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

“To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting!”

[It’s back to the vault for some golden oldies during this busy time. This one first appeared June 12, 2007.]

To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting! — REBEKAH McGOWAN, June 11, 2007

latte heart

That shocking phrase came hurtling from between the tender lips of the mother of my children as we sat nursing our morning lattés yesterday.

Turns out Becca had spent the end of the previous evening fencing with our nearly 12-year-old son over the appropriate bedtime for a nearly 12-year-old son now that summer has arrived. She was proposing 10 pm. He was pretty much proposing dealer’s choice, but willing to settle for midnight, maybe 11:30. With occasional extensions to dawn.

I descended into my latté foam. When I surfaced, she was still there.

“Well?”

I set down my mug and made a conscious decision to leave the little beige mustache where it was, figuring it lent me a certain gravitas. I could feel it fizzing, not unpleasantly. “And this has something to do with freethought parenting, I’m guessing.”

“Yes. He asked why. Why, why, why. Why do I have to go to bed earlier, he said.”

“Mm. And you said?”

“I said it’s not healthy to stay up late and sleep late. And he asked why not, if you’re getting the same amount of sleep? And I said I read that somewhere. It isn’t good for kids.”

Pfft. Where did you read that? I thought.

“And then he said, ‘Pfft. Where did you read that?'”

“No!”

“Yes! And I said it’s a known thing. And he said he wants to see it!”

The sweater-vested professor in me grinned. Before he gives full credit, my boy wants to see Mom’s citation page. Visible Guy remained carefully grinless.

I paused, licking off the foam in case I needed the energy for my next move. “So it’s about what’s healthy? I mean, that’s the real reason you…I mean we …want him in bed at ten?”

“Yes! It’s not healthy for a kid to stay up until midnight every night!”

“Okay. So are you going to look it up and show him?”

“No! No, I am not.”

“No, of course not.” I explored the java reef a bit, surfaced again. “And, uh…why is that?”

“Because…well, for one thing, what if it turns out not to be true?”

Let me here confess the crashing unfairness of telling this story. In our marriage, the conversational shoe is almost ALWAYS on the other foot. For all my puffed up blathering about critical thinking and having confidence in reason, Becca’s usually the one talking parental sense into my head. So for me to take one of her rare lapses and sing about it in my blog is just outrageous. It’s just wrong.

Where was I.

Oh yeah: She said, “What if it turns out not to be true?”

“Well, if it’s not unhealthy, and that was your real concern, then you’d have nothing to worry about anymore. What a relief, eh?”

She sat in silence for a moment, then executed a twisting jackknife into her own mug. When she returned, she looked like I usually do in these discussions — moded and corroded. Plus a little fizzy mustache.

I did a strutting endzone dance. In my head.

Turns out we both want him in bed with lights out at 10, and that neither of us really finds argument by proverb the least bit compelling. Becca has vaguely moralistic reasons — it just seems somehow wicked to stay up late and sleep in late. I agree, for some reason, though I tend to think that’s Cotton Mather speaking through us. I’d also like sex more than twice a year (probably not Mather speaking). And we both like to read in bed uninterruptedly. Plus it throws off the family rhythm to have one person waking at 11:15 am demanding breakfast. Those reasons are more than sufficient. So we agreed. At that point, if there are no further witnesses, the gavel comes down.

And that’s the part that’s so often misunderstood when other parents hear that we want our kids to question authority, even our own. Questioning authority doesn’t mean they have permission to DISREGARD our decisions and our rules. It means they are invited to challenge our decisions, to ask for the reasons behind them, even to try to change our minds. But at the end of the process, while they are children, we’re gonna win. And if they disregard a decision, there are consequences. Just like in life.

It isn’t a choice between anarchy and fascism. Giving our kids permission to know the (real) reasons behind our decisions and even to question those decisions (1) shows them respect; (2) helps them develop their own reasoning abilities; (3) keeps us honest by ensuring our reasons are indeed defensible; and (4) further defeats and diminishes the ability of later authorities to make them into compliant, unquestioning automatons, voting and spending and acting and thinking as they are told and waving the flags they are handed.

Sometimes there isn’t time to explain. Sometimes I don’t CARE to explain. Sometimes we say, “Because I said so.” The trick is to make these rare enough to actually sound funny to kid and parent alike when they happen, and to know when I do it that it’s not going on my parental highlight reel.

Once we’ve made a decision, our kids can file a minority opinion or even appeal, if they come up with an even stronger proverb than Mom is using. Sometimes they change our minds. Happens quite a bit. But they know it only works if their reasoning is strong. Whining or raging is a quick ticket to a summary decision by the judge.

