Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Screwing with Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote a terrific book. Loved it the first time I read it, then read it twice more. And the more I read it, the more I liked it. Just super.

Not everyone feels the same about this book. Some were so disturbed by what he wrote that they cut whole passages out before its publication. Most people didn’t get to read the book in its complete and original form until 1958, when the excised passages were restored.

What? No no, not that Darwin book. I’m talking about his Autobiography.

Darwin sat down to write his autobiography in May 1876, “as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult,” he added, “for life is nearly over with me.” He apparently knew this from a line on the title page he had just written: Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Chills.

The idea to write a sketch of his life came from Julius Victor Carus, a zoologist in Leipzig who had translated the Origin into German and needed some bio-bits from Darwin for an encyclopedia entry. Ten years later, Darwin decided to write “recollections of the development of my mind and character,” driven in part by realizing “that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather [Erasmus Darwin] written by himself, and what he though and did and how he worked.”

He also said he thought the attempt at such a thing “would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.” Ironic, since it was one of his children who was to serve as the slicer-dicer of Charles’s recollections, and one of his children’s children who made it whole again.

The Autobiography first appeared publicly as part of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis, a.k.a. Frank, and published in 1887.

Dear Frank is our villain in this tale, his father’s own Lord Braybrooke. But the more you learn about why Francis Darwin did what he did, the harder it is to fault him too thoroughly. Unlike Braybrooke’s flaying of Pepys’ Diary, Frank acted out of primary concern for the reputation of the author, his father, and the strongly expressed wishes of his mother Emma. Usually an author’s desires are plenty clear — he or she wrote the words he wanted included. But there was some disagreement about whether Darwin ever intended to publish his Autobiography, which does complicate the sorting of intent.

It got nasty. In the five years between Darwin’s death and the publication of the Autobiography, the Darwin family tore itself up over what should appear and not appear in the book. At one point, one wing of the family considered suing the other.

So Frank did his best. Then 71 years later, with the principals in the original fight all safely dead, his niece did better.

In its original unbuggered form, the Autobiography was a genuine page-turner, full of the kind of keen observation that made Darwin Darwin. Instead of the natural world, Darwin’s eye and mind are turned on himself and those around him, as well as the sometimes agonizing and deeply honest development of his own opinions. He says both flattering and unflattering things about people living and dead and expresses opinions both kosher and heretical.

In its buggered form, Darwin is an undiscerning dodderer. He likes everybody and everything just fine, especially those alive at the time of publication. (That’s right — in an interesting reversal, the dead are the only ones of whom Frank allows his dad to speak ill.) And the wonderfully complicated ebb and flow of his opinions on religion is reduced to a hazy, misleading mumble in favor of the status quo.

Fortunately for me, it was Nora’s edition that reached me first, which is probably why I read it more than once. But I wasn’t fully aware of its tortuous history until much more recently.

Portrait of a Book-Buggering

1573928348An incredible ability to pay attention may have been Darwin’s defining characteristic. This was the guy who found it possible to study barnacles for eight years straight. That superhuman ability to observe and notice was surely the reason he was able to figure out the puzzle of natural selection. And as a result of this well-honed ability, the original Autobiography is just bursting with sharp observations of the people around him.

Sir Frank’s version? Eh, nassomush.

I’ll focus on four of my favorite passages from the original. First there’s Darwin on himself, a childhood memory:

About this time [age eight], or as I hope at a somewhat earlier age, I sometimes stole fruit for the sake of eating it; & one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, & was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighbouring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather large flower-pot, & by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches & plums, which fell into the pot & the prizes were thus secured. When a very little boy I remember stealing apples from the orchard, for the sake of giving them away to some boys & young men who lived in a cottage not far off, but before I gave them the fruit I showed off how quickly I could run & it is wonderful that I did not perceive that the surprise & admiration which they expressed at my powers of running, was given for the sake of the apples. But I well remember that I was delighted at them declaring that they had never seen a boy run so fast!

That fun bit of Charlie candor was entirely cut, lest the world learn that he picked fruit that wasn’t his when he was eight.

