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I Once Was Lost (About 30 Minutes Ago)

13 Aug

Should have brought the sat nav.

My family and I moved into a new house about two weeks ago.  We bought a small home in a quiet, established area with tall trees, lawn-obsessed neighbors, and their hilarious Yorkshire terrier that cowers in fright every time he sees you ambling down the sidewalk. One of my son’s favorite new things to do is to take an evening “walk” around our neighborhood.  This typically includes him zooming down the sidewalks on his Buzz Lightyear bicycle, stopping at corners and looking behind as he waits for my husband and I to catch up.  We play at this for about half an hour and then head home.

Tonight, however, my husband said he wanted to get some unpacking done and some pictures on hung on the walls so I volunteered to go on the walk with my son.  Alone.  Everything was going along pleasantly for the first part of the trip.  He was doing a great job of following directions… not getting too far ahead, stopping at every corner to wait.  There was a pleasant breeze and the smell of someone’s dinner just off the backyard grill. I was enjoying myself so much that I zoned out for a few moments and stopped paying attention to what street we were on or how many turns we had made.

You can guess what happened next.  I stopped at a stop sign, looked around to try and get my bearings and realized… I was lost.  Okay, well maybe not exactly lost but definitely turned around.

I have a rather keen since of direction.  I’ve traveled, seen a bit of the world, and have gotten turned around in some unfamiliar cities (Yes, I’m talking about you, Dublin). Usually it is no big deal, because usually I’m not alone.

The sun was setting, and as I wandered I noticed it growing darker.  Soon, the cars that passed us by all had their headlights on. Lawn sprinklers on automatic timers suddenly burst to life. My son, though thrilled to still be outside at such a time (and even more thrilled with the lawn sprinklers) soon began to repeat the same expectant question.  Mommy, are we lost?

The first thing that came to my mind when I realized that I actually might not be able to get us home on my own was that surely my husband would notice it getting dark and wonder what happened.  He’d get in his car and drive around the neighborhood until he found us.  He’d definitely do that.  Right?

I needed someone to come bail me out of my mess.  I needed a savior.

And when you stop and think about it, isn’t that life in microcosm?  It is a big, scary world that doesn’t seem to make much sense.  It is terrifying to think about making the wrong turn, taking the wrong job, marrying the wrong spouse, selecting the wrong financial investment. This holds especially true if you, like me, were raised to have little confidence in your own decision-making abilities.  Add to that the fact that so much of life is out of our control anyway.  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what decisions or choices you make.  Things inexplicably happen and you have to find a way to deal.

With so many ways to go wrong, get lost, or just plain fuck up… it is easy to see at least part of theism’s appeal.  We all want to think that there is a guiding force that is acting on our behalf.  I was speaking with a coworker last week.  She was having some electrical work done on her home.  The wiring was in such need of repair that after looking at the home the electrician told her he couldn’t believe the place had not yet burned down. “I must have angels watching over me,” she said.  I thought that she should try telling that to all of the people who have lost everything (including love ones) in home fires and see what they have to say about angels.

But even I wanted to believe that someone was out there looking for me as I wandered in the half-dark.  Turns out I wasn’t lost.  Not really.  I started trying to make turns only going East toward the main road through our neighborhood and even though I didn’t initially recognize any of the street names, I soon found myself back on the same street I’d started from about three or four blocks down from my house.

So, what say you, reader?  Do you think it is ingrained in our very nature to call upon divine help even when there is no evidence that it ever works? Is the human need to make sense of an impersonal, random and senseless universe so overwhelming that we will literally make up a Sky Helper to whom we appeal? Let me know your thoughts.

And next time I take a walk, I’m just going to bring my iPhone.  Seriously.  Who gets lost in suburbia these days?

Reader Question: Encouraging Critical Thinking

17 Mar

The following question comes from Cupcake reader Tony.  Thanks, Tony, for contributing this question.

