Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Atheists Are Jerks

The chapter on atheism is revealing.
Atheists aren’t really jerks, but we sure can come across as jerks sometimes. I know I’ve been guilty of that. On the Internet in particular, we have a habit of being insulting, snarky, and offensive. You can review the #atheism hashtag on Twitter or Google+ for examples. Around Christmas, the American Atheists organization likes to put up mean-spirited billboards. New Atheist authors sell millions of one-sided, negative books denouncing religion. As a result of all this negativity, lots of people who don’t believe in God refuse to label themselves atheists. I’ve advised my college-age daughter to consider telling people she’s agnostic just so people don’t lump her in with the most vocal and negative atheists. Honestly, this harsh side of the community is something I’d like to see mellow out. It would be good for us in a lot of ways. This negative, combative side of atheism seems to arise from three sources. First, people are mean to us, and we often respond in kind. Second, humans are tribal, and atheists are no exception. Third, the community expresses a certain testosterone-friendly combativeness. Male atheists are the worst offenders, and the whole community is weighted toward males in its demographics and its personality.  Can we achieve a less male-dominated, less tribal, more likable secular community? Let’s hope so.

Mistrust: The US populace holds a low opinion of atheists, and online we like to swap links to the latest poll or psychological study to reveal these prejudices. We’re mistrusted more than just about anyone else, infamously on par with rapists according to one study. Here in my social circle in Seattle, where politically correct tolerance for every other kind of diversity is mandatory (hurray), someone occasionally says something derogatory about us atheists. Even Oprah doesn’t like us. One famous D&D fantasy world singled out atheists for supreme punishment in its imaginary afterlife. It’s no surprise that some atheists are angry. Occasionally, an atheist comes “out of the closet” in a hail of angry Facebook posts, horrifying their extended family. The anger, of course, feeds into the mistrust in a vicious cycle. It’s the angry atheists that stand out.

Tribal Conflict: The mistrust and the revenge hate are both sustained by primeval tribal instincts. To the believers, we atheists have rejected God and in doing so we have rejected the decent society that reveres Him. Since we don’t fear divine judgment, many believers suppose we’re free to be immoral. To atheists, the atheist community is their new tribe. Like any normal in-group, we unfairly smear the opposition, considering religious people to me more homogeneous and less praiseworthy than they actually are. A subtype of atheist, the anti-theist, goes after religion with zeal that feels a bit religious itself. Again, this minority of anti-theists makes the most noise, put up mean billboards at Christmas, and make us atheists look like haters. So we’re back to people not liking us.

Verbal Combat: As if mistrust and tribalism weren’t enough, the jerk factor gets kicked up a notch because atheists are more analytical and less empathic than average (see Big Gods by Ara Norenzayan). The less empathic one is, that is the less one intuits the mental states of others, and the less likely one is to intuit a personality running the universe. The more analytical one is, the more ones sees impersonal forces at work in the world. Since men, for various reasons, tend to be more analytical and less empathic than woman, atheism is more attractive, on average, to men. But really atheism is more attractive to the person who doesn’t notice when their spouse is upset, and most of those people happen to be men. This personality profile also fits people on the autism spectrum, a predominantly male population that is over-represented among atheists. Of course, all these correlations are statistical over large populations, not definitive in any particular case. Whatever gender they may be, people who are more analytical and less empathic are the sorts of people who say mean things on the Internet more often than average. In fact, the Internet is perfect for just these people, the ones who want to operate in the realm of abstract ideas (text) rather than the world of living, feeling people. Worse, without live human interaction to moderate them, Internet debates easily spin out into escalating insults and flame wars. On atheist forums, you can even see atheists insulting each other over hot-button issues such a drone strikes or circumcision. As sociologist Deborah Tannen has documented, women tend to use conversation to form connections more than men, and men speak to compete for status. On the Internet, it’s easy to hear virtual antlers locking in combat as Internet “bucks” clash over ideas. Sam Harris says that the combative, testosterone-friendly vibe in the atheist community drives away more women than men (link), and I think he’s right (regardless of why this difference exists). And the more men there are in a community, the higher the chance that a woman will run into a sexist pig, a harasser, or some other hazard. The male majority sustains itself by creating an atmosphere that’s less inviting to women than to men. 

New New Atheism?: Can there be a friendlier, gentler atheism? I hope so. First, we need to acknowledge our own biases. We’re tribal like anyone else. When we feel the urge to defend our tribe’s honor with insults, we should think twice. We’re extra-analytical and under-empathic. When we feel the urge to use our smarts to try to make others look or feel stupid, we should think twice. When we feel the urge to lock horns over our differences, we should think twice. If we want to develop into a well-rounded community, and a more likable one, then we need to intentionally work against our biases. With any luck, we’ll create a feedback loop in which friendlier atheism attracts friendlier atheists, creating an even friendlier community, and so on. A couple prominent atheists are already leading the way, including Alain de Botton (author of Religion for Atheists), Chris Stedman (author of Faitheist) and Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”). They don’t make as much noise as the combative atheists, but I trust they’re making a difference. 

