In a book devoted to helping parents raise ethical and caring kids, the four words in this chapter title loom large. Whose values? Whose virtues? Whose definition of meaning and purpose?
For those who believe our values, virtues, and purpose are dictated by God, the conclusions drawn by the contributors to this chapter may seem surprising. For with some notable exceptions, most of us share the same basic values, recognize the same virtues, and find meaning and purpose in the same things, regardless of our worldview. Even when we seem at opposite poles, there is most often an underlying commonality. We all tend to think that treating others as we would like to be treated is a good foundation for ethics—which explains why every ethical system on Earth includes some form of that notion. We can be counted upon to find killing reprehensible and lying a thing to discourage, even if we differ on when exceptions are called for. We tend to admire those who overcome adversity to achieve great things, though we sometimes disagree on what constitutes adversity and greatness. Our differences, then, though they can seem intractable, are less fundamental than we tend to think. The secular view simply recognizes that these values, virtues, and purposes have human origins.
We start this diverse chapter with Shannon and Matt Cherry’s thoughts on raising their young twin girls to embrace the “twin” virtues of pride and respect—or, you might say, self-respect and other-respect. The essay “Seven Secular Virtues” proposes a set of admirable qualities to which secularists should aspire—including a few that don’t always come easy.
The irrepressible Dr. Donald B. Ardell is our guide to secular meaning and purpose in “Supporting Your Children in Their Quest for the Meaning of Life!” How do you find your meaning and purpose? Try a few on for size, he suggests, and stop when you find one that’s fulfilling. It’s all we’ve ever done. And what if your meaning and purpose is serial killing? Let’s worry about that when more than 0.00001 percent of the population finds that a fulfilling activity.
What better way to articulate your values and virtues than recognizing those who have embodied them? And when you’re a freethinker, why not include a few of the men and women who’ve had the courage and integrity to challenge the dominant religious views of their day? Annie Laurie Gaylor offers a light-speed introduction to some of the great freethinking figures of the past and present, followed by “A Sixty-Second Reckoned Roll of Freethinkers Historical” and Yip Harburg’s “Enemy List”—inspired, no doubt, by his own blacklisting during the McCarthy era. Next time your son or daughter needs a great historical figure for a report or presentation, make a quick scan of the names in these three pieces.
The chapter concludes with author James Herrick’s exploration of one of the great avenues for the expression of human meaning and purpose—the arts—focusing especially on the place of literature in understanding the human condition.
We will build a home that is compassionate to all,
full of respect and honor for others and each other.
May our home be forever filled with peace, love, and happiness.
WHEN WE SAID THESE WORDS at our humanist wedding ceremony four years ago, we didn’t even know if we would have children. Now that we have twin baby daughters this vow has taken on a whole new importance.
Yes, Lyra and Sophia have changed our lives, but not our values.
We are raising our children in an explicitly humanist family. Chambers Pocket Dictionary defines humanism as “seeking, without religion, the best in, and for, human beings.” That’s really how we see our job as parents: seeking to bring out the best in our children so that they can have the best in life.
The humanist tradition in the West has its roots in the Ancient Greek ideal of cultivating human excellence. There are many principles needed to bring out the best in people. But there is one value mentioned in our wedding vows that keeps coming up in our discussions of how to raise good kids: respect.
“Respect” is more than an Aretha Franklin song. It means treating the world around us—and everyone in it—as valuable. It also means self-respect, or pride. We want to raise our girls to respect themselves, their surroundings, their pets; to value families, friends, and neighbors. And we don’t just mean an attitude of respect, but respectful behavior: We see too many people who boast all the tolerant opinions required in liberal society, but don’t actually accomplish much with their lives.
Perhaps, most challenging of all, will be teaching respect for people who have different values—even people with beliefs we think are daft and behaviors we fear as dangerous. Philosophically, respect is at the heart of the major systems of morality: from the Golden Rule (treating others with the same respect with which we would want them to treat us) to Kant’s Categorical Imperative (that we must always treat people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to our own ends). But philosophy won’t cut it with our infant girls. Even though they can’t speak a word yet, their big blue eyes are constantly watching and learning from us. What matters to them is not the philosophy we preach, but how we practice those lofty principles.
To teach them respect, we need to model the right behavior. “Do what I say, not what I do” is not only unfair but just doesn’t work. Sooner or later, children see through hypocrisy, and will lose their respect for you or copy your hypocrisy—or both.
It all sounds good on paper, but in reality it can be hard. That’s why, as parents, we work on respect every day. It’s in the little things …
It’s when we volunteer for social justice groups or do the shopping for an elderly neighbor.
It’s when we’re waiting in line, and see an opening to cut ahead of others. Even though the girls may be too young to realize it, we do the right thing and wait our turn—though waiting in line with twins gives you both motive and excuse to jump ahead!
And it’s in the big things …
It’s having their mother create a successful public relations business that allows her to work at home, while helping other women pursue their business goals. This shows the girls that with hard work, women have choices—many choices. And they can choose the options that work for them.
It’s making the choice to live in an urban—not suburban—neighborhood, where diversity reigns and people of all races, beliefs, classes, and sexual preferences live together. When we sit on our stoop with our girls—along with the cats and dog—we talk with everyone, including the men living in the halfway house, the politicians, the families, the old, the young, and the homeless.
The girls will realize early on that living downtown isn’t always an episode from Sesame Street. Seeing disrespect out in public will open the door to interesting conversations around the dinner table about how we feel it was wrong and what we can do. And yes, having dinner together, with conversation, is another of our family goals.
Modeling respect means that we need to set a high standard for ourselves as parents. But we’re only human; not saints or superheroes. So when we screw up, we will need to admit it, apologize to everyone affected by it, and correct the situation to the best of our ability.
Sure, God isn’t watching us—but our children certainly are!
We believe that the best foundation for respecting others is respect for oneself. Once the girls value themselves, it’s easier to teach them to respect their possessions, family, friends, and the world around them. We want our daughters to have compassion, courage, and creativity, but to do that the girls need to develop a fourth C—confidence.
The Ancient Greeks taught that pride was a virtue; indeed, Aristotle said it was the crown of all the virtues. Yet many religions treat pride as a sin—especially for women and girls—and this attitude has seeped deep into our everyday culture. Maybe that’s why educators and parenting books use long-winded synonyms for pride, such as “self-confidence” and “self-esteem.” Pride may be the virtue that dare not speak its name, but all the children’s experts agree that “self-esteem” has been grievously neglected in our society.
Raising confident girls means encouraging them to explore their potential. Fulfilling their potential will take ambition, hard work, and deferred gratification; it requires self-discipline. We expect confident children to enjoy their accomplishments: They will have earned it. This kind of justified pride is very different from hubris or arrogance, with its overconfidence and disrespect for others.
The recipe for instilling self-confidence is well known. Every day we give our girls opportunities for success and then praise them when they achieve it—though it’s important to respond with genuine appreciation, rather than just rote flattery. When they struggle, we help them face their challenges. When they fail, we help them cope with their defeats and learn from them.
In reading about how to raise children with strong self-esteem, we’ve noticed that humanist values are emphasized again and again. For example, teaching children to critically examine their options and giving them the freedom and responsibility to act on their choices are among the best ways to build self-esteem.
Again, modeling plays a role as well; as parents, we celebrate our individual successes and when faced with a problem, help each other find a way to get through it. After all, it’s what a family is really about.
We have been focusing on the positive, but we know we will face some tough issues as a secular family in a predominantly religious society.
Perhaps one of the first situations our girls will face is how to deal with the Pledge of Allegiance when they go to school. If they are not comfortable using the phrase “under God,” how will they deal with the ever-present peer pressure when their classmates say it and they don’t? And if they do say it, will we (perhaps unconsciously) pressure them not to?
