Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

“Who will believe this silly stuff?”

Another excerpt from Voices of Unbelief, my current project. You may remember that one of my goals in this book is to fill in the 1400-year silence between Rome and the Renaissance that dogs most atheist anthologies. Sure, European atheism was mum during this time, for obvious reasons — but other cultures, including India, had flourishing atheistic schools of thought in philosophy and religion. One example is Jainism, a strong candidate for Best Religion on Earth. Read on:

The 6th century BCE was a time of great innovation in Hinduism, giving rise to diverse new schools of thought. Among these was Jainism, a nontheistic religion based on natural law, pacifism, and nonviolence toward all living things. Jainism rejects the idea that the universe was created or is sustained by supernatural beings and includes direct criticisms of supernatural belief in many of its texts.

Mahapurana is one of the most important Jain texts. Written primarily by the Acharya (religious teacher) Jinasena and finished by his student Gunabhadra in the 9th century CE, this text gives a thorough description of Jain tradition and belief, including what historian Vipan Chandra has called “the finest and most audacious ancient defense of atheism.” That famous passage, presented below, echoes the arguments of Epicurus and Diagoras and presages those of the 18th century Enlightenment.

Document: Acharya Jinasena, Mahapurana 4.16-31 (9th c. CE)

Some foolish men declare that Creator made the world.
The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected.

If God created the world, where was he before creation? If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?

No single being had the skill to make the world—for how can an immaterial god create that which is material?

How could God have made the world without any raw material?
If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are face with an endless regression.

If you declare that the raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy, for the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and have risen equally naturally.

If God created the world by an act of will, without any raw material, then it is just his will and nothing else—and who will believe this silly stuff?
If he is ever perfect, and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him?
If, on the other hand, he is not perfect, he could no more create the universe than a potter could.

If he is formless, actionless, and all-embracing, how could he have created the world? Such a soul, devoid of all modality, would have no desire to create anything.

If you say that he created to no purpose, because it was his nature to do so then God is pointless. If he created in some kind of sport, it was the sport of a foolish child, leading to trouble….

If he created out of love for living things and need of them he made the world; why did he not make creation wholly blissful, free from misfortune?…

Thus the doctrine that the world was created by God makes no sense at all.

And God commits great sin in slaying the children whom he himself created.
If you say that he slays only to destroy evil beings, why did he create such beings in the first place?…

Good men should combat the believer in divine creation, maddened by an evil doctrine.

Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end, and is based on the principles [natural law], life, and the rest.

(From Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics, coming from ABC-CLIO in August 2012.)

Preferring peace

Her name was Ann, that much I remember for sure. Or Monica. We were both in fourth grade when she informed our teacher that she would not be saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

She explained in a quiet, confident voice that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as such was not to pledge an oath to anyone or anything but God.

Though I suppose she was essentially abandoning one set of rote instructions for another, at the time it smacked me in the head like a whistling cartoon anvil falling from a cliff. Wow, I thought. This thing I had done for years without thinking could be thought about and responded to. It’s my earliest memory of witnessing a principled dissent.

I thought of Ann/Monica when the story broke earlier this year about Goshen College, a small Mennonite school in Indiana that made the decision to stop playing the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events. There were the usual cries of outrage from the usual bawling gobs, the usual torrents of hate mail that I understand are continuing still. But I for one had the same response I had forty years ago: Wow.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike our national anthem — musical, textual, and historical. For starters, it’s a waltz. Nobody else has a national anthem that’s a waltz. Okay, “God Save the Queen,” but that’s about it. It’s also unsingable, with a too-wide range of an octave and a fifth. That’s why ballpark yahoos always yodel up into falsetto on “land of the FREE” — to make it look like they meant to sound bad on that high F.

It’s also militaristic, which is the problem Goshen College had with it. Peace and nonviolence are key components of the Mennonite worldview, and the Goshen College motto (“Healing the World, Peace by Peace”) made crowing about rockets and bombs a bit of a problem. They chose instead to celebrate our spacious skies and amber waves by substituting America the Beautiful, a better song in almost every way.

(I don’t actually mind the military setting as much as I once did. The song celebrates surviving an assault, not slaughtering the foe — unlike the Marseillaise of France, which (though musically unbeatable) is easily the most bloodthirsty anthem on Earth. You have to love the “Children’s Verse,” in which the children of France sing of their yearning to avenge their ancestors in battle and join them in their coffins.)

