Thursday, December 17, 2009

What "I Ought To" Really Means

I'm working on Chapter 5 of Mere Christianity, and it occurred to me that Lewis is mistaken about the uniqueness of what he terms Moral Law. He notes that there is often an impulse that we ought to do good, even when we don't want to. And from that he deduces that this impulse, unlike all other impulses, must be a natural law implanted by a supernatural mind. Aside from being a humongous leap, stealthily importing a lot of assumptions not made explicit, this ignores the simple explanation of cost-benefit analysis and the difficulty of delaying gratification.

When we say, "I really ought to . . . " whether it regards going to the gym, giving to a charity, or abstaining from an extramarital affair, aren't we really saying, "I highly value an overarching or future benefit that requires this action, but there are powerful immediate benefits to not taking this action." The struggle isn't the result of a fallen nature battling with a God-given Moral Law, but simply the difficulty of turning down present goodies to obtain future ones. Remaining on the couch, keeping all your money to buy fun stuff for you, or having that smoking hot infatuation sex will all feel really good in the short term, or when we only focus on our immediate desires. But we are also aware of the wider picture, in which other (selfish!) motivations require that we do the opposite.

I just don't see why this has to rise to the level of the supernatural. Unless you are steeped in a Christian culture already. In Lewis's case, I suspect not only did he work out the "logical" steps to his conclusion AFTER coming to it, but that Christian moral teachings influenced how he looked at the issues. It might not occur to a person schooled in the Ten Commandments that adultery actually has some benefits - we all know adultery is wrong, wrong, WRONG!!!

While Lewis is really good at couching his arguments in convincing-sounding analogies, I think he fails at both perspective and imagination.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mere Christianity - Not Impressed So Far

I'm on Chapter 4. I'm continuing even though Lewis has instructed me to stop reading. (He says anyone who doesn't agree with his first argument should give it up.)

It boils down to this: because most people feel some sense of fairness and overarching morality (not only "I don't want you to do that" but "You shouldn't do that - it's wrong."), that means there must be an immaterial Lawgiver who put a sense of Moral Law in each of us. I think all of this is perfectly explicable by evolution and socialization. And supported by the indications we see that other animals have "moral codes," such as "Don't eat before the higher-ranked wolves" or "Don't have sex with anyone but the Alpha chimp, unless you can be really sneaky about it" (guilt!).

He also completely overlooks the selfish value of benefiting society. He starts well, saying, "[Human beings] see that you cannot have any real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair," But three sentences later has completely forgotten this concept, and says it's silly to say it's good to benefit society, because wanting to benefit society is unselfish, so it's just begging the question. Except he started the conversation with an admission that helping society helps the individual!

He also misses the fact that human behavior all takes place in roughly the same environment, and this was probably even truer when evolutionary pressures were at their greatest, so it's not a supernatural-level surprise that we are hard-wired and socialized via long tradition to adopt similar cooperative behaviors. It becomes a (granted, complex) series of "if-then" statements: If no one in a clan can trust each other, they fail to cooperate and all die; If most people in a clan feel significant psychological pressure to be trustworthy, they can cooperate and survive.

If Lewis considered engineering, one wonders if he would find an extra-universal entity that bestows the Law of Design. "Look, all people throughout history have made boats that displace more water than that equal to their weight. Clearly this means there is a God of Boat Design!"

Friday, December 4, 2009

Talking About Death

Humanist Homeschool Mom has a post referring to her article, "Mommy, what happens after I die?" It prompted me to compile some of my favorite bits & pieces about a naturalistic approach to death.

First, the quote I commented with: ""I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it," traditionally attributed to Mark Twain.

Then there's this lovely bit by Aaron Freeman, which can be heard at

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.

Finally, there's a nice scene in the movie Houseboat, with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, that expresses the same kind of sentiment. The widower explains to his grieving son that nothing is ever really destroyed or gone, only changed in form.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Do you have Krismas in France? Kriiiiiismaaassss!