While we want to raise our children to have the courage of their convictions, it’s a lot to ask from a 5-year-old.
One of the biggest challenges we will face as the girls get older is teaching respect for those who not only have different beliefs but actually hold opposing values. Unlike most other nonreligious families, our beliefs are at the forefront of our lives, since one of us runs an international humanist organization, the Institute for Humanist Studies. We cannot hide this—nor should we, because that would teach our girls that we don’t respect our own beliefs and values.
Fortunately, we live in a very diverse and liberal neighborhood in one of the most progressive corners of the country. Still, our children are going to meet a lot of people who don’t like their father’s work. Even in the most friendly of environments, they are likely to find themselves explaining what humanism is far more than most kids! So they will find themselves discussing why their parents don’t believe in God and other charged issues—like the interesting news that Lyra is named after a fictional hero who overthrows God to establish a Republic of Heaven!1
Let’s be honest here. We want our daughters to be intelligent, discerning individuals who are willing to demand answers to their questions and not afraid to criticize bad ideas.
We don’t believe that all ideas have equal merit. Some are right; some are wrong. Some are good and some are bad. So we cannot say that we want our children to respect all beliefs equally.
And yet we do want them to treat all believers with respect and dignity, just as we want everyone to treat our daughters with respect, even if they disagree with our family values. How do we teach our children to respect others whose values they disagree with?
We don’t claim to have the perfect, pat answer to this. We do know, however, that we are able to do this, for the most part, in our own lives.
The girls’ mother has parents who consciously brought their children to different religious events—from a Jewish Seder to a Muslim wedding, as well as the family’s own Catholic ceremonies—to help them appreciate diversity. We hope to be able to involve our daughters in such events as well, so they can appreciate others’ traditions and points of view. Their father serves as the president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which works with hundreds of groups, both religious and secular, to defend the UN’s agreements on freedom of conscience. This models the idea that even when you disagree profoundly on major issues, you can still find common ground to work together respectfully.
It won’t always be easy, especially as humanists in such a religious society. We want our children to respect others, but we won’t let our daughters’ selfesteem be damaged by asking them to defer to people who openly disrespect them or their family’s values.
These issues may not arise until the girls are older. We hope the foundation of pride and respect that we’re building will empower our daughters to rise to these challenges.
We started this chapter with vows and are ending it with uncertain hopes and unanswered questions. Yet as humanists, we relish questions to which we haven’t worked out all the answers. If we do a decent job raising Sophia and Lyra, we expect they will work out answers for themselves, as well as posing questions that never occurred to us. We can respect that. In fact, it would make us proud.
THE IDEA OF VIRTUE IS A noble one: Identify those qualities that make for an admirable person, then work hard to attain them and encourage others to do the same. Identifying virtues and building a collective desire to achieve them can go a long way toward making a better world. And it’s a very good idea for parents of any stripe to have a firm grasp of those qualities they want to encourage in their children.
The trick, of course, is naming the right virtues. The early Christian church named seven (faith, hope, charity, courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom), placing them in opposition to seven deadly sins (pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth) for command of the human soul. Once Thomas Aquinas weighed in, the list of virtues was set in stone.
Freethinkers don’t take kindly to stone-carved lists. We know that the best possible rules, principles, ideas, and theories result when we continually reconsider, rethink, and challenge them.
This is not a comprehensive list of human virtues, nor a list that applies only to secularists. Nor do they represent qualities that always come easy to secularists. On the contrary, like traditional virtues, they are qualities to which we can aspire—often with great difficulty. They are not carved in stone, but in butter, meant to stimulate your own thinking about virtue rather than to dictate an immutable set of commandments.
Pride, properly understood as self-esteem, is something to nurture in our kids. Arrogance, on the other hand—extreme self-importance mixed with a dose of contempt for others—is something to guard against, for two good reasons: It’s unbearable to be around, and it makes no sense.
Think of people you’ve known who were just unbearable to be with. Now think of those whose company made you feel at ease, people you could spend all day with and come back for more. Odds are good that arrogance was a big part of the personalities of those unstandables, and humility—a decent dose of modesty and self-deprecation—was a common characteristic of the others.
Humility, like so many of these virtues, is about caring what others think and feel, about giving validation to others instead of seeking it all for yourself. The best way for parents to teach this, of course, is to model humility ourselves. Monitor your next conversation. How often can you catch yourself saying, “I may be wrong about that”—no one should know more than a skeptic that everything includes an element of doubt—and how often do your kids hear you saying it? How often do you invite someone else’s opinion? Do you spend at least half of the conversation asking about the other person, or are you mostly yakking about you? Do you find something to validate in the other person’s thoughts, or is it wall-to-wall correction?
If being a bearable member of society isn’t incentive enough, try this one: Humility is the natural consequence of religious disbelief. The Christian view holds humans to be specially created repositories of the divine spark, molded in the image of the Creator of the Universe, granted dominion over “mere beasts,” and promised immortal life in God’s loving embrace.
Wow. Hard to be humble when you’re the center of it all.
But we’re not the center, of course. Perhaps the greatest contribution of science has been its humbling recasting of our role in the universe. Instead of the main event in a young, small universe, we have come to realize that we are a blink in time and a speck in space. And instead of having dominion over the animals, we find that we are simply one group among them, special only in the development of one organ—which we too often underuse.
Everything about the scientifically informed world view cries out for humility. We are trousered apes. Yet many nonbelievers arrogantly strut and crow about having figured out that they are apes. That’s pretty hilarious if you think about it.
Next time you look in the mirror, scratch under your arms a bit. Say hoo hoo hoo. Let your kids see you doing it and invite them to do the same. We’ve done some pretty amazing things, we trousered apes, but genetically we’re still less than 2 percent away from our fellow chimps. When we get a little too full of ourselves, a little pit-scratching in the mirror can do wonders for restoring some humility.
Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels—and, by implication, to care. It is the ultimate sign of maturity. Infants are, for their own adaptive good, entirely self-centered. But as we grow, our circle of concern and understanding enlarges, including first family, then one’s own community. But having developed empathy for those who are most like us, we too often stop cold, leaving the empathy boundary at the boundary of our own nation, race, or creed—a recipe for disaster. Statements of concern for “the loss of American lives” in armed conflict, for example, carry an unspoken judgment that American lives are more precious than others, a serious failure of empathy.
Continually pushing out the empathy boundary is a life’s work. We can help our kids begin that critical work as early as possible not by preaching it but by embodying it. Allow your children to see poverty up close. Travel to other countries if you can, staying as long as possible until our shared humanity becomes unmistakable. Engage other cultures and races not just to value difference but to recognize sameness. It’s difficult to hate when you begin to see yourself in the other. And why stop at the species? Knowing that we are just one part of the incredible interwoven network of life on Earth should engender a profound empathy for those who just happen to be across the (relatively arbitrary) boundary of species.
Secular parents must be on guard against a particular failure of empathy—the failure to recognize and understand the religious impulse. Too many nonbelievers shake their heads contemptuously at the very idea of religious belief, failing to recognize religion for what it is—an understandable response to the human condition. Let me repeat that: If the religious impulse seems completely incomprehensible to you, I humbly suggest that you don’t fully grasp the human condition.
