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

Squirrel!

McGowans just don’t do sports that way.
Connor McGowan

My kids are sportier than ever I was — which is to say they play sports, period, at all. But I’d never thought much about the way they do it until last week when I overheard Connor (16), Erin (14), and Becca talking about it.

Connor’s done T-ball, soccer, football, basketball, and wrestling…each for 1-2 years. Erin was on swim team and played soccer and basketball, then dabbled in track before finding and adoring volleyball. Delaney (10) has done two years swimming and six years of rec-level soccer. Regardless of length, they’ve all been low key, and each sport has competed for time and focus with a lot of other dabblings — acting, photography, science, guitar, piano, paintball, graphic design, and the art of sitting around.

Erin’s on the cusp of her freshman year and planning to try out for the high school volleyball team, so she’s attending a volleyball training program two mornings a week, run by the high school coach. Erin has terrific skills and has come a long way in recent years. Still, this program is really pushing her both physically and in terms of skill development, in part because she’s encountering The Ones Who Live to Volley— girls whose exit from the womb was preceded by a wicked spike. Erin loves volleyball, but these girls ARE volleyball. She brings four years of YMCA ball with her, while they’ve got eight years of bloodcurdling competitive league play. Some of them train with a private coach instead of Dad in the driveway. It shows…and it’s kind of freaking her out.

Boy, do I get it.

Erin was describing these Übervolleymädchen when Connor offered his observation that McGowans just don’t do sports that way. He really could have said we don’t do anything that way. We’re not monomaniacal focusers, he explained. We’re dabblers. We’re generalists. “That’s good,” he said. “You don’t want to let one thing take over your life.”

The voice in my head had come out to play.

I’d never thought of this as a family trait, but it certainly sums me up…for better and worse. My life could be described as the continuous inability to walk into the Baskin-Robbins of life and pick a damn flavor, from hobbies to college majors to actual careers. As a result, I’ve been pretty good at a dozen things but master of nothing. Before I get a chance to dig in and own something, really own it, the squirrel in my periphery — a different instrument to play, a different major, a different course to teach or book to read or career to try — that pretty, fluffy squirrel gets itself good and chased. Until I see a chipmunk, ooh!!

Even within a given rodent, I never stand still long enough to acquire genuine depth or experience. When somebody once introduced me before a speech as a “Renaissance man,” I winced. That’s just an insult to the 16th century. Da Vinci somehow dipped his whole damn self into each of the many things he did, while I’m like a wine taster with a gnat’s attention span. By the end of the day, I’ve tasted a hundred vintages and am not even slightly drunk because most of the wine is on the front of my shirt. Oh sure, I’m “better rounded” than I would otherwise be, which is great, but SQUIRREL!!!

Though I can’t join them, I’ve always been grateful for people with the focus to get insanely good at one thing. We owe the modern world to them. But I’m a generalist, skating over the lovely surface of their achievements, and my kids are too. We each know a little about a whole lot. I really love that approach to life, but once in a while it bites me on the ass — like every time Dabbling Dale is tinkering with a new shiny thing, only to be tapped on the shoulder by The One Who Has Mastered The Shiny Thing You Are Now Holding Upside Down.

They don’t mean to tap the shoulder. Well pfft actually yes, they sometimes do. My greatest humiliations were intentional shoulder taps by one Thing-Masterer or another. Right now Erin is encountering a less intentional but still difficult consequence of being a dancing, sampling generalist instead of a specialist.

There’s another downside, one that is catching up with me in a big way lately. I blogged recently about flow, and my love of the idea, and the fact that I just don’t experience it that often. Maybe if I had stopped to develop one area more intensely instead of hopscotching full time, I could achieve those deeper flow experiences that elude me.

When I heard Connor trying to make Erin feel better by identifying generalism as a family trait, and a good one at that, I was really mixed. In addition to the flow question, the specialized paths are much better lit. It was never the thing for me, at all, but in addition to the undeniable thrill of seeing the world in a complexly synthesized way, there’s been some real hell to pay for being a generalist.

Yes I know, it’s not either-or. Except it is. If you try to be a specialist with some added breadth, you will, eventually and repeatedly, run into The Specialist Without Breadth who (with a permission slip from Darwin) will happily crush you underfoot on the way to the medal podium.

I’m trying to be aware of this “family trait” of generalism, and most days, I still feel it’s the better way. But that’s partly because of who I am, of course. I need to let my kids know there’s another valid way, and that specializing has massive payoffs of its own. If they do keep following me into the general, they need to know they are in for a fascinating trip, the occasional humiliation, and a shirtful of really great wine.

The methadone of the people

Stuck in Big Idea mode again as I’m proofing the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief. I’m likely to share a few more bits of that project as I do.