If you have a question you would like answered on The Cupcake Atheist, please feel free to email me at cupcakeatheist@yahoo.com.

Note:  I’ve received a few questions over the past week and will be addressing them in upcoming blog posts.  I’m not ignoring you, I promise.

Could I ask a quick question? How do you encourage critical thinking in your child? I’m trying my best, but it wasn’t something that was encouraged when I was a child – it sort of got ‘switched on’ when I was a teenager. I have 2 young kids (2 & 5) and I can already see religious indoctrination starting to occur from some of my daughters ‘after-school’ clubs – I can’t stop her going to these as all her little friends go.

– Tony

Hi Tony,

Thanks for your question.  Raising free-thinking children is definitely a challenge.  I probably shouldn’t make assumptions, but I assume that you live in a developed, predominantly Christian area.  Therefore, your children aren’t in any danger of physical repercussions from not being part of the church-going crowd.  Also, at ages 2 and 5, they seem quite young and it is natural for them to be curious about the things their friends are doing.

I don’t believe there is any one right answer to your question, but I can share with you what I’ve learned in my own parenting as well as some resources I’ve found along the way.

1. Ask Questions – I make a conscious effort to not feed my son answers when he asks questions about religion or anything otherwise supernatural or unsupported.  Instead, I try to answer his questions with questions.  Take, for example, Santa Claus.  For a variety of reasons, my husband and I agreed that we wouldn’t play the Santa game with our child.  However, he hears about Santa from his friends in preschool and from other family members.  Last winter when he was three, he loved talking about Santa.  He would make comments like “Mommy, Santa is going to bring me presents” or “Mommy, Santa flies with reindeer.”  Instead of correcting him, I played the part of the interested skeptic.  I would ask him, “How does Santa make it all around the world to each boy and girl?” or “How are the reindeer able to fly?”  My hope is that by modeling critical thinking, he will learn to question things on his own.  At his age, the important thing isn’t whether he believes in Santa Claus or flying reindeer or a magic Space Daddy.  The important thing is that he learns to ask questions.

2. Allow Religious Exposure: The goal shouldn’t be to keep our children from being exposed to religion.  Rather, the goal should be to present religion in a comparative context and let the glaring incompatibilities speak for themselves.  My son has a book about Noah and the Ark that we like to read from time to time.  As we read it, we talk about the animals and how silly it is for all the animals to be on one boat.  He thinks it is just another fun story.  As he gets older, it is our intention to teach him about all different religions through books, discussions or maybe even attending a service from time to time.  We have Bibles, Korans, books about mysticism and Buddhism, as well as history and mythology books my husband and I amassed throughout our educations.  By some day sharing these with our son, we hope he learns to see the God of Abraham as just the latest in a long line of gods that people have made up throughout human history.  I will caveat this, however, by saying that at his age we do not allow him to attend church or any other place of worship.  In these places, questioning is typically not welcomed and that is not the way our family operates.  If he wants to go when he gets older, we’ll of course consider the circumstances at that time.

3. Don’t Label:  I try not to think of my son as an atheist child.  I also try to remind myself that his friends in preschool are not “Christian children” or “Muslim children.”  Regardless of the labels adults apply to their children, young kids simply cannot make those decisions about their own beliefs.  They shouldn’t be labeled with the beliefs of their families.  I need to remind myself of this every time he asks us why we don’t attend church like his grandparents or his friends.  My instinctual response is to tell him we don’t go to church because we are an atheist family.  However, that isn’t fair to him. He is only four and didn’t make the choice to be an atheist.  Instead, I try to explain that we don’t go to church because in church people learn things that likely aren’t true and people aren’t welcomed to ask questions.  Questions are important, especially when we are being told things that don’t make sense.

Furthermore, here are some resources that have been invaluable to me in trying to raise my son in an environment where critical thinking is encouraged.

Raising Freethinkers, A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan.