Maybe Ricky's mom was actually asking a coherent question there!

Well, probably not, since Krismas was named only a few years ago. But I kind of like the idea. It's what we've been celebrating lo these many years - a Christmas-type celebration without any religious belief.

It seems a little blasphemous at first, but heck, Christmas is just a hijack of pagan solstice festivals, grafted on to the birth of Jesus.

So Merry Krismas, in addition to Solstice and Humanlight!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Drop-side cribs too dangerous

The ASTM is issuing new (voluntary) guidelines for manufacturers that exclude drop-side cribs. Toys R Us will no longer sell drop-side cribs. has a good article outlining all the issues.

We have a drop-side crib (which is not recalled), and I gave it a good once-over to assure myself that it is safe. We seem to be fine (metal hardware, no indication a gap could form), but I think when we are done, we will junk this crib, rather than re-selling it. Drop-sides are particularly hazardous when purchased second-hand, as it increases the risk of the crib being put together wrong or with missing parts.

Scary stuff! But I am thankful we live in a world where such marginal risks are a big deal, since we have conquered so many risks that once killed babies and children.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Catholic Church hypocritical? Nah, couldn't be!

So the Catholic Church is having a snit fit at Washington D.C., threatening to withdraw social service programs that help thousands of people. Why? Because D.C. is considering a non-discrimination ordinance that would require the church to provide equal benefits to gay and straight married couples. "Oh noez," says the church, "this might force us to participate in publicly support um, be vaguely associated with gay marriage, which is totally against our precepts!"

But the church has evidently been providing employee benefits to spouses of straight people who have divorced and remarried all along. Divorce and remarriage is supposedly just as much of a sin as homosexuality. Why the difference? Gee, could it be that the Catholic Church is run by a bunch of bigoted idiots who are mortally terrified of teh gay?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to be a good Christian man

According to Steven L. Anderson, "real Christian men" can't sit down to pee. He has this bizarre rant about the bible demanding that men stand up to pee, because it uses "those that pisseth against the wall" as an occasional epithet referring to men.

He details how no man in Germany stands to pee (I'll give you a moment to drag your eyebrows back down from your hairline here), and he's seen signs in private homes and public restrooms that say "No Standing to Pee." This is obviously a sign of the apocalypse. He's fighting it, though. The next time he goes to Germany, he declares he Shall Never Sit to Pee!

Aside from the question of his ah, factual accuracy here, something really strikes me. He boldly states that the way to show you are a Real True Christian is to ignore societal rules and your host's gentle request, and be a rude, self-centered, splashing-on-the-tile boor. Yep, that's about my impression of Christianity in America.

Another reason why proselytizing sucks

I've mused about the psychological underpinnings of witnessing before. But recently I had a personal experience that made me think about it in a slightly different light.

We have a Nursing Nina toy - a stuffed cat with three kittens, with magnets that let the kittens "latch on" to the mother cat's nipples. It's totally adorable and funny. I had been meaning to share it with my friend who was coming over for a visit, since I thought she would get a kick out of it and, frankly, I wanted to show it off.

The morning of the visit, she called to apologize for being late. One of their dogs had attacked one of their kittens that morning, and she had rushed the broken and bleeding little thing to the vet, only to have it expire in the car. After we got off the phone, and my mind had turned to humdrum house stuff as I tidied up, I came upon Nursing Nina and my first thought was of how cool it is. Then I checked myself and realized of course I'd better put it away to avoid rubbing salt in my friend's wounds.

I think hard-sell witnessers are in part like kids wanting to show of their cool toys, without any regard to the interests or feelings of the people they're showing them to. Even if their intentions are good, there's an underlying self-centeredness that's really off-putting.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Religious Education, Day One

Cat really loved the RE class at the Unitarian Fellowship. She got to do CRAFTS! That would win her over even at the International Broccoli Tasting Festival.

