Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Lose yourself

Raising Freethinkers had to be the most rewarding collaborative project I’ve ever been a part of. Jan, Molleen, and Amanda each brought something unique and brilliant to the book, underlining how very clever I was to not just write it myself.

Molleen wrote about one idea that was completely new to me then — the flow state described by creativity researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It’s the kind of intriguing concept you’d expect from a guy who decided early on that he wanted nothing more than to understand happiness.

Describing the flow state has been one of his biggest contributions. It’s that feeling we get when we’re completely in the moment, so intensely focused on the activity at hand that we lose track of time. It’s one of the most deeply satisfying states we can enter. As I wrote three years ago,

Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-hi-ee,” just as it looks) spent years defining, describing, and studying different aspects of flow, which he called “our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”

It began to occur to me that the descriptions of flow experiences (including the feeling of being at one with everything or experiencing total peace) paralleled the descriptions of transcendent spiritual experiences, including meditation. Finding activities that put you into the flow experience, then, can provide a secular equivalent to “spirituality”—something that lifts you out of everyday experience. You might say I’m flowy, but not religious.

Now I’ve come across a TED talk by Csíkszentmihályi that includes a fantastic new wrinkle. When we refer to “losing ourselves” in a project or activity, there’s actually something to that. Csíkszentmihályi offers an example from a 1970s interview he came across with a leading American composer. When his composing was going well, he described it as an “ecstatic state” so intense that it felt almost as if he didn’t exist.

“That sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration,” said Csíkszentmihályi,

but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t understand more than two people talking to you. 


When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended.

Gotta love a naturalistic explanation for insanely cool things. When I’m completely lost in an all-consuming activity — interesting words, eh? — I don’t have enough attention left over to notice that I exist.

I’ve been there, but less and less as I get older. Since Molleen introduced me to flow, I’ve been trying to find activities that succeed in putting me there. In fact, one of my goals before I turn 50 — in 303 days, whatever — is to integrate genuine flow experiences more regularly into my daily life. And I think Molleen’s advice for parents helping kids find flow can apply to us as well:

Since flow experiences are some of the most meaningful we can have, parents can help their children have a deeper experience of life by helping them find and engage in flow. And one of the most common enemies of flow is something over which parents have a good deal of control—schedules.

Just when an activity is getting really interesting and the flow experience begins to take hold, it’s time to set the table, leave for preschool, go to gymnastics. Your own time pressures can make it difficult to see that your child isn’t necessarily just being stubborn when they don’t want to be interrupted. It can also be challenging to set aside appropriate and adequate times for extended concentration to be possible…

Yeah, that’s the trick. But it’s a hard thing worth doing.

The full talk

PBB is dis many!

Parenting Beyond Belief was officially born five years ago today. Such a big girl!

I didn’t even mention it when her little sister Raising Freethinkers turned three a few weeks ago. Second child, you know, whatever. Plus that birthday was in the middle of a four-month self-induced productivity coma after one of my busiest years ever. Since the day I turned in the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief, the engrossing anthology project that ate most of 2011 for me, I’ve been ending my workday at 5:00 and leaving the computer off all weekend.

I have no plans to ever be that busy again. Too many good things have happened since I stepped off the treadmill. Turns out I’m not just a parent educator — I actually have kids! Two of them. No wait, three. And I rediscovered reading. I hadn’t read a whole book in a year or more. I learned that I can only process so many words per day, and my outflow was using up the quota. I’d pick up a book in the evening and every word seemed to be “buh?” But since my four months of slackery began, books are once again filled with lots of different words. (I’m reading the Game of Thrones series, so most of the words are beheading-related — but it’s a start.)

In the meantime, Voices of Unbelief is in production, wending its way toward an October release. Remember that this is a reference book — hard cover, big format — so mostly not intended (or priced) for individual purchase. But ask your library or school to get a copy. (I think you’ll like it.)

