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

Just do it?

(First appeared May 13, 2010)

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

garciaThe passage above is from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions — and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

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.

Just do it? / best practices 8

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

My favorite image of my least favorite story.
Dad’s blank expression says it all.
AandI

I’m already on record recoiling from the Worst Story Ever Loved — Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s command that he kill his son.

Lot (he of the condiment wife) establishes himself as the most jaw-dropping of moral menaces in Genesis 19, a story that once again exalts the willingness to sacrifice one’s child without hesitation. But within pages, Abraham steals the crown, proving there’s no crime he would not commit, no act too vile or unjustified, so long as God ordered him to commit it. And we applaud.

That the founder of Judaism is the first on record to make use of the Nuremberg Defense is an irony too painful to contemplate. That this is then celebrated as the ultimate founding moment of three world religions is a fact that has held me in its grip for decades.

But then the anthropologist in me pops his wee head out, blinking like a mole, and asks why we love these stories, why we recast and retell them, over and over, and clutch them to our hearts, and find them inspiring.

Not all of religious stories are sickening. One of my favorite gospel scenes is Jesus’s very human cup-shunning moment in Gethsemane, praying to God and his favorite Swedish pop group to change the plan (“Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me”). I’m guessing those who love unquestioning obedience can forgive him (!) for this because he followed so quickly with an assurance that, yes yes, he knows after all that orders are orders. “I want your will to be done, not mine,” he says.

A weird sentence for a trinitarian to make sense of, but then again etc.

garciaI started with a passage from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

Best Practices 5: Encourage religious literacy

s22001hortly after the release of Parenting Beyond Belief, I mentioned on the PBB Discussion Forum that I think religious literacy is an important thing for our kids (and ourselves) to have. Many agreed, as did most of the contributors to the book, but I received an email from one parent who asked,

Why should I fill my kids’ heads with all that mumbo-jumbo?

Here are my four reasons that religious literacy (knowledge of religion, as opposed to belief in it) is crucial:

1. To understand the world. A huge percentage of the news includes a religious component. Add the fact that 90 percent of our fellow humans express themselves through religion and it becomes clear that ignorance of religion cuts our children off from understanding what is happening in the world around them—and why.

2. To be empowered. In the U.S. presidential election of 2004, candidate Howard Dean identified Job as his favorite book of the New Testament. That Job is actually in the Old Testament was a trivial thing to most of us, but to a huge whack of the religious electorate, Dean had revealed a forehead-smacking level of ignorance about the central narrative of their lives. For those people, Dean was instantly discounted, irrelevant. Because we want our kids’ voices heard in the many issues with a religious component, it’s important for them to have knowledge of that component.

3. To make an informed decision. I really, truly, genuinely want my kids to make up their own minds about religion, and I trust them to do so. Any nonreligious parent who boasts of a willingness to allow their kids to make their own choices but never exposes them to religion or religious ideas is being dishonest. For kids to make a truly informed judgment about it, they must have access to it.

4. To avoid the “teen epiphany.” Here’s the big one. Struggles with identity, confidence, and countless other issues are a given part of the teen years. Sometimes these struggles generate a genuine personal crisis, at which point religious peers often pose a single question: “Don’t you know about Jesus?” If your child says, “No,” the peer will come back incredulously with, “YOU don’t know JESUS? Omigosh, Jesus is The Answer!” Boom, we have an emotional hijacking. And such hijackings don’t end up in moderate Methodism. This is the moment when nonreligious teens fly all the way across the spectrum to evangelical fundamentalism.

A little knowledge about religion allows the teen to say, “Yeah, I know about Jesus”—and to know that reliable answers to personal problems are better found elsewhere.

