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

    The doubting parent’s guide to the holidays (WaPo)

    By Mari-Jane Williams
    From the Washington Post Lifestyle section, Dec. 6, 2012

    Answering awkward questions is an inevitable part of parenting: Where did I come from? Why doesn’t Santa ever die? Why is that lady so big?

    Often, though, the toughest questions are about God and religion. For parents who are not religious, the holidays highlight those queries and at times make us second-guess our choices.

    It’s one thing to be ambivalent about religion yourself, but as parents, we want to make sure we expose our children to as many different views as possible.

    “It’s easy when you’re childless to sort of float and do what you think is right for you,” said Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief,” (Amacon, $17.95). “As soon as you have kids, all those questions come to the fore. A number of friends of mine were entirely nonreligious, but once they had kids, they felt that they ought to be going to church.”

    Other parents have the added stress of trying to navigate a holiday of another faith, because Christmas is so pervasive this time of year.

    “It’s hard,” said Esther Lederman, the associate rabbi at Temple Micah in the District. “If you’re a Jewish parent, you’re trying to make your child not feel bad that Santa isn’t coming to your house. ”

    We spoke with McGowan and other experts about how to expose children to the religious traditions of the holidays without compromising your beliefs. Here are some of their suggestions.

    Be honest about your doubts, and ask them what they think. The questions don’t need to cause anxiety for parents, McGowan said. Just be honest with your child and tell him that many people celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but you don’t. Then give him a chance to talk about what makes the most sense to him.

    “They need to know that most of the people around them see the world through a religious lens,” said McGowan, who lives in Atlanta.

    “Every time I make a statement about what I think is true, I let them know that others think differently and that they get to make up their own minds. It’s not necessary to put blinders on them and not let them see the religious aspect of the holidays. That would be strange.”

    Take your children to religious services during the holidays. Andrew Park, the self-described “faith-free dad” who wrote “Between a Church and a Hard Place” (Avery, $26), says he and his wife take their children to services at different churches on Christmas Eve to expose them to a variety of faiths and customs.

    “Christmas Eve is an opportunity to experience what religion means to people other than their parents,” said Park, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The greater the variety of the experiences, the better. It gives them context and understanding about religion. That’s powerful. Whether they become believers in a faith or not, having that understanding helps them become citizens of the world.”

    Read biblical stories. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible as a literal text, many of the stories are still fascinating and can capture children’s imaginations. Read the story of Christmas and talk about it in the context of history or ancient mythology.

    “There’s something about the Christian story that is very engaging to a kid,” Park said.

    He also noted that his two children, ages 8 and 10, are starting to make connections between the practice of modern religion and the way it was practiced in ancient societies, how it’s portrayed in fantasy literature, and the role it has played in history.

    Make it secular. Nothing says you have to observe Christmas or Hanukkah as religious holidays, McGowan said.

    If you are ambivalent about religion, you can make the holidays a celebration of family and generosity. Or focus on the celebration of light, or Santa and cookies.

    “What some parents find is they pop back into the church and it really doesn’t satisfy what they’re looking for, so they look for secular ways to fulfill those needs,” McGowan said. “They are looking for ways to have important landmarks in their lives or rites of passage, and there are lots of equivalents that are entirely humanistic: naming ceremonies for babies, coming of age ceremonies around age 13.”

    Read at WashingtonPost.com

    On being awake


    To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

    From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

    A question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page brought this post to mind from August 2008:

    I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.

    “Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.

    “Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”

    Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.

    So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.

    For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”

    I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.

    Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.

    Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.

    The methadone of the people

    Stuck in Big Idea mode again as I’m proofing the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief. I’m likely to share a few more bits of that project as I do.

    I included a sidebar about Karl Marx’s “opium of the people” remark, which is almost always stripped of context. Let’s zoom out a bit:

    Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    As long as the human condition is characterized by oppression and suffering, says Marx, religion will blunt the pain, as medicinal opium did at the time. So he’s not completely decrying it. But zoom out a bit further and he makes his position even clearer—that the pain relief of religion is ultimately a hallucinatory happiness that keeps humanity from seeking the genuine good:

    The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    Now there’s some nuance I can get with.

    For most of the people on the planet, for a hundred reasons, life is more painful than it is for me. Before I demand that they give up their pain reliever cold turkey, I need to do something about the pain itself. That’s why I think improving the human condition is THE great humanist project.

