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

Catch the rainbow

A golden oldie. First appeared in October 2011.

Our family has a longstanding relationship with the speed of light. We take care never to exceed it, for one thing, no matter how tempting. But there’s more than that.

I had all sorts of light-related fascinations when I was a kid — that light had a speed at all, for starters, and that it was so unimaginably fast, yet also finite and measurable. I knew the moon was a light-second away, the sun eight light-minutes, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, 4.2 light years. I knew the Milky Way, one galaxy of billions, is 100,000 light years side to side.

Light helped me finally grasp the real immensity of the universe and my own infinitesimalitude.

Light is SO much faster than (pfft) sound — almost a million times faster — which is why lightning is already kicking back with a light beer when thunder comes panting up behind.

This stuff gave me endless fodder for discussion on first dates. It also neatly took care of second dates.

When it came time to marry, I limited the pool to those with no more than two degrees of separation from the speed of light. Fortunately my college friend Becca attended the same high school as Nobel laureate Albert Michelson, he of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which laid the groundwork for special relativity by showing that light weirdly measures at the same speed even if you are moving rapidly toward or away from the source.

Becca and I were married in a San Francisco Lutheran church with You-Know-What streaming through the windows.

Our kids have picked up the thread. As we drove home from his football practice four six years ago, Connor (then 12) asked why time slows down as you go faster. (The previous week we had discussed the very cool Hafele-Keating experiment in which cesium clocks flown around the world differed from identical clocks on the ground by a few nanoseconds. I think I spotted the exact moment during the practice that he was thinking about Hafele-Keating instead of Offensive-Lineman.) I said our velocity through space plus our velocity through time equals the speed of light, so the faster you go through space, the slower you necessarily go through time.

In less than five seconds, he said, “So light doesn’t experience time, then.”

Holy buckets. I’d never thought of it.

A few years later, standing in the dark waiting for the school bus, I discovered that I’d never shared with Delaney (then 9) the insanely cool fact that many of the stars we see probably aren’t there anymore. Some may have blinked out before the dinosaurs went extinct, but the end of the column of photons, even at 186,000 miles a second, still hasn’t reached us. Tomorrow morning we might suddenly see a “new,” bright star in the sky, which is actually a nova that happened millions of years before. That’s what nova literally means — a new star. But it isn’t really being born — it’s dying.

She made all those astonished, comprehending sounds I’ve come to love, and we quickly re-combed her hair as the bus pulled up.

On the heels of last month’s the 2011 announcement that the speed of light might have been exceeded by neutrinos at CERN, Becca took the opportunity to give her second graders a little insight into how science works. “All these years we thought light was the fastest thing possible,” she said. “Even Albert Einstein said that was true. Now maybe, just maybe, scientists have found that it’s possible for something to go even faster. First they have to test and test again to be sure, and if it is, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we were wrong. We have to change our minds.'”

It’s true that we’re capable of upending our Newtons and Einsteins when the evidence insists, but of course it never happens quite as gladly as we sometimes claim. Individual scientists are just as prone as the rest of us to kick and scream and bite to protect their favorite conclusions, until the collective enterprise of science itself busts them upside the head. The important message for these second graders, though, is that science contains the ability, the means, even the willingness to change its conclusions in light of new evidence, despite whatever preferences individual scientists might have. (The CERN scientists assumed they made an error in measurement, by the way, something that has happened before — and a team in the Netherlands think they’ve found the error.)

All this light conversation brought me back to experiments I conducted around age seven, just inside my front door in St. Louis, Missouri. The edge of the glass on our front storm door was beveled, which formed a little prism, which at a certain time of day threw a tiny, intense rainbow on the floor.

I decided I was going to catch that rainbow. In a shoebox.

In what may be a perfect illustration of the seven-year-old mind, I knew that I would have to move faster than light to do this, but had not received the memo specifically prohibiting such a thing.

I found a shoebox and held it above the rainbow. I slowed my breathing and concentrated…then CLOMP! brought the box down on the rainbow.

Too slow. The damn thing was on top of the box.

I’d do this for a good half hour at a time before giving up — but only for that day. I remember thinking maybe light was a little slower in the winter, which was why it was colder then. So I tried in January. Even then, it was always just a liiiittle faster than I was, and the rainbow appeared on top of the box.

I eventually gave up my dream of catching the rainbow. But these experiments at CERN have given me hope. I just need to find a box made of neutrinos, and I’m back in the game.

