Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

I Heart Harmful Books

As I was writing the section on “Lost, Secret, Censored, and Forbidden” books for Atheism for DummiesI came across a list on the website Human Events — Powerful Conservative Voices naming the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Oh, ka-LICK!

It was not just the nonsensical ravings of some random guy. That’s fun too, but too easy and cheap — there’s always that guy somewhere. This list gathered the opinions of “15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders.” Human Events has been around since WWII (initially in print form) and was Ronald Reagan’s “favorite reading for years.”

The result was even better than I’d hoped. In addition to questioning the whole concept of the harmful book, I thought some on the list were just too funny. The Kinsey Report? The Feminine Mystique? Dewey’s Democracy and Education? (The listmaker moans that Dewey introduced the teaching of thinking “skills” — scare quotes included — into public education. Bastard!)

Even better are some of the runners up: Mill’s On Liberty; Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (which harmfully made cars less dangerous); Origin of Species and Descent of Man (of course); Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex…and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring!

Lists of banned books are so damn revealing. In this case, nearly every book on the list, including the runners-up, is challenging the status quo, holding prevailing assumption to the light.

Stephen King’s advice to a group of students was spot-on:

When you hear a book is being banned, RUN, don’t walk, to the first library you can find and read what they’re trying to keep out of your eyes. Read what they’re trying to keep out of your brains. Because that’s exactly what you need to know.”

It is finished.

Well, not really. Still have to write the front matter and Chapter 1 (called the “Dummies chapter”). And there’s still the four-week author review round, where I go through the whole manuscript annotated with the comments of three editors (technical, project, and development) and iron it out. But the hard part — the Creation — that’s done.

The end was pretty ugly, just pushing the words out. I seriously don’t want to hear the word atheist or any of its relatives again for three months.

Because I didn’t write the book in sequence, you’ll have to figure out which chapter I wrote last. It’s not terrible, just mundane. I’ll see if I can spackle some cracks in the review round, perk it up a bit. But overall, for a ten-month project done in four months, I think the book came out all right.

Thanks so much for your help. This blog will be quiet for a little while now. Please pull the door all the way shut on your way out. It sticks.

Q: The Horsemen

I’m finishing up the chapter on great works of atheism in the 21st century. One of the things I’m trying to offer is a way for the uninitiated to think about the books of the Four Horsemen — Harris (End of Faith), Dawkins (God Delusion), Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and Hitchens (God Ain’t All That). They tend to be lumped together, but they’re dramatically different in tone and approach.

One last question then:

Q: What insight would you offer the uninitiated reader about any or all of these four books?

It might be something that surprised or irritated you, a suggestion about which one to read first — anything at all.

As an example, I might make the point that Dawkins’s tone in TGD is a lot less contemptuous and angry than most people expect. I rank him third out of the four on the Contemptometer.

(These aren’t the only books I’ll be talking about, of course, but they’re the ones I’d like to have your thoughts on.)


I’m starting to appreciate the short timeline of this thing. Just 72 hours to go before the deadline, I can’t wait to be done. Not just because it’s monopolized my time and attention for four months, but because I’m driving myself crazy running up a sand dune.

This book is supposed to give a snapshot of atheism today (among many other things), but atheism won’t stand still. Every time I finish a chapter, there’s news that trumps what I wrote. I quoted the nonreligious numbers from ARIS in several chapters (15.1% of the US), only to have the Pew study bump that to 20%. I try to count the heads of SSA chapters and they keep growing new heads. I said there was one atheist in Congress. Then he lost his seat after 40 years. Then I found out an Arizona rep, Kyrsten Sinema, is an out atheist…but her race was too close to call. Then they called it, and she won. So there’s one atheist in Congress, but I have to change the name.

And what if John Boehner suddenly comes out?

It goes on like this. I have an errata sheet as long as my arm, and I can fix those during the author review period between now and December 18. But who knows how much will change by the time the book comes out in March?

It’s a good time to be writing about the movement. Much more exciting than it was even ten years ago. I’ll just have to insert the phrase “At this writing…” before every number, name, and fact in the damn thing.

