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.
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!
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.
“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.
The 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.
Answering awkward questions is an inevitable part of parenting: Where did I come from? Why doesn’t Santa ever die? Why is that lady so big?
Often, though, the toughest questions are about God and religion. For parents who are not religious, the holidays highlight those queries and at times make us second-guess our choices.
It’s one thing to be ambivalent about religion yourself, but as parents, we want to make sure we expose our children to as many different views as possible.
“It’s easy when you’re childless to sort of float and do what you think is right for you,” said Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief,” (Amacon, $17.95). “As soon as you have kids, all those questions come to the fore. A number of friends of mine were entirely nonreligious, but once they had kids, they felt that they ought to be going to church.”
Other parents have the added stress of trying to navigate a holiday of another faith, because Christmas is so pervasive this time of year.
“It’s hard,” said Esther Lederman, the associate rabbi at Temple Micah in the District. “If you’re a Jewish parent, you’re trying to make your child not feel bad that Santa isn’t coming to your house. ”
We spoke with McGowan and other experts about how to expose children to the religious traditions of the holidays without compromising your beliefs. Here are some of their suggestions.
Be honest about your doubts, and ask them what they think. The questions don’t need to cause anxiety for parents, McGowan said. Just be honest with your child and tell him that many people celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but you don’t. Then give him a chance to talk about what makes the most sense to him.
“They need to know that most of the people around them see the world through a religious lens,” said McGowan, who lives in Atlanta.
“Every time I make a statement about what I think is true, I let them know that others think differently and that they get to make up their own minds. It’s not necessary to put blinders on them and not let them see the religious aspect of the holidays. That would be strange.”
Take your children to religious services during the holidays. Andrew Park, the self-described “faith-free dad” who wrote “Between a Church and a Hard Place” (Avery, $26), says he and his wife take their children to services at different churches on Christmas Eve to expose them to a variety of faiths and customs.
“Christmas Eve is an opportunity to experience what religion means to people other than their parents,” said Park, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The greater the variety of the experiences, the better. It gives them context and understanding about religion. That’s powerful. Whether they become believers in a faith or not, having that understanding helps them become citizens of the world.”
Read biblical stories. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible as a literal text, many of the stories are still fascinating and can capture children’s imaginations. Read the story of Christmas and talk about it in the context of history or ancient mythology.
“There’s something about the Christian story that is very engaging to a kid,” Park said.
He also noted that his two children, ages 8 and 10, are starting to make connections between the practice of modern religion and the way it was practiced in ancient societies, how it’s portrayed in fantasy literature, and the role it has played in history.
Make it secular. Nothing says you have to observe Christmas or Hanukkah as religious holidays, McGowan said.
If you are ambivalent about religion, you can make the holidays a celebration of family and generosity. Or focus on the celebration of light, or Santa and cookies.
“What some parents find is they pop back into the church and it really doesn’t satisfy what they’re looking for, so they look for secular ways to fulfill those needs,” McGowan said. “They are looking for ways to have important landmarks in their lives or rites of passage, and there are lots of equivalents that are entirely humanistic: naming ceremonies for babies, coming of age ceremonies around age 13.”
It’s a ripping good cause. The humanist members and supporters of FBB have had an astonishing year. We raised over half a million dollars for 24 charities, including our first ever Light the Night drive for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. We expanded our network of humanist volunteer teams to 23 cities, and we’re poised to launch FBB affiliates in Australia and Canada. Next year we hope to double our membership, launch a new and improved website, and top $1 million in donations.
We make all that happen with a small, dedicated staff and a really reasonable budget. But the budget is still a positive number, and we rely on grants and direct donations to keep the lights on.
So here’s the deal: Join or donate to FBB during December, and for every $5 of membership level or $10 donation you give, you’ll be entered in a drawing for one of three signed, personalized copies of Voices of Unbelief.
Three reasons you just might want this book:
1. Most people will never own it.
It’s an expensive, large-format, high-quality hardcover, intended mostly for universities and libraries. The list price is $100 (and 0 < 100).
2. It’s unique.
The book is built around 47 documents by atheists and agnostics throughout history. In addition to the US and Europe, there are voices from Persia, Uganda, Nigeria, India, and China. The material includes essays, letters, journal entries, clandestine manuscripts, and even transcripts from Inquisition interrogations. Sure, it has Russell and Dawkins, but also Julia Sweeney and Mr. Deity.
3. It includes rare and never-before-published items.
Among several rarities, you’ve probably never read the amazing transcripts of Inquisition interrogations from the 14th century that are included -– because they’ve never been published before in English.
I’m not the first to suggest this possibility. But the eye roll I got from my 17-year-old son when I said it at dinner the other night could have cleared the dishes from the table. He’s currently soldiering through an AP Lit class in which the teacher earnestly insists that no cigar is ever, ever just a cigar. When one of the short stories they read described a red ovarian cyst in a jar, the teacher looked searchingly at the ceiling. “Red,” she said, drawing out the syllable and shaping her next thought with her hands. “Passion.”
“OR,” said my boy in the exasperated retelling, “red — the color of an ovarian cyst!!”
So I knew I was in for it when I claimed that The Wizard of Oz isn’t just a story about a girl and her weird dream.
But it isn’t.
Frank Baum (who wrote the book) was a religious skeptic and Ethical Culturist. Yip Harburg (who wrote the screenplay and songs) was an atheist. That doesn’t mean a thing by itself, of course. But it takes very little ceiling-gazing and hand-gesturing to see the Oz story as a direct reflection of a humanistic worldview.
