Wednesday, 11. April 2012 by Dale
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.
Category: belief and believers
,best practices series
,nonbelief and nonbelievers
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Tuesday, 20. March 2012 by Dale
(Part 2, continued from “Born This Way?“)
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade / You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught!
–from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (1949)
It’s a riveting horror — no caption required, just the immensely sad, unaware eyes of the younger girl. There’s no reason to believe they’ve embraced the messages on their shirts yet, but every reason to assume their environment is primed to lead them there.
But is it really true that we’ve got to be taught to hate those who are different from us? Answer one way and parents can simply decline to teach them to hate. Answer the other way and there’s something we need to actively do to help them avoid it.
I think we’re more naturally inclined to hate and fear difference than not. Religion isn’t the only parting gift we got from the Paleolithic. A lot of the things we are, including some of our worst pathologies, were once strongly adaptive traits. Evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up to our circumstances. As a result, we’re a whole panel of buttons waiting to be pushed. And one of the best things a parent can do is to help those buttons rust.
Before I get to that, let’s look at more of our inheritance:
GOT TO BE TAUGHT?
A million years ago, food was desperately hard to come by, and cooperation within a small group was advantageous. But cooperating with the group next door would have doubled the mouths to feed without moving the needle much on available food. Genetic tendencies toward in-group cooperation and out-group hostility would have provided a selective advantage, as would distrust of people who dressed, looked, or acted differently from you. The more different they were, the more likely their interests conflicted with yours.
Aggressive nationalism, militarism, racism, and the exaggerated fear of immigrants and of all things foreign are modern expressions of what was once a sensible approach to staying alive. But in an interdependent world, these same characteristics can be downright harmful.
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon a million years ago. Two Homo erectuseses are walking through the high grass on the African savannah. Suddenly there’s movement off to the left. One of them assumes it’s something fun and goes in for a hug. The other jumps 15 feet straight up and grabs a tree limb. Even if it’s just a fluffy bunny nine times out of ten, which of these guys is more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation?
In a world bent on killing you, no characteristic would have been more useful for survival than perpetual, sweaty hypervigilance. We’ve inherited a strong tendency to assume that every shadow and sound is a threat, which in turn kept us alive and reproducing. By the time elevated blood pressure killed you off at 22, you’d already have several jittery, paranoid offspring pounding espressos and cradling stone shotguns all through the long, terrifying night.
Fast forward to a world of 7 billion people in close quarters. Suddenly it’s no longer quite so adaptive to have everybody all edgy and shooty all the time. But our brains don’t know that. One of the resulting paradoxes is that fear often increases as actual danger diminishes. If you can’t see and name it, it must be hiding, you see, which is ever so much worse. Violent crime in the U.S. recently hit the lowest level since records have been kept — in every category — but who’d ever know? Instead, we take every violent news story as proof of the opposite. We insist things are worse than ever in “this day and age,” keep cradling those shotguns…and keep forwarding those urban legends.
When you get an email warning that rapists are using $5 bills or recordings of crying babies or ether disguised as perfume to lure and capture their victims, or that child abduction rates have risen 444% since 1982 — all untrue — you’ve just received a message from the Paleolithic. But by constantly naming dangers and sounding the alarm, we feel safer.
(Think for a minute about how 9/11 — a death-dealing sneak attack by the Other — pushed our collective Paleolithic button. It was a massive confirmation of our oldest unarticulated fears, and we dropped to our collective knees.)
I could go on and on. In addition to magical thinking, fear of difference, and hypervigilance, we can add categorical thinking, enforced gender divisions, the love of weapons and authority, and much more, all of which had clear adaptive advantages during the long, dark night of our species. These things are, in a word, natural.
Which is not to say good. Rape is also natural. “From an evolutionary perspective,” says biologist/philosopher David Lahti, “considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it.” Yet it happens, ten thousand times a day, because we’ve developed a frankly unnatural social morality that trumps the natural a gratifyingly high percentage of the time.
Secularism, comfort with difference, a reasonable relaxation of vigilance, the blurring of categories (sex, gender, race, etc), the willingness to disarm ourselves and to challenge authority — these are all unnatural, recent developments, born in fits and starts out of the relative luxury of a post-Paleolithic world. I’m sure you’ll agree that they are also better responses to the world we live in now — at least those of us privileged to live in non-Paleolithic conditions.