Then there are historical problems. The tune is of English origin. You may recall that the War of 1812 was not against the hated Costa Ricans or the dreaded Laplanders, but the English. So when we dug deep into our repertoire for a tune that matched the metrical structure of the poem Francis Scott Key had written commemorating our victory over the English, we chose “To Anacreon in Heaven” -– an English drinking song.

Yes, the tune of our hallowed national anthem was originally a bawdy drinking song, written in London in the 1770s by members of the Anacreontic Society, an upper class men’s club.

Here’s the first verse of the original lyrics. You know the tune:

To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian

Voice, fiddle and flute, No longer be mute,
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire ye to boot…
And, besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

So Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BCE, approves the use of his name and instructs the “sons of harmony” to “entwine the myrtle of Venus” (goddess of love) “with Bacchus’s vine” (god of wine). He orders them, in short, to have drunken sex.

In subsequent verses, Zeus is made furious by the news of the proposed entwining, convinced that the goddesses will abandon Olympus in order to have sex with drunken mortals. But the king of the gods is laid low with diarrhea and, fleeing Olympus with his “nine fusty maids,” is thereby rendered unable to countermand the order.

I couldn’t make this stuff up on my best day.

The lyrics that replaced these are actually pretty well crafted. (Say those first two full sentences aloud — some elegant sentence construction going on there.) But most people aren’t aware that the fourth stanza includes the first direct suggestion that “In God We Trust” (actually “In God is our trust”) should be our national motto. A hundred forty-two years later, he got his wish.

Finally, we did without a national anthem for more than 150 years. Though Key’s poem was around from 1814 and even got the tune stuck to it shortly thereafter (as a spritely dance number), it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 1931. That’s right — this ancient, venerable, untouchable tradition was born the same year as my dad. Prior to that it was just another national song, like “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

These are relatively trivial things, of course, compared to Goshen’s reasoning. It was just so gratifying for me to see someone reflecting on their actions — even the most rote and expected of those actions — then thinking about whether those actions line up with their stated principles and making adjustments as needed.

Not all principles are admirable, but caring enough about peace and nonviolence to step on nationalistic toes is something I can get behind. Kudos to Goshen.

Embiggening humanism

A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. — Jebediah Springfield

I’m alternately enjoying and “D’oh!”-ing my way through a controversy of my own creation at Foundation Beyond Belief. The following are my personal thoughts on the matter, btw, not an official statement of the Foundation (which is why they are found here, on my blog, not there, on its).

After repeatedly noting that this secular humanist foundation would consider supporting charities based in any worldview so long as they do not proselytize, we’ve put our commitment to the test. This quarter, FBB is featuring a religiously-based charity as one of our ten options for member support.

QPSWThe category is Peace, the religion is Quakerism, and the organization is Quaker Peace and Social Witness. And the reaction is pretty much what I expected — a mix of bravos, surprise, outrage, enthusiasm, and revealed (shall we say, and gently) knowledge gaps in some of my beloved fellow nontheists. More on the “gaps” later.

Some blogs ask why on Earth we would do such a thing. “I’m an atheist. I don’t support religious groups,” said one, as if the second sentence follows obviously and necessarily from the first.

So the first reason to do it is to show that it is indeed possible for nontheists to see good work being done in a religious context and to support and encourage it. Far from a contradiction, some of us think that’s humanism at its best.

The second reason is that many of our members want to express their humanism in that way. And since the Foundation exists to allow individual humanists a means of expressing their worldview positively and doing good in the name of that worldview, it seems fitting to occasionally feature a carefully-screened, non-dogmatic, non-proselytizing, effective organization based in a sane and progressive denomination as one of our choices.

“Well,” one commenter said, “if you HAVE TO support a religious group, I mean absolutely HAVE to, I suppose the Quakers would be the ones.”

A glimmer of light there. But we didn’t have to do this. My word, it would have been much easier not to. We wanted to do it. We see value in doing it.

In a way, this should be a non-issue. Individual members have full control over the distribution of their donations and can zero out any category any time. Some members, disinterested in supporting a religiously-based organization no matter how progressive, have made perfect and appropriate use of this flexible system by shifting their funds elsewhere this quarter. Others — including such strong atheist voices as Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism — have actually increased their Peace donation in support of this idea. That’s freethought in action.