Let me explain. I have been very fortunate. I grew up in a stable home, never at risk of starvation, violence, or death. I had a world-class education and parents who encouraged me to develop my mind and refused to dictate my beliefs. My life expectancy is in the late seventies, and I’ll probably make it. Those circumstances, and a few dozen others, have given me the freedom—the luxury, if you will—of seeing my way out of superstition. But it would be incredibly pig-headed of me to fail to understand why others, living more tangibly in the shadow of death or without access to education or freedom of inquiry, would find comfort in religious belief. That doesn’t mean I can’t challenge the many ill effects of that belief—I can and I do, without apology—but we must begin by understanding the realities that gave birth to religion and keep it alive. The best thing we can do is work hard to remedy those realities, to give everyone the benefits for which we should be grateful. Until then, we must give ourselves a good hard mental swat every time we feel inclined to mock, sneer, or roll our eyes at those whose beliefs differ from our own. You’ll know you’ve failed at this the first time you see your kids mocking or sneering at religious belief. Be thoroughly ashamed when that happens, since they will almost certainly have learned it from you. ’Fess up and fix it on the spot, not because it’s not nice, but because a lack of empathy is literal ignorance.
The philosopher Paul Kurtz called courage “the first humanistic virtue.” For no good reason but to demonstrate a little stubborn freethinking independence, I’ve placed it third. Secularists need courage for two main reasons: to live in a religious world that marginalizes and demonizes disbelief and to face the realities of human existence honestly.
It takes very little courage to live in the mainstream. As long as you embrace the norms and beliefs of the majority, you’ll encounter little difficulty, little resistance. Go with the flow and the world will pat you on the head and coo. Protest what is “normal”—dress differently, believe differently, speak differently—and you’ll create problems for the Machine. And the Machine, in return, will create problems for you.
Kids need to know that nonconformity requires courage. There are plenty of nonconformists to draw upon as examples, secular and religious people alike, from Socrates to Martin Luther King to Michael Newdow—people whose strength of conviction led them to face with dignity and courage the consequences of stepping outside of the norm in the name of heartfelt principles. It isn’t easy, but doing what’s right can be well worth it.
The second reason is even more daunting. As noted above, religion primarily evolved not to provide answers but to console fears. The idea of death (if I may jump right to the big one) is terrifying to a living being. Evolution has made sure of that—the more indifferent an animal is to death, the more quickly it will achieve it, and the less such unwise indifference will appear in the next generation. An afterlife illusion addresses the fear of death by simply denying it really happens. Not much integrity in such a plan, but if you can get yourself to believe it, the comfort would be undeniable.
Secularists, God bless us, have opted for the honest truth. In doing so, we face the ultimate terror of existence: our eventual non-existence. Philosophy has its consolations, of course, but I’m not convinced they do the whole job. If you’ve come happily to terms with oblivion, well bully for you. You’re way ahead of me, and 99.8 percent of the species. For the rest of us, courage, in the face of mortality and the other genuinely challenging aspects of being human, is a virtue well worth cultivating.
Honesty is the essence of secularism. It is a willingness to set aside any and every comfort in order to know the truth that allowed us to see our way out of religious belief. Somewhat more difficult is ensuring that we practice the same level of honesty in all other aspects of our lives. I say “somewhat more difficult” because in truth most of the humanists and atheists I know are relentlessly, exhaustively honest, sometimes to a comical extent. We are often paralyzed by our obsession with honesty—yet in one of the greatest ironies I know, nonbelievers consistently rate as the least trustworthy minority in the United States.
Yet in one aspect of honesty, we too often fall flat. How many of us have stuttered or stammered when a pollster asked our religious preference, or when a new neighbor asked what church we attend? It may not be surprising that we blanch at revealing our disbelief to someone who may after all have heard once a week for 800 consecutive weeks that disbelief is the ultimate, unforgivably hell-bound sin. But what better way to overturn culturally ingrained misconceptions about nonbelievers than by revealing that hey, this guy or gal you’ve known and liked for years, your friend, your neighbor, is a nonbeliever? What is accomplished by continuing to “pass”?
Teach your children to choose their beliefs honestly and then to honestly and proudly own them.
Openness has several facets, but all are rooted in the same two principles: embracing your own fallibility and embracing diversity.
Secularists, being human, are as prone as anyone to cling stubbornly to our opinions once they’re established. Openness includes recognizing our own fallibility: No matter how thoroughly we have examined a question, we could still be wrong. The best way to avoid being wrong is to keep our opinions and ideas open to challenge and potential disconfirmation.
The other principle—which often goes by the awful name of “tolerance”—is the very fundament of liberal philosophy. A student in an honors seminar once asked me to define the difference between liberalism and conservatism in a few words—one of the best questions I’d heard in fifteen years. I stared at the floor for what seemed like an hour, then was struck by what I still believe is a darn good answer: The key distinction is the attitude toward difference.
Conservative philosophy tends to believe that there is one “best way” to be and that our job as individuals and as a society is to find that one way and to unify around it—united we stand, you’re with us or you’re against us, join the saved, and to hell with the damned. Liberal philosophy holds that there are many “good ways” to be and that our job as individuals and as a society is to embrace that diversity of approaches to life. Different strokes for different folks.
One student immediately raised the usual concern that the liberal view looks like an “anything goes” position. But it isn’t, of course—it embraces many ways, but not all ways. Someone whose choices harm others would not be permitted by the society to choose that way. So liberals tend to oppose war, which invariably inflicts harm on innocents, and to support the right of gay marriage, which harms no one and would make many people happy.
My concern with the conservative position is that we humans tend to each define our way as the “one true way”—and quickly end up facing each other in armed camps, coalesced around our various “best ways,” determined to eradicate the others, with God on our side. (For reference, see MIDDLE EAST, NORTHERN IRELAND, ABORTION DEBATE.)
A conservative secularist might declare our way of believing the “one true way,” dreaming of a day without religion. That would be as boring and undesirable a world to me as a Planet Evangelical. We shouldn’t even wish for everyone to be like us—and fortunately, few secularists do. Our worldview is inherently liberal philosophically. We should therefore look toward a world in which our view is one legitimate voice among many and teach our kids openness of spirit and embrace of diversity as a fundamental virtue.
Hear enough “deconversion” stories and you’ll begin to see a pattern. Many feel sadness and confusion as their faith begins to flag—only to describe a feeling of peaceful relief once it is finally gone, followed by a sense of personal freedom. But then—despite the dire warnings of the evangelists—instead of picking up a machine gun, we are hit with what I’ll call the Humanist Epiphany: In the absence of a god, we are all we’ve got. Freedom is joined by an awesome sense of responsibility.
Christians could be forgiven if they took an entirely hands-off approach to charity. God is all-just, after all. He will provide for the needy, if not in this world, then in the next. Yet plenty of Christians are out there doing good works for others as a direct and visible expression of their values.
Atheists, however, have no excuse to sit passively. We know there’s no divine safety net, no universal justice, no Great Caretaker, no afterlife reward. We have the full responsibility to create a just world and care for the less fortunate because there’s no one else to do so. So why are Christians doing most of the charity?
I was shocked to learn that myself. That churchgoers do the lion’s share of the charitable work in our communities is simply untrue. They get credit for it because they do a better job of tying the good works they do to their creed. But according to a 1998 study,2 82 percent of volunteerism by churchgoers falls under the rubric of “church maintenance” activities—volunteerism entirely within, and for the benefit of, the church building and immediate church community. As a result of this siphoning of volunteer energy into the care and feeding of churches themselves, most of the volunteering that happens out in the larger community—from AIDS hospices to food shelves to international aid workers to those feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and caring for the elderly—comes from the category of “unchurched” volunteers. The same pattern is apparent on the international stage. The Center for Global Development (CGD) reports that the developed countries that rank highest in terms of generosity to poor countries are those in which church attendance is lowest. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands consistently top the list, all of which have regular church attendance below 15 percent. The idea of a religious monopoly on charity and community service is clearly a myth.3
Our shortcoming is not in doing good, but in making it clear that charity without church is not a stretch but a logical outgrowth of a nontheistic worldview.
