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

The 9 Eyes of Google

It’s Earth Day today. While we’re busily appreciating the natural world, it’s a good day to recognize that we’re a part of it. Even the least green urban corner is part of the natural world, because we human animals built that habitat from things we found lying around on and in this planet.

The current documentary series “Human Planet” (created by the BBC and Discovery Channel) is a spectacular reminder of that. This morning I happened on another one — something so completely engrossing that I put an insane morning on hold for 45 minutes to swim in it, and now to tell you about it.

In 2007, writes Montreal artist Jon Rafman, “Google sent out an army of hybrid electric automobiles, each one bearing nine cameras on a single pole. Armed with a GPS and three laser range scanners, this fleet of cars began an endless quest to photograph every highway and byway in the free world.”

He continues:

Consistent with the company’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” this enormous project, titled Google Street View, was created for the sole purpose of adding a new feature to Google Maps. Every ten to twenty meters, the nine cameras automatically capture whatever moves through their frame. Computer software stitches the photos together to create panoramic images.

The result is an unimaginably vast collection of snapshots capturing not only those highways and byways, but candid humanity, going on its fascinating, sad, ridiculous and beautiful way, along and upon those roads. That the Google camera snaps with dumb, unconscious regularity and that most of its subjects are unaware of it makes Google Street View a reality show that dwarfs any other on that obscenely misnamed genre of television.

Now here’s the time-sucker: Rafman has created a website gallery with scores of the more surreal, honest, or captivating shots that these little nine-eyed reality-catchers have recorded — a parade of moments:

Of course one of the interesting elements here is random variation (the Google camera snapping away) acted on by decidedly non-random selection (Rafman, and now me, selecting our favorites). Artificial selection, that.

If these fascinate you in any way, you must go to his site to see them properly. I’ve reduced these in size to fit my margins. But learn from my mistake: don’t dare do it until you have some serious time on your hands.

Best Picture: The New Humanism

Parenting Beyond Belief was published four years ago this week. Since then, I’ve had hundreds of requests for advice of one kind or another. When I’m not qualified to answer the question, I either decline entirely or lateral to someone who is qualified.

In the process of those laterals, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of our strengths and weaknesses as a community — the areas we have plenty well covered, and the ones that are still cobwebbed corners. I’ve also developed a few favorite resources, and I’d like to give a shout to one of them.

This morning I got a request from Melissa, a recently-graduated RN who is currently in orientation as an Obstetrics nurse. The orientation group discussed cultural competency and the importance of providing patient-centered care. All of the usual cultures, ethnicities, and religions were covered, she said, but no mention was made of the nonreligious.

To her great credit, she spoke up.

“I politely informed my colleagues and our orienting nurse about the growing demographic of people who identified themselves as non-religious freethinkers whose goal was to live ethical, fulfilling lives, and use science and logic to make decisions about our beliefs, values, and lives,” she said. “The orienting nurse was shocked to learn about us and was not aware of the needs of the non-religious.”

The orienting nurse was entirely supportive of her self-disclosure, she said, and was interested in learning more about the nonreligious community. Melissa asked if I could recommend websites, articles, and other resources to help introduce this person to the community.

What a fantastic moment.

Now imagine yourself in the same position. Someone unfamiliar with humanism or atheism is interested in learning more — not so they can explore their own views, but to better serve the growing number who are in that demographic. There are currently more self-identified nonreligious Americans than African-Americans, after all — think of that — and five times as many nonreligious Americans as Jewish Americans. As more people discover that, this kind of request will become more common.

So where would you send someone for the best picture of our community?

My current favorite in that category is The New Humanism, an online magazine founded in late 2009 by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. A good 95 percent of websites with a freethought identity are defined primarily by their opposition to, or difference from, religion. Nothing wrong with that, of course — there’s a lot of ground to be plowed there — but it’s good to see a growing desire to also flesh out humanism itself, to explore our own values and issues, and (something we too rarely do) to challenge our own assumptions.

In the past 18 months, TNH has featured such topics as building secular communities, the place of emotions in humanism, humanist rituals, the difficulty of giving up the illusion of immortality, the double-challenge black humanists face, secular meditation, two articles reflecting on the common ground between humanism and Buddhism, whether humanists should join in interfaith work, a personal appeal for genuine inclusiveness, and a refreshingly honest recent article that attempts to shake the nonreligious community out of its obsessive focus on the intellectual, urging greater attention to the kind of comfort, care, and need that religion provides.

Here’s a passage from that last piece that ends with a simple, incisive question, completely reframing the conversation:

A friend of mine told me recently that she thought organized religion was for “weak and uneducated people.” Though I was a bit offended, my response was simply, “Well, what is the secular world doing for weak and uneducated people?”

Sift that provocative question through your head a bit, then read the article.

TNH even has an engaging article written from the perspective of a humanist nurse — something I was glad to be able to show to my correspondent.

I have a dozen favorite voices, but it’s hard to think of a source of humanist thought that quite matches The New Humanism’s blend of depth, clarity, and originality. The writing is both brilliant and accessible — a damn hard thing to pull off once, much less again and again. And (as you can see above) it raises questions that, for all their simplicity and power, are rarely or never raised anywhere else in our community.

Like anything worthwhile, TNH is not without its detractors. Many have rightly noted that these topics alienate hard core nontheists. This just in: Not everything we do has to be aimed at the hard core. They already have lots of nifty toys. The fact that 99.5% of those who share our worldview are not associated with us in any way should get our attention. How about giving them a place to stand, a way to be humanists? In my humble, TNH offers an opportunity to do just that.

So there’s my vote. Where would YOU have sent Melissa for the best picture of humanism?

Amazon.com(ments)

(I posted this last week, then realized I hadn’t asked my correspondent below for permission to quote her email, something I generally try to do. She gave the thumbs-up, so here it is. Thanks Jan, you’re a good sport!)

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. But when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted.

Really.

A few weeks ago I got a note that appalled me more than a one-star review ever could:

Mr. McGowan,
I’m wondering if you watch the Amazon.com pages for your books. About two years ago I almost bought Parenting Beyond Belief but was convinced not to after I read the top comment, which said it was a book for angry athiests [sic]. I didn’t want anything like that. My son had serious trouble when his grandmother died last year, and I didn’t know what to tell him. Finally I broke down and got the book last month. And it was terrific! But I really needed it two years ago! Can’t you erase that terrible review so people aren’t misinformed??

I suddenly felt really, really tired.

I replied, explaining that I have no power to delete Amazon reviews, and (short of something clearly libelous) wouldn’t want it. I sketched out the timeless principle of caveat lector, stopping short of advising that she stay clear of the wilds of cyberspace unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The xkcd cartoon above immediately came to mind.

I do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down, or even comment on, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun. You don’t need me.

In fact, I feel another Latin phrase coming on. Vox populi!