Most many likely fairly tend

memingwordleRegular readers will know that I like me a good condensation — wordclouds (like this one, for this blog), concordances…anything that can boil a book down to its essence are my friends. Saves all that actual reading, don’t ya know.

In 2007 I compared the concordances (lists of the 100 most often used words) from What the Bible Says About Parenting and Parenting Beyond Belief. That the former, written from a conservative religious perspective, included the words SIN, DUTY, EVIL, FEAR, AUTHORITY, DISCIPLINE, COMMAND, COMMANDMENT, SUBMIT, and LAW in its top 100, while PBB had not a single one of those (and instead had things like REASON, QUESTION, and IDEA) is as telling as any other analysis.

I also mentioned at the time that both books had GOD in the top three. If you think it’s surprising to mention God a lot in a nonreligious parenting book, consider that the top four words in Quitting Smoking for Dummies are SMOKING, SMOKE, TOBACCO, and CIGARETTES.

This week I began wondering what words would end up in the top 100 of Atheism for Dummies. Because I’m working in 21 separate chapter documents, I haven’t done a scan yet, but I have a guess.

ATHEIST and the other labels will be up there, of course, as will GOD, our very own cigarette. But I’m willing to bet that qualifiers like MOST, MANY, LIKELY, FAIRLY, and TEND will also be in the top 100. That’s because it’s damn nigh impossible to speak in absolute terms about who atheists are, how they behave, or what they believe beyond the definitional thing. So I end up saying MOST atheists consider X to be true, atheists TEND to be Y, a given atheist is LIKELY to also be Z.

Obviously there’s variety in every worldview, but at least others can USUALLY point to a canon of presumed beliefs and practices, even if adherents diverge from them in the uh, real world.

(Eighteen days to go.)

Sex, Death, Wonder

Working on a chapter about how the world looks to a naturalistic mind. It’s the last Big Idea chapter, and a good thing — as you can tell by the scarce blog posts, I’m seriously running on fumes.

A bit of the chapter intro:

When someone decides God was created by humans, not the other way around, the rest of the supernatural types tend to follow God out the door. Just as Santa Claus generally takes the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and all the rest with him when he goes, most people who set aside the idea of gods quickly see faeries, goblins, demons, ghosts, and all other magical beings as products of the same fevered human imagination.

What’s left when the supernatural explanations are gone? Natural explanations, of course. Instead of making room for beings that play by a different set of rules, we can assume until proven otherwise that everyone and everything is part of the same natural universe, playing the same natural game — and we set ourselves to the fascinating task of understanding that game.

I then talk about the fact that most converts from religion are surprised to find that the predominant feeling after belief is fully gone is not despair but freedom and relief. I’ve heard those two words together so many times — freedom and relief.

I then give a brief tour of sex, gender, death, virtue, responsibility, meaning, and wonder to show how things look differently once the religious filter is gone — and how they look the same. Ding.

Errata before the fact

Turned in the 75% benchmark on Monday in the midst of a wicked flu that’s left me tuckered.

The last quarter of the book will be a special challenge because of my speaking schedule. In the next four weeks I have events in Ottawa, Columbia SC, Mexico City, and Denver, including a couple of brand new talks. Oy. On Nov 12, exactly one week after I return from Denver, I have to turn in the last word of the book.

One of the things I have going now is a list of things to fix, add, or subtract in the edit round for chapters I’ve already submitted. Like the Pew study that has nicely bolloxed up all my stats by shooting the number of Nones up from 15 percent to 20, and Young Millennial Nones (18-22) from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3. Unholy buckets, people, stand still.

I also have to add a fact I somehow missed until today — that Australia’s smart and articulate sitting Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an out atheist. How do I miss these things?


The title’s a double entendre. I’m back after ten days, and my back, which I severely screwed up by sitting and writing 60 hours a week, is also (after a nice course of steroids and cyclobenzaprine) back.

Bipedalism (or in the case of sitting upright, bibunism) is not for the unintelligently designed.