Not all religious expressions are benign, of course. The more a religious tradition insists on conformity to a received set of ideas, the more harm it does. The more it allows people to challenge ideas and think independently, the more good it does. Religion will always be with us in some form. It’s too hand-in-glove with human aspirations and failings to ever vanish at the touch of argument or example. So I think one of the best ways for humanists to confront the malignant is to support and encourage the benign, the non-dogmatic, the progressive.

Speaking of whom.

Liberal Quakers are utterly non-dogmatic, include many nontheists in their ranks, and hold that no individual can tell any other what to believe. That’s a religious organization embracing the essence of freethought. It’s no coincidence that they also have a brilliant history of social justice work. While Southern Baptists fronted biblical arguments in support of slavery, Quakers were among the most courageous abolitionists (along with Northern Baptists). While the Catholic Church vigorously opposed women’s voting rights, Quakers were often leading the movement and getting themselves arrested and imprisoned in the process (along with many Catholic individuals who recognized bad dogma when they saw it). And while multiple denominations rend themselves in twain over gay rights, Liberal Quakers were among the first to openly support gay rights and gay marriage. (This last is not so much the case with Orthodox Quakers, who differ from the Liberals in several respects.)

In the area of peace and nonviolence advocacy, Quakers are second to none. Continuing a centuries-old tradition, Quaker Peace & Social Witness is at work in the Ugandan conflict, supporting and training groups working on peacemaking and peacebuilding; facilitating truth and reconciliation work to deal with the past in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia; managing teams of human rights observers in Palestine and Israel; working to strengthen nonviolent movements in South Asia; and advocating at the UN for refugees and for disarmament policies. In 1947, QPSW shared the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Maybe you can see why we’re proud to support them.

Making discernments is difficult, but it’s worth doing. That’s why the (don’t say ignorance, don’t say ignorance) misinformedness of some atheists about the spectrum of religion has troubled me.

bluefooted booby“I am NOT giving money to somebody who’s going to hit me over the head with a bible or say my kids are going to hell,” said one. Fair enough. Of course there’s as much chance of a bluefooted booby doing either of those as a Liberal Quaker.

Others who probably recognize a slippery slope fallacy if someone else uses it (“You can’t let gays marry. Next thing you know, farmers will be marrying their tractors!”) went ahead and employed one themselves. “It’s a slippery slope,” said one email. “A year from now, you’ll be paying for Catholic missionaries!” (I especially enjoy it when someone calls a fallacy by name, then pulls the ripcord anyhow.)

And on it goes. This is what siloing will do to good and smart people. It makes them sloppy, myself included. And we talk nonsense, and end up looking silly to anyone outside of our silo.

One atheist friend predicted we would lose a third of our members overnight. In the two weeks since we announced the decision, two members have closed their accounts (neither mentioning the Quaker choice) and 24 have joined.

The weakness of the arguments against our choice has reassured me, and the majority of responses I’ve heard have been strongly supportive of the idea of providing members with this option. “I’m so proud to be a part of this,” said one member. “Honestly, it’s like the free thought movement is growing up all at once. Thank you for showing vision beyond the usual sounding of alarms and building of barricades.”

Can’t you just feel the embiggening?

The Conversation / Can you hear me now? 10

If you’re a nonreligious parent getting serious pressure or interference from a religious family member about your parenting choices, you’ve got to sit down and have a talk.

Last time I suggested a way of rethinking both the problem and the solution. It isn’t about changing the other person’s mind—it’s about reducing the dissonance that results from your differences. It’s not victory you’re after, but a relaxation of tension and building of mutual confidence. It’s détente.

Note 1: This conversation isn’t always necessary just because your religious perspective differs from your parents, in-laws, etc. Some religious grandparents are entirely respectful of their children’s rights to approach religion any way they wish with their own kids. Others offer nothing more challenging than the occasional grumble, whine, or plea. If you have one of these, be grateful. This post is about a stickier wicket—the grandparent or other relative who threatens, harasses, argues, pressures, and/or actively interferes with your right to raise your kids as you think best when it comes to religion.

Note 2: This is also not about your right to confront an antagonistic relative. For all I know, said relative has earned a merit badge in Self-Righteous Scumbaggery with you as the final project, and your right to retribution is enshrined in six different UN charters. But this post isn’t about us and our personal rights. It’s about creating the best possible family situation for our kids.