Generosity goes far beyond organized charity, of course. We must also model the kind of generosity of spiriit that improves everyone’s experience of daily life. Giving a compliment is an act of generosity. Allowing a car to merge in front of you is an act of generosity. Spending time with an isolated person, expressing love, interest, concern, or support, allowing someone else to take credit for something done together—these acts of generosity are all better modeled than “taught” to our children, and represent a virtue that fits handin-glove with the nonreligious worldview.
The most terrible moment for an atheist, someone once said, is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank. I suppose it was meant to be witty, but it’s pretty silly. Nonbelievers of all stripes should and do indeed feel enormously grateful for many things, and I’m not aware of any terrible moments. Whereas religious folks teach their children to funnel all gratitude skyward, humanists and atheists can thank the actual sources of the good things we experience, those who actually deserve praise but too often see it deflected past them and on to an imaginary being.
We have no difficulty reminding the 4-year-old to “say thank you” when Grandma hands her an ice cream cone, but in other situations—especially when a religious turn-of-phrase is generally used—we often pass up the chance to teach our kids to express gratitude in naturalistic terms. Instead of thanking God for the food on your table, thank those who really put it there—the farmers, the truckers, the produce workers, and Mom or Dad or Aunt Millicent. They deserve it. Maybe you’d like to lean toward the Native American and honor the animals for the sacrifice of their lives—a nice way to underline our connection to them. You can give thanks to those around the table for being present, and for their health, and for family and friendship itself. There is no limit. Even when abstract, like gratitude for health, the simple expression of gratitude is all that is needed. No divine ear is necessary—we are surrounded by real ears and by real hearers.
I read recently of a woman who had lost her husband unexpectedly. She was devastated and bereft of hope—until her neighbors and friends began to arrive. Over the course of several days, they brought food, kept her company, laughed and cried, hugged her, and reassured her that the pain would ease with time and that they would be there every step of the way. “I was so grateful for their love and kindness during those dark days,” she said. “Through them, I could feel the loving embrace of God.”
She was most comfortable expressing her gratitude to an idea of God, but the love and kindness came entirely from those generous and caring human beings. Humanists and atheists are not impoverished by the lack of that god idea; they must simply notice who truly deserves thanks, and not be shy about expressing it.
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie, gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will and wit, purity, probity, pluck and grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, gimme great abs and a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice—these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good—and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink, teach the believers how to think.
“O Karma, Dharma, Pudding and Pie” by Philip Appleman
Reprinted from Appleman, Philip, Selected Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 1996). Used with permission.
IT WOULD BE NICE if we could all contribute to helping “teach believers how to think before our world goes over the brink.” However, let’s be realistic. Unless you are a gifted orator like Robert Green Ingersoll,4 a writer like Sam Harris, a philosopher like Paul Kurtz, or other great talent with wisdom, will and wit, purity, probity, pluck and grit and all the rest—including great abs and a steeltrap mind—saving the world might be a bit of a reach. Maybe it’s quite enough to focus your efforts on the children, specifically, your own.
At a time when religion seems to permeate our culture as never before, from the White House down, it’s important to help our children develop the skills and predispositions to resist indoctrination and think for themselves.
Creating not just an interest but also a fascination with the great questions about our meaning and purpose is, to quote Dr. McGowan, “a perfectly normal option for raising healthy, ethical, well-rounded kids in a loving and honest environment.”
Recently, I asked my parents if they recalled my first words. Surprisingly, they did. At the tender age they estimated at around six minutes, I remarked, totally out of the blue and with no coaching, “Gaaaaa waabooooaaaaaaaa.” Yes, I was a precocious little bugger. My proud mom and dad may or may not have understood what I said, but I remember the moment quite clearly. I wanted to know why I was here, who made me, and what was expected. In short, I was curious about my purpose and what, exactly, was the meaning of life.
Well, I don’t think I understood their response, but sooner or later (probably a great deal later, since I was raised Catholic), I realized I was going to have to figure out this one myself. Why? Because the packaged response—“You are here to serve God, God made you, and you are expected to follow His rules”—did not compute by the time I was around, oh, maybe 10.
This essay is designed to contribute a few ideas about secular parenting related to life’s great questions. Not all children start out asking existential biggies, but many teachable moments contain openings for nourishing such curiosities. You never know when a meaningless gurgle that sounds like “Gaaaaa waabooooaaaaaaaa” is actually the start of a lifelong search for answers. Or, at least an insight or two about the great mysteries.
We all want what’s best for our kids, whether we believe in a Grand Wazoo by one name or another, or choose to shape meaning and purposes without reference to an Imaginary Friend.
Alas, “what’s best” is yet another of life’s great mysteries, not to be determined (beyond the earliest years) by the parents. Both religious and secular parents must recognize, at some level, this cold fact: With regard to how your child will turn out, there are no sure things. Even under ideal, utopian, or nearperfect conditions over time (the right mix of love, supportive environments, positive peers, quality education, and so on), things might not turn out as you wish. Despite all manner of advantage and caring investments over time, the little tyrants might still grow up to be cowboys! Or, your sweet, precious, beautiful, and brilliant little girl with such vast promise for a life free and epic, the treasure you fantasized would become president some day and change the course of history, might end up a nun. But, who knows—maybe she’s happy, at one with the universe, and quite clear about her meaning and purpose. Maybe you succeeded after all. Who can say?
So, do your best, hope for good things, but recognize that, if you are really fortunate, he or she will eventually do what is best for him- or herself.
I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that most of us agree on what is NOT the meaning of life. It is not, to give a few examples, to avoid illness, accidents, and suffering. Nor is it to seek and find pleasure, to gain riches, or live a stress-free life. It’s not to acquire more stuff, however attractive certain stuff may seem at times. You agree with all this, right?
Well—what then? What IS the bloody meaning of life, or MOL? Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. I’d guess you believe as I do—that there is none, save what we invent. By saying there is no meaning of life, I mean no universal, inherent meaning that applies for everyone. What is called for, then, is a conscious quest for meaning, the kind of self-directed meaning-making urged by such great existential thinkers as Viktor Frankl. Psychiatrists like Irving Yalom suggest that pondering such questions is important for good mental health, even if the answer is ultimately unknowable. While Frankl fascinated us in Man’s Search for Meaning with accounts of finding meaning amid the horrors of the Nazi death camps, most of us face less daunting obstacles. Yet I suspect Frankl’s reflections, though drawn from worst cases, apply even in favored or (pardon the term, here intended in a secular way) “blessed” circumstances.
Frankl identified selfless service to others as the surest path to finding a fulfilling sense of meaning. On a less dramatic level than Frankl endured, we build meaning from an accumulation of modest, nondramatic services over time. Carrying an organ donor card, for instance, might someday improve or even save the life of another, and a discussion about becoming a donor could be a parental teachable moment. Such brief, low-key communications with a child often stimulate early existential reflections in the informed, supportive atmosphere of a loving family context.
I carry a donor card myself, by the way—else I would not have the gall to urge you to do so. Provided I am certifiably deceased, anyone is cordially welcome to one or both of my kidneys and lungs, my quite excellent (so far) triathlete heart, my pretty good liver, pancreas, and intestines, as well as my skin and bone marrow, heart valves, connective tissue, eyes, ears—you get the picture. (I’m reminded of one of Ashleigh Brilliant’s wonderful Potshots—“I’m Not Perfect, But Parts of Me Are Excellent!”) And Frankl was right: That conscious decision to serve others even after I’m gone is a very fulfilling part of my self-constructed sense of meaning and purpose while I’m still here.
Where might you look then for a starter set of ideas about finding more satisfaction in terms of meaning and purpose (henceforth M&P) than you already possess? I recommend a low-key, unhurried quest for your own tentative answers, or at least possibilities.
A sense of meaning and purpose is important for mental and emotional wellness. But life is without inherent meaning, so to be optimally well, we must invest life with meaning and purpose and teach our kids to do the same.