Notes

“Empathy”: In Big Gods, Norenzayan uses the term “mentalizing” for what I’ve been calling empathy. It’s also called theory of mind or the intentional stance. The spouse who doesn’t notice when you’re angry is under-mentalizing. The spouse who is always reading something into your innocuous remarks is over-mentalizing. 

Gender differences: One can use the idea of gender differences to resist change (“nothing we can do”) or we can use the idea of gender differences to help men in a male-dominated field question their own assumptions of how people in the field should relate to each other. I favor the latter approach. 

Anti-theists: You can read about this particularly dogmatic and angry type of atheist, and five other types, in this article. According to this formula. I'm an RAA.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is Christianity for Losers?

Saint Francis worked to restore Jesus'
identity as a poor man.
Around AD 177, the philosopher Celsus wrote True Word, the first recorded major treatise against Christianity. Among other criticisms, he mocked Christianity for being popular among workers, slaves, peasants and women. It would we better, he said, if these foolish people would obey their masters. Christianity, Celsus seemed to be saying, was for losers. And he was right, all the way back to Jesus, a fatherless laborer from the sticks. What Celsus didn’t know was that Roman culture would one day absorb Christianity, turning it into a religion for bishops, emperors and other winners. Even so, Christianity has had a lot to offer the downtrodden down through the centuries, and still does today. 

Jesus was something of a loser himself, a laborer from the hinterlands of Galilee. He was evidently illiterate and possibly a bastard. His ministry appealed especially to the sick, to the poor, the crazy, to women and to children. The gospel stories feature common people, not just the kings and heroes that were standard characters in other literature. Early Christianity, as Celsus noted, appealed to people of lowly status. Especially in Paul’s churches, women could be prophetesses and apostles. The communities he founded were havens of egalitarianism. Only later would editors amend Paul’s letters to tell women to be silent in church and to make other concessions to mainstream culture. Slaves and women could achieve heroic status by facing lions in the arena, a spectacle that demonstrated their devotion and led to the faster spread of Christianity. Christians distinguished themselves by valuing some of the least valuable people in the Roman Empire: newborn girls. Girls were commonly exposed at birth rather than raised, except by Christians. Christians also tended the sick through plagues, establishing an enduring Christian tradition of care for the ill and injured. 

By the end of the first century, the first bishops had developed among Christian churches, and within a hundred years bishops would have control over the whole church. They established a patriarchal hierarchy modeled after Roman rule, a hierarchy that grew in wealth and power through the classical period and into the Middle Ages. Even so, a distinctive counterculture survived within Christianity. Commoners and women could claim direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit for their visions and revelations. The labor-friendly traditions of the Jews, of Jesus and his followers, and of Paul the tent-maker lent a certain honor to honest labor, standing in contrast to the labor-despising culture of elites everywhere. Charity has always been part of Christian practice, and a bishop’s income was traditionally equal to his territory’s charity. Bishops could take in more only if their churches also gave out more. Monasteries and convents provided security and organization for the people who turned to them, especially after Benedict established work as the rule for monastic life rather than just contemplation. Saint Francis one-upped Jesus himself by calling for compassion to a forgotten population of vulnerable individuals: animals. Later, Franciscan monks opened to door for today’s modern credit economy when they broke the age-old taboo against usury, lending at interest. In a campaign to provide working capital to the poor, they applied for a received a special dispensation to lend money at interest. That special dispensation spread until the old crime of usury became business as usual. Now common people can get loans, not just the rich.

As Europeans secularized, they put into practice the Christian concern for the most vulnerable. Nursing reforms, for example, created the modern, professional nurse, where previously “nurses” had been menial servant girls. Florence Nightingale spearheaded this effort, with Jesus as her inspiration. Nietzsche blamed Christianity for spreading democracy and egalitarianism. When the English utilitarians presumed that each person’s utility is equally valuable, Nietzsche identified Christianity as the source for this assumption. Quakers and other nonconformist Christians called for the abolition of slavery and eventually got their way. In the States, the black church served as incubator for community leaders. In the 20th century, this community gave rise to Martin Luther King, who called on other Christian ministers to join him in campaigning for the dignity of blacks and of the poor.

In the 20th century, the hot new expression of Christianity was Pentecostalism. It’s probably the closest thing today to a 1st-century Christian church. It appeals to the poor and has been spreading especially in South America and Africa. They have no bishops. Believers speak in tongues as early Christians did, a miracle that’s too spontaneous and unpredictable for any standard church hierarchy to condone. As for mainline denominations, you might find them out there supporting today’s “losers.” They run various programs to help the homeless, refugees, illegal immigrants, prisoners, the elderly and other vulnerable populations. In North Carolina, Christians are suing the state, demanding the freedom to marry gay couples.  

