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

33. “Only one rule”

(The 33rd and final post in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

Midnight EDT

russell

A few years ago I read The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. All nonreligious parents would enjoy and ought to read the first two chapters (Childhood and Adolescence). But there was another passage that would have been worth reading the whole book just to get:

Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness. (vol 2, p. 232)

Nonreligious folks are not unkind. Many are the gentlest and kindest people I know. But as a movement, we too seldom recognize the importance of talking once in a while about human emotional needs — until those moments when we are feeling “the opposite of triumphant” and find ourselves, as individuals, hoping for a kind word or thought or deed.

As a parent, I find myself more upset by the unkindnesses my children do — especially to each other — than by any fuzziness of thought. And I find it harder to forgive my own lapses in the former than in the latter.

Kurt Vonnegut circled around the same idea in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The protagonist is asked to say a few words for the baptism of his neighbor’s twins. What do you say to welcome new lives into the world? Here’s what Vonnegut put in his mouth:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

Thanks for reading.

32. Moving the Godposts

(Post 32 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

11:30 pm EDT

About ten years ago, I had a conversation with one of my favorite people, a theologian and deeply good guy who taught at the same Catholic college I did. I’d been growing frustrated with the gap between the college’s theory and practice regarding the “open marketplace of ideas” and ever more outspoken about that frustration. I was getting reckless and didn’t care. He was worried about me.

That was nice. Most of my colleagues just kept smiling — though not with their eyes — but he came to my office and sat down to see what he could do. The pained expression on the face of this exceptional man just about killed me. He seemed completely at a loss to understand where I was coming from.

Then this intelligent man said something so unworthy that I was the one stuck for a response.

“Dale,” he said, “I can’t help thinking that the God in whom you don’t believe…is one I don’t believe in, either.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. I’ve heard it countless times, always presented with the confidence that it’s mind blowing and novel. It’s often followed with a tiny, patient smile that shows the speaker will wait as long as necessary while I reel from the impact of this new idea, then walk me back into the Garden.

It is almost always well meant, I know, but it’s deeply insulting. After all the work and thinking I’d done, all the deep engagement with the concept of the divine, and all the risk I was then confronting, he really believed that I had merely gotten myself stuck on the nine-year-old’s conception of God — white beard, big throne, deep voice — and having decided that was silly, chucked the whole thing, instead of moving past it, as he did, into the highly attenuated (and intentional ill-defined) version he had found more supportable. Or shall we say, less deniable.

If I had found my voice, I might have asked if his God created the universe and/or us, and/or cares about us, and/or exists in a supernatural realm in any way separate from our own material universe, and/or provides for us a life after the current one. If he would cop to any one of these features, I would say, like a witness in Law & Order — “Yep, that’s him, that’s the guy.”

But as much as his misconception bothered me, it was overwhelmed by the fact that he had cared enough to talk to me when very few others would. That was more important to me then, and it’s more important now.

31. Michael, Keanu, and me

(Post 31 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

11:00 pm EDT

Interesting bit of Parenting Beyond Belief trivia #1: Michael Shermer’s foreword originally started with this paragraph:


In the 1989 Ron Howard film Parenthood, the Keanu Reeves character, Tod Higgins, a wild-eyed young man trying to find his way in life after being raised by a single mom, bemoans to his future mother-in-law: “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car—hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.

Call me crazy, but we were entering uncharted territory with this book, and I thought it might be best for the first nonreligious parenting book to not also be the first parenting book with the phrase “butt-reaming asshole” in the opening paragraph.

Michael thought I was being overcautious, but he kindly agreed to paraphrase viagrasstore.net. I like Michael.

Interesting bit #2: Michael Shermer and I went to the same suburban LA high school, about five years apart.

Donate to SSA! I seem to recall that’s what this is all about! To the sidebar!

30. What Vonnegut said, or maybe didn’t

(Post 30 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

10:30 pm EDT

Kurt Vonnegut once said something that changed my life. At least I think it was Vonnegut.

Lemme start over.

Somebody once said this incredible thing that instantly changed my perspective and lowered my blood pressure, permanently. I think it was Vonnegut, I’d have sworn it was Vonnegut, but try as I might over the years, I’ve never been able to find it again.