He had this to say about Charles Lyell, one of his greatest influences:

Charles_Lyell2

Charles Lyell

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. On such occasions, while absorbed in thought, he would throw himself into the strangest attitudes, often resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Frank removed the best part of that one – Lyell’s quirk with the chair. See how it reads without that:

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzngk.

In one long passage, Charles offers incisive character sketches of a half dozen colleagues and friends:

brown

Robert Brown

[Scottish botanist Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy. He was rather given to sneering at anyone who wrote about what he did not fully understand: I remember praising Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences to him, and he answered, “Yes, I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books.”

Oh, snap!

owen

Richard Owen

I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer, who was a charming man, had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day,” and so it has proved.

hooker

Joseph Hooker

At a somewhat later period I became very intimate with [botanist Joseph Dalton] Hooker, who has been one of my best friends throughout life. He is a delightfully pleasant companion & most kind-hearted. One can see at once that he is honourable to the back-bone. His intellect is very acute, & he has great power of generalisation. He is the most untirable worker that I have ever seen, & will sit the whole day working with the microscope, & be in the evening as fresh & pleasant as ever. He is in all ways very impulsive & somewhat peppery in temper; but the clouds pass away almost immediately. He once sent me an almost savage letter for a reason which will appear ludicrously small to an outsider, viz. because I maintained for a time the silly notion that our coal-plants had lived in shallow water in the sea. His indignation was all the greater because he could not pretend that he should ever have suspected that the Mangrove (and a few other marine plants which I named) had lived in the sea, if they had been found only in a fossil state. On another occasion he was almost equally indignant because I rejected with scorn the notion that a continent had formerly extended between Australia & S. America. I have known hardly any man more lovable than Hooker.

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TH Huxley

A little later I became intimate with Huxley. His mind is as quick as a flash of lightning & as sharp as a razor. He is the best talker whom I have known. He never writes & never says anything flat. Given his conversation no one would suppose that he could cut up his opponents in so trenchant a manner as he can do & does do. He has been a most kind friend to me & would always take any trouble for me. He has been the mainstay in England of the principle of the gradual evolution of organic beings. Much splendid work as he has done in Zoology, he would have done far more, if his time had not been so largely consumed by official & literary work, & by his efforts to improve the education of the country.

He would allow me to say anything to him: many years ago I thought that it was a pity that he attacked so many scientific men, although I believe that he was right in each particular case, & I said so to him. He denied the charge indignantly, & I answered that I was very glad to hear that I was mistaken. We had been talking about his well-deserved attacks on Owen, so I said after a time, “How well you have exposed Ehrenberg’s blunders;” he agreed and added that it was necessary for science that such mistakes should be exposed. Again after a time, I added: “Poor Agassiz has fared ill under your hands.” Again I added another name, & now his bright eyes flashed on me, & he burst out laughing, anathematising me in some manner. He is a splendid man & has worked well for the good of mankind.

herschel

Sir John Herschel

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to. He was very shy & he often had a distressed expression. Lady Caroline Bell, at whose house I dined at the C. of Good Hope, admired Herschel much, but said that he always came into a room as if he knew that his hands were dirty, & that he knew that his wife knew that they were dirty.

That priceless passage, including some of the best available portraits of these guys, was reduced by Frank Darwin to this yawny blob of paste:

[Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy.

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to.

Gah!

Finally, a passage that captured the personality of two major figures of the time and illustrated one of the human foibles Darwin disliked most — the craving for status and glory:

buckland

Rev. Wm Buckland

All the leading geologists were more or less known by me, at the time when geology was advancing with triumphant steps. I liked most of them, with the exception of [geologist and minister The Very Rev. William] Buckland who though very good-humoured & good-natured seemed to me a vulgar & almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science. He was not, however, selfish in his desire for notoriety; for Lyell, when a very young man, consulted him about communicating a poor paper to the Geol. Soc. which had been sent him by a stranger, & Buckland answered — “You had better do so, for it will be headed, ‘Communicated by Charles Lyell’, & thus your name will be brought before the public.

murchThe services rendered to geology by Murchison by his classification of the older formations cannot be over-estimated; but he did not possess a philosophical mind. He was very kind-hearted & would exert himself to the utmost to oblige anyone. The degree to which he valued rank was ludicrous, & he displayed this feeling & his vanity with the simplicity of a child. He related with the utmost glee to a large circle, including many mere acquaintances, in the rooms of the Geolog. Soc. how the Czar Nicholas, when in London, had patted him on the shoulder & had said, alluding to his geological work — “Mon ami, Russia is grateful to you,” & then Murchison added rubbing his hands together, “The best of it was that Prince Albert heard it all.” He announced one day to the Council of the Geolog. Soc. that his great work on the Silurian system was at last published; & he then looked at all who were present & said, “You will every one of you find your name in the Index,” as if this was the height of glory.