Like bedtime at 8.

Screwing with Darwin – the final chapter

[Continued from Screwing with Darwin 2]

I had a passing knowledge of evolution in high school. Better than the average bear, but still sketchy. I majored in physical anthropology at Berkeley not for the dazzling job prospects but to fill in that sketch.

In addition to changing and deepening my understanding of what it means to be human, a fuller grasp of human evolution led me to wonder how traditional religion could in any significant way be made to fit with what we now know. (See earlier post.) And I remember wondering what Darwin thought about that.

He was seriously religious as a young man, even trained for ministry and annoyed his Beagle shipmates with fundamentalist pronouncements. If, after the Galapagos and the Origin and The Descent of Man, Darwin was still a conventionally religious man, I knew I must have really missed something. So I picked up Darwin’s Autobiography in my senior year to find out.

If I’d picked up the 1887 edition by his son Francis, published five years after Charles died and reissued many times since, I’d have been puzzled but chastened. He doesn’t get into religion much at all in that one, and when he does, he seems to mostly affirm his ongoing conventional beliefs. And I would almost certainly have never looked further.

Fortunately it was the 1958 edition by Charles’s granddaughter Nora that found me. As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, Nora restored the bits that the earlier edition had expunged under pressure from Charles’s wife Emma. Nora was able to do this because all of the family members who’d nearly come to blows over what to leave in and what to leave out were now demised.

If I’d read the first edition, I might have imagined a man with religious convictions essentially intact:

FIRST EDITION (1887)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted.

Compare to this:

RESTORED EDITION (1958)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.

A 12-page section titled “Religious Beliefs” underwent the most vigorous edits. The bracketed and bold text was omitted from the first edition:

During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. [But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.]

It’s sometimes fascinating to see what Emma insisted be struck out and what she allowed in. She allowed this passage but bracketed a portion (as I have below) for deletion. Francis obliged:

I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress [and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.]

It’s not even his conclusion but the strength of his confidence that apparently unnerved his wife. As for the damnation, she wrote in the margin

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief–but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there).

Tho’ the words are there. And 120 years later, the words are still there. I guess some books dodge the red pen more easily than others.

Francis oversaw an even more abbreviated 1892 American edition in which the entire 12 pages exploring Charles’s religious beliefs are replaced with a single bracketed fib:

[After speaking of his happy married life, and of his children, he continues:]

Mm. That Ninth Commandment is always the hardest, innit.

Yet if you look hard enough, in all but the God-Bless-America edition, you can find one quiet sentence in which Darwin is allowed to clearly state his actual theological position. Like Huxley, he utterly rejected belief in the claims and doctrines of Christianity, but said

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

The distortion of Darwin’s views continued for years. One of the most galling attempts was by Lady Elizabeth Hope, an evangelist who published a fabricated story in 1915 claiming to have heard Darwin renounce evolution and embrace Jesus on his deathbed. Francis redeemed his editorial self brilliantly. “Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317,” he wrote to a publisher in 1918. “I was present at his deathbed,” said Charles’s daughter Etty. “Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. …The whole story has no foundation what-so-ever.”

Etty’s niece Nora eventually put the pieces back together, but the genie never goes all the way back in. As of today, 6 of the 10 bestselling versions of Darwin’s Autobiography on Amazon are the Francis Darwin edition.

Thanks for trying, Nora.

What, me worry? End Times Edition

My daughter Delaney (9) is no sucker. She has a mind like a steel trap, a phrase which I’m sure must mean something. But she’s worried that the world might end on December 21, 2012.

“I know it probably won’t,” she said, almost precisely echoing the preamble of my own fears at different points in my life — of hell, of radon, of cults, of the Mafia, of my heart stopping just for laughs, of that itchy mole. The preamble is always followed quickly, as am I, by a big but.

“…but how do you KNOW?” she asked. “How do you KNOW it isn’t going to end?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. “It might.”

“What?!”

“Well of course it might. Might end tomorrow, too.”

“Yeah but nobody says it’s going to end tomorrow. LOTS of people think it’s going to end in 2012.”

“Why do they think that?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. But they do. And it makes me worried.”

“When you get old enough to see about ten of these end-of-the-world things not happen, you’ll stop worrying.”

“Yeah, IF I get old enough.”

Laney was actually a bit obsessed with this one, simply because of this big unknown Claim, something so entirely credible they’d made a movie about it.

Time for an intervention.