This blog has been one of the main casualties of my long nap — just seven real posts so far this year, oy! — but it’s coming back to life. I’ll be digging into authoritative parenting a bit more very soon. There are also two book reviews and some personal stories on the way. So to those of you who’ve stuck it out, I say — thank you both.

Onward!

Hey, Portlandish Oregonians!

Just nine days left until Saturday April 21, when I’ll be giving my Parenting Beyond Belief half-day workshop at Friendly House in NW Portland, 1-5pm. If you are in the area, you simply MUST come, as I am fascinating and handsome.

The content is even better. We’ll put nonreligious parenting in the context of just-plain-good-parenting and talk about religious literacy, thinking about death without heaven (or hell), raising powerfully ethical kids, the religious extended family, and ever so much more.

The workshop is sponsored by CFI Portland, to whose info and registration page I send you herewith. Sign up now, and I’ll see you then!

6000 days

Part 3 of 3.
Go to Part 1
or Part 2.

The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

I want my kids to get that very good news.

Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

Not the answer we were expecting.

For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

Now isn’t THAT nice.

We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.

Unnatural

(Part 2, continued from “Born This Way?“)

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade / You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught!

–from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (1949)

It’s a riveting horror — no caption required, just the immensely sad, unaware eyes of the younger girl. There’s no reason to believe they’ve embraced the messages on their shirts yet, but every reason to assume their environment is primed to lead them there.

But is it really true that we’ve got to be taught to hate those who are different from us? Answer one way and parents can simply decline to teach them to hate. Answer the other way and there’s something we need to actively do to help them avoid it.

I think we’re more naturally inclined to hate and fear difference than not. Religion isn’t the only parting gift we got from the Paleolithic. A lot of the things we are, including some of our worst pathologies, were once strongly adaptive traits. Evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up to our circumstances. As a result, we’re a whole panel of buttons waiting to be pushed. And one of the best things a parent can do is to help those buttons rust.

Before I get to that, let’s look at more of our inheritance:

GOT TO BE TAUGHT?
A million years ago, food was desperately hard to come by, and cooperation within a small group was advantageous. But cooperating with the group next door would have doubled the mouths to feed without moving the needle much on available food. Genetic tendencies toward in-group cooperation and out-group hostility would have provided a selective advantage, as would distrust of people who dressed, looked, or acted differently from you. The more different they were, the more likely their interests conflicted with yours.

Aggressive nationalism, militarism, racism, and the exaggerated fear of immigrants and of all things foreign are modern expressions of what was once a sensible approach to staying alive. But in an interdependent world, these same characteristics can be downright harmful.

BE AFRAID
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon a million years ago. Two Homo erectuseses are walking through the high grass on the African savannah. Suddenly there’s movement off to the left. One of them assumes it’s something fun and goes in for a hug. The other jumps 15 feet straight up and grabs a tree limb. Even if it’s just a fluffy bunny nine times out of ten, which of these guys is more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation?

In a world bent on killing you, no characteristic would have been more useful for survival than perpetual, sweaty hypervigilance. We’ve inherited a strong tendency to assume that every shadow and sound is a threat, which in turn kept us alive and reproducing. By the time elevated blood pressure killed you off at 22, you’d already have several jittery, paranoid offspring pounding espressos and cradling stone shotguns all through the long, terrifying night.

Fast forward to a world of 7 billion people in close quarters. Suddenly it’s no longer quite so adaptive to have everybody all edgy and shooty all the time. But our brains don’t know that. One of the resulting paradoxes is that fear often increases as actual danger diminishes. If you can’t see and name it, it must be hiding, you see, which is ever so much worse. Violent crime in the U.S. recently hit the lowest level since records have been kept — in every category — but who’d ever know? Instead, we take every violent news story as proof of the opposite. We insist things are worse than ever in “this day and age,” keep cradling those shotguns…and keep forwarding those urban legends.

