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

Time to get your ween on


“JesusWeen is a God-given vision which was born as an answer to the cry of many every October 31st. The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.

“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel. The days of hiding are over and we choose to take a stand for Jesus. ‘Evil prevails when good people do nothing.’ JesusWeen is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever, and that is why we also call it ‘World Evangelism Day.'” — From JesusWeen.com

Well alrighty then.

Most Christians roll their eyes at the fearful response to Hallowe’en, but there are always some who consider tonight’s goings-on to be an embodiment or celebration of evil. It’s even been called the birthday of Satan—a particularly weird idea, since the biblical Satan/Lucifer was originally an angel and therefore created, not born.

Also common among evangelicals is the idea that Hallowe’en was born in the worship of “Samhain, the Celtic God of Death.”  Among the many problems with this idea: there is no Celtic god named Samhain.

Celts recognized only two seasons: summer (life) and winter (death).  Samhain (usually pronounced ‘sow-en’ and meaning “summer’s end”) is the name of a month corresponding to November. The “feast of Samhain” on October 31 marks the end of summer and the last harvest of the year. It was symbolized in Celtic mythology as the death of the god (possibly Cernunnos), who would then be resurrected six months later at the feast of Beltane (April 30-May 1). As the website Religious Tolerance puts it pretty neatly, Samhain is not about the God of Death, but the death of a god. In this way, Hallowe’en is rooted in the same mythic impulse as the Christian Easter.

Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, Samhain is a recognition of the relationship between life and death. By equating death with evil, conservative Christianity recoils from and fears it.

Parents who instead recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life can enjoy digging into the holiday’s origins. At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to become thinner, and the ancient Celts believed the spirits of beloved ancestors could cross that boundary and walk among the living. Food would be set at the threshold for the departed spirits.1

So before the kids head out tonight, tell them how the tradition of dressing as spirits and going from door to door for treats grew out of this old Celtic idea of caring for and remembering loved ones who had died. A very cool bit of context.
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1Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs (Mercier, 1972); O’Driscoll, Robert (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness (Braziller, 1981).

Catch the rainbow

Our family has a longstanding relationship with the speed of light. We take care never to exceed it, for one thing, no matter how tempting. But there’s more than that.

I had all sorts of light-related fascinations when I was a kid — that light had a speed at all, for starters, and that it was so unimaginably fast, yet also finite and measurable. I knew the moon was a light-second away, the sun eight light-minutes, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, 4.2 light years. I knew the Milky Way, one galaxy of billions, is 100,000 light years side to side.

Light helped me finally grasp the real immensity of the universe and my own infinitesimalitude.

Light is SO much faster than (pfft) sound — almost a million times faster — which is why lightning is already kicking back with a light beer when thunder comes panting up behind.

This stuff gave me endless fodder for discussion on first dates. It also took care of second dates rather neatly.

When it came time to marry, I limited the pool to those with no more than two degrees of separation from the speed of light. Fortunately my college friend Becca attended the same high school as Nobel laureate Albert Michelson, he of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which laid the groundwork for special relativity by showing that light weirdly measures at the same speed even if you are moving rapidly toward or away from the source.

Becca and I were married in a San Francisco Lutheran church with You-Know-What streaming through the windows.

Our kids have picked up the thread. As we drove home from his football practice four years ago, Connor (then 12) asked why time slows down as you go faster. (The previous week we had discussed the very cool Hafele-Keating experiment in which cesium clocks flown around the world differed from identical clocks on the ground by a few nanoseconds. I think I spotted the exact moment during the practice that he was thinking about Hafele-Keating instead of Offensive-Lineman.) I said our velocity through space plus our velocity through time equals the speed of light, so the faster you go through space, the slower you necessarily go through time.

In less than five seconds, he said, “So light doesn’t experience time, then.”

Holy buckets. I’d never thought of it.

Last week, standing in the dark waiting for the school bus, I discovered that I’d never shared with Delaney (9) the insanely cool fact that many of the stars we see probably aren’t there anymore. Some may have blinked out before the dinosaurs went extinct, but the end of the column of photons, even at 186,000 miles a second, still hasn’t reached us. Tomorrow morning we might suddenly see a “new,” bright star in the sky, which is actually a nova that happened millions of years before. That’s what nova literally means — a new star. But it isn’t really being born — it’s dying.