I included a sidebar about Karl Marx’s “opium of the people” remark, which is almost always stripped of context. Let’s zoom out a bit:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

As long as the human condition is characterized by oppression and suffering, says Marx, religion will blunt the pain, as medicinal opium did at the time. So he’s not completely decrying it. But zoom out a bit further and he makes his position even clearer—that the pain relief of religion is ultimately a hallucinatory happiness that keeps humanity from seeking the genuine good:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Now there’s some nuance I can get with.

For most of the people on the planet, for a hundred reasons, life is more painful than it is for me. Before I demand that they give up their pain reliever cold turkey, I need to do something about the pain itself. That’s why I think improving the human condition is THE great humanist project.

In the meantime, I think of liberal religion as the methadone of the people — oh so much better than the original addiction, and a therapeutic step toward the cure.

Coming (religiously) unglued


The religious shall inherit the earth.
Last sentence of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann

Between his titular question and confident answer, Kaufmann lays out his reasons for thinking recent gains of secularism and liberalism in the developed world will gradually be reversed, an argument captured in an article of his that’s currently meming its way around.

The arguments are brutally simple: (1) Children tend to adopt the religious identity in which they were raised; (2) The religious have more children on average than seculars; and (3) The more conservatively religious they are, the more children they tend to have.

All true.

Now I’ve rather enjoyed the progressive achievements of the last 50 years and was looking forward to more. But math says no. As long as the assumptions in those statements remain unchanged, we’re stuck with a more conservative and more religious future, even in the developed world.

Fiendishly clever, that Darwin fella.

I’ve seen it suggested with varying degrees of seriousness that secular progressives need to get busy indoctrinating their kids and having more of them. I’ve already written at length about the misguided lunacy of the first idea and will again soon. But the second one is a particular knee-slapper. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories! We have fewer kids for good reasons, thangyavurrymush, including the desire to focus parental attention on fewer kids, financial constraints (including the high cost of education), awareness of population issues, and access to family planning resources. We’re not going to reverse that sensible progress to win some fuzzy demographic struggle by pumping out more puppies.

Fortunately we don’t have to go into Shockley mode after all, in part because…well, because it’s a weird and creepy suggestion, first of all, but also because the assumptions underlying Kaufmann’s work are shifting on their own, and by a lot.

A Pew study from 2009 on “faith switching” included an under-reported finding that the glue of family faith is losing its stick. While just 7 percent of respondents 65 and older have ever left the faith in which they were raised to become unaffiliated, that number rises to 13 percent for those in their 30s and 40s and 18 percent of those currently under 30. That’s 18 percent who have already left religion at a pretty darn young age. Doesn’t even count those millennials who will leave in their 30s and 40s — numbers already available for the older brackets.

Another assumption shift: Kaufmann points to the high religiosity and birthrate of recent immigrants, especially Hispanics, as a key driver. But the birthrate of US immigrants drops dramatically once they are here — presumably as they and their children gain more of the advantages listed above, including improved access to family planning resources. And as the Pew study shows, they are much more likely with each generation to dissolve the glue that holds them to their family religion.

Finally, it’s silly to think an increase in diversity is ultimately going to make us more conservative. The increasing nonwhite slice of the American pie has a strong progressive effect that overwhelms the residue of family-of-origin conservatism for everyone. Conservatism thrives on sameness. The more we are surrounded by genuine difference, the less able we each are to cling to fantasies of the One True Faith or the master race. It’s harder to keep the cartoons in place when you are cheek-and-jowl with real people of other cultures, creeds, and colors.

Here in my Atlanta suburb, for example, which a generation ago was easily 95 percent white conservative Baptist, my five most immediate neighbors are from Indonesia, Turkish Armenia, Korea, India, and Ukraine. Last week, my daughter’s Saudi-born fourth grade teacher taught her students how to write their names in Arabic. This is Atlanta, folks. And the same thing is happening pretty much everywhere I go.

So when you see articles like Kaufmann’s, relax. The picture is much more complex and promising than a simple birthrate analysis suggests. And rather than throw out our own family planning, do the obvious — support family planning for everybody.

As for religious identity, it’s becoming less of an automatic inheritance, thanks in large part to the churches themselves, which are falling over themselves to alienate their young folks and succeeding at an incredible rate. If we want to help the process of dissolving that glue, there’s no better way than creating a happy, normal place for those leaving religion to land and thrive.

Missing church

Quick coda to yesterday’s post.

Peer-reviewed research is great when you can get it, but a lot of the questions at the heart of my work fall in the remaining gaps between studies. Until those gaps fill in, I have to find other ways of ferreting out the answers.

I’ve long been interested in what people get out of going to church. I attended long enough myself and know enough churchgoers to know that one common answer — “they go to stay out of hell” — is a cartoon. True for some, but not for most of the churchgoers I know.

