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

Amazon.com(ments) — Part 2

Two years ago, after Raising Freethinkers had been out for a while, I posted about emails I’d been getting:

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. And when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted. Really.

Now I’m getting a steady flow of the same thing regarding Voices of Unbelief and Atheism For Dummies. It really is sweet of y’all, but (a) I have no special powers, and (b) I wouldn’t use them if I did. I’m a free expression fundie.

Once again, most of the reviews are gratifyingly good, and readers can generally figure out whether the negatives are worth taking into consideration. (My current favorite starts by saying “I have to admit that I haven’t read this book.”)

As I said before, I really do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down or comment on, or if you want to write your own review, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun, and thanks:

Write a review for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics
Write a review for Atheism For Dummies

The Social Network

One of the real pleasures of being neck-deep in the freethought movement at the moment is how quickly the conversation is growing up. Not that it isn’t still fun and worthwhile to throw tomatoes at bad religion. But we’re also talking a lot more about building our own community, including — psst, here’s the grown-up part — learning from what religion has done well.

If religion did nothing but scare people into giving money or doing as they’re told, or comfort them with fables, or validate innate hatreds, I wouldn’t bother looking for anything to borrow. But we’re getting beyond these half-answers to recognize benefits that might actually be worth a good think.

One such benefit came out in a study in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review. Other studies had suggested that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers by several life-satisfaction indicators, but this one actually dug in to ask why that might be.

Turns out there’s another essential variable: Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers only if they have significant friendships in the congregation. As the number and significance of the friendships increase, so does life satisfaction. And those who attend church regularly but have no strong connections to others in the congregation show less life satisfaction than non-churchgoers.

Now there’s something worth noticing.

“[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect,” said UW Madison’s Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers. “People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network within their congregation….We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”

Brings to mind a poll cited by Amanda Metskas in Raising Freethinkers:

[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)

God is the frame in which many people hang their most deeply felt human needs. One of the best things we can do as a movement is think about how best to reframe that legitimate human picture.

PBB is dis many!

Parenting Beyond Belief was officially born five years ago today. Such a big girl!

I didn’t even mention it when her little sister Raising Freethinkers turned three a few weeks ago. Second child, you know, whatever. Plus that birthday was in the middle of a four-month self-induced productivity coma after one of my busiest years ever. Since the day I turned in the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief, the engrossing anthology project that ate most of 2011 for me, I’ve been ending my workday at 5:00 and leaving the computer off all weekend.

I have no plans to ever be that busy again. Too many good things have happened since I stepped off the treadmill. Turns out I’m not just a parent educator — I actually have kids! Two of them. No wait, three. And I rediscovered reading. I hadn’t read a whole book in a year or more. I learned that I can only process so many words per day, and my outflow was using up the quota. I’d pick up a book in the evening and every word seemed to be “buh?” But since my four months of slackery began, books are once again filled with lots of different words. (I’m reading the Game of Thrones series, so most of the words are beheading-related — but it’s a start.)

In the meantime, Voices of Unbelief is in production, wending its way toward an October release. Remember that this is a reference book — hard cover, big format — so mostly not intended (or priced) for individual purchase. But ask your library or school to get a copy. (I think you’ll like it.)

This blog has been one of the main casualties of my long nap — just seven real posts so far this year, oy! — but it’s coming back to life. I’ll be digging into authoritative parenting a bit more very soon. There are also two book reviews and some personal stories on the way. So to those of you who’ve stuck it out, I say — thank you both.

Onward!

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!]

Wheels up

Oh TSA, I do hope you haven’t lost that gloving feeling. Starting tomorrow, I’m back in the frisker for over three weeks of events.

I’ll be at the Baltimore Book Festival tomorrow afternoon — in the Radical Bookfair Pavilion, where else — then giving a talk at the Baltimore Ethical Society at 8:15. Sunday morning it’s the Parenting Beyond Belief Workshop at the Baltimore Homeschool Community Center.

On Saturday October 1, I’ll drive up to Aiken, SC for the first ever Camp Quest SC Weekend Family Camp to talk about moral development in secular families and to help CQSC distribute tree seedlings to families in honor of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement in Kenya.

The following Thursday I arrive in Houston for the Atheist Alliance of America/Texas Freethought Convention. The roster is superb, including Richard Dawkins presenting Christopher Hitchens with the Dawkins Award for Freethinker of the Year. Mr. Hitchens just confirmed that he will in fact be able to attend, despite what he has called “the long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.” I’ll be presenting on humanist philanthropy and Foundation Beyond Belief, then participating in a panel on secular family issues.