Of course our limbic brain differs on that, but it would, wouldn’t it?
Now — the astute reader may have noticed that the things that kept us alive a million years ago line up incredibly well with the nationalistic, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, pro-authority, pro-gender-role, anti-diversity talking points of social conservatives. But if you think my point is to belittle conservatives by calling them cavemen, not so. I think there’s a lot to be gained by recognizing social conservatism, including religious conservatism, as the activation of ancient and natural fears, and to respond accordingly.
My circumstances have allowed my Paleolithic buttons to remain unpushed. That’s why I’m not a social conservative. Growing up, I was made to feel safe. I was not frightened with Satan or hell or made to question my own worth or worthiness. I was given an education, allowed to think freely, encouraged to explore the world around me and to find it wonderful. Unlike the vast majority of the friends I have who are religious conservatives, I never passed through a disempowering life crisis — a hellish divorce, a drug or alcohol spiral, the loss of a child — that may have triggered that feeling of abject helplessness before I had developed my own personal resources. So I never had to retreat into the cave of my innate fears.
In short, I’ve been lucky.
A lot of people with the same luck are religious. But in my experience, those strongly tend toward what Bruce Bawer has called the “church of love” — the tolerant, diverse, justice-oriented side of the religious spectrum, grounded in a more modern perspective but still responding to the human problem that science, admittedly, has only partly solved.
It’s rare for a person with all of the advantages listed above to freely choose the “church of law” — the narrow, hateful, Paleolithic end we rightly oppose. Those folks, one way or another, are generally thrown there, like the girls in the photo. Sometimes they find their way out, but their road is tougher than mine was.
Seeing things this way has made me more empathetic to conservative religious believers, even as I oppose the malign consequences of their beliefs. Understanding our natural inheritance also makes me frankly amazed that we ever do anything right. Given the profound mismatch between what we are and what the world is, we should all have vanished in a smoking heap by now. Instead, we create art and cure disease and write symphonies and figure out the age of the universe and somehow, despite ourselves, hang on to an essentially secular government in a predominantly religious country.
Okay, I just have to stop writing, even though I haven’t reached the punchline — what this all means for parents. So there will be a Part 3.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: After further research and smart reader input, I've yanked the section "Every Sperm is Sacred" from this post, which was based on hypotheses that have apparently been superseded. Science marches on!]
Thursday, 08. March 2012 by Dale
It is an interesting and demonstrable fact that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so…[T]here is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal. –ERNESTINE ROSE, “A Defence of Atheism” (1861)
Boy do we secular parents love us a quote like that. It says my atheism is just a return to my natural condition, a rejection of something artificial that had been blown into my head by human culture. Like!
But in the last few years, I’ve come to think of the idea that we are born atheists as a seriously misleading one, and correcting it as Job One for secular parents.
It’s obviously true that we are born without religious belief. But this equates to what is called weak or negative atheism, the simple absence of belief in a god or gods. But what about the other major assertion there — that without inculcation, that absence would remain?
This gets at the very basic question of what religion is. The Rose quote implies that it’s a cultural construction, pure and simple. But if Ernestine Rose was right and atheism is so damn natural, why is the inculcation of religion received so eagerly and pried loose with such difficulty?
I’ve spent years chasing this question through the work of EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer and more. The result has made me less angry and frustrated and more empathetic toward the religious impulse, even as I continue to find most religious ideas both incorrect and problematic. It has also deeply informed my secular parenting in a very good way. Yet I’ve never expressed it out loud until a few months ago, when I reworked part of my parenting seminar to include it.
Thinking about religion anthropologically has made me a better proponent of my own worldview, a more effective challenger of toxic religious ideas, and a much better secular parent.
Why (the hell) we are the way we are
If you want to understand why we are the way we are, there’s no better place to look than the Paleolithic Era (2.4 million years ago – 11,000 years ago). Over 99.5 percent of the history of the genus Homo — 120,000 generations — took place during the Paleolithic. For the last 10,000 of those generations, we were anatomically modern. Same body, same brain. The brain you are carrying around in your head was evolved in response to conditions in that era, not this one. The mere 500 generations that have passed since the Paleolithic ended represent a virtual goose egg in evolutionary time.
To put it simply: we are born in the Stone Age. Childhood is a period during which we are brought — by parenting, experience, and education — into the modern world. Or not.