Note 3: There are countless variations on the nonreligious parent/religious grandparent dyad, but certain basic principles apply across the board. Be flexible and adapt as needed.

And off we go…

gma31990This approach is related to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a powerful and effective concept developed by Marshall Rosenberg and others. It starts with empathy—making an effort to grasp and feel what the other person feels, to hear things as s/he hears them, and to frame what you have to say accordingly. It can leave people feeling heard, understood, and honored – even if they continue to disagree. It can lead to amazing breakthroughs by recognizing that win and lose are not the only meaningful terms in dialogue.

When a secular parent tells me about locking horns with Grandma, I ask what Grandma is concerned about. The answer is almost always the same—the familiar goulash of hell, morality and discipline.

These concerns may be part of the mix, but I don’t think they are usually at the heart of things. The relative may even be convinced that hell-avoidance really is their main concern and may say exactly that, but I have reason to believe otherwise. (I’ll get to the reason by the end.)

Consider this: Most deeply religious people have their religion woven into their personal identity. It’s not just Grandma’s explanatory system or a moral code—it’s often who she is. She’s likely even to see it as the best of who she is. When her first grandchild was born, her visions of herself as a grandmother centered on sharing the best of herself, the deepest and most meaningful part of her life, with her grandchildren, and of proudly sharing her God-fearing descendants with her admiring friends.

The news that said descendants would be raised without religion would have hit her first and foremost as the end of that vision. Worse still, she would often feel personally dishonored and shut out. Finally, she would feel embarrassed by the judgments of her churchgoing friends.

So then: Hell, morality, discipline, identity, self-image, honor/dishonor, exclusion, family pride, and the judgment of others. A pretty potent mix. We can’t solve them all. But we can do some pretty impressive healing with just a few words. And in the process, we will give nothing away and tell nothing but the truth sur cette page.

There are four important elements:

HONOR the person. You can continue to think whatever you wish about the person’s beliefs. But people deserve respect as people. Refuse to grant that and you have no basis for discourse. If nothing else, honor their intentions, which (however misguided you think they are) are usually good.

EMPATHIZE. Make a real effort to see things as s/he sees them.

REASSURE. Some of his or her concerns can’t be helped. Some can. Reduce the concerns by addressing those you can.

INCLUDE. This is huge. A clear gesture of inclusion can repair an immense amount of damage and bring down walls. Most people will respond to that generous gesture with a desire to not abuse it. For the rest, some reasonable limits can be placed.

Here’s the idea:

I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are important to us. I know you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that.

I know your religious faith is a big part of your life. If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do—worried that this big part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.

I want you to know that it will be shared. Even though we’re not going to church, it’s important to us that the kids learn about religion so they can make a choice for themselves.

We want you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe. Let’s set up a time for you and me and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate so you can talk to her about your faith. How does that sound?

Details are hammered out next, so you should be prepared with a sense of what is OK and what is not. But ONCE THE CONVERSATION HAS HAPPENED, s/he will be infinitely more receptive to a few simple ground rules. For me there were two: no thoughtstoppers (no reference to hell or the idea that doubt is bad), and present all beliefs as your own (“I believe that…”), not as givens.

Sometimes it won’t work. But I’ve heard from so many people that this was the breakthrough, the approach that finally achieved something positive — including many who had sworn in advance that “It’ll never work with my dad” — that I have to think there’s something there. Several people have described step four as the turning point, the moment s/he is invited to share his or her belief with the kids. The road is not paved with daisies from that point forward, but at least it isn’t paved with IEDs anymore.

And this is why I believe it isn’t really all about hell — because without addressing hell one bit, enormous progress is made.

The bottom line in this is that there is an alternative to (1) saying nothing, or (2) spitting nails, or (3) giving away the farm. We can be the generous ones, the ones who understand where the other person is coming from, the ones who find a way forward, without giving up one bit of parental autonomy.

Reword it for your own situation, but have this conversation sooner rather than later — then come back here to tell us how it went.

Beyond win-lose / Can you hear me now? 9

gma31990A couple of years ago at a convention, I made a passing comment about family dissonance during a Q&A. “If you’re getting serious pressure from a religious family member about raising your kids without religion—Mom, Grandpa, mother-in-law, whoever—you need to address it directly. Don’t assume that it will get better with time. It will usually get worse.” Something like that.

