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.
The 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.
Ms. 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.”
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.
It 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.”
Mr. 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.
Delaney 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.”
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?”
“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.'”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion there as well. Persuasion isn’t always, “Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you are not,” but, “Here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind,” and it’s the facts plus the sensitivity, which convolved together, create impact.— Neil deGrasse Tyson to Richard Dawkins, 2006
You’re a busy person. But Phil Plait needs 31 minutes of your time.
Phil (of Bad Astronomy) gave a talk at TAM8 in July that is one of the most important and resonant messages I’ve heard in ages. It’s about being heard.
It’s an obsession of mine lately, this topic. I tried to write a simple blog post about it last year and ended up instead writing 11,000 words in an eight-month series of posts called “Can You Hear Me Now?” The thrust of that series, and of Phil’s talk, is that content is all well and good, and argument is lovely, but it’s all for nothing if we don’t think about how to get ourselves heard. And when it matters most, we’d better think not just about how tight our arguments are, but how to stand any chance of having them received on the other end.
This isn’t just about religion. It’s also about politics, social issues, alternative medicine, the paranormal — everything people get hot and bothered about. Discourse is nothing more than shouting down a well if we merely compose zingers for the applause of our stablemates and fail to create a receptive mind in the listeners we hope to persuade.
Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to this in a rebuke to Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief in 2006 (which Dawkins accepted with grace and good humor):
Tyson’s precise point is well-taken: “I felt you more than I heard you.” (Many other critiques of Dawkins, et al. are not, as I noted in 2007.)
Now Phil Plait has made a magnificent, deeply personal, effective and well-titled plea along the same lines. Please set aside 31 minutes at the end of your busy day to hear what he says.
But also note what he does NOT say. He doesn’t say that being heard requires us to respect the unrespectable, or bury our passion, or deny our convictions. He’s not calling for a moratorium on religious satire or political outrage, or I’d tell him to bugger off. I intend to continue treating ideas themselves with whatever respect or contempt they earn. But when it comes to discourse with our fellow mammals, the Tyson Equation nails it: facts plus sensitivity equals impact.
A few months back I wrote about a moving open letter written by a couple who had left their church and religious belief behind. Their letter, originally intended for a few friends and family, ended up drawing several thousand visits, mostly from fellow nonbelievers with words of support and encouragement.
A few days later they posted a follow-up expressing their surprise and delight at the response. And in addition to saying some blush-inducingly nice things about me and my work, they put their finger on one of the main reasons I created Parenting Beyond Belief, something very rarely noted but always on my mind. At the risk of vanity, I’ll let them tell it:
Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief and one of the primary reasons why Kirby and I were able to write the letter that we did.
I had identified myself as an evangelical Christian for over twenty years. I came to my recent conclusions about my faith without reading any views from “the other side.” I didn’t want anyone telling me what to believe anymore. I wanted to figure out what I believed. I slowly came to realize that I could no longer hold all the inconsistencies together. I couldn’t figure out how to make it all work in my head. It occurred to me that in order to end the disharmony I would have to admit that much of what I was supposed to believe in, I didn’t. It was at that point I began wonder how a person could define their worldview without the supernatural and I began to seek out “the other point of view.”
I have to admit, what I read actually scared me – vitriolic anger. There seemed to be as much hate and intolerance in the “other camp” as in the one I felt I had left.
So it seems very apropos that Dale linked to our letter when it was his book, Parenting Beyond Belief, that actually made me relax and realize that life would probably be okay. Dale’s was the first book that didn’t make me feel stupid for wasting my life for years on a silly religion….His was the first book that gave me hope that some of my friendships might survive this monumental announcement. (Emphasis added)
Most nonbelievers in our culture are entirely closeted — going to church, putting their kids in Sunday school, muttering along with grace and biting their tongues when necessary — because the only atheist they’ve seen is The Angry Atheist, and they’re just not interested in signing up for that. As long as the only option seems to be declaring war on friends and family and on the person you were last week, most people would understandably stay put.
