© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

the unconditional love of reality

…CONNOR AT THE WORLD OF COKE (…after the Tasting Room)

A Christian friend once asked me what it is about religion that most irritates me. It was big of her to ask, and I did my best to answer. I said something about religion so often actively standing in the way of things that are important to me — knowledge of human origins, for example, important medical advances, effective contraception, women’s rights…the simple ability to think without fear. I gave a pragmatic answer — and the wrong one.

Not that those things aren’t important. They’re all crowded up near the top of my list of motivators. But in the years since I gave that answer, I’ve realized there’s something much deeper, much more fundamentally galling and outrageous that religion too often represents for me — something that constitutes one of the main reasons I hope my kids remain unseduced by any brand of theism that endorses it.

What I want them to reject, most of all, is the conditional love of reality.

I’ve talked to countless Christians about their religious faith over the years. I have often been moved and challenged by what their expressed faith has done for them. But the doctrine of conditional love of reality simply mystifies, offends, and frankly infuriates me.

Conditional love is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty. Conditional love is present whenever a believer expresses “sadness” for me or my kids, or wonders how on Earth any given nonbeliever drags herself through the bothersome task of existing.

Whenever I hear someone say, “I am happy because…” or “Life is only bearable if…”, I want to take a white riding glove, strike them across the face, and challenge them to a duel in the name of reality.

The universe is an astonishing, thrilling place to be. There’s no adequate way to express the good fortune of being conscious, even for a brief moment, in the midst of it. My amazement at the universe and gratitude for being awake in it is unconditional. I’m thrilled if there is a god, and I’m thrilled if there isn’t.

jump for joy

Unconscious nonexistence is our natural condition. Through most of the history of the universe, that’s where we’ll be. THIS is the freak moment, right now, the moment you’d remember for the next several billion years — if you could. You’re a bunch of very lucky stuff, and so am I. That we each get to live at all is so mind-blowingly improbable that we should never stop laughing and dancing and singing about it.

Richard Dawkins expressed this gorgeously in my favorite passage from my favorite of his books, Unweaving the Rainbow:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.

I want my kids to feel that same unconditional love of being alive, conscious, and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take. Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.

joyful child

And when people ask, as they often do, whether I will be “okay with it” if my kids eventually choose a religious identity, my glib answer is “99 and three-quarters percent guaranteed!” That unlikely 1/4 percent covers the scenario in which they come home from college one day with the news that they’ve embraced a worldview that says they are wretched sinners in need of continual forgiveness, that hatred pleases God, that reason is the tool of Satan, and/or that life without X is an intolerable drag — and that they’d be raising my grandkids to see the world through the same hateful, fearful lens.

Woohoo! is not, I’m afraid, quite a manageable response for me in that scenario. Yes, it would be their decision, yes, I would still love their socks off — and no, I wouldn’t be “okay with it.” More than anything, I’d weep for the loss of their unconditional joie de vivre.

But since we’re raising them to be thoughtful, ethical, and unconditionally smitten with their own conscious existence, I’ll bet you a dollar that whatever worldview they ultimately align themselves with — religious or otherwise — will be a thoughtful, ethical, and unconditionally joyful one. Check back with me in 20 years, and for the fastest possible service, please form a line on the left and have your dollars ready.




This was written on Friday, 16. November 2007 at 11:15 and was filed under belief and believers, death, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, values, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. what lovely, inspiring posts you write.

    Comment: toomanytribbles – 16. November 2007 @ 11:37 am

  2. If I were religious (specifically Christian), I would say: Amen to that! 😉

    Most excellent post.

    Comment: kathryn – 16. November 2007 @ 12:24 pm

  3. Scotty McLellan, at Stanford, preached a sermon on this back in August. You can read his take, from the other side of the fence, at
    (It’s the sermon on Dawkins’ Awe and Wonder, 12 August 2007)

    Comment: Jody – 16. November 2007 @ 2:56 pm

  4. Oh my goodness, that’s wonderful! Here’s the direct link, very much worth reading. (“What’s awe-inspiring to me is the regularity and trustworthiness of the natural order, not periodic claims that it’s been interrupted and altered for my benefit or yours, for this compelling reason or that. It’s atheists like Richard Dawkins that are doing the heavy lifting on this perspective now, and I’m very grateful to them.”)

    That’s the kind of Christian I expect my kids would be. Thanks Jody!

    Comment: Dale – 16. November 2007 @ 3:13 pm

  5. I am completely unsurprised to learn that McLennan is a Unitarian Universalist!

    Comment: Dale – 16. November 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  6. Wonderful post, as always. My husband and I were asked why we didn’t just shoot ourselves in the head, as our lives must be so meaningless and sad without God. I was so shocked since I felt life had even more meaning and more beauty without God and religion.

    Kids express that joy so well; I love watching my kids get excited about the little things; their eyes literally sparkle. I hope they never lose that.

    I wanted to say thank you for your comment on my blog earlier today! I have no idea how you happened upon it, but I was giddy when I saw I got a message from Dale McGowan!! I got the idea to read the myths to my kids from you, actually. At first my son didn’t seem too thrilled, but I think I finally found a book with enough pictures and short enough tales to hold his interest. 🙂

    Comment: ondfly123 – 16. November 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  7. My husband and I were asked why we didn’t just shoot ourselves in the head, as our lives must be so meaningless and sad without God.

    You have GOT to be kidding! Though that’s the all-time record for clarity, I know so many people who are similarly convinced that they hang over the abyss by a single bare thread.

    I wanted to say thank you for your comment on my blog earlier today! I have no idea how you happened upon it, but I was giddy when I saw I got a message from Dale McGowan!!

    Oh my goodness, I’m not at all worthy of such excitement. (Just ask my wife.) I found your post from a Google Alert I have for the phrase “Christian parenting” — the same one that alerted me to Tony’s blog.

    I got the idea to read the myths to my kids from you, actually. At first my son didn’t seem too thrilled, but I think I finally found a book with enough pictures and short enough tales to hold his interest.

    Lovely! Yes, MOST of the books of myths are deadly boring or way too advanced in language. Glad you found a good one. There are a few — though I tend to read them in Bulfinch’s or Edith Hamilton’s tomes and then tell them to the kids out of my head.

    Comment: Dale – 16. November 2007 @ 8:20 pm

  8. You said it best…”I’m thrilled if there is a god, and I’m thrilled if there isn’t”.
    Ain’t life grand? 🙂

    Comment: leslie – 17. November 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  9. Wonderful posting! And I LOVE the photos.

    Comment: JoelJ – 15. January 2008 @ 12:43 am

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