After the talk, a gentleman cornered me in the ballroom. Great advice, he said. In fact, I just talked to my mother-in-law a few months ago and laid down the law.

(Ruh roh.)

What follows is as exact a transcription of his story as I could manage by scribbling it on a hotel pad a few minutes later:

I sat her down and said, “Okay, look. Let’s get some things straight. I am not going to apologize to you or anyone else about raising my kids without religious brainwashing. I don’t know why you are so obsessed with this. It’s no big deal that we don’t go to church. In fact, if we can get the kids to the age of eighteen without seeing the inside of a church, I’ll consider it a great success. I don’t want to hear any Jesus-this or Jesus-that around the kids. If we can agree on that, you can spend time with them.”

Just seven words in, she would have lost the ability to hear him as the blood began pounding defensively in her ears. No one can really hear and think under this kind of assault. And the veiled threat at the end is a particularly nice touch.

To get a real taste of just how this sounds to religious Grandma, reverse the poles a bit. Imagine you’re a secular humanist grandparent with a religious adult child, who says to you:

Okay, look. Let’s get some things straight. I am not going to apologize to you or anyone else about raising my kids without atheistic brainwashing. I don’t know why you are so obsessed with this. It’s no big deal that we’re keeping the kids out of science class. If we can get the kids to the age of eighteen without seeing the inside of a science book, I’ll consider it a great success. I don’t want to hear any evolution-this or science-that around the kids. If we can agree on that, you can spend time with them.

Ow, ow, ow. That’s about where this guy left his mother-in-law. Fight or flight. He looked at me for affirmation.

“Oh…okay,” I said, hesitantly. “And, uh…how’s it goin’?”

“Well,” he said, “we haven’t spoken since then. But I won.”

Aw geez. He’d missed the whole point.

Now I don’t know anything else about this guy’s situation. Maybe this woman put him through ten kinds of hell and deserved nothing more or less than to be cut off at the knees. Maybe there was no hope of achieving anything beyond that self-satisfying gofuckyourself. But even if the former is true, the latter almost never is.

If his situation was like 95 percent of those I’ve seen or heard described, his “I won” showed that he misunderstood both the problem and the solution. What did he win—the right to raise his child without religion? As the parent, he’d already “won” that right (barring inter-spousal differences — another post.) If his mother-in-law is actively, directly controlling his parenting decisions, he has a different (and much larger) problem, one that his monologue did nothing to solve.

In most cases, the problem isn’t that Grandma is actively preventing you from parenting the way you want—it’s that an atmosphere of tension and dissonance and poison is created by your differences. Sometimes that atmosphere can turn into something more concrete—sneaky proselytizing of the kids, demanding that other family members choose sides, or outright shunning—but it’s the tension itself that’s at the root. Reduce the tension around your differences and you reduce the symptoms of the tension as well.

Whenever I say this in my seminars, I see a half dozen heads shaking slowly. I know what they’re thinking. There’s no point. She’s never going to change her mind, and I’m sure as hell not going to change mine.

This is where we go wrong—by thinking that changing someone’s mind is the only goal of such a conversation. If it was, they’d be right. There’d really be no point. But one of the central idea of this little series is that changing minds is not the only way forward.

What’s needed in these situations is not victory but détente.

hk3499Anyone who lived in the U.S during the Nixon years tends to hear that French word spoken with a German accent. Whenever Kissinger said, “Vee ah voorking vithin a framevoork of détente vith de Zoviets,” I thought it meant, “We agree not to bomb each other for now.” Turns out détente is a much more interesting vurd meaning “a relaxation of tensions and building of mutual confidence.” It is not a ceasefire nor a compromise, but something designed to make an actual exchange of warheads less likely. In the Cold War, détente meant (among many other things) exchanging ballet companies and art exhibits and such to show each other our human sides.

I do think it’s best to sit down and address tensions about your nonreligious parenting with any religious family member who is especially distressed by it. The key is to aim for a reduction in tension, not a “win.” You’re the parent. You’ve already “won” the right to do your thing. What you want is to scale back the tension and discomfort resulting from those choices so your kids can grow up in the best possible family situation. And you can do it without giving up anything. That’s détente.

Next time I’ll share my thoughts on how to do that.

International Day of Peace 2009

(A revised and updated post from September 2007.)

peacedove32209War is most often unnecessary, ineffective, immoral, or all three.