By receiving M&P in prepackaged parcels, the children of religious parents gain less experience in self-directed meaning-making. In my first grade, back around 1944, the answer to “Who made me?” was, of course, “God made me,” and the next M&P question (“Why did God make me?”) made clear what I was here for and what life was all about: “To love and to serve Him.”
There it was. An inherent meaning of life, same for me as for all my classmates and, presumably, everyone else in the whole wide world—including, presumably, the Nazis who were tearing about Europe at the time.
Later, I began to consider it more likely that M&P was what you made it to be, not a cosmic given. At least that’s my view now. Carl Sagan expressed it this way: “We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.” Had he said that in first grade in 1944 at St. Barnabas in Philadelphia, PA, little Carl would have been severely disciplined. Of course, such schools were not organized to teach (or encourage or even tolerate) critical thinking skills, to promote free inquiry, or to reinforce reason and skepticism about unsupported assertions. We’re all entitled to opinions, and reflections and opinions on this mystery could foster enriching discussions at your family’s dinner table. Such discussions can be endlessly rewarding, elements of a rich family intellectual life during all phases of a child’s wonder years. Of course, staying alert for new ideas and possibilities about M&P should never end until the final curtain call.
Of course (to quote comedian Dennis Miller), “I could be wrong about this.” Certainty has its drawbacks, as I learned later in life about the required answers to those M&P questions posed in first grade. This is seen as well in modern times in the words of the cartoon character Calvin, who said, “The meaning of life is that people should do what I want!”
Is there a link between M&P and human happiness? Well, as Jack Palance told Billy Crystal in the movie City Slickers after an exchange about the meaning of life, “That’s for you to find out.” For those who choose to parent their children in secular, reason-based ways, “that’s for you to find out” might come in handy on many occasions, until such times as they conclude for themselves that such is and always will be the case.
So what do the Tooth Fairy, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the meaning of life have in common? Answer: None of these things exists! I think people make them up, for various reasons, for better or worse.
You can get by quite nicely without the Tooth Fairy, Big Foot, and the Loch Ness Monster, but meaning is another thing. If you suspect, as I do, that there’s not a single meaning to life applicable to all, you’ll want to find something that’s really meaningful to you.
Volunteering for a consequential cause is a meaning-building activity that many find fulfilling. I say “hail to volunteers” who do good work and to the organizations that utilize and channel their exceptional energies. Great causes have been advanced and countless lives improved by those willing to donate their time and effort.
There are a few caveats to consider in volunteering. Sometimes volunteering includes a strong element of self-interest, even beyond the fulfillment of M&P. Students, for example, need volunteer service for admittance to prestigious universities, and many volunteering in programs sponsored by religious organizations are in part seeking admission to Paradise! There’s no harm in such self-interest, of course, provided it’s above board and recognized by all concerned. Volunteers should also be careful not to increase the dependency of those they serve.
These caveats shouldn’t dissuade you from volunteering, but acknowledging all sides of the issue is a vital part of the examined life. And the unexamined life, as Socrates put it, is not worth living. The most satisfying meaning is the meaning we build with our eyes wide open.
If you plan to volunteer, look for ways to involve your children. Few experiences are as rewarding and eye-opening. Just balance the usual talk about the importance of helping others with a discussion of motives—especially the importance of avoiding a “holier-than-thou” syndrome where the volunteer expects to be hailed or honored for doing what is basically personally satisfying.
This is only one of endless possibilities for building a meaningful and purposeful life. You’ll know when you’ve found the right fit for you—the feeling is unmistakable. Trust it, and teach your kids to look for and trust that feeling as well. But whatever you do, please don’t find your M&P by starting another religion, adding to the amount of myth-information in the world!
Be well. Always look on the bright side of life.
MOST PEOPLE, EVEN ATHEISTS and agnostics, do not realize how many admired figures in history have been nonreligious. Many icons in U.S. history and literature were skeptics or outright scoffers. Yet when schoolchildren read about inventor Thomas Alva Edison, they won’t encounter his view that religion was all bunk. When they read about Thomas Paine and his influence in fomenting the American Revolution, it is unlikely they will be taught that Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, is one of the most devastating critiques of the bible ever written. A growing number of references ensure that a thoughtful parent can readily introduce children to the heady history of freethought heroes and heroines they won’t learn about in school. Any time is the right time to introduce your children to freethinking and its heritage.
Ensuring that your child grows up free from religion—from such unwholesome ideas as original sin or everlasting punishment—might be the greatest gift you can offer. Yet the absence of religion in a household may not be enough. Are you equipping your child to survive and thrive as a freethinker in one of the most religious nations in the world?
In today’s United States, atheism is the least acceptable minority position. The increasing U.S. acceptance of religious diversity does not extend to atheists, according to a national survey released in March 2006 by the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology. The survey found that in this country atheists are rated below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups as not “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry into. The kneejerk reaction of most religionists is that atheists and agnostics do not even have a moral sense of right or wrong! Given society’s demonization of atheism, how can we teach our children to think for themselves, be proud if they choose to belong to the category of “none of the above,” and respectful of nonbelievers if they do not? While freethought must be a position one arrives at intellectually and independently, it is still vital to affirm secular values as a parent. Just as we would take steps to prevent our children from growing up homophobic, violent, racist, or sexist, we do not want our children to fall prey to superstition and religious dogma. Part of producing healthy children may require inoculating our children against dogma. With the religious right in full attack against the Enlightenment, now is not the time to hide or downplay your freethinking views, especially in front of your children. Humanity has progressed as religious power has diminished, often as a result of courageous battles fought by secular heroes and heroines. Acquainting your child with the truly impressive contributions of freethinkers will help instill a sense of history and a respect for freethought—the formation of opinions about religion based on reason, rather than tradition, authority or established belief.
Take advantage of life experiences, news events, and school assignments to share interesting tidbits about freethinkers. The next time super-athlete Lance Armstrong is in the news, why not mention that Armstrong rejected religion and prayer during his fight with cancer? If your child is learning to play Johannes Brahms’ “Lullaby,” by all means let her know that the composer, a much-admired philanthropist, had no use for religion. Next time you take your kids with you on Election Day when you vote, explain that it was nonreligious women who were the first to work for women’s right to vote. When a Cole Porter song comes on during a movie sound track, let your kids know that Porter was out of the closet both as a gay man and an atheist. Be sure your children know that much of the screenplay and all of the lyrics in The Wizard of Oz, a movie that is a magical benchmark in most young lives, were written by freethinker E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.
Suggesting a freethought topic, when your child comes to you with a school assignment or essay, can turn a young mind on. Suggest that your child research the forgotten nineteenth century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll, for example. If your student must select a poem to memorize or parse, direct them to something freethinking by the plethora of skeptical poets, including William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Goethe, Langston Hughes, John Keats, Amy Lowell, James Russell Lowell, Robert Lowell, Molière, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander Pope, Carl Sandburg, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gertrude Stein, Algernon Swinburne, Alfred Tennyson, and Walt Whitman.
Most children who like to read discover Tom Sawyer by themselves. And most schoolchildren are still assigned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with its freethinking denouement, in which Huck vows he would rather burn in hell forever than send his friend back into slavery. What a perfect opportunity to discuss the freethought views and contributions of Mark Twain! Parents have great influence through the books, journals, and movies found in their homes. Parents of older elementary school-aged children who like fantasy such as Harry Potter have a perfect winter solstice present in the Dark Materials trilogy of Philip Pullman, which the British atheist author wrote directly to counter the influence of C. S. Lewis’s pious Narnia series. A painless way to introduce your children to freethought concepts while entertaining them is by screening movies, such as Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, which stars Jodie Foster, a freethinking actress, as a nonreligious scientist. Chocolat is a direct challenge of the repression of the Catholic Church and contains an appealing child character. A surprising number of classic films contain laudable freethinking characters, such as the movie based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. Teenagers may be ready for nonfiction by and about freethinkers, including readings of the great skeptics or philosophers, such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Diderot, Nietzsche, Freud, Santayana, Mencken, and Russell.
