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

Just regular

Remember this story from a few weeks back, when Erin (13) overheard another girl being gently grilled by a couple of peers about her atheism? It’s apparently ongoing. Fortunately the tone is much more inquisitive than Inquisitive. Here’s a bit from the middle school cafeteria earlier this week:

BOY: So what’s it like to be an atheist?

GIRL: What do you mean? It’s just regular.

BOY: But — what do atheists do?

GIRL: What do we do? We do regular stuff.

BOY: I mean like what do you do on Sunday?

GIRL: Probably about what you do on Saturday. But I get two.

(Who IS this kid? Somewhere in 1976, my 13-year-old self just wet himself in shame.)

BOY, after a thoughtful pause: So you can do anything you want then because you don’t have to obey God’s law.

ERIN, interjects: Well…you still have to obey THE law, you know.

Oh how I love these things. I think this kind of low-impact conversation between peers has incredible power to rock preconceptions and give kids permission to think independently. It’s also about 30 times more bloody friggin’ interesting than most of what gets itself talked about, no matter what your age.

Kids vary in their desire to do this, which is fine. As I’ve said before, Connor (16) has no interest at all, while Delaney (9) has done it continuously since she was four. Erin is just beginning to toe-dip and finding out how cool it can be.

I know this can be dicier in some areas and situations. But I also know that we often falsely assume that’s the case. We’re in a pretty conservative area here, both religiously and politically, and still (the occasional brief freakout aside) the conversations my kids have had across belief lines have gone really well. I’ve heard the same from score of parents in places you’d think would go the other way. It almost always goes better than you think it will.

I suggest raising kids who love to engage ideas and know how to do so in a way that respects the people who hold those ideas — then let them decide whether and how to have these conversations.

An unreliable Witness (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 first.)

Previously on The Meming of Life: I expressed concern to a Jehovah’s Witness over my (allegedly) disobedient son. She confirmed that the Bible is completely reliable and accurate, and that its advice applies even today. We now return to our story, already in progress.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” I said. “You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

Her reaction was immediate — a loud nervous laugh. “HAHA! Well we don’t want you to do THAT!”

I blinked. “But Jesus does.” I flipped open to Matthew 5:17 and pointed.

“I…I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know what translation you’re using there.” She pulled out her own bible — most likely the New World Translation, a JW version published in the 1950s — and flipped to Matthew. “And I see yours is in red letters,” she said. “I’m not sure what that indicates…”

“The words of Christ.”

“Oh, okay.” She scanned her own Mt 5:17. “Okay, yes, it’s basically the same. But it’s important to read the Deuteronomy verse in context. It is not suggesting that you can kill your son.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t say I can. I says I shall. I don’t see that I have a choice. In fact, in Mark 7:9 *flip flip flip* Jesus specifically criticizes the Pharisees for not killing their children as the Old Law commands. What context are you talking about?”

“You can’t just look at the words and say, okay, I’m done, I’ll do that. God was speaking to Ancient Israel. Our time is not the same.”

“I see. So you can’t read the Bible exactly as it is, you have to interpret it.”

“Yes. Well no! It’s a matter of context, not interpretation.”

“And in the context of Ancient Israel, it was moral to kill your disobedient child.”

“Yes. But not today.”

“So God’s moral law has changed.”

The eyes of the moon-faced boy were becoming enormous white craters. Voldemort was apparently toweling off. The smile was unchanged.

“No. God’s law is eternal. Only man’s law changes.”

“And Deuteronomy is whose word again?”

She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

“Ma’am, if one of us is struggling, I don’t think it’s me.” I dropped my pretense. “Look — I’m not planning to kill my son. It’s immoral now, and it was immoral in ancient Judea. The Sixth Commandment covers that. There’s no ‘context’ that makes it okay to kill a disobedient child. It’s also a bit of a problem to say that a book including such a clear instruction is to be followed to the letter.”

She paused. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Let me just say this. When I discovered the Bible many years ago, when I learned that this is the Truth” — she pressed her hand into the cover with soft intensity — “it made such a difference in my life. It helped me, and it can help you. We cannot possibly know what is right without it.”

I shook my head. “What you just said is not true. You’ve just shown that you are better than that.” I held the Bible up. “There’s a lot of really good stuff in here, but there is also a lot of absolutely wretched, immoral stuff. And you recognized that it was wrong to kill my son, despite what the Bible said. You used your own moral reasoning to sort that out. That’s a really good thing. It’s what we should all do.”

No reply.

“If you had come to my house two weeks ago and handed me a letter that simply told me to kill my son, I would have been justified in calling the police. Of course you would never do that. But you essentially gave me that same letter with a lot of other pages around it, and told me it was the perfect word of God.”