She made all those astonished, comprehending sounds I’ve come to love, and we quickly re-combed her hair as the bus pulled up.

On the heels of last month’s announcement that the speed of light might have been exceeded by neutrinos at CERN, Becca took the opportunity to give her second graders a little insight into how science works. “All these years we thought light was the fastest thing possible,” she said. “Even Albert Einstein said that was true. Now maybe, just maybe, scientists have found that it’s possible for something to go even faster. First they have to test and test again to be sure, and if it is, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we were wrong. We have to change our minds.'”

It’s true that we’re capable of upending our Newtons and Einsteins when the evidence insists, but of course it never happens quite as gladly as we sometimes claim. Individual scientists are just as prone as the rest of us to kick and scream and bite to protect their favorite conclusions, until the collective enterprise of science itself busts them upside the head. The important message for these second graders, though, is that science contains the ability, the means, even the willingness to change its conclusions in light of new evidence, despite whatever preferences individual scientists might have. (The CERN scientists assumed they made an error in measurement, by the way, something that has happened before — and a team in the Netherlands think they’ve found the error.)

All this light conversation brought me back to experiments I conducted around age seven, just inside my front door in St. Louis, Missouri. The edge of the glass on our front storm door was beveled, which formed a little prism, which at a certain time of day threw a tiny, intense rainbow on the floor.

I decided I was going to catch that rainbow. In a shoebox.

In what may be a perfect illustration of the seven-year-old mind, I knew that I would have to move faster than light to do this, but had not received the memo specifically prohibiting such a thing.

I found a shoebox and held it above the rainbow. I slowed my breathing and concentrated…then CLOMP! brought the box down on the rainbow.

Too slow. The damn thing was on top of the box.

I’d do this for a good half hour at a time before giving up — but only for that day. I remember thinking maybe light was a little slower in the winter, which was why it was colder then. So I tried in January. Even then, it was always just a liiiittle faster than I was, and the rainbow appeared on top of the box.

I eventually gave up my dream of catching the rainbow. But these experiments at CERN have given me hope. I just need to find a box made of neutrinos, and I’m back in the game.

Consolation (without religion) for a grieving child

Guest post by Wendy Thomas Russell. Author of the forthcoming book Relax, It’s Just God, Wendy is a strong, funny, articulate new voice in secular parenting. Reposted from WendyThomasRussell.com.

Consolation (without religion) for a grieving child

by Wendy Thomas Russell

Last week, an 8-year-old boy in Seal Beach, Calif., was orphaned in one of the worst ways I can imagine: His mother was shot to death and his father charged with capital murder.

In a case that has gained national attention, Scott Dekraai is accused of killing his ex-wife in a murderous rampage — fueled, at least in part, by a custody dispute over their son. As police tell it, Dekraai armed himself with guns and stormed the salon where his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, worked as a stylist. He allegedly shot her, then turned the gun on eight other people. All but one died.

The rampage occurred less than a mile from McGaugh Elementary School, where Dekraai’s son was a second-grader. At the time of Dekraai’s arrest, the boy was sitting in his principal’s office, waiting for one of his parents to take him home.

The tragedy struck a personal chord for me. McGaugh is one of the six elementary schools in my daughter’s school district, which means the 8-year-old might very well attend middle school with my daughter someday. I suppose that’s why I can’t stop thinking about how hard it can be to explain death to a child, and how much harder it must be to explain this particular death to this particular child.

On Tuesday, I wrote a pitch to a website that matches writers with experts in various fields. I explained that I was working on a book for nonreligious parents and wanted advice on consoling grieving children without religion. I got dozens of responses. I’ll share what I’ve learned in a future post, but I can tell you that most of the respondents said consoling kids without invoking religious imagery is not only possible — it’s preferable.

The one respondent who disagreed had this to say: “What a truly sad idea. It would be far better to write a book about how to help parents find Christ and tap into the healing power of His love during difficult times. Positively In Christ!”

I don’t know what “Positively in Christ” is supposed to mean, but I do wonder whether religion — the foundation of so many heartfelt condolences throughout the world — can absorb a bit of the sadness suffered by children.

