What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
BERTRAND RUSSELL, in Sceptical Essays (1928)
here was a time when I was a quiet, closeted nonbeliever. It was a smallish moment that tipped me from passive disbelief to secular humanist activism. Not some Robertson/Falwell nonsense, nor a Bushism, not the abuse of children nor the disempowerment of women nor the endless throttling of science, not some reversal of social progress nor the spreading of ignorance and hatred and fear. These are all good reasons to become an activist, but the thing that tipped me was a simple moment of incuriosity.
My son Connor had always been a fantastically curious kid. I saw him once off by himself at the edge of our local wading pool, oblivious to a hundred other screaming, splashing kids, studying a tiny plant growing from a crack in the cement. For fifteen minutes. That’s my boy.
We had him in a Lutheran preschool, a great local program where he received a low-key, brimstone-free exposure to Judeo-Christian ideas and some early practice engaging those ideas with fearless curiosity. But there came a point, toward the end of his third and final year there, that I wondered if he had picked up something else.
One Sunday afternoon in April 2000, following him up the stairs of our home, I said, “Connor, look at you! Why are you growing so fast?”
“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “I guess God just wants me to grow.”
That reply would make a lot of parents all warm and woobly inside. Me, not so much. For me it was a sucker-punch to the heart. He had given his very first utterly incurious reply. He didn’t have to care or wonder about his own transformation from infancy to kidhood — he’d handed off the knotty question to God.
It kicked off a whole new phase in my life, that moment on the stairs. The next morning, the day after attending our Baptist church (for the last time), I dropped my son at his Lutheran preschool and headed off to my job at a Catholic college. When I got to work, I started posting timid quotations from nonbelievers on my office door with a sign inviting discussion, hoping to draw out debate or expressions of interest or even agreement from some of the closeted nonbelievers I knew were on campus.
Two years later, I published a satirical novel about a humanist professor at a Catholic college. A year after that, I came to blows with the college administration over free speech and hypocritical college policy. Three years after that I quit the job, and a year later Parenting Beyond Belief was born.
It all goes back to my allergic reaction to my son’s moment of bland incuriosity.
It was just a case of the intellectual sniffles for Connor. I’m sure he was back on his curious feet five minutes later. But it helped me to define one of the central values of my own life.
It’s not that religion is inherently incurious. Religion and science are both planted in the cortical freakishness that demands answers. It’s just that religion wants the answers it wants, while science wants the answers that are in the answer key. Also known as “the actual answers.”
Kids start off curious. Our job is to simply prevent it from being blunted by familiarity and passivity. I try to wonder aloud myself ( “I wonder why different trees turn different colors in the fall”) to keep my kids dissatisfied with the mere surface of things — the coolest stuff is behind the curtain, after all — and to always, always reward their curiosity with engagement, no matter how tired I am.
Not that I have to try all that hard. I have a house full of full-time wonderers, 100% distractable by their curiosity. Now that Becca’s teaching again, I’m the morning guy, and it only took a week or so for me to realize I can’t simply send Laney (7) upstairs after breakfast to put on her socks and shoes. When ten minutes pass and the bus is in view, I sprint up the stairs to find her engrossed in a book, tracing the rain on the window, or trying to sing while drinking water.
Saturday I watched the final game of her soccer season with Laney as goalie. When I saw the hot air balloon rising over the horizon, I knew without a doubt what would happen. Sure enough, five minutes later the balloon caught her eye, and she stood enchanted, unable to take her eyes from it as the ball sailed by and into the net.
Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but I imagine it’s responsible for more than a few easy goals.
Her body language and crimson face broke my heart. It took her several minutes to clear her head and wipe the tears from her eyes.
When we got into the car at the end, I didn’t say “you’ve got to focus on the game.” She got that message clearly enough, as she will all her life. Instead I asked if she saw that amazing hot air balloon.
She lit up. “It was awesome,” she said. “I wonder how they work?”