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

Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12

packMy mind has been on invisible knapsacks this week.

After health care reform passed, the gnashing of teeth intensified among its opponents — a deep concern about (non-war-related) expense, dire warnings of our descent into one or more other-than-capital isms, and a tearful eulogy for the America We Loved. These flies are always buzzing, and I’ve learned to just keep my tail moving and go about my day.

But there’s one trope in the mix that brings up an especially deep outrage in me, one that makes it hard to hold my tongue. It’s the suggestion that this Act confers benefits on people who — unlike the speaker — have not earned them.

Which led me back to the invisible knapsack.

Twenty years ago, in a piece titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women crystallized the argument that racial discrimination, especially today, is less a matter of “individual acts of meanness” than “invisible systems conferring dominance” on one group over another.

In our culture, I’m a member of several privileged groups (white, male, educated, heterosexual) and outside of others (religious, attractive). Like most people, I’m able to see and decry the advantages I am denied, but those I do have are largely invisible to me — until someone points them out, as McIntosh does so lucidly in her essay, with a list of 50 privileges she holds, but usually fails to recognize, as a white person. It’s a quick and thoughtful read, and I recommend it.

The nonreligious rightly protest unfair advantages conferred on the religious. But when it comes to our own advantages as nonreligious people, we too often act as if we earned them all.

Our advantages?? Sure. My secular humanism doesn’t confer much social advantage, but I do think it has allowed me to see a much grander, more astonishing, and ultimately more inspirational world and universe than the one my most conservatively religious friends inhabit. I don’t think this makes me a better person than they are. But I am deeply grateful for what it has done to the color and depth of my life and to my ability to open that lovely perspective to my kids.

Darwin hints at this color and depth in the last sentence of the Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (First edition, 1859)*

I’m glad for that grand naturalistic view, at once humbling and ennobling. But I recognize that in addition to the serious effort I put into reaching my conclusions, I also had some advantages along the way — advantages that not everyone shares.

My parents valued education and the life of the mind and encouraged the same in me and my brothers. They took us to a UCC church, a liberal denomination free of thought-paralyzing dogmas and fear. They encouraged us to think for ourselves and to be infinitely curious. My early interests in mythology and science were nurtured. I had a first-rate education, K-Ph.D. I was raised in relative physical and economic security. I knew people of several different religious traditions and eventually attended churches in nine denominations. We attended a Unitarian fellowship in my teens.

Not one of these is essential in achieving a naturalistic worldview free of traditional religion. Many of my nonreligious friends found their way out despite far fewer advantages than I had. But I recognize that many of the folks we rail against for holding on to beliefs we find unbelievable have often inherited, in one way or another, a more formidable set of obstacles.

The end result of such a process is greater empathy for the believer. Not for the beliefs themselves, especially those that are malignant or dehumanizing. It’s unethical to leave genuinely harmful beliefs unchallenged. But the most effective challenge to beliefs begins with heartfelt empathy for those who believe.


*Go here for a fascinating look at the (what else?) evolution of this poetic passage through later editions, and Darwin’s regret at “truckl[ing] to public opinion” in changing it.

Invitation from a screwball

beckGlenn Beck’s latest and greatest departure from sanity is an opportunity not to be missed.

No, I’m not talking about jeering at this exceedingly small man with the big microphone. He’s no smaller in his views than a dozen people I know and love. And he has the microphone only because we the people gave it to him.

The opportunity is to notice that the sane religious have a helluva lot more in common with the sane nonreligious than with their screwier co-believers — and that in this case, they’re drawing the line themselves.

For those who haven’t been following the story, Glenn Beck pleaded with Christians on his March 2 show:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” I don’t care what the church is. If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “Yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing,” I’m in the wrong place.

He repeated this revealing nonsense on radio and TV, and clarified what it is that “social justice” is code for: communism and Nazism.

People from a wide variety of denominational perspectives have condemned the remarks as an attack on the central message of Christianity.