So should you take your kids to a mainstream, bible-believing church? Hardly. They shouldn’t get to age 18 without seeing the inside of a church, or you risk creating forbidden fruit. Take them once in a while just to see what it’s all about and to see that there’s no magical land of unicorns and faeries behind those doors. But know that churchgoing generally has squat to do with religious literacy.

rlprothero
In his (fabulous) book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero points out that faithfully churchgoing Americans are incredibly ignorant of even the most basic tenets of their own belief systems, not to mention others. Europeans, on the other hand, are religiously knowledgeable and rarely darken the door of a church.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Most European countries have mandated religious education and decidedly secular populations. Unless they attend a UU or Ethical Society, U.S. kids have almost no religious education. Faith is most easily sustained in ignorance. Learning about religion leads to thinking about religion—and you know what happens then.

Mainstream churchgoing also exposes kids to a single religious perspective. That’s not literacy—in fact, it usually amounts to indoctrination.

So how do you get religiously literate kids?

1. Talk, talk, talk. All literacy begins with oral language. Toss tidbits of religious knowledge into your everyday conversations. If you drive by a mosque and your four-year-old points out the pretty gold dome, take the opportunity: “Isn’t that pretty? It’s a kind of church called a mosque. People who go there pray five times every day, and they all face a city far away when they do it.” No need to get into the Five Pillars of Islam. A few months later, you see a woman on the street wearing a hijab and connect it to previous knowledge: “Remember the mosque, the church with that gold dome? That’s what some people wear who go to that church.”

As kids mature, include more complex information—good, bad, and ugly. No discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. is complete without noting that he was a Baptist minister, and that his religion was important to him. You can’t grasp 9/11 without understanding Islamic afterlife beliefs. And the founding of our country is reframed by noting that the majority of the founders were religious skeptics of one stripe or another. Talk about the religious components of events in the news, from the stem cell debate to global warming to terrorism to nonviolence advocacy.

2. Read myths of many traditions. Myths make terrific bedtime stories. Start with creation myths from around the world, then move into the many rich mythic traditions—Greek, Roman, Norse, Hopi, Inuit, Zulu, Indian, and more. And don’t forget the Judeo-Christian stories. Placing them side by side with other traditions removes the pedestal and underlines what they have in common.

3. Attend church on occasion with trusted relatives. Keeping kids entirely separated from the experience of church can make them think something magical happens there. If your children are invited by friends, say yes—and go along. The conversations afterward can be some of the most productive in your entire religious education plan.

4. Movies. One of the most effective and enjoyable ways to expose your kids to religious ideas is through movies. For the youngest, this might include Prince of Egypt, Little Buddha, Kirikou and the Sorceress, and Fiddler on the Roof. By middle school it’s Jason and the Argonauts, Gandhi, Bruce Almighty, and Kundun. High schoolers can see and enjoy Seven Years in Tibet, Romero, Schindler’s List, Jesus Camp, Dogma, and Inherit the Wind. This list alone touches eight different religious systems (seven more than they’ll get in a mainstream Sunday School) and both the positive and negative influences of religion in history (one more than you get in Sunday School).

Special gem: Don’t forget Jesus Christ Superstar, a subversive and thought-provoking retelling of the last days of Christ. There are no miracles; the story ends with the crucifixion, not the resurrection; and Judas is the hero, urging Jesus not to forget about the poor as the ministry becomes a personality cult.

Best Practices 4: Teach engaged coexistence

lettera220119
strology survived Copernicus.

That’s my simple response whenever someone suggests to me that science will eventually put religion out of business.

By all rights, astrology should have been forced out of business in 1543. Among other things, astrology is founded on the necessary condition of an Earth-centered universe. Medieval treatises on astrology include sentences like “As the orb of the World is center’d in the celestial spheres, so then is it reasonable to conclude that…” So long as the other planets orbited Earth and the constellations of the Zodiac were arrayed in reference to an Earthly center, the idea that constellations determined our personalities and controlled our destinies had at least a snowball’s chance of respectability.

But after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1543 — followed by two centuries of theological arm-wrestling — Earth was decisively removed from cosmic center court. At this point, astrology, shorn of its most essential assumption, should have followed geocentrism into obscurity. The fact that it did not — that it has endured several centuries goofily unaware that new knowledge has rendered it null and void — is enough to make it ridiculous.

