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

Q: What’s so funny?

There’s a candy-apple chapter I’ve kept out of my reach until I finished my liver-on-a-bed-of-kale chapters. Oh they’re not bad, but they weren’t as much fun as some others — too complicated, too “important,” too full of stuff I HAD to include.

Now they’re done, and it’s time for dessert.

Part III is “Great Works of Atheism,” which could have been deadly. So instead of going in strictly historical order, I created a few chapters around themes. “Lost, Secret, Censored, and Forbidden Works” I’ve already finished, and “Deep Thoughts, Big Thinkers,” which handles most of the important warhorses. The 21st century to date gets its own chapter. But in the midst of all that is my favorite piece of candy: Chapter 12, “Laughing in Disbelief: Challenging the Divine with Humor.”

A lot of the most brilliant expressions of disbelief and challenges to religion have been satirical. I’ve written before about the connection between humor and thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by that. As soon as I finish laughing myself to tears over a line of Minchin or the picture at the top of this post, I start trying to figure out why it’s hysterical, and why the next line or the next parody photo isn’t.

The chapter includes Twain and Carlin, parody religions (FSM, Landover, Bokononism), music (like Tim Minchin), film (Life of Brian, The Invention of Lying), TV (Simpsons, South Park), web (Mr. Deity, Jesus and Mo), and more (The Onion). I’m never going to get to everything — even leaving out some of my own favorites — but lemme ask:

Q: What are some of your favorite examples of humor aimed at religion or atheism?

I love to count! Ah, ah, ah

I’m working on a chapter that gives a snapshot of atheism today — numbers, issues, activities, groups.

I start with a bit about how hard it is to get useful data on nonbelievers. First, there’s the stigma, which means many or most nonbelievers will not fess up when asked by a pollster. Then there are false negatives — if I say “Unitarian,” I’ll usually be counted as Christian, even though the majority of Unitarian Universalists are nontheistic of one stripe or another. And what about Buddhists, most of whom are also nontheistic? Are secular humanistic Jews counted as religious Jews by the poll? Since “Jewish” is usually a single category, yes. There’s also the form of the question, which varies from country to country, year to year, and poll to poll. Some ask about religious identity and others about religious belief. As the cultural Catholics of Quebec will tell you, ce n’est pas la même chose! And is the category “atheist” or “nonreligious” or “none”?

Apples and oranges and pears, oh my.

So although we have a pretty solid idea how many Mormons and Muslims and Methodists there are in the world, counting nonbelievers is like counting beads of mercury. While wearing plastic mittens. In the rain.

The best current guess puts people who do not believe in a supernatural God at around 16 percent of the world’s population – roughly 1.1 billion.

Ding! Have a nice weekend, folks.

Moral mash-up

Finished the dreaded morality chapter. Really a challenge, but I think it came out well. Here’s 9,000 words condensed to 200:

Don’t pinch a liberal or pee on a conservative. I’m good because I want people to like me, and eleven other reasons. I say Stalin and Torquemada are bad, and Quakers agree with me. Abolitionists and feminists impress me. And how helpful those shy Scandies are! When in doubt, the tie goes to the Big Guy, and despite evolution, there are few rapes on planes. Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the fittest, you know, and Herbert Spencer isn’t Charles Darwin. (He wishes.) Violent crime is lower than ever, so stop sending me emails. Cooperation’s more adaptive than mutual slaughter, go figure. There’s about the same percentage of Protestants in the federal pen as in the U.S. population, but thirty times fewer atheists than there should be. Why are people so (generally) good, and why do we think we’re so bad? We could kill each other with space lasers in Pardus, but we mostly don’t. Oxytocin and mirror neurons make me feel your pain, morality changes (thankfully) — and JESUS! did Jesus ever say a bad thing in Mark 7:9-13. Did you know obeying orders doesn’t make you moral? Carrots and sticks and Kohlberg levels, Golden Rules around the world, and most people turn out just fine, so relax.

There’s other stuff too.

(By way of explanation: Foundation Beyond Belief clinched $20,000 in the Chase grant competition. I’m a little lightheaded. *THANK YOU* for voting.)

Climbing out

Chasing the Chase grant continues, and thanks to all y’all, it looks like the Foundation is going to pull down a beautiful grant! More on that in a few days. Keep voting through Wednesday, please!

So a quick catchup on Dummies. It’s been an ugly two weeks since I turned in the 50 percent benchmark. It doesn’t help that I shoved several topical Hydras like morality and mortality into this quarter. The complexity isn’t the main problem, though — it’s making a complex thing simple, which this project demands. Cutting nine heads down to one. Which, if you know your Hydras, ain’t how it works.

It also didn’t help that my research (for a section on current controversies in the freethought movement) required me to spend a day diving deep into the insane vortex of poison currently swirling around women in the movement, especially a few key spokespeople. It continues to sicken and infuriate me, and though I’ve offered support in public and private ways, I still don’t feel it’s nearly enough.

For three days after the day I spent in that poison, I couldn’t write, at least not well. Hell, I could barely think. And still the clock ticked. I went back and read everything I’d written those three days, and it was garbage. I couldn’t tell why, just that it was.

It’s amazing how completely a writer can lose confidence by writing shit for a few days.

I finally figured out what was wrong — it was the voice. The content was okay, but all the heart had gone out of it, all the lightness, all the humor that this project requires, gone. I trashed about 15 pages, and (at the risk of falling even further behind) took a few days off to focus on the Chase competition.

I’m back now, writing really well and quickly. Goody for me. But what about the women who’ve been marinating in that poison for a year? Can you imagine what it’s done to them?

Now it’s getting serious

Just five days until I can get back to telling you about Atheism for Dummies. But first, I need your help with a problem.

