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

Kudos to the good

rockfingersErin (13) came home from school a few weeks ago and sat in front of me with evident drama.

“Guess what.”

“Norway fell into the sea. You can burp the alphabet. Am I close?”

“Dad, stop.” She leaned forward. “We started evolution in science today.”

A tickle of dread went down my spine. I’m a busy boy. No jonesing for another fracas.

“And?”

“And it’s awesome. He’s teaching all about it, just like you would. He explained what theory really means, and said that the evidence is incredibly strong for evolution, and when kids started saying, ‘But the Bible says blah blah blah,’ he just put his hand up and said, ‘You can talk about that with your minister. In this class we are learning about science, about what we know.”

I have never, ever seen her so jazzed about a class experience. She knows what a crapshoot it is, knows that she has less than a 50-50 chance of learning about evolution in any depth in the classroom. She lucked out.

So what’s a parent to do? Most, including me, will do a nice cartoon wipe of the brow and go back to the next thing on the plate. That’s a major mistake. It’s also simply wrong.

We’re happy to fire off a blistering corrective to the Mr. Taylors and Ms. Warners, the educators who fall down on the job and take our kids with them. But we’ve got to get just as good and consistent at complimenting the good as we are at complaining about the bad.

It’s not just a question of good manners. If we really care about quality in the classroom, it’s a practical imperative.

Imagine you’re a biology teacher. The evolution unit is approaching, again, and you know for certain you will get a half dozen scolding emails from angry parents the moment the word crosses your lips. Again. If you’ve never received a note of thanks for tackling the topic honestly, it’s easy to feel isolated and beleaguered. Who could blame you for gradually de-emphasizing the topic until it disappears completely? Even a teacher with the best of intentions can be worn to a nub from years of self-righteous tirades.

And those of us who sit silently, never lifting a finger to reinforce good teaching when we see it, deserve what we get.

I finally woke up to this about two years ago and started making a point of shooting off a message of thanks to teachers who rocked my kids’ worlds. This is especially important for middle and high school teachers, who are much less likely to hear any positive feedback through parent conferences and the other frequent contacts elementary teachers get.

When Erin was working her way through a much better-than-average comparative religion unit in social studies, I dashed off a note of appreciation to the teacher, who nearly passed out from the shock. When Connor told me his high school science teacher spent some time explaining what “theory” means in science, I shot him some kudos. And when Erin came home with this story of courage and integrity, I sent a message expressing my deep and detailed appreciation…and cc’ed the principal.

The teacher replied, telling me how gratifying it was to hear the support. “It’s a passion of mine,” he said. Even passion can be pummeled out of someone. But now, the next time he approaches that unit, he’ll hear not only angry shouts ringing in his ears, but a little bit of encouragement from someone who took the time to make it known.

I’m better at this than I once was, but I’m still about three times as likely to pipe up when I’m pissed as when I’m impressed. Gotta work on that. How about you? Anybody you need to thank RIGHT NOW?

Screwing with…His Holiness?!

jpiiI’m in the research phase for some really engaging writing projects right now. That’s good except for one thing: while I’m overturning cool rocks, I always find some fantastic tangent wriggling underneath. I chase after it, giggling like a wee lass, and forget all about the original task.

It’s an actual problem.

Exhibit A: I’m under contract for a fun anthology project I’ll tell you about later. In the course of that, I uncovered the way Darwin’s agnosticism and critiques of religion were hidden from view by his own family as they edited his Autobiography. That led to my “Screwing with…” blog series, which I knew needed to start with Sam Pepys.

As I finally got to Darwin in that series, I needed the date on which Pope John Paul II made the strongest-yet Vatican acknowledgement of evolution as established fact.

And you won’t believe what was wriggling under THAT rock.

First some background: The Vatican came to accept evolution the same way it agreed that Galileo deserved an apology — glacially and partially. This isn’t entirely a strike against Rome. I’ve always at least given the Catholics credit for seeing something that is too often denied by others: that evolution, properly understood, presents a very serious problem for some of the most fundamental assumptions of their religion. More on that another time. (See what I mean? Even tangents birth tangents.)

Since Darwin, a few popes had skated at the margins of the question. They rarely mentioned evolution in the last few decades of the 19th century but repeatedly affirmed “the special creation of man” — one of the above-mentioned fundamental assumptions that evolution severely guts.

In Providentissimus Deus (1893), Leo XIII decried “the unrestrained freedom of thought” — yes, his actual words — that he saw running rampant as the 20th century approached, and warned that religion and science should stay out of each other’s sandboxes.

