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

Help FBB pin the needle

New Year’s Eve is a scary time in the inboxes of America as non-profits and political orgs invoke their boogeymen to squeeze out the last 2011 donations. Democrats put a flashlight under their chin and talk about Gingrinches and Bachmenn massing just beyond the horizon. Same flashlight for the Republicans, but they only have to say socialism. Secularist organizations warn of creeping theocracy, and the religious warn of creeping secularism.

Not really one for scare tactics myself, which may put me at a disadvantage here in the final hours of the Foundation Beyond Belief fund drive. The drive is vital to our work, but I can’t say anything scary will happen in 2012 if we don’t meet our goal — just fewer cool things.

And OH, the cool things we have planned! We’re hoping to have a presence at Reason Rally, Rock Beyond Belief, and the International Freethought Film Festival, expand our humanist volunteer network to four more cities, completely revamp our website, and give our quarter-millionth dollar to charity. We’re also about to launch a national FBB Team to raise funds for a major cancer-fighting charity (no, not THAT one).

For all that positive humanism, I hope you’ll agree that our own financial needs are pretty reasonable.

I must say I’m feeling a little giddy about the drive (though mentioning that is an outrageous violation of the Fund Drive Rules). In all channels combined — widgets, website, and checks in the mail — this year’s drive is now at $12,550 [Update 8:39 pm: $14,110!]. That’s really close to securing a quarter of the modest funding we need for 2012, which has me dancing in my jammies. If we end up raising the additional $2,450 $890 in the next 11 3 hours, I may just have to sing in them.

The drive ends at 11:45 Eastern Standard Time tonight. If you’ve already given, THANK YOU — it means more than you know. If you haven’t yet, and you can, we’d be grateful for any amount to help us blow through the goal and keep humanist compassion growing and thriving in 2012.

UPDATE JAN 1, 2012: We finished the drive at $14,460. That’s 97 percent of the goal. I am thrilled and relieved. All of our plans for 2012 can go forward. Sincere thanks to all of our very generous donors! We will make you proud this year.

A ‘Yes Virginia’ two-fer

Last year I had a go at one of the most execrable things we culturally love — the “Yes, Virginia” letter:

santabelieveOne thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, [in which] a little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry….For two years my son Connor intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.

This is THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right. When asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.

“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Now the inimitable Greta Christina has added her voice, penning the answer she would have given Virginia. (For full effect it must be read immediately after reading the original piece of dreck):

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

Read the full piece at Greta Christina’s Blog

Ho ho ho no mo

(Another holiday chestnut from the Meming of Life vault. First appeared Feb 25, 2010. New posts coming next week. No, really.)

And so, as predicted, Santa has darkened the McGowan fireplace for the last time.

Delaney (then 8 ) followed the same classic curve as the other two. She started last year with the ancillary technical questions of a child who’s begun to smell something funky but doesn’t reeeally want to dig to the back of the fridge just yet.

“Regular reindeer don’t fly. How do Santa’s reindeer fly?”

“Well…some people say they eat magic corn.”

Magic corn. The rapidity with which this sharp, science-minded, reality-loving inquirer would happily swallow lame answers of that kind and skip tra-la away demonstrated as clearly as anything could that she was more interested at that point in perpetuating this particular belief than in figuring things out—a fact further underlined by her disinclination to ask the obvious, direct question that we would willingly have answered at any point, namely “Is Santa real?”

(Sorry about that sentence, I’m reading Infinite Jest again.)

Same with many kinds of belief. It’s not that true believers of various kinds don’t ask questions — it’s that they so eagerly accept poor answers to those questions in order to preserve belief. It’s something we all do at various times and places in our lives. Yes you do, and have, and will. Me too.

When I was Laney’s age, I specifically recall looking at the North Pole on a globe, seeing the vast expanse of water, and thinking, Uhhhh…ice floes. That’s it. The workshop is built on unmapped ice floes.

At some point (with Santa, anyway) the weight of inconsistency eventually becomes too great, and the direct question is asked. And when it’s asked, you ANSWER, and congratulate the child for figuring it out.

Just before Christmas (2009), Laney’s questions intensified, but remained oblique. At one point she looked Becca in the eye and asked the most convoluted almost-direct indirect question I’ve ever heard:

“When I’m just about to have kids of my own, are you all of a sudden going to tell me something that I need to know about something?”