    In the meantime, I think of liberal religion as the methadone of the people — oh so much better than the original addiction, and a therapeutic step toward the cure.

    Coming (religiously) unglued


    The religious shall inherit the earth.
    Last sentence of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann

    Between his titular question and confident answer, Kaufmann lays out his reasons for thinking recent gains of secularism and liberalism in the developed world will gradually be reversed, an argument captured in an article of his that’s currently meming its way around.

    The arguments are brutally simple: (1) Children tend to adopt the religious identity in which they were raised; (2) The religious have more children on average than seculars; and (3) The more conservatively religious they are, the more children they tend to have.

    All true.

    Now I’ve rather enjoyed the progressive achievements of the last 50 years and was looking forward to more. But math says no. As long as the assumptions in those statements remain unchanged, we’re stuck with a more conservative and more religious future, even in the developed world.

    Fiendishly clever, that Darwin fella.

    I’ve seen it suggested with varying degrees of seriousness that secular progressives need to get busy indoctrinating their kids and having more of them. I’ve already written at length about the misguided lunacy of the first idea and will again soon. But the second one is a particular knee-slapper. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories! We have fewer kids for good reasons, thangyavurrymush, including the desire to focus parental attention on fewer kids, financial constraints (including the high cost of education), awareness of population issues, and access to family planning resources. We’re not going to reverse that sensible progress to win some fuzzy demographic struggle by pumping out more puppies.

    Fortunately we don’t have to go into Shockley mode after all, in part because…well, because it’s a weird and creepy suggestion, first of all, but also because the assumptions underlying Kaufmann’s work are shifting on their own, and by a lot.

    A Pew study from 2009 on “faith switching” included an under-reported finding that the glue of family faith is losing its stick. While just 7 percent of respondents 65 and older have ever left the faith in which they were raised to become unaffiliated, that number rises to 13 percent for those in their 30s and 40s and 18 percent of those currently under 30. That’s 18 percent who have already left religion at a pretty darn young age. Doesn’t even count those millennials who will leave in their 30s and 40s — numbers already available for the older brackets.

    Another assumption shift: Kaufmann points to the high religiosity and birthrate of recent immigrants, especially Hispanics, as a key driver. But the birthrate of US immigrants drops dramatically once they are here — presumably as they and their children gain more of the advantages listed above, including improved access to family planning resources. And as the Pew study shows, they are much more likely with each generation to dissolve the glue that holds them to their family religion.

    Finally, it’s silly to think an increase in diversity is ultimately going to make us more conservative. The increasing nonwhite slice of the American pie has a strong progressive effect that overwhelms the residue of family-of-origin conservatism for everyone. Conservatism thrives on sameness. The more we are surrounded by genuine difference, the less able we each are to cling to fantasies of the One True Faith or the master race. It’s harder to keep the cartoons in place when you are cheek-and-jowl with real people of other cultures, creeds, and colors.

    Here in my Atlanta suburb, for example, which a generation ago was easily 95 percent white conservative Baptist, my five most immediate neighbors are from Indonesia, Turkish Armenia, Korea, India, and Ukraine. Last week, my daughter’s Saudi-born fourth grade teacher taught her students how to write their names in Arabic. This is Atlanta, folks. And the same thing is happening pretty much everywhere I go.

    So when you see articles like Kaufmann’s, relax. The picture is much more complex and promising than a simple birthrate analysis suggests. And rather than throw out our own family planning, do the obvious — support family planning for everybody.

    As for religious identity, it’s becoming less of an automatic inheritance, thanks in large part to the churches themselves, which are falling over themselves to alienate their young folks and succeeding at an incredible rate. If we want to help the process of dissolving that glue, there’s no better way than creating a happy, normal place for those leaving religion to land and thrive.

    Missing church

    Quick coda to yesterday’s post.

    Peer-reviewed research is great when you can get it, but a lot of the questions at the heart of my work fall in the remaining gaps between studies. Until those gaps fill in, I have to find other ways of ferreting out the answers.

    I’ve long been interested in what people get out of going to church. I attended long enough myself and know enough churchgoers to know that one common answer — “they go to stay out of hell” — is a cartoon. True for some, but not for most of the churchgoers I know.

    To find out, you can ask them directly, and I do. But in the category of You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone, you can sometimes get even better answers by asking former churchgoers what they miss about church. Sometimes I do this in person; sometimes I turn to the Goog.

