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

The born-again blog

I’m back, and there’s a new plan! — Jesus Christ

I launched this blog in March 2007 with an announcement about the upcoming release of Parenting Beyond Belief. I was 44, and my kids were 5, 9, and 11. We were living in Minnesota, getting ready to move to Atlanta. I’d quit my job as a professor at a Catholic college the previous year and was scraping by with a few freelance writing clients. For better and worse, I had time and some ideas that I hadn’t already said.

Half a million words later, a lot has changed. I’m turning 50 next month. My kids are 11, 15, and 17. I’m writing books pretty much continuously and running a charitable foundation, and I do a decent amount of traveling and speaking. I’m getting an unfair amount of fun and satisfaction out of all this stuff, but it means (obviously) I sometimes drop the blog and can’t find it in the leaves.

Busyness is only part of the problem. Now that I’m writing most of the day, I honestly get tired of my own voice, and I just can’t sit down and force out a blog post — at least not one worth reading. I find I can write about 2,000 good words a day. The next 500 are words, sure enough, but they mostly lay there, grinning up at me as they wallow in their own filth.

Then starting with #2501, every damn word makes me want to strangle myself with my own typewriter ribbon. Which is much harder than it used to be.

The pile of new topics and ideas was also enormous in the beginning. But after 600+ posts, I was starting to do donuts in the parking lot, which feels self-indulgent. The navel-gazing aspect of blogging has always made me a little nauseous (he blogged), but as long as I felt I had fresh things to say, I could handle it.

Even if I can’t manage new posts too often anymore, I’m sometimes glad to find that I still have this window to stand naked in when I need to. Like last year, when I wrote Atheism for Dummies. You all were incredibly helpful in grappling with some of those questions, which is why you get a collective shout in the Acknowledgements.

So here’s the new plan. In addition to the very occasional freestanding new post, the blog will now have three faces:

1. Book blog
When I’m working on a book, I’ll blog that process in short bursts, asking for your help when I need it. (There appears to be a new project coming, btw — stand by for news.)

2. Greatest hits
A lot of my old posts expand on ideas in my books, and I think about a third of them are worth rerunning, especially for those who haven’t read all 500,000 words quite yet. I’ll bring some of my favorites back.

3. Q&A
I get a steady stream of email questions, usually but not always about secular parenting. Instead of always answering offline, I’d like to invite y’all to ask questions or suggest topics using the new Ask a Question form in the sidebar. I won’t be able to answer them all, but I’ll pick a few and answer on the blog. Sky’s the limit on this one. Ask me anything.

Hopefully this will keep it fresh. Thanks for reading!

The A+ answer

I was interviewed very briefly on NPR’s On Point yesterday about moral development without religion. I managed to get my major point made — that moral development research shows that the process is aided more by a questioning approach than by passive acceptance of rules.

But I gave a B- response to his next question, which was basically, “Without the Bible, what books do you use to guide moral development?”

Like a second-rate interviewee, I accepted the premise of his question — that moral development has something to do with books or other static sources of insight. I jibbered something about a wide range of sources being available, from Aesop’s Fables to even religious texts read humanistically — The Jefferson Bible and all that.

The A+ answer (I scream at my yesterday self) is that it isn’t a book thing at all. Moral development research — Grusec, Nucci, Baumrind, the works — has shown that moral understanding comes first and foremost from peer interaction. That’s why kids start framing everything in terms of fairness around age five, right when most of them are starting to have regular, daily peer interactions — including the experience of being treated fairly and unfairly, and making choices about how they will treat others, and feeling the consequences of those choices.

There’s also a slice of humble pie for parents in that research. As much as we would like to think we’re inculcating morality into our kids, that’s mostly rubbish. Sorry. We have a role, we’re just not as central as we fancy ourselves to be. We can and should help kids process their experiences and articulate their thoughts about them, but it’s the experience itself that provides the main text from which they draw moral understanding — not us, and not a book.

So there’s my rewrite. Extra credit, at least?

Just do it?

(First appeared May 13, 2010)

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

garciaThe passage above is from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions — and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things