I'm told they heard the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant, and did crafts, played with puppets, and had a snack. Sounds good to me. I went to the service and found it a bit boring, but I do find the idea of a supportive community somewhat attractive.

We will definitely try it again. No Jesus, no proselytizing for any one point of view - they surely do use a grab bag approach, referencing many different traditions (I noted Jewish, Wiccan, Native American, Buddhist, and Christian references) as sources of ideas, rather than dogma.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Doing something to help

One of the sucky things about being an atheist is you don't get to feel like you're helping people as often as theists do. For them, hearing about someone's tragedy or difficulty triggers an instant response: "I'll pray for you." Now, a lot of people will do something substantive in addition, but there is a certain danger of complacency in believing that mumbling to your invisible omnipotent friend can have an effect in the real world.

Luckily, just telling someone you're thinking of them, sympathizing, and pulling for them does offer some real solace. So in that respect, whether you say, "I'm praying for you," or "I'm thinking of you," or "Damn, that totally sucks," or "I'll sacrifice an unblemished calf for you," the person hearing it does get some help.

Lately though, I've been lucky enough to be able to help for real: babysitting a friend's daughter for day after the friend's mother died unexpectedly and she had to deal with the logistics of death as well as the emotional load; taking dinner to a friend from my moms' group who almost had to be hospitalized for depression last week, and having her over today so she's out of the house and not isolated.

As hard as it can be (that was one looooong playdate, let me tell you), it feels good to do something substantive to help. And I like to think that my humanism inspires me to do so in two ways: valuing other people, and realizing that there are no magic words that will change their situation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and God

It was a big freethought day for Cat. First, she watched Bill Nye in class, which is unrelated to the theme of this post, but is cool.

Then evidently she got into a discussion with a classmate about Santa. She won't admit that she told them Santa isn't real - she says she can't remember how it came up - but I have my suspicions. The thing she wanted to tell me was that someone said, "If you don't believe in Santa, you don't believe in God."

I asked what she thought about that, and she paused and said, "I think if you don't believe in Godmother you don't believe in God." "Who is Godmother?" I asked. She said, "I think it must be God's wife." "That makes sense," I responded. Hey, it makes as much sense as Jesus, right?

So finally, she lost a tooth today. So I was jokingly talking about how the tooth fairy couldn't leave her any money until the lights were out and stuff. And then she brought up everything all balled up together in a knot of anxious confusion: "I just hate all made up things!" She said she didn't like made up things that aren't real, and that people write books about them to make people think they're real (I had to agree), and she knows that Santa and the Tooth Fairy and "all the other made up things" (*coughGodcough*) are NOT real, and she doesn't like reading books about made up things.

So I said, "Like Junie B. Jones?" And she had to admit that she liked Junie B. a lot, even though she is made up. Pretty soon we were laughing about how fun it is to pretend Santa is real and wrap up presents for Daddy with a tag that says, "From Santa." And along the way I assured her that she can change her mind about these kinds of things as often as she wants, and it's good to think about them and look at the evidence and try to come to your own conclusions. (Thank you, Dale McGowan!)

I feel glad and proud and anxious and concerned, but most of all I feel ever so grateful that I started researching this freethought parenting thing when I did!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yay, critical thinking!

I was proud of Catherine today. She and Eliza just got flu shots, and we were watching Sid the Science Kid on vaccines and how germs get passed along. She asked me about how we get sick from germs, and I described the usual ways. Later in the day she asked, "So, who was the first person to get sick?" What an awesome demonstration of thinking something through!

I tried to explain from an evolutionary standpoint, which is a little complex for her to digest at this point. But the important thing is she was praised for thinking of a great question, and reassured that I would at least try to explain answers to her.

Our religious education schism

OK, my husband and I are not in a schism. But there are high emotions behind our discussion and negotiation of this subject. One of us wants to begin formal religious education for Catherine at a local church, while the other is not in favor of it.