So if we were evolved for the Paleolithic, it seems worth asking: What was it like then? In short, it sucked to be us.
In the Lower Paleolithic, starting around 2.4 million years ago, there were an estimated 26,000 hominids on Earth. The climate was affected by frequent glacial periods that would lock up global water, leading to severe arid conditions in the temperate zones and scarce plant and animal life, making food hard to come by.
The average hominid life span was about 20 years. We lived in small bands competing for negligible resources. For two million years, our genus was balancing on the edge of extinction.
Then it got worse.
About 77,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, (apparently created by a seven-year-old boy), this eruption was a “mega-colossal” — the highest category. Earth was plunged into a volcanic winter lasting at least a decade. The human population dropped to an estimated 5,000 individuals, each living a terrifying, marginal existence.
Now remember that these humans had the same thirsty and capable brain you and I enjoy, but few reliable methods for filling it up. The most common cause of death was infectious disease. If someone is gored by a mammoth, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. But most people died for no apparent reason. Just broke out in bloody boils, then keeled over dead.
Imagine how terrifying such a world would be to a mind fully capable of comprehending the situation but utterly lacking in answers, and worse yet, lacking the ability to control it. It’s not hard to picture the human mind simply rebelling against that reality, declaring it unacceptable, and creating an alternate reality in its place, neatly packaged for the grateful relief of subsequent generations.
The first evidence of supernatural religion appears 130,000 years ago.
Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.
Conservative, traditional religion is a natural response to being human in the Paleolithic. Whether it was a good response or not is beside the point — it was the only one we had.
But we’re not in the Paleolithic anymore, you say. You certainly have the calendar on your side. We began to climb out of our situation about 500 generations ago when agriculture made it possible to stand still and live a little longer. Eventually we had the time and security to develop better responses to the problem, better ways of interrogating and controlling the world around us. But the Scientific Revolution, our biggest step forward in that journey, was just 20 generations ago. Think of that. It just happened. Our species is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of 120,000 generations in hell. And like the battle veteran who hits the dirt when he hears a backfiring car, it takes very little to push the Paleolithic button in our heads.
Yes, your kids are born without religious belief. But they are also born with the problem of being human, which includes a strong tendency to hit the dirt when the universe backfires. One of the best things a secular parent can do is know that the Paleolithic button is there so we can help our kids resist the deeply natural urge to push it.
(Part 1 of 3. Go to Part 2.)
Sunday, 01. January 2012 by Dale
For rewriting a line of John Lennon’s Imagine in his New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square, Cee Lo Green has been awarded the first Facepalme d’Or of 2012.
While singing the traditional year-ending anthem, Green chose to replace the line “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” with “Nothing to kill or die for / And all religion’s true,” thereby angering Lennon fans (for messing with perfection), evangelical Christians (for implying other religions might be true), and atheists (for precisely reversing Lennon’s clear intention).
“The committee was a bit conflicted on this one,” said Facepalme committee chair Patrick Stewart. “Not about whether it deserved the award, of course. But this marks the third time an edit of this precise lyric has earned the Palme — and it’s not even the worst example, not by a long shot.”
An entering college music student in St. Paul, Minnesota earned the 1993 award during her audition (in front of the author of this blog) for singing, “Nothing to kill or die for / And more religion, too.” But neither of these comes close to the performance by a singer on Jimmy Swaggart’s televangelical program in 1985, who changed ” Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” to “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too…except your own.”
“I couldn’t believe that one Myself,” said a prominent source.
Saturday, 24. December 2011 by Dale
Last year I had a go at one of the most execrable things we culturally love — the “Yes, Virginia” letter:
One thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, [in which] a little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.
I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry….For two years my son Connor intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.
This is THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right. When asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.
“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.
Now the inimitable Greta Christina has added her voice, penning the answer she would have given Virginia. (For full effect it must be read immediately after reading the original piece of dreck):
“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.
Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.
Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.
Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.
No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.
And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.
Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.
Read the full piece at Greta Christina’s Blog
Wednesday, 23. November 2011 by Dale
I’m itching to write about the UC Davis situation. There’s something important to be said that isn’t much being talked about. But it’s too important to rush, and the book deadline is seriously looming, so I’ll wait until December when no one cares anymore. For now, another teaser from Voices of Unbelief (ABC-CLIO, August 2012).
One of the great games in the culture wars is claiming the good and smart for your team and pushing the monsters away. Picture Christian and atheist captains in a sandlot choosing basketball teams. “Einstein, we get Einstein!” say the atheists. “No way, he used the word God!…Well Jefferson then.” “Oh you WISH!” And so it goes until only Hitler is left, standing alone in short pants.
The push-me-pull-you process is done by cherry-picking quotes, and Albert Einstein is the three-point shooter everybody wants to draft. To nicely complicate that, I’m including five excerpts from Albert Einstein’s correspondence, adding up to a relatively clear and nuanced picture by the end. We’ll start by picking the atheists’ favorite cherry, then keep moving around the tree.
Excerpts from the personal correspondence and interviews of Albert Einstein
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
–Letter of March 24, 1954 to a correspondent asking him to clarify his religious views. Dukas, Helen, and Banesh Hoffman, eds. (1981). “Albert Einstein: The Human Side.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 43.
I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.
–Letter to Guy H. Raner Jr. (28 September 1949). Isaacson, Walter (2008). “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 390.
My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.
–Letter to M. Berkowitz, Oct. 25, 1950. Einstein Archives 59–215.00
I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.
–From a 1930 interview with poet, writer, and later Nazi propagandist G.S. Viereck. Frankenberry, Nancy K. (2008). “The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 153.
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism…With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.
With friendly thanks and best wishes
Yours, A. Einstein
–Letter from Einstein to author Eric Gutkind, January 1954, in response to receiving Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.” Quoted in “Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear,” The Guardian, May 13, 2008
It’s interesting to see Einstein and others (including Carl Sagan) whose views are essentially identical to mine but who see atheism as a position of certainty (which in practice it almost never is) and reject the label on those terms. If theism can accommodate strong conviction rather than certainty, it seems that atheism should be allowed the same latitude. But at least Einstein makes his reasoning clear in these letters. I’ll bet that’ll put an end to all the confusion.
Tuesday, 15. November 2011 by Dale
Scrambling to finish the complicated manuscript for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics by the December 1 deadline. Rather than go to complete radio silence on the blog, I’ll share some of the more unusual bits with you.
In order to make this book something more than just another freethought anthology, I set two goals for myself: (1) to include disbelief in cultures beyond Europe and the US, and (2) to fill in the usual 1400-year gap between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. After nearly a year of careful digging, I managed to do both.
During the initial research, I came across references to Jacques Fournier, a 14th century bishop who was instructed by Rome to undertake local interrogations to root out adherents of Catharism, an unorthodox sect that had been spreading through the south of France. Fournier took the unusual step of having each of his hundreds of individual interrogations transcribed in detail.
Nonbelievers were not the main concern of the late medieval Inquisitions, which were primarily designed to root out heretical Christian sects whose beliefs were not entirely in keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine. Such sects often spread rapidly and were perceived to be a threat to Catholic religious and political power on the continent. But once in a blue moon, an inquisitor came across not a heretic but an outright unbeliever, or at least someone who would cop to being an unbeliever at some recent time.
Sometimes it’s hard to be sure from what was said in the interrogation whether a person’s actual views constituted heresy or unbelief. One such subject, identified as “Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac,” testified that she had come to believe that the soul was nothing but blood, that nothing survives of ourselves after death, and that Jesus was no exception. Let’s listen in to the end of the interrogation, 16 July 1320, in the village of Montaillou:
BISHOP JACQUES FOURNIER: From the moment that you believed that human souls die with the body, did you believe that men would be resurrected or would live again after death?
GUILLEMETTE: I did not believe in the resurrection of human bodies, for I believed that just as the body is buried, the soul is also buried with it. And as I saw the human body rot, I believed that it could never live again.
JF: Did you have someone who taught this to you, did you learn it from someone?
G: No. I thought it over and believed it by myself.
That’s the lovely sound of free inquiry echoing down through the centuries.
Her neighbors testified to her empirical bent as well, including one who described Guillemette’s response to a child dying in her arms. “When she saw nothing but breath go out of his mouth, she said, ‘Take notice, when a person dies, one sees nothing leave his mouth except air. If I saw something else come out, I would believe that the soul is something. But now because only air has come out, I do not believe that the soul is anything.’”
Back to Jacques and Guillemette:
JF: Did you believe that the soul of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is dead or with his body?