The whole passage was cut. Everything.

I could go on and on. Over two dozen passages like these were cut out of the Autobiography, draining much of the color and humanity out of Darwin’s self-portrait.

The reason we know what was cut is that granddaughter Nora Barlow painstakingly listed the formerly excised passages in the back of her 1958 edition, about which more shortly. I do understand Frank’s impulse, even though all of these people were dead at the time of publication except Huxley. But I am terribly grateful for Barlow’s work.

It wasn’t the character sketches that put the Darwins at each other’s throats, though. It was the question of whether Charles Darwin’s description of the development of his own religious doubt should see the light of day.

Hiding Darwin’s Religious Opinions

I had a passing knowledge of evolution in high school. Better than the average bear, but still sketchy. I majored in physical anthropology at Berkeley not for the dazzling job prospects but to fill in that sketch.

In addition to changing and deepening my understanding of what it means to be human, a fuller grasp of human evolution led me to wonder how traditional religion could in any significant way be made to fit with what we now know. (See earlier post.) And I remember wondering what Darwin thought about that.

He was seriously religious as a young man, even trained for ministry and annoyed his Beagle shipmates with fundamentalist pronouncements. If, after the Galapagos and the Origin and The Descent of Man, Darwin was still a conventionally religious man, I knew I must have really missed something. So I picked up Darwin’s Autobiography in my senior year to find out.

Nora Barlow

If I’d picked up the 1887 edition by his son Francis, published five years after Charles died and reissued many times since, I’d have been puzzled but chastened. He doesn’t get into religion much at all in that one, and when he does, he seems to mostly affirm his ongoing conventional beliefs. And I would almost certainly have never looked further.

Fortunately it was the 1958 edition by Charles’s granddaughter Nora that found me. As mentioned above, Nora restored the bits that the earlier edition had expunged under pressure from Charles’s wife Emma. Nora was able to do this because all of the family members who’d nearly come to blows over what to leave in and what to leave out were now demised.

If I’d read the first edition, I might have imagined a man with religious convictions essentially intact. Some side-by-side passages, with cut passages in red:

FIRST EDITION (1887)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted.

RESTORED EDITION (1958)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. [It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.]

A 12-page section titled “Religious Beliefs” underwent the most vigorous edits. The bracketed red text was omitted from the first edition:

During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. [But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.]

It’s sometimes fascinating to see what Emma insisted be struck out and what she allowed in. She bracketed a portion of the following passage for deletion — the red below — but allowed the admission of disbelief in the first part:

I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress [and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.]

It’s not even his conclusion but the strength of his confidence that apparently unnerved his wife. As for the damnation, she wrote in the margin

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief–but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there).

Tho’ the words are there. And 130 years later, the damnable words in the Bible are still there. Some books dodge the red pen more easily than others.

Francis oversaw an even more abbreviated 1892 American edition in which the entire 12 pages exploring Charles’s religious beliefs are replaced with a single bracketed fib:

[After speaking of his happy married life, and of his children, he continues:]

Jaysus. That Ninth Commandment is always the hardest.

Yet if you look hard enough, in all but the God-Bless-America edition, you can find one quiet sentence in which Darwin was allowed to clearly state his actual theological conclusions. Like Huxley, he utterly rejected belief in the claims and doctrines of Christianity, but said

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

The distortion of Darwin’s views continued for years. One of the most galling attempts was by Lady Elizabeth Hope, an evangelist who published a fabricated story in 1915 claiming to have heard Darwin renounce evolution and embrace Jesus on his deathbed. Francis redeemed his editorial self brilliantly. “Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317,” he wrote to a publisher in 1918. “I was present at his deathbed,” said Charles’s daughter Etty. “Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. …The whole story has no foundation what-so-ever.”

