Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

The Relaxed Parent Film Festival [greatest hits]

[Continuing the reruns during my busy weeks. This one first appeared on May 23, 2007, so adjust ages etc. accordingly.]

Our Friday night tradition started sometime last year. Every Friday we get a pizza the size of a Buick and a family movie.

By family movie, I don’t mean “family movie.” I mean a movie that our whole family watches together, which believe you me is not often the same thing. And here’s where it gets interesting. It’s my job each week to choose the film. Here’s the audience:

MALE, 44, WRITER. Enjoys philosophical themes; unpredictable, non-linear narratives; line-crossing humor.
FEMALE, 41, EDUCATOR. Enjoys chick-flicks, ro-coms, foreign films. Has never seen a movie without crying.
MALE, 11. Enjoys science fiction, sports, fantasy, adventure. Hates everything he loved at ages nine and five.
FEMALE, 9. Enjoys character-driven dramas and comedies. Gets lost in non-linear narratives, requiring frequent paternal trips to the pause button.
FEMALE, 5. Enjoys an amazingly wide range of flicks, from Pokemon to war movies to comedies to space epics. Can’t read, so captions are out. Hides eyes whenever the music turns minor.

(As of this reposting, we are 47, 44, 14, 12, and 8. The 14-year-old now hates everything he loved at 11, and the 8-year-old reads better than I do, but still hides eyes when the music says to.)

Okay now…find us a movie.

When it comes to parental concerns on movie night, our guidelines might strike some as reckless. I prefer the word relaxed. And that relaxation is a good fit with our worldview.


Conservative religious denominations often teach that humankind is inherently sinful — that beneath a thin veneer of civility lurks a boiling depravity, just itching to stretch its legs. We must erect all sorts of protections and precautions to avoid opening the floodgates, lest we crack each others’ heads open to feast on the goo inside.

Not a Veneerist myself. Though we humans do occasionally screw things up rather royally, most of the time most of us behave well, especially if we feel loved and supported by those around us. It’s yet another gift of evolution. Populations with a tendency toward self-destruction would quickly lose the selective advantage to cooperative ones. The outlook that my kids are evolutionarily inclined to be good changes almost EVERYTHING about my parenting, especially compared to those who see their kids as simmering pots of potential felony and monitoring the flames beneath them as the most urgent parental task. It allows me, among other things, to focus on drawing them out instead of beating them in.

I don’t have to psychotically protect my children from scratches to their protective layer. I want to immerse them in the colors and contrasts and confusions of the world — gradually, yes, but definitely. I believe this fearless approach is ending us up with some pretty remarkable, multifaceted, complex, wonderful kids. You should meet them. I think you’d agree. So, dinner on Thursday, then?

I once had a student, a college freshman, who had never seen a non-Disney movie. It was the standard her parents had developed to protect her from certain ideas, images, and themes — call them “colors” — that could have scratched her veneer, damaging the porcelain doll beneath, or worse yet, letting loose the she-wolf within.


As a result, she hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. She hadn’t seen E.T. Is there a Disney film that deals with the longing for home as beautifully as those two?

Since we began our movie tradition about forty Fridays ago, my kids have been exposed to a fantastic variety of themes and ideas, cultural touchpoints they refer to over and over. Yes, we’ve seen Flicka and Flipper, Over the Hedge, Little Manhattan and The Karate Kid. But then there are these:

Pleasantville • Edward Scissorhands • Cool Hand Luke • The Great Escape • Jesus Christ Superstar • Rain Man • Big Fish • Empire of the Sun • Life of Brian • Groundhog Day • Walking with Cavemen • South Pacific • Raising Arizona • Intimate Universe • The Truman Show • Walking with Dinosaurs • The Pursuit of Happyness • Stranger than Fiction • I, Robot • About a Boy • Brian’s Song • Parenthood • Bridge on the River Kwai

In addition to the Gs and PGs, they’ve seen plenty of PG-13s, and a few carefully-chosen Rs (like Rain Man). That means once in a while our kids hear a good solid swear or a reference to actual human sexuality, and have somehow avoided the plunge into foul-mouthed promiscuity.

I think this kind of low-key, normalized exposure makes it less likely they’ll gravitate toward these behaviors. If instead we hide these things, we make them powerful, attractive…forbidden fruit. When a Veneerist jumps for the remote at the first deep kiss or angry curse, he underlines the message that something truly magical is afoot.

Readers who tend toward Veneerism will naturally suppose that I’m advocating porn and slasher marathons for toddlers. Non-Veneerists know there’s something between Little House on the Prairie and Debbie Does Dallas — a great big juicy wonderful and textured middle. My kids have been there, and they’re all the richer for it.

