TEACHING KIDS TO YAWN AT
COUNTERFEIT WONDER

DALE McGOWAN

A lot of people believe that you can’t experience wonder without religious faith. The life of a person without supernatural beliefs is thought by some to be cold, sterile, and devoid of any sense of wonder.

If that were the case, this book would have to sound the alarm. Childhood is our first and best chance to revel in wonder. If parenting without religion meant parenting without wonder, I might just say to heck with reality.

Funny, though, how often I’ve experienced something that seemed an awful lot like wonder, and it never had even a pinch of religion in it. I always found the biblical version of wonder rather flat and hollow, even as a kid. It never moved me even as metaphor, rendered pale by its own vague hyperbole.

Instead, try these on for size:

image If you condense the history of the universe to a single year, humans would appear on December 31 at 10:30 p.m.; 99.98 percent of the history of the universe happened before humans existed.

image Look at a gold ring. As the core collapsed in a dying star, a gravity wave collapsed inward with it. As it did so, it slammed into the thundering sound wave heading out of the collapse. In that moment, as a star died, the gold in that ring was formed.

image We are star material that knows it exists.

image Our planet is spinning at 900 miles an hour beneath our feet while coursing through space at 68,400 miles per hour.

image The continents are moving under our feet at three to six inches a year. But a snail’s pace for a million millennia has been enough to remake the face of the world several times over, build the Himalayas, and create the oceans.

image Through the wonder of DNA, you are literally half your mom and half your dad.

image A complete blueprint to build you exists in each and every cell of your body.

image The faster you go, the slower time moves.

image Your memories, your knowledge, even your identity and sense of self exist entirely in the form of a constantly recomposed electrochemical symphony playing in your head.

image All life on Earth is directly related by descent. You are a cousin not just of apes but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales.

That, my friends, is wonder.

I was a teenager when I was first introduced to genuine, jaw-dropping, mind-buzzing wonder by Carl Sagan. He was a master of making conceivable the otherwise inconceivable realities of the universe, usually by brilliant analogy, taking me step by step into a true appreciation of honest to goodness wonder. I was aware, for example, that humans were relative newcomers on the planet, but it wasn’t until I came across Sagan’s astonishing calendar analogy at age thirteen—the one above that puts our arrival at 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve—that I actually got it, and reeled with wonder.

A little precision can make all the difference in the experience of wonder. Merely knowing that the universe is really, really, really, really big is one thing, but that only rated a two on the wow-meter for me as a child, as it does for my son and daughters. A few more specifics, though, can snap it into focus, and up goes the meter.

Find a large open space. Put a soccer ball in the middle to represent the sun. Walk 10 paces from the ball and stick a pin in the ground. That’s Mercury. Take nine more full steps and drop a peppercorn for Venus. Seven more steps, drop another peppercorn for Earth. An inch away from Earth, stick another pin in the ground for the moon, remembering that this inch is the farthest humans have been so far. Another fourteen steps, drop a very small peppercorn for Mars, then continue another 95 steps and drop Jupiter, a Ping-Pong ball. After 112 more paces, place a large marble for Saturn. Uranus and Neptune are still farther apart, and recently demoted Pluto would be a pinhead about a half mile from the soccer ball.

image[We inhabit] a universe made of a curved fabric woven of space and time in which hydrogen, given the proper conditions, eventually evolves into Yo-Yo Ma.image

So how far would you have to walk before you can put down another soccer ball for Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun? Bring your good shoes—it’s over 4,000 miles away at this scale, New York to Berlin.* That’s the nearest star. And there are about a trillion such stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and roughly 100 billion such galaxies, arrayed through 12 billion light-years in every direction, a universe made of a curved fabric woven of space and time in which hydrogen, given the proper conditions, eventually evolves into Yo-Yo Ma.

imageTwo hundred years ago it was possible, even reasonable, to believe that we were the central concern of the Creator of it all—and therefore reasonable to teach our children the same.image

Two hundred years ago it was possible, even reasonable, to believe that we were the central concern of the Creator of it all—and therefore reasonable to teach our children the same. But anyone who was engaged for the whole process above will still be blank-eyed and buzzing at all we have learned about ourselves and our context in the past two centuries. Just as infants mature into adults by gradually recognizing that they are not the center of the universe, so science has given humanity the means to its own maturity, challenging us not only to endure our newly realized smallness but to find the incredible wonder in that reality.

imageAs each complex and awe-inspiring explanation of reality takes the place of “God did it,” the flush of real awe quickly overwhelms the memory of whatever it was we considered so wondrous in religious mythology.image

Religious wonder—the wonder we’re said to be missing out on—is counterfeit wonder. As each complex and awe-inspiring explanation of reality takes the place of “God did it,” the flush of real awe quickly overwhelms the memory of whatever it was we considered so wondrous in religious mythology. Most of the truly wonder-inducing aspects of our existence—the true size and age of the universe, the relatedness of all life, microscopic worlds, and more—are not, to paraphrase Hamlet, even dreamt of in our religions. Our new maturity brings with it some real challenges, of course, but it also brings astonishing wonder beyond the imaginings of our infancy.