Etty’s niece Nora eventually put the pieces back together, but the genie never goes all the way back in. Several of the bestselling versions of Darwin’s Autobiography on Amazon are still the Francis Darwin edition.

Thanks for trying, Nora.

Age Stories: How My Kids Met Me One Year at a Time

“Twenty-eight!”

“Hmm, okay, 28. Ooh, that’s a good one.”

Despite living with him for 13 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. I didn’t even know he was a nonbeliever until long after his death at 45.

My mom spoke very little of him, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of working full-time while raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other family.

I’ve wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I died today. The situation is different — I’m more involved in their lives than my dad was able to be in mine, for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing my life with my kids that was natural and unforced.

At some point, without even meaning to, I found a way, starting a tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise: At bedtime, in addition to books or songs, the kids could pick an age (“Twenty-eight!”) and I would tell them about something that happened to me at that age. For a long time it was one of their favorite bedtime options.

Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm from walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (broke up with my first girlfriend and got dumped by the second one), 23 (my crushing uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the strange and cool job in LA that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other celebs), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the Air Force pilot she was allllmost engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — eventually 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, shut up), my battles with the administration of the Catholic 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 11 — my age when my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA — right before we moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta. It was a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage at 11, and the fact that I 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 said “11” 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 manage. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the aging monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twenty-something, 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.

Endings

[Reposted from January 2008.]

An animated video of a kiwi with a dream nabbed “Most Adorable” in the 2007 YouTube Awards, along with 14 33 million views to date. As you’ll see, there’s something more profound going on here than mere adorability:

My kids all loved it. Connor watched it again and again, sorting out the implications of and emotions around the kiwi’s decision.

This morning Erin asked to see it again, and I got her on the YouTube page. She watched it once, then clicked on one of the video responses that popped up. Suddenly she was clapping and woohooing.

“What happened?” I asked.

“THE KIWI LIVES!” she crowed. “He doesn’t die at the end! He LIVES!!”

I walked to the computer, puzzled. She replayed what she had just watched. Somebody had done a 15-second remake of the ending:

Most interesting of all are the comments on that one — mostly irate, convinced (as I am) that this revised ending robs the original of its poignancy and power. I agree, but I LOVE what it reveals about the human inability to accept, or even think about, death.

In addition to death itself, the original raises issues about the right to die, the consequences of free will, the power of the creative spirit, and the dangerous beauty of singleminded dreams. It’s incredibly rich and provocative. If instead you prefer a dose of denial with your entertainments, the revision’s for you.

Or, if you prefer no remnant of redeeming features, there’s this:

Scooby meets The Shining

Back from an EPIC two-week family vacation in California, probably our last big trip as a family unit.

We ended in Yosemite, the most sock-off-knocking place on Earth, staying outside of the park in the tiny Gold Rush town of Coulterville at the Hotel Jeffery. It was an unmissable opportunity. The Jeffery, you see, is haunted. In my enthusiasm for the idea, I even booked Room 22, “the most haunted room in the hotel.”

Right after I booked and paid for it, I ran and told the kids about this fun thing I’d done, thinking they’d jump up and down. What a putz. Connor (16) thought it was cool, but the girls pretty much jumped up and down on my head.

“What were you THINKING?!” Laney asked. “Seriously, Dad, jeez!”

“Well most of the hotels near the park are already booked!” I said defensively. “And this one had a lot of rooms available, and they’re uh…they’re cheap.”

“Gosh I wonder why.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me. My kids have a healthy skepticism, partly because I’ve been pulling their legs continually since birth. (Hey, they were having a hard time out of the canal.) But their well of experience and reading and thinking about the supernatural isn’t much deeper than mine was at their ages, and I would NOT have jumped at this chance if my dad had come up with it. Hell no. I’ve worked it all out since then, so I no longer register more than a distant, limbic twinge at this stuff. Oh yes, still that.

But I’d already handed over my gold nuggets for the rooms, so we were going to be staying at the Jeffery. But to avoid a revolt in the parking lot, I knew I’d have to offer the girls something from my own well.