Saturday October 15 is the Parenting Beyond Belief workshop in Austin TX, from which I fly directly to Raleigh NC for a PBB workshop sponsored by the Triangle Freethought Society. On Monday I’ll address the TFS meeting with a talk on secular volunteerism, then fly home Tuesday morning from all these family-oriented events to reacquaint myself with my actual, uh…family.

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.

What, me worry? End Times Edition

My daughter Delaney (9) is no sucker. She has a mind like a steel trap, a phrase which I’m sure must mean something. But she’s worried that the world might end on December 21, 2012.

“I know it probably won’t,” she said, almost precisely echoing the preamble of my own fears at different points in my life — of hell, of radon, of cults, of the Mafia, of my heart stopping just for laughs, of that itchy mole. The preamble is always followed quickly, as am I, by a big but.

“…but how do you KNOW?” she asked. “How do you KNOW it isn’t going to end?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. “It might.”

“What?!”

“Well of course it might. Might end tomorrow, too.”

“Yeah but nobody says it’s going to end tomorrow. LOTS of people think it’s going to end in 2012.”

“Why do they think that?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. But they do. And it makes me worried.”

“When you get old enough to see about ten of these end-of-the-world things not happen, you’ll stop worrying.”

“Yeah, IF I get old enough.”

Laney was actually a bit obsessed with this one, simply because of this big unknown Claim, something so entirely credible they’d made a movie about it.

Time for an intervention.

I explained that somebody who knew nothing about the Mayan calendar apparently got hold of it, saw that it “ends” on December 21, 2012, and started in with the Chicken Little. I told her that it “ends” in the same way ours “ends” on December 31. Which is to say it doesn’t.

“We have weeks that repeat, right? When we get to Saturday, we go back to Sunday. Months repeat. When we get to the 31st, or whatever, we go back to the 1st. And when we get to the last day of December, every year, you don’t scream that the world is going to end — you just flip the page, and you’re back in January. The Mayans had another big cycle called a baktun. It’s like 400 years long. And when you get to the end of a baktun, you just flip the page. New baktun.”

“Oh. So somebody just didn’t know how it worked.”

“Yeah. Still worried?”

She paused, then grinned sheepishly. “A little.”

That’s the way it goes. Even with the Wire Brush of Reason, once the chicken has shit, it’s hard to get it out of every corner of the henhouse.

The malformed chicken that is the human brain is in a state of perpetual defecation, so I wasn’t too surprised when only last week I learned that we’ve shit out yet another pellet. Turns out the world is also ending a week from tomorrow. I hadn’t heard.

I immediately informed Delaney, whose eyes inflated nicely.

“Next Saturday?” I knew she was running her soccer schedule through her head.

“Yep.”

“Who said this one?”

I pulled out the news story I’d printed up, with the ridiculous headline, “Biblical scholar’s date for rapture: May 21, 2011“. I said that the guy in the story is not a scholar but some minor Christian radio host named Harold Camping (whose website is still for some reason accepting donations). Seems Camping crunched the numbers in the Bible and came up with a “guarantee” that Jesus will return on May 21, 2011, rapture up 3 percent of the world’s population, and commence a five-month smiting of the rest of you.

Turns out it’s not the first time he made such a guarantee. His book 1994 also predicted the end, though I can’t remember what year.

“Huh. Just like that other guy, with the people on the hilltops.” That would be Baptist minister William Miller, whose prediction of apocalypse sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 was called, on March 22, 1844, “The Great Disappointment.” He moved the date to October 22, 1884, which became the Second Great Disappointment. His followers, many of whom had sold everything they owned and left crops to rot in the fields, were mostly (to their credit) disinclined to make it a trilogy.

Camping and Miller both used Bible roulette for their calculations, which makes it especially surprising that they came up with such wildly different dates. But I shared Camping’s method with Laney so she could decide whether to worry.

And that, before we get off-topic, is what this post is about — not whether Camping and Miller are reflections on other believers, not whether eschatology in general is silly. This is about how to help kids develop the ability to decide on their own whether to believe a claim.

I looked her in the eye. “When you’re trying to figure out what to believe, a good way to start is to just ask why other people believe it, then decide whether it’s a good reason. So this man says Jesus was crucified on April 1st in the year 33. There are 722,500 days between that day and next Saturday. Now, the number 5 equals ‘atonement’…”

“What?!” Connor (15) had wandered in. “Where’d he get that?”