Parenting Beyond Belief, On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion edited by Dale McGowan with foreword by Michael Shermer.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No; A Guide for Young Skeptics by Dan Barker

Lastly, I would just say that one of the best ways to combat supernatural explanations for things is with natural explanations.  Encourage your children to explore science.  Offer them enriching activities that might cultivate an interest in learning while also teaching them the importance of evidence.  Who knows? Maybe some of their little religious friends can come along?  Knowledge is a powerful tool.

Good luck to you and let me know how things go!

Cupcake


My Response to Georgia Purdom, Answers in Genesis

10 Mar

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little SnowflakesI was fortunate enough to have this republished on PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula as a guest post. (Many thanks to PZ, by the way).  The comments from Pharyngula readers were overwhelmingly positive and for a few moments I felt like my humble little blog was actually relevant and that I was contributing to a larger conversation.

Guess who else wants in on the conversation?  Why, none other than the young earth creationists over at Answers in Genesis.  Apparently, Georgia Purdom read my guest post and had a few things to say about it.  You can read her response here if you like.  I’m not so green at this blogging stuff that I don’t know when you have something to say about someone else’s blog post, you link back to it for your readers.  Naturally, Purdom didn’t link back to Pharyngula or to The Cupcake Atheist.  Wouldn’t want her readers to go clicking around and stumble upon something contradictory, now would we?

Now, when I say my blog is humble, I mean tiny and (with the exception of a few devout readers) mostly irrelevant. I’m still pretty new at this.  Going up against AiG would be (dare I use the analogy) a David and Goliath scenario.  Likewise, trying to persuade Purdom and the young-earthers is a poor use of my time.  If hundreds of years of scientific study, multiple converging lines of evidence and the entire scientific consensus can’t convince them their beliefs are foolish, then Cupcake here doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance.

However, since Purdom expressed such a personal concern about my son’s upbringing and about my ability as a mother I’ll happily take the time to respond.

She writes: “her son asked, ‘Mommy, are we animals?’ To which the mother replied, ‘Yes.’ Then the young boy said, ‘But, Mommy, we seem . . . different.’ Out of the mouths of babes!” As though my son’s observation about humans favors her point.  My son is bright.  Of course humans are different from other animals and, naturally, he noticed.  We have large brains, a capacity for language, art, music, etc.  We are fascinating and complex animals, but animals none-the-less.  From a biological perspective, to insist that humans are anything but animals is lunacy.

Furthermore, why is it dehumanizing to accept that humans are animals but somehow less dehumanizing to believe we are the product of something supernatural? In a previous response to Purdom, blogger Tantalus Prime had this to say: Here is what the The KJV has to say about what humans are: ‘And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’ So, if claiming man is an animal dehumanizes man, then just what the bloody hell does claiming he is a bag of dirt do? I’ll take being an animal any day of the week.

Well said, Tantalus.  I couldn’t have said it any better myself, so I didn’t.

Purdom continues: “How does knowing that I am a living thing, here and alive, and have a temporary place in the natural world (which is not in any way supreme to animals) give meaning, purpose, and hope in life? It doesn’t! If she really believes that God does not exist and when we die, that’s it, then why bother trying to convince people she’s right?” Knowing that I am a part of the natural world and that I am the product of millions of years of gradual evolution leaves me awestruck.  It is meaningful to be able to trace my origins back through the fossil record and to think I’m here because of time and selection.  Out of the endless set of possible people allowed by our DNA, I’m here.  Ordinary me.  And what makes it even more beautiful is the fact that it is only temporary.  I am transient matter.  How precious my time here on Earth is!  I don’t need supernatural explanations to feel like a part of something bigger than myself.  Every atom in my fragile, temporary body is tied to a 13.7 billion-year-old universe.

And that is flipping awesome.

And, lastly, why do I try to convince people that I’m right?  Are you kidding me?  This question from the representative of an organization whose reason for existing is to try and convince people that a 