It was obvious that she had never had an experience like this. Though the boy was hard to read (or even to look at directly at this point), the Talker was clearly intelligent and seemed intrigued. We talked for another ten minutes at least. She asked if I wasn’t astonished by the perfect fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the Gospels. I asked if she was astonished by the perfect fulfillment of predictions from the first Harry Potter book in the seventh Harry Potter book. The gospel writers had the OT in their laps and shaped their retelling of the life of Christ to fulfill those prophecies — a common practice in Mediterranean religious literature. We talked about midrash and syncretism, which she had never heard of. I told her about the Jesus Seminar, which she had also never heard of.

“Do you believe in God at all?” she asked at last. I do not, I said, but I’ve always been fascinated by ultimate questions. The people I don’t understand are the ones who are indifferent to those questions. She agreed.

“Well,” she said, “I guess we can leave it there.” I apologized for keeping her so long, and she said, “My no. I’m the one who wanted to stay. This has been so interesting.” We shook hands, and off they went. I’d like to think they’ll remember it, and that it will nicely complicate their task from now on.

That night I told the story at dinner. While Connor (who is not, by the way, a difficult child) and I were clearing the table (see?), he said, “I can’t believe what you did to those people.”

Uh oh. Yeah, I wondered about that. Remember the cross necklace story a few weeks ago? Connor is a classic apatheist, and the collision of religious ideas makes him uncomfortable.

“Con, don’t worry, I was very gentle about it.”

“No no, that’s not what I mean. I mean…it was awesome how you did that. I can’t believe it.”

Well that did it. Now the stoning is off for sure.

An unreliable Witness

I don’t often fence with doorknocking evangelists. They always (always) interrupt me in the middle of a much more interesting thought that I’m eager to get back to, and the more I engage, the more my brain is distracted for the rest of the day by all the witty things I should have said.

I also don’t like to embarrass people, even when they’ve come to my door asking me to please do so. In most cases, these are decent, harmless folks trying to do what they think is right, however misguided, and influencing few others. Many former doorknockers confirm that the practice is mostly about making yourself feel good about “carrying out the Great Commission,” and that slammed doors are taken as evidence of your own Christ-like conviction in a fallen world. “Each slammed door helps us come closer to our Savior,” wrote one Mormon missionary.

I don’t want to be part of someone else’s martyr complex, but it’s hard to avoid getting testy when somebody knocks on my door and says something deeply silly, then asks for my thoughts. Still, I usually manage to thank them for their time and suddenly remember that soufflé.

But earlier this month, something quietly snapped as I listened to two Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door. Actually, I only listened to one — there’s always a Talker and what I guess you’d call…a witness. The Talker had started by reading me a weirdly mundane verse from Psalms, then asked for my reaction. What follows is as close to verbatim as I can recall.

“To that? No particular reaction.”

She nodded, handed me a booklet titled WHAT DOES THE BIBLE Really TEACH?, and asked if she could come back to discuss it with me later in the month.

Well sure, I said.

Last week, she bested Jesus by coming back when she said she would. I was ready with a new twist on a very old approach.

“So…Dale, was it? Hi Dale. Did you have a chance to look at the booklet I left last time?”

“Oh yes!” I said with a bit too much enthusiasm. “I did. It was very interesting.”

She seemed pleased. “What was interesting to you?”

“Well it’s just full of answers, and it has these, these footnotes that point to places in the Bible. Did you know that?”

She did!

“So I started looking through the Bible because…” I paused for effect and lowered my voice. “Well, my family is having some difficulties, and we could really use some answers right now.”

The quiet one was different this time, a strange, moon-faced boy, about sixteen, with that mixed expression that always unsettles me. The mouth smiles, but the eyes seem to be looking at Voldemort in the shower.

“What kind of difficulties?” asked the Talker.

“It’s my son,” I said. “He’s sixteen. He’s stubborn and rebellious. When we discipline him, it just doesn’t seem to make a difference.” I looked up cautiously, expecting a change of expression as she figured out where I was going. Nothing. “And as I was looking for answers in the Bible, boom! There it was!”

“That’s how it is sometimes!” she said, eyes sparkling. “Boom!”

“Yes, boom! And I knew I could trust the advice, because the booklet you gave me said the entire Bible is ‘harmonious and accurate,’ with no contradictions. All the inspired word of God.”

“It is indeed.”

“That’s important to know, because the answer I found is in the Old Testament. I have this friend who said the Old Testament doesn’t count any more. He said the New Covenant of Jesus Christ replaced the Old Law.”

She shook her head. “Your friend is making a very common mistake,” she said. “He is interpreting the word of Jehovah God. You have to read the Bible exactly as it is, NOT interpret it. Otherwise there’s your interpretation, there’s my interpretation, and somebody else’s.”

“Right, we can’t have that,” I said. My porch was suddenly a barrel stocked with two fish, both of them dressed for a funeral for some reason. “So I went back to my Bible after I talked to this friend…and it fell right open to Matthew 5:17.”

I waited, nodding expectantly.

She smiled uncomfortably. “I’m not…too familiar with that passage.”

