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

Let ’em drive!

student driverVentured into the backwoods of upstate NY last week for a quick visit to Camp Inquiry, a fabulous science-and-wonder-based summer camp run by the Center for Inquiry. Fifty-two sharp and curious kids and a terrific staff under the direction of the energetic and talented Angie McQuaig.

About 30 parents stuck around on Sunday evening for a parent chat around the campfire. These unscripted discussions are my favorites. And as it usually does, one of my key messages came up over and over — the importance of letting kids drive their own decisionmaking as much as we can, even when we disagree. It’s vital to let them take the wheel as often as possible if we want them to develop the long-term ability to think ethically and well on their own. Obviously there are many times when we have to assert our own judgment. But letting go when we can has some great long-term benefits.

This mostly nonreligious crowd was focused on questions of raising kids in a culture dominated by religion. The Pledge of Allegiance, the proselytizing neighbor, Grandma’s insistence on taking the kids to her church, pressure from religious peers — in every case, the best thing a secular parent can do is help the child assess options and weigh consequences, then let the child make his or her own decision about what to do, even if the parent thinks it’s a mistake. They’ll learn more from the experience than from any pre-emptive lecture we can give. (Not to mention the possibility that our advice would have been wrong.)

I blogged about one such situation in 2008. Erin (then 10) asked if she could wear a pink beaded cross necklace to school. She’d bought it on vacation at the dollar store, but now she said, “I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in god. Like I’m not being honest. But I just like to wear it.”

“It’s fine, sweetie. It’s a pretty necklace.”

She paused. There was more, I could tell. “It makes me feel good to wear it.”

Uhhh, okay, there’s at least one unfortunate way to read that sentence. “You mean it makes you feel like a good person to wear a cross?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “It just…” She smiled sheepishly. “It makes me feel good to rub it.”

I’d been ready for that sentence for years, but the context was all wrong.

“When I’m worried, I rub it with my fingers and it makes the worry go away.”

It was a simple talisman to her. And Erin does spend more time worrying than she ought to. I told her about the jade worry stone I carried in my pocket throughout middle school. Same deal. It did make me feel better. Her cross had no more connection to God than my worry stone. In fact, her concern was that people might think it did when it didn’t. But even if it did have that significance, I was fully prepared to let her drive the decision.

As it happens, she wore it for a week, then told me she didn’t want to wear it anymore because of the dishonest feeling it gave her. And because she had made the decision herself, there’s a much greater chance that she gained something more valuable than if I had simply issued a ruling.

I returned home from Camp Inquiry to a message from Elizabeth, a parent I’d met. Her son Alex (13) is on a baseball team that has started praying before each game. From her email (reprinted with permission):

Bill, the gentleman who initiated the prayer ritual, is a close friend to our family, and my husband Jason is one of the assistant coaches. Our families have get-togethers at each other’s houses. Bill and Jason have shared many “religious” talks through the years, so we know their family’s belief system and they know ours, and it has never been an issue.

baseballprayWhen Bill first started praying before the game, Jason had a private talk with him and explained why he did not feel that it was an appropriate thing to do. Jason explained to Bill that he has no idea what the belief systems of all the kids on the team are, and that it was presumptuous of him to think that all the kids came from religious households. And even if ‘most’ of the kids are religious, he would have no way of knowing what faith they practiced. He also reminded Bill that our own family was not religious. Bill was not persuaded and continued the team prayer before each game.

Nicely done, Jason — especially the choice to frame it in terms of all kids on the team, not just one.

At this point Jason asked Alex how he felt about the prayer before each game. Alex said that he thought it was silly. Jason asked Alex what (if anything) Alex wanted to do about it and gave him a few options. They could “sit out” the prayer, Jason could try talking to Bill again, or they could just “go with the flow” and wink at each other while the prayer was taking place. 🙂

At that point Alex said something that just made our hearts swell with pride -– he said, “I think it is kind of stupid, but Coach Bill means more to me than a prayer. If it makes him happy to say a prayer before the game, then that’s OK with me.” I wish more adults would act like our son did at that moment.

Alex is choosing his battles, and his parents are letting him. The more they do that, the better and more nuanced his decisionmaking will become.

Maybe after a few games, Alex will change his mind, or maybe not. Maybe he’ll just reflect further on the very odd concept of the God-bothering sports team. Maybe Bill will do some reflection of his own. But if Alex’s parents had forced another conclusion — if Jason, for example, had pushed harder in his talk with Bill — Alex would have lost an opportunity to make his own choice, live with it, and learn from it. But they recognized that this was Alex’s situation, first and foremost, and they let him take the wheel.

Kudos to all three.

Embiggening humanism

A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. — Jebediah Springfield

I’m alternately enjoying and “D’oh!”-ing my way through a controversy of my own creation at Foundation Beyond Belief. The following are my personal thoughts on the matter, btw, not an official statement of the Foundation (which is why they are found here, on my blog, not there, on its).

After repeatedly noting that this secular humanist foundation would consider supporting charities based in any worldview so long as they do not proselytize, we’ve put our commitment to the test. This quarter, FBB is featuring a religiously-based charity as one of our ten options for member support.