Whatever sharpens your hat, I guess.

In Humani generis (1950), Pius XII said “the Church does not forbid” research and discussion related to biological evolution. But the encyclical contains a self-cancelling message typical of papal pronouncements: “Men experienced in both fields” (science and theology) are free to study the issue, so long as their conclusions do not contradict assumptions x, y, and z. Included in that list: that “souls are immediately created by God,” and that humans cannot have ultimately come from non-living matter.

Excluding possibilities a priori is, of course, one of the best ways to get things entirely wrong. But that’s not the wriggle I’m chasing at the moment. And before we jeer too much at the Vatican for taking 91 years, we need to recognize that much of the scientific community had only fully accepted evolutionary theory in the previous decade. It was the modern synthesis with genetics, articulated by (among others) Ernst Mayr in 1942, that answered the most serious remaining questions and cemented the scientific consensus on evolution.

In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, John Paul II improved on Pius XII. “Today,” he said, “more than a half-century after the appearance of [Pius XII’s] encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.”

Ignoring the (shall we say) fallible math, here’s where it gets interesting. The speech was in French, with the above sentence rendered thus:

Aujourd’hui, près d’un demi-siècle après la parution de l’encyclique, de nouvelles connaissances conduisent à reconnaître dans la théorie de l’évolution plus qu’une hypothèse.

Like all major papal holdings-forth, the October 22 address was translated into several other languages. The English language edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the papal paper, translated it like so:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution.

Somebody diddled with the Pope!

The difference is huge. If the pope says “[there is] more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution,” that’s a yawn. If he says “Evolution [is] more than an hypothesis,” that’s an earthquake.

A correction appeared three weeks later. But you know how that is. The faithful worldwide jumped on whichever translation they preferred. Some major media stories even got it backwards, claiming that “more than an hypothesis” was the original error, and that “more than one hypothesis” was the correction. Answers in Genesis and other creationist organizations accepted the correct translation as evidence against the Catholic church. That’s all the expected gum flapping, none of it as interesting as the initial act of mistranslation.

In the correction, the English edition editor explained that they had taken an “overly literal” translation of the French text. But one enterprising media outlet ran the text by four French language experts, none of whom saw any possible reading other than “evolution [is] more than an hypothesis.”

Whether the switch was intentional is the fascinating question here. And it’s always safe and fun to play the cynic and assume the conspiracy. But it’s pretty hard to picture anyone in the Vatican having sufficiently well-developed cojones to intentionally scramble the Pope’s words, something that was easily discovered. The fact that the editor in question was transferred from Rome to a parish in Illinois seems at first to suggest retribution, but that was five years after the bungle. And he was returning home.

Now to find my way back to whatever the hell I was working on before this shiny object caught my eye.

PBB on the road

thumbertimeIt’s been a busy start to the year, with workshops in New York, Miami, Atlanta, and Grand Rapids. This past weekend I was in Charleston for a workshop and talk hosted by the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Terrific group and a great little city.

In three weeks I’m off to Cincinnati, Ohio where I’ll give a talk on humanist philanthropy for Free Inquiry Group and Cincinnati Atheists Meetup (Slatt’s Pub, April 8, 7 pm), then a Parenting Beyond Belief workshop April 9 at Northern Hills UU Fellowship, 9am-1pm, sponsored by UU Council of Greater Cincinnati. Click here to register for the workshop.

May 21 will find me in Tampa, Florida giving a presentation at the inaugural event for Paul Kurtz’s new Institute for Science and Human Values. Details to come.

I take most of the summer off from parenting workshops to do some actual, uh, parenting, but on July 16 I’ll give a PBB workshop in Pensacola, Florida, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola, 10am – 2pm. (Info and registration here.)

There’s also loose talk about possible PBB workshops in Baltimore, San Antonio, Seattle, and Los Angeles this fall. Wanna start talking loosely about bringing the workshop your way? Read this page for a description, then click the contact button and we’ll chat.

Humanism at work in Japan

On the day Japan was devastated by an 8.9 earthquake and massive tsunami, Foundation Beyond Belief, the humanist charitable foundation I direct, launched a fund drive for the relief effort.

We were tempted to name a relief organization as recipient on that day, but we waited. No two natural disasters are alike. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile presented dramatically different challenges for relief organizations, and the current situation had its own unique character and needs.

It’s a good thing we waited. After a few days it became clear that most international relief organizations would be only marginally involved in the response. Through long, painful experience, Japan has become the best-prepared nation on Earth for natural disasters. Even so, the sheer scale of the task at hand will require an immense amount of effort and financial resources.