I explained that somebody who knew nothing about the Mayan calendar apparently got hold of it, saw that it “ends” on December 21, 2012, and started in with the Chicken Little. I told her that it “ends” in the same way ours “ends” on December 31. Which is to say it doesn’t.

“We have weeks that repeat, right? When we get to Saturday, we go back to Sunday. Months repeat. When we get to the 31st, or whatever, we go back to the 1st. And when we get to the last day of December, every year, you don’t scream that the world is going to end — you just flip the page, and you’re back in January. The Mayans had another big cycle called a baktun. It’s like 400 years long. And when you get to the end of a baktun, you just flip the page. New baktun.”

“Oh. So somebody just didn’t know how it worked.”

“Yeah. Still worried?”

She paused, then grinned sheepishly. “A little.”

That’s the way it goes. Even with the Wire Brush of Reason, once the chicken has shit, it’s hard to get it out of every corner of the henhouse.

The malformed chicken that is the human brain is in a state of perpetual defecation, so I wasn’t too surprised when only last week I learned that we’ve shit out yet another pellet. Turns out the world is also ending a week from tomorrow. I hadn’t heard.

I immediately informed Delaney, whose eyes inflated nicely.

“Next Saturday?” I knew she was running her soccer schedule through her head.

“Yep.”

“Who said this one?”

I pulled out the news story I’d printed up, with the ridiculous headline, “Biblical scholar’s date for rapture: May 21, 2011“. I said that the guy in the story is not a scholar but some minor Christian radio host named Harold Camping (whose website is still for some reason accepting donations). Seems Camping crunched the numbers in the Bible and came up with a “guarantee” that Jesus will return on May 21, 2011, rapture up 3 percent of the world’s population, and commence a five-month smiting of the rest of you.

Turns out it’s not the first time he made such a guarantee. His book 1994 also predicted the end, though I can’t remember what year.

“Huh. Just like that other guy, with the people on the hilltops.” That would be Baptist minister William Miller, whose prediction of apocalypse sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 was called, on March 22, 1844, “The Great Disappointment.” He moved the date to October 22, 1884, which became the Second Great Disappointment. His followers, many of whom had sold everything they owned and left crops to rot in the fields, were mostly (to their credit) disinclined to make it a trilogy.

Camping and Miller both used Bible roulette for their calculations, which makes it especially surprising that they came up with such wildly different dates. But I shared Camping’s method with Laney so she could decide whether to worry.

And that, before we get off-topic, is what this post is about — not whether Camping and Miller are reflections on other believers, not whether eschatology in general is silly. This is about how to help kids develop the ability to decide on their own whether to believe a claim.

I looked her in the eye. “When you’re trying to figure out what to believe, a good way to start is to just ask why other people believe it, then decide whether it’s a good reason. So this man says Jesus was crucified on April 1st in the year 33. There are 722,500 days between that day and next Saturday. Now, the number 5 equals ‘atonement’…”

“What?!” Connor (15) had wandered in. “Where’d he get that?”

“Dunno. So he says 5 equals ‘atonement,’ and 10 equals ‘completeness,’ and 17 equals ‘heaven.’ Multiply those together, then square the whole thing, and you get 722,500, again.”

Laney blinked. “So?”

“Well exactly. That’s why I’m not worried — because the reason he gives for believing it doesn’t make any sense. Add that to the fact that he’s been wrong before, and a hundred other people have been wrong before, and I don’t worry when somebody says the world will end on a certain day.”

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s huge, and it applies to countless things, including religion. After years of wondering whether the God question was even askable, I realized I could indeed come to an intelligent conclusion not by looking for God, but by looking at the reasons others believe.

Once I decided the reasons were poor, I stepped away from religious belief, and all the false hopes and real fears it brings, with very little difficulty.

Pushing the point…or not


Once you cast doubt on man’s place in creation, the entire Biblical story of salvation history, from original sin to Christ’s incarnation, is also threatened.
–TULLIO GREGORY, Libertinisme Érudite in Seventeenth-Century France and Italy

As I may have mentioned, I’m up to my neck in fun and fascinating work right now, including an anthology project called Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics.

I was invited to write this book by an editor at ABC-CLIO, a publisher of beautifully-produced and researched reference works in a variety of fields. The final product will be 45 documents by atheists and agnostics — letters, diary entries, essays — each with an intro, framing questions, historical context, and additional resources. It differs from other freethought anthologies by being strictly limited to atheists and agnostics, meaning no heretics (Spinoza, Montaigne), no deists (Paine, Voltaire, Jefferson), and no one whose position can be taken as mere skepticism of the local gods (goodbye to Socrates and most of his chums). I’m also casting a wider net culturally than usual (China, India, Persia, Uganda), filling that annoying 1200-year gap between the Romans and the Renaissance, and aiming at high school and early college readers. Due out August 2012.