Some children, maybe. But the Seal Beach boy? Unlikely. After all, would picturing your mom alongside God in heaven offer any solace if it meant you then had to picture your father burning in hell? Would it ease your mind to be told that your mom’s murder during a custody battle was part of “God’s plan,” or would such a revelation serve only as a bizarre side note to your real-life horror?

I don’t claim to know.

But I do know this: Whether this boy is surrounded by religious or nonreligious messages, there is hope. Lots of it.

An Orphan Who Overcame the Odds

One of the most remarkable people I ever met was a boy named Charlie Schockner, whose mother was slashed to death in 2004 by a hitman hired by his father.

I met Charlie in 2007 while covering Manfred Schockner’s murder trial for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. By then, Charlie was 17 and had developed a justifiable hatred for his dad, who had abused him and his mom both physically and emotionally for years before the murder. When the judge sentenced Manfred to life in prison without parole, Charlie bucked back in his seat and pumped his fist. He was grateful to have justice for his mother and relieved to be forever free of his father’s grasp.

Charlie had the support of an amazing extended family, who scooped him into their lives without missing a beat. Less than a year after he’d moved to Georgia, I got word from his uncle that Charlie was doing wonderfully both in school and in life. Today, he is a strikingly handsome college student with, according to his Facebook page, more than 700 friends. He speaks four languages, works at a tea shop, and describes himself as always having a smile on his face.

When I think of Dekraai’s son, and the profound sadness and confusion he must be feeling today, I am comforted not by God, not by Jesus, not by Buddha, Allah or Brahman — but by Charlie Schockner, a victim of tragedy who managed to put the past behind him.

As I write this, I do hope the little guy in Seal Beach is doing okay. But more than that, I hope that by the time my daughter meets him, he will have benefited enormously from the love of those around him and, like Charlie, be facing the future with a smile on his face.

To contribute to The “Seal Beach Victims’ Fund,” you may contact the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce or the Seal Beach Bank of America. The Chamber is at 201 Eighth St., Suite 120, Seal Beach. The bank is at 208 Main St., Seal Beach. The ZIP for both is 90740.

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WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL spent the longest stretch of her career as a journalist at the Long Beach Press-Telegram covering criminal justice and special projects. Since leaving newspapers in 2008, most of her work has focused on writing for and about children. She authored three books for the Girl Scouts of the USA – including MEdia and BLISS — which advocate media literacy while keying teenage girls into their own strengths and aspirations. The books were published in December 2010.

Her latest nonfiction project, Relax, It’s Just God, centers on her personal experience as a nonreligious mom trying to introduce her daughter to religion in a healthy, open-minded and honest way.

 

Well THAT was fun

Okay, hiatus over, sort of. At least I can start blogging again.

I seem to have two gears right now. For weeks at a time I commute up 15 stairs to my home office. There’s no sound for seven hours but a slow-breathing dog at my feet and my inbox rattling under a constant light hail of email. I rise only to get the mail and pee. Then I suddenly fly around the country speaking to hundreds of people about big ideas.

Now I’m back in the Cone of Silence.

That’s not a bad combination, really. Each is a great antidote for the other. But I do seem to remember middle distances and smaller crowds, like going five miles away to a restaurant with one other favorite person. Gotta get that in the mix again.

But I have to say, the nine events I did in the last three weeks were really fun. And believe me, ‘fun’ was not always the first word that leapt to my mind after visiting a freethought group. The spirit and attitude in the secular movement is just remarkably different compared to even 5 or 6 years ago. I’m not the only one who’s noticed that it’s more often actually fun now to meet and hang out with other secular folks than it once was. We seem to be more varied in age, gender, color and culture, funnier, more relaxed, less maniacally focused on One Thing, and much more likely to talk about things like building community and raising kids and food and travel and movies and sex.

It used to be maybe one in four groups that really had an engaging social feel to it. But I felt this in every single place I went in the past three weeks, without exception — from a secular homeschool community center and an Ethical Society in Baltimore to Camp Quest South Carolina to PBB workshops in Austin TX and Raleigh NC to the convention of the Atheist Alliance of America in Houston to the fun and funky Triangle Freethought Society. We’re normaling up, folks. And of course the more fun and normal we are, the more fun and normal humans will hang out with us.

Oh by the way: if you were in a group that I spoke to before 2006, and you’re wondering…Yes, honey. You were one of the fun ones.