if she would be willing to answer questions from y’all.

1. Let’s start with an obvious question: How is it that two people of such different–perhaps even opposing–beliefs get together and build an apparently happy marriage?
My wife and I actually share many beliefs in common. Our values are fundamentally similar, and our differences are often complementary rather than contradictory. Religion and religious belief are places of difference between us, but in most every other place, we are in just the same place.

Anyways, I think people make more of religious difference than there needs to be. My wife and I are different people, and we always have been. We have different jobs and different backgrounds. We don’t always vote for the same people. We like different foods. Our tastes in music and art can be way off.

As far as I can tell, religion is just another difference. It’s something that each of us has and keeps in the household, but it doesn’t really define our home. It doesn’t dominate our relationship at all. Rather, our lives together are dominated by just living. We try to be together in the morning. I leave for work, and then I come home at night and we try to be together with the kids until their bedtime routine starts.

Maybe if we had both been Catholic or Jewish when we started dating, things would be different today. But since we started out with difference, I think that religion quickly and necessarily became bracketed as a personal thing and not a universal thing.

When we first met, my wife was a practicing Catholic and I identified as Jewish. I don’t remember the state of her belief, or my own. When we moved in together in 1997, she took a spot teaching Sunday school at the local church, and I eventually got involved with my local Hillel house. I even taught the kindergartners in Hebrew school!

If we ever saw our religious differences as a problem, we didn’t see it as a big problem or as a relationship problem. We wanted to be together; that was always the important point. We didn’t even need to say it. From the beginning of our relationship, being together was implicitly understood and not being together never entered our minds.

2. You both went through changes in religious thinking, right?
Very much. In the 2001-2003 timeframe, my wife started to move away from the Catholic church. We were back in the Boston area by then, and the child sex abuse scandal had started to hit. The response of the Church to these horrific acts perpetrated by priests and then knowingly covered up at the highest levels of the institution–well, it was too much to take. The Church’s position on homosexuality was probably also an issue for my wife. Our oldest daughter was confirmed Catholic–that was in 2003–but I don’t think my wife went to church very much in those days.

It wasn’t until 2006 that my wife found a Christian religious community that she liked. This community called itself non-denominational. She found many people there who were about her age and also having children. The religious message was personal and positive. The services were energetic and carefully crafted. I think my wife felt that this community had a lot of people who could understand some of her questions and problems in a way that I never could have.

I won’t go over my changes here, since they are pretty well documented in this blog.

3. Surely, you and your wife must have strong disagreements about religion.
No doubt. We don’t talk about it very much. She has her space to express what she believes, and I have mine. It’s hard for us to talk about these disagreements with each other because I am not able to convey the sense that I take Christian belief very seriously. I take it seriously to some extent. I know that lots of people call themselves Christian, and I am familiar with a lot of the history and background of both early and established Christianity.

But I have limits to the deference I’ll give ideas that I feel have been demonstrated faulty. I can’t make it sound as though the story of a virgin-born-of-a-virgin who was impregnated by a ghost and who birthed a miracle-working human sacrifice makes any sort of sense to me. And I know the arguments around the story and the history of some of its details. Once I feel I’ve thought through a question and seen it resolved satisfactorily, I generally prefer not to revisit it and rather move onto some other question.

For my part, I have no desire to make Atheist arguments or to force Dawkins and Hitchens on my wife. What’s the point? She’s an intelligent human being and I’ve got my work cut out for me just defining the contours of my own thinking. We both have our own “spiritual” questions that we’re pursuing, and it’s enough that we support each other in our respective pursuits.

At the end of the day, our religious differences and our different rationalizations for our beliefs have very little to do with the practicalities of our love and our household. Maybe, after the kids have grown up and we’re retired, we’ll spend our days debating the lack of evidence for gods and the ridiculousness of all religious beliefs. I suspect we’ll rather spend our days having more fun together, but who knows?

4. How do your differences in religion and Atheism apply to the way you raise your children?
In terms of how we raise the kids, I don’t think there are any issues. I don’t openly scoff at Christianity or Judaism in front of my children. I also don’t push Darwin’s Origin of Species or Dawkins’s The God Delusion on them. The fact is that I don’t need to do this. The reality of my Atheism will become apparent to my children when they are old enough to see it. They’ll notice I don’t go with them to church and that some of the books in my library make cases for Atheism.

Parenting is a practical art. It’s hard to get kids to believe or to know things in the exact way you want. They develop beliefs and knowledge through their own doing and their own experiences. Neither my wife nor I is interested in controlling our children’s intellectual environment to the extent that they can only have these-or-those thoughts or only come to such-and-such conclusions about the world. So, we both parent in the day; that is, we try to handle each day as it comes and enjoy it as best we can.