My biggest breakthrough in thinking about religion was realizing I didn’t have to search for the deity to decide whether I believed; I just had to look at the reasons other people believed and decide whether they were any good. (SPOILER ALERT: Nope.) The same thing works with the paranormal. So before the trip, I showed Erin and Delaney the first two minutes of this video:

“Oh, please!” Laney said when the door opened (1:30). Erin laughed with relief. Now they were dipping into their own wells of experience. Both of them grew up in a 115-year-old Victorian house in Minnesota. Like the Jeffery, none of our door frames were quite squared, and the slightest change of air pressure would cause a door to drift open, even if you couldn’t feel it. The silliness of somebody else’s evidence helped their concerns melt away. “You’re just people like us in the universe” became one of the catch phrases of our trip.

So I thought we were done. Oy, putz!

The last leg of the trip arrived. We drove straight from LA and pulled up in front of the Jeffery, which has a very cool, fairly authentic, unpolished feeling. Gaudy wallpaper, dim lighting. Wood creaks and paint peels. No check-in counter — you get your keys from the bartender at the period saloon downstairs, which was nicely filled with bikers. And upstairs we went.

The doors of unoccupied rooms are left ajar. Of the 22 rooms in the hotel, 22 were ajar. We were the only guests for the night, and we had one room on each of the two floors — at opposite ends. Becca noticed there were no phones. And we hadn’t had cell reception for twenty miles. This was getting good.

And then it got better. Once the saloon emptied out, even the staff left. Locked the door and left. We were now the only people in the building.

Despite all this, and the sun going down, everybody was still fine fine fine…until Becca opened a little black case we’d been given with the key for Room 22. It was a ghost detection kit, with instruments like a “GaussMaster electromagnetic field meter,” a motion detector, and a laser thermometer.

Delaney had been sitting on the bed, reading the instructions, which she slowly lowered into her lap.

“I don’t want to do this.”

All of her earlier fear was right back on her face. It’s easy to dismiss mediums cooing over a door that opens by itself — literally kid’s stuff. But this looked an awful lot like science.

I wasn’t going to force her to do it, of course. But I also thought we should try to defuse her fears before the lights went out.

I picked up the instructions and read. “Hmm. Um hmm. Looks all official and sciencey.” She nodded. “Well there’s a word for that. It’s called pseudoscience. Guess what ‘pseudo’ means.”

“I dunno.”

“Fake,” I said. “Pseudoscience means fake science. Something pretending to be science that isn’t.”

Now this was interesting. From nothing more than that, she suddenly looked visibly relieved. Not completely, but better. Somehow knowing there was a word for the fakery, a whole category, gave skepticism a form of its own, something she could hold on to.

Of course having this long, fancy word didn’t really confer legitimacy any more than the sciencey words in the instructions did, any more than calling something “transubstantiation” makes it less goofy. But in that moment, having a name for “fake science” helped her see that it might be exactly that.

I read the instructions aloud for one of the gizmos. “‘If the reading is between 0.3 and 0.5, you may be in the presence of a spirit.'” We turned on the meter and pointed it at a corner. The needle went up and down from 0.0 to 0.6. “They said that means there’s a ghost there. How do we know that isn’t the normal variation?” She shrugged. “We don’t. And they know we don’t know that, so they make up numbers to freak us out and sell ghost detection kits.”

Two minutes later, we each had a device and were tiptoeing, Scooby-style, down the intentionally dark hallway, humming scary organ music, pointing at shadows and giggling. We went into dark guest rooms, scanning everything as we went, needles bouncing and lights flashing. By the time we got back to our rooms, they were back to the reaction they’d had to the video of the self-opening door.

The next day we talked about the incentive the Jeffery has to bill itself as haunted — hell, it’s what snared me! — and came up with a few ways they could do it better. I think their skeptical wells are a little fuller for the experience. And it was damn fun.

(If you have a minute, go back and enjoy the video of “orbs” around 4:00.)

7. Hey…it’s your funeral

(Post 7 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

11:00 am EDT

Speaking of death — if you are anything but conventionally religious, and you love your family in the least, write down your funeral plans in detail.