“Uh…not that I know of,” Becca replied. Which was true.

“Good, because I love Santa.”

“Who said anything about Santa?”

“Never mind.”

Two weeks after Christmas, Erin (12) came downstairs at bedtime with a look of panic. “She’s figuring it out, and I don’t know what to do!!”

“Figuring what out?” I asked.

“Santa! Laney’s asking all these questions and I don’t know what to do!! I did your thing about ‘Some people believe…’ but then she keeps going and going!”

“That’s awesome! That means she’s finally ready to figure it out. Just answer every question honestly. Do you want me to come up?”

“Yes. No. Well, in a little while.”

I waited ten minutes, then went upstairs. The girls were sitting on their beds facing each other and looked up with little smiles as I entered.

“What’s up in here?”

Laney nodded sagely. “Well…I figured something out.”

“What did you figure out.”

“I figured out…the thing about Santa.”

“What thing is that?” Say it, girl!

“That…well, he isn’t real.”

“Oh, that.” I smiled and sat next to her. “How does that make you feel?”

“A little upset. I really loved Santa!”

Now with Laney being the youngest, I knew there was a risk of her feeling embarrassed at being the last to know. But we’d always played with a very light touch, allowing her to believe until knowing became more interesting — which it now apparently had. Time to let her walk proudly through that door.

The key is to underline the proud. I asked how she had figured it out, and she proceeded to describe a fascinating trail of clues that I hadn’t even known she was following.

She sleeps in my T-shirts, and one night found a half empty box of candy canes nestled in the drawer. “Who buys candy canes in a box?” she said, further noting that this year there were no canes on the tree, only in…the stockings.

“And all of the Santa presents were in Santa paper except the ones for you and Mom. And there was still a price tag on one of my presents.” And on and on she went. She had noticed these things because she wanted to, because she had reached a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

So I turned on the praise. “Look what you did!” I said. “You used your brain to figure out all of those clues…and you did it yourself!”

She beamed.

“Was it fun to figure out?”

“Yes,” she admittedly, it actually was.

“And the best thing is that all of the good stuff about Christmas,” I said, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

She has shared her findings with every significant adult in her life, proof that pride quickly eclipsed disappointment. “Guess what I figured out all by myself,” she says. Only one adult went into a “Yes, Virginia” genie re-bottling attempt.

“Grandma,” Laney said patiently. “You don’t have to do that. I looked at all the clues and figured it out. It’s fine.”

So I remain convinced that our family’s Santa period was jolly well-spent. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists -– and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

And I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.

Santa Claus: The ultimate dry run

This year, the annual reposting of my take on Santa is brought to you by Justin Bieber, whose mother didn’t want to do Santa because she was worried that Justin might draw parallels between Santa and another magical being. Now ain’t THAT a kick in the jingle bells…

IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
_______________________
First appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief, p. 87. For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see p. 85.

Hitchens’ best moment

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) has had a profound influence on me for years. It’s hard to think of a greater artist with the language or a more incisive thinker. He took a different approach than I do to religion and atheism, but it irritates the crap out of me when interviewers set me up as a nice-guy foil to the Horsemen. It’s not an either-or. Hitchens speaks to me, and often for me, while I’m busy reaching across aisles. I wouldn’t for a minute want to do without that voice. And when his conclusions were different from mine, he gave me serious pause. It’s damn hard to wave Hitchens away with a casual hand.

When my son Connor told me this morning that Hitchens had died, my mind went straight to what I think is his greatest moment — not one of his debates, and not a written polemic. It was what he did when he was wrong.

Several times, including in an article in Slate in late 2007, Hitchens defended U.S. interrogation methods in the “War on Terror,” saying they fell short of torture. Instead of just bloviating for applause, he agreed to test his claim by undergoing the experience himself. He relented in mortal terror after 16 seconds, then went on to write a Vanity Fair piece titled, “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”

Several liberal commentators went all John 20:29 on him at the time, saying duh, they figured out it was torture without getting under the towel themselves. A lot of conservative fans of the technique apparently need, but for some reason decline to volunteer for, the experience.

Hitchens made a false claim, then put his money where his mouth was, changed his mind, and gave me a lesson in intellectual integrity I won’t forget. It’s one of many gifts from Hitchens that I’m grateful for.