Honestly, I don’t think personal religious or atheistic beliefs have much impact on what we parents need to do as parents. We need to be with our kids. We need to play with them, teach them, help them, encourage them, and show them we enjoy all that. To me, in marriage and in parenting, togetherness is the name of the game.It’s all about being in the same place at the same time.

It’s not about using the children as my personal social experiment. It’s not about making the children live out my dreams and my ideas. It’s not about coercing the children to think and act like me. It is about enabling and empowering them to grow according to their own reasoning and desires.

We parents are an extension of our children, not the other way around. We are their conscience until it becomes their responsibility to tell themselves what’s right and necessary. We are heir butlers until they are fully able to get the items they need and can clean up after themselves. We are their cheerleaders until they learn how to develop their own confidence and motivation. We are their counselors until they are able to take the lead in making the tough decisions that affect them.

My wife and I share this fundamental outlook in most ways, if not in every single way. We agree on the major things and differ in some of the details. We want the same seeds and are comfortable with however the flowers develop. This is why it has worked so far for us, and why I have no reason to be anything less than very optimistic about the future.

[First appeared at Textuality.]

Larry Tanner will now take your questions!
________________________________________________________________
Larry Tanner is senior proposal lead for a New England-based robotics company. He is currently preparing a dissertation in Anglo-Saxon literature and textuality. A married father of three children, he teaches English literature and composition at a local community college. He can be contacted via email at lartanner[at]hotmail[dot]com.

Dazed and confused

confuciusErin (12) is in the middle of a nice comparative religion curriculum in her social sciences class. Looks to be much better than the usual slapdash.

The units are tied in with geography and culture. They’re currently on Southwest Asia, so at the moment it’s the three Abrahamic monotheisms. As usual, minority religions — Bahá’í, Gnosticism, Druze, Zoroastrianism, et al. — get the short straw, with no mention that I can see. I’d especially like to see Zoroastrianism covered, if only for all the yummy Christian parallels.) But three is ever so much better than one.

I know from Connor’s middle school years that they’ll get into the other two of the Big Five as they move east, and I told Erin as much.

“So what religion is in China?” she asked. She’s taking introductory Mandarin at the moment, so it’s a natural first place for her mind to go.

“All of them,” I said. It’s an annoying answer that happens to be true. I try to resist the tendency to paint countries with a single religion, a practice as misleading as Red and Blue states.

Most people equate China with Buddhism, but the country has a long history of pluralism of belief. Buddhism, Taoism, and various folk religions account for about half the population combined. Christians and Muslims are estimated at 2-4 percent each, with a metric smattering of Jews, Hindus, and others.

And the rest? I told Erin the largest single belief group in China is the nonreligious, clocking in at 40-50 percent — not a consequence of Mao, but a strong tradition going back 2200 years.

“A lot of those follow a philosophy you might hear about next year when you study China,” I told her. “It’s called Confucianism.”

She puzzled on the word a moment.

“Is that because they don’t really know what they believe?”

Give Phil Plait 31 minutes

Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion there as well. Persuasion isn’t always, “Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,” but, “Here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind,” and it’s the facts plus the sensitivity, which convolved together, create impact. – Neil deGrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins, 2006

You’re a busy person. But Phil Plait needs 31 minutes of your time.

Phil (of Bad Astronomy) gave a talk at TAM8 in July that is one of the most important and resonant messages I’ve heard in ages. It’s about being heard.

It’s an obsession of mine lately, this topic. I tried to write a simple blog post about it last year and ended up instead writing 11,000 words in an eight-month series of posts called “Can You Hear Me Now?” The thrust of that series, and of Phil’s talk, is that content is all well and good, and argument is lovely, but it’s all for nothing if we don’t think about how to get ourselves heard. And when it matters most, we’d better think not just about how tight our arguments are, but how to stand any chance of having them received on the other end.

This isn’t just about religion. It’s also about politics, social issues, alternative medicine, the paranormal — everything people get hot and bothered about. Discourse is nothing more than shouting down a well if we merely compose zingers for the applause of our stablemates and fail to create a receptive mind in the listeners we hope to persuade.

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to this in a rebuke to Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief in 2006 (which Dawkins accepted with grace and good humor):

Tyson’s precise point is well-taken: “I felt you more than I heard you.” (Many other critiques of Dawkins, et al. are not, as I noted in 2007.)

Now Phil Plait has made a magnificent, deeply personal, effective and well-titled plea along the same lines. Please set aside 31 minutes at the end of your busy day to hear what he says.

But also note what he does NOT say. He doesn’t say that being heard requires us to respect the unrespectable, or bury our passion, or deny our convictions. He’s not calling for a moratorium on religious satire or political outrage, or I’d tell him to bugger off. I intend to continue treating ideas themselves with whatever respect or contempt they earn. But when it comes to discourse with our fellow mammals, the Tyson Equation nails it: facts plus sensitivity equals impact.

