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

Six bits

1439898Wrote to Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times to thank her for the terrific piece she wrote about atheism in America for Monday’s edition. She replied, letting me know that she knows me and my work. That never fails to surprise me, even when my mother says it, not that she has. Laurie apparently considered interviewing me for the piece and hopes to do so for another down the road. We’ll just see if I’m available.


2439898Three years after Penn Jillette and I locked horns over one noun and its conjunction in his PBB essay, it apparently still cheeses him off. He has now posted a YouTube video — part of a new video series called “Penn Says” — in which he flogs this even further (at 1:07-2:45). Again, for the record: aside from spelling out an abbreviation, here’s the only edit I made to Penn’s piece. It’s on p. 32 of Parenting Beyond Belief (*flip flip flip*):

We don’t have any friends who are christards or into any kind of faith-based hooey…

That’s all, folks. I deleted a gratuitous slur. Everything else is precisely as he wrote it. And we discussed it before I submitted the manuscript, and (though seriously miffed) he agreed to allow it.

I never bring this up unprovoked (apparently I never even blogged it until now), but Michael Dukakis taught me two things about life: (1) If someone takes a picture of you in a tank, FIRE!” and (2) Don’t allow slander to go unanswered.

I’m fine with Penn keeping this one alive. That way I can keep refuting this idea that juvenile namecalling is a necessary or useful way for atheists to engage the world.

Now there’s one spot in the video where Penn and I agree completely:

“I should be agreeing with Christians and Muslims because they’re right about something as opposed to agreeing with atheists because they’re wrong.”

Exactly right, Penn. That’s why you don’t broadbrush them all as “christards.” Because sometimes they’re not. The defense rests.


1439898Raising Freethinkers is apparently now available in the Kindle format on Amazon! Not sure why PBB isn’t, but it may be coming soon. If it does, I’ll be the last to know. (In other news: Darth Vader is Luke’s father!)


4439898Subscription is now open for the PBB Channel on YouTube. Just a placeholder video for now. On June 15 I’ll begin posting short videos based largely on the PBB Seminar.


5439898Got a phone call from New York Times columnist Charles Blow, a fascinating guy who among other things is largely responsible for the increasingly creative use of graphics to tell stories in the Times (flash charts, word concordances, interactive maps, etc). He’s at work on a story about a Pew study released Monday about changes in religious affiliation. He called to get my reaction to one finding, captured in this paragraph:

At the same time that the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown, the Landscape Survey also revealed that the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another. Those who leave the ranks of the unaffiliated cite several reasons for joining a faith, such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%).

I told him I wasn’t surprised by the finding. The group that does the least indoctrinating will naturally end up with the lowest “retention,” and that’s fine. A wide range of outcomes is an indication that kids raised nonreligiously are more likely to think for themselves. They find their way to a wide variety of identities, including a number of liberal religious expressions that are compatible with 95 percent of the secular worldview. Nothing wrong with that. And some will find their way back to the worldview of their youth, just as lapsed Catholics often do.

I also offered my opinion that kids raised in complete isolation from/ignorance of religious ideas or experience are the most likely to end up emotionally hijacked by fundamentalism — just as fundamentalist kids who are taught to despise and fear all things secular often end up the most virulent atheists I know. Interesting, these symmetries.

Kids raised in nonreligious homes often head for church as they grow up because churches offer community and connectedness and transcendence of the everyday — things that organized humanism has ignored for too long and is now finally, finally attempting to address. They’re doing it through family programming, community-building, good works, and engagement with emotion as much as intellect. The more we offer what humans need, the more humans we’ll attract and retain. Until then, we don’t deserve ’em.


6439898There’s something else coming — something terribly big and exciting, in my humble, and I can’t tell you yet. Nope, not a third book, nor Raising Freethinkers: The Movie. And I’m not pregnant. It is both legal and ethical. I daresay you’re gonna like it (except for you in the green shirt, who will shake your fist at the darkening sky, then meet a tall stranger). I can’t tell you what it is until I leap a few tall buildings to get it on track. Leapt the first one Tuesday. Should have the rest of them leapt in time for a June 1 announcement.

At that point I will need your help. Every one of you, even greensleeves over there. Until then, feel free to wonder what the heck.

The Gray Lady comes through!

nyt33092No, that’s not the Gray Lady. The Gray Lady is the employer of the nice lady in the picture, Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for the New York Times and my new favorite person.

Every article ever written in the mainstream press on the subject of atheism in the U.S. includes at least one howling wincer. I’ve always assumed it was some sort of requirement to include a misrepresentation or cheap shot — some rule written into a secret journalistic code that’s buried under Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. Why else have there been exactly zero exceptions since Gilgamesh put stylus to clay?

Until now, that is.

Today’s Times includes the best mainstream article I have ever seen about atheism in America. Written by Ms. Goodstein, the piece is accurate, reasonable, positive, timely, free of cheap shots — and quotes Herb Silverman, one of freethought’s best spokespeople.

Read the article and watch Laurie on Colbert (below). Comments are mercifully closed now, but you can drop Laurie a note of thanks by going here and clicking on “Send an email to Laurie Goodstein.”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Laurie Goodstein
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(Don’t forget to say thanks to Laurie. I’m sure she’s getting flak for failing to include a wincer.)

How cool is THAT!

ham2309091Erin (11) came up the basement stairs with Rachel, a neighborhood friend, just as I set dinner on the table.

“Dinnertime, sweetie,” I said. “Wash up and tell Laney.”

“Can Rachel stay for dinner?” she asked. “Pleaseohpleaseohplease.”

“Fine with me. Rachel, you wanna call your mom and see?”

“Sure.”

As she headed for the phone, I suddenly remembered that Rachel’s family is Jewish, and relatively observant. The Ham-Rotini Alfredo on the table suddenly looked like an abomination.

“Rachel,” I asked, “can you eat ham?”

“Oh…no, I can’t eat ham.”

“That’s right, she can’t,” Erin interjected quickly, wide-eyed. “She isn’t allergic. She can’t eat it because of her religion. How cool is THAT!!”

vegehumilitarianism

lisaveg4498A couple of years ago, Becca and I had a college friend over for dinner. Hadn’t seen him for years. An engineer and a gentleman. We had a great time catching up, and inevitably he asked about my work.

He listened thoughtfully as I filled him in on the nonreligious parenting book I’d just released, nodding his head, occasionally making a supportive sound or saying “Wow, that’s really great stuff you’re doing.” But I could tell there was something left unsaid.

Right in the middle of the Long Minnesota Goodbye (Step 2, I think — standing in the living room with coat in hand, talking), he came out with it.

“I think what you’re doing is awesome. I’m so impressed. I’m a Christian myself. Doesn’t make sense, I can’t support it, there’s no logic behind it, it’s completely unreasonable, but there it is.”

I knew by his tone and tempo that he was uneasy divulging this, figuring I’d think less of him, or worse, try to talk him out of it. To discourage this, he’d headed straight into L.M.G. Step 3 (slip one arm into jacket, keep talking) just in case he’d have to bolt.

I assured him it was completely cool, to each his own, etc. But my inner jag-off was thinking, “No, it’s not OK. Different belief, fine. But you don’t get to just sidestep the question of whether your worldview makes any sense. Beliefs have consequences. You don’t get to hear my evidence and then say, ‘I just don’t wanna!’ ”

And that’s when I heard it — another person in my head, clearing his throat and staring accusingly at my inner jag-off with a wry smile. The jag fell silent and wet himself, ever so slightly.

The accuser was my inner vegehumilitarian.

Ever get into a discussion of religious beliefs, only to have the other person sort of glaze over and look away? Nod, grant you every point, then just…shrug and smile? Nothing drove me nutsier during my brief secular-evangelical phase than this shrugging disengagement. I mean, what’s the friggin’ point in having Kevlar arguments if the other person refuses to shoot??

Then came the day I felt myself doing exactly the same shrug.

For me, the topic is vegetarianism. I should be a vegetarian. When my dad died, my doctor told my mom that a genetic vascular defect in Dad’s head most likely caused the aneurysm, and that we kids could easily have it as well, and that to keep our blood pressure under control and for several other reasons it would be a good idea for us to consider vegetarianism.

When Mom shared this with me, I glazed over, shrugged, and took another bite of my wiener.

Years later I came across the moral dimension, most vividly in the documentary short Meet Your Meat. I was and remain horrified at such depictions of animal cruelty in our food production system. I had to glaze over and shrug especially hard to finish my tangerine beef.

I told myself for years that we need the protein, or that there’s not enough variety or interest or texture in vegetarian cuisine, despite massive evidence to the contrary. Let that phrase echo a bit: Massive evidence to the contrary…ary…ary…ary.

Please don’t think I’m being glib. I’m exposing myself as indefensibly inconsistent and hypocritical. I’m much worse than people who don’t know why they shouldn’t eat meat because I KNOW WHY. Have I examined and refuted these arguments like the good rationalist I am? No, because there is no refutation. I don’t go vegetarian for one vague and pathetic “reason.”

I don’t wanna.

I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Why don’t I want to? Dunno. It doesn’t get patheticker than that.

So whenever my inner jag-off tries to kick-start a smug, self-righteous response to someone who’s sinking into glazed disengagement in the face of the three hundred excellent arguments against religious belief, I have only to call forth my inner vegehumilitarian. This does NOT mean I disengage from challenging toxic religious ideas. I obviously don’t. It simply means I start from a position of empathy for the believer — a much more effective starting point if we’re ever to make headway.

And I hope for similar mercy from all the vegetarians shaking their detoxified heads at me. Don’t stop trying to get through my glaze, but please — have mercy.
_______________
CODA
A dose of humility for carnivorous atheists

Excellent reasons to be an atheist
Excellent reasons to be a vegetarian
Famous atheists
Famous vegetarians
Great vegetarian recipes
Great atheist recipes

Spot the double entendre

I use this blog all the time as fodder for my talks. In preparing for Connecticut a few weeks ago, I came across this paragraph in a post about restrictive labeling of kids. I described how my youngest helped me see that “humanist” (sans “secular” or “religious”) can be a non-restrictive, even helpful label as kids find their own place in the world.

But see if you can spot an unintended ambiguity at the end:

So Laney’s done it again — she’s taken my armchair abstractions and turned them inside out, making me realize that not all worldview labels are ridiculous or harmful for kids. Some can even serve as catalysts for the next stage in a child’s process of finding her place in the world. And the next. And the next.

Heh. Oops.

Living up to humanism

happyhumanistI’m speaking to Edmonds UU just north of Seattle tomorrow morning. They asked that I talk about humanism, with special attention to the discomfort many humanists feel with ritual and other trappings often associated with theism. I’ll post the talk later.

91 percent of Unitarian Universalists claim humanism as one of their self-identifiers. There are essentially three types:

  • Secular humanists
  • Theistic religious humanists
  • Nontheistic religious humanists
  • The last group redefines the word “religion” to mean “devotion to certain values and principles and coming together in the service of those values and principles.”

    I understand the strategy there. If humans in general are too skittish to call themselves nonreligious, let’s broaden the definition of “religious” to include a less toxic, more positive expression. Gives folks a place to go.

    But that also creates headaches for those of us who are trying to address the toxic form. It’s like being a cancer researcher, only to have someone redefine “cancer” to mean “courage.” At which point the redefiners turn around and point an angry finger at those working for a cure, saying, “How can you be opposed to courage?”

    But again, I get it. I’m even coming to see the value in creating that space to be “religious” and nontheistic.

    At one point in the talk, I say

    When I first discovered the label for what I had essentially always been — secular humanist — I considered the first word to be the most important. I had renounced not just theism but all of the institutional accretions that have built up around theism these many centuries, doing untold harm to the very world and people I care so much about. But as I’ve grown in my secular humanism, I’ve begun to value the second word more strongly than the first.

    It’s true. For a long time I was proudest of my secularity, my atheism. I figured out this really hard thing that most people get wrong. And it’s the biggest thing there is! Woohoo! [Ape beats chest, peels banana.]

    It’s still important to me, but I think we spend too much time congratulating ourselves about it. Yes yes, little boy, you figured out the tricky thing. Good show. But NOW what?

    Humanism, of course. That’s what.

    Being an atheist in a theistic society is challenging, but atheism itself is easy. It’s a simple renunciation, a toggle switch. Humanism — taking care of each other and the world in the absence of divine help — takes effort.

    Humanism is something I can be held to and hold others to, something I can succeed or fail at, get better at by degrees. Some days I’m a better humanist than other days, but I’m always the same kind of atheist. Though I’m still every bit an atheist, my atheism doesn’t separate me from Joseph Stalin. But it’s pretty hard to argue that Stalin was a humanist.

    This isn’t meant to be another tired discursion on labels. As I said, I claim them both, as do most nontheists. But preparing this talk for tomorrow has reimmersed me in what humanism means and how important and energizing it can be.

    On the About page at the elegantly-named Humanity by Starlight, blogger and high-schooler Perpetual Dissent put it this way:

    I’m an atheist and I try to live up to being a humanist.

    Search ye in vain for a better nutshell.

    My cover is blown

    I get some doozies in my inbox, but yesterday brought something genuinely new — a message from a secular humanist who is concerned that I am too, uh…too…well heck, I’ll let you figure it out:

    HELLO DALE AND ASSOCIATES, 14 OF APRIL IN 2009!

    AFTER READING A BUNCH IN YOUR WEBSITE [PARENTINGBEYONDBELIEF.COM], I CONCLUDED THAT YOU HAVE NOT MOVED BEYOND “RELIGION” AT ALL OR NOT FAR.
    “BEYOND BELIEF” I FOUND UNTRUE…..TRUE?

    I FOUND SEVERAL DECLARATIONS OF HOW YOUR “REALITY” IS.
    YA’LL EVEN BORROW A FEW IDEAS FROM THE WORLD OF CONVENTIONAL “CHRISTIAN RELIGIOSITY”, I BELIEVE.
    ARE YOU LOCKED IN THESE IDEAS – “GOOD” AND “BAD [EVIL]” , THE IDEA THAT “DEATH” IS REAL, ETC?
    THE TAINT OF “RELIGION” IS SO PERVADING IN OUR WORLD THAT ITS SMELL OR IDEAS SNEAK IN ALMOST EVERYWHERE, I FIND.

    DO YOU REALLY TAKE PEOPLE IN YOUR SEMINAR TO A PLACE OF “AUTHENTIC FREEDOM”, I BELIEVE, THAT HAS A HUMAN BEING BE ABLE TO BELIEVE EVERYTHING AS “TRUTH” AND TEST EVERYTHING FREELY AND INDIVIDUALLY?

    THEN, I BELIEVE, THAT THE “HIGH TRUTHFULNESS AND USEFULNESS” OF WHAT I CALL “HIGH TRUTHS” WILL BE PROVEN IN THE OUTCOMES OF OUR HOLDING THAT “HIGH TRUTH” AS A “FACT” IN THE FLOW OF LIFE THAT’S TRULY “LIFE-GIVING!”.
    THERE ARE A LOT OF “LOW TRUTHS” THAT TEAR DOWN LIFE, BIND MINDS, DESTROY THE HUMAN COMMUNITY OF ONENESS, CREATE WAR, ETC.
    THESE ARE USEFUL IN ONLY TEACHING WHAT’S NOT TO BE HELD, I BELIEVE, AS “TRUTH” FOR THE POOR RESULTS THESE “TRUTHS” PRODUCE.
    ONE OF THE LOWEST TRUTHS IS THE IDEA HELD BY SOME THAT “I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG”.
    IS THAT THOUGHT IN YOUR MIND, WORK AND BOOK, DALE?

    ARE YOU A “CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS INFILTRATOR”?
    OR, HAVE YA’LL CREATED YOUR OWN “RELIGION” WE MUST NOW BELIEVE AND FROM WHICH WE MUST OPERATE IN LIFE?
    OR, WHAT’S UP…….?

    DO YA’LL GIVE A REFUND FOR YOUR SEMINAR IF A CLIENT DOES NOT FIND IT ULTIMATELY USEFUL OR A NEW THOUGHT?

    Finally, enjoy an excerpt of a recent talk by Joss Whedon:

    The final passage gives Joss away as another member of my secret team infiltrating humanism with some perspective and empathy regarding religion. Put a blood pressure cuff on and check the dial as he gets to the final sentences:

    The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world. That is the thing we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God is believing, absolutely, in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers.

    I pledge-a yada yada

    pledge-aJust back from a family week in D.C. We imposed on the hospitality of very good friends, both of them deeply impressive and humane people employed by admirable non-profits influencing public policy and making a difference in the world. The kind of people who make me feel (through no fault of their own) like I’m not doing nearly enough with my own limited time as a sentient thing to make said difference in the aforementioned world.

    They have twin daughters on the cusp of eight, both of them funny and adorable and whip-smart. One evening the girls shared, in identical sing-song, their school’s morning ritual, which is led as in most schools today by a talking head on closed-circuit TV. In the process, they illustrated the pure pointlessness of such things:

    I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
    and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God,
    indivisible with liberty and justice for all, as a Belmont student
    I promise to do my school work to the best of my ability,
    I will be kind courteous, considerate and respectful
    to other students and teachers, today’s lunch choices are.

    Powering down

    I’m unplugging for seven days of family time. Back on April 11. While I’m gone:

  • Become a PBB Facebook Fan
  • Enjoy another hilarious bit by Tim Minchin (NSFW)
  • Register for an upcoming Parenting Beyond Belief Seminar in Portland, Seattle, or Indianapolis
  • Learn about Nonviolent Peaceforce — what to say YES to when you say NO to war (then donate here)
  • Learn why spanking (kids) is counterproductive
  • Read my favorite book
  • Add an Amazon review for Raising Freethinkers
  • Then, and only then…power down yourself. Go outside. Have a day.

    Not that it’s a competition, but…

    The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
    bsec5594

    …we have a winner.

    In the past seven years or so, I’ve seen quite a few humanistic organizations from the inside — freethought groups, Ethical Societies, Congregations for Humanistic Judaism, UUs, etc. Met a lot of wonderful people working hard to make their groups succeed. All of the groups have different strengths, and all are struggling with One Big Problem: creating a genuine sense of community.

    I’ve written before about community and the difficulty freethought groups generally have creating it. Some get closer than others, but it always seems to fall a bit short of the sense of community that churches so often create. And I don’t think it has a thing to do with God.

    The question I hear more and more from freethought groups is, “How can we bring people in the door and keep them coming back?” The answer is to make our groups more humanistic — something churches, ironically, often do better than we do.

    Now I’ve met an organization founded on freethought principles that seems to get humanistic community precisely right. It’s the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (above), host of my seminar and talk last weekend, and the single most effective humanistic community I have ever seen.

    So what do they have going for them? My top ten list:

    10. A great space. Not every group can meet in a neo-Jacobean mansion with lions guarding the stairs, dark woodwork, high ceilings and art-glass windows—but too many groups meet in sterile, fluorescent-lit common rooms full of metal folding chairs and free of even a scrap of inspiration or warmth. Budgets are tight, but every group should do whatever it can to warm up the spaces in which they meet—curtains, wood, carpet, tablecloths, art, etc.

    9. Music. When I walked into the Brooklyn Society, a member was playing showtunes on an old upright piano as people stood around chatting and laughing. Twenty minutes before the gathering began, they switched on a CD of jazz standards. Think of what music does for a dinner party, filling in gaps in conversation and casting a glow around the room. EVERY GROUP should have music playing 20 minutes before the meeting begins.

    8. Food. Everybody loves to eat. All meetings should start with yummy food. Not a box of pink frosted cookies. Food, glorious food.

    7. A call to action. Have a prominent display calling members to collective social action—a donation box, a chart tracking funds raised, a signup sheet for the next Habitat for Humanity day. Keep social action as prominent as any intellectual content. And make sure to include human-centered social action, like soup kitchens, food pantries, battered women’s shelters, etc. — not just trash pickup and book sales.

    6. Ritual. (Uh oh, I lost half the audience.) Ritual doesn’t have to mean fuzzy-wuzzy woowoo. In the case of the BSEC, leader Greg Tewksbury started the gathering by yanking on a tubular wind chime that hung at the side of the lectern. He tugged it again at each dividing point in the gathering. Gives a nice sense of rhythm and structure.

    5. Emotion. Freethought groups naturally like their intellectual content, but it frequently happens to the complete exclusion of emotional and inspirational elements. BSEC managed to include a constant feeling of emotional warmth without the slightest theistic feel. Since my talk was on parenting, Greg opened by asking those present to turn to the person next to them and share a time they nurtured someone or were nurtured by someone. Five minutes of discussion followed, centered not on debunking this or that but on human emotion.

    4. Symbolism. Like the UU chalice, the two candles on the lectern were a clear reference to light, warmth, knowledge, and life. Adds a very nice touch.

    3. Diversity. Most groups I’ve visited are 80 percent white male. They don’t want to be, but they don’t know what to do about it. It helps to live in a place like Brooklyn, which made for the most diverse crowd I’ve addressed in years. If you are elsewhere, do some outreach and networking to invite folks from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to a meeting.

    2. Multiple generations. I know, chicken and egg. But I cannot begin to tell you what a fabulous sense of community the Brooklyn Society gets from 20 kids running in and out among the legs of the adult members in the half-hour beforehand. And with kids come parents—people in their 20s-40s, another demographic missing from many freethought groups. Attract families by building community. Build community by doing what’s on this list.

    Especially the next one.

    1. A warm welcome. This is #1 on the list for a reason. It’s no surprise that we rational freethinking types aren’t generally good at sticking our hands out to welcome strangers into a room. I’m terrible at it. But there is no less welcoming feeling than entering a new space full of strangers without anyone saying word one to you.

    This happens to me alllll the time as I travel around. I show up, walk in, and am promptly ignored. Ten minutes of awkward pamphlet reading later, someone finally walks up and asks if I’m new to the group.

    Not at the Brooklyn Society. No fewer than five warm and pleasant people welcomed me in the first five minutes and chatted me up BEFORE they even knew I was the speaker.

    The difference this makes is enormous. Every freethought group should find the person most comfortable with greeting fellow mammals and assign him/her to watch the door and enthusiastically usher newcomers in, show them around, introduce them to others.

    And it needs to go well beyond one greeter. EVERY MEMBER of EVERY GROUP should make it a point to chat up new folks—and each other, for that matter. And not just about the latest debunky book. Ask where he’s from, what she does for a living, whether he follows the Mets or the Yankees. You know, mammal talk. (Now now…I joke because I love!)

    Can’t manage everything on the list? No problem. Start with #1, then add what you can when and how you can. Before you know it, you’ll have a thriving, warm, humanistic community where people visit and then return, bringing their spouses and children and friends and neighbors. If I lived in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture would get my sorry butt out of bed every single Sunday.

    And that’s saying something.