Dorothy and her friends have deep, yearning human needs — for home, knowledge, heart and courage. When they express these needs, they’re told that only the omnipotent Wizard of Oz can fulfill them. They seek an audience with the Wizard, tremble in fear and awe, then are unexpectedly ordered to do battle with Sata… sorry, the Witch, who turns out pretty feeble in the end. (Water, seriously?)
When they return, having confronted their fears, the Wizard dissembles, and Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a mere human behind all the smoke and holograms — at which point they learn that all the brains, courage, heart, and home they sought from the Wizard had always been right in their own hands.
It’s really not much of a stretch to see the whole thing as a direct debunk of religion and a celebration of humanistic self-reliance. And as a bonus, Connor actually granted me the point.
A few reruns while I recuperate from finishing the book and spend time with the fam. Here’s one from October 2008.
“Hmm, okay, twenty-eight. Ooh, that’s a good one.”
Despite living with him for thirteen years, I knew very little about my dad. He worked three jobs and traveled a lot. When he was in town, he came home exhausted from a hundred-mile round-trip commute.
My mom spoke very little of him after he died, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other relatives while working full time.
I’ve often wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I keeled over today. The situation is different — I’m much more involved in my kids’ lives for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing myself and my life with my kids in a natural way.
About five or six years ago, without even meaning to, I found a way. We started a storytelling tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise: the kids pick an age (“Twenty-eight!”) and I tell about something that happened to me at that age. It’s become one of their favorite bedtime story options.
Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm, courtesy of my hobby at the time–walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (I stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (when I broke up with my first girlfriend and got dumped myself by the second one), 23 (my crushing fear and uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the cool job that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other famous types), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the studley Air Force pilot she was practically engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — really, at this point, just about everything – in between.
They know how I tricked a friend into quitting pot (for a night, anyway, at 15), the surreal week that followed my dad’s death (13), how I nearly cut off two fingers by reaching under a running lawnmower (17, shutup), my battles with the college where I taught (40), the time I was nearly hit by a train in Germany (38) and nearly blown off a cliff in a windstorm in Scotland (42).
Age stories can also open up important issues in an unforced way. Delaney happened to ask for “eleven” (the year my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA) right before her parents moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta — a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage, and the fact that I had held on to my bedpost the day of the move — and how well it turned out in the end. I wasn’t surprised when she asked for “eleven” again and again during that hard transition in her own life.
We’ve talked about love, lust, death, fear, joy, lying, courage, cowardice, mistakes, triumphs, uncertainty, embarrassment, and the personal search for meaning in ways that no lecture could ever achieve. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the middle-aged monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twentysomething, stumbling up the very path they’re on now.
And they keep coming back for more.
Give it a try. Make it dramatic. Include lots of details and dialogue. Have fun. Then come back here and tell us how it went.
Well, not really. Still have to write the front matter and Chapter 1 (called the “Dummies chapter”). And there’s still the four-week author review round, where I go through the whole manuscript annotated with the comments of three editors (technical, project, and development) and iron it out. But the hard part — the Creation — that’s done.
The end was pretty ugly, just pushing the words out. I seriously don’t want to hear the word atheist or any of its relatives again for three months.
Because I didn’t write the book in sequence, you’ll have to figure out which chapter I wrote last. It’s not terrible, just mundane. I’ll see if I can spackle some cracks in the review round, perk it up a bit. But overall, for a ten-month project done in four months, I think the book came out all right.
Thanks so much for your help. This blog will be quiet for a little while now. Please pull the door all the way shut on your way out. It sticks.
I’m finishing up the chapter on great works of atheism in the 21st century. One of the things I’m trying to offer is a way for the uninitiated to think about the books of the Four Horsemen — Harris (End of Faith), Dawkins (God Delusion), Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and Hitchens (God Ain’t All That). They tend to be lumped together, but they’re dramatically different in tone and approach.
One last question then:
Q: What insight would you offer the uninitiated reader about any or all of these four books?
It might be something that surprised or irritated you, a suggestion about which one to read first — anything at all.
As an example, I might make the point that Dawkins’s tone in TGD is a lot less contemptuous and angry than most people expect. I rank him third out of the four on the Contemptometer.
(These aren’t the only books I’ll be talking about, of course, but they’re the ones I’d like to have your thoughts on.)
I’m starting to appreciate the short timeline of this thing. Just 72 hours to go before the deadline, I can’t wait to be done. Not just because it’s monopolized my time and attention for four months, but because I’m driving myself crazy running up a sand dune.
This book is supposed to give a snapshot of atheism today (among many other things), but atheism won’t stand still. Every time I finish a chapter, there’s news that trumps what I wrote. I quoted the nonreligious numbers from ARIS in several chapters (15.1% of the US), only to have the Pew study bump that to 20%. I try to count the heads of SSA chapters and they keep growing new heads. I said there was one atheist in Congress. Then he lost his seat after 40 years. Then I found out an Arizona rep, Kyrsten Sinema, is an out atheist…but her race was too close to call. Then they called it, and she won. So there’s one atheist in Congress, but I have to change the name.
And what if John Boehner suddenly comes out?
It goes on like this. I have an errata sheet as long as my arm, and I can fix those during the author review period between now and December 18. But who knows how much will change by the time the book comes out in March?
It’s a good time to be writing about the movement. Much more exciting than it was even ten years ago. I’ll just have to insert the phrase “At this writing…” before every number, name, and fact in the damn thing.