Christianity began as a counterculture movement, but almost immediately editors and other serious men went to work to bring the movement into line with mainstream, patriarchal expectations. In some ways, Christianity developed into its opposite. Instead of being a sect that pious Jews voluntarily joined, it became the default religion of an empire of gentiles, complete with Roman-style monarchs ruling as bishops. But Christianity still reflects humble beginnings as a home-grown, rural movement for peasants and outsiders.


Spiritual Identity and Mental Disability: A post about a “loser” who's welcome at church.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Assembly in Seattle

Sunday the 28th in Seattle
 In Seattle on the 28th, the Sunday Assembly is bringing together nonbelievers to sing, listen to a speaker, and presumably mingle. I’m going to be there to check it out, and if you’re in Seattle, you’re invited to come along. The Sunday Assembly has me curious because it’s the latest big news in efforts to redefine “church” for agnostics. It started as a single location in London, and now it’s spreading across the world. The 28th is the first session in Seattle. It’s common for atheists to assume that believers go to church and sing together because they think God wants them to. Since atheists don’t believe in God, most of us see no reason to gather and sing. But what if gathering and singing is something that originates not from doctrine but from our own primeval history? From the human spirit, one might say. What if there’s something to the experience that’s separate from any supernatural beliefs? That’s what I figure, and that’s why I’ve been following the Sunday Assembly. 

The Seattle chapter of the Sunday Assembly describes itself as “the best bits of church but with no religion and with awesome pop songs!” The Sunday Assembly’s motto seems to be “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.” It’s hard to argue with “live, help and wonder.” On the issue of supernatural belief, they finesse the issue. Probably they’ll never describe themselves as an atheist association, and that’s a prudent decision. And they don’t want you to stay away just because you believe in an afterlife. Their mission is to celebrate not “the one life we have,” which would exclude believers, but is instead to celebrate “the one life we know we have.”  

The Sunday Assembly has been in the news, but it’s not the first attempt to create a “church” without belief. Jerk Church has already spread from Oakland to other cities, including Seattle. Members, who call each other “jerks,” are mostly from the Burning Man community, and their “services” are casual, fun-loving potluck suppers, with plenty of booze, weed, and singing. They meet in homes without an authority figure running the show, sort of like first-century Christians. It’s an extremely personal version of church, a private event very different from the public church service that’s typical of mainline churches. The Unitarian Universalist Association provides a cradle-to-grave church community without a creed, and I’m happy to be in a congregation. The Atheist Alliance of America convention had a number of us Unitarians in attendance, but overall I think that UU is probably too churchy for most atheists. It was too churchy for me, at least until my late wife made me attend for several years. The Ethical Culture movement includes congregations with Sunday services, coming-of-age ceremonies, and other church-like elements. The movement started without the ritual elements, but they were added to the the repertoire by popular demand. Ethical Culture’s emphasis on rationality might appeal to atheists, but it doesn’t have a prominent public profile. The Sunday Assembly is expanding, which gives it an appealing story, positioning it as the most approachable “non-church” yet. 

It’s no accident that the Sunday Assembly, Jerk Church, and Unitarian Universalism all feature group singing. In Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade makes the case that singing and dancing together is a primeval ritual for group bonding. Jonathan Haidt says it activates the “hive switch,” generating group spirit. Once you see a biological reason that singing and moving together helps you feel connected to other people, the song “Kum Bah Yah” makes a lot of sense. The hokey pokey makes sense, and so do the Macarena, Zumba, and country line dancing. In addition to dancing, people sometimes gather to sing songs. Before radio, singing around a piano with friends was a common pastime. Perhaps those were simpler, happier times. Singing, however, is a real watershed moment, where the participant can go one way or another. Singing in a group is so awkward that some people can’t stand it. My Unitarian church has a contemplative service as an alternative to the regular one, and presumably that’s better for people who don’t like singing in a group. For many other people, however, singing together is elevating. They seek it out in choirs, churches or other outlets. Sunday Assembly is banking on providing a powerful human experience that secular people aren’t getting enough of as it is. That’s smart. 

While I’m curious about the Sunday Assembly, I can’t  say that I actually endorse it. It’s a promising concept, but social engineering is tricky and full of ways to go wrong. I’ve heard some great things about the Sunday Assembly and some discouraging things. Time will tell, and I’m hoping for the best.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Spiritual Atheism

Sam Harris's new book promotes meditation and more.