Yet the Harris poll shows Americans’ belief in astrology going up, not down (25% in 2005, 29% in 2007, 31% in 2008).

If astrology’s coffin needed any more nails, Hubble provided them in 1924 when he first discovered the true size of the universe and distance between stars — at which point the “constellations of the Zodiac” and all other apparent celestial patterns were seen to be associated only incidentally from our accidental vantage point. In fact, they are separated by millions of light years from each other not only in two dimensions but in the third as well. One star that appears to be snuggling another is often millions of light years behind it, just as the moon, which often appears to be right next to my thumb is actually, amazingly, not.

Yet the thing shows no signs of vanishing any time soon.

So when even so bright a light as Richard Dawkins says that the discovery of a Grand Unified Theory would “deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions,” I say, with the utmost respect and admiration, pfft.

The confident demise of religion has been predicted at least since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Several scientific commentators during the 20th century predicted the demise of religion in 25, 50, or 100 years. I think they’ve all failed to realize that precious few religious believers are assiduously poring over facts to be sure their worldview still holds water. They stick with it because it is such a dynamite cure for what ails them (adjective meant in all possible ways).

Add to that the fact that a large part of humanity will always lack access to knowledge and security, not to mention the simple awareness of any Grand Unified Theory we might discover, and I feel confident that religion will continue, forever, to plug the hole. Religion will always be with us.

I do think religion will gradually become less influential in the developed world and (on the whole) less fanatical and intolerant, thanks in part to increased access to knowledge and security. Despite the loud evangelicals, that’s already well underway. But new religious movements pop up at an estimated rate of two or three per day in developing countries. In the developed world, the thing continues to (ironically) evolve to keep pace with both our ever- and our never-changing itches.

For the record, I’d prefer this not be the case. Since it is the case, I do what I can to hasten the evolution of religious expression and practice toward the less fanatical and intolerant. It’s a process that is already going full steam in Europe, by the way (at least as far as Euro-Judeo-Christianity goes. For more on Euro-Islam, see Sam Harris).

When it comes to parenting, I’m raising kids for what I call “engaged coexistence” with other world views. It rejects both the “Everbuddy’s gwine tuh hail ceptin’ me an my dawg” attitude of the fundamentalists and the “I hold all religions in deep respect as multiple manifestations of the True” of the New Age.

The trick is to sort out the word respect.

Respect for individuals and respect for their ideas are quite different and must be separated.
People are inherently deserving of respect as human beings, and no one can be faulted for shutting you out if you declare disrespect for their very personhood. Ideas are another matter. I feel too much respect for the word “respect” to grant it automatically to all ideas.

Even if I disagree with it, I can respect an opinion if it is founded on something meaningful, like rational argument or careful, repeatable observation. The other person may have interpreted the information differently, but I can still respect the way she’s going about it. Suppose on the other hand that someone says Elvis and JFK are working at a laundromat in Fargo and offers a dream or tea leaves or a palm reading as evidence. It would render the word “respect” meaningless to say I respect that opinion. I both disagree with it and withhold my respect for it. And that’s okay. No need to degrade the other person. I know all sorts of lovely, respectable people who hold a silly belief or two—including myself, no doubt—and wouldn’t think of judging them, or me, less worthy of respect as human beings.

Ideas are another thing entirely. It’s not only wrong to grant respect to all ideas, it can be downright dangerous. So I teach my kids to work toward a better, saner world by challenging all ideas AND inviting the same challenge of their own, explicitly, out loud, no matter what worldview they adopt.

That’s engaged coexistence. We recognize that we’re going to be sharing this apartment for the long haul and work together to keep each other’s feet off the furniture.


[CORRECTION: This post initially claimed that the New York Times has an astrology column. It has no such thing. I regret the error.]

Best Practices 3: Promote ravenous curiosity

br2What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
BERTRAND RUSSELL, in Sceptical Essays (1928)
_______________________

t5409here was a time when I was a quiet, closeted nonbeliever. It was a smallish moment that tipped me from passive disbelief to secular humanist activism. Not some Robertson/Falwell nonsense, nor a Bushism, not the abuse of children nor the disempowerment of women nor the endless throttling of science, not some reversal of social progress nor the spreading of ignorance and hatred and fear. These are all good reasons to become an activist, but the thing that tipped me was a simple moment of incuriosity.