When I said last month, “I’m in the research phase for some really engaging writing projects right now…while I’m overturning cool rocks, I always find some fantastic tangent wriggling underneath,” THIS is what I was talking about.

While doing background on the clandestina (several compelling anonymous atheist booklets circulated secretly in 17th c. France), I came across the Gregory line at the top of the post, which reminded me of Darwin’s Autobiography, which reminded me that I hadn’t touched the blog in weeks.

So here’s my bit on the problem posed by evolution for traditional religious belief.

Evolution was the most recent in a series of discoveries knocking us from our central and special role in the scheme of things. The Abrahamic religions are all premised on our central and special role in the scheme of things. It’s hard to think of a more foundational assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam than the special relationship of God and Human. Every major assumption, from sin to soul to savior, relies on the idea that we are separate and distinct from other animals.

Millions of Christians accept evolution. But the implications for belief are almost never dealt with, since they require an incredibly radical rethink. Instead, many say that God created life, then used evolution to create the diversity of life. And I’m left wondering whether to push the point.

Analogy: Suppose the 2012 election approaches. I very much want Barack Obama to continue in office. A friend of mine expresses deep and fervent support for Obama, saying “I just really love the idea of a Muslim president.”

Do I push the point…or pat the back, glad for the ally, and whistle my way on?

The first question I ever asked Richard Dawkins was about Catholic support for teaching evolution. Do we push the point that evolution creates serious, arguably fatal problems for some of the defining tenets of Christian belief, or be happy for allies against evangelical opposition?

“You’ve asked a tactical question, I suppose,” he said, grinning. “Not really a tactical fellow myself. So I think it depends on whether you are Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.”

Since only one of us was either, this didn’t entirely help.

He went on to say that he would certainly push the point, and does, since that’s what inquiry is about. The very idea of withholding challenge to protect a pet hypothesis is anathema to Dawkins. Gould was more tactical and strategic, taking allies where he could find them.

I’ve struggled with years over which is pragmatically best. When I bring up the problem of reconciling evolution and Christian belief even to extremely intelligent and progressive religious friends, they get really tetchy, mumble foolish things about our inability to know how God works, then huff at me for…what, I dunno. I feel terrible for forcing them to suddenly sound so silly, and I never get around to saying why I find the positions incompatible.

So here’s why.

Evolution was not aimed at making us. Thinking otherwise guts the whole enterprise. The countless blind, reckless, wasteful, weaving paths and dead-end alleys of the history of life on Earth make it plenty clear that, clever and handsome as we (currently) are, we are merely one of these side streets, impressive in our way and to ourselves, but otherwise unremarkable. The process that created us is necessarily unguided on the large scale, and is only guided locally by the ever-fickle demands of natural selection. To make evolution a tool God used to create “Man” requires either a complete upheaval in the concept of evolution, or a complete upheaval in the concept of God, neither of which is forthcoming in the mutterance Goddidit.

I’ve always granted evangelicals a point for noticing the problem (if for little else).

Saying God had us in mind from the start does violence to what we know about evolution. Saying he didn’t have us in mind does violence to the conception of an all-knowing God. Take your pick.

Also problematic is the idea of the soul. If other animals are without this lovely thing, God must have chosen a moment in evolutionary history when we were “human enough” to merit souls. Since evolution is an achingly incremental process, there was no single moment when we crossed a line from “prehuman” into “human.” And even if there was, we’re left with the odd prospect of a generation of children who are ensouled but whose parents are not, or some similarly strange scenario. I’d be very happy to hear an argument for ensoulment (of the species, not the individual) that makes more sense, but have not yet.

There’s also the fact that the astonishing wonder of evolution is that it works entirely without a puppeteer. That’s not a reason for accepting it, but so much wonder is lost, so much color and beauty drained, with the introduction of those divine strings.

There are many other reasons, but they all boil down to the decisive dismantlement of human specialness wrought by evolution properly understood. One can apparently be Christian and accept evolution — millions do — but I’d love just once to hear someone acknowledge the profound revolution of Christian belief that is required.

So we’re back to the tactical. It’s easy to wax rhapsodic about inquiry courageous and pure, but the longer I think of this, the more I seem to choose to make but not push the point, at least not uninvited — to allow those who wish to keep their compartment walls well-spackled to do so. Most people forced to choose between doing violence to science or to their conception of God will have little trouble making up their minds.

But I’m wide open on this one. What do you think?