TSIn less than a year, the five of us have explored the importance of honesty (About a Boy, Liar Liar), felt deep compassion and empathy (Brian’s Song, Pursuit of Happyness), learned to care deeply about those who are different (Rain Man, Edward Scissorhands), admired courage and perseverance (Empire of the Sun, The Great Escape), contemplated the meaning of humanness (I, Robot), challenged smiling conformity (Pleasantville, Life of Brian, Big Fish) and questioned our assumptions about reality itself (The Truman Show, Stranger than Fiction, Groundhog Day, Big Fish). We even stood with Judas as he took Jesus to task for neglecting the less fortunate as he pursued his own fame (Jesus Christ Superstar), traced our origins (Walking With Cavemen) and learned never, ever to build a bridge for the enemy, even if your craftsmanship makes you proud (Bridge on the River Kwai). Can’t tell you how many times that lesson has come in handy.

My kids have cried with empathy for people who initially scared them.


Most important of all, they’ve learned that a man really can eat fifty eggs.

50 eggs

Yes, fine, Charlie Babbitt [Tom Cruise] says “fuck” about a dozen times in Rain Man. He does so because he’s an arrogant, selfish jerk — and arrogant, selfish jerks don’t say “boogers” when they’re mad. My kids didn’t want to be like Charlie Babbitt, so why would they emulate his language? Instead, they marveled at how his selfishness slowly transformed into first tolerance, then selfless love for his brother — something underlined by his changing use of the full palette of the English language.


About the tenth time Charlie cussed, Erin shot me a look and said, “Boy, you can tell what kind of person he is.” She had a chance to handle it, process it, and put it in perspective in our living room rather than on the schoolbus.

Best of all, they’re developing a taste for the unique, the creative, and the offbeat, for imaginative narratives and complex visions of the world.

Sure, sometimes I cringe and leap to the remote when a scene heads a little further than we’d expected. But it’s worth the risk. So next time you’re thinking about a film for the whole family, reach beyond G and PG. Let them engage the messy, fascinating world out there while you’re in the living room with them. They can handle more than we give them credit for.

Is somebody watching Tim Minchin’s cholesterol?

timminchin21109I don’t fall in love as often as I used to. When I was young, I ran into something new to love every time I turned around. Like Kurt Vonnegut, like fresh guacamole. Like sex with others, like Richard Dawkins.

Like deeelicious sentential ambiguity.

I find myself falling in love a lot less often at middle age. I need to be surprised, and it’s hard to do that to me anymore. Everything seems derivative. That’s bad, because though some of my old loves (like sex and guacamole) have staying power, most lose their luster with time. I’m still friends with some of my early loves, like David Hume and Tower of Power, but we don’t bump uglies as much as we used to. I need new meat, and I go years at a time without finding anything worth stalking.

But in 2009 alone, I fell for three very promising things: coconut red curry beef, Radiolab, and Tim Minchin.

I don’t like the fact that the things I love are finite. Peek under the religious impulse and I think you’ll find that exact thing — an answer to the human yearning that shit be mortal and the good eternal. When I first recognized Radiolab as my soulmate, I downloaded the complete podcast archive of 63 shows. A few quick calculations later, I realized that 63 was a finite number and wept. I’m now halfway through that archive, and that realization still sniffles a bit every time I finish an episode. They’re making more, but too slowly.

My wife Becca is also said to be mortal. I’ve made her promise to outlive me, something that required less arm-twisting than I would have liked.

I’m not the only one in this house who hates impermanence. I blogged last year about my youngest, Delaney, hearing that Dr. Seuss was no longer alive:

Erin (9): Is he still alive?

Dad: Who?

Erin: Dr. Seuss.

Dad: Oh. No, he died about fifteen years ago, I think. But he had a good long life first.

As I continued reading, I suddenly became aware that Delaney (6) was very quietly sobbing.

Dad: Oh, sweetie, what’s the matter?

Delaney: Is anybody taking his place?

Dad: What do you mean, punkin?

Delaney: Is anybody taking Dr. Seuss’ place to write his books? (Begins a deep cry.) Because I love them so much, I don’t want him to be all-done!

I scanned the list of Seuss books on the back cover. “Hey, you know what?” I said. “We haven’t even read half of his books yet!”

Feeble, I know. So did she.

“But we will read them all!” she said. “And then there won’t be any more!” I had only moved the target, which didn’t solve the problem in the least.

Which brings me to Tim Minchin’s cholesterol.

Tim is a British-born Australian comedian who (like most great, original comedians) makes that word look flimsy and inadequate. I found him earlier this year through his nine-minute beat poem “Storm.” I listened to it, found it unbelievably smart and funny and posted it on the blog, and then let busyness keep me from finding and having my way with everything he has ever done.

Last week I came across “Storm” again, re-swooned at it, then downloaded the whole live CD on which it appears.

Holy Shi’ite.

If a 15-track CD — music, comedy, whatever — has three good, two great, and one brilliant track, I count myself lucky. Double each of those at least and you’ve got Tim Minchin’s CD Ready for This?

Since surprise is so much of the thrill, I won’t try to describe any of them specifically. I’ll just say that his vehicle is the comedy song, that his musical chops as both composer and piano performer are insane, and that his comic sensibility and intelligence make this some of the most densely rewarding comedy I have found in a long, long time looking.