I know what you’re saying — “Hey, what do I care, I’ll be dead and gone!” This is not about you. You will indeed be as demised as a Norwegian Blue. And it’s not even about sending a “message to the world” about dying without illusions. It’s about the loved ones you’ll leave behind.

When a person with a relatively conventional religious identity dies, there are plenty of decisions to be made by the family. But they are largely a matter of coloring within existing lines — which hymns will be sung, which Bible verses will be said, which church cemetery will receive the remains. If you diverge from a conventional identity and have not made your wishes known, your death can leave your family utterly without lines and uncertain even of which colors to reach for. They want to honor your wishes, but they don’t know how, and you will have thrown them into this situation in the midst of their grief at your loss. Guilt and confusion are not helpful additives to grief.

So right now, this week, even if you aren’t sure what you want, slap something together. Burn some songs on a CD, write down a few instructions, print out some nice readings, and put them where they can be easily found. THEN, once this basic emotional safety net is in place, refine and adjust it until you’ve created the kind of event you’d like to have. They will be grateful for it.

(Have you donated a few coppers to SSA yet? That’s what this is all about. The sidebar widget awaits.)

On being awake

To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

From Walden by Henry David Thoreau

A question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page brought this post to mind from August 2008:

I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.

“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.

“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”

Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.

So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.

For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”

I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.

Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.

Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.

Born this way?

It is an interesting and demonstrable fact that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so…[T]here is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal. —ERNESTINE ROSE, “A Defence of Atheism” (1861)

Boy do we secular parents love us a quote like that. It says my atheism is just a return to my natural condition, a rejection of something artificial that had been blown into my head by human culture. Like!

But in the last few years, I’ve come to think of the idea that we are born atheists as a seriously misleading one, and correcting it as Job One for secular parents.

It’s obviously true that we are born without religious belief. But this equates to what is called weak or negative atheism, the simple absence of belief in a god or gods. But what about the other major assertion there — that without inculcation, that absence would remain?

This gets at the very basic question of what religion is. The Rose quote implies that it’s a cultural construction, pure and simple. But if Ernestine Rose was right and atheism is so damn natural, why is the inculcation of religion received so eagerly and pried loose with such difficulty?

I’ve spent years chasing this question through the work of EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer and more. The result has made me less angry and frustrated and more empathetic toward the religious impulse, even as I continue to find most religious ideas both incorrect and problematic. It has also deeply informed my secular parenting in a very good way. Yet I’ve never expressed it out loud until a few months ago, when I reworked part of my parenting seminar to include it.

Thinking about religion anthropologically has made me a better proponent of my own worldview, a more effective challenger of toxic religious ideas, and a much better secular parent.

Why (the hell) we are the way we are

If you want to understand why we are the way we are, there’s no better place to look than the Paleolithic Era (2.4 million years ago – 11,000 years ago). Over 99.5 percent of the history of the genus Homo120,000 generations — took place during the Paleolithic. For the last 10,000 of those generations, we were anatomically modern. Same body, same brain. The brain you are carrying around in your head was evolved in response to conditions in that era, not this one. The mere 500 generations that have passed since the Paleolithic ended represent a virtual goose egg in evolutionary time.

To put it simply: we are born in the Stone Age. Childhood is a period during which we are brought — by parenting, experience, and education — into the modern world. Or not.

So if we were evolved for the Paleolithic, it seems worth asking: What was it like then? In short, it sucked to be us.

In the Lower Paleolithic, starting around 2.4 million years ago, there were an estimated 26,000 hominids on Earth. The climate was affected by frequent glacial periods that would lock up global water, leading to severe arid conditions in the temperate zones and scarce plant and animal life, making food hard to come by.

The average hominid life span was about 20 years. We lived in small bands competing for negligible resources. For two million years, our genus was balancing on the edge of extinction.

Then it got worse.

About 77,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, (apparently created by a seven-year-old boy), this eruption was a “mega-colossal” — the highest category. Earth was plunged into a volcanic winter lasting at least a decade. The human population dropped to an estimated 5,000 individuals, each living a terrifying, marginal existence.

Now remember that these humans had the same thirsty and capable brain you and I enjoy, but few reliable methods for filling it up. The most common cause of death was infectious disease. If someone is gored by a mammoth, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. But most people died for no apparent reason. Just broke out in bloody boils, then keeled over dead.