Let’s define necessary as “something essential; something that cannot be done without,” and effective as “something that accomplishes its stated objectives.” I believe war most often fails to meet both of these criteria. It’s usually unnecessary, because there are almost always alternatives that have been proven to work brilliantly if the intervention happens early enough. It’s usually ineffective because it most often exacerbates the very problems it seeks to solve. And it’s usually immoral because (among other things) it brings with it massive unintended consequences for the innocent — my main objection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some stats to consider:

One in seven countries are currently at war.

More than half of war deaths are civilians.

There are now over 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.

Children account for two-thirds of those killed in violent conflict since 1990.

An increasing percentage of world conflicts involve poor nations (formerly one third, now one half).

The average civil war drains $54 billion from a nation’s economy.

25 million people are currently displaced by war.

Mortality among displaced persons is over 80 times that of the non-displaced.

Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years.

[SOURCE: UN Development Programme Human Development Report, 2005]

Yes, stopping Hitler was a terrific idea. Unfortunately, our public discourse now evokes WWII as the justification for all wars instead of recognizing it as one of the very few necessary wars in our history. (See Ken Burns’ documentary THE WAR for a powerful condemnation of the ongoing misuse of WWII to justify discretionary wars.)

Here’s a nice nutshell: Except in the rare cases when war is necessary AND effective AND morally defensible, peace is preferable.

Seems reasonable — which may be why so many atheists and humanists have added their voices to (among others) the Catholic, Quaker, and Unitarian Universalist peace traditions in opposing war.

This position isn’t universal among the religious, of course. Nearly every day I wind up in traffic behind someone with a bumpersticker collage in praise of God, Guns, Country, and War.

Nor do all nontheists agree. Bob Price lays out an opposing POV in a piece that is surprisingly weak for him. Among my several objections to his essay: he doesn’t mention unintended consequences, my MAIN reason for opposing war; he seems to oppose atheist pacifism in part because it “seem(s) to embrace social ethics that mirror in startling ways the stance of Christianity,” as if any common ground is automatically “startling”; and he presents a straw man of moral equivalency that bears zero resemblance to my position — nor Bertrand Russell’s, for that matter. No surprise that WWII was the sole exception in Russell’s opposition to war. (Price’s depiction of anti-capital punishment positions is somehow even weaker. I oppose capital punishment not because I refuse to “cast the first stone” at a murderer, but mainly because of the high error rate in convictions.)


So why bring up war and peace today? No, it’s not Tolstoy’s birthday. Today is the International Day of Peace, an observance created by the UN in 1982 “to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of mankind [sic], to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways… (The International Day of Peace) should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.” (from General Assembly Resolution UN/A/RES/36/67)

News organizations have offered their annual yawn. A Google News search today brings up all of 399 references to the phrase “International Day of Peace” and 355 to “Peace Day” — mostly in non-U.S. media.

Not only do the stats and history seem to support the futility of war, but the foundation of secular ethics is this: in the absence divine safety net, we are all we’ve got, so we ought to try very hard to take care of each other. If war generally fails to accomplish its objectives while impoverishing and killing millions of innocent bystanders, secular ethics ought to oppose it — except in the rare cases when there really is no alternative.

When it comes to this standard, most of our national violence is far more analogous to the Mexican-American War than to the fight against Hitler.

Talk to your kids about your preference for peace, the futility of violence, the situation of child victims of war — and the fact that all of these opinions flow quite naturally from a secular worldview. Donate to Nonviolent Peaceforce, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, or another organization that’s out there doing the heavy lifting for humanity.

New video from Nonviolent Peaceforce

Support Mt Carmel Christian Church

nativity43309You heard me.

One hundred twenty volunteers from Mt. Carmel Christian in Atlanta constructed a drive-through nativity. Wednesday night the scene was severely vandalized. Over $2000 will be required to repair the scene before it reopens tonight at 6pm.

I hope and trust I am not alone in the freethought community in feeling outrage at this news. Whether or not you support the message of the display, vandalism and violence are completely out of bounds. I’ve sent messages to the Atlanta Freethought Society, Secular Coalition for America, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation urging them to take a quick public stand on this. I’ll shortly be contacting the other national organizations as well.

One of our most fundamental shared values — free expression — has been attacked. Secular humanist organizations and individuals should take an immediate and public stand condemning these actions. If nothing else, such statements would make an eloquent counterpoint to the stolen atheist poster in Seattle.