When you get an email warning that rapists are using $5 bills or recordings of crying babies or ether disguised as perfume to lure and capture their victims, or that child abduction rates have risen 444% since 1982 — all untrue — you’ve just received a message from the Paleolithic. But by constantly naming dangers and sounding the alarm, we feel safer.

(Think for a minute about how 9/11 — a death-dealing sneak attack by the Other — pushed our collective Paleolithic button. It was a massive confirmation of our oldest unarticulated fears, and we dropped to our collective knees.)

I could go on and on. In addition to magical thinking, fear of difference, and hypervigilance, we can add categorical thinking, enforced gender divisions, the love of weapons and authority, and much more, all of which had clear adaptive advantages during the long, dark night of our species. These things are, in a word, natural.

Which is not to say good. Rape is also natural. “From an evolutionary perspective,” says biologist/philosopher David Lahti, “considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it.” Yet it happens, ten thousand times a day, because we’ve developed a frankly unnatural social morality that trumps the natural a gratifyingly high percentage of the time.

Secularism, comfort with difference, a reasonable relaxation of vigilance, the blurring of categories (sex, gender, race, etc), the willingness to disarm ourselves and to challenge authority — these are all unnatural, recent developments, born in fits and starts out of the relative luxury of a post-Paleolithic world. I’m sure you’ll agree that they are also better responses to the world we live in now — at least those of us privileged to live in non-Paleolithic conditions.

Of course our limbic brain differs on that, but it would, wouldn’t it?

Now — the astute reader may have noticed that the things that kept us alive a million years ago line up incredibly well with the nationalistic, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, pro-authority, pro-gender-role, anti-diversity talking points of social conservatives. But if you think my point is to belittle conservatives by calling them cavemen, not so. I think there’s a lot to be gained by recognizing social conservatism, including religious conservatism, as the activation of ancient and natural fears, and to respond accordingly.

My circumstances have allowed my Paleolithic buttons to remain unpushed. That’s why I’m not a social conservative. Growing up, I was made to feel safe. I was not frightened with Satan or hell or made to question my own worth or worthiness. I was given an education, allowed to think freely, encouraged to explore the world around me and to find it wonderful. Unlike the vast majority of the friends I have who are religious conservatives, I never passed through a disempowering life crisis — a hellish divorce, a drug or alcohol spiral, the loss of a child — that may have triggered that feeling of abject helplessness before I had developed my own personal resources. So I never had to retreat into the cave of my innate fears.

In short, I’ve been lucky.

A lot of people with the same luck are religious. But in my experience, those strongly tend toward what Bruce Bawer has called the “church of love” — the tolerant, diverse, justice-oriented side of the religious spectrum, grounded in a more modern perspective but still responding to the human problem that science, admittedly, has only partly solved.

It’s rare for a person with all of the advantages listed above to freely choose the “church of law” — the narrow, hateful, Paleolithic end we rightly oppose. Those folks, one way or another, are generally thrown there, like the girls in the photo. Sometimes they find their way out, but their road is tougher than mine was.

Seeing things this way has made me more empathetic to conservative religious believers, even as I oppose the malign consequences of their beliefs. Understanding our natural inheritance also makes me frankly amazed that we ever do anything right. Given the profound mismatch between what we are and what the world is, we should all have vanished in a smoking heap by now. Instead, we create art and cure disease and write symphonies and figure out the age of the universe and somehow, despite ourselves, hang on to an essentially secular government in a predominantly religious country.

Okay, I just have to stop writing, even though I haven’t reached the punchline — what this all means for parents. So there will be a Part 3.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: After further research and smart reader input, I’ve yanked the section “Every Sperm is Sacred” from this post, which was based on hypotheses that have apparently been superseded. Science marches on!]

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.)

PBB in SF Bay Area just days away

Secular parents in the San Francisco Bay Area: Join me THIS SATURDAY, February 25, 1:00-4:30pm for the Parenting Beyond Belief Workshop at Prometheus CrossFit in Mountain View. This will be my only Northern California parenting workshop this year, and I promise to be handsome and fascinating.