Below follows a brief but representative sampling of famous freethinkers and their contributions.
Thomas Paine, who named the United States of America and fanned the flames of the Revolution, believed “My own mind is my own church.” U.S. patriot Col. Ethan Allen (1737–1789), who organized the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont during the American Revolution, wrote what is believed to be the first rationalist book published in America: Reason: The Only Oracle of Man (1785). Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), one of the more orthodox deists of the American Revolution, nevertheless believed there should be no government support for religion. Deist and President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) urged the adoption of the First Amendment, separating church from state. Jefferson passionately rejected the Trinity and a supernatural Jesus, urging instead the use of reason. James Madison (1751–1836), the fourth U.S. president, was the primary architect of the secular U.S. Constitution, which drew inspiration from such deists Montesquieu and John Locke. Madison believed religion shackles the mind, and that a union between church and state had produced only “torrents of blood.”
Celebrities make freethinking a little more fun. Among the actors who have made public statements expressing doubt or disbelief are: Charlie Chaplin, George Clooney, W.C. Fields, Harrison Ford, Katharine Hepburn, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Butterfly McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Uma Thurman, Marlene Dietrich, Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, Tony Randall, Christopher Reeve, Julia Sweeney, and Bruce Willis. Disbelieving movie directors include Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, and Steven Soderbergh. Composers who were deists, questioners, or unbelievers include Beethoven, Bizet, Brahms, Debussy, Gershwin, Mahler, Mozart, Schumann, Strauss, and Verdi. Popular songwriters and lyricists include Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Tom Lehrer, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim. Musicians include Bjork, Ani DiFranco, John Lennon, and Frank Zappa. Andy Rooney of television’s 60 Minutes is a well-known scoffer. TV commentator Ron Reagan, the son of the late president Ronald Reagan, has pointed out that he could not realistically run for office as an atheist.
Have a child looking for a book report? The list of well-known novelists who have questioned or openly rejected religion is lengthy, including Margaret Atwood, Pearl Buck, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fowles, Robert A. Heinlein, Joseph Heller, Langston Hughes, Victor Hugo, Aldous Huxley, John Irving, James Joyce, John Le Carré, Ursula LeGuin, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Herman Melville, Joyce Carol Oates, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Ayn Rand, Tom Robbins, Salmon Rushdie, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, H.G. Wells, and Virginia Woolf. A writer your children might recognize is Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. Isaac Asimov, a sci-fi and nonfiction writer, perhaps the world’s most prolific, was a strong atheist.
Without the bible’s sanction of slavery, the long, shameful legacy of slavery in the United States might have been curtailed, perhaps averting the bloody Civil War. A widely accepted myth is that Christian churches led the fight against slavery. Yet with the exception of Quakers and Unitarians, most Christian denominations were johnny-come-latelies. The words “infidel” and “abolitionist” were considered interchangeable insults in the early 1800s. The first in America to publicly call for an outright end to slavery was deist Thomas Paine. Deist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), founder of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, famously called churches “bulwarks” of slavery. We still sing the words penned by Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), “Over the river and through the woods,” but few of us realize this influential abolitionist was a pariah in Boston society for her early abolitionist book, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1817?–1895), who became editor of the North Star (1847), noted in one of his autobiographies: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, was likely not more than a deist. His observation that the North and South “both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God” is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial.
The ranks of reformers are full of nonconformists and unbelievers, whose willingness to challenge prevailing dogma made them courageous advocates of democracy, abolition of the death penalty, and educational reforms. Among the greatest was deist Voltaire (1694–1778), father of the Enlightenment, and the world’s first civil libertarian. Nineteenth-century British freethought produced many reformers who fought censorship and blasphemy laws, such as Welsh Robert Owen (1771–1858), who worked to improve laborers’ lives during the Industrial Revolution, championing women’s rights and progressive causes. British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1749–1832) believed in “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and worked for political, legal, prison and educational reforms. J. S. Mill (1806–1873), who wrote On Liberty, worked for reforms such as sexual equality and public ownership of national resources. The nineteeth-century United States was awash in freethinking utopians and abolitionists who, after the Civil War, turned to suffrage, labor, or other radical reform movements. Founder of the American Red Cross Clara Barton (1821–1912) was a deistic Universalist. Twentieth-century nonreligious reformers include radical “Red” anarchist Emma Goldman (1869–1940), who shook up U.S. smugness in her quest for labor, human, and women’s rights, W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963), founder of the NAACP, and Jane Addams (1860–1935), founder of the strictly secular Hull House.
Where would feminism be without its freethinking founders—who braved scriptural prohibitions ordaining women to keep silent and be in subjection? The first influential feminist book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was written by deist-turned-agnostic Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) in 1792, urging that women be treated as “rational creatures.” Scottish-born Frances Wright (1795–1852), an abolitionist, became the first to lecture before audiences of men and women in North America in the 1820s, calling for women’s educational rights and castigating the clergy. “Serene agnostic” Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was the first woman, in 1848, to call for woman suffrage, launching the women’s movement. She was joined by sister agnostic Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). The ranks of the suffrage movement were filled by freethinkers, who were its most radical thinkers, espousing marriage and divorce reform, birth control, and self-autonomy. Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), whose motto was “No Gods—No Masters,” overcame insuperable barriers to free women by making birth control legal and accessible.
A majority of elite U.S. scientists admit to personal disbelief, doubt, or agnosticism and reject belief in human immortality. A landmark 1914 survey by James H. Leuba found that 70 percent of the “great” scientists of the time disbelieved in a god. Twenty years later, when Leuba replicated the survey, he found that doubt among the top tier of scientists had increased to 85 percent. In 1996–1998, when Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham repeated the survey among today’s top tier—members of the National Academy of Sciences—fully 93 percent expressed disbelief.5
The long warfare between science and religion is best represented by the fate of Spanish physician Michael Servetus (1511–1553), who first accurately described pulmonary circulation. Calvin personally ordered Servetus’ execution for writing an anti-trinitarian book. Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei (1562–1642), pioneer of the experimental scientific method, whose research described inertia, momentum, and gravity, was forced to abjure his Copernican theory that the sun does not revolve around the earth. He died under house arrest. British astronomer Edmund Halley (1656–1741), known as the “infidel mathematician,” had his career threatened by religious critics.
Irreligious science giants include Charles Darwin (1809–1882), an agnostic who rejected Christianity. The British genius delayed publishing Origin of Species (1859), from which the religious world is still reeling, anticipating the backlash. German-born Albert Einstein (1879–1955), whose papers explaining photoelectric effect and the special theory of relativity revolutionized science, rejected belief in a personal god or immortality. Freethinking American James Watson (born 1928) and British atheist Francis Crick (1916–2004), along with Maurice Wilkins, unraveled the DNA code. Watson went on to head the human genome project. A sampling of prominent Nobel-award winning scientists who have rejected religion include Polish-born physicist Marie Curie (1867–1934), U.S. physicist and popular science writer Steven Weinberg (born 1933), physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–1988), and chemist Linus Pauling (1901–1994). Astronomer and space scientist Carl Sagan (1934–1996), one of the greatest popularizers of science through his television program, Cosmos, wrote of his rejection of religion in The Demon-Haunted World. Selfish Gene author and British biologist Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most outspoken atheists and freethinking authors (The God Delusion, 2006).
The Enemy List
Lives of great men all remind us
Greatness takes no easy way,
All the heroes of tomorrow
Are the heretics of today.
