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

It’s a pickle — can you help us out?

Foundation Beyond Belief, the non-profit humanist charitable organization I am proud to run, has had a frankly amazing year.

Our members contributed over $24,000 for tsunami and famine relief, helped build a library in Ghana and a humanist school in Uganda, and helped alleviate hunger and improve access to health care in India, Ecuador, Tanzania, and the U.S. We’ve pioneered a unique experiment in cooperation between worldviews and launched a humanist volunteer corps in 12 U.S. cities. We expect to exceed 1000 members by the end of December and a quarter million dollars in total donations by March.

But we’re running into a bit of a pickle. Unlike most non-profits, we spend each year encouraging our supporters to give to other charities. Then, in the final weeks of the year, we ask them to give more, to the Foundation itself…and sometimes, the well is understandably dry.

See the pickle?

To make matters worse, two of our major funders have now closed their grant programs. (Yikes.) We have ideas for replacing that income in the long run, but in the short run, we could really use your help.

We don’t eat much. In fact, we’ve been so careful about admin costs that we spent less on operations in 2011 than we did in 2010. That’s pretty good, considering we also added Volunteers Beyond Belief and Humanist Crisis Response this year.

Because our members have given and given all year long, we’re bringing this drive outside of the circle to people who support what we’re doing but are not necessarily part of the Foundation. If you can see your way clear to send a few bob our way, we’d be grateful for it.

Whether or not you can do that, we’ve made it especially easy this year to share the drive through your social media by sharing a link or creating a widget or a fundraising page of your own. It’s all very easy and quick.

So if you can help us end the year strong, please…click the pickle!

Owning Einstein

I’m itching to write about the UC Davis situation. There’s something important to be said that isn’t much being talked about. But it’s too important to rush, and the book deadline is seriously looming, so I’ll wait until December when no one cares anymore. For now, another teaser from Voices of Unbelief (ABC-CLIO, August 2012).

One of the great games in the culture wars is claiming the good and smart for your team and pushing the monsters away. Picture Christian and atheist captains in a sandlot choosing basketball teams. “Einstein, we get Einstein!” say the atheists. “No way, he used the word God!…Well Jefferson then.” “Oh you WISH!” And so it goes until only Hitler is left, standing alone in short pants.

The push-me-pull-you process is done by cherry-picking quotes, and Albert Einstein is the three-point shooter everybody wants to draft. To nicely complicate that, I’m including five excerpts from Albert Einstein’s correspondence, adding up to a relatively clear and nuanced picture by the end. We’ll start by picking the atheists’ favorite cherry, then keep moving around the tree.

Excerpts from the personal correspondence and interviews of Albert Einstein

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

–Letter of March 24, 1954 to a correspondent asking him to clarify his religious views. Dukas, Helen, and Banesh Hoffman, eds. (1981). “Albert Einstein: The Human Side.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 43.

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

–Letter to Guy H. Raner Jr. (28 September 1949). Isaacson, Walter (2008). “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 390.

My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.

–Letter to M. Berkowitz, Oct. 25, 1950. Einstein Archives 59–215.00

I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

–From a 1930 interview with poet, writer, and later Nazi propagandist G.S. Viereck. Frankenberry, Nancy K. (2008). “The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 153.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism…With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

With friendly thanks and best wishes
Yours, A. Einstein

–Letter from Einstein to author Eric Gutkind, January 1954, in response to receiving Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.” Quoted in “Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear,” The Guardian, May 13, 2008

It’s interesting to see Einstein and others (including Carl Sagan) whose views are essentially identical to mine but who see atheism as a position of certainty (which in practice it almost never is) and reject the label on those terms. If theism can accommodate strong conviction rather than certainty, it seems that atheism should be allowed the same latitude. But at least Einstein makes his reasoning clear in these letters. I’ll bet that’ll put an end to all the confusion.

“Who will believe this silly stuff?”

Another excerpt from Voices of Unbelief, my current project. You may remember that one of my goals in this book is to fill in the 1400-year silence between Rome and the Renaissance that dogs most atheist anthologies. Sure, European atheism was mum during this time, for obvious reasons — but other cultures, including India, had flourishing atheistic schools of thought in philosophy and religion. One example is Jainism, a strong candidate for Best Religion on Earth. Read on:

The 6th century BCE was a time of great innovation in Hinduism, giving rise to diverse new schools of thought. Among these was Jainism, a nontheistic religion based on natural law, pacifism, and nonviolence toward all living things. Jainism rejects the idea that the universe was created or is sustained by supernatural beings and includes direct criticisms of supernatural belief in many of its texts.

Mahapurana is one of the most important Jain texts. Written primarily by the Acharya (religious teacher) Jinasena and finished by his student Gunabhadra in the 9th century CE, this text gives a thorough description of Jain tradition and belief, including what historian Vipan Chandra has called “the finest and most audacious ancient defense of atheism.” That famous passage, presented below, echoes the arguments of Epicurus and Diagoras and presages those of the 18th century Enlightenment.

Document: Acharya Jinasena, Mahapurana 4.16-31 (9th c. CE)

Some foolish men declare that Creator made the world.
The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected.