I remember this struggle myself when as a doubting teen I knew of just one atheist on Earth: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Two things were true of Madalyn: she did courageous and important work, and she scared the living shit out of me. I could honor Madalyn for doing her thing, but that level of engagement wasn’t my thing — at least not at that point. Later I would develop the confidence to more forcefully engage the issues of my choice. But 30 years ago, I wasn’t ready for that, and if there was a way to disbelieve and not pledge myself to a life of mortal combat with those around me, I couldn’t see it. For that and other reasons, I remained closeted for years.
Eventually I stumbled on the astonishing lineage of freethinkers and went overnight from closeted isolation to the company of giants — and a member of a tradition with a thousand different ways to be.
I’ve said many times that I would never want to shut down harsh condemnation of religious ideas. I think the intelligent moral fury expressed by people like Hitchens and Condell is very well-justified. They speak powerfully to me where I am now, and I wouldn’t want to do without them. But if that level of high-pitched engagement is the only visible face of the nontheist, think of what it says to people like Kirby and Jennifer. They’ve stopped believing, they’re looking for options, and they are given two choices — continue pretending belief to keep your friends and family intact, or immediately declare war on them and all they stand for.
I’m thrilled to see so many nontheists of all stripes finding the courage to be out and normal. In the end, that has the potential for a more powerful positive effect than all of our high-flying, well-reasoned, and well-justified arguments put together.
My mind has been on invisible knapsacks this week.
After health care reform passed, the gnashing of teeth intensified among its opponents — a deep concern about (non-war-related) expense, dire warnings of our descent into one or more other-than-capital isms, and a tearful eulogy for the America We Loved. These flies are always buzzing, and I’ve learned to just keep my tail moving and go about my day.
But there’s one trope in the mix that brings up an especially deep outrage in me, one that makes it hard to hold my tongue. It’s the suggestion that this Act confers benefits on people who — unlike the speaker — have not earned them.
Which led me back to the invisible knapsack.
Twenty years ago, in a piece titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women crystallized the argument that racial discrimination, especially today, is less a matter of “individual acts of meanness” than “invisible systems conferring dominance” on one group over another.
In our culture, I’m a member of several privileged groups (white, male, educated, heterosexual) and outside of others (religious, attractive). Like most people, I’m able to see and decry the advantages I am denied, but those I do have are largely invisible to me — until someone points them out, as McIntosh does so lucidly in her essay, with a list of 50 privileges she holds, but usually fails to recognize, as a white person. It’s a quick and thoughtful read, and I recommend it.
The nonreligious rightly protest unfair advantages conferred on the religious. But when it comes to our own advantages as nonreligious people, we too often act as if we earned them all.
Our advantages?? Sure. My secular humanism doesn’t confer much social advantage, but I do think it has allowed me to see a much grander, more astonishing, and ultimately more inspirational world and universe than the one my most conservatively religious friends inhabit. I don’t think this makes me a better person than they are. But I am deeply grateful for what it has done to the color and depth of my life and to my ability to open that lovely perspective to my kids.
Darwin hints at this color and depth in the last sentence of the Origin:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (First edition, 1859)*
I’m glad for that grand naturalistic view, at once humbling and ennobling. But I recognize that in addition to the serious effort I put into reaching my conclusions, I also had some advantages along the way — advantages that not everyone shares.
My parents valued education and the life of the mind and encouraged the same in me and my brothers. They took us to a UCC church, a liberal denomination free of thought-paralyzing dogmas and fear. They encouraged us to think for ourselves and to be infinitely curious. My early interests in mythology and science were nurtured. I had a first-rate education, K-Ph.D. I was raised in relative physical and economic security. I knew people of several different religious traditions and eventually attended churches in nine denominations. We attended a Unitarian fellowship in my teens.
Not one of these is essential in achieving a naturalistic worldview free of traditional religion. Many of my nonreligious friends found their way out despite far fewer advantages than I had. But I recognize that many of the folks we rail against for holding on to beliefs we find unbelievable have often inherited, in one way or another, a more formidable set of obstacles.
The end result of such a process is greater empathy for the believer. Not for the beliefs themselves, especially those that are malignant or dehumanizing. It’s unethical to leave genuinely harmful beliefs unchallenged. But the most effective challenge to beliefs begins with heartfelt empathy for those who believe.