I’ve said too much. Take it Phil.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Let ‘em drive!

student driverVentured into the backwoods of upstate NY last week for a quick visit to Camp Inquiry, a fabulous science-and-wonder-based summer camp run by the Center for Inquiry. Fifty-two sharp and curious kids and a terrific staff under the direction of the energetic and talented Angie McQuaig.

About 30 parents stuck around on Sunday evening for a parent chat around the campfire. These unscripted discussions are my favorites. And as it usually does, one of my key messages came up over and over — the importance of letting kids drive their own decisionmaking as much as we can, even when we disagree. It’s vital to let them take the wheel as often as possible if we want them to develop the long-term ability to think ethically and well on their own. Obviously there are many times when we have to assert our own judgment. But letting go when we can has some great long-term benefits.

This mostly nonreligious crowd was focused on questions of raising kids in a culture dominated by religion. The Pledge of Allegiance, the proselytizing neighbor, Grandma’s insistence on taking the kids to her church, pressure from religious peers — in every case, the best thing a secular parent can do is help the child assess options and weigh consequences, then let the child make his or her own decision about what to do, even if the parent thinks it’s a mistake. They’ll learn more from the experience than from any pre-emptive lecture we can give. (Not to mention the possibility that our advice would have been wrong.)

I blogged about one such situation in 2008. Erin (then 10) asked if she could wear a pink beaded cross necklace to school. She’d bought it on vacation at the dollar store, but now she said, “I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in god. Like I’m not being honest. But I just like to wear it.”

“It’s fine, sweetie. It’s a pretty necklace.”

She paused. There was more, I could tell. “It makes me feel good to wear it.”

Uhhh, okay, there’s at least one unfortunate way to read that sentence. “You mean it makes you feel like a good person to wear a cross?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “It just…” She smiled sheepishly. “It makes me feel good to rub it.”

I’d been ready for that sentence for years, but the context was all wrong.

“When I’m worried, I rub it with my fingers and it makes the worry go away.”

It was a simple talisman to her. And Erin does spend more time worrying than she ought to. I told her about the jade worry stone I carried in my pocket throughout middle school. Same deal. It did make me feel better. Her cross had no more connection to God than my worry stone. In fact, her concern was that people might think it did when it didn’t. But even if it did have that significance, I was fully prepared to let her drive the decision.

As it happens, she wore it for a week, then told me she didn’t want to wear it anymore because of the dishonest feeling it gave her. And because she had made the decision herself, there’s a much greater chance that she gained something more valuable than if I had simply issued a ruling.

I returned home from Camp Inquiry to a message from Elizabeth, a parent I’d met. Her son Alex (13) is on a baseball team that has started praying before each game. From her email (reprinted with permission):

Bill, the gentleman who initiated the prayer ritual, is a close friend to our family, and my husband Jason is one of the assistant coaches. Our families have get-togethers at each other’s houses. Bill and Jason have shared many “religious” talks through the years, so we know their family’s belief system and they know ours, and it has never been an issue.

baseballprayWhen Bill first started praying before the game, Jason had a private talk with him and explained why he did not feel that it was an appropriate thing to do. Jason explained to Bill that he has no idea what the belief systems of all the kids on the team are, and that it was presumptuous of him to think that all the kids came from religious households. And even if ‘most’ of the kids are religious, he would have no way of knowing what faith they practiced. He also reminded Bill that our own family was not religious. Bill was not persuaded and continued the team prayer before each game.

Nicely done, Jason — especially the choice to frame it in terms of all kids on the team, not just one.

At this point Jason asked Alex how he felt about the prayer before each game. Alex said that he thought it was silly. Jason asked Alex what (if anything) Alex wanted to do about it and gave him a few options. They could “sit out” the prayer, Jason could try talking to Bill again, or they could just “go with the flow” and wink at each other while the prayer was taking place. :)

At that point Alex said something that just made our hearts swell with pride -– he said, “I think it is kind of stupid, but Coach Bill means more to me than a prayer. If it makes him happy to say a prayer before the game, then that’s OK with me.” I wish more adults would act like our son did at that moment.

Alex is choosing his battles, and his parents are letting him. The more they do that, the better and more nuanced his decisionmaking will become.

Maybe after a few games, Alex will change his mind, or maybe not. Maybe he’ll just reflect further on the very odd concept of the God-bothering sports team. Maybe Bill will do some reflection of his own. But if Alex’s parents had forced another conclusion — if Jason, for example, had pushed harder in his talk with Bill — Alex would have lost an opportunity to make his own choice, live with it, and learn from it. But they recognized that this was Alex’s situation, first and foremost, and they let him take the wheel.

Kudos to all three.