Socrates and Galileo,
John Brown, Thoreau, Christ and Debs
Heard the night cry “Down with traitors!”
And the dawn shout “Up the rebs!”
Nothing ever seems to bust them—
Gallows, crosses, prison bars;
Tho’ we try to readjustment them
There they are among the stars.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can write our names on high,
And departing leave behind us
Thumbprints in the FBI.
When, as a fifth-grader, I happened to ask my mother for more information about our family’s agnostic views, she opened a volume by Bertrand Russell and had me read a chapter titled, “Why I Am an Agnostic.” I was enchanted. A world of reason opened for me. A parent cannot force that “aha!” moment (and would not want to), but an astute suggestion, book, or guidance at the right moment can change a life—or at the very least provide a much-needed antidote to the assumption that religious belief is universal among those we admire.
(SPONTANEOUSLY COMPOSED, SUNG, and copyrighted at the dinner table in response to my 6-year-old’s statement that everyone outside of our family believes in God, this song lists famous figures who challenged the dominant religious beliefs of their times—atheists, agnostics, humanists, deists, and other freethinkers. Sung (very fast) to “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from HMS Pinafore, or, if you prefer, “The Elements” by freethinker Tom Lehrer.)
There’s Celsus and Confucius and Lucretius and Epictetus
Thucydides and Socrates and Marcus A. Aurelius
And Seneca and Diderot who lived a long long time ago
But still were smart enough to know, no God above, no Hell below.
Thomas Paine and old Mark Twain had no religion on the brain
And Sigmund Freud would be annoyed if someone asked him to explain
The ludicrous psychology of someone whose theology
Suggests we’re damned eternally for munching apples off a tree.
Inventors and biologists and people skilled in medicine
Like Thomas Henry Huxley and like Thomas Alva Edison
And while we’re on the Thomases you have my solemn promises
That yet another Thomas is the one named Thomas Jefferson.
Few Christians know these people, so they simply try to pass ’em off
As Bible-thumpin’ Christians—even guys like Isaac Asimov!
I hate to have to tattle but they’ll have an uphill battle,
That’ll be the day when Isaac thumps a Bible (in a Christian way).
Henry Louis Mencken, he was really quite a thinkin’ man
And Abraham a-Lincoln no communion wine was drinkin’, man
And possibly the best of all, a man named Robert Ingersoll
Who had the unrelenting gall to call religion falderal.
Then there’s the man whose nom de plume was nothing less than David Hume,
He didn’t buy the virgin womb and chuckled at the empty tomb
He laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed
and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed
and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed …
And so did Mary Wollstonecraft.
We haven’t even broken into people in the sciences
Who’ve written and have spoken their heretical defiances
Of seven-day creation and our sacred obligation
I begin to lose my patien(ce)—and start throwing small appliances.
I’d better stop, I’m obviously losing my ability
To set these noble names in rhyme with metrical facility
I only hope my little song has shown you that the list is long
Of folks who’ve given God the gong—by thinking with agility.
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted;
persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished;
persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
G. G., CHIEF OF ORDINANCE
(On the forepage of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn)
IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR comfort, if you are looking for consolation, if you want the meaning of life handed to you on a plate—don’t go to the arts. Whether it is for parents or children, or their interaction, the arts can disturb and should not avoid the difficult areas of life. But art is not to be feared, for it can also stretch the imagination—art is wonderfully elastic, and it can stir creativity. Art is a wonderful stirrer, and a stirrer of wonder.
I intend to consider art and its effect and value, looking particularly at literature, the art with which I am most engaged. I will refer to four children’s/adult texts that seem relevant—Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and folk tales—a phrase I prefer to “fairy tales,” which sounds effete when in fact the tales are often knotty and tough. I shall consider the range of arts and the range of their practice particularly to children. And I shall conclude by returning to the value in art that we can all take—parents, children, citizens.
For a nonreligious parent or child, art can become an integral part of understanding the world and other people and of creating a meaning in life. Art is not a substitute for religion—no such thing is necessary. But it brings to us all the excitement and danger of being alive, the intensity and delight of love and human relationships, the lasting enhancement of beauty, and the perception of extraordinary wonder.
Art is not just challenging—it can be dangerous. Do not enter if you feel queasy. Kafka wrote in his diary of 1916 that “If I am condemned, then I am not only condemned to die, but also condemned to struggle till I die.” The artist is then condemned to struggle, and to some extent the reader or observer may need to struggle too. Potted biographies of artists are not much use, but an understanding of the Herculean struggle through which some artists go to hammer out their art is worth having. Humanism is a questing, questioning attitude to life, which may not always be easy.
Humanism in the arts involves looking at communality, diversity, human sympathy, otherness, freedom, and truth.
We are essentially social animals: It is our place in the community that establishes us as living, feeling, thinking people. Some art is social in nature—joining with others to watch a play or a film, which gives a very different experience from watching television or a PlayStation on one’s own. Laughter together is a liberating force, and no harm if the laughter is subversive. Singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra or a band or group (both experiences I have had at some stage in my life) are social experiences that require intellectual discipline and deep feeling at the same time.
George Eliot, perhaps the greatest of all British nineteenth-century novelists, created a complete community in Middlemarch: There is a reality to that place and those people that compares with the complete reality of a Dutch painting. Within that town are people struggling: to change the medical establishment, to come to terms with their own dishonesty, to allow great idealism to clash with dry pedantry. George Eliot was an agnostic, but one who believed deeply in human values, the power of good. In contrast, Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian novelist of the first half of the twentieth century who fought against repression and censorship, portrayed in The White Guard a city in disarray, with civil disorder in the face of the Bolsheviks. But Bulgakov has the long perspective of the artist: “Everything passes away—suffering, pain, blood, hunger and pestilence.”
These literary masters create worlds in which human values, ambitions, loyalties, and longings compete—worlds that may then be compared quite meaningfully to our own place and time. In this way, literature can serve much the same purpose for secular audiences as scriptural tales do for the religious, providing narratives upon which we reflect and against which we view our own lives and choices.
Equally important to art are the more individual qualities of “universal sympathy” and human diversity. If we cannot enlarge our understanding by the scrutiny of others—depicted on screen or canvas, on printed page or raised platform—there is a failure of communication. It is the “otherness” of the world around that is so important. We are easily immersed in ourselves, and this leads to a diminishment of our identity. To be aware of the “other,” the other people, the other places, the other events, is a creative act: It enhances a sense of awe at the world and, indeed, the universe.
Human diversity is seen abundantly in the texts we will shortly consider. Huck’s friendship with the black Jim in Huckleberry Finn and the two gay angels in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Pullman illustrate the need for children and adults to accept the variety of the human race. Attempts to stifle this are found in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, where the persecution of supposed witches represents the unacceptability of those who are different and the hysteria in response to threats. Miller wrote of that play: “The tranquility of the bad man lies at the heart of not only moral philosophy but dramaturgy as well.” Art does not propose moral answers but does offer moral issues for our consideration.
Art cannot be cheery—it must face the depths. Consider for instance the brilliant If This is a Man in which Italian author Primo Levi gives an account of his experiences in a World War Two concentration camp. He has to tell the truth of his awful experience. If parents can face this, so can their children at some stage in their development.
This seems a long way from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but growth and development are characteristics of the three central characters in the three texts I shall look at. Huck, who is certainly not of a good background (his father’s a drunk), through his travels along the river, through the types that he meets, through his friendship with the “nigger” Jim, develops an awareness of people and the process of living that he had not had at the beginning. The fact that Jim is described as a “nigger”—now a taboo word, but used regularly at the period of the novel—does not signal a derogatory attitude, for Jim is of pure gold and when Huck thinks Jim has disappeared “he set down and cried.” Weaver, the black youth in A Gathering Light, living fifty years later, is outraged by being called a “nigger.” Thus we see the development of language and understanding. And language is important to all the texts, Twain being particularly good at expressing the vernacular and Mattie in A Gathering Light being a person to whom words are life.