There is no surer way to strip religion of its ability to entice our children into fantasy than to show them the way, step by step, into the far more intoxicating wonders of the real world. And the key to those wonders is precisely the skill that is so often miscast as the death of wonder: skepticism.

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, 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.

—Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

Nothing wrinkles noses faster than a skeptical attitude—“Why do you have to be so negative, why do you have to tear everything down?”—yet there is nothing as essential to experiencing true wonder in its greatest depth. Skepticism is the filter that screens out the fool’s gold, leaving nothing behind but precious nuggets of the real thing. Tell me something amazing and I’ll doubt it until it’s proven. Why? Because fantasies, while charming, are a dime a dozen. I can tell you my dreams of purple unicorns all day, spinning wilder and wilder variations for your amusement. You’ll enjoy it, perhaps even be moved by it, but you won’t believe—until I show you one, take you for a ride on its back, prove it’s more than just a product of my imagination. Your skepticism up to that point will have served you well; it fended off counterfeit wonder so you could feel the depth of the real thing.

We must teach our kids to doubt and doubt and doubt, not to “tear everything down” but to pull cheap façades away so they can see and delight in those things that are legitimately wonderful. How will they recognize them? It’s easy: They’re the ones left standing after the hail of critical thinking has flattened everything else. Magnificent, those standing stones.

Fling your arms wide in an expansive gesture to span all evolution from its origin at your left fingertip to today at your right fingertip. All the way across your midline to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria. . . . The dinosaurs originate in the middle of your right palm and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole story of Homo sapiens and our predecessor Homo erectus is contained in the thickness of one nail clipping. As for recorded history—as for the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the dynasties of the Pharoahs, the legions of Rome, the Christian Fathers, Troy and the Greeks . . . Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and Bill Clinton—they and everyone that knew them are blown away in the dust from one light stroke of a nail-file.

—Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

Supporters of the scientific worldview are sometimes accused of having “faith” in ideas such as evolution and therefore practicing a sort of religion. The less you know, the more reasonable that assertion is. Evolution by natural selection was positively barraged with skepticism throughout the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Darwin and Huxley spent the remainder of their lives answering doubts about the theory. And when the dust cleared, the theory remained, intact, beautiful in its inevitability, awe inspiring not because it drew no fire but because it drew the fire and survived spectacularly. That is what is known as the truth, or our best approximation of that elusive concept. It is so precious to get a glimpse of real knowledge, so breathtaking, that no lesser standard than trial by skepticism will do. It leaves behind only those things wonderful enough to make us weep at the pure beauty of their reality and at the equally awesome idea that we could find our way to them at all.

imageWe fall so deeply in love with our metaphors that we are often unable and unwilling to let go when the time comes and mystery is replaced with knowledge.image

A theologian friend of mine once suggested to me that the metaphors of religion are beautiful “responses to mystery.” If the metaphor stepped aside each time a mystery is dispelled by real understanding, ceding the ground of wonder to its successor, there would be no problem with such metaphors. The problem—as illustrated by the creation/evolution “controversy”—is that we fall so deeply in love with our metaphors that we are often unable and unwilling to let go when the time comes and mystery is replaced with knowledge. “If you are awash in lost continents and channeling and UFOs and all the long litany of claims,” Carl Sagan said, “you may not have intellectual room for the findings of science. You’re sated with wonder.” It’s this all-too-human tendency that presents a challenge for parents wishing to raise independent thinkers: the magnetic power of the lovely metaphor, standing in the doorway, impeding progress toward real answers.

The most compelling cases of preferring fact to fiction are the most practical. All the prayer, animal sacrifice, and chanting in the world couldn’t cure polio—the Salk vaccine did. And how did we find it? Through rigorous, skeptical, critical thinking and testing and doubting of every proposed solution to the problem of polio until only one solution was left standing. Let others find uncritical acceptance of pretty notions a wonderful thing. I’m more awestruck by the idea of ending polio because someone cared enough to find more wonder in testable reality than in wishful fantasy.

Some would protest, rightly, that science stops at the measurable, that those things that cannot be quantified and calculated are beyond its scope. That’s entirely true. But the foundation of reality that science gives us becomes a springboard to the contemplation of those unmeasurables, a starting point from which we dive into the mystery behind that reality. Our reality has astonishing implications and yields incredible mystery, questions upon questions, many of them forever unanswerable. But is it not infinitely better to bathe in what we might call the genuine mystery behind our actual reality, instead of contemplating the “mystery” behind a mythic filial sacrifice, or transubstantiation, or angels dancing on the head of a pin?

It’s easy to get a child addicted to real wonders if you start early enough. Simply point them out—they are all around us—and include a few references to what was once thought to be true. Take thunder. Explain that a bolt of lightning rips through the air, zapping trillions of air molecules with energy hotter than the sun. Those superheated molecules explode out of the way with a crack! Then the bolt is gone, and all those molecules smash into each other again as they fill in the emptiness it leaves behind. That’s the long rumble—waves of air swirling and colliding like surf at the beach.

I find that completely wonder-full.

Then explain that people once thought it was a sound made by an angry god in the sky, and enjoy your child’s face as she registers how much less interesting that is.

Repeat steps one and two until college.

image

* This marvelous exercise is adapted from John Cassidy, Earthsearch (Klutz, 1994).

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