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

PBB is dis many!

Parenting Beyond Belief was officially born five years ago today. Such a big girl!

I didn’t even mention it when her little sister Raising Freethinkers turned three a few weeks ago. Second child, you know, whatever. Plus that birthday was in the middle of a four-month self-induced productivity coma after one of my busiest years ever. Since the day I turned in the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief, the engrossing anthology project that ate most of 2011 for me, I’ve been ending my workday at 5:00 and leaving the computer off all weekend.

I have no plans to ever be that busy again. Too many good things have happened since I stepped off the treadmill. Turns out I’m not just a parent educator — I actually have kids! Two of them. No wait, three. And I rediscovered reading. I hadn’t read a whole book in a year or more. I learned that I can only process so many words per day, and my outflow was using up the quota. I’d pick up a book in the evening and every word seemed to be “buh?” But since my four months of slackery began, books are once again filled with lots of different words. (I’m reading the Game of Thrones series, so most of the words are beheading-related — but it’s a start.)

In the meantime, Voices of Unbelief is in production, wending its way toward an October release. Remember that this is a reference book — hard cover, big format — so mostly not intended (or priced) for individual purchase. But ask your library or school to get a copy. (I think you’ll like it.)

This blog has been one of the main casualties of my long nap — just seven real posts so far this year, oy! — but it’s coming back to life. I’ll be digging into authoritative parenting a bit more very soon. There are also two book reviews and some personal stories on the way. So to those of you who’ve stuck it out, I say — thank you both.

Onward!

Hey, Portlandish Oregonians!

Just nine days left until Saturday April 21, when I’ll be giving my Parenting Beyond Belief half-day workshop at Friendly House in NW Portland, 1-5pm. If you are in the area, you simply MUST come, as I am fascinating and handsome.

The content is even better. We’ll put nonreligious parenting in the context of just-plain-good-parenting and talk about religious literacy, thinking about death without heaven (or hell), raising powerfully ethical kids, the religious extended family, and ever so much more.

The workshop is sponsored by CFI Portland, to whose info and registration page I send you herewith. Sign up now, and I’ll see you then!

6000 days

Part 3 of 3.
Go to Part 1
or Part 2.

The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

I want my kids to get that very good news.

Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

Not the answer we were expecting.

For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

Now isn’t THAT nice.

We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.