If God created the world, where was he before creation? If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?

No single being had the skill to make the world—for how can an immaterial god create that which is material?

How could God have made the world without any raw material?
If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are face with an endless regression.

If you declare that the raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy, for the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and have risen equally naturally.

If God created the world by an act of will, without any raw material, then it is just his will and nothing else—and who will believe this silly stuff?
If he is ever perfect, and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him?
If, on the other hand, he is not perfect, he could no more create the universe than a potter could.

If he is formless, actionless, and all-embracing, how could he have created the world? Such a soul, devoid of all modality, would have no desire to create anything.

If you say that he created to no purpose, because it was his nature to do so then God is pointless. If he created in some kind of sport, it was the sport of a foolish child, leading to trouble….

If he created out of love for living things and need of them he made the world; why did he not make creation wholly blissful, free from misfortune?…

Thus the doctrine that the world was created by God makes no sense at all.

And God commits great sin in slaying the children whom he himself created.
If you say that he slays only to destroy evil beings, why did he create such beings in the first place?…

Good men should combat the believer in divine creation, maddened by an evil doctrine.

Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end, and is based on the principles [natural law], life, and the rest.

(From Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics, coming from ABC-CLIO in August 2012.)

“I thought it over and believed it by myself”

Scrambling to finish the complicated manuscript for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics by the December 1 deadline. Rather than go to complete radio silence on the blog, I’ll share some of the more unusual bits with you.

In order to make this book something more than just another freethought anthology, I set two goals for myself: (1) to include disbelief in cultures beyond Europe and the US, and (2) to fill in the usual 1400-year gap between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. After nearly a year of careful digging, I managed to do both.

During the initial research, I came across references to Jacques Fournier, a 14th century bishop who was instructed by Rome to undertake local interrogations to root out adherents of Catharism, an unorthodox sect that had been spreading through the south of France. Fournier took the unusual step of having each of his hundreds of individual interrogations transcribed in detail.

Nonbelievers were not the main concern of the late medieval Inquisitions, which were primarily designed to root out heretical Christian sects whose beliefs were not entirely in keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine. Such sects often spread rapidly and were perceived to be a threat to Catholic religious and political power on the continent. But once in a blue moon, an inquisitor came across not a heretic but an outright unbeliever, or at least someone who would cop to being an unbeliever at some recent time.

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure from what was said in the interrogation whether a person’s actual views constituted heresy or unbelief. One such subject, identified as “Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac,” testified that she had come to believe that the soul was nothing but blood, that nothing survives of ourselves after death, and that Jesus was no exception. Let’s listen in to the end of the interrogation, 16 July 1320, in the village of Montaillou:

BISHOP JACQUES FOURNIER: From the moment that you believed that human souls die with the body, did you believe that men would be resurrected or would live again after death?

GUILLEMETTE: I did not believe in the resurrection of human bodies, for I believed that just as the body is buried, the soul is also buried with it. And as I saw the human body rot, I believed that it could never live again.

JF: Did you have someone who taught this to you, did you learn it from someone?

G: No. I thought it over and believed it by myself.

That’s the lovely sound of free inquiry echoing down through the centuries.

Her neighbors testified to her empirical bent as well, including one who described Guillemette’s response to a child dying in her arms. “When she saw nothing but breath go out of his mouth, she said, ‘Take notice, when a person dies, one sees nothing leave his mouth except air. If I saw something else come out, I would believe that the soul is something. But now because only air has come out, I do not believe that the soul is anything.'”

Back to Jacques and Guillemette:

JF: Did you believe that the soul of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is dead or with his body?

G: Yes, for, although God cannot die, Jesus Christ died, all the same. Therefore, although I believed that God has always been, I did not believe that Christ’s soul lived and subsisted after his death.

JF: Do you now believe then that Christ was resurrected?

G: Yes, and it is God who did that.

JF: Do you currently believe that the human soul is anything other than blood, that it does not die at the death of the body, that it is not buried with the body, that there is a hell and a heaven, where souls are punished or rewarded, and there will be a resurrection of all men, and that the soul of Christ did not die with his body?

G: Yes, and I have believed it since the last holiday of the Ascension of the Lord because at that time I heard tell that My Lord the Bishop of Pamiers wanted to carry out an investigation against me about it. I was afraid of My Lord Bishop because of that, and I changed my opinion after that time.

(“Officer, I stopped speeding the moment I saw you.”)

Of the 578 individuals interrogated by Fournier, five heretics were burned at the stake. Most of the remainder were imprisoned or sentenced to wear a yellow cross on their backs for the remainder of their lives as a mark of shame. Guillemette was sentenced to wear the cross.

Jacques Fournier went on to become Pope Benedict XII.

Preferring peace

Her name was Ann, that much I remember for sure. Or Monica. We were both in fourth grade when she informed our teacher that she would not be saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

She explained in a quiet, confident voice that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as such was not to pledge an oath to anyone or anything but God.