Learn more about the workshop and register here!

Squinting in hindsight

Delaney (10) is on an awesome winning streak with fantastic teachers all the way back to preschool. Her current one has her all lit up about the American Revolution, and she gets off the bus every day and regales me (in the fluent Lightspeedese of an excited fourth grader) with the implications of the Intolerable Acts or Paul Revere’s provocative engraving of Occupy Boston the Boston Massacre. (That’s Revere’s propaganda piece to the left.)

So I wasn’t surprised when she came home last week with news that Ms. Monsour had asked the kids a really good question: If you were alive in the Revolution, would you have been a Patriot, a Loyalist, or a neutral?

The question comes from way up in the nosebleed section of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s a higher-order question, one with ten times more educational potential per square inch than the leading brand. And in this case, it’s one with an obvious answer, which is not to say an accurate one: I’d have been a Patriot, of course, how dare you.

If Mrs. Burks asked me the same question when I was in fourth grade — and maybe she did, I don’t remember — I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d have said. I’d have sided with the revolutionaries. They were after all the good guys. And I wouldn’t have been a nasty slaveholder in the 1850s, I’d have helped run the Underground Railroad, duh. I certainly wouldn’t have sat silent during the Nazi atrocities in the Third Reich either. I’d have had ten Anne Franks in my attic. And so on.

The moment hindsight assigns the white and black hats, we “know” which side we’d have been on with such confidence that we rarely even think to pose the question. “Would I have been for or against Hitler? WTF??!”

This doesn’t mean slavery and genocide were somehow “okay” in the context of another time. But the question of what “I” would have done and believed as a product of that time is a different one. “I” can’t be plucked from the here and now and inserted into some long-ago there and then in any meaningful way. My values and convictions flow from my knowledge and experience, two things that would have been entirely different then. It’s a tenfold version of “If I could be 18 again, knowing what I know now…” A nice game, but in the end not all that enlightening.

“So what’d you say?”

“I was the only one who said I’d be a Loyalist. Everybody else said they’d be Patriots.”

“Ooh, interesting. Why would you have been a Loyalist?”

“Well not because I think they were right,” she said. “But the British army and navy were SO much bigger, and they had all these resources, and the colonists just had a little. I probably would have wanted to be on the winning side, and it would have looked like the colonists were going to lose. I might have also thought the colonists were like terrorists fighting against my government, you know? So yeah, I would have probably been a Loyalist.”

Raymond Taylor, my 7th grade history teacher, was the first to help me to see history as something other than a parade of inevitabilities — helping me squint my 20/20 hindsight into a blur until I felt what it must have been like to dump that tea in Boston Harbor or sign that Declaration or march against Hitler or sit at a segregated lunch counter without the benefit of a known outcome. History suddenly becomes a whole different animal, pulsing with uncertainty and populated with scriptless actors.

I’d like to think I’d have always been on the side of the now-bloody-obvious, but I doubt that. I’ve played a game with my kids for years, imagining how future generations might facepalm at us: “Just imagine, Mergadink-5,” says the mother to her 24th century child. “People in the 21st century kept animals in their homes as pets, gave them demeaning names like Goober and Mister Tickles, and walked them on leashes. And children weren’t even allowed to work! Their parents gave them money in little bits called ‘allowances.'” And so on.

That game is a nice little slice of humble pie to complicate our smug hindsights, and my kids love to generate their own examples. It’s hard to be too cocksure about your position in the past when you’re not entirely sure you’ve got the present right.

The year of reading biblically

New Year’s resolutions are a big deal around our house. Everybody writes them down, reads them aloud on New Year’s Eve, and posts them for the Mid-February Shaming.

The night before New Year’s Eve, Becca told me that one of her resolutions is to read the Bible this year. Though now a secular humanist, she was raised Baptipiscobyterian, and like most BPBs her scriptural knowledge was pretty much limited to pre-masticated pastoral nuggets, Fortified with Vitamin J and 99.7% Atrocity Free.