Imagine how terrifying such a world would be to a mind fully capable of comprehending the situation but utterly lacking in answers, and worse yet, lacking the ability to control it. It’s not hard to picture the human mind simply rebelling against that reality, declaring it unacceptable, and creating an alternate reality in its place, neatly packaged for the grateful relief of subsequent generations.

The first evidence of supernatural religion appears 130,000 years ago.

Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.

Conservative, traditional religion is a natural response to being human in the Paleolithic. Whether it was a good response or not is beside the point — it was the only one we had.

But we’re not in the Paleolithic anymore, you say. You certainly have the calendar on your side. We began to climb out of our situation about 500 generations ago when agriculture made it possible to stand still and live a little longer. Eventually we had the time and security to develop better responses to the problem, better ways of interrogating and controlling the world around us. But the Scientific Revolution, our biggest step forward in that journey, was just 20 generations ago. Think of that. It just happened. Our species is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of 120,000 generations in hell. And like the battle veteran who hits the dirt when he hears a backfiring car, it takes very little to push the Paleolithic button in our heads.

Yes, your kids are born without religious belief. But they are also born with the problem of being human, which includes a strong tendency to hit the dirt when the universe backfires. One of the best things a secular parent can do is know that the Paleolithic button is there so we can help our kids resist the deeply natural urge to push it.

(Part 1 of 3. Go to Part 2.)

Hitchens’ best moment

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) has had a profound influence on me for years. It’s hard to think of a greater artist with the language or a more incisive thinker. He took a different approach than I do to religion and atheism, but it irritates the crap out of me when interviewers set me up as a nice-guy foil to the Horsemen. It’s not an either-or. Hitchens speaks to me, and often for me, while I’m busy reaching across aisles. I wouldn’t for a minute want to do without that voice. And when his conclusions were different from mine, he gave me serious pause. It’s damn hard to wave Hitchens away with a casual hand.

When my son Connor told me this morning that Hitchens had died, my mind went straight to what I think is his greatest moment — not one of his debates, and not a written polemic. It was what he did when he was wrong.

Several times, including in an article in Slate in late 2007, Hitchens defended U.S. interrogation methods in the “War on Terror,” saying they fell short of torture. Instead of just bloviating for applause, he agreed to test his claim by undergoing the experience himself. He relented in mortal terror after 16 seconds, then went on to write a Vanity Fair piece titled, “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”

Several liberal commentators went all John 20:29 on him at the time, saying duh, they figured out it was torture without getting under the towel themselves. A lot of conservative fans of the technique apparently need, but for some reason decline to volunteer for, the experience.

Hitchens made a false claim, then put his money where his mouth was, changed his mind, and gave me a lesson in intellectual integrity I won’t forget. It’s one of many gifts from Hitchens that I’m grateful for.

“I thought it over and believed it by myself”

Scrambling to finish the complicated manuscript for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics by the December 1 deadline. Rather than go to complete radio silence on the blog, I’ll share some of the more unusual bits with you.

In order to make this book something more than just another freethought anthology, I set two goals for myself: (1) to include disbelief in cultures beyond Europe and the US, and (2) to fill in the usual 1400-year gap between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. After nearly a year of careful digging, I managed to do both.

During the initial research, I came across references to Jacques Fournier, a 14th century bishop who was instructed by Rome to undertake local interrogations to root out adherents of Catharism, an unorthodox sect that had been spreading through the south of France. Fournier took the unusual step of having each of his hundreds of individual interrogations transcribed in detail.

Nonbelievers were not the main concern of the late medieval Inquisitions, which were primarily designed to root out heretical Christian sects whose beliefs were not entirely in keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine. Such sects often spread rapidly and were perceived to be a threat to Catholic religious and political power on the continent. But once in a blue moon, an inquisitor came across not a heretic but an outright unbeliever, or at least someone who would cop to being an unbeliever at some recent time.

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure from what was said in the interrogation whether a person’s actual views constituted heresy or unbelief. One such subject, identified as “Guillemette, widow of Bernard Benet of Ornolac,” testified that she had come to believe that the soul was nothing but blood, that nothing survives of ourselves after death, and that Jesus was no exception. Let’s listen in to the end of the interrogation, 16 July 1320, in the village of Montaillou:

BISHOP JACQUES FOURNIER: From the moment that you believed that human souls die with the body, did you believe that men would be resurrected or would live again after death?