Article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Send a note of support to Rev. Seth Wortman

One Safe Generation

I’m thrilled to announce that ONE SAFE GENERATION has now gone live at the Institute for Humanist Studies. Many thanks to Matt Cherry and the rest of the folks at IHS for providing a home for this project.

ONE SAFE GENERATION is a humanist initiative to create a more humane, ethical, and reasonable world by breaking the chain of inherited violence and fear. Our goal is to make it possible for one generation to grow up free of violence. In support of this goal of “one safe generation,” we are advancing initiatives to combat violence against children in the home, in the community, and on the fields of war. Below is the introduction to the site. Throughout the summer I will post periodic focus pieces highlighting the elements of this project.


One Safe Generation

Our reason, our judgment, and our ethics are all severely impaired when we are afraid. Examples of individuals, groups, and nations thinking poorly and acting immorally under the influence of fear are innumerable.

Violence and other social pathologies are perpetuated from one generation to the next, as victims of violence in childhood are likely to become the perpetrators of violence in the next generation. From corporal punishment and neglect on the individual level to the forced conscription of child soldiers and the disproportionate victimization of children in war, each generation of adults has a choice to pass on traditions of violence and fear—or refuse to do so.

ONE SAFE GENERATION is a humanist initiative to create a more humane, ethical, and reasonable world by making choices to break the chain of inherited violence and fear. Our goal is to make it possible for one generation to grow up free of violence at all levels, from the family home to the urban streets to the field of war.


By recognizing that all manner of social pathologies—from violent conflict to religious fundamentalism to the suppression of free expression—are ultimately rooted in fear, humanists can focus our energies on that root cause even as we work to lessen the damage done by its various expressions.
One generation liberated from violence and fear would be more rational, more compassionate, more confident, and far less likely to perpetrate violence on its own children. By allowing a single generation to grow up safely, the tradition of inherited violence can be broken and the future remade.

ONE SAFE GENERATION will gather valid research and resources in a single, accessible location; counter the advocates of violence in public forums; advocate progressive public policies on related issues through op-eds and legislation; and encourage support for existing organizations and advocates in three areas:

    1. Nonviolent parenting
    2. Advocacy of progressive child social policies
    3. Protecting children from the effects of war

In identifying fear itself as the enemy, Franklin Roosevelt made a statement of greater lasting import than he may have intended. In these pages, you will find resources for information and action in the service of raising a generation of children less fearful, and more hopeful, than any of their ancestors dared dream.


    Bloom, Sandra. Ph.D. Neither liberty nor safety: the impact of fear on individuals, institutions, and societies, part I. Psychotherapy and Politics International, Vol. 2, Issue 2 (2004)
    Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. ‘Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review, Psychological Bulletin 128 (2002)

the essence of war


The final manuscript prep for Raising Freethinkers is killing me. It literally has its hands around my throat, applying steady pressure to my windpipe, saying Who’s the tough guy now, eh, paesan? Writers…youse guys make me wanna puke. I remember this in the final days before PBB was submitted, too, that ghastly realization that it’s about to be tooooo laaaaaate to change anything.

I don’t read much during periods of intense writing, preferring audiobooks to another half-hour of line scanning. But I decided the other day, weirdly and out of the blue, that I don’t know enough about India. I pulled the first volume of Durant’s Story of Civilization off the shelf and lost myself in Indian history for a bit.

I was rewarded almost immediately with a line I will never forget, one that captures the essence of war. Durant describes the Indo-Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent about 4000 years ago:

Their word for war said nothing about national honor, but simply meant ‘a desire for more cows.’

(from Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization, vol I, p. 397.)

october 2: international day of nonviolence

We interrupt our week-long series on the AAI Convention to bring you a PSA in praise of nonviolence. Just 900 words. Humor me.


I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could.
Mohandas Gandhi

Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak… Nonviolence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.
Cesar Chavez

Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, the US was in a nearly unprecedented position as the sympathetic victim, rather than the perpetrator, of violence. Virtually the entire world rallied to our side.

We had an astonishing opportunity. And I knew we were going to fritter it away. Who could doubt it? I knew that we would never be able to muster the national will to even discuss an alternative to military force. I was phenomenally depressed by 9/11, and by the sound of 200 million Americans dropping tribally to their knees in response, but I was even more depressed by the knowledge that we would soon head into a protracted military endeavor that would fail to achieve its goals while killing countless innocent people. It’s what empires do — they lash out with power, and in the process screw whatever chance they had of surviving in the long run.