At the Atheist Alliance of America convention, I met a woman who calls herself a “spiritual atheist,” so naturally I asked her all about that. She said that most people are flummoxed but the phrase, but it seemed to fit me, too. We talked about her outlook and about a profound spiritual experience she’d had several years ago. She means a natural experience, the same natural experience that religious people interpret religiously. The idea of spiritual atheism sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that’s about the change. Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists, has a new book, Waking Up, that’s about spirituality without religion. Being a spiritual atheist might be the next big thing. So here’s my take on spiritual atheism. The human spirit is not literally real but it sure is real metaphorically speaking. Spirituality is about tending to that spirit. Spirituality is about art, self-awareness, connection, identity, community, morality, justice and transcendence.

Art moves the human spirit, and art is real. As a young man, I thought of poetry as a sort of weird code, a clever way to say something when you could just be direct instead. Poetry, I thought, could be mapped to rationality. It didn’t have a reality of its own. Then I married an English professor, and I came to see poetry as expressing precisely what can’t be mapped to rationality. On one level, I know that everything in my favorite Wallace Stevens poem is contingent instead of eternal. On the other hand, that’s still plenty real for me. It’s no accident that drama developed out of ancient Greek religion and that theater developed out of the medieval Church. Religions have promoted arts of many kinds and occasionally promoted science.

Spiritual experiences that humans have are real. If you’re overcome by a sense of selfless union with the universe, you’re really having that sensation. Meditation is brain exercise, and it can really change the way your brain processes your experience. Praying together, especially with choreographed motions, really helps people feel united. Traditional explanations for these experiences are probably all wrong, but so what? If the practices provide some benefit, it pays to figure out how to get that benefit with secular alternatives. Harris’s new book, in particular, is about liberating meditation from religion and giving it a place of honor in atheist spirituality.

Spirituality is something you practice, not something you believe. Atheists tend to see religion as comprising false beliefs, as if it’s a failed science. Seen through this lens, religion seems preposterous. As society became more rational in the 1800s, freethinking people began leaving Christianity and Judaism, an exodus that continues today. Spiritual practice, however, isn’t like science. In public, it’s more like theater, an attempt to make sense of the human experience and to move an audience. In the 1800s, the ethical culture movement started offering a rational alternative to church. To their rational meetings, however, they soon added ceremonies for the milestones that religions traditionally mark: birth, maturity, marriage, parenthood, and death. People wanted not just ideas but drama. In private, spiritual practice is like a regimen, an ideal, or a connection to something greater. For me it’s mostly meditation and reverence for nature. Religion may include false beliefs, but it includes real events and real, human experiences. Over the centuries, religions have found practical ways of building intentional communities and supporting individuals through the cycle of life. These practices have value separate from the beliefs associated with them.

Spirituality connects us to other people. Superficially, connection can mean coffee hour, potluck suppers, softball teams and choirs. Actually, it’s not clear that such connections are “superficial” at all. Alain de Botton notes that church communities are unusual in that they bring the generations together like few other institutions. More profoundly, connections can be revolutionary. Florence Nightingale reformed nursing, turning it from a lowly job to a profession with high standards, and she did all that by consciously following Jesus’ example of caring for the sick and tending to the needy. We can also think of the Red Cross, the YMCA, Gandhi and King. Connections within a congregation are an important part of the experience, too. When my wife got really sick and passed away, I got a good sense for what a church community can provide to a family.

Is spirituality about faith? Maybe. You could say that I have faith in the human spirit. “Faith” gets a bad rap because people use it to mean “blind faith even in the face of contrary evidence.” The dictionary definition, however, is merely trust, and I trust that the human spirit is worth taking seriously. Ultimately, if someone demanded that I prove that my position is right by some objective means, I wouldn’t be able to do so. Can I prove that there’s really any ultimate justice in lending money to poor Muslim women who can’t otherwise get loans? No, I can’t prove it, but I take it on faith. Can I prove that a funeral is really worth the expense? How could I even put a dollar value on it? Issues of human value, such as justice and morality, are judgment calls, which implies at least a little faith. It’s not blind faith in something that’s been proven wrong, it’s faith in something unprovable.

Maybe “spirituality” and the “human spirit” are the wrong terms for all this activity. A lot of atheists say so. If there’s a better term for it, I’m all ears. I like the term because it affirms our commonality with other people. For some people, that’s probably a reason to dislike it.


Here’s a previous post about my family’s experience in the church as my wife passed away: http://jonathan-tweet.blogspot.com/2011/10/life-death-and-religion.html

Here’s a post about the welcome ceremony I invented for our Burning Man camp: http://jonathan-tweet.blogspot.com/2013/09/welcome-ceremony-at-burning-man.html

A post about what a “soul” means to an atheist: http://jonathan-tweet.blogspot.com/2011/08/our-real-souls.html

A post about the Temple in Burning Man, a post-modern sacred space: http://jonathan-tweet.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-burning-man-temple.html

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!