    A search for quoted phrases like “I miss about church,” “I miss most about church,” “I miss from church,” “I liked most about church,” and so on doesn’t turn up a lot of people missing the idea of God or heaven. Some, sure. But mostly they’re missing exactly what the Wisconsin/Harvard study said they were getting out of it in the first place: community, connection, purpose, inspiration, personal growth, support.

    Listen:

    What I miss about church is the feeling of community

    I always left feeling inspired to be a better person

    The only thing about church I miss is the instant community support 

    I miss the opportunity to have a good sing

    I miss joining with others to do good

    I miss the feeling of belonging that I had

    I miss the feeling of connection and common purpose

    I miss feeling a part of something greater than myself

    The fellowship and feeling of community is about the only thing I miss about church

    Volunteering gives me the same satisfaction I once derived from church, a feeling of connectedness to my fellow man

    Not all of us miss all of those things equally, and some of us don’t miss any of them one bit. Tom Flynn’s recent piece titled “Why Seculars Don’t Sing” gives articulate voice to the latter, even as its title overreaches on two counts, and by miles. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But a lot of entirely secular people do feel a certain sense of loss when they leave church, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with God or worship.

    As a movement, we often act as if church is about God, period. If we can just pry people away from that delusion, goes the reasoning, they’ll walk away whistling. When we grasp that it’s mostly about something else and start building meaningful secular alternatives that go waaaaay beyond the intellectual, I think we’ll be amazed at how quickly God takes a powder. Until then, we really don’t deserve a bigger slice of the cultural pie. Fortunately there’s all sorts of recent action in this area, from Volunteers Beyond Belief to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and an ever-greater focus on community and mutual support among local groups.

    So if you were once a churchgoer: What if anything do you miss, and have you found good secular alternatives? What do you see as the greatest need?

    The Social Network

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

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

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

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

    Now there’s something worth noticing.

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

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

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

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

    6000 days

    Part 3 of 3.
    Go to Part 1
    or Part 2.

    The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
    Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

    We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

    I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

    Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

    I want my kids to get that very good news.

    Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

    At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

    Not the answer we were expecting.

    For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

    Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

    I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

    I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

    I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

    Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

    These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

    Now isn’t THAT nice.

    We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

    Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

    I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.

    Unnatural

    (Part 2, continued from “Born This Way?“)

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade / You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught!

    –from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (1949)

    It’s a riveting horror — no caption required, just the immensely sad, unaware eyes of the younger girl. There’s no reason to believe they’ve embraced the messages on their shirts yet, but every reason to assume their environment is primed to lead them there.

    But is it really true that we’ve got to be taught to hate those who are different from us? Answer one way and parents can simply decline to teach them to hate. Answer the other way and there’s something we need to actively do to help them avoid it.

    I think we’re more naturally inclined to hate and fear difference than not. Religion isn’t the only parting gift we got from the Paleolithic. A lot of the things we are, including some of our worst pathologies, were once strongly adaptive traits. Evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up to our circumstances. As a result, we’re a whole panel of buttons waiting to be pushed. And one of the best things a parent can do is to help those buttons rust.

    Before I get to that, let’s look at more of our inheritance:

    GOT TO BE TAUGHT?
    A million years ago, food was desperately hard to come by, and cooperation within a small group was advantageous. But cooperating with the group next door would have doubled the mouths to feed without moving the needle much on available food. Genetic tendencies toward in-group cooperation and out-group hostility would have provided a selective advantage, as would distrust of people who dressed, looked, or acted differently from you. The more different they were, the more likely their interests conflicted with yours.

    Aggressive nationalism, militarism, racism, and the exaggerated fear of immigrants and of all things foreign are modern expressions of what was once a sensible approach to staying alive. But in an interdependent world, these same characteristics can be downright harmful.

    BE AFRAID
    It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon a million years ago. Two Homo erectuseses are walking through the high grass on the African savannah. Suddenly there’s movement off to the left. One of them assumes it’s something fun and goes in for a hug. The other jumps 15 feet straight up and grabs a tree limb. Even if it’s just a fluffy bunny nine times out of ten, which of these guys is more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation?

    In a world bent on killing you, no characteristic would have been more useful for survival than perpetual, sweaty hypervigilance. We’ve inherited a strong tendency to assume that every shadow and sound is a threat, which in turn kept us alive and reproducing. By the time elevated blood pressure killed you off at 22, you’d already have several jittery, paranoid offspring pounding espressos and cradling stone shotguns all through the long, terrifying night.

    Fast forward to a world of 7 billion people in close quarters. Suddenly it’s no longer quite so adaptive to have everybody all edgy and shooty all the time. But our brains don’t know that. One of the resulting paradoxes is that fear often increases as actual danger diminishes. If you can’t see and name it, it must be hiding, you see, which is ever so much worse. Violent crime in the U.S. recently hit the lowest level since records have been kept — in every category — but who’d ever know? Instead, we take every violent news story as proof of the opposite. We insist things are worse than ever in “this day and age,” keep cradling those shotguns…and keep forwarding those urban legends.

    When you get an email warning that rapists are using $5 bills or recordings of crying babies or ether disguised as perfume to lure and capture their victims, or that child abduction rates have risen 444% since 1982 — all untrue — you’ve just received a message from the Paleolithic. But by constantly naming dangers and sounding the alarm, we feel safer.

    (Think for a minute about how 9/11 — a death-dealing sneak attack by the Other — pushed our collective Paleolithic button. It was a massive confirmation of our oldest unarticulated fears, and we dropped to our collective knees.)

    I could go on and on. In addition to magical thinking, fear of difference, and hypervigilance, we can add categorical thinking, enforced gender divisions, the love of weapons and authority, and much more, all of which had clear adaptive advantages during the long, dark night of our species. These things are, in a word, natural.

    Which is not to say good. Rape is also natural. “From an evolutionary perspective,” says biologist/philosopher David Lahti, “considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it.” Yet it happens, ten thousand times a day, because we’ve developed a frankly unnatural social morality that trumps the natural a gratifyingly high percentage of the time.

    Secularism, comfort with difference, a reasonable relaxation of vigilance, the blurring of categories (sex, gender, race, etc), the willingness to disarm ourselves and to challenge authority — these are all unnatural, recent developments, born in fits and starts out of the relative luxury of a post-Paleolithic world. I’m sure you’ll agree that they are also better responses to the world we live in now — at least those of us privileged to live in non-Paleolithic conditions.

    Of course our limbic brain differs on that, but it would, wouldn’t it?

    Now — the astute reader may have noticed that the things that kept us alive a million years ago line up incredibly well with the nationalistic, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, pro-authority, pro-gender-role, anti-diversity talking points of social conservatives. But if you think my point is to belittle conservatives by calling them cavemen, not so. I think there’s a lot to be gained by recognizing social conservatism, including religious conservatism, as the activation of ancient and natural fears, and to respond accordingly.

    My circumstances have allowed my Paleolithic buttons to remain unpushed. That’s why I’m not a social conservative. Growing up, I was made to feel safe. I was not frightened with Satan or hell or made to question my own worth or worthiness. I was given an education, allowed to think freely, encouraged to explore the world around me and to find it wonderful. Unlike the vast majority of the friends I have who are religious conservatives, I never passed through a disempowering life crisis — a hellish divorce, a drug or alcohol spiral, the loss of a child — that may have triggered that feeling of abject helplessness before I had developed my own personal resources. So I never had to retreat into the cave of my innate fears.

    In short, I’ve been lucky.

    A lot of people with the same luck are religious. But in my experience, those strongly tend toward what Bruce Bawer has called the “church of love” — the tolerant, diverse, justice-oriented side of the religious spectrum, grounded in a more modern perspective but still responding to the human problem that science, admittedly, has only partly solved.

    It’s rare for a person with all of the advantages listed above to freely choose the “church of law” — the narrow, hateful, Paleolithic end we rightly oppose. Those folks, one way or another, are generally thrown there, like the girls in the photo. Sometimes they find their way out, but their road is tougher than mine was.

    Seeing things this way has made me more empathetic to conservative religious believers, even as I oppose the malign consequences of their beliefs. Understanding our natural inheritance also makes me frankly amazed that we ever do anything right. Given the profound mismatch between what we are and what the world is, we should all have vanished in a smoking heap by now. Instead, we create art and cure disease and write symphonies and figure out the age of the universe and somehow, despite ourselves, hang on to an essentially secular government in a predominantly religious country.

    Okay, I just have to stop writing, even though I haven’t reached the punchline — what this all means for parents. So there will be a Part 3.

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: After further research and smart reader input, I've yanked the section "Every Sperm is Sacred" from this post, which was based on hypotheses that have apparently been superseded. Science marches on!]

    Born this way?

    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 Homo120,000 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.)

    Cee Lo Green receives Facepalme d’Or

    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.