Reading the actual thing on your own is a good idea — if not the whole actual thing, then a few key parts. I managed the whole thing, with difficulty, over the course of about a year and a half when I was 13 and 14. And by the time I was done accompanying John of Patmos on his chemical field trip, I had a much more solid foundation under the feet of my growing skepticism.

One of the hopes I’ve had for my kids is that they get some unmediated experience with the Bible. But I didn’t want to lead them there by the nose, and my one early attempt to do so by reading Genesis aloud to them about eight years ago (“Gather ’round, children!”) ended mercifully around Genesis 2 in a hail of rolled eyes and groans of agony. It was clearly not the way, but I’ve wondered ever since how we would get to that deeper level of literacy.

So I was (quietly) thrilled when Connor, now a high school junior, announced his own resolution to read the Bible straight through this year. After years as an apatheist, Connor has begun engaging more actively, often expressing a baffled, how-can-anyone-believe-this-stuff consternation at the religious assumptions of everyone from presidential candidates to rapture predictors to kneeling QBs. I take it as a really good sign that his response to bafflement is not just a dismissive snort but a desire to figure it out by learning more about the baffling thing.

On New Year’s Day, Erin (14) said she’d like to give it a try as well. Holy smokes.

I doubt that many people who pledge to read the Bible get past the begats, and a fraction of those ever finish the whole thing. And no wonder — for every verse that’s poetic, dramatic, or horrific, the Bible has half a dozen that are tedious lists of names or numbers, or instructions for washing pots or getting your Bronze-Age business done. So without being heavy-handed, I wanted to improve the chances that my kids would actually stick with it — if not to the last Amen, at least to the point where their religious literacy would get a serious boost.

The first question is version. King James is poetic, but the archaic translation won’t keep those pages turning. On the other end of the scale are efforts like the NRSV Children’s Bible (loaded with silly, happy cartoons) and The Message, which puts accessibility ahead of pretty much everything else.

To get a sense of this spectrum, here’s the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13) in King James:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

…and in The Message:

Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

If you can read that without mentally inserting “dude” every few words, you’re a better person than I.

Then there’s accuracy. Some translations simply rewrite the ineffable word of God to suit their preferences. This is important to know for critical reading but not my biggest concern in this case. Such translations end up pasting over little inconsistencies and leaving enormous, rancid horrors in place.

I’m more concerned with the use of euphemisms to help readers gloss over uncomfortable moments. Take Genesis 19:4-8:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

That’s the New International Version with one of the great jawdroppers of Western lit. Instead of “have sex with them,” King James says “so we may know them,” while The Message says, “Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!” Erin, who has a more than a hint of Amelia Bedelia in her, couldn’t be blamed for reading those last two as respective requests for conversation and tennis.

In the end, I gave Erin an NIV/Message Parallel Bible. Each page has the NIV running down the left column and The Message running down the right. She asked what the difference was, and I told her, suggesting she read the left column and use the right if she ever gets stuck. Comparing the two will keep her engaged and occasionally amused. I gave Connor the NIV Study Bible, the one I use most for reference. The translation is clear and readable, and every page is full of footnotes on historical context, alternate interpretations, and etymology.

I also gave them both a suggestion that I think is the real key to success: Start by reading Genesis and Matthew, just those two, then keep going if you want. Takes about five hours. And as Stephen Prothero points out, a good 80 percent of the religious references in our culture and politics can be found in those two books.

Now I plan to butt out completely.

A ‘Yes Virginia’ two-fer

Last year I had a go at one of the most execrable things we culturally love — the “Yes, Virginia” letter:

santabelieveOne thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, [in which] a little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry….For two years my son Connor intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.

This is THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right. When asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.

“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Now the inimitable Greta Christina has added her voice, penning the answer she would have given Virginia. (For full effect it must be read immediately after reading the original piece of dreck):

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

Read the full piece at Greta Christina’s Blog