“Dunno. So he says 5 equals ‘atonement,’ and 10 equals ‘completeness,’ and 17 equals ‘heaven.’ Multiply those together, then square the whole thing, and you get 722,500, again.”

Laney blinked. “So?”

“Well exactly. That’s why I’m not worried — because the reason he gives for believing it doesn’t make any sense. Add that to the fact that he’s been wrong before, and a hundred other people have been wrong before, and I don’t worry when somebody says the world will end on a certain day.”

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s huge, and it applies to countless things, including religion. After years of wondering whether the God question was even askable, I realized I could indeed come to an intelligent conclusion not by looking for God, but by looking at the reasons others believe.

Once I decided the reasons were poor, I stepped away from religious belief, and all the false hopes and real fears it brings, with very little difficulty.

The incredible shrinking woman

[Continued from Part 2, “The Empire Strikes Back“]

The day before the meeting with the principal and Ms. Warner, Becca made my year by insisting on going as well. She took a half day off work, on short notice and with difficulty. I was so grateful — helps me feel less like a lone loon.

After talking with hundreds of parents over the years in dozens of different situations, I’ve worked up a few guidelines for approaching this kind of thing. It works not just for church-state issues, but any similar conflict:

1. Know your main objective and keep it in focus. It would have been easy, and gratifying, to focus on the first three of our objectives (abject apology, school-wide statement, head on platter). But if it came right down to it (and it often does), the last two were most important: damage control for Delaney, and a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school. Ever.

2. Frame in terms as broad as possible. It’s almost never just about my child or our family’s rights. If a teacher leads students in a Christian prayer, for example, and I respond as an offended atheist, I’ve drawn this tiny circle around my offended little feet. If instead I defend the constitutional right of all kids and families to freedom of religious belief, I’ve drawn a much larger circle with a much firmer foundation.

3. Don’t let your tone become an issue. This keeps a laser-like focus on the real issue.

4. Find allies with common goals. They’re almost always there. If we treat them as co-perpetrators, we’ve robbed ourselves of powerful leverage.

5. Position yourself as a resource, not a problem to be avoided or contained. When it comes to the issues at hand, as well as district policy and legal precedent, make yourself the most knowledgeable one in the room, then offer your help in navigating that maze, now and in the future.

becca3The meeting began with the obligatory chit chat, then Becca took the floor — not as a parent, but as an appalled educator. For five minutes, in a voice laced with emotion but entirely under control, she explained why Warner’s action violated the central responsibility of educators to their students. She ended by quoting the framing concept in the elementary curriculum. They are the Habits of Mind — four characteristics all Georgia educators are expected to engender in their students. “A CONTENT STANDARD IS NOT MET,” says the science standards document in bold caps, “UNLESS APPLICABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENCE ARE ALSO ADDRESSED AT THE SAME TIME.”

The four principal characteristics:

Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.

In a single ill-considered sentence, Ms. Warner had managed to violate all four. Then there’s this further down — hard to beat for spot-on relevance:

Scientists use a common language with precise definitions of terms to make it easier to communicate their observations to each other.

I made a mental note to marry Becca all over again.

warner1skinner1Ms. Warner responded with an apology of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” variety. “If I had known you felt this way, I would certainly not have said what I said.” It was all about a wacky breakdown in communication. If the principal hadn’t dropped the ball, went the implication, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do. Cue laugh track.

I’d expected that. “Yes, I do wish we’d been able to intercept this extremely bad idea you had,” I said. “But that’s irrelevant. I want to know why you had the bad idea in the first place to censor Delaney’s accomplishment.

“You claimed evolution wasn’t in the curriculum, when in fact it’s deeply embedded in our curriculum from seventh grade on. And if a third grader were to master calculus and win a national contest, I doubt we’d say, ‘Well shoot, I wish we could celebrate that, but it isn’t in the elementary curriculum.’ So let’s agree that’s silly and not the reason anyway. Now I’d like to know the real reason.”

She nodded and shrugged. “I wanted to avoid conflict.

To paraphrase what Huxley supposedly said before he gutted Wilberforce, the Lord had delivered her into my hands. I produced a summary of that deeply depressing Penn State study showing that conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

But there’s an even more interesting context for this in Georgia, I said — a specific history of removing the word “evolution.”