QPSWThe category is Peace, the religion is Quakerism, and the organization is Quaker Peace and Social Witness. And the reaction is pretty much what I expected — a mix of bravos, surprise, outrage, enthusiasm, and revealed (shall we say, and gently) knowledge gaps in some of my beloved fellow nontheists. More on the “gaps” later.

Some blogs ask why on Earth we would do such a thing. “I’m an atheist. I don’t support religious groups,” said one, as if the second sentence follows obviously and necessarily from the first.

So the first reason to do it is to show that it is indeed possible for nontheists to see good work being done in a religious context and to support and encourage it. Far from a contradiction, some of us think that’s humanism at its best.

The second reason is that many of our members want to express their humanism in that way. And since the Foundation exists to allow individual humanists a means of expressing their worldview positively and doing good in the name of that worldview, it seems fitting to occasionally feature a carefully-screened, non-dogmatic, non-proselytizing, effective organization based in a sane and progressive denomination as one of our choices.

“Well,” one commenter said, “if you HAVE TO support a religious group, I mean absolutely HAVE to, I suppose the Quakers would be the ones.”

A glimmer of light there. But we didn’t have to do this. My word, it would have been much easier not to. We wanted to do it. We see value in doing it.

In a way, this should be a non-issue. Individual members have full control over the distribution of their donations and can zero out any category any time. Some members, disinterested in supporting a religiously-based organization no matter how progressive, have made perfect and appropriate use of this flexible system by shifting their funds elsewhere this quarter. Others — including such strong atheist voices as Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism — have actually increased their Peace donation in support of this idea. That’s freethought in action.

Not all religious expressions are benign, of course. The more a religious tradition insists on conformity to a received set of ideas, the more harm it does. The more it allows people to challenge ideas and think independently, the more good it does. Religion will always be with us in some form. It’s too hand-in-glove with human aspirations and failings to ever vanish at the touch of argument or example. So I think one of the best ways for humanists to confront the malignant is to support and encourage the benign, the non-dogmatic, the progressive.

Speaking of whom.

Liberal Quakers are utterly non-dogmatic, include many nontheists in their ranks, and hold that no individual can tell any other what to believe. That’s a religious organization embracing the essence of freethought. It’s no coincidence that they also have a brilliant history of social justice work. While Southern Baptists fronted biblical arguments in support of slavery, Quakers were among the most courageous abolitionists (along with Northern Baptists). While the Catholic Church vigorously opposed women’s voting rights, Quakers were often leading the movement and getting themselves arrested and imprisoned in the process (along with many Catholic individuals who recognized bad dogma when they saw it). And while multiple denominations rend themselves in twain over gay rights, Liberal Quakers were among the first to openly support gay rights and gay marriage. (This last is not so much the case with Orthodox Quakers, who differ from the Liberals in several respects.)

In the area of peace and nonviolence advocacy, Quakers are second to none. Continuing a centuries-old tradition, Quaker Peace & Social Witness is at work in the Ugandan conflict, supporting and training groups working on peacemaking and peacebuilding; facilitating truth and reconciliation work to deal with the past in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia; managing teams of human rights observers in Palestine and Israel; working to strengthen nonviolent movements in South Asia; and advocating at the UN for refugees and for disarmament policies. In 1947, QPSW shared the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Maybe you can see why we’re proud to support them.

Making discernments is difficult, but it’s worth doing. That’s why the (don’t say ignorance, don’t say ignorance) misinformedness of some atheists about the spectrum of religion has troubled me.

bluefooted booby“I am NOT giving money to somebody who’s going to hit me over the head with a bible or say my kids are going to hell,” said one. Fair enough. Of course there’s as much chance of a bluefooted booby doing either of those as a Liberal Quaker.

Others who probably recognize a slippery slope fallacy if someone else uses it (“You can’t let gays marry. Next thing you know, farmers will be marrying their tractors!”) went ahead and employed one themselves. “It’s a slippery slope,” said one email. “A year from now, you’ll be paying for Catholic missionaries!” (I especially enjoy it when someone calls a fallacy by name, then pulls the ripcord anyhow.)

And on it goes. This is what siloing will do to good and smart people. It makes them sloppy, myself included. And we talk nonsense, and end up looking silly to anyone outside of our silo.

One atheist friend predicted we would lose a third of our members overnight. In the two weeks since we announced the decision, two members have closed their accounts (neither mentioning the Quaker choice) and 24 have joined.

The weakness of the arguments against our choice has reassured me, and the majority of responses I’ve heard have been strongly supportive of the idea of providing members with this option. “I’m so proud to be a part of this,” said one member. “Honestly, it’s like the free thought movement is growing up all at once. Thank you for showing vision beyond the usual sounding of alarms and building of barricades.”

Can’t you just feel the embiggening?

Pretend you missed me

I always get a chuckle out of blog posts that apologize for a long absence, as if readers are locked in solitary with a Kindle that can somehow only find the one blog. I know you were sleeping around while I was out of town. I’m hurt, but I still love you, and recognize pathetically that I need this relationship more than you do.

I actually tried to post something two weeks back, but a server switch at my host company preferred that I not. They say it’s been fixed, but I won’t know until I click PUBLISH.

Watch for a new post by week’s end. In the meantime, go jump into Hemant’s arms, see if I care, tramp.