My son Connor had always been a fantastically curious kid. I saw him once off by himself at the edge of our local wading pool, oblivious to a hundred other screaming, splashing kids, studying a tiny plant growing from a crack in the cement. For fifteen minutes. That’s my boy.

(via xkcd)
xkcd340902

We had him in a Lutheran preschool, a great local program where he received a low-key, brimstone-free exposure to Judeo-Christian ideas and some early practice engaging those ideas with fearless curiosity. But there came a point, toward the end of his third and final year there, that I wondered if he had picked up something else.

One Sunday afternoon in April 2000, following him up the stairs of our home, I said, “Connor, look at you! Why are you growing so fast?”

“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “I guess God just wants me to grow.”

“…”

That reply would make a lot of parents all warm and woobly inside. Me, not so much. For me it was a sucker-punch to the heart. He had given his very first utterly incurious reply. He didn’t have to care or wonder about his own transformation from infancy to kidhood — he’d handed off the knotty question to God.

It kicked off a whole new phase in my life, that moment on the stairs. The next morning, the day after attending our Baptist church (for the last time), I dropped my son at his Lutheran preschool and headed off to my job at a Catholic college. When I got to work, I started posting timid quotations from nonbelievers on my office door with a sign inviting discussion, hoping to draw out debate or expressions of interest or even agreement from some of the closeted nonbelievers I knew were on campus.

Two years later, I published a satirical novel about a humanist professor at a Catholic college. A year after that, I came to blows with the college administration over free speech and hypocritical college policy. Three years after that I quit the job, and a year later Parenting Beyond Belief was born.

It all goes back to my allergic reaction to my son’s moment of bland incuriosity.

It was just a case of the intellectual sniffles for Connor. I’m sure he was back on his curious feet five minutes later. But it helped me to define one of the central values of my own life.

It’s not that religion is inherently incurious. Religion and science are both planted in the cortical freakishness that demands answers. It’s just that religion wants the answers it wants, while science wants the answers that are in the answer key. Also known as “the actual answers.”

Kids start off curious. Our job is to simply prevent it from being blunted by familiarity and passivity. I try to wonder aloud myself ( “I wonder why different trees turn different colors in the fall”) to keep my kids dissatisfied with the mere surface of things — the coolest stuff is behind the curtain, after all — and to always, always reward their curiosity with engagement, no matter how tired I am.

Not that I have to try all that hard. I have a house full of full-time wonderers, 100% distractable by their curiosity. Now that Becca’s teaching again, I’m the morning guy, and it only took a week or so for me to realize I can’t simply send Laney (7) upstairs after breakfast to put on her socks and shoes. When ten minutes pass and the bus is in view, I sprint up the stairs to find her engrossed in a book, tracing the rain on the window, or trying to sing while drinking water.

Saturday I watched the final game of her soccer season with Laney as goalie. When I saw the hot air balloon rising over the horizon, I knew without a doubt what would happen. Sure enough, five minutes later the balloon caught her eye, and she stood enchanted, unable to take her eyes from it as the ball sailed by and into the net.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but I imagine it’s responsible for more than a few easy goals.

Her body language and crimson face broke my heart. It took her several minutes to clear her head and wipe the tears from her eyes.

When we got into the car at the end, I didn’t say “you’ve got to focus on the game.” She got that message clearly enough, as she will all her life. Instead I asked if she saw that amazing hot air balloon.

She lit up. “It was awesome,” she said. “I wonder how they work?”

Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning

The second installment in a nine-part series on best practices for nonreligious parenting. Back to BEST PRACTICES #1.