I finished the humor chapter, including some of the fantastic suggestions y’all gave me. In fact, there’s so much good stuff there that it’s going to leak over to a grab-bag section at the end of the book, not to mention my Netflix queue and bedside bookshelf.

Becca’s proofing every chapter before I submit, and a headline from the Onion in the humor chapter absolutely slew her yesterday — a joke that’s as close to perfect as I can imagine:

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World

I’m just now finishing up a chapter on getting the best of religion without the bad — all that community and social connectedness and collective do-gooding I’ve written about before. Also diving into the aforementioned grab-bag — specifically a chapter called “Ten Surprising Things about Atheists and Other Nonbelievers,” or something like that. And once again, I keep running into Canada.

It’s devilishly hard to measure religious disbelief in Canada because 33 percent of Canadian Catholics and 28 percent of Canadian Protestants also say they don’t believe in God.* Most survey questions will pick up “Catholic” or “Anglican” without then saying, “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, do you mind if I ask whether your Catholicism or Anglicanism includes…how shall I put this delicately…God?” So it’s safe to say that religious disbelief is massively, massively undercounted in Canada.

The obvious next question is whether there’s any reason to believe it isn’t massively, massively undercounted everywhere else as well.
Ipsos Reid poll, Sept 2011.

Q: What’s so funny?

There’s a candy-apple chapter I’ve kept out of my reach until I finished my liver-on-a-bed-of-kale chapters. Oh they’re not bad, but they weren’t as much fun as some others — too complicated, too “important,” too full of stuff I HAD to include.

Now they’re done, and it’s time for dessert.

Part III is “Great Works of Atheism,” which could have been deadly. So instead of going in strictly historical order, I created a few chapters around themes. “Lost, Secret, Censored, and Forbidden Works” I’ve already finished, and “Deep Thoughts, Big Thinkers,” which handles most of the important warhorses. The 21st century to date gets its own chapter. But in the midst of all that is my favorite piece of candy: Chapter 12, “Laughing in Disbelief: Challenging the Divine with Humor.”

A lot of the most brilliant expressions of disbelief and challenges to religion have been satirical. I’ve written before about the connection between humor and thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by that. As soon as I finish laughing myself to tears over a line of Minchin or the picture at the top of this post, I start trying to figure out why it’s hysterical, and why the next line or the next parody photo isn’t.

The chapter includes Twain and Carlin, parody religions (FSM, Landover, Bokononism), music (like Tim Minchin), film (Life of Brian, The Invention of Lying), TV (Simpsons, South Park), web (Mr. Deity, Jesus and Mo), and more (The Onion). I’m never going to get to everything — even leaving out some of my own favorites — but lemme ask:

Q: What are some of your favorite examples of humor aimed at religion or atheism?

I love to count! Ah, ah, ah

I’m working on a chapter that gives a snapshot of atheism today — numbers, issues, activities, groups.

I start with a bit about how hard it is to get useful data on nonbelievers. First, there’s the stigma, which means many or most nonbelievers will not fess up when asked by a pollster. Then there are false negatives — if I say “Unitarian,” I’ll usually be counted as Christian, even though the majority of Unitarian Universalists are nontheistic of one stripe or another. And what about Buddhists, most of whom are also nontheistic? Are secular humanistic Jews counted as religious Jews by the poll? Since “Jewish” is usually a single category, yes. There’s also the form of the question, which varies from country to country, year to year, and poll to poll. Some ask about religious identity and others about religious belief. As the cultural Catholics of Quebec will tell you, ce n’est pas la même chose! And is the category “atheist” or “nonreligious” or “none”?

Apples and oranges and pears, oh my.

So although we have a pretty solid idea how many Mormons and Muslims and Methodists there are in the world, counting nonbelievers is like counting beads of mercury. While wearing plastic mittens. In the rain.

The best current guess puts people who do not believe in a supernatural God at around 16 percent of the world’s population – roughly 1.1 billion.

Ding! Have a nice weekend, folks.