Now I could take this opportunity as some have to argue that there are several central messages in Christianity, many of them contradictory and some immoral. But that knee-jerk tangent would miss the real beauty of this moment, which has nothing at all to do with this tiny, tiny man and the frightened little echo chamber between his ears.

The beauty of the moment has to do with the forceful statement by churches across a wide spectrum that social justice is at the heart of their identity and mission, not to mention Jesus’s message. Not judgment. Not fear. Not the enforcement of social categories or rules about who we can love or what seafood we can eat. Not the demonization of doubt or the prohibition of thought. They say that the desire for social justice is, and should be, at the heart of who they are.

And there’s the beauty. Given an invitation to clarify what they are about, this is what they chose to claim and defend. An attack on social justice from a fellow believer drew a more potent and broad-based response from the churches than any other critique I’ve ever seen.

It’s true that social justice is not at the heart of things for some churches. Author Bruce Bawer (Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity) wrote a piece in the New York Times long ago while the Presbyterians were tearing themselves apart over the ordination of gays — just like the Episcopalians have done more recently. It was a sharp and illuminating piece that instantly snapped the American religious landscape into perspective for me. As I blogged in August ’07 (quoting Bawer):

“American Protestantism…is being split into two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity. These two religions — the Church of Law, based in the South, and the Church of Love, based in the North — differ on almost every big theological point.

“The battle within Presbyterianism over gay ordinations is simply one more conflict over the most fundamental question of all: What is Christianity?

“The differences between the Church of Law and the Church of Love are so monumental that any rapprochement seems, at present, unimaginable. Indeed, it seems likely that if one side does not decisively triumph, the next generation will see a realignment in which historical denominations give way to new institutions that more truly reflect the split in American Protestantism.”

Though Bawer is talking about Protestants, the same fault line runs down the middle of American Catholicism, between venomous literalists and social justice-loving practitioners of genuine agape — unconditional love.

Many Christians I know are too quick to dismiss the “Church of Law” as an aberration, something unfortunate but…you know… over there somewhere. And atheists are often just as quick to overlook the presence of the “Church of Love.” My major complaint with that side of American Christendom isn’t that they have supernatural beliefs. As long as they do good with them, who cares? My complaint is that the church of love does far too little to confront its ugly fundamentalist stepsister. Worse yet, it arms her by indiscriminately promoting faith as a value in and of itself.

But take heart, Me of the Past! Here in 2010, in its strong condemnation of an unhinged conservative commentator, we have the Church of Love standing up and decisively separating from those who would underline the petty, hateful messages of religion at the expense of the uplifting and ennobling.

Beck is a Church of Law guy. He is afraid, and makes his living keeping others afraid as well. No surprise that a quick scan of his homepage brings up the words PROTECT, CRISIS, FEAR, WAR, ALERT, and WATCHDOG. Always “under attack,” he simply isn’t at liberty to extend any generosity (a.k.a. social justice) to others. Predictably, he has already begun sputtering that he is under attack on this issue as well, that his words were taken out of context, oh and etc.

Whatever. This isn’t about him anymore. It’s about a church that, in defending its values, has accepted a priceless opportunity to clarify and embrace them.

I for one send a loud shout-out to the Church of Love. Jesus would be so proud of all y’all.

Lest anyone think Beck’s thought is original

Unconditional love revisited

globehug[As a child] I had developed an attitude toward the world that is the essence of inquiry: I had fallen in love with it. Thanks to Carl Sagan and other popularizers of science, I’d come to the conclusion that the universe was wonderful, period, and that I was incredibly fortunate to get a chance to be a conscious thing in the midst of it. The wonder of it came with no strings attached, no “ifs.” I was unconditionally smitten with reality.
From “The Unconditional Love of Reality,” in 50 Voices of Disbelief

That essay of mine taps one of my favorite themes––the idea that we should encourage in our kids, and ourselves, an unconditional love of reality. It’s the positive form of discouraging self-deception, and it’s the shortest route to the kind of curious hunger that can keep a mind awake, engaged, and grateful for a lifetime.

Every once in a while I come across a comment that misunderstands the concept. “That’s just crazy,” said a recent one. “I ACCEPT reality, but I certainly don’t always love it.” And then, as always, the example of the Holocaust.

What’s being confused here is the love of reality and the love of what happens in it. When it comes to the Holocaust, we rightly consider denial of its reality to be a terrible thing. More than a dozen European countries have gone so far as to make it illegal to deny it — a mistake, I think, but never mind. By insisting that we look the Holocaust in the eye, we are expressing a love and respect for reality and a profound distaste for self-deception. Our hatred of the Holocaust itself makes us love and protect our honesty about it. That’s the unconditional love of reality at work.

In the same way, my unconditional love for my kids does not (believe me) imply a love for everything they do. But it does inspire me to want nothing but the best for them –– including a wide-eyed infatuation with their own existence that will endure the inevitable bumps and bruises their existence will contain.

Embrace Life

A PSA from the UK with the most powerfully condensed message I’ve seen in years. Ninety brilliant seconds.

(Hat tip to Life is but a dream.)

The making of Embrace Life

Penny wise

pennywise1My kids are weirdly consistent in their vocational dreams. They flirt with various ideas, but they always end up whipping back to their respective Norths like compass needles. By the time I was ten, I’d already torn through a half-dozen intended vocations: paleontologist, stand-up comedian, astronaut, clarinetist…stuff like that.

For years, Connor (now 14) has had his eye on engineering, and has recently narrowed it to alternative energy engineering. Erin (now 12) has wanted a career in medicine since she was 8 and has recently narrowed that (through questions like “What do you call a person who studies the way the body works?”) to research physiology.

Delaney (8) has pretty much always wanted to be a scientist of some kind.

A few weeks ago, Erin hunched intently over the kitchen table with a dropper to see how many drops of water would fit on a penny. Cool science project from school involving estimates, observation, averages, graphing. Good stuff.

Delaney suggested expanding the parameters of the study to see if water temperature would affect the results. I was reading in the next room when a small brouhaha broke out between the researchers. As usual, Erin came tromping in to me with a look of righteous determination.

“Dad, Laney and I are doing an experiment to see if a penny holds the same amount of hot water as cold water.”

“And?”

“And I’m trying to tell Laney that we have to use the same penny for both, because one might be a little different, but she…”

“They’re both the same! Shiny 2009 pennies!” whined Laney from the doorway.

I walked into the laboratory and saw two shiny 2009 pennies sitting side by side on the table, waiting for further instructions.

I asked Erin why you need to use the same one.

“Because there might be tiny differences — little scratches or nicks that you can’t even see, but they might affect the water differently.”

“Variables.”

“Yeah, variables.” Erin looked mighty pleased with her middle-school sciency self. I was too. But I wanted Laney to learn a cool thing about her life’s work, not to feel defeated. I told her to imagine that I was a scientist designing a study to see if people with blue shirts could get things off high shelves more easily. I opened the kitchen cupboard and asked white-shirted Laney to grab a cup off the top shelf.

She gave me a fumey look.

Blue-shirted me reached up and brought down the cup. “Well there it is. I’ve learned that people with blue shirts”

“Dad”

“are better at”

“Dad”

“getting things down from”

“DAD!”

“What?”

“You’re taller.”

“I think it’s the shirt.”

“Then you’re a dork.”

“How can you figure out whether it was the shirt?”

“I just wouldn’t use a tall person at all! I’d get two people who were both…” She paused. “Normal.”

I told her she had just removed a variable. She got it.

“But you’re obviously tall. The pennies are exactly the same.”

I admitted that they might be, then motioned her into the basement. We looked at the pennies under our microscope. Sure enough, canyons and craters loomed.

By this time she’d thankfully forgotten that her big sister had ended up right. It was just cool.