“Matthew 5:17, really?” I said, with honest surprise. “Right between the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer?” She smiled weakly. This was disappointing. If nothing else, JWs are usually scripturally literate. And this is not some passage tucked away in the Bible’s sock drawer — it’s from the Sermon on the Mount.

I closed my eyes and began: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Old Law or the Prophets…this is Jesus speaking…I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not the least stroke of a pen shall by any means disappear from the Old Law until everything is accomplished. Now I looked up ‘Old Law,'” I said, “and it means the first five books of the Old Testament.” I gestured around. “I don’t know about heaven, but Earth hasn’t passed away yet. So Jesus said the Old Testament is still relevant today.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “Every word is of Jehovah God.”

“And Jesus said, Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to be the least in heaven, and I’m sure you wouldn’t teach me anything that would make you the least in heaven, right?”

“Certainly not.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that. You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

On to Part 2

Wheels up

Oh TSA, I do hope you haven’t lost that gloving feeling. Starting tomorrow, I’m back in the frisker for over three weeks of events.

I’ll be at the Baltimore Book Festival tomorrow afternoon — in the Radical Bookfair Pavilion, where else — then giving a talk at the Baltimore Ethical Society at 8:15. Sunday morning it’s the Parenting Beyond Belief Workshop at the Baltimore Homeschool Community Center.

On Saturday October 1, I’ll drive up to Aiken, SC for the first ever Camp Quest SC Weekend Family Camp to talk about moral development in secular families and to help CQSC distribute tree seedlings to families in honor of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement in Kenya.

The following Thursday I arrive in Houston for the Atheist Alliance of America/Texas Freethought Convention. The roster is superb, including Richard Dawkins presenting Christopher Hitchens with the Dawkins Award for Freethinker of the Year. Mr. Hitchens just confirmed that he will in fact be able to attend, despite what he has called “the long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.” I’ll be presenting on humanist philanthropy and Foundation Beyond Belief, then participating in a panel on secular family issues.

Saturday October 15 is the Parenting Beyond Belief workshop in Austin TX, from which I fly directly to Raleigh NC for a PBB workshop sponsored by the Triangle Freethought Society. On Monday I’ll address the TFS meeting with a talk on secular volunteerism, then fly home Tuesday morning from all these family-oriented events to reacquaint myself with my actual, uh…family.

Bless THIS

Laney came home with the requisite back-to-school head cold last week and immediately became a patsy for bacterial evolution.

As a kid, I learned that sneezing was a way for us to clear gunk out of our tubes. And yes, it is that. But it wasn’t until a college anthro class that I learned the other reason we sneeze when we’re sick: there’s an evolutionary benefit to getting other people sick too. The benefit isn’t ours — it belongs to the bacterium, which uses the sneeze to propagate itself.

I know, I shouldn’t say that it “uses the sneeze.” That suggests bacteria meeting inside the host, trying to figure out how to spread to other hosts, and finally hitting on an idea: let’s make him sneeze! People rightly think that’s crazy talk and opt for the talking snake story instead.

It is crazy talk. The way natural selection actually works is cooler than both of those.

Suppose that a half million years ago, three kinds of bacteria infected humans, and each caused a different symptom. One infected the muscles, causing hosts to tap their feet. The second infected the brain, causing them to recite dirty limericks. And the third irritated the hosts’ mucus membranes, causing them to spray infected droplets over everyone they knew. Which of these three bacteria will die out, and which is going to spread effectively and survive?

Evolution is not a conscious process. It’s a case of millions of natural variations, most of them neutral, some of them detrimental, and some of them advantageous to survival. Even a tiny advantage will multiply over the course of generations and can eventually become the dominant trait in the species. Even if you’re a bacterium.

Next time your kids are covering badly — not that they ever do — tell them not to be such patsies for germ evolution.

The power of two

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me incredibly proud. That alone is not news — she continually emits a parental pride induction field, that girl. But in this case she showed a bit of courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

Erin walked into my upstairs office after school. “Guess what happened today.”

I gave up.

“I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?'”

Ooooh, here we go. I shifted in my seat.

“So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all [!!!] and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.'”

I looked around for popcorn and a five-dollar Coke. Nothing. “Then what??”

“Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?'” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.'”

She’s thirteen now, old enough to try on labels, as long as she keeps thinking. She knows that. And she’s recently decided that her current thoughts add up to an atheist and a humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh my. What a thing that is. “Erin that’s so great. Just imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch:

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. And when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

One variation in the design of the study provides a profound lesson about dissent. This is the one that Erin’s situation reminded me of. And it’s a crucial bit of knowledge for any parent wishing to raise an independent thinker and courageous dissenter.

In this version, all of the researcher’s confederates would give the wrong answer but one. In these cases, the presence of just one other person who saw the evidence as the real subject did reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: if a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into error. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

Had the other girl not mustered the courage to self-identify first as an atheist, Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can also translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

Uniformity of all kinds is almost always an illusion. And when it falls apart, there’s a whole lot of winning going on.