Sunday, August 31, 2014

Reading About Religion

As I see it, religion is more about ritual, practice and community than about creeds or theology. It seems as though believers and atheists both want to downplay the practical benefits of religion. Atheists commonly refuse to grant that religion has any benefits at all, and believers prefer to think of religion’s benefits as more than practical. My understanding of religion’s practical benefits derives largely from reading I’ve done over the last several years. Here are the books that you could read if you wanted to get a better sense of religion as a social institution that promotes group cohesion.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt
This book talks about the ways that humans are “groupish.” It’s common to see people as selfish, which is how economic theory describes the “ideal human,” but we are also groupish. That is, we have instincts that allowed our ancestors to band together into cohesive groups, especially groups in which one can “lose oneself.” In the West, especially among the educated elite, individualism is so strong that we have a hard time even understanding the way that most humans see society and morality, as oriented toward the needs of the group rather than toward the rights of the singleton. The topic of this book is morality, not religion, but it is at the top of my list because it cuts to the heart of the matter. It shows how religion is not primarily about intellectual assent to a creed but rather about practices and rituals that create group identity and mutual cooperation. It also helps educated Westerners see beyond the educated Western worldview. One can’t understand religion without understanding its emotional, group-oriented nature.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, by Alain de Botton
The author, a Swiss philosopher, challenges secular readers to see the smart systems that religions have for improving human life. He says, for example, that we can emulate how religions derive extra value from community, travel, and art. Some of de Botton’s particular suggestions for secular institutions sound impractical, but he makes a good case that we could come up with some good ones if we tried, and that we should try.

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, by Nicholas Wade
What did religion evolve out of? A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors danced all night around the fire. What does their “religious practice” have to do with religion today? This book helps one see religion as derived from these ancient rites, grounding one’s understanding of religion in evolved human nature. In the West, we commonly think of religion as a mental phenomenon built out of declarative statements of faith. Wade, thankfully, helps us see the group practices and unconscious instincts that underly religion. The material in the middle of the book about Islam is interesting but off-topic, and there’s no harm in skipping it.

Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, by David Sloan Wilson
If you think religion is bad, you probably don’t want to read this book. Wilson makes the best case ever for religion’s positive role in civilization. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, and evolutionary theory explains why religion might be important for human group bonding. Without a mechanism for acting in concert, human groups can only accomplish so much. Because of relentless evolutionary factors, cheating beats cooperating in groups of any size. It takes something special, such as religion, to enforce cooperation and overcome free-riding. Wilson controversially argues in favor of group selection, that technical issue is separate from the value that religion contributes to society.

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, by: Ara Norenzayan
An excellent synthesis of current scientific understanding of religion, especially the historical success of religions with a single, judgmental god. Norenzayan combines findings about how religious beliefs affect group behavior today and applies cultural evolution theory to the history of religion. Basically, when people shared fear of divine judgment, they were able to trust each other in larger and larger groups. Today, secular authorities replace God as the source of social trust, especially in places like Scandinavia.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene
The neuroscience of tribalism, how individuals unite into tribes and tribes fight each other. Although the book isn’t explicitly about religions, it provides the framework for understanding the group cohesion that religions so often promote.

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright
Wright covers thousands of Western history to show how people have used religion to promote trust and cooperation.

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin
In the human soul, how deep do music and dance go? Very deep.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God Loves Gays

God reportedly loves gays.
When an atheist on Twitter promotes a religious billboard, I take notice. So it was that a tweet from @Godless_Mom alerted me to a billboard project in Topeka, Kansas. Topeka is home to Westboro Baptist Church, the infamous organization that for years has pursued a campaign of hatred against gays. In response to WBC, Dustin Lake of California will be erecting a gay-friendly billboard in Topeka. Lake has already raised over $50,000, enough to fund the project. With 45 days to go, he’s going to raise enough money for additional publicity and good works. In the spirit of cooperation, I pitched in with my pledge, tweeted a tweet of my own and am now pitching this project to you on my blog. 

Here’s the link to the God Loves Gays Indiegogo campaign: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/god-loves-gays-billboard-project

Atheists are split as to whether they should partner with religious groups to do good in the world. In Faitheist, Chris Stedman encourages his fellow atheists to find common ground with liberal religious groups to work for important causes, such as religious liberty. In Breaking the Spell, however, Daniel Dennett suggests that any positive involvement with religion might implicitly strengthen the position of religious extremists. He proposes that we work for a better world strictly through secular organizations. For my part, I’d like atheists to be at least as reasonable and open-minded as religious people are, and if religious people can work together across the barriers of dogma and creed, then maybe those of use with nor dogma or creed can find it in our hearts to do the same. 

As an atheist, how can I justify donating money to support a religious billboard? If I think the statement is false, how can I endorse it? My answer is that the statement “God loves gays” is true, just not literally true. It’s figuratively true or poetically true. It’s an emphatic way of saying, “Gays are natural” or “Homosexuality is the result of evolution, as is heterosexuality.” Some of my fellow atheists will hasten to differ, but as for me I’d rather think up reasons to support this effort than think up reasons to oppose it. The haters of Westboro Baptist Church say that heterosexuality came from one entity (God) and homosexuality from a different one (Satan). I say that both heterosexuality and homosexuality came from the same creator: evolution. 

For me, the fundamental divide between worldviews today is not about faith versus science but about parochialism versus universalism. You could call it provincialism versus cosmopolitanism, or local versus global, or One True Way versus diversity. By default, people take the parochial view, that their way of doing things is the right way. Each of us seems to be at the center of our world, and it seems natural to each of us to judge the rest of the world by our own measures. The great promise of the modern world, however, is that we can each rise above our particular perspectives to achieve an inclusive, global worldview. I’m happy to work with people who are trying to make the world more inclusive, even if they don’t answer certain metaphysical questions the same way I do.



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Successful Kickstarter!

Successfully funded!
While I was running the Grandmother Fish Kickstarter campaign, I let this blog go silent. The good news is that our Kickstarter was successful, the book is due out early next year, and the blog is back! We raised over $36,000 with over a thousand backers, which means that a lot of people got excited about this book. Karen Lewis, my artist, really came through with some amazing artwork. My personal highlight was getting the thumbs up from Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, two of my all-time favorites. Overall, the response was amazingly positive, and now I have connections in the world of science communication, and it’s gotten me excited about doing more science for kids. 

If you want to see what Grandmother Fish is about, see our Kickstarter page.

If you want to preorder your own copy, see our online preorder store.

The cutest thing you can see is our highlights reel of parents reading the book to their children for the first time. 

Several people have suggested next books for me to write. A popular suggestion is climate change. Climate change is the great big impending catastrophe that doesn’t scare us into action even though we see it coming. Once I got into evolution circles through Grandmother Fish, I was basically in climate change circles, too. Lots of overlap. But how would I write a children’s book about climate change that describes the situation and doesn’t make children cry? Does the parent say, “ That’s right, my child. You and I are killing the planet every day just by leading our daily lives”? Not sure how to make that issue into a children’s book that a child would want read to them a second time. 

Another popular topic is prepping nonreligious children for encounters with religious classmates and friends. Lots of parents report that their kids don’t even understand the question when their peers ask things like, “Are you saved?” A children’s book that explains religion to nonreligious kids—that would attract some attention. Also, plenty of atheists would probably hate it because the book wouldn’t say that religion is a mental illness or a virus. Robert Wright, Nicholas Wade, David Sloan Wilson and former ministers who are now in the atheist movement have all documented some actual good that religions have done. I would keep it positive, but being positive in itself will be controversial.

More science is a another thought. Personally, I like the self-referential nature of Grandmother Fish, and I have been trying to imagine how I would make a second book that also helps a young person place themselves in the world. Maybe it would be about speech, consciousness, or the vast scale of the universeGrandmother Fish is so special that it will be a hard act to follow. 

Promoting Grandmother Fish also got me involved in the local secular community, and I even went the the Atheist Alliance of America’s national convention here in SeaTac in July. I would go to lots of places to meet Steven Pinker, which I did. As I expected, the secular community includes a lot of people who love to mock religion and who are turned off by anything touchy-feely, such as community or ceremony. But I was also surprised to find a number of people who don’t see the appeal in making fun of Christians. One staffer told me she was a spiritual atheist, which you don’t hear every day. Others seemed to voice a desire to have a venue for a real community, with a lot of interest in Sunday Assembly, the nonreligious “church.”

Being away from the blog and running the Kickstarter means that I have a number of interesting experiences and topics to start blogging about. My plan is to go back to my weekly format, posting on Sundays. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Announcing Grandmother Fish

Mockup of my upcoming children's book
My next creative project, coming this summer, is Grandmother Fish, a book for young children about evolution. It’s a picture book that follows the descent of humans and other vertebrates from early fish to today. It’s based on hard scientific knowledge, but it’s a child-friendly story with fun motions and sounds.

People react positively when I mention this book. They smile, their eyes light up, and often they volunteer that it sounds like a worthy project. Two fathers have even told me that they’ve had plans to write just such a book themselves. These reactions suggest to me that people want to see a book like this. That’s why I’m doing it. Granted, I live in Seattle, where people think warmly of evolution. This book might not do well in Texas.

The original idea for this book came to me 15 years ago when my daughter was young, and I worked to explain where we came from. For years, I've tinkered with the manuscript, and last year I added motions and sounds to the book. Those fun elements make the book a lot more engaging for young children.

I wanted my daughter to know how we evolved because knowing where we came from tells us something fundamental about who we are. Parents have been doing the same thing for ages. My Scandinavian ancestors taught their children that the gods had formed the first people from trees, and the ancient Hebrews said their god had created the first man from clay and the first woman from his rib. These stories have the advantage that they make sense to children. Today, any parent who believes in the Garden of Eden can find multiple books for young children that tell the story, complete with child-friendly illustrations. Parents who want to teach their children about evolution deserve books of their own.

Parents need help teaching their children about evolution because gradual change over millions of years doesn’t make much sense to the human brain. Our early human ancestors evolved brains that love stories, especially stories about people taking actions to reach their short-term goals. Mythical creation stories follow this intuitive pattern, teaching that humans and other animals were created intentionally and quickly by the gods. Evolution, however, operates without intention and on a time scale that beggars the imagination. Because evolution doesn't work like a story, traditional creation stories still appeal strongly to many people. Grandmother Fish is as simple as any creation story. The goal is to help children see for themselves how we are directly related to other animals.

Evolution is a story worth telling because it’s more than scientific fact. It’s also a profound lesson about our place in the cosmos. Traditional creation stories set humans apart from, above, and beyond the rest of the animal kingdom.  The story of evolution corrects this self-centered view. Evolution affirms our intimate connection to the world of living things, down to our flesh and blood. It’s a message that the world could use more of. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.”

This summer, I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for Grandmother Fish, and I hope you’ll back it and share the news. In the meantime, I’m finding an artist to partner with, planning the practical job of publishing a book, and lining up help from people who could help promote the project. Thanks to my decades of work in the roleplaying game field, I know plenty of professionals who can help me with art, publishing, and promotion.

If you like the sound of this project and would like to help, there are a few ways you could pitch in right now.

1. Read a draft version of the book to children and give me feedback on what works best and what doesn’t.

2. Introduce me to any scientists or organizations that might support the project.

3. Share this blog post. Talk to your friends about the book. Over the next couple months, think of people you know who might be interested in the campaign when it starts.

Thanks for your interest.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Thank you Baby Jesus for literacy

In this fictional scene, Jesus and Mary
are historical figures.
At Christmas time, if you live in the States, you’re liable to see nativity creches on display on church property and sometimes on city property. Mary, Joseph, and a motley crew surround a feeding trough, in which lies the holy infant. There’s a church near my place that brings in a live camel, which is pretty cool as religious traditions go. The Christmas creche originated with Francis of Assisi in the 1200s, when it was well understood that the child in the trough was God. Today, however, there are conflicting opinions about how one should interpret Jesus as a historical figure. If you’re not the sort who’s grateful to Jesus for your eternal salvation, let me suggest a down-to-earth reason to remember Baby Jesus this Christmas season. Thank him for universal literacy. Jesus was Jewish, and that meant he was devoted to the written word in a way that no fatherless laborer in any gentile land would have been. Through the sect that Jesus founded, he passed along the Jews’ love of literacy to Europe and beyond.

