Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » February 2005 » The way it should be....

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02/01/2005: The way it should be....

In 47 or so years of mucking about the Earth kinda dopily, I've seen a few interesting phenomena. One is how people in their early 20's don't give much of a crap for religion, but in their mid-20's or so, right about the time they start having kids, they suddenly feel they have to "raise the kids in a religion." Sometimes they feel just a bit guilty about it--"well, they need to have a religion; later, if they feel that they want to leave it, that's their choice, but they have to have one"--but most of the time they don't even give it that much thought.

This isn't exactly a secret to the professional religious, either. I have a few acquaintances who are Catholic priests or nuns, and it was a priest I knew who once blatantly acknowledged it. Asked by someone in the conversation if he was at all worried or concerned about the young college-age kids who didn't go to church or act overtly religious, he replied, "Not really. It's not unusual for kids that age not to worry about church. They're young, it seems there are other, more important things, and they're not worried about death yet. But wait 'til they get around to having children--that's when we get 'em back!"

That's why I find this--a transcript of a talk given by science journalist Natalie Angier under the auspices of the Center For Inquiry-New York--so refreshing. In it, Ms. Angier gives us an insight into raising children as atheists--and why that's a good idea:

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.


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 being.”

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 writes:
“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 clause.”
Especially refreshing to me, stranded as I am in the middle of the Bible Belt, in a city with more churches than gas stations, is that at least Angier understands that it'll be more difficult in some places.
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.
But why raise your child to be an atheist? Because, simply, it's more ethical--basically, more honest. You're teaching them to deal with the world as it is--teaching them to be "reality based" in their thinking, not being "faith based" as the fantasists in power are:
[S]cience 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.... 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.
And don't give us the "you have to have a religion to be moral", bullshit:
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.
Totally inspiring.

In a world that wasn't so screwed up, Ms. Angier, or someone who thinks like her, would be running things, instead of The Idiot In The White House.

Len on 02.01.05 @ 01:10 PM CST

Replies: 3 comments

on Tuesday, February 1st, 2005 at 3:05 PM CST, Karen McLauchlan said

I still like my "simple plan" for leaving the "option open"...neither admits not denies...So that way you don't Burn In Hell if there really is one...LOL. The "Devil made me do it..."

on Tuesday, February 1st, 2005 at 4:01 PM CST, Len Cleavelin said

Ah, but what if God prefers honest belief or disbelief to wishy-washy failure to commit one way or the other? *grin*

on Tuesday, February 1st, 2005 at 5:10 PM CST, Karen Mclauchlan said

Then I'll Burn In Hell repeatedly uttering, "The Devil made me do it," for all eternity.

February 2005

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