*Go here for a fascinating look at the (what else?) evolution of this poetic passage through later editions, and Darwin’s regret at “truckl[ing] to public opinion” in changing it.
Last September, I briefly mentioned a new CD by They Might Be Giants titled Here Comes Science. From the online samples alone I could tell that it was delicious and different. Now, after four months of family listening, it’s time to chat again.
One song in particular is so good in so many ways, I just had to give it its own blog moment. It’s terrific musically, catchy and inventive as hell, which makes it one of the few pieces on Earth I can hear more than a half dozen times without throwing a virgin into a volcano and jumping in after him. But it’s the lyrics that put My Brother the Ape in my Hall of Fame — and in the Can You Hear Me Now? blog series.
You can guess from the title that My Brother the Ape is about evolution, but it takes a different tack. In Parenting Beyond Belief I waxed on about how cool it is that we are literally related by common descent to all living things on Earth, cousins “not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales” (p. 221). And it is world-changingly, paradigm-shiftingly cool — IF you can get yourself to let go of the concept of human specialness.
My Brother the Ape is sung from the perspective of someone who has trouble letting go and accepting his kinship with other animals. It starts with an invitation:
Well, I got the invitation that you sent to everyone
And I told you family picnics weren’t exactly my idea of fun
You replied that everyone but me said they were going to come
Which is how you talked me into going to the reunion
When you said everyone, you really meant it
My brother the ape
My brother the ape
Most songwriters, myself included, would have sent the narrative voice to the reunion and had him dance and sing and frolic in the oneness of all life. The Giants go deeper. Even after the reunion, Narrative Voice is still not all that comfortable with things:
I received the photos you sent, and I don’t regret that I went
Or the sight of everybody stiffly posing under one tent
But I don’t feel I belong and I keep wanting to escape
And I fail to see the likeness between me and my brother the ape
They all kept saying how much we look alike
I don’t think that we look alike at all
He starts working it out, bit by bit — two steps forward, one step back:
But I’ll admit that I look more like a chimp
Than I look like my cousin the shrimp
Or my distant kin the lichens
Or the snowy egret or the moss
And I find it hard to recognize some relatives of ours
Like the rotifer, the sycamore, iguanas and sea stars
My brother the ape
My brother the ape
In the end, he begins to come around, though you can see it’s still going to take some getting used to:
They say you don’t get to choose your family
But there’s no other one to choose
So that’s why I’m writing this now
And you can tell my sister the cow
That I meant to thank her for the gorgonzola, and I’ll allow
That I’ve been acting like a stranger, but you guys are all so strange
Though I think of what I’m like and I can see we’re all the same
So this time next year, we’ll meet at my place
My brother the ape
My brother the ape
My girls (8 and 12) have latched onto this song in a big, big way. They sing it around the house, they request it as a bedtime song, over and over and over. And in the process, the message that we are related to every living thing sinks in, bringing wonder with it.
It’s not that my kids have ever been reluctant animals. We’ve underlined our place in the scheme of things since they were born. We point out that the trees in our backyard are related to them in exactly the same way their cousins are, except with a common ancestor millions of years further back than Grandma. We refer to our dog as our wolf and ourselves as her monkeys. So for my kids, the song is mainly a fun and catchy reminder of just how cool that is and how far the kinship goes — to lichens and starfish and beyond.
But for someone who has been raised with the notion that humans are specially created in the image of God to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26) — or even coming from a pretty natural position of human chauvinism — evolution represents a serious demotion and a choking slice of humble pie.
A song that empathizes a bit with that reluctance can offer a place for the listener to stand, and sing, while they consider whether or not to come to the reunion.
If you’re a nonreligious parent getting serious pressure or interference from a religious family member about your parenting choices, you’ve got to sit down and have a talk.
Last time I suggested a way of rethinking both the problem and the solution. It isn’t about changing the other person’s mind—it’s about reducing the dissonance that results from your differences. It’s not victory you’re after, but a relaxation of tension and building of mutual confidence. It’s détente.