Jews of Jesus’ day were known for their holy book, which commanded the respect of the Romans. While pagan religions were largely ceremonial, Judaism featured the synagogue, where the community gathered and heard the word of the LORD read aloud. The center of the religion was not an idol but the written Torah (Law). Most Jews at the time were still illiterate, as Jesus probably would have been, but they had a remarkable devotion to scripture.

Jesus founded a Jewish sect that survived after his execution. The sect really took off once Paul, a Hellenized Jew, convinced the leaders in Jerusalem to accept non-Jews into the movement. Paul personally took the “good word” to the gentiles, spreading Jewish scripture along with faith in Christ. Soon his own letters were being copied to be read aloud in Christian assemblies across the Roman Empire. Then, one by one, anonymous Christians composed the gospels, including many noncanonical ones. Soon Christians were busy copying texts and distributing them far and wide. They copied so many texts that they established the codex as a popular new written medium. Unlike a scroll, the codex had separate pages stacked on top of each other, bound together along one edge. Yes, early Christianity gave us the book.

When Christianity turned into Rome’s official religion, it replaced religious practices that were cultic and ceremonial, with no holy books comparable to the Christians’ newly expanded Bible. This was before the Dark Ages, and Christianity lived peacefully alongside the intellectual, literate tradition of the ancient world. For example, Christians considered people in India to be saved if they adhered to the Word of God as the Buddha had preached it, presuming that the Word had inspired people all over the world.

When Rome fell and the Latin-speaking West with it, Western Christianity entered the Dark Ages. With civilization in ruin, the schools were closed, and the intellectual level of the civilization fell. Later, Christian missionaries from Ireland brought a superstitious version of Christianity to mainland Europe. That’s where you get Purgatory, which you could reportedly locate if you went into a particular cave in Ireland. The Mass, said in Latin rather than the vernacular, sounded like magical incantations. The Bible was rarely translated into the common tongue.

Despite the decline of the Church, it still supported literacy. With the fall of Rome, the Church became the only international institution in the West and the sole preserver of books and literacy. Churchmen were commonly among the first people to leave written records in a language with no previous literature. Sometimes the Christians provided a language with its first alphabet. Wherever Christians spread their faith, they spread literacy. As in the early days, churchmen hand-copied a lot of texts over the centuries. A “cleric” is a “clerk,” someone who reads, writes, and does numbers. Commoners went to the clergy for help with written documents. The Church Council of 1179 mandated free Latin instruction at cathedrals to benefit poor scholars, combining Christianity’s interest in charity and literacy. This practice soon developed into Europe’s first universities.

As civilization recovered, the Church continued to support learning. Copernicus, for example, was funded by the Church. The first book printed on a Gutenberg’s press was a Bible. Now the Bible was translated into every major European language and printed in large numbers. Martin Luther’s challenge to the Church was a written tract, one that was soon printed up and distributed. The Reformers emphasized that Christians should be able to read the Bible themselves, all the way down to the simple plowman in his field. Rather naively, Martin Luther thought that everyone would naturally interpret the Bible his way if only they had a chance, and he translated the Bible into German to give that chance to more people. The ideal medieval Christian listened to church authority. The ideal modern Christian had read the Bible for himself. Sunday school, an institution hated by children from Tom Sawyer to me, began in the 1780s as an effort to teach poor children to read. It had to be on Sunday because the kids would be working the other six days. Today we take it for granted that a public school is going to teach kids to read for free. Historically speaking, however, a culture’s ruling power structure generally usually hasn’t wanted the commoners to be able to read. Literacy might let them read laws for themselves, draw up proper legal documents, sue in court, and pass along subversive messages. Universal literacy began as a Christian project. Across the globe, missionaries opened schools and even taught girls to read. Today universal literacy is a secular ideal, but the original momentum was religious.

What was Jesus’ role in all this? Jesus didn’t do much directly to promote literacy, but he did say things that were noteworthy enough that others wrote them down. He also led a life that was so dramatic that early Christians invented a new literary form to narrate that life: the “gospel.” Somehow he expressed the humanism and piety of his Jewish tradition in such an arresting and accessible way that it appealed to Paul, a Hellenized Jew, and to the gentiles among whom Paul lived. Jesus’ predominant contribution to world literacy was that he founded a sect that would metamorphose into a world religion, and that he was Jewish. That seems to have been enough to get the ball rolling toward universal literacy. So the next time you drive past a nativity creche, thank Baby Jesus for our literate culture.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are atheists softening?