I wrote an essay on September 22 and sent it to the Secular Web. It called attention to the incredible opportunity in that moment, noting that our momentary status as the victims of violence would be lost when we lobbed the first cruise missile. The violence would squander that precious global goodwill, redirect outrage away from the terrorists and onto us, kill hundreds of thousands of innocents, fail to achieve its goals, and spawn new, intractable violence and more terrorism. That’s what I thought would happen, anyway.

Gee, let’s tally up my scorecard.

Instead, I said, we should preserve and focus the outrage against the terrorists by keeping it absolutely clear that the evil resided solidly on one side of the equation. The entire world would have joined together to put an economic and political stranglehold on the Taliban until they gave up bin Laden and the rest. The moment we answered violence with violence, we would lose the moral high ground and the opportunity it afforded TO WIN.

I advocated responding on a national level by making use of the proven principles of nonviolence. Why? Not because they are nice, but because THEY WORK.

Sorry I keep shouting, but I get incredibly frustrated when I discuss nonviolent action. It is almost always seen as a softheaded passivity, a kind of wishful daisies-in-the-rifle-barrels approach to the hard realities of the world. That’s what the disgusted, angry readers of the essay seemed to think as they ladled out fallacy after misconception after misreading.

daisies in rifles

Some readers called it “feel-good superstition…a kind of naive wishfulness that thinks the good shall triumph because it is good.” Hmm. Maybe if Gandhi and King had actually succeeded in their struggles, nonviolent action would have a better reputation.

Oh wait. They did succeed.

The fact is, violence — though it makes one feel awesomely powerful and ever-so-active — almost never works on any level. Corporal punishment creates more discipline problems than it solves. Capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. And the destabilizing effects of war — especially its inevitable “collateral damage” — create the necessary conditions for more violence and hatred for generations after the fighting stops. Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years, and more than half of war deaths are civilians.

There were countless violent attempts by the people of India to kick out the British between the 1840s and the 1940s. All failed. Gandhi brought nonviolent resistance to bear, especially in the Quit India campaign of the early 1940s, and succeeded where violence had failed.

Isn’t that interesting?

Nonviolent resistance relies in part on the fact that everyone, from Hitler on up, sees him/herself as good and his/her cause as just. When the British responded brutally to the nonviolent resisters, the world recoiled in horror. It was patently clear who was in the wrong. The British, accustomed to seeing themselves as a civilizing force in the world, were ultimately unable to retain the national political will to remain — and they walked out of the Jewel of the Empire.

Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the same tactics in the American South. Had blacks responded with violence to Bull Connor and his dogs and firehoses, the American public would have seen violence on violence and been unable to discern who was right and who was wrong. Instead, they allowed themselves to (are you ready?) turn the other cheek, and in so doing received the powerful moral endorsement and active compliance of the wider world.


The black protestors seemed so reasonable and the white police so unreasonable, it was a no-brainer. The civil rights movement took an enormous leap forward.

If we had pursued active but nonviolent means to respond after Sept. 11, we would have robbed the terrorists of whatever claim they had to moral justification for their sucker punch.

Nonviolence has worked, over and over and over. Violence has failed, over and over and over. So why is it that we roll our eyes at the concept of nonviolence as if it equates to rolling over and playing dead?

Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is at work in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Colombia, Guatemala, and Uganda, building the infrastructure for nonviolent alternatives to war. Today is Gandhi’s birthday, and the International Day of Nonviolence — and the final day of NP’s Work a Day for Peace campaign. As secularists, we know that no one’s up there keeping us from killing each other. We have to do that ourselves. Pop over to the Work a Day for Peace site and contribute what you can.

Imagine the power of teaching our kids a response to violence that actually works. But remember that there are specific principles and strategies involved. You have to do a bit of study to really unlock its potential. It isn’t just a matter of telling kids not to hit back on the playground, or telling armies not to shoot back when shot at. That’s the cartoon version.

Check your local library to learn about nonviolent theory and practice as it has slowly developed through the 20th century. Or watch Gandhi. At some point, the lightbulb usually goes on, and violence loses another cheerleader.

Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism by David Cortright

Nonviolence in Theory and Practice by Barry L. Gan (auth) and Robert L. Holmes (ed)

Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential by Gene Sharp

A classic:
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg