[Paleopsych] Atheism and children by Natalie Angier

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Atheism and children by Natalie Angier
Center for Inquiry Metro New York - Natalie Angier lecture

[I'm taking my annual Lenten break from forwarding articles again this 
year. It's a vice to spend so much time doing this. So I'll be off the air 
for forty days and forty nights from Ash Wednesday until Easter.]

    Thank you, and it's an honor to be speaking here at the Ethical
    Culture Society, in what I understand to be the Ceremonial Hall.
    According to my beloved American Heritage Dictionary, ceremonial means
    "formal or ritual," and though I don't go in for terribly many
    rituals, I did start the holiday season with the ritual viewing of the
    atheist's favorite Christmas movie, "Coincidence on 34th Street."

    This is also the time of year, of course, when Jesus invariably screws
    up and commits some sort of felony. How else to explain why so many
    people seem to find him in jail?

    You see? This is what happens when they flush people like me out of
    our foxholes. And because I'm here to talk about raising healthy, 100
    percent guaranteed god free children, I will happily give full credit
    for the aforementioned remarks, and all that is to follow, to my
    eight-year-old daughter, Katherine. Yes, this is an atheist's idea of
    responsible parenting. Can you see the horns growing out of the top of
    my head? Actually, last night I was reading in the New England Journal
    of Medicine about a condition in which people grow these horn-like
    projections from the top of their head, benign tumors called
    cylindromas. And just to show you how ecumenical the condition can be,
    in some cases, the doctors wrote, the cylindromas may "coalesce to
    form a hat-like growth, giving rise to the term `turban tumor.'"

    But seriously. I'm here to talk about why my husband and I are raising
    our daughter as an atheist. The short, snappy answer is, We don't
    believe in god. The longer, self-exculpating answer that is the theme
    du noir is, We believe it is the right thing to do. First, let me talk
    a little bit about why I use the term atheist rather than a more
    pastel-inflected phrase like agnostic or secular humanist, or the
    latest offering, Bright. Now when it comes to any of the mainstream
    deities proposed to date, I am absolutely atheistic. I can understand
    the literary and metaphoric value of any number of characters from
    mythology and religion. During this last election, we all felt like
    Sisyphus, we pushed that boulder and pushed and pushed, and we were
    just about at the top of the mountain, well, you know the rest. Or
    maybe we were Prometheus, with the vulture forever pecking away at our
    liver, or Job, or the dry run for the Lazarus bit. Yet however
    legitimate it may be to view any of our religious books as we would
    the works of Shakespeare or Henry James , I don't take them seriously
    as descriptions of how the universe came to be or how any of us will
    re-be in some posthumous setting, or what god is or wants or whines
    about. So I am an unalloyed atheist by the standards of the mainstream

    Nevertheless, what of the hugeness of the universe, and of the
    possibility that there are other universes beyond this one, or even
    that the universe in some sense desires to know itself, and that we
    are the I and the eyes of the universe? This idea has philosophical
    appeal, and it certainly offers me some inspiration, a belief that we
    have a moral imperative, if you will, to understand the universe to
    the furthest extent our brains can manage. I was moved recently by a
    letter I read in "Freethought Today," published by the Freedom from
    Religion Foundation. It was a response to some questions by a Navy
    ensign, from none other than Albert Einstein. "I have repeatedly said
    that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one,"
    Einstein wrote. But rather than be billed as a "professional atheist,"
    Einstein added, "I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the
    weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own

    So, yes, of course, humility in the face of cosmic grandeur is always
    warranted; but let us not forget that Einstein sought to the very end
    of his long life to honor that grandeur by seeking to understand it,
    bit by bit, with his weak little intellect. How much better, in my
    view, is that approach, of humility crossed with an unslakable
    curiosity to delve the majesties of nature; over the sort of hooey
    humility that we benighted and defeated "liberals" are supposed to be
    mastering, that preached by the evangelical superstar John Stott, who,
    according to David Brooks, does not believe that "truth is something
    humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed." As Stott
    "It is because we love Jesus Christ [that] we are determined...to bear
    witness to his unique glory and absolute sufficiency. In Christ and in
    the biblical witness to Christ God's revelation is complete; to add
    any words of our own to his finished work is derogatory to Christ.''

    Just as Lewis Black said on "The Daily Show" about the proposal that
    gays should be barred from teaching, "Well, there goes the school
    play!" so with Stott we can bid the NSF, the NIH, MIT goodbye. Who
    needs Heisenberg's uncertainty or Einstein's relativity when we've got
    two ox, two mules and the nativity?

    Oy vey, these are values? These and a subway token won't get you on
    the subway.

    And so, to me, atheism means what it says - without god or gods,
    living your life without recourse to a large chiaroscuro of a supreme
    being to credit or to explain or to excuse. Now I'll be the proud
    mother and say that my daughter understands this. A couple of days
    ago, in preparation for this talk, I was interviewing her, asking her
    a few questions about how she viewed her heathen heritage. First I
    asked her if she believed in god. She crinkled up her nose at me like
    I had mentioned something distasteful, like spinach and liver, or
    kissing a boy, and said, No! I asked her if she was sorry she'd been
    raised as an atheist, and she said no, she liked it. I asked why.
    First, she said, you don't have to waste Sundays going to pray. Also
    I'd rather do things myself than have somebody else do them for me. If
    somebody gets sick, I wouldn't just pray to god he or she gets better,
    I would try to buy some medicine for them, to help them get better.

    Oh, I liked that answer. I couldn't help it. This sounded to me like,
    what do you call it, a value system. She also said that she likes to
    see things for herself before believing in them. If a friend told me,
    guess what, I've got a flying dog, I'd say, can I see it. Katherine
    said she has friends who claim they've seen god. One of her close
    friends told her she's seen bright lights in the middle of the night
    that she knows were signs from Jesus. So Katherine asked her if she
    could do a sleepover, to check out the light for herself. Oh, you'd
    never see it, her friend replied. Only people who believe in god can
    see it.

    As Richard Dawkins has said, "With religion, there's always an escape

    Admittedly, Katherine is lucky. She lives in a very liberal community,
    Takoma Park, Maryland, which went 91.8% for Kerry; and a lot of other
    kids, she told me, share her views about god. A couple of times she's
    been told she's going to go to hell - or, as she phrased it, the
    opposite of heaven; she's remarkably curse-averse - but she says she
    doesn't care because she doesn't believe in either destination anyway.
    But in some places in the United States, it's extremely tough to be an
    atheist, even fatal. Last October, in Taylor, Michigan, a former Eagle
    Scout shot another man to death because, he said, the man was "evil;
    he was not a believer." We all know the sort of tolerance they teach
    in the Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts of America, of course. No gays
    allowed - guess you don't expect them to be very good at pitching
    tents and tying knots, right? - and no atheists. They kicked out
    Darrell Lambert, a model scout if there ever was one, because he
    refused to say he believed in God, remember? At which point, I'm proud
    to say, my husband, who was a boy scout and an eagle scout and learned
    many skills as a scout and had earned many patches and badges, decided
    to send back his eagle scout medal to the Boy Scouts of America; and
    he wrote a beautiful essay about his decision for the Washington Post.
    The director of public affairs at the organization sent him an answer,
    saying, We accept your decision, but we hope that someday, you will
    come to be more open-minded in your views.

    So, what advice do I have for nonbelievers trying to raise their
    children in a rigidly religious, small town environment? Move.

    I kid you not. I went to high school in a small Michigan town, very
    religious, lots of baptists, also lots of drunk drivers, and believe
    me, they were the worst four years of my life. Move to a big city in
    just about any state, or move to a medium-sized city in a blue state,
    move to Takoma Park, or move to Canada if you can stay awake. Move to
    a university town. Because there are plenty of secularists out there,
    oh yes. Sure, we've been told repeatedly, we've been beaten
    practically comatose, with the notion that we live in an extremely
    religious country.

    We've all read the statistics on how people would elect as president a
    member of any other oppressed group - a woman, a Jew, a Muslim, even
    that very same gay person they'd rather not see in their schools and
    certainly not at the wedding altar - before they'd vote for an
    atheist. Anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of Americans say they believe
    in god. But how meaningful are these statistics? Are they any more
    reliable than the poll result I saw recently, apocryphal I hope, which
    showed that 55% of American Christians believed Noah to be a relative
    of Joan of Arc? As John Horgan pointed out in Sunday's New York Times,
    a Harvard University study has found that the number of Americans with
    no religious affiliation has grown sharply over the past 10 years, to
    as many as 39 million, twice the number of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists,
    Hindus and Episcopalians combined. Yes, the secularists are out there,
    but they tend to prefer large cities and other places with an active
    cultural and intellectual life. Which brings me to why I think raising
    a child as an atheist, or a committed secularist, is the right thing
    to do, and should be done without apology, indeed with pride.

    I'm a science writer. I'm fond of evidence, and I'm a serious devotee
    of the scientific method, and the entire scientific enterprise. Let me
    tell you, scientists as individuals can be as petty, insecure, vain,
    arrogant and opinionated as the rest of us. The myth of the noble,
    self-sacrificing scientist should never have been allowed to grow
    beyond the embryonic stem cell stage, and most scientists will tell
    you as much. But science as a discipline weeds out most of the bluster
    and blarmy, because it asks for proof. "One of the first things you
    learn in science," one Caltech biologist told me, "is that how you
    want it to be doesn't make any difference." This is a powerful
    principle, and a very good thing, even a beautiful thing. This is
    something we should embrace as the best part of ourselves, our
    willingness to see the world as it is, not as we're told it is, nor as
    our confectionary fantasies might wish it to be. Science is also
    extraordinarily unifying. You go to a great lab or to a scientific
    meeting, and you will see scientists from around the world, talking to
    each other and forming international collaborations. This is something
    we should be proud of, even if we ourselves are not scientists - that
    our species, our collective minds, our heads knocked together, are
    capable of making sense of the universe. So to me, this, more than
    anything, is what being an atheist means, an ongoing devotion to
    exploration, a giving of pride of place to evidence. And much to my
    dismay, religion often is at odds with the evidence-based portrait of
    reality that science has begun, yes, only just begun, fleshing out.
    The biggest example of this is in the ongoing debate over evolution.
    This is like Rasputin, or the character from the horror movie
    Halloween - it refuses to die. The statistics are appalling. This
    year, according to the Washington Post, some 40 states are dealing
    with new or ongoing challenges to the teaching of evolution in the
    schools. Four-fifths of our states. According to a recent CBS poll, 55
    percent of Americans believe that god created humans in their present
    form - and that includes, I'm sorry to say, 47 percent of Kerry
    voters. Only 13 percent of Americans say that humans evolved from
    ancestral species, no god involved. Only 13 percent. The evidence that
    humans evolved from prehominid primates, and they from earlier
    mammals, and so on back to the first cell on earth some 3.8 billion
    years ago is incontrovertible, is based on a Himalayan chain's worth
    of data. The evidence for divine intervention is, to date,
    non-existent. Yet here we have people talking about it as though they
    were discussing whether they prefer chocolate praline ice cream or
    rocky road, as though it were a matter of taste.

    To me, this borders on being, well, unethical. And to me, instilling
    in my daughter an appreciation for the difference between evidence and
    opinion is a critical part of childrearing. So when I tell my daughter
    why I'm an atheist, I explain it is because I see no evidence for a
    god, a divinity, a big bearded mega-king in the sky. And you know
    something - she gets that. She got it way back when, and I think once
    you get it, it's pretty hard to lose it. People sometimes say to me,
    jokingly or otherwise, just you wait. She's going to grow up and join
    a cult, be a moonie or a jew for jesus. But in fact the data argue
    against it. The overwhelming majority of people who join cults, more
    than three-quarters, were raised as one or another type of Christian,
    including Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, the works; and no
    greater percentage of atheists than in the general population. I'm
    sure Katherine will figure out a way to drive me nuts some day, but I
    don't think the Rahjneeshi route is it.

    Ah, but what of values, of learning the difference between right and
    wrong, good and bad? What about tradition, what about ritual, what
    about the holidays that children love so much? How will a child learn
    to be good without religious training? Well, damn. Do you really need
    formal religion to teach a child to be good, to be honest, to try not
    to hurt other people's feelings, to care about something other than
    yourself? These are all variants on the golden rule, and there is
    nothing more powerful, in my experience, than sitting down with your
    kid and saying, how would you feel if somebody did that to you? There
    is a growing body of scientific research that demonstrates we are by
    nature inclined to cooperate, to trust others, even strangers, to an
    extraordinary degree. Even strangers we can't see, over the internet,
    and even strangers that we'll never meet again. None of this owes
    anything to the ten commandments. Which of those commandments tell you
    to help a stranger who looks lost, or jump into a river to help saving
    a drowning kid, or donate blood, maybe even a kidney or a slice of
    liver? Sure, people also do terrible things, scam you, betray you,
    steal from you, on and on. But sheesh, Rush Limbaugh was and for all I
    know still is a junkie, and priests abuse choir boys, and on and on.