This year's ad ends with happy holiday cheer.

It’s Christmas once again, a time of caroling, brightly wrapped gifts, holiday cheer, and anti-religious billboards from the American Atheists. True to form, they are sponsoring an animated billboard in Times Square that insults Christians and features ALL CAPS, as if yelling is the atheist idiom. But wait, it’s not that simple. The 12-second ad ends with a cheery Christmas scene and holiday wishes. The ad might lead someone to suspect that atheists are regular, reasonable people who like the holidays just like anyone else. It's a step forward from the mean-spirited billboards that AA put up two years ago. Maybe in some future Christmas they’ll set aside the negativity and insults altogether. Meanwhile on the West Coast, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up billboards in Sacramento featuring smiling local atheists, each with a short phrase about their beliefs or lack thereof. These images imply that atheists can be friendly and thoughtful. Could it be that atheists are learning that a little niceness can go a long way? The general public distrusts us from the start, so anything we can do to show our human side has got to pay off.

This shift in public presentation comes alongside a growing number of atheist books that have challenged the anti-religious stance of the New Atheists. Recently I’ve read three books that offer atheist perspectives on religion as an admirable human endeavor: Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists (2012), Christ Stedman’s Faitheist (2012), and Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013). Without denying that religions have dark sides, these authors address their light sides. De Botton examines the valuable social organization that religion can provide and that secular groups could emulate. Stedman encourages atheists to participate in interfaith movements to help fight religious extremism. De Waal criticizes the militance of the New Atheists and asserts that religion can have emotional benefits event if its supernatural claims aren’t true or even really believed. Together, atheists like these three are offering a more broad-minded take on what atheism means. I find it a welcome change.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Spiritual identity and intellectual disability

Lissie is from my hometown, and during her 
performances she has sometimes invited 
Bob on stage to play.
When I was in my hometown for Thanksgiving, I attended a service at the liberal Lutheran church that I had attended unwillingly as a child. As the service ended and people were exiting the pews, one congregant, Bob, went up to the front of the sanctuary with his guitar. He played some simple, pleasant chords while everyone else mingled and drifted out. Bob is developmentally disabled, but he plays the guitar OK, and he and his music are welcome in my parents’ little congregation. People generally think of the church experience as being about shared beliefs, but if so then Bob raises some questions. Is Bob really a Lutheran? To be a Lutheran, you need to accept the Bible (as revised by Luther) as holy scripture and only this Bible, and you need to believe that salvation comes by grace through faith alone, not good works. Have the other congregants ascertained where Bob stands on these issues? For that matter, is Bob even a Christian in good standing? As a teenager getting confirmed in this church, I had to learn about the mystical paradox of the Trinity, how three persons are mysteriously one, and how one of these persons has two complete natures. Maybe Bob is familiar with all that doctrine and is on the Lutheran bandwagon, and maybe not. Have the folks at St. John’s Lutheran Church verified that Bob has the proper beliefs about Jesus to qualify for membership? Somehow, I doubt it. On the other hand, for the congregation to welcome Bob into their community seems like a Christian thing to do. Welcoming the misfit is a pretty fair application of the historical Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was notorious for fraternizing with the people that proper Jewish leaders set themselves above: sinners, hookers, lunatics, paupers, women, and children. Christians have historically reached out to the sick and the poor, so including the developmentally disabled fits right in.

If Bob showed up at a gathering of atheists, would he be welcome? Would people quiz him to make sure that he had the right lack of metaphysical beliefs before they let him play their guitar at the close of their sessions? The Sunday Assembly in London has made headlines as a church for atheists with plans to expand. Would Bob be welcome there? I’d like to think so. I’d also like to think he’d be welcome at my Unitarian congregation, even though it’s generally a pretty intellectual crowd, and a little formal. When I say that religion is not primarily about belief, people are incredulous, but Bob’s story tells me that it’s primarily about community. If atheist communities like the Sunday Assembly are ready to accept the Bobs of this world, then more power to them. If not, then I’m glad there are old-fashioned, backwards-thinking congregations for the Bobs of this world to find their homes in.