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

The aspiring rationalist

The brain is an inelegant and inefficient agglomeration of stuff…Evolution is a tinkerer, not an engineer…The brain is built like an ice cream cone (and you are the top scoop): Through evolutionary time, as higher functions were added, a new scoop was placed on top, but the lower scoops were left largely unchanged.
–David Linden, The Accidental Mind

Though it’s been years now since I taught college courses and public seminars in critical thinking, I still try to practice it once in awhile. I can even get myself to believe for a moment that it’s easy—that the three-pound mass of goo in my noggin is actually predisposed to thinking well.

To counter that illusion, I’d often start my seminars with a perspective-setting exercise. Take a minute to think of areas in your life in which your decision making is to some degree non-rational. Some would quickly start scribbling, but there’d always be a few who stared into space, trying hard to identify any chinks in their critical armor.

After a few minutes I’d go around the circle and invite participants to share their irrational sides. “Dealing with my mother.” “Whenever I’m buying a car.” “Spiders.”

Once I came to a gentleman, maybe in his 60s, who fixed me with a slow-burning glare. “I could come up with something just to play the game,” he said, “but I can’t think of a single thing. Sorry.” He crossed his arms and fumed. A strictly rational response, of course.

“Allow me to help,” said his wife. Ba-boom!

I then listed my own irrationalities. Food, for one. From the Kroger aisle to my choice of mid-afternoon snack to the 30+ times per meal I “decide” whether to raise the damn fork again, eating is an area in which rational thought vies with non-rational impulse — and mostly loses.

There are a hundred good reasons that I love my wife and each of my three children, but it would be delusional to say that my love for them is entirely the result of a rational process.

I went on and on. I am less than fully rational when someone challenges my opinion, mocks me, or threatens me. I wake in the middle of the night convinced without cause that I am dying. When I come up from a dark basement, I feel a tingling on the back of my neck, my step quickens, and my heart races just a bit. There is a rational, evolutionary explanation for my irrational feeling, but that does not make my response to the dark basement (which, unlike basements on the ancient savannah, rarely contains a cheetah) itself a rational one.

One of the most persistent delusions in the non-theistic community is the idea that, having thought our way out of religious mythology, we are now fully rational. This is most clearly on display when we think we’ve spotted a fundamental error in reasoning by another non-theist and we hurl the ultimate high-horse insult:

“And you call yourself a rationalist.”

This arrogant sniff never fails to cwack me up. It implies that the sniffer is a fully rational being, and had perhaps thought the other person to be so until this happened, and is now sorely dismayed by the lapse, and so now clutches the pearls, aghast, while looking forward to the return of the penitent to the fold of the pristine rational.

Silly monkeys.

As David Linden notes in The Accidental Mind, our brains are a mess of jury-rigged responses to a long series of evolutionary pressures—the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine. As for “intelligent design,” only something as haphazard and imperfect as the human brain could come up with the idea that it is so perfect it must have been designed.

It’s amazing, really, that we can walk, much less figure out the distance to the Sun or juggle chainsaws more than once. And yet we do. In his novel Timequake, Vonnegut argues facetiously for a Creator, saying, “There is no way an unassisted human brain, which is nothing more than a dog’s breakfast, three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge, could have written ‘Stardust’, let alone Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” And yet it did! Instead of being shocked, shocked when we screw up, the fact that we ever do anything right should be a source of continuous giddy amazement. This perspective can also help us step away from self-righteousness, one of the ugliest human traits, and be a little kinder and more empathetic.

One of my favorite people on Earth is Lee Salisbury, a former Pentecostal preacher turned atheist and critical thinking activist in Minnesota. Lee opened each meeting of the organization he founded, the Critical Thinking Club, with a brilliant turn of phrase. “Welcome to a monthly meeting of aspiring critical thinkers,” he said. “We all want to think better, but we also know we have a long way to go.”

In addition to being a healthy way to think about it, this has the virtue of being exactly right, and carries the potential to completely reframe our approach. We are not rationalists, we are aspiring rationalists. We’ve recognized the rational as a good thing, and we’re reaching for it as hard as we can and often failing. Suddenly we can feel a bit of empathy for the rest of humanity instead of placing ourselves in some exalted camp above them.

One of the greatest gifts of a nontheistic worldview is the realization that we are not fallen angels but risen apes — and even then only slightly. Given our humble origins and the hot mess we’re balancing on our necks, I’d say we’re doing pretty damn well. But we can do better by recognizing those origins and that mess, and laying off the false presumption that by setting aside one set of irrational beliefs, we’ve left irrationality behind us.

Ten years of Calling Bernadette’s Bluff

My 500th post goes back ten years to the beginning of my public freethought life, before Parenting Beyond Belief, before Foundation Beyond Belief

Spring 2001. I’m a mostly closeted secular humanist on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota. It’s Friday afternoon, so I’m sitting with a small, sad knot of St. Kate’s faculty men at The Dubliner, a pub in St. Paul. Guinness in and bile out.

A sociology prof and good friend named Brian Fogarty tells about seeing two students on the quad earlier that day, having a pitched argument. No contact, but plenty of heat. As Brian slunk by the two, another student leapt out from behind a column and thrust a slip of paper at him:

You were just a witness to lesbian domestic abuse.
WHAT DID YOU DO ABOUT IT??

“You know,” he sighed after describing it, “if I did stick my nose in, it would have been ‘a male thing to do.’ You just can’t win.”