It was something like this: “When I was a young man, I used to get very upset because the world was not as good as it could be. But once I learned more about how we evolved, and the mess of a brain we’re carrying around in our heads, I was struck by amazement that we ever get anything right.” Something like that.

Whatever it was, it turned my head around. It’s true, you know. Given what we are, given the jury-rigged dog’s breakfast we call a brain, we really should have vanished in a smoking heap long ago. Instead, we’ve done some pretty amazing and wonderful things, large and small. Yes, there’s a lot of nonsense and mess, we all get that. We devote huge energies to killing each other. But we devote even more time to not killing each other. We are cruel and stupid, but not full time, despite our faulty, fearful programming. And we sometimes let people merge in traffic, and refrain from hating and fearing someone our Paleolithic brain tells us we should really, really hate and fear.

It just ought to be so much worse than it is. I think there’s something to be said for tempering our outrage with a sigh of relief, just once in a while.

I’m holding that quote for 90 days. If Vonnegut doesn’t claim it, then I said it.

29. Finding a tribe

(Post 29 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

10:00 pm EDT

I am a citizen of the world. Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE)

I first ran into Diogenes in elementary school. He was another example of people from history who apparently did one thing — told other people to eat cake, or guessed Livingston’s name, or let the Queen step on his coat. Diogenes was the guy who held up a lamp as he searched for an honest man. Just that, nothing else. Weird, but no weirder than the cake or the coat.

Over the years I kept running into Diogenes, who, like Socrates, turns out to have been a full-time smart ass. The point of the search for an honest man becomes clear when you realize that he told people what he was doing as he walked past them.

I assume he died of a broken nose.

The idea of being a citizen of the world has always had incredible appeal to me. So much grief comes from our evolved tendency to clump with those most like us. But like most evolved tendencies, we can’t just wish it away. It’s another gift from the Paleolithic, another non-negotiable part of being human. The trick is not to pretend we can kick the habit but to do it positively and well.

When I started college at UC Berkeley, I was immediately terrified by the prospect of disappearing into an ocean of 32,000 undergrads. Fortunately I had joined the Cal Band, which immediately became my defining tribe.

Kids who don’t have a defining identity will generally find one, and it might not be what you would have preferred. Parents should help their kids find groups and activities that give them an opportunity for “meaningful doing” with others — the key element of recent life satisfaction studies.

28. Getting punchy

(Post 28 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

9:30 pm EDT

Starting to look like Jerry Lewis at the end of the telethon. Becca just came into the office, saw my red-rimmed eyes, and insisted on dragging me away from the computer for a walk around the block. A perfect Georgia summer night, wet from a full day’s rain, full of the sound of crickets.

Hey, a thing: Several people have expressed concern that this or that post today will be buried in the blogathoning and be missed by a lot of readers. Very nice to hear that some of them have hit the mark. My plan is to pull out a dozen or so and repost them gradually over the next few months, in among the newbies. But first I’m taking two weeks off, dammit.

Yes, this counts as a post. Donate to SSA!

27. My disappearing kids

(Post 27 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

9:00 pm EDT

Some MoL readers have noticed that there aren’t as many stories about my kids on the blog as there once were. It’s not your imagination.

Two good reasons for this. The first is that they are older now, including two teenagers, and I’m more aware of the need to protect their personal privacy. Now, whenever I do want to share something that happened to them, as I did two weeks ago, I ask if it’s OK first. Usually it is, but sometimes they’d rather I didn’t. And sometimes it’s obvious that I shouldn’t even ask. You’ve missed out on a thing or two that might have been useful, but there was no question about sharing it.

The second reason for their lower appearance rate is that so many of the issues related to secular parenting that were in the fore when they were younger are now in the past. We’ve been through religious literacy in a dozen ways; we’ve explored and experienced death together; they’ve collided with other worldviews and figured out how to communicate across lines of difference; we’ve ironed out most of the extended family dynamics that needed ironing. There’s certainly more ahead, and you’ll hear about it when it’s appropriate. But it’ll never be as much as it was.

My feeling at this stage of parenting is one of deep contentment. Things have gone really well. All three kids are deeply good, smart, compassionate and unique. Like Billy Joel after he married Christie Brinkley and started writing crap like “Uptown Girl,” I sometimes worry that my equanimity won’t fire the forge quite as much as my earlier struggles did.