Although Twain wants no moral to his story, he is excellent at portraying the ethical ambivalence that Huck inhabits, especially when he decides to help Jim escape from slavery. It is worth remembering that Huckleberry Finn was regarded as a subversive book in its day. Pullman’s trilogy has likewise caused controversy, particularly in the opposition to religion. The river that is Huck’s highway has a largeness and a power that we hold in awe. And Huck and Jim, when they lie looking at the stars, discuss whether they are made or “just happened.”
A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly is a remarkable recent novel set at the beginning of the twentieth century in a subsistence farming community in New York State. The central character is Mattie, who plays with words and wants to be a writer. A teacher encourages her and tells her that books are dangerous. We need to focus on the fact that art is dangerous. The teacher is herself a poet who has fallen foul of Comstock and faced censorship. (I am reminded of a recent report of the banning of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang in a North Carolina school, under pressure from conservative Christian groups.) Parents, let your children explore—and especially explore words.
Like Huck, Mattie has an important interracial friendship. Hers is with Weaver, who like Mattie wants a college education. She asks him: “Why aren’t people plain and uncomplicated? Why don’t they do what you expect them to do, like characters in a novel?” The best novels are not like that. Mattie is unexpected in many ways: her falling in love with a simple would-be farmer, her toughness in seeing her family through illness, her choice of a new word every day from a dictionary, her loyalty to the poor in the community. Rightly, because novels should leave questions, not answer them, we do not know for sure what success she will have.
Northern Lights, the first of Pullman’s trilogy, is an “other world” novel, where all the characters have demons attached to them for support and where the enemy is the church—and at the end of this volume there is the hope of the end of centuries of darkness. Lyra, the central character, is resourceful, imaginative, and determined.6 One of the novel’s strengths is the great diversity of characters. In a later volume, there are several gay angels of great charm. Just as Huck is aware of the power of the river, so Lyra, when looking at the Aurora, the northern lights, feels “it was so beautiful it was almost holy.”
Folk tales are often told to young children, but they have resonance for parents as well. Tales such as The Arabian Nights have stories that are of a richness and wonder, delineating the magic and unexpected in life and reminding of the richness of Islamic culture. Grimm’s tales are much darker—children who might be shoved in the oven and eaten, the threat of being boiled to death by a witch, the loss of sight when jumping from a tower into thorns. Freud and his disciples had a field day with these tales. Some say they are too grim for children—but children do have dark fantasies and dreams, and it helps them to accept them, or make sense of them, to have them read to them in a controlled way—and the darkness is often followed with an ingenious rescue. Angela Carter, the novelist and storyteller, has praised Peril the French fairy story writer for his “consummate craftsmanship and his good-natured cynicism…. From the work of this humane, tolerant and kind-hearted Frenchman, children can learn enlightened self-interest … and gain much pleasure besides.”
Other arts are equally important. Music and theatre and film and the visual arts are all valuable for young and old alike. There have been increasing attempts at outreach by professional artists into schools and community groups. As an example, a group of difficult adolescent youths were taken for some weeks dancing—creating a dance drama. They came back to class completely transformed and ready to learn. Journalist Will Hutton has pointed out that “today’s society does not equip boys with the emotional intelligence to come to terms with their feelings.” Schools and families can be harsh and lacking in understanding. They need more democracy and participation and listening—and more artistic activity. Music, for example, teaches self-discipline, working together with others, perseverance, cooperation—and gives great rewards. Why then has musical education declined? The state should encourage arts in schools and homes, partly because it pays off in producing balanced, imaginative citizens, but partly because it leads to fulfilled individuals.
I finish with Thoreau on the value of knowledge and the arts and sciences—and then ultimately the value of not-knowing.
Men say they know many things;
But lo! They have taken wings,—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
1. See Jim Herrick’s essay “Secular Parenting and the Arts” at the end of this chapter for more on the character Lyra.
2. “Religion and Volunteering in America,” paper presented at the Conference on Religion, Social Capital, and Democratic Life at Calvin College by Steven J. Yonish (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and David E. Campbell (Harvard University), October 1998.
3. Foreign Policy and the Center for Global Development, “Ranking the Rich,” Foreign Policy Magazine, May/June 2005.
4. That makes five times Robert Ingersoll’s been mentioned in this book—the only five times most readers have probably heard his name. Ingersoll was attorney general of Illinois in the late 1860s, but his further political ambitions were thwarted by his anti-religious views. He then pursued a career as a traveling orator, delivering sparkling, brilliant public lectures around the country in support of nontheistic morality and against the harmful effects of religion. Called “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was an influential voice in the nineteenth century but quickly faded into undeserved obscurity after his death in 1899.
5. E.J. Larson & L. Witham, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature 394 (July 1998), 313.
6. See Cherry and Cherry, “Double Vision,” for another appearance of Lyra.
• Ardell, Don. The Book of Wellness: A Secular Approach to Spirit, Meaning and Purpose. Prometheus, 1996. A founder and leader of the wellness movement, Dr. Donald B. Ardell suggests that doctors turn more attention to encouraging the contemplation of meaning and purpose in their patients—and that they do so without any religious overlay.
• Heelas, Paul, with Linda Woodhead. Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Blackwell, 2004. Strong mostly in establishing the fact that organized religion is losing its appeal in favor of a more personal, nondogmatic spirituality for the expression of meaning and purpose. Very interesting reading—but go elsewhere for specific recommendations or practices.
• Grayling, A.C. Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age. Oxford, 2003. A beautifully written and thought-provoking set of reflections on values and ethics without religion.
• Mather, Anne, and Louise Weldon. Character Building Day by Day: 180 Quick Read-Alouds for Elementary School and Home. Free Spirit, 2006. The title says it all. “Faith” and “reverence” blissfully absent from the list of virtues.
Four great introductions to “secular heroes”:
• Allen, Norm R., African-American Humanism: An Anthology, Prometheus Books, 1991.
• Gaylor, Annie Laurie, ed., Women Without Superstition: No Gods—No Masters. The Writings of 19th & 20th Century Women Freethinkers, FFRF, 1997.
• Haught, James A., 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.
• Freethought of the Day at. A searchable database of freethinkers.
• Medhus, Elisa, MD. Raising Children Who Think for Themselves. Beyond Words, 2001. Recipient of numerous awards, this book encourages the eponymous value of freethought: thinking for one’s self. Medhus offers suggestions for raising children who are inner-directed by self-defined values rather than externally driven by peer pressure, pop culture influences, and authority.
• Also by Elisa Medhus: Raising Everyday Heroes: Parenting Children to be Self-Reliant. Beyond Words Publishing, 2003.
• Wykoff, Jerry. 20 Teachable Virtues. Perigee Trade, 1995. Twenty chapters, each offering parents tips for teaching a single virtue—and more importantly, a warning that what you don’t model yourself will not be learned. The spotlighted virtues, including empathy, fairness, tolerance, caring, courage, humor, respect, and self-reliance, should warm the secular heart.
• Espeland, Pamela, with Elizabeth Verdick. Knowing And Doing What’s Right: The Positive Values Assets (The Free Spirit Adding Assets Series for Kids) 2006. One of a large series of excellent books by Espeland for parents and children, Knowing and Doing What’s Right focuses on six positive values assets: Caring, Equality and Social Justice, Integrity, Honesty, Responsibility, and Healthy Lifestyle.
[N.B. Note that several of the virtue-related resources are listed in the Additional Resources section of Chapter 4, “On Doing and Being Good”]