    I've talked to Katherine about the struggles we all go through, a
    desire to hurt others, to get revenge. She wrote a book report
    recently in which she talked about wanting to get revenge on people
    who do bad things to her, but that, alas, it's not always easy. And
    when I saw that, whoa, we had a mother of a conversation. About how
    the two most powerful human impulses are love and revenge, and how one
    is a great strength that we should nurture, and the other one is a
    natural feeling, and we all have it, but we must fight against it with
    everything we can muster. Because when we don't, we get wars, wars
    that can go on for years, for centuries, and we reviewed the story of
    Romeo and Juliet, which she loves, and that got to her, I think, that
    made it come alive.

    And as one who believes strongly in peace, I've taken her on march
    after march, before the Iraq war, during the republican convention. I
    had her miss her first day of third grade this year, so she could
    participate in a ceremony downtown, the reading of the names of people
    who have died in the Iraq war. She read the names of the children. I
    know I'm sounding pious here, and I'm sorry about that, but these are
    just some of the examples of things I've tried to do to make her a
    good person, to give her a sense of meaning larger than herself. And
    yes, we celebrate the holidays. We buy and decorate a Christmas tree,
    light the menorah, our house is encrusted with lights, including a big
    peace sign. I've told Katherine about how Christmas predates jesus,
    and how people have long felt the need, in the darkest, coldest time
    of the year, to battle the blackness with lights, music, family, the
    evergreen tree to symbolize life, and, oh, yes, presents. None of this
    seems like hypocrisy to me. It's common sense. It is magic, it is
    ours, and godness has nothing to do with it.

    I'd like to make one final point, an admission of the biggest
    challenge we faced when we decided to go the godfree route: what to
    talk about when you talk about death. For a while, Katherine was
    terrified about death. We'd be driving along in the car, and all of a
    sudden she'd start screaming in the back seat. What's wrong, what's
    wrong? We'd ask, thinking we had to pull over for a medical emergency.
    I've just been thinking about death! She'd cry. I don't want to just
    disappear! To die forever and that's all, that's the end. This
    happened a few times, each time, out of nowhere, she'd start to wail.
    We'd tell her whatever we could to comfort her, that she will live a
    long, long time, and that they're inventing new drugs that will, by
    the time she grows up, help her live even longer, a couple of hundred
    years, who knows; she'd live until she was pig-sick of it. And we'd
    tell her that nothing really disappears, it just changes form, and
    that she could become part of a dolphin, or an eagle, or a cheetah, a
    praying mantis. She'd have none of it. She knew she wouldn't be aware
    of her new incarnation. She knew she probably wouldn't remember her
    life as Katherine, and that loss of self she found impossibly sad. As
    do I, the loss of her, the loss of myself. As do all of us. Learning
    how to die is one of the greatest tasks of life, and it's one that
    most us never quite get the hang of, until we realize, whoops, not
    much of a trick here, is there. Not much of a choice, either.

    Still, I didn't go with the stories, of the angels, of the harps, the
    eternal reciting of that old Monty Python routine, o lord you are so
    big, so absolutely huge. We're all really impressed her, Lord, I can
    tell you that." And lately Katherine seems to have gotten past those
    terror jags. She hasn't had an outburst for the past year or two.

    I don't know the answer to fear of death, surprise surprise. But I
    find it interesting that religious people, who talk ceaselessly of
    finding in their religion a larger sense of purpose, a meaning greater
    than themselves, at the same time are the ones who insist their
    personal, copyrighted souls, presumably with their 70-odd years of
    memory intact, will survive in perpetuity. Maybe that's the real ethic
    of atheism. By confronting the inevitability of your personal
    expiration date, you know there is a meaning much grander than
    yourself. The river of life will go on, as it has for nearly 4 billion
    years on our planet, and who knows for how long and how abundantly on
    others. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, and we, as matter,
    will always matter, and the universe will forever be our home.

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