Foundation Beyond Belief means the world to me. You know that. I want to see it succeed in expanding the reach and impact of compassionate humanism around the world. It’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done.

You may also know that we’re in the running for a Chase Community Giving grant that would completely transform our work. But today, after several good days, we’re slipping in the ranks. This is serious. So I’m asking, from the bottom of my heart: If you haven’t voted yet, we really, really need you. Can you take a minute to help us out?

If any of my books have been helpful to you, this would be the best possible way to say thanks right now. And while you’re there, consider sharing to your Facebook page. Thank you!

Cast your vote

UPDATE 15 Sept. 8:00 pm: After an incredible surge on Friday, we’re rising again and are now just 96 votes away from the $50,000 grant. Thanks for taking the time to make this happen! Voting ends September 19.

What we do

Thanks to your votes, Foundation Beyond Belief is now #54 in the Chase Community Giving competition with seven days to go. That means we’re in striking distance of a $50,000 grant.

This grant would completely transform our ability to focus and encourage generosity and compassion in the atheist and humanist community. Since our launch, we’ve created a network of 18 volunteer teams across the U.S and raised nearly half a million dollars for charities around the world. Here’s the idea:

The video’s out of date — in fact, a new video is one of many things a grant would buy. We’d also double the size of our Volunteer network, redesign our website to better tell the stories of the outstanding charities we support, and much more.

I’m really proud to do this work, and I want to do it better. This grant will help immensely. All we need are clicks!

Please take just a moment to vote for FBB in the Chase Community Giving competition

FBB needs your clicks!

This is so big — and so, so easy.

Foundation Beyond Belief is one of several thousand charities nominated for a Chase Community Giving grant. Two hundred charities will win grants of $10,000 to $250,000 based entirely on public votes. Voting has begun, and we are currently #67. If we stay there, we’ll earn $25,000, an amount that would completely transform our ability to put humanist compassion to work next year. Just 150 votes would launch us to #45, which is $50,000.

This is HUGE.

Please take a moment to click the link, approve the annoying app, and cast your vote for Foundation Beyond Belief. If you can share with your friends, that’s gravy. Voting ends September 19, so I’m afraid I’ll be a pest for nine more days.

VOTE FOR FBB!

UPDATE 9:00pm: When I posted this we were at 442 votes and #67. We’re now at 607 and #57. If you’ve voted, please click the link to return to your vote page and share the link from there!

Q: Where is the story of disbelief most interesting?

In the middle of Chapter 14 now and having a ball. It’s a kind of snapshot chapter — lots of stats and facts about religious disbelief today, including the way it presents differently around the world. Like:

China and India, where the environment for atheism has been relatively relaxed for thousands of years
Norway (et al.), where most people are non-believing Lutherans and the state church just (mostly) disestablished itself voluntarily
Québec, which in 40 years went from the most religious province in Canada (and 83 percent Catholic) to the least religious province in Canada…and still 83 percent Catholic
California, which in 30 years went from part of the “Unchurched Belt” to the middle of the pack in religious identity, largely because of the influx of Catholic Hispanics
The UK, of course, which underwent such a rapid secularization after WWII that they had to create a National Health Service to deal with all the whiplash
• The fact that urban-rural is overtaking all other variables in the secular-religious split

You get the picture. I’m trying to draw out these interesting narratives in short spurts. So

Q: Do you know of any interesting stories of the rise, fall, or other change in nonreligious identity at the national or local level, anywhere in the world?

Vermont, you went from 13% nonreligious to 34% in 20 years. Got to be a story there. Also wondering about Uganda for a half dozen reasons. I’m especially interested in the global South, but anything interesting will do. Just a few sentences and a link if appropriate. Thanks!

The two day neural dump

I’ve always found the physicality of thought really interesting — that my ideas and memories take a physical, electrical form in my head. When I’m mentally exhausted, my head actually hurts, like an overused muscle. And when I’ve done too much complex thinking in a short time, it feels like my head is physically constipated.

That was Monday for me. I was going balls out* for the last week of this 50% benchmark, and when I got to the last chapter for that deadline — Chapter 17, “Being an Atheist in a Religious World” — I was just completely spent. Constipated. I got the chapter written, but it didn’t pop, at all. I could see that through the fog, but couldn’t see how to fix it. At all.

I turned it in, knowing there’s another round for author revisions later, then took two days off. And here’s the thing: no matter how fried and exhausted I am, that’s what it takes to fix me. Not a month, not a week — two days. I’ve seen this over and over. Whenever I hit a wall after a huge project and think I’ll need two weeks to recover, I’m back in two days.

Yesterday I looked at Chapter 17 again and my brain instantly saw what it needed. I rewrote it in an afternoon. And it pops.

Maybe it’s the standard time required for a neural dump. Anybody else have that two-day thing going?

*Origin of the phrase “going balls out.” You thought it meant what?!

Honey, there are no coincidences! Oh wait…I just thought of several

I experienced a cosmic circle of coincidence today. Working on a section about meaning in Atheism for Dummies, I suddenly remembered a Jehovah’s Witness at my door in Minnesota in 2006. “You’re an atheist?” she gasped. “So then…you think your children are just…a bunch ofprocesses?”

This brought to mind a great passage from an essay by Adam Lee, including this:

Theists…deride the atheist viewpoint as entailing that human beings are “just matter” or “just chemicals”. However, the fact is that we are not “just” any of those things, any more than a house is “just bricks” or a book is “just words”. Houses are made of bricks and books are made up of words, but not every arrangement of bricks constitutes a house, nor is every arrangement of words a book.

Just as this arrangement of words was leaping into my book, a knock at the door.

Witnesses!