To find out, you can ask them directly, and I do. But in the category of You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone, you can sometimes get even better answers by asking former churchgoers what they miss about church. Sometimes I do this in person; sometimes I turn to the Goog.

A search for quoted phrases like “I miss about church,” “I miss most about church,” “I miss from church,” “I liked most about church,” and so on doesn’t turn up a lot of people missing the idea of God or heaven. Some, sure. But mostly they’re missing exactly what the Wisconsin/Harvard study said they were getting out of it in the first place: community, connection, purpose, inspiration, personal growth, support.

Listen:

What I miss about church is the feeling of community

I always left feeling inspired to be a better person

The only thing about church I miss is the instant community support 

I miss the opportunity to have a good sing

I miss joining with others to do good

I miss the feeling of belonging that I had

I miss the feeling of connection and common purpose

I miss feeling a part of something greater than myself

The fellowship and feeling of community is about the only thing I miss about church

Volunteering gives me the same satisfaction I once derived from church, a feeling of connectedness to my fellow man

Not all of us miss all of those things equally, and some of us don’t miss any of them one bit. Tom Flynn’s recent piece titled “Why Seculars Don’t Sing” gives articulate voice to the latter, even as its title overreaches on two counts, and by miles. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But a lot of entirely secular people do feel a certain sense of loss when they leave church, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with God or worship.

As a movement, we often act as if church is about God, period. If we can just pry people away from that delusion, goes the reasoning, they’ll walk away whistling. When we grasp that it’s mostly about something else and start building meaningful secular alternatives that go waaaaay beyond the intellectual, I think we’ll be amazed at how quickly God takes a powder. Until then, we really don’t deserve a bigger slice of the cultural pie. Fortunately there’s all sorts of recent action in this area, from Volunteers Beyond Belief to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and an ever-greater focus on community and mutual support among local groups.

So if you were once a churchgoer: What if anything do you miss, and have you found good secular alternatives? What do you see as the greatest need?

The Social Network

One of the real pleasures of being neck-deep in the freethought movement at the moment is how quickly the conversation is growing up. Not that it isn’t still fun and worthwhile to throw tomatoes at bad religion. But we’re also talking a lot more about building our own community, including — psst, here’s the grown-up part — learning from what religion has done well.

If religion did nothing but scare people into giving money or doing as they’re told, or comfort them with fables, or validate innate hatreds, I wouldn’t bother looking for anything to borrow. But we’re getting beyond these half-answers to recognize benefits that might actually be worth a good think.

One such benefit came out in a study in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review. Other studies had suggested that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers by several life-satisfaction indicators, but this one actually dug in to ask why that might be.

Turns out there’s another essential variable: Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers only if they have significant friendships in the congregation. As the number and significance of the friendships increase, so does life satisfaction. And those who attend church regularly but have no strong connections to others in the congregation show less life satisfaction than non-churchgoers.

Now there’s something worth noticing.

“[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect,” said UW Madison’s Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers. “People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network within their congregation….We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”

Brings to mind a poll cited by Amanda Metskas in Raising Freethinkers:

[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)

God is the frame in which many people hang their most deeply felt human needs. One of the best things we can do as a movement is think about how best to reframe that legitimate human picture.

Lose yourself

Raising Freethinkers had to be the most rewarding collaborative project I’ve ever been a part of. Jan, Molleen, and Amanda each brought something unique and brilliant to the book, underlining how very clever I was to not just write it myself.

Molleen wrote about one idea that was completely new to me then — the flow state described by creativity researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It’s the kind of intriguing concept you’d expect from a guy who decided early on that he wanted nothing more than to understand happiness.

Describing the flow state has been one of his biggest contributions. It’s that feeling we get when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying states we can enter. As I wrote three years ago,

Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”

It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation. Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say I’m flowy, but not religious.

Now I’ve come across a TED talk by Csíkszentmihályi that includes a fantastic new wrinkle. When we refer to “losing ourselves” in a project or activity, there’s actually something to that. Csíkszentmihályi offers an example from a 1970s interview he came across with a leading American composer. When his composing was going well, he described it as an “ecstatic state” so intense that it felt almost as if he didn’t exist.

“That sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration,” said Csíkszentmihályi,

but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t understand more than two people talking to you. 


When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended.

Gotta love a naturalistic explanation for insanely cool things. When I’m completely lost in an all-consuming activity — interesting words, eh? — I don’t have enough attention left over to notice that I exist.

I’ve been there, but less and less as I get older. Since Molleen introduced me to flow, I’ve been trying to find activities that succeed in putting me there. In fact, one of my goals before I turn 50 — in 303 days, whatever — is to integrate genuine flow experiences more regularly into my daily life. And I think Molleen’s advice for parents helping kids find flow can apply to us as well:

Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.

Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible…

Yeah, that’s the trick. But it’s a hard thing worth doing.

The full talk