“Yes, there is!” said Mr. Robinson, nodding enthusiastically and leaning forward. Principals tend to know what’s going on in the educational world outside of their own skulls. Even better, he clearly cared. Warner’s blank smile showed that she neither knew nor cared. She was counting the minutes until this annoyance was over.

warner2skinner2It was at this point that Ms. Warner began to shrink from view, and Mr. Robinson began to grow. We could exhaust ourselves trying to get a genuine apology from this person, trying to get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why, trying to let the school community know exactly what had happened so they could take sides and put Laney in the uncomfortable middle.

Or we could turn the focus toward this nodding, well-informed, well-placed ally.

I gave a five-minute capsule history of the issue in Georgia, complete with handouts, starting with the D grade the state science curriculum had earned from Fordham in 1998. Why the low grade? Largely because in the interest of conflict avoidance, the word evolution had been removed:

Like many Southern states, Georgia has problems with the politics, if not the science, of evolution. In the biology course, the euphemism “organic variation” is used for evolution, yielding such delectable bits as the following:

“[The learner will] describe historical and current theories of organic variation . . . describe how current geological evidences [sic] support current theories of organic variation . . . explain that a successful change in a species is most apt to occur when a niche is available.”

The purpose of this approach, of course, is to insulate the study of science from the inroads of politics. But for all its good intent, it makes it difficult or impossible for all but the most gifted students to understand the profound importance of evolution as the basis of the biological sciences. It also isolates biology from the other historical sciences, geology and astronomy, and thus wounds the student’s understanding of the unity of the sciences. [Lerner 1998]

Fast-forward to 2004. State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox is reviewing Georgia’s new and greatly improved proposed science standards, which include an impressively straightforward approach to evolution. And what does she do? She red-lines every occurrence of the word “evolution,” changing it to “biological changes over time,” which does NOT mean the same thing.

Why did she do that? Conflict avoidance, she said later.

There was an impressive public backlash. Jimmy Carter lashed out in the press: “As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students.”

Cox reversed herself. In an interview last year on the occasion of her retirement, she remembered the issue as the biggest mistake of her career:

It was a great lesson for me….The standards are more than a classroom teacher. They represent something to the larger public [and the] entity of the nation. And that was a great lesson for me, that I needed to step out of my shoes as a teacher sometimes and see the bigger picture. And even though I was trying to make it so that our science standards could be such that a teacher anywhere in the state could teach what they needed to teach, it wasn’t the right decision from the bigger picture. And, boy, did I learn that in a hurry – and kind of had it handed to me in a hurry.

Robinson continued nodding. None of this was new to him.

The standards went on to full approval, unbuggered, earning Georgia a B for science overall in the next Fordham review and the highest ranking possible for evolution education.

“So we’ve learned this lesson already, over and over,” I said. “But it just doesn’t get through. And the messages we as parents and educators send these students, both inside and outside of the classroom, affect the way kids will encounter concepts and content later in the curriculum.”

warner3skinner3Mr. Robinson was continuing to exhibit not just agreement, but enthusiastic engagement. Warner at this point was too small to be seen clearly.

“We have these extraordinary standards, but because of ten thousand things like this” — I gestured toward Warner’s last known location — “they aren’t finding their way into the actual education of our students, especially in science. I’d like to help get a larger conversation going in the district. We need to help parents, teachers, and administrators get more comfortable with the great standards we already have.”

Mr. Robinson was nearly out of his chair. “Yes. This is great. I would love to see this happen.” He began scribbling notes. “I want to put you in touch with Samantha Burnett, the director of science curriculum for the district. I know she’d love to connect with you and get this going. This would be a very positive thing.”

He added that he wanted to be sure Delaney was taken care of as well. “I want her to know that this school encourages all of her ideas and accomplishments.”

Becca then shared Laney’s heartbreaking response to Mr. Hamilton, her beloved first grade teacher, and his expression of interest (“I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”)

“Well there’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’ll get in touch with Mike and see what we can work out. Maybe instead of just explaining it to him, she could give a presentation to his whole class about the contest.”

That would help a lot. She would be over the moon.

That night we learned from Delaney that Mr. Robinson visited her classroom later that day to congratulate her again on her achievement in the “Evolution & Art contest.”

In terms of vengeance, the meeting was mostly unsatisfying. But in terms of positive progress, it was immensely satisfying. We’re working our way toward two conversations, one large and one small. By being reasonable and well-informed, by leaning forward instead of back, it looks like some lasting good could come out of this.

I’ll keep you in the loop as we go.

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.)