The Southern Baptist cafeteria

An ongoing series of posts while I’m writing In Faith and In Doubt, a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

trayA few weeks ago I wrote about the difference between official Catholic doctrine and the actual beliefs of most Catholics. Later on I’ll write about the wide variation in nonreligious beliefs. Today it’s a quick peek in the Southern Baptist cafeteria.

There’s a Southern Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas that holds the Letter of Baptism for my wife Becca. She was willingly baptized into the church as an adult in 1990, the year before our wedding, with her fiancé in attendance.

She was not a Mainline Protestant when we married — by affiliation, she was a Protestant Evangelical. If she ascribed to every piece of the denomination’s creed, the Baptist Faith and Message, we could still easily have been friends, but I doubt we would have dated, much less married. She agreed with many elements of that creed, but the Baptist Faith and Message includes a few important things that I was pretty sure Becca wouldn’t ever have endorsed, any more than I would endorse every tweet of Richard Dawkins.

I printed out the BF&M and asked Becca which of its positions she remembered holding true at that time, and which she would have rejected. Here’s a sample of her response:

She believed there is only one God and that he is perfect, all-powerful, and all-knowing. But she never believed that man brought sin into the human race by disobedience, nor that “as soon as [people] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

She believed that Christ was the son of God, but not that he was born of a virgin, nor that salvation is available only through him achat cialis.

She did not agree that “all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”

She did believe that baptism is “the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus,” as well as a testimony to “faith in the final resurrection of the dead.”

But she didn’t believe it is “the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ” to evangelize others to the faith.

She agreed that “Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice,” “work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick,” and “do all in their power to put an end to war.” But she did not agree that homosexuality is a form of “sexual immorality,” that Christians should “speak on behalf of the unborn,” nor that the strict definition of marriage should be “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

One of the statements of the Baptist Faith and Message that surprises outsiders (and insiders, come to that) is clear support for church-state separation. “Church and state should be separate,” it says, and “the state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind.” She agreed.

As for marriage and parenting, she never believed that it was her place to “submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” nor that she had “the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

The contents of her cafeteria tray made her a perfect representative of the Evangelical Left, who affirm the basics (atonement, incarnation, resurrection) but reject the conservative social platform of the evangelical churches.

The moral of the story? Aside from the God-and-Jesus theological frame, my own tray of humanist values and beliefs wasn’t all that different from Becca’s. And when she dumped theology off her tray nine years ago, most of her values stayed put.

The cover

I really wondered what direction the publisher would go for this cover, and once again, the design team at AMACOM Books did me proud.

IFAIDcoverEvery cover design process gives me hives. So far they’ve all turned out really well: The non-praying mother-child hands of Parenting Beyond Belief, the curious kid on Raising Freethinkers, the solo questioner on Voices of Unbelief, and the nautilus on Atheism For Dummies… So many ways to go wrong on these topics, and every time they’ve gotten it right.

But for this one, I didn’t even know what to recommend to them. How do you capture the religious side of the topic without evoking a specific religion? How do you depict the nonreligious side? I didn’t want any cheese-bag thing like one person standing outside of a church, holding hands with someone inside. I wanted something that included people without being heteronormative. Racial diversity. Positive. Interesting. Something that evoked warmth and affection and normalcy without being boring. Some reference to parenting would be good, since so many of the issues relate to that.

I gathered my notes over the course of several weeks. Then suddenly my editor sent the cover you see here, saying, “Here’s the jacket. I hope you like it!”

Wha…here’s the jacket?! My heart sank. I steeled myself to roll back a creative process that had already run its course without me.

I clicked on the attachment…and fell in love.

Crafty buggers. They skirted the questions about depicting religion by not depicting religion, or irreligion. You don’t have to — it’s in the title! It never would have occurred to me to do that, which is why design is best left to designers.

It’s interesting, fun, warm, informal, personal, affectionate. The anonymity is awesome. Didn’t get racial diversity, but it’s at least deniably heteronormative.

I’m happy. Onward.

Back from the Hack

hackedWell that was nasty. As some of you were kind enough to point out, my blog was infected with the dreaded Pharma Hack, which loads the site with invisible links to trick search engines into thinking the companies on the other end of those links are All That. The hacked site gets flagged by Google as “compromised.” Hilarity ensues.

The fix is complicated, requiring the help of someone who knows things. I called my fella, and now it’s fixed.

Content resumes tomorrow.