It’s not all about surprise, though. Yesterday, while listening to one of the tracks in the car for the FOURTH time, I began laughing/crying so hard that I had to hand the steering wheel over to Isaac Newton for a minute. Listen to the developing intellectual and comic curve of this thing:

(I began to lose control at 2:20 and went over the cliff at 2:36. Thanks for the cards and letters.)

It goes on and on. But here’s the thing: Tim Minchin is going to die. I now have a vested interest in preventing this, or at least delaying it until after my own exit. That way I can cultivate the idea that it will be Tim Minchin who kills me in the end — me 85, driving; he 73, singing.

I had hoped for the same lifelong gift from David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer, who was exactly my age when clinical depression hung him from a rafter in his home last year. I’ll be needing Tim Minchin to stick around longer than that — at least twice as long as his great-great-great-great uncleses and auntses, as he would put it. That’s why I hope somebody is watching Tim’s cholesterol and holding his hand to cross the street (TIP: Traffic in the U.K. goes the wrong way!)

I’m a selfish bastard for even asking these things, really. David Foster Wallace didn’t owe me anything after Infinite Jest — didn’t even “owe” me that — and if Tim Minchin never writes or performs another thing, Ready for This? is plenty.

One of the most unexpected gifts on the CD is the last full song. Titled “White Wine in the Sun,” it’s a straight, simple, moving anthem of the humanist heart — more powerful than any other musical expression of its kind that I’ve heard. And I want it played at my funeral — live would be nice — after which, and only after which, Tim Minchin has permission to die.

Download “Ready for This?” from Amazon
(Note to my brothers: You’re getting a copy for Krismas, so don’t click.)

Love, sex, and death (in rapid succession)

lovenooseERIN, 11: “Hey guess what we were learning about in Health today.”

(Erin loves Health. She is fascinated by the human body. She wants to be a doctor.)

MOM: What?

ERIN, smiling: S-E-X.

MOM: Oh yeah? And what were you learning about it?

ERIN: We learned that when you have sex you can get horrible diseases like AIDS and die.

[Dad buries face in hands, quietly weeps for the species.]

ERIN: What, Daddy?

DAD: The first thing they taught you about sex is that it can kill you? Holy shit.

ERIN: Oooooo, the S-word! Well it’s true, isn’t it?

DAD: (*Sigh*) Yes, it’s true. If you are careless, you can get a horrible disease and die. Did you know you can also die if you eat carelessly?

ERIN: Yeah.

DAD: And if you drive carelessly?

(Erin wants to drive more than anything in the universe. I often let her reach over from the front passenger seat and control the wheel in empty parking lots and in our subdivision. The high points of her current life.)

ERIN: Well yeah, if you’re careless and don’t use your brain.

DAD: But what if the first time you heard about eating, we just said, “Oh, eating? That could kill you.”

ERIN: Dad. When I started eating, I was like an hour old, and it was just booby milk. (Giggle.)

DAD: Fine, driving then. What if the first time we talked about driving, we just said, “Oh, driving? You can die doing that.”

ERIN: That would be annoying.

So we talked about sex. It was not the first time, but the first since it became associated with the Grim Reaper. We talked about the fact that it is a good thing — the most important part of being a living thing, in a way, because without it we wouldn’t exist.

We talked about the fact that sex is something our bodies enjoy, and that evolution made sure of that, and why. And yes, that it’s something for later, and that there can be serious consequences if you let your body shut your brain off.

Mostly I was just sad. Not for my kids, since it wasn’t the first time they’d heard about sex, but for the millions of others who have to wade through fearful bullshit about shame and sin and death before they discover that sex, like a dozen other human joys, is a wonderful, natural, and good part of being fully human — one to be handled with care, to be sure, but first and foremost good.

Bringing in the sheaths

condom430909On March 17, while on the way to Africa, Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI) said that HIV/AIDS was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem.”

The first two clauses are sensible. The third was a dumb and ignorant thing to say. It contradicts very solid empirical evidence to the contrary. Worse yet, it is dangerously ignorant—and certain to cost lives, precisely because Mr. Ratzinger’s word—especially when spoken under his pseudonym—is held to be unquestionable. (Which is why I refer to him by his human name.)

The problem is not that he said it. I’m a fierce advocate of the inalienable human right to say dumb and ignorant things. I like to claim that right myself once in a while, thank you very much. The best way to find out whether an idea of mine is dumb and ignorant is to let it get past my lips. My fellow humans aren’t shy about setting me straight. And that’s good.

The problem with Mr. Ratzinger’s statement is that no matter how self-evidently dumb, millions will not only refuse to set him straight, but try their best to prevent others from doing so.

waroncontra509This wasn’t the first time a member of the highest Catholic ranks has made a disastrously ignorant remark about condoms in Africa. In 2007, the Archbishop of Mozambique claimed that many condoms were intentionally infected with the AIDS virus by European manufacturers.

Forward two years and up one rank—now it’s the Pope.