G: Yes, for, although God cannot die, Jesus Christ died, all the same. Therefore, although I believed that God has always been, I did not believe that Christ’s soul lived and subsisted after his death.
JF: Do you now believe then that Christ was resurrected?
G: Yes, and it is God who did that.
JF: Do you currently believe that the human soul is anything other than blood, that it does not die at the death of the body, that it is not buried with the body, that there is a hell and a heaven, where souls are punished or rewarded, and there will be a resurrection of all men, and that the soul of Christ did not die with his body?
G: Yes, and I have believed it since the last holiday of the Ascension of the Lord because at that time I heard tell that My Lord the Bishop of Pamiers wanted to carry out an investigation against me about it. I was afraid of My Lord Bishop because of that, and I changed my opinion after that time.
(“Officer, I stopped speeding the moment I saw you.”)
Of the 578 individuals interrogated by Fournier, five heretics were burned at the stake. Most of the remainder were imprisoned or sentenced to wear a yellow cross on their backs for the remainder of their lives as a mark of shame. Guillemette was sentenced to wear the cross.
Jacques Fournier went on to become Pope Benedict XII.
Saturday, 12. November 2011 by Dale
Her name was Ann, that much I remember for sure. Or Monica. We were both in fourth grade when she informed our teacher that she would not be saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
She explained in a quiet, confident voice that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as such was not to pledge an oath to anyone or anything but God.
Though I suppose she was essentially abandoning one set of rote instructions for another, at the time it smacked me in the head like a whistling cartoon anvil falling from a cliff. Wow, I thought. This thing I had done for years without thinking could be thought about and responded to. It’s my earliest memory of witnessing a principled dissent.
I thought of Ann/Monica when the story broke earlier this year about Goshen College, a small Mennonite school in Indiana that made the decision to stop playing the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events. There were the usual cries of outrage from the usual bawling gobs, the usual torrents of hate mail that I understand are continuing still. But I for one had the same response I had forty years ago: Wow.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike our national anthem — musical, textual, and historical. For starters, it’s a waltz. Nobody else has a national anthem that’s a waltz. Okay, “God Save the Queen,” but that’s about it. It’s also unsingable, with a too-wide range of an octave and a fifth. That’s why ballpark yahoos always yodel up into falsetto on “land of the FREE” — to make it look like they meant to sound bad on that high F.
It’s also militaristic, which is the problem Goshen College had with it. Peace and nonviolence are key components of the Mennonite worldview, and the Goshen College motto (“Healing the World, Peace by Peace”) made crowing about rockets and bombs a bit of a problem. They chose instead to celebrate our spacious skies and amber waves by substituting America the Beautiful, a better song in almost every way.
(I don’t actually mind the military setting as much as I once did. The song celebrates surviving an assault, not slaughtering the foe — unlike the Marseillaise of France, which (though musically unbeatable) is easily the most bloodthirsty anthem on Earth. You have to love the “Children’s Verse,” in which the children of France sing of their yearning to avenge their ancestors in battle and join them in their coffins.)
Then there are historical problems. The tune is of English origin. You may recall that the War of 1812 was not against the hated Costa Ricans or the dreaded Laplanders, but the English. So when we dug deep into our repertoire for a tune that matched the metrical structure of the poem Francis Scott Key had written commemorating our victory over the English, we chose “To Anacreon in Heaven” -– an English drinking song.
Yes, the tune of our hallowed national anthem was originally a bawdy drinking song, written in London in the 1770s by members of the Anacreontic Society, an upper class men’s club.
Here’s the first verse of the original lyrics. You know the tune:
To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian
Voice, fiddle and flute, No longer be mute,
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire ye to boot…
And, besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.
So Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BCE, approves the use of his name and instructs the “sons of harmony” to “entwine the myrtle of Venus” (goddess of love) “with Bacchus’s vine” (god of wine). He orders them, in short, to have drunken sex.
In subsequent verses, Zeus is made furious by the news of the proposed entwining, convinced that the goddesses will abandon Olympus in order to have sex with drunken mortals. But the king of the gods is laid low with diarrhea and, fleeing Olympus with his “nine fusty maids,” is thereby rendered unable to countermand the order.
I couldn’t make this stuff up on my best day.