Though I suppose she was essentially abandoning one set of rote instructions for another, at the time it smacked me in the head like a whistling cartoon anvil falling from a cliff. Wow, I thought. This thing I had done for years without thinking could be thought about and responded to. It’s my earliest memory of witnessing a principled dissent.

I thought of Ann/Monica when the story broke earlier this year about Goshen College, a small Mennonite school in Indiana that made the decision to stop playing the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events. There were the usual cries of outrage from the usual bawling gobs, the usual torrents of hate mail that I understand are continuing still. But I for one had the same response I had forty years ago: Wow.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike our national anthem — musical, textual, and historical. For starters, it’s a waltz. Nobody else has a national anthem that’s a waltz. Okay, “God Save the Queen,” but that’s about it. It’s also unsingable, with a too-wide range of an octave and a fifth. That’s why ballpark yahoos always yodel up into falsetto on “land of the FREE” — to make it look like they meant to sound bad on that high F.

It’s also militaristic, which is the problem Goshen College had with it. Peace and nonviolence are key components of the Mennonite worldview, and the Goshen College motto (“Healing the World, Peace by Peace”) made crowing about rockets and bombs a bit of a problem. They chose instead to celebrate our spacious skies and amber waves by substituting America the Beautiful, a better song in almost every way.

(I don’t actually mind the military setting as much as I once did. The song celebrates surviving an assault, not slaughtering the foe — unlike the Marseillaise of France, which (though musically unbeatable) is easily the most bloodthirsty anthem on Earth. You have to love the “Children’s Verse,” in which the children of France sing of their yearning to avenge their ancestors in battle and join them in their coffins.)

Then there are historical problems. The tune is of English origin. You may recall that the War of 1812 was not against the hated Costa Ricans or the dreaded Laplanders, but the English. So when we dug deep into our repertoire for a tune that matched the metrical structure of the poem Francis Scott Key had written commemorating our victory over the English, we chose “To Anacreon in Heaven” -– an English drinking song.

Yes, the tune of our hallowed national anthem was originally a bawdy drinking song, written in London in the 1770s by members of the Anacreontic Society, an upper class men’s club.

Here’s the first verse of the original lyrics. You know the tune:


To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian

Voice, fiddle and flute, No longer be mute,
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire ye to boot…
And, besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

So Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BCE, approves the use of his name and instructs the “sons of harmony” to “entwine the myrtle of Venus” (goddess of love) “with Bacchus’s vine” (god of wine). He orders them, in short, to have drunken sex.

In subsequent verses, Zeus is made furious by the news of the proposed entwining, convinced that the goddesses will abandon Olympus in order to have sex with drunken mortals. But the king of the gods is laid low with diarrhea and, fleeing Olympus with his “nine fusty maids,” is thereby rendered unable to countermand the order.

I couldn’t make this stuff up on my best day.

The lyrics that replaced these are actually pretty well crafted. (Say those first two full sentences aloud — some elegant sentence construction going on there.) But most people aren’t aware that the fourth stanza includes the first direct suggestion that “In God We Trust” (actually “In God is our trust”) should be our national motto. A hundred forty-two years later, he got his wish.

Finally, we did without a national anthem for more than 150 years. Though Key’s poem was around from 1814 and even got the tune stuck to it shortly thereafter (as a spritely dance number), it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 1931. That’s right — this ancient, venerable, untouchable tradition was born the same year as my dad. Prior to that it was just another national song, like “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

These are relatively trivial things, of course, compared to Goshen’s reasoning. It was just so gratifying for me to see someone reflecting on their actions — even the most rote and expected of those actions — then thinking about whether those actions line up with their stated principles and making adjustments as needed.

Not all principles are admirable, but caring enough about peace and nonviolence to step on nationalistic toes is something I can get behind. Kudos to Goshen.

OMG…My secret is out.

It’s been 11 years since I first stepped out of the closet by posting quotes from famous nonbelievers on my office door at the Catholic college in Minnesota where I taught.

I took another step out when I published a satirical novel about a secular humanist professor at a Catholic college in Minnesota, did a book signing at the college bookstore, and ended up profiled in the local paper under the heading “Profile of Unbelief.”

I blew my cover even more with the nonreligious parenting book I co-authored and edited in 2007, not to mention the Newsweek article about it that same year. Being named Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008 probably didn’t help my camouflage, nor did the release of my second nonreligious parenting book the year after that.

Traveling all over the country teaching nonreligious parenting workshops and writing about it on my Facebook page every time is a bad way to keep the whole thing hushed up, as was launching a secular humanist charitable foundation in 2010.

The bumper sticker on my car, my email address, and the 515 blog posts about secular parenting are also, now that I think about it, dead giveaways.

Ah, well. Despite these minor slip-ups, my secret was still safe in some distant corners of the world.

Like my own family.

“Did you hear that Dale is AN ATHEIST??” wrote one cousin of mine to another a few weeks ago, I just found out. “I cried all day. What should we do??”

Damn, I thought. Who squealed?

I picture Richard Dawkins being collared at a family reunion. “Bless me, if it isn’t Cousin Dickie! What have you been up to, old bean? Godly work, one hopes, wot?”