Note 1: This conversation isn’t always necessary just because your religious perspective differs from your parents, in-laws, etc. Some religious grandparents are entirely respectful of their children’s rights to approach religion any way they wish with their own kids. Others offer nothing more challenging than the occasional grumble, whine, or plea. If you have one of these, be grateful. This post is about a stickier wicket—the grandparent or other relative who threatens, harasses, argues, pressures, and/or actively interferes with your right to raise your kids as you think best when it comes to religion.
Note 2: This is also not about your right to confront an antagonistic relative. For all I know, said relative has earned a merit badge in Self-Righteous Scumbaggery with you as the final project, and your right to retribution is enshrined in six different UN charters. But this post isn’t about us and our personal rights. It’s about creating the best possible family situation for our kids.
Note 3: There are countless variations on the nonreligious parent/religious grandparent dyad, but certain basic principles apply across the board. Be flexible and adapt as needed.
And off we go…
This approach is related to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a powerful and effective concept developed by Marshall Rosenberg and others. It starts with empathy—making an effort to grasp and feel what the other person feels, to hear things as s/he hears them, and to frame what you have to say accordingly. It can leave people feeling heard, understood, and honored – even if they continue to disagree. It can lead to amazing breakthroughs by recognizing that win and lose are not the only meaningful terms in dialogue.
When a secular parent tells me about locking horns with Grandma, I ask what Grandma is concerned about. The answer is almost always the same—the familiar goulash of hell, morality and discipline.
These concerns may be part of the mix, but I don’t think they are usually at the heart of things. The relative may even be convinced that hell-avoidance really is their main concern and may say exactly that, but I have reason to believe otherwise. (I’ll get to the reason by the end.)
Consider this: Most deeply religious people have their religion woven into their personal identity. It’s not just Grandma’s explanatory system or a moral code—it’s often who she is. She’s likely even to see it as the best of who she is. When her first grandchild was born, her visions of herself as a grandmother centered on sharing the best of herself, the deepest and most meaningful part of her life, with her grandchildren, and of proudly sharing her God-fearing descendants with her admiring friends.
The news that said descendants would be raised without religion would have hit her first and foremost as the end of that vision. Worse still, she would often feel personally dishonored and shut out. Finally, she would feel embarrassed by the judgments of her churchgoing friends.
So then: Hell, morality, discipline, identity, self-image, honor/dishonor, exclusion, family pride, and the judgment of others. A pretty potent mix. We can’t solve them all. But we can do some pretty impressive healing with just a few words. And in the process, we will give nothing away and tell nothing but the truth.
There are four important elements:
HONOR the person. You can continue to think whatever you wish about the person’s beliefs. But people deserve respect as people. Refuse to grant that and you have no basis for discourse. If nothing else, honor their intentions, which (however misguided you think they are) are usually good.
EMPATHIZE. Make a real effort to see things as s/he sees them.
REASSURE. Some of his or her concerns can’t be helped. Some can. Reduce the concerns by addressing those you can.
INCLUDE. This is huge. A clear gesture of inclusion can repair an immense amount of damage and bring down walls. Most people will respond to that generous gesture with a desire to not abuse it. For the rest, some reasonable limits can be placed.
Here’s the idea:
I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are important to us. I know you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that.
I know your religious faith is a big part of your life. If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do—worried that this big part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.
I want you to know that it will be shared. Even though we’re not going to church, it’s important to us that the kids learn about religion so they can make a choice for themselves.
We want you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe. Let’s set up a time for you and me and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate so you can talk to her about your faith. How does that sound?
Details are hammered out next, so you should be prepared with a sense of what is OK and what is not. But ONCE THE CONVERSATION HAS HAPPENED, s/he will be infinitely more receptive to a few simple ground rules. For me there were two: no thoughtstoppers (no reference to hell or the idea that doubt is bad), and present all beliefs as your own (“I believe that…”), not as givens.
Sometimes it won’t work. But I’ve heard from so many people that this was the breakthrough, the approach that finally achieved something positive — including many who had sworn in advance that “It’ll never work with my dad” — that I have to think there’s something there. Several people have described step four as the turning point, the moment s/he is invited to share his or her belief with the kids. The road is not paved with daisies from that point forward, but at least it isn’t paved with IEDs anymore.
And this is why I believe it isn’t really all about hell — because without addressing hell one bit, enormous progress is made.