Whatever. I’m a big fan of equanimity. I’m also a big fan of writing and of parenting. My guess is I’ll find more to say.

26. More than we can handle

(Post 26 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

8:30 pm EDT

Q: I would like to know a Humanist version of the formerly comforting idea of “god doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. I have seem to hit a streak of challenging circumstances and am having trouble finding comfort in the thought that “everything is random and we have little to no control over what happens in our lives”. Any good Humanist ideas for getting someone though a tough spot and back into a positive mentality?

A: I’m so sorry to hear about your challenging circumstances. I can’t offer a humanist alternative to “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” and good riddance to it. It’s a shameful lie, and you don’t need that. Those who died at Auschwitz were given more than they could handle, and people every day, all around the world, suffer the same fate.

Fortunately “everything is random and we have little to no control over what happens in our lives” is also untrue. The history of humanity, especially in the 400 years since the Scientific Revolution, has been a gradual recognition that the world is neither divinely controlled nor is it random, and that mastering the patterns and gathering our resources around us can provide a greater sense of comfort, control, and satisfaction than passively hoping for God’s protection ever did.

The humanist response is to turn to other humans. All the support, protection, and encouragement we’ve ever had, including all that was credited to God all these years, has come from ourselves, especially the people around you who love and care for you. Don’t be afraid to ask.

25. Music to say bye-bye by

(Post 25 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

8:00 pm EDT

Hey, it’s your funeral again. Your family and friend are gathered in an appropriately non-liturgical setting.  This is your last chance to inflict your will on a captive audience.  You’re clasping your hands in anticipation.  There will be readings, poetry, maybe even a nice thing said by a loved one or two. Tears will be shed, since you died at the height of pollen season. A couple of singles will hook up — one of those circle-of-life things.

Your spouse and his/her date are there, looking at their watches. Your children are lined up in the front pew, grumbling about their grandchildren’s complete inability to control their grandchildren, who are running around the pew chasing after their own damn kids. Then, at last, the music begins.

So…what is it?

I’ve been a musician of one sort or another since I was ten, so when it comes to selecting music for an important event, the pressure is on. I picked the music for our wedding, and it worked, we’re still married. But what should I ask to have played at my funeral to be sure I stay dead?

If the idea is to somehow capture what I was all about and what I loved about being in the world for a while, the Gounod Ave Maria, while achingly lovely, won’t do. But I go back and forth on what will do. I need to put some thought into the music selection so my wife can spend the three days after my demise on eHarmony.com instead of my iTunes.

But first I want to hear your ideas. What do you want played at your funeral?

(By the way, as promised, this post has been written completely naked. Go back and see if you can tell. Then donate a lot of money to SSA, I’m out of gimmicks.)

24. Just say it

(Post 24 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

7:30 pm EDT

One of the challenges in Voices of Unbelief was the publishers desire (and a good one it is) to create an anthology of atheists and agnostics only — no heretics, no deists, no pantheists. So much for Jefferson, Paine, Voltaire, Einstein — probably half of the usual suspects in these anthologies. But that’s good, it gives it a really distinctive voice overall.

The challenge was made greater by the never-ending effort throughout history to disguise atheism, especially if the person in question was a good guy. If a person is described as “not very religious,” you might think that means “church every other Sunday,” when in fact it usually denotes an outright secular worldview, i.e. NOT RELIGIOUS.

One reference described Nietzsche as “skeptical of religion.” Nietzsche, skeptical? He killed God, for chrissakes! It’s like saying the U.S. killed Bin Laden because we were skeptical of al Qaeda.

So I finish my work day and settle down in bed to read Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield. Interesting book, learned a lot. And then I see John Baskerville (designer of the famous “John” font) described as “suspicious of religion.”

And what exactly the hell does it mean to be “suspicious of religion”? Whenever cookies went missing, he’d shoot a hard look at Buddha?

John Baskerville was not “suspicious of religion.” John Baskerville was an atheist. He went so far as to insist that his body be buried in unconsecrated ground, in his garden, under this epitaph:

Stranger
Beneath this cone in unconsecrated ground
a friend to the liberties of mankind
directed his body to be inhumed.
May the example contribute to emancipate thy mind
from the idle fears and superstitions
and wicked arts of priesthood.

 

Suspicious my eye. John Baskerville was an atheist.