The lyrics that replaced these are actually pretty well crafted. (Say those first two full sentences aloud — some elegant sentence construction going on there.) But most people aren’t aware that the fourth stanza includes the first direct suggestion that “In God We Trust” (actually “In God is our trust”) should be our national motto. A hundred forty-two years later, he got his wish.
Finally, we did without a national anthem for more than 150 years. Though Key’s poem was around from 1814 and even got the tune stuck to it shortly thereafter (as a spritely dance number), it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 1931. That’s right — this ancient, venerable, untouchable tradition was born the same year as my dad. Prior to that it was just another national song, like “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
These are relatively trivial things, of course, compared to Goshen’s reasoning. It was just so gratifying for me to see someone reflecting on their actions — even the most rote and expected of those actions — then thinking about whether those actions line up with their stated principles and making adjustments as needed.
Not all principles are admirable, but caring enough about peace and nonviolence to step on nationalistic toes is something I can get behind. Kudos to Goshen.
Wednesday, 09. November 2011 by Dale
It’s been 11 years since I first stepped out of the closet by posting quotes from famous nonbelievers on my office door at the Catholic college in Minnesota where I taught.
I took another step out when I published a satirical novel about a secular humanist professor at a Catholic college in Minnesota, did a book signing at the college bookstore, and ended up profiled in the local paper under the heading “Profile of Unbelief.”
I blew my cover even more with the nonreligious parenting book I co-authored and edited in 2007, not to mention the Newsweek article about it that same year. Being named Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008 probably didn’t help my camouflage, nor did the release of my second nonreligious parenting book the year after that.
Traveling all over the country teaching nonreligious parenting workshops and writing about it on my Facebook page every time is a bad way to keep the whole thing hushed up, as was launching a secular humanist charitable foundation in 2010.
The bumper sticker on my car, my email address, and the 515 blog posts about secular parenting are also, now that I think about it, dead giveaways.
Ah, well. Despite these minor slip-ups, my secret was still safe in some distant corners of the world.
Like my own family.
“Did you hear that Dale is AN ATHEIST??” wrote one cousin of mine to another a few weeks ago, I just found out. “I cried all day. What should we do??”
Damn, I thought. Who squealed?
I picture Richard Dawkins being collared at a family reunion. “Bless me, if it isn’t Cousin Dickie! What have you been up to, old bean? Godly work, one hopes, wot?”
Monday, 31. October 2011 by Dale
“JesusWeen is a God-given vision which was born as an answer to the cry of many every October 31st. The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.
“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel. The days of hiding are over and we choose to take a stand for Jesus. ‘Evil prevails when good people do nothing.’ JesusWeen is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever, and that is why we also call it ‘World Evangelism Day.’” — From JesusWeen.com
Well alrighty then.
Most Christians roll their eyes at the fearful response to Hallowe’en, but there are always some who consider tonight’s goings-on to be an embodiment or celebration of evil. It’s even been called the birthday of Satan—a particularly weird idea, since the biblical Satan/Lucifer was originally an angel and therefore created, not born.
Also common among evangelicals is the idea that Hallowe’en was born in the worship of “Samhain, the Celtic God of Death.” Among the many problems with this idea: there is no Celtic god named Samhain.
Celts recognized only two seasons: summer (life) and winter (death). Samhain (usually pronounced ‘sow-en’ and meaning “summer’s end”) is the name of a month corresponding to November. The “feast of Samhain” on October 31 marks the end of summer and the last harvest of the year. It was symbolized in Celtic mythology as the death of the god (possibly Cernunnos), who would then be resurrected six months later at the feast of Beltane (April 30-May 1). As the website Religious Tolerance puts it pretty neatly, Samhain is not about the God of Death, but the death of a god. In this way, Hallowe’en is rooted in the same mythic impulse as the Christian Easter.
Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, Samhain is a recognition of the relationship between life and death. By equating death with evil, conservative Christianity recoils from and fears it.
Parents who instead recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life can enjoy digging into the holiday’s origins. At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to become thinner, and the ancient Celts believed the spirits of beloved ancestors could cross that boundary and walk among the living. Food would be set at the threshold for the departed spirits.1
So before the kids head out tonight, tell them how the tradition of dressing as spirits and going from door to door for treats grew out of this old Celtic idea of caring for and remembering loved ones who had died. A very cool bit of context.
1Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs (Mercier, 1972); O’Driscoll, Robert (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness (Braziller, 1981).