GUILLEMETTE: I did not believe in the resurrection of human bodies, for I believed that just as the body is buried, the soul is also buried with it. And as I saw the human body rot, I believed that it could never live again.

JF: Did you have someone who taught this to you, did you learn it from someone?

G: No. I thought it over and believed it by myself.

That’s the lovely sound of free inquiry echoing down through the centuries.

Her neighbors testified to her empirical bent as well, including one who described Guillemette’s response to a child dying in her arms. “When she saw nothing but breath go out of his mouth, she said, ‘Take notice, when a person dies, one sees nothing leave his mouth except air. If I saw something else come out, I would believe that the soul is something. But now because only air has come out, I do not believe that the soul is anything.'”

Back to Jacques and Guillemette:

JF: Did you believe that the soul of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is dead or with his body?

G: Yes, for, although God cannot die, Jesus Christ died, all the same. Therefore, although I believed that God has always been, I did not believe that Christ’s soul lived and subsisted after his death.

JF: Do you now believe then that Christ was resurrected?

G: Yes, and it is God who did that.

JF: Do you currently believe that the human soul is anything other than blood, that it does not die at the death of the body, that it is not buried with the body, that there is a hell and a heaven, where souls are punished or rewarded, and there will be a resurrection of all men, and that the soul of Christ did not die with his body?

G: Yes, and I have believed it since the last holiday of the Ascension of the Lord because at that time I heard tell that My Lord the Bishop of Pamiers wanted to carry out an investigation against me about it. I was afraid of My Lord Bishop because of that, and I changed my opinion after that time.

(“Officer, I stopped speeding the moment I saw you.”)

Of the 578 individuals interrogated by Fournier, five heretics were burned at the stake. Most of the remainder were imprisoned or sentenced to wear a yellow cross on their backs for the remainder of their lives as a mark of shame. Guillemette was sentenced to wear the cross.

Jacques Fournier went on to become Pope Benedict XII.

Time to get your ween on


“JesusWeen is a God-given vision which was born as an answer to the cry of many every October 31st. The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.

“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel. The days of hiding are over and we choose to take a stand for Jesus. ‘Evil prevails when good people do nothing.’ JesusWeen is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever, and that is why we also call it ‘World Evangelism Day.'” — From JesusWeen.com

Well alrighty then.

Most Christians roll their eyes at the fearful response to Hallowe’en, but there are always some who consider tonight’s goings-on to be an embodiment or celebration of evil. It’s even been called the birthday of Satan—a particularly weird idea, since the biblical Satan/Lucifer was originally an angel and therefore created, not born.

Also common among evangelicals is the idea that Hallowe’en was born in the worship of “Samhain, the Celtic God of Death.”  Among the many problems with this idea: there is no Celtic god named Samhain.

Celts recognized only two seasons: summer (life) and winter (death).  Samhain (usually pronounced ‘sow-en’ and meaning “summer’s end”) is the name of a month corresponding to November. The “feast of Samhain” on October 31 marks the end of summer and the last harvest of the year. It was symbolized in Celtic mythology as the death of the god (possibly Cernunnos), who would then be resurrected six months later at the feast of Beltane (April 30-May 1). As the website Religious Tolerance puts it pretty neatly, Samhain is not about the God of Death, but the death of a god. In this way, Hallowe’en is rooted in the same mythic impulse as the Christian Easter.

Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, Samhain is a recognition of the relationship between life and death. By equating death with evil, conservative Christianity recoils from and fears it.

Parents who instead recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life can enjoy digging into the holiday’s origins. At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to become thinner, and the ancient Celts believed the spirits of beloved ancestors could cross that boundary and walk among the living. Food would be set at the threshold for the departed spirits.1

So before the kids head out tonight, tell them how the tradition of dressing as spirits and going from door to door for treats grew out of this old Celtic idea of caring for and remembering loved ones who had died. A very cool bit of context.
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1Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs (Mercier, 1972); O’Driscoll, Robert (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness (Braziller, 1981).