If the Ten Commandments had been posted at Columbine High School, the April 20 massacre would never have happened.
former Republican Congressman and current Libertarian Presidential candidate BOB BARR, at a press conference on June 17, 1999

Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion. But if it’s simply indoctrination, it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.
Dr. LARRY NUCCI, director of the Office for Studies in Moral Development, University of Illinois, Chicago

moralsign349
L43309ast May I mentioned a powerful study
in which 700 survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it)—were interviewed about their moral upbringing. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors note, “is the word most rescuers favored” in describing their parents’ way of communicating rules and ethical concepts.1

This echoed work by Grusec and Goodnow in the 1990s, which showed that “parents who tend to be harshly and arbitrarily authoritarian or power-assertive are less likely to be successful than those who place substantial emphasis on induction or reasoning.”2

Both the Oliners’ results and the central role children play in their own moral development are underlined by cross-cultural research from the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Children in cultures around the world tend to reach certain landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, according to lead researcher Larry Nucci, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do. “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion,” says Nucci.

The reliability with which kids hit these moral landmarks was underlined by a University of Zurich study published in the August issue of the journal Nature. Kids between 3 and 4 were seen to be almost universally selfish, after which a “strong sense of fairness” develops, usually by age 7 or 8. Fairness was most evident toward those with whom the children identified—in this case, kids from the same school as opposed to a different one.

Ideas of fairness and of in-group preference appear to go hand-in-hand. “The simultaneous development of altruistic behavior and preference of the own group provides interesting new impulses for the conjecture that both of these processes are driven by the same evolutionary process,” said Professor Ernst Fehr, one of the principals in the study. This development, which has never been shown to occur in other species, “may be an important reason for the unique cooperative abilities of humans,” he said. Unlike animal and insect societies, human societies are based on a detailed division of labor and cooperation in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals who are nonetheless joined by common concerns.

So once again, for the vast, vast majority of kids and situations, morality happens. We are wired up, however imperfectly, for cooperation and fairness. Parents can and should encourage these tendencies, but we mustn’t think we are writing on a blank slate, or even worse, rowing against a current of natural depravity. Our job is to draw out and enhance the ethical nature that evolution has already put in place, then expand it beyond the in-group by widening those circles of empathy. Knowing that our children’s tendency is toward the ethical can help us relax and row with the current, knowing that kids in a supportive, “pro-social” environment tend to turn out just fine.

Nucci’s work does point to one way in which parents can actually impede their children’s moral growth. Any guesses?

“If it’s simply indoctrination,” he says, “it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.”3

So the one practice conservative religious thought insists is vitally important in moral education, the one thing we are begged and urged and warned to do—to teach unquestioning obedience to rules—turns out to be the single most counterproductive thing we can do for our children’s moral development.

Instead, the best thing we can do is to encourage our kids to actively engage in the expansion and refinement of their own natural morality—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working to understand the reasons to be good.

Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, puts it just that clearly: “The most useful form of character education encourages children to think for themselves.”4
______________________________
1 Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 181-2.
2 Grusec, J.E. and J. J. Goodnow, “Impact of Parental Discipline on the Child’s Internalization of Values: A Reconceptualization of Current Points of View,” Developmental Psychology, 30, 1994.
3 Quoted in Pearson, Beth, “The art of creating ethics man,” The Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2006.
4 Ibid.

Best Practices 1: Widening circles of empathy

[First in a nine-part series on best practices for nonreligious parenting.]

“I feel your pain.”
–BILL CLINTON at a campaign rally in 1992

“We need to…pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy – the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes.”
–BARACK OBAMA in a speech on Father’s Day 2008

In the Preface of Raising Freethinkers I offer a list of nine best practices for nonreligious parenting. The list is drawn largely from the growing consensus of nonreligious parents and grounded when possible in the social and developmental sciences. Between now and the release, I’ll try to draw attention to all nine. They are not commandments but an attempt to capture the consensus regarding effective practices. They’re intended to be the starting point of the conversation, not the end, carved in butter, not stone. So grab a spatula and shape away!