The funny thing is, we are both atheists.

I think Cat could use some knowledge and grounding in major religions, and that the local Unitarian fellowship (OK maybe it's not, strictly speaking, a church) seems like a great place for it. From my research it seems they don't indoctrinate, except in thoughtful, liberal, caring approaches to life that I agree with. They don't have Big Truths they hammer into the kids' heads like Catholicism. Instead they encourage inquiry and reflection in a personal search for meaning.

From my husband's point of view, there is still danger. Six year olds are consummate conformists, and he suggests that whoever is teaching the classes will have a personal religious belief that they can't help inject in some way. Also, there will be the peer pressure of the other students, most of whom probably believe in some god or other.

Our compromise is this: I care more than he does, so I will take her and we will observe what happens. If, as I suspect, she merely comes home saying we need to cut our carbon footprint, or talking about an ethical dilemma they discussed openly, it won't be a problem. If she starts to spout off about how Jesus is the one true savior, I'll be the first one to yank her from class.

Here's the thing though - if we had to sit down and have a serious discussion about this, negotiate our position, and deal with deep-seated feelings from childhood regarding religious education, what the hell do people in mixed marriages do? How can you overcome an atheist/believer or Jewish/Christian divide?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Abstinence till marriage sex education

I'd noticed in our school district's literature that part of the health curriculum standards is to teach children to abstain from sex until marriage. This is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard, not to mention insulting and morally confusing, considering that about 95% of Americans have premarital sex, and this has held true since the 50s. Also, of course, gays and lesbians get the fuzzy end of the lollipop under this scheme. So much for diversity and tolerance!

Now, thanks to my reading of Raising Freethinkers, I realize that this educational standard is one set by the federal government as a requirement for getting DOE money. Thanks, federal government, for sticking your nose into my bedroom. I'm sure all so-called conservatives think it's great, too!

At least now I know it's futile to mention it at the school board level, so I won't be wasting my time.

I'm attempting to plant the seeds of sassy rebellion in the kids, but as noted in my last post, the time is clearly not ripe. And maybe it never will be. Quite possibly my weirdness (liberal, atheist, lactivist, civil libertarian, hippy-ish type smack dab in the middle of a land filled with SUVs sporting "W" stickers) will be an unending source of eye-rolling mortification to one or both girls. I will have to remember to let them have their own opinions.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Daughter's religion: Ceremonial Deism

Catherine is in Girl Scouts, and we've discussed the Promise, which in part reads, "I will try to serve God* . . ." That asterisk is in the GSA original, by the way - and it is one reason I'm ever so glad to have only girls. The GSA doesn't discriminate, and they specifically allow for substitution of whatever word works for you there.

So I told Catherine, since we aren't religious and her dad and I don't believe in any gods, maybe she would like to substitute another word there. She told me she does believe in God. So I asked gently what "god" meant to her. She said, "It doesn't mean anything. I mean, it means something, but it doesn't really mean anything." Perhaps someday she'll be a Supreme Court Justice!

Seriously, I'm fine with her just going with the flow for now. She's 6! And I figure I'm better off letting her explore her own ideas than coming down on her just like a fundamentalist Christian would on his kid for doubting the family's beliefs.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Zombie Blog!

It's been dead for over a year, but what the hell. Let's say cosmic radiation or overbooking in Hell has inspired a return!

Actually, it's more a confluence of life settling down (past year: surgeries! disease! insane levels of volunteer commitments! a toddler!), and a couple occurrences in Catherine's life.

She is now 6. The other day I turned down a request of hers, and she started whining, "Whyyyyyyyyy?" I answered, tongue slightly in cheek, "Because I said so." She immediately answered, "That doesn't make any sense!" I think we're doing something right!

The other thing is Girl Scouts and God, but I'll leave that for the next post - I've got to go bake two dozen chocolate chip cookies and prepare to teach two classes for a workshop tomorrow.