For the most part, the reactions were predictable—outrage from non-Catholics and a closing of ranks among Catholics — including the claim that you simply may not criticize the Pope.

In response to an editorial cartoon in the Times of London related to Mr. Ratzinger’s comments, Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy O’Connor sounded the predictable note of outrage: “No newspaper should show such disrespect to a person who is held in high esteem by a large proportion of Christians in the world. To pillory the Pope in this way is totally unacceptable.”

So because he is held in high esteem by large numbers, his statements must be respected by the rest of us. I think not—in fact, I seem to recall a whole fallacy devoted to that idea.

The same hollow claim of immunity is captured in this editorial headline in a major Tanzanian daily: Politicians have no moral authority to question Pope’s stand on condoms. (Cue derisive laughter.)

Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi noted that Mr. Ratzinger was merely continuing the line taken by his predecessors, as if this is relevant. In 1990, Karol Józef Wojtyła (aka Pope John Paul II) unhelpfully opined that using condoms is a sin in any circumstance.

Before we even assess the sense or the consequences of that, enjoy a good snort at the idea that a statement is more legitimate only because someone else—anyone else—said it. (Secularists do this, too. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard some form of “Yuh huh, Richard Dawkins says so” offered in full defense of a position.)

The most encouraging part of this whole fece-fling is the voice of Catholic dissent. There are good folks living inside the belly of the beast who have the cojones to ignore repeated orders to switch off their frontal lobes until the Captain says it’s OK to use them again—those with the willingness to think about and openly criticize the statements of a religious leader on merit, regardless of the shape of his hat.

Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice said, “It took the church hierarchy 359 years to stop continuing the line taken by their predecessors on Galileo. We hope that this error does not take so long to change.”

The health ministry of Spain (81% Catholic) said, “Condoms have been demonstrated to be a necessary element in prevention policies and an efficient barrier against the virus.” The statement was issued in the course of announcing a shipment of 1 million condoms to Africa—on the same day as the Pope’s remarks.

Now that’s cojones from the country that invented the very word.

mcelvaineBut the Academy Award for Outstanding Scrotal Fortitude has to go to Robert McElvaine, professor of Arts & Letters at Millsap College and self-identified Catholic, who wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog titled “Impeach the Pope” :

Benedict XVI opens a visit to Africa by telling the people of a continent decimated by AIDS that the distribution of condoms “increases the problem” of the spread of AIDS. I am a Catholic and the idea that such a man is God’s spokesperson on earth is absurd to me.

There are, of course, no provisions in the hierarchical institution set up, not by Jesus but by men who hijacked his name and in many cases perverted his teachings, for impeaching a pope and removing him from office. But there ought to be.

It didn’t take long for the holy knives of umbrage to come out for McElvaine. Edward Peters, author of Excommunication and the Catholic Church: Straight Answers to Tough Questions, said that A canonical penal process should be undertaken against Robert McElvaine” for criticizing the Pope’s statement. And he’s not talking out of his hat—he points to the elements of canon law that support this position.

If there’s a clearer indictment of religion at its most ignorant and counterproductive than that sentence and the article in which it appears, I haven’t seen it.

Many Catholics can and do think for themselves. Many, many more, though, will take Mr. Ratzinger’s opinion as gospel. Think of all the good the Vatican could do with its influence—and of the murderous damage it so often chooses to do instead.
(For a glimpse of what a Catholic hornet’s nest looks like when whacked with a dissenting thought, read the comments on the McElvaine piece.)

You are the Weakest Link, Governor…Goodbye

wlg5498The most stressful moment of my life was my doctoral dissertation defense. For two hours, a committee of people who already hold PhDs in the subject do their level best to make you screw up, to reveal gaping holes in your knowledge of the field. Their tone is often contemptuous — more Weakest Link than Who Wants to Be A Ph.D. — and always with an eye to protecting their field from poseurs. The trick is to uncover any serious deficits before you walk out the door with a degree they’ve signed off on, only to show you slept through some key fundamental. If they decide you aren’t ready, you can be denied both the degree and a second chance. You can, in theory, toss away five years of effort with a single…gaffe.

Once in a while the process fails, and we get a stealth creationist who managed to fake his way through the last gate in a biology program without revealing that he thinks evolution is “just one guy’s idea,” or a law grad who thinks Marbury vs. Madison was a football game. But the whole purpose of the grueling, humiliating dissertation defense is to find these people out and show them the door.

Political campaigns at their best serve the same purpose, ferreting out candidates who are clueless not just on this or that item of knowledge, but on the absolutely non-negotiable fundamentals of the office they seek.

There are mere gaffes — Howard Dean saying the Book of Job is in the New Testament, McCain referring to the ambassador of Czechoslovakia (which no longer exists), Obama saying he’d been to 57 states, Biden putting Roosevelt on TV in 1929. These are amusing, but all honest people know they are sideshows of little real import. Thirty seconds later, the candidate usually self-corrects, because he or she simply misspoke.

And then there are GASPERS, statements that reveal such a breathtaking deficit on the part of the candidate that all the oxygen goes out of the room, and a bug-eyed, oh-shit silence hangs like a shroud. These don’t deserve to be called gaffes because the candidate didn’t misspeak. If asked to clarify, he or she would say the same thing, over and over, because it is what s/he actually believes.

For examples of such epic, terrifying moments of revealed ignorance, we need look no further in this election cycle than the governor of Alaska.

I’m not talking about dinosaurs living 4,000 years ago. That’s bad enough, but it is at least conceivable that she could get her cladistic timescales just that wrong and still function as a head of state without doing too much damage. Not a desirable thing, but conceivable.

However…when I first read about her book banning efforts in Wasilla and the subsequent firing of the town librarian (who refused to consider such a request), I had one of those genuinely oh-shitting moments. We differ on energy policy, foreign policy, blah blah blah. Those we can argue about. But someone who doesn’t even understand why censorship is bad, inherently bad, no-matter-who-is-doing-it-or-why-or-what-books-are-involved bad, has instantly outed herself as the Weakest Link and needs a gentle shove to the exit.

When she showed for the third time that she hasn’t taken the 90 seconds required to read the description of the job she seeks, she earned a somewhat rougher shove to the door by inventing a startling new power for the VP — being “in charge of the United States Senate”:

Thank you for coming. And don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

If the camel’s back weren’t already busted enough, the last straw came over the weekend when during a speech advocating increased funding for research benefiting special needs kids, Governor Palin said:

She kids us not! Fruit flies! What kind of stupid science is that?

The, uh…scientific kind. The smart and useful kind.

It’s hard to get through eighth grade science without learning that a huge portion of what we know about genetics comes from fruit fly research. Thanks to their rapid regeneration, huge fecundity, and simple genome, fruit flies are the single most studied organism on the planet. It’s okay for Jane Sixpack to not know that. It’s not okay for a potential policymaker to state an intention to foist breathtaking ignorance of the most basic science on the rest of us. Again.

There is irony as well, of course: While urging greater funding of research to benefit special needs children, she mocks and derides the funding of research that directly benefits special needs children. Among other things, the fruit fly research she derides has recently provided breakthroughs in understanding autism. By shooting off her mouth about things she knows little about, she achieves the opposite of her intended result.

This fits into a larger pattern — a world and worldview in which this kind of inside-out thinking is a way of life.

In the religiously conservative world Palin inhabits, you can be opposed to teen pregnancy, then advocate abstinence-only sex ed, which increases rates of teen pregnancy.

You can oppose antisocial behaviors in children, then advocate corporal punishment, which has been shown to increase antisocial behaviors in children.

You can decry immorality in children, then advocate a commandment-based authoritarian moral education, which reseach has shown to “actually interfere with moral development” (Nucci, et al.) more than any other approach.

Now imagine instead a person who wants all the same things — meaningful and useful science, a reduction in teen pregnancy, and kids who are well-behaved and moral — but goes beyond what “seems” right to find out what we’ve actually learned, through careful research, about genetics, teen pregnancy, and moral development.

Then vote for that person.

Circumcision Decision

Three winners have been selected from the gratifyingly multitudinous and high quality submissions to the first annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition. The winners are:

BLAKE EVANS, “Circumcision Decision”
ROBBIN DAWSON, “Look at the Bird”
ROBYN PARNELL, “Grandmas Gone God-Wild”

The winning entries will be presented here and in Humanist Network News in no particular order over the coming three months. Thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to Blake, Robbin, and Robyn!


Circumcision Decision

by Blake Evans

“I’ve decided to let you decide whether or not to circumcise.”

Sally said this to me one night, about six months into her pregnancy.

“Only if it’s a boy, though, right?”

One side of her mouth turned up. “Yes. Only if it’s a boy,” she said patiently.

Obviously, we had chosen not to learn the gender of the fetus. So few surprises in life and all that. But, apparently, that did not absolve me from making this decision.

“Why do I have to decide?” I asked.

“OK, I’ll tell you what: if it’s a boy, you decide. If it’s a girl, I decide.”

Didn’t seem quite fair somehow.

In the interest of too much full disclosure, I should note that I am circumcised, as are most men who were born in the US between the mid-1870’s and the mid-1970’s. According to Edward Wallerstein, author of Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy, the practice started in the US as a way of discouraging masturbation, and only started to wane in the 70’s after the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “…there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” Still, neonatal circumcision in the US is believed to be as high as 60% of all male newborns.

Why is it still done? Part of the answer lies in religious and traditional beliefs.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. — Genesis 17:10

And Herodotus, the Father of History, writing in the 5th century BCE, said of the Egyptian priests, “whereas other men… have their members as nature made them, the Egyptians practice circumcision.” I doubt, though, that either of these explains why my Unitarian parents chose to have me and my brother cut.

“If you decide not to circumcise him, I don’t think I’m comfortable cleaning it.”

“What? Why not?”

“I don’t know how!”

“Well, what makes you think I do? I’ve never had to clean one that wasn’t cut.”

Some people point out that most cultures that practice circumcision come from desert environments, and perhaps this practice prevented infections, called balanitis, that might occur when sand gets under the foreskin. In fact a nurse practitioner at the OB’s office mentioned this when I asked for her opinion.

“They said they see an increase in infection in uncircumcised males over in Iraq, so there does seem to be some benefit.” I was never able to confirm this, and I found it stated as a reason for circumcision going back at least as far as World War II, but there was never any evidence for it. Preemptive cutting to avoid balanitis seemed a bit like removing his appendix on the off-chance he gets appendicitis.

“Plus,” continued the NP,” there is reason to believe it reduces the transmission of HIV and other STDs.” Well, so do condoms, but much more effectively.

“So, have you decided?” Sally’s sister was visiting and had just been told that it was all up to me.

“Not yet.”

“Well, if you want my opinion, I haven’t seen many that were uncut. But… they’re kinda weird.”

Aesthetics is definitely about what one is used to seeing. As Herodotus said further about the Egyptians, “they circumcise themselves for the sake of cleanliness, preferring to be clean rather than comely.” Apparently circumcised penises looked weird to the ancient Greeks. I, as with most of my generation, am used to the circumcised look.

Which was exactly why I was having such a problem deciding. Wasn’t my hesitation ultimately about my son looking like me? If there “are no valid medical indications for circumcision,” why on Earth would I do it? If I were uncut, or if I was from a religious tradition that required it as a covenant, I doubt this would even have been a question in my mind. But based purely on aesthetics, with no medical evidence to validate it, nor religious tenet to guide me, how could I justify removing something that could never be replaced? How could I surgically alter “his member as nature made it?”

In the delivery room, Sally asked me again, “Have you decided about the circumcision?”

“I’m about 80% sure I’ll leave it intact.”

What did I eventually do?

I had a daughter.
BLAKE EVANS recently left a consulting practice to become a stay-at-home dad. He lives in New York City with his partner Sally, their child CJ, and a brown dog. During nap-time, he runs the blog domestic father, a site dedicated to skeptical parenting and critical thinking.

Put down the knife! Now back away, slowly…

The leaves are falling, temperatures are falling…and foreskins, apparently, are falling as well.

Circumcision is in the air! I received two emails recently asking for my thoughts on the procedure, both from fathers who are making the decision soon for a newborn son. Then yesterday I came across a very thoughtful post about it on the Domestic Father blog. He says most of what I would say, but I’ll go on the record here as well.

We had our son circumcised, and I wish we hadn’t. The question just snuck up on me in the form of a nurse and a clipboard when I was exhausted. “Most people do,” she said. Baaaaaa, I replied.

It was originally a religious ceremony, a (quite strange, if you think about it) symbol of faithfulness to God. But interestingly, circumcision was not common outside of Jewish and Muslim practice until the 1890s, when a few religious enthusiasts, including the strange character JH Kellogg, recommended it as a cure for “masturbatory insanity.” Kellogg spent much of his professional effort combating the sexual impulse and helping others to do the same, claiming a plague of masturbation-related deaths in which “a victim literally dies by his own hand” and offering circumcision as a vital defense. “Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as this pernicious habit,” warned a Dr. Alan Clarke (referring to masturbation, not circumcision).

Given these jeremiads by well-titled professionals, the attitudes of American parents in the 1890s turned overnight from horror at the barbarity of this “un-Christian” practice to immediate conviction that it would save their boys from short and insane lives. It was even reverse-engineered as a symbol of Christian fidelity and membership in the church.

(Isn’t it a relief that we’ve left this kind of mass gullibility so very far behind?)

The supposed health benefits and other red herrings were created after the fact, in the early 20th century, to undergird sexual repression with a firm foundation of pseudoscience.
Anyone interested in the non-pseudo variety might look to the Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Medical Association, and dozens of similar organizations around the world who have issued statements calling the practice of circumcision “not recommended” because of associated risks. Others, including the British Medical Association, have articulated a slight possibility of slight benefits. Even so, The U.S. is the only remaining developed country in which the practice is still somewhat common — though many American HMOs no longer cover it.

The practice almost completely ended in the UK with the publication of a 1949 paper noting that 16-19 infant deaths per year were attributable to complications from the procedure.

One of my correspondents told me that “all the doctors we talk to say that it doesn’t matter one way or the other.” This seems to answer the question. No invasive medical procedure should be undertaken that does not have demonstrable benefits.

Add to that the strong possibility that sexual sensitivity is diminished, and I’d advise against it. It’s a form of genital mutilation, after all — just a more familiar one.

There’s also no rush. The boy can choose to go under the knife at 18 if he wishes. Considering just how likely that is should give any parent serious pause before greenlighting a pointless ritual relic when he’s an infant.

Circumcision Information and Resource Pages (CIRP), UK

Laughing matters 6: Crossing lines, thank gawd

[Back to laughing matters 5]

Your [human] race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug push it a little weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.
–Satan, in The Mysterious Stranger by MARK TWAIN

This brilliant piece of satire immediately brought that Twain quote to my mind:


When Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist posted it, several commenters said they found it “inappropriate” and “in poor taste.” One sniffed, “I highly question the integrity of someone who would post it.” That the commenter’s incoming link was from a conservative blog is, I’m sure, a coincidence. An equal number of the protestors were surely my fellow Democrats. Our knees have a long history of turning to Jell-O when someone implies we’re being unfair — whether or not they’re right. It’s the one implication we can’t bear.

I don’t care what the perspective is — when a piece of satire is smart, funny, and relevant, I’ll defend it to the death. This parody-poster brilliantly condenses fact and implication by juxtaposing the abstinence-only position of a vice-presidential candidate and her pregnant teenage daughter.

As many others have noted, the McCain campaign made her pregnancy an issue. This parody simply (and quite mildly, folks) makes use of establish facts to drive home a crucial point: Abstinence-only sex education does not work. Over $176 million has been poured into the promotion of abstinence-only sex education, despite studies indicating that a majority of kids taking a virginity pledge fail to keep the pledge, are more likely to have unprotected sex than non-pledgers when they do have sex, and are equally likely to contract STDs.1

Fortunately, teen prenancy is on the decline — but not because of abstinence-only education. According the Guttmacher Institute’s 2006 report, teen pregnancy rates are down 36 percent from 1990 to the lowest level in 30 years, but just fourteen percent of this decrease is attributed to teens waiting longer to have sex. The other 86 percent is the result of improved contraceptive use.

Obama wisely put the topic “off-limits” for campaign staffers, threatening to fire anyone who went after it and rightly noting that he was himself the child of a teenage mother. That’s smart politics. Making the necessary connection to Sarah Palin’s views on sex education is appropriately left to the rest of us. And if we can do it humorously, so much the better.
1“Abstinence Education Faces An Uncertain Future,” New York Times, July 18, 2007; Bearman, Peter and Hannah Brückner: “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 106, No. 4 (Jan 2001), pp. 859-912.

thinking by druthers 4

[The fourth installment in a series on confirmation bias. Back to druthers 3]

She does know about international relations because she is right up there in Alaska right next door to Russia.
Fox and Friends host STEVE DOOCY

She’s the first journalist ever to be nominated, I think, for the president or vice president, and she was a sportscaster on local television. So she has a lot of interesting background. And she has a lot of experience. Remember that, when people worry about how inexperienced she is, for two years she’s been in charge of the Alaska National Guard.
— Former Speaker of the House NEWT GINGRICH (Republican)

sp433092I tried. Oh lawdy, how I tried. I’ve been pacing a hole in my office carpet all weekend, trying to figure out how to not blog about Sarah Palin. Her selection as John McCain’s running mate has everything to do with politics and little to do with the supposed reasons this blog exists, I told myself. If you don’t maintain focus in a blog, the terrorists win.

But I can’t not blog about this. I just can’t.

Then I began to realize how many threads in her story intersect with my topics. Her daughter’s pregnancy symbolizes the poor record of (religiously-fueled) abstinence-only sex education. She favors equal time for creationism in schools. She thinks the Pledge of Allegiance should retain the phrase “under God” because — if you haven’t heard this one, please stop drinking your coffee — “it was good enough for the Founding Fathers.”

So yes, there’s a bit of traction here for me.

But I’ll start with the meta-issue of confirmation bias, my favorite human fallacy, which has been on shameless and painful display by GOP commentators since her candidacy was announced. The Republican Party is breathtakingly adept at manipulating this particular bias to win elections, while the Dems are generally too painfully self-aware to even try it — at least not on the operatic level of doublespeak we’re seeing this week.

Take the Palin relevations of just 96 hours in the spotlight (former pot smoker, experience near nil, not smarter than a fifth grader in world knowledge, pregnant teen daughter, subject of corruption probe). Put them on a Democrat and they’d be evidence of moral and political outrage. On a Republican, they are said (by Republicans) to denote heroism (“They didn’t abort the baby!”), sinlessness (“She hasn’t been corrupted by Washington!”) and the common touch (“I’d love to have a beer/shoot a deer with her!”). Haven’t yet seen the corruption probe spun into gold, but the week is young.

Just as the manufactured link between 9/11 and Iraq stands as a lasting example of the fallacy of the undistributed middle, so the Palin candidacy — or more precisely, its defense — can give us a lasting benchmark for confirmation bias. There has never in memory been a clearer, more public playing out of the fallacy. And as long as the Palin candidacy continues to dip so very many toes into my topical pool, I’ll blog away.

[On to druthers 5]

This week: Site-level redesign to prepare for launch of Raising Freethinkers
Sept 20: Parenting Beyond Belief seminar, Cincinnati
Sept 21: Presentation at CFI Indianapolis
Sept 27: PBB seminar, Iowa City
Sept 28: PBB seminar, Des Moines

Finks ahoy!