He was right about that. The campus was laced with these double-binds. “Somebody has to write a satirical novel about this place,” I said.

“Yeah yeah, you always say that. So write it.”

“Wha…me? I was actually thinking of a writer.”

“Write one scene,” he said. “See what happens.”

That night I wrote an eight-page scene in which a faculty committee discusses what to do about the school song. The meeting is called to order by Jack Kassel, who is, by the most extraordinary coincidence, a closeted secular humanist male professor at a Catholic women’s college:

Well then, we meet again to discuss changes to the college fight song.” Audible gasps around the table. Jack’s eyes inflate as he realizes his mistake. “I mean, the college song,” he sputters in a rush. “The song. The Hymn to Saint Bernadette.”

Oh goody, he thinks. Now I get to start in a hole. Shit on a stick.

The next day I laid out the storyline. Jack is already at the end of his rope when his oldest partner in disbelief shows up — as the campus priest, no less — and he finally plunges over the edge when his ex-wife enrolls their brilliant young son in a Lutheran school and the boy begins quoting Scripture in response to Jack’s questions. Back against the wall, Jack starts to come out as a nonbeliever at what turns out to be the worst possible time — as visions of the Virgin Mary begin appearing on campus.

I wrote for ten weeks straight, a fun and feverish thing, finishing up ten years ago this month. After months of refining, I published it through Xlibris, and in January 2002, just seven months after Brian’s taunt, Calling Bernadette’s Bluff went public.

The book was stocked in the college bookstore and sold out repeatedly. The local paper did a nice feature, and reviews have been good. The resemblance of “St. Bernie’s” to St. Kate’s (and the presence of characters said to resemble actual carbon-based people on campus, including the president, the dean of faculty, and half a dozen profs) was duly noted. The dean of faculty even asked for a signed copy. What fun.

The next year…not so much. That’s when my slow-burning conflict with the administration began over free expression on campus, leading eventually to my disgusted resignation in ’06.

Hard to believe how much has happened in ten years. Along the way, in addition to the parenting books, I wrote Good Thunder, which picks up three days after Bernadette ends. But I didn’t release that one until last year for various reasons, then didn’t announce the release to anyone until now. There’s just been too much going on.

And even now, I’m mentioning it only in the context of Bernadette’s Bluff because Good Thunder would be incomprehensible without reading Bernadette first. Don’t even think about trying.

I’m really surprised at how well both books hold up for me as a reader after all these years. I usually hate who I was and what I did over nine minutes ago, but these still say what I wanted to say.

It helped that so many characters are based on real people. The deeply nutty aspects of Catholicism are on display, but (as several reviewers have noted) the strongest and most likable character is Genevieve Martin, the Catholic dean, who was based on the actual dean at the time. So when Dean Martin butts heads with spineless Jack, it’s hard even for nontheists to entirely know who to root for. Likewise Leslie, the militant feminist with the blinding Grin, manages to make sense and nonsense and to convince and infuriate at the same time. I don’t think I could have written that character convincingly from scratch. Fortunately I’d known her in person, and been convinced and infuriated by her for years. She was one of several people at St. Kate’s who helped turn me from a passive feminist to a deeply committed one. But she also showed me, quite unintentionally, just how silly it could get at times, resting as it does in human hands.

The weirdest thing about Bernadette is the fact that several things in the story ended up happening on campus the next year. My favorite: A construction project on the fictional St. Bernie’s campus unearthed bones, and the Lakota Sioux claimed they were sacred and halted the project. A year after publication, a construction project on the non-fictional St. Kate’s campus unearthed an underground spring. The Lakota Sioux claimed it was sacred and halted the project.

Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Calling Bernadette’s Bluff on Amazon
Good Thunder on Amazon

20 Reasons to support FBB in July

Humanists like to have good reasons for what they do. It’s one of the most adorable things about us. That’s why Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charitable membership organization, is building its member/donor drive around 20 Reasons to Give or Join in July.

Maybe you’ll join or give because without a God, it’s up to us to make things better on this planet, or because we don’t keep a dime of your donations to the featured charities, or because our regular giving model appeals to you.

Maybe you’ll do it for the yummy dopamine hit or the pretty decent chance to win an iPad2.

There’s also the opportunity to confuse Arthur Brooks, who says the secular suffer from a “virtue gap,” or to make Dinesh D’Souza look even sillier.

Then there’s our new Volunteers Beyond Belief program to support, Andrew Jackson’s hair to celebrate, and fear, arguably the greatest cause of human misery, to overcome.

Start at our 20 Reasons page, select your own favorite reason, and share it on Facebook and beyond.

For the videogenic among us, there’s the 20 Reasons Video Contest. Make a short video (<60 seconds) about your reason for being a member or supporter of Foundation Beyond Belief -- funny, serious, animated, whatever — then upload it to YouTube as a response to this one by FBB board member Zach Moore. Share it, ask your friends to Like it, and we’ll do the same by posting it on all of our social media pages. The two videos with the most Likes at the end of July will each receive a $50 Amazon gift certificate.

It comes down to this: We’re really proud of what we’ve done so far, putting compassionate humanism to work by raising over $160,000 for outstanding charities worldwide, and we’re excited about what’s next. Our Volunteers Beyond Belief program launched today, with chapters in eight U.S. cities, and our ongoing humanist emergency response program will launch on August 1. We’re working hard to build a positive, effective expression of compassionate humanism. We need your help to keep it moving forward by donating, joining, or just spreading the word.

Thanks for doing whatever you can to make our July drive a success.