JRCSworkerAs donations poured in from our members and supporters, we monitored the situation to determine how best to direct the funds. Yesterday it became clear that our support would do the most good not in international hands, but by direct contribution to the domestic Japanese agency at the center of this massive effort.

Foundation Beyond Belief will forward 100 percent of collected funds to the Japanese Red Cross.

The Japanese Red Cross operates 92 hospitals nationwide and forms the backbone of domestic disaster response in Japan. By donating directly to JRCS, we can be confident that our funds are going where they are needed most for the long recovery ahead. And as of Wednesday March 16, Foundation Beyond Belief members and supporters have donated over $12,000 to the relief fund.

To make a donation to the Japanese Red Cross through Foundation Beyond Belief, visit our homepage and click on the orange ChipIn button in the sidebar.

Deepest thanks to all of you who have donated so generously.

“This just isn’t going to happen”

RBB Poster 01_smLate last week, as I sat down to write a post about Rock Beyond Belief, I received notice that it had been cancelled.

Quick summary for those who haven’t followed this:

Last September, an evangelical Christian rock concert called “Rock the Fort” was held at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Sponsored by the Fort Bragg chaplains, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and 20 area churches, the event was promoted as an opportunity to win souls by “[bringing] the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community.” Ft. Bragg chaplain Col. David Hillis made it clear in a letter to local churches that “Rock the Fort is evangelical in nature…The concert will conclude with a clear gospel message.”

It worked. Event organizers claimed 700 on-stage conversions of soldiers and civilians.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State correctly stated that “the military has no business sponsoring a rally that is clearly designed to convert people to evangelical Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Military Religious Freedom Foundation likewise weighed in with constitutional concerns. “Churches have the right to reach out to anyone to spread their religious messages,” Boston said, “but the government is not allowed to help them do it.”

The Staff Judge Advocate soothed worried brows with a letter promising equal treatment:

Bragg1-550x204

This was echoed in a letter from the base commander.

One soldier at Fort Bragg, Sgt. Justin Griffith, decided to take the base commander at his word. If the military is going to sponsor events of this kind, they must do so for other perspectives as well. Thus was born ROCK BEYOND BELIEF, a day of fun and entertainment featuring secular bands and speakers including Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Hemant Mehta, and Eugenie Scott (and me).

Justin was a class act from the beginning. He was determined to make the event a positive expression, not a poke in the eye. Every time someone tried to paint RBB as an anti-religious event or an attempt to “spread the atheist message,” Justin slapped it down. This would be a positive celebration of secular values, but never an attempt to recruit, convince, or attack. No de-conversion or de-baptism ceremonies. High road all the way.

He pulled together a volunteer staff and began the long approval process in November. Funding was a serious concern. But a Freedom of Information Act request by FFRF revealed that Billy Graham’s Rock the Fort event had received over $54,000 in direct support from the Dept. of Defense.

The next step was simple: the base commander had promised “the same level of support to comparable events,” so a request was made for a similar level of financial support for Rock Beyond Belief.

The approval was a no-brainer, and the base legal staff recommended that Rock Beyond Belief receive the same support Rock the Fort had received.

The last step would be the signature of the garrison commander. He “approved” the event per se, but added what Justin rightly called “crippling restrictions.” Instead of the outdoor post-parade ground that Rock the Fort had used, Rock Beyond Belief would be confined to an indoor theatre that holds 700. There would be no financial support of any kind. And unlike Rock the Fort, he required that all advertising carry a disclaimer that the event carried “no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.”

Justin had no choice but to cancel.

The whole thing rang loud bells for me. Justin was attempting to hold the Army to its own stated principles, not to mention the US Constitution. And instead of progressing straight to court over Rock the Fort, he had chosen to request equal treatment. A promise of equal treatment was made, then withdrawn.

Eight years ago I tried something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. I was on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college that trumpeted an atmosphere of open inquiry and critical thinking in all of its public statements and recruitment materials. All points of view were said to be welcome in this vibrant marketplace of ideas.

The college also considers itself a feminist institution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of feminist pioneers have been atheists or agnostics was never mentioned. So when an informal student humanist group I advised wanted to bring Annie Laurie Gaylor on campus to talk about feminism and freethought, I thought it a perfect fit with the college’s stated values. Annie Laurie wrote Women Without Superstition, the definitive book on the topic.

We reserved the room, clearly stating the nature of the event, paid the required fee, and received an approved contract. We advertised openly on campus and in the papers for four weeks. But 45 minutes before the event, a security guard arrived and locked the hall, “By order of the president.”

I called Sister Anita for an explanation and was told that I had not reserved the hall. When I replied that I had the reservation in hand, she was silent for several seconds.

“Look Dale,” she finally said, “this just isn’t going to happen.”

The next day, as word of the lockout spread, she sent a campus-wide email claiming that I had intentionally misrepresented the nature of the event. The day after that, the first student protest in the history of the college took place on the quad. Major media stories ensued, and I received some blistering hate mail.

I managed to stay three more years, trying to improve the climate of inquiry on campus, before nausea led me to resign and pursue my current work.

Though religion is in play in both of these situations, the principle applies to countless others as well. If a minority point of view is on the verge of gaining a fair hearing within the rules, someone in the majority will simply change the rules. The women’s movement struggled against the same kind of goalpost-moving, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 essentially said, “Okay, from now on we will follow our own rules.” The majority party in Congress regularly changes procedures to hogtie the minority. Rules are useful, goes the reasoning of the powerful, until they aren’t. At which point etc.

Some defenders of the garrison commander will surely point out that he didn’t cancel the event, Justin did. A bit like saying, “Sure, I shot you, but you’re the one that fell over.”

Eight years ago I was heartbroken that what could have been a simple, positive expression of the important place of religious doubt in our history instead yielded a melee of angry protests, accusations, and hate mail because someone decided their own rules were meant to be broken as needed. Now Justin’s attempt to create something positive is instead devolving into ugliness and lawsuits for the same reason.

The suit is justified and necessary (and, as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s Mikey Weinstein put it, “a one-inch putt”) — but once again I’m heartbroken at the duplicity and the lost opportunity.

I hope I’d behave better than the garrison commander and Sister Anita in a position of majority power. But if I were to do otherwise, I hope the minority voices I trample on would shame me into integrity.

There is no normal

adams360The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
DOUGLAS ADAMS

Oh I talk a good game about being awake. It’s part of almost every talk and workshop I do. But most of the time, like everybody, I’m fast asleep to our bizarre, fantastic situation.

Example: We all emerged into the world from our mother’s bodies. We don’t think much about that because it’s always been true. My kids think that pulling up a YouTube video on an iPhone in a moving car is nice, but it’s not incredible, since they can’t remember ever not being able to do that.

I’m the same with things that have always been true. Like the whole Mom-As-Portal thing.

There are other things that I haven’t always known, and you’d think I could hang on to the wonder of those at least. Like the fact that the gold in my wedding ring was made in a dying star, or that I’m related to my lawn, and not just by marriage. And that every bit of me has been around since the beginning of time. Not always quite so well-organized, and not always on this planet, but every bit has been somewhere since the Big Bang.

I contain 60,000 miles of blood vessels. I put that number into my head through my eyes about seven years ago and it stuck because I liked it enough to “remember,” whatever that means. When I needed it just now, I found it in my head and made it come out through my fingers. Don’t know how. Yet I make my living doing that all day.

I try to keep my kids (who are half me and half my wife) awake as much as possible. Every time Delaney and I (two pieces of the universe that woke up) step outside to go to the bus stop, there’s something cool in the sky. Like you know, the sky. We talk about it by using our throats and mouths to make the air wiggle, which in turn makes little bones and hairs in our ears wiggle, which our brains understand.

I get this perspective back for three minutes at a time, then lose it for months. I should be paralyzed with wonder all the time. But I forget.

This past weekend I did a couple of events in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hosted by CFI. A great time, and I left feeling groovy. But what was supposed to be a quick transfer at O’Hare turned into a four-hour gate-wait when my flight to Atlanta was cancelled. I was rebooked on a flight to Dulles, which left an hour late, causing me to miss my connection to Atlanta by four minutes. I had to spend a five-hour night in a DC hotel before hopping an early flight home.

The next morning I landed in Atlanta, surly and exhausted, 22 hours after I’d left Grand Rapids. I’d had more than enough of airports and planes.

But as we taxied to the gate, something incredible happened out the window. Not 200 feet away, an absolutely enormous metal tube with wings, filled with people, suddenly jumped into the sky.

I’m not kidding.

You’d think such a thing would make the news. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it happens over 95,000 times a day all over the world. Here it is compressed into a minute. Look carefully:

Once you get started, you can completely lose yourself in slack-jawed astonishment at the world around us. Not to worry — the anesthetic of familiarity will drag you back to the illusion of normal.

As soon as you get back, start planning your next vacation.

richard-dawkinsAfter sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings.
RICHARD DAWKINS, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” from Unweaving the Rainbow