In today’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, William Safire identifies empathy as one of the buzzwords of the current campaign. He notes that the issue of whether a given candidate could really empathize with everyday folks is nothing new. George H.W. Bush was (unfairly, but effectively) excoriated for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk in 1992. John McCain’s uncertain number of houses is assumed to undercut his empathy quotient, as Obama’s Ivy education and taste for arugula are said to undercut his.

Safire echoes Obama’s distinction between empathy and sympathy:

If you think empathy is the synonym of sympathy, I’m sorry for your confusion. Back to the Greeks: pathos is “emotion.” Sympathy feels pity for another person’s troubles…empathy identifies with whatever is going on in another’s mind…The Greek prefix sym means “together with, alongside”; the verbal prefix em goes deeper, meaning “within, inside.” When you’re sympathetic, your arm goes around the shoulders of others; when you’re empathetic, your mind lines up with what’s going on inside their heads. Big difference.

We talk about empathy as if it’s either something magical or something that can be willed into existence by saying, in essence, “Feel empathy! It’s what good people do.” Empathy is neither as easy nor as hard as we make it seem.

One school of thought in psychology (Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Nancy Eisenberg, et al.) suggests infants are largely self-centered, putting the first twitches of empathy between 18 and 36 months. Another (led by Harry Stack Sullivan, Martin Hoffman and others) has recently made a case for “infantile empathy” toward the mother — something that would certainly make sense.

In either case, by age three, kids are reliably exhibiting empathy, which Eisenberg defines as “an affective response that stems from comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition and is similar to what the other person would be expected to feel.”

That sentence might ring some bells if you’ve followed the recent work on mirror neurons. I wrote about this in July of last year:

In your head are neurons that fire whenever you experience something. Pick up a marble, yawn, or slam your shin into a trailer hitch, and these neurons get busy. No news there. But these neurons also fire when you see someone else picking up a marble, yawning, or slamming a shin. They are called mirror neurons, and they have the powerful capacity to make you feel, quite directly, what somebody else is feeling…The implications are gi-normous, since it means we’re not completely self-contained after all…

It takes very little to see, in this remarkable neural system, the root of empathy, sympathy, compassion, conscience, cooperation, guilt, and a whole lot of other useful tendencies. It explains my kids’ tendency to wither under disapproval…Thanks to mirror neurons, the accused feels the condemnation all the more intensely. Empathizing with someone else’s rage toward you translates into a kind of self-loathing that we call guilt or conscience. Once again, no need for a supernatural agent.

So what are those “ever-wider circles” about?

Our natural tendency is to feel empathy for those who are most like us. Empathy extends outward from Mom to the rest of the family to the local tribe — all those who look and act essentially like us. And I’d argue that moral development is measurable in part by how far outward your concentric circles extend. I encourage my kids not just to think about how a person of a different gender, color, nationality, or worldview feels or thinks, but to see themselves in that person — to get those mirror neurons dancing to the tune of a shared humanity.

orang44093And why stop at the species? One of the biggest implications of evolution is a profound connectedness to the rest of life on Earth. As a recent interviewer put it, “It seems like you could be positively paralyzed” by the realization that walking the dog, eating a burger, and climbing a tree is literally walking, eating, and climbing distant cousins. True enough.

I applaud religious ideas that reinforce and sanctify connectedness, as well as seeing self in others. “See the Buddha in all things” is an example. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is another. But so many traditional ideas — religious, cultural, political — instead draw lines between people, defining in-groups and out-groups and outlining colorful punishments for those on the wrong side of that line. Having “dominion over the earth” doesn’t help matters, and Deuteronomy and Revelation are dedicated almost entirely to defining, judging, and annihilating the hated Other. Bad news for empathy, don’t you think?

Free of religious orthodoxy, nonreligious and progressive religious parents alike can encourage their kids to push the concentric circles of their empathy as far and wide as possible. That includes, of course, people who believe differently from us. I don’t have to buy what their selling, nor do I have to refrain from challenging it. But I want my kids to work hard at understanding why people believe as they do. And if I expect it of them, I damn well better achieve it myself. Sometimes I do all right at that. Other times…meh.

So then…how are y’all doing with empathy for religious believers?