There’s plenty of nonsensical meme creation on the Internet (just so you know). One of my least favorites is what I’ll call the Fictional Narrative Cartoon (FNC, or ‘Fink’). Follow these steps to write a Fink of your own:

    1. Select a life stance you have never held or attempted to understand.

    2. Achieve a Vulcan mind-meld with people of that perspective. When that fails, simply pick a set of unflattering assumptions off the top of your head about what the world “must” look like from that perspective.

    3. Weave a fictional monologue or dialogue to describe the world through the eyes of this worldview. Include acts of puppy smooshing for maximum effect.

    4. Post!

    I’ve seen atheists do this to religious folks and vice versa. It tends not to be a true Fink if the person once shared the worldview — the atheist who was once a genuine theist, or the theist who was once a genuine atheist. In those cases, the risk of nonfiction sneaking in is too great. The true Fictional Narrative Cartoon must spring entirely from willful ignorance.

    My Google alert for “atheist parents” brings Christian FNCs about nonreligious parenting into my inbox once in a while. The gods of cyber-serendipity smiled on me yesterday, delivering a Fink about an atheist dad talking to his child about death just days after I had posted a nonfiction narrative of the same thing.

    The blogger, a Christian father of seven, begins by describing his approach as a Christian parent talking to his children about death:

    Have you ever had a surprise party thrown in your honor? You walk through the door and the lights come on and the horns blow, close friends cheer as ribbons and balloons are thrown into the air? Have you ever watched as an athlete’s name is announced and he runs from the dressing room tunnel and onto the field as 60 or 70 thousand people cheer his arrival?…When my kids ask about death, these are some of the analogies that I use…

    What a difference it must be for atheist parents, especially for those who want to be honest with their child.

    He’s right — it is certainly different. And yes, it’s a much greater challenge than contemplating death as a stadium full of angels doing the Wave. Unfortunately he doesn’t stop with what he knows, but begins to construct a Fink:

    “Dad [says the child of the atheist], what happens when we die?”

    “Well, nothing really. We come from nothing and we go to nothing. Either your mom and I or someone else will put you into the ground and cover you with dirt and the person that we knew as YOU will just totally and completely cease to exist.”

    “But how can I just come to an end? What if I only live until I’m five years old? I won’t get to do anything important.”

    “My dear boy. Five years or five hundred years, it doesn’t really matter because none of it counts, not ultimately anyhow. Humans are part of a dying species in a dying universe. You’re an accident little buddy. An absolute accident to which we gave a name. Don’t get me wrong. We love you, and perhaps some day you can even manipulate some other people to love you too. But apart from that you’re pretty much on your own.”

    “But what are we here for? Is there any meaning or purpose to all this?”

    “Use your brain son. How can there be meaning and purpose to something that’s an accident?…Reality is, you come from nothing and you’re headed to nothing, just emptiness, a void. That’s all there is son. That’s not a bad thing son. It just is. The fact is, our life has no meaning, no context and absolutely no purpose save the purpose that you pretend to give it. Pretty cool huh?”

    “But daddy, shouldn’t I at least try to be a good person?”

    “Oh my precious little munchkin. Good and bad are just subjective words that some people use to describe things that they like or don’t like…All I know is, live good, live bad, live for yourself, live for others, none of it matters because the end of the good and the end of the bad, the end of people, pigs and insects is exactly the same, we rot away and become a different form of matter. Now, why don’t you run along. I’ve got some useless and pointless things to do.”

    “But dad, that’s absurd! How do you expect me to be happy if life has no meaning, context or purpose” If that’s the way things are, why did you make me in the fist place?”

    “Well, sweetpea, now you’re starting to ask what’s beginning to feel like a lot of questions. First of all, I couldn’t not make you. My genes compel me to reproduce. I squirt my semen here and there and everywhere…”

    You get the idea.

    I was once at a family gathering where the subject turned to gays and lesbians. I chimed in that homosexual sex is disgusting. They all nodded, mildly surprised.

    “You know something else that’s disgusting?” I added. “Heterosexual sex.” Reduce the sexual act to the physical slapping of flesh and it doesn’t matter who is involved — it’s disgusting. Gay rights opponents recoil at the idea of gay sex because they strip it of the emotional component that transforms their own rutting into something entirely else.

    Reducing a nonreligious parent’s description of death to the slapping of dirt on a coffin achieves the same brand of reductionist nonsense. The Fink starts and stays with sterile facts, never granting the atheist parent the human faculties of compassion or love except as a laugh line. I do think we die, for real, and that love and understanding can help us live with this difficult fact quite beautifully and well — even without invoking balloons and confetti.

    The best thing about the growing nonreligious parenting movement is that we no longer need be content with Finks about nonreligious parenting. We’re living the nonfiction versions. Which points to the most important difference between this blogger’s take on the atheist parent-child conversation and mine.

    Mine actually happened.

    [Link to the fictional conversation]
    [Link to the nonfictional conversation]