The bottom line in this is that there is an alternative to (1) saying nothing, or (2) spitting nails, or (3) giving away the farm. We can be the generous ones, the ones who understand where the other person is coming from, the ones who find a way forward, without giving up one bit of parental autonomy.
Reword it for your own situation, but have this conversation sooner rather than later — then come back here to tell us how it went.
A couple of years ago at a convention, I made a passing comment about family dissonance during a Q&A. “If you’re getting serious pressure from a religious family member about raising your kids without religion—Mom, Grandpa, mother-in-law, whoever—you need to address it directly. Don’t assume that it will get better with time. It will usually get worse.” Something like that.
After the talk, a gentleman cornered me in the ballroom. Great advice, he said. In fact, I just talked to my mother-in-law a few months ago and laid down the law.
What follows is as exact a transcription of his story as I could manage by scribbling it on a hotel pad a few minutes later:
I sat her down and said, “Okay, look. Let’s get some things straight. I am not going to apologize to you or anyone else about raising my kids without religious brainwashing. I don’t know why you are so obsessed with this. It’s no big deal that we don’t go to church. In fact, if we can get the kids to the age of eighteen without seeing the inside of a church, I’ll consider it a great success. I don’t want to hear any Jesus-this or Jesus-that around the kids. If we can agree on that, you can spend time with them.”
Just seven words in, she would have lost the ability to hear him as the blood began pounding defensively in her ears. No one can really hear and think under this kind of assault. And the veiled threat at the end is a particularly nice touch.
To get a real taste of just how this sounds to religious Grandma, reverse the poles a bit. Imagine you’re a secular humanist grandparent with a religious adult child, who says to you:
Okay, look. Let’s get some things straight. I am not going to apologize to you or anyone else about raising my kids without atheistic brainwashing. I don’t know why you are so obsessed with this. It’s no big deal that we’re keeping the kids out of science class. If we can get the kids to the age of eighteen without seeing the inside of a science book, I’ll consider it a great success. I don’t want to hear any evolution-this or science-that around the kids. If we can agree on that, you can spend time with them.
Ow, ow, ow. That’s about where this guy left his mother-in-law. Fight or flight. He looked at me for affirmation.
“Oh…okay,” I said, hesitantly. “And, uh…how’s it goin’?”
“Well,” he said, “we haven’t spoken since then. But I won.”
Aw geez. He’d missed the whole point.
Now I don’t know anything else about this guy’s situation. Maybe this woman put him through ten kinds of hell and deserved nothing more or less than to be cut off at the knees. Maybe there was no hope of achieving anything beyond that self-satisfying gofuckyourself. But even if the former is true, the latter almost never is.
If his situation was like 95 percent of those I’ve seen or heard described, his “I won” showed that he misunderstood both the problem and the solution. What did he win—the right to raise his child without religion? As the parent, he’d already “won” that right (barring inter-spousal differences — another post.) If his mother-in-law is actively, directly controlling his parenting decisions, he has a different (and much larger) problem, one that his monologue did nothing to solve.
In most cases, the problem isn’t that Grandma is actively preventing you from parenting the way you want—it’s that an atmosphere of tension and dissonance and poison is created by your differences. Sometimes that atmosphere can turn into something more concrete—sneaky proselytizing of the kids, demanding that other family members choose sides, or outright shunning—but it’s the tension itself that’s at the root. Reduce the tension around your differences and you reduce the symptoms of the tension as well.
Whenever I say this in my seminars, I see a half dozen heads shaking slowly. I know what they’re thinking. There’s no point. She’s never going to change her mind, and I’m sure as hell not going to change mine.
This is where we go wrong—by thinking that changing someone’s mind is the only goal of such a conversation. If it was, they’d be right. There’d really be no point. But one of the central idea of this little series is that changing minds is not the only way forward.
What’s needed in these situations is not victory but détente.
Anyone who lived in the U.S during the Nixon years tends to hear that French word spoken with a German accent. Whenever Kissinger said, “Vee ah voorking vithin a framevoork of détente vith de Zoviets,” I thought it meant, “We agree not to bomb each other for now.” Turns out détente is a much more interesting vurd meaning “a relaxation of tensions and building of mutual confidence.” It is not a ceasefire nor a compromise, but something designed to make an actual exchange of warheads less likely. In the Cold War, détente meant (among many other things) exchanging ballet companies and art exhibits and such to show each other our human sides.
I do think it’s best to sit down and address tensions about your nonreligious parenting with any religious family member who is especially distressed by it. The key is to aim for a reduction in tension, not a “win.” You’re the parent. You’ve already “won” the right to do your thing. What you want is to scale back the tension and discomfort resulting from those choices so your kids can grow up in the best possible family situation. And you can do it without giving up anything. That’s détente.
Next time I’ll share my thoughts on how to do that.
I started this series-about-Facebook-within-a-series-about-communication by describing an exchange with two normal, non-crazy, hearable and listenable religious friends. I wanted to show (1) that most religious people are, in fact, normal, non-crazy, hearable and listenable, (2) that it’s best to assume someone is all those things until proven otherwise, and (3) that time spent communicating thoughtfully with such friends is time well spent.
On the other hand, I do know many people of religious and nonreligious persuasions for whom no amount of care or thoughtful message crafting justifies the time spent at the potter’s wheel. This post is about giving one’s self permission to recognize pointlessness and walk away, with a smile, before throwing good time and effort after bad.
A recent exchange on Facebook with an old friend — I’ll call him Aaron — illustrates the point.
Though I came to discover a huge gulf between our worldviews since last we met (during the Carter Administration), I doubt very much that Aaron is crazy. I might very well enjoy time in his company as I once did. He has a perfect right to his opinions and to the expression of same. It’s true that I wish fewer people believed as Aaron apparently does. But I think engaging Aaron on religious and related questions offers only an amazing facsimile of actual accomplishment, and that the invested time and energy would be better spent on other things. Like cleaning my gutters.
My exchange with Aaron began when I posted this in my Facebook status:
Congratulations Greg Epstein on the release of “Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People DO Believe.” Sure to be a fine contribution.
Mr. Epstein is a “Humanist Rabbi”. Isn’t that a little like being an Amish auto-mechanic, lol?
I remember having exactly the same blinkered reaction the first time I heard about Humanistic Judaism ten years ago. Why fault Aaron for being where I once was? So I started with a little empathy, then gave a context for reconsidering:
Hi Aaron! Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn’t it? But 40,000 Secular Humanistic Jews (among others) have understood and embraced it for two generations. Anyone interested in these questions beyond the LOL should read Greg’s book to see how people without theistic beliefs satisfy the same human needs that have traditionally been addressed by religion.
Aaron saw an opening:
Very respectfully Dale, a casual look at the mess-of-a-world around us, in the news, and on talk shows is ample indication of how people have sought satisfaction and fulfillment apart from accountability to the Bible. I think it was Napolean who said, “People will believe anything as long as it isn’t in the Bible”.
At this point I have some choices. Do I challenge his assertion that the world is a mess? Do I challenge the idea that a drift from Biblical accountability is responsible for what mess there is? Do I point out that the Bible has inspired its fair share of the mess? Correct his spelling of Napoleon? Tell him the quote is actually, “People will believe anything as long as you whisper it to them” and was only changed later, and that it was more likely said by trial lawyer Louis Nizer before being reverse-engineered to Napoleon and readapted to the Bible? Do I point out that the whole tired “mess-of-a-world” trope is refuted by the fact that crime across the board is at the lowest level in modern history?
To answer these, answer this: What result am I after?
Ten years ago I would have started with, “Oh Aaron, Aaron. Where do I even begin?”—then gone after every single one of those points in as superior a voice as possible. In the end, I’d imagine him lying in a pool of cyber-blood.
But most of us eventually notice that winning an argument requires that the vanquished recognize his defeat. Sure enough, time after time, I would be amazed and incensed when the other person — apparently unaware of his demise — came back with more nonsense.
I came to realize that these exchanges accomplish precisely nothing but lost time and gained blood pressure. He comes back, I reply, again and again. We consult our mutually-exclusive rulebooks to see who’s winning. And oh how the pretty painted ponies go round and round.
I want those hours back.
Worse yet, if there’s an audience, such as Facebook friends, a poorly-toned or twelve-point reply can look to the non-choir like so much intellectual bullying. It’s just too much to process as anything else.
One option, rarely taken, is to not reply at all. But but but I have the perfect argument, we say. It’s ever so compelling and irrefutable. Go shout your brilliance into a bucket. Better yet, go find Bob and Andrea. If you proceed thoughtfully, it’s possible to bring a conversation with those two (and most of their fellow reasonables) to an actual conclusion. I may be wrong, but I suspect there is neither end nor purpose to continuing with Aaron. That’s no cause for rudeness or personal disrespect — just an invitation to be done.
So what did I do? I continued anyway. As it happened, I had a minute. My gutters were already clean, and I like to test my own hypotheses about these exchanges. But I continued without illusions. I didn’t unleash a deafening point-by-point but chose a third option: the (potentially) hearable reply.
The hearable reply includes two elements: at least one point of agreement, and ONLY ONE solid, well-supported point of difference:
I share your concern about the mess-of-a-world, Aaron, in a big way. So does Greg. But I think the “casual glance” at causation is precisely what leads us off the mark. Some of the mess is certainly fueled by non-Biblical causes; another large percentage specifically stems from biblical or other religious inspiration. (I’ll assume you don’t need a list.) The best things we can do is get all of us who are concerned with making the world a better place working together instead of drawing lines that divide us.
Terrorism was not in our thoughts a generation ago. Concern for our security and identity, and the measures we need to take to safeguard them, has increased. Carjacking. Pornography. Sex trade. Human and child trafficking. Slave trade. School dropouts. Teen pregnancy. Single-parent households….Increase of welfare as a lifestyle. As the Bible predicted, men will call what is bad as good, and call what is good as bad… I’m reading a terrif book called “The Truth War” by John MacArthur. In his first chapter on Post-Modernism…
At this point I have plenty of evidence that there’s not much to be gained by continuing. He is so deeply siloed that he is unlikely to be able to hear it. More importantly, there’s something to be lost if I look like a bully. I reposted the link he had ignored, mostly so others could see it, and let those who wished to do so fence on.
I used to walk away from these threads only after countless hours of escalating aggravation. Then I began to experience the joy of giving up — the liberating feeling of walking out of pointless exchanges early, with a friendly tip of my hat, my pockets brimming with unexpended arguments and witty retorts, to spend my time and energy hearing others and being heard by them. I don’t always manage it, but when I do, I’m damn proud of my great big grownup self.
Interesting coda: One of those who continued in discourse with Aaron, gently challenging him for another few rounds, was a friend of mine who I know to be actively religious. If I had bullied Aaron, or appeared to do so, it’s likely that Joseph never would have joined in. By taking a bit of care, I had made it possible for a religious moderate to find more common cause with me than with Aaron. I’ll call that a positive result.
We all do it. We listen for a few clues, then assign a pigeonhole to the speaker. Maybe the beak’s still moving, who knows. It’s hard to hear since we’ve already shoved the bird headfirst into the hole.
Though some might forget this by the end of the page, I’m NOT calling for an end to the pigeonhole. It’s a necessary, practical shortcut. We don’t have the luxury of time or energy for a full investigation into every minor question. When it matters most, I take that time. But for a thousand decisions a day, I pick up clues and come to conclusions before I have all the information. There’s simply no choice.
What I’m suggesting, in the interest of getting more things more right, is that we work on delaying the leap to the pigeonhole just that little bit.
When I listen to another person, I try to listen and think a few minutes beyond my natural tendency to stop — juuust in case the pigeonhole I’m carving isn’t the right fit after all. I find in the end that I make slightly more comfortable pigeonholes that way, better tailored to what the person actually says and thinks.
And I end up with a much more interesting coop.
I’m sure Richard Dawkins wonders at the pigeonhole he’s been jammed into. He has become a conveniently polar figure for atheists and theists alike, the banner carrier for scorched-earth Atheism. But for the most part, it doesn’t fit with what he says, nor even how he says it.
It’s easy to maintain this caricature if you never hear him speak or read his books, or if you do so only through the filter of preconceptions. Richard spends vast whacks of time acknowledging the positive contributions of religion, the Bible’s contribution to Western literature, the need for religious literacy, the difference between moderates and fundamentalists. But once he’s in the extremist pigeonhole, all that nuance goes unnoticed by BOTH sides. Wouldn’t want to have to carve out a whole new hole, now would we.
One of my favorite moments is when one of those carefully-formed complexities finally gets itself noticed by the pigeonholers. The result is pandemonium as the question is raised: Is so-and-so actually in the completely OPPOSITE pigeonhole?
That was the sadly comical case when Antony Flew, under his own power (or not) renounced his atheism (or didn’t) to become a Christian (or a deist, or something else). The Flew affair was not just a battle between believers and nonbelievers, but between pigeonholers and nuance. (If you’re not familiar, the Wikipedia article on Flew includes a nice synopsis of the whole farce.)
Then there was a remarkable speech by Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance convention in 2007. His talk (as always) was brilliantly crafted and filled with subtleties that most of any given audience can’t hear because they’ve ensconsed him in the pigeonhole of either Extreme-Atheist-Yay! or Extreme-Atheist-Boo!
You’d think the title of his talk — “The Problem with Atheism” — would have forewarned the AAI crowd that this wasn’t the typical self-congratulatory slop on which we sup. But the opening sentences lulled a lot of us into complacency:
To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just how strange it is that a meeting like this is even necessary. The year is 2007, and we have all taken time out of our busy lives, and many of us have traveled considerable distance, so that we can strategize about how best to live in a world in which most people believe in an imaginary God.
A few sentences later, he tried to signal what was coming:
In thinking about what I could say to you all tonight, it seemed to me that I have a choice between throwing red meat to the lions of atheism or moving the conversation into areas where we actually might not agree. I’ve decided, at some risk to your mood, to take the second approach and to say a few things that might prove controversial in this context.
Then, the crux splendidior of his message:
Given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion, declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response. And it is the stance that many of us have proudly and publicly adopted. Tonight, I’d like to try to make the case, that our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.
Oh dear, thought the group, looking at their nametags and banners. Several hundred atheists had awakened to find themselves holding the flapping pigeon of Sam Harris — and began searching frantically for a new hole into which he could be stuffed.
I won’t excerpt his actual argument here since it must be read in full and slept on, then read again. (Please do that at the end of this post before responding to Harris.)
By the end of this unprecedented speech, Harris provided many in the room with the evidence they needed to dispose of him when he criticized the tendency of many atheists to auto-reject anything that has ever been associated with religion or spirituality.
Take meditation, he said — and proceeded to discuss how important the practice has been to him and how seriously he pursues it.
I could barely hear the rest of the speech for the sound of birds slamming home around me: Sam Harris isn’t a bold atheist crusader after all — he’s a fuzzy-headed devotee of flim-flam and woo-woo!
Those are the only choices, you know.
Harris had “take[n] some pains to denude [meditation] of metaphysics” for the audience, but that went largely unheard. Sure enough, the very first questioner walked to the mike and said, “I was very disapppointed with your speech. I did not know you were a supporter of spiritual nonsense.” Most of the rest were much the same.
A similar re-pigeoning mini-kerfuffle happened recently after Richard Dawkins suggested in a Newsweek interview that some intelligent people believe evolution can be reconciled with traditional religious belief. Even though he said he himself continues to find them irreconcilable, scores of atheist blogs suddenly lit up with the title “RICHARD DAWKINS, ACCOMMODATIONIST?”
I spend a huge amount of energy resisting pigeonholes myself so that my favorite nuances can be heard. Many religious readers see “atheist” and slam me into the hole with Stalin and Pol Pot. Many atheists have me pigeonholed as a “nice atheist” or part of “Atheism 3.0.” It’s often assumed, despite the evidence, that I believe all points of view are deserving of respect, that we should “all just get along.” And when I step out of that cartoon by (for example) suggesting that religious moderates need to “get off their butts” and help me oppose religious extremism, I am accused of violating a Nice Atheist oath I never actually took.
My hope here is to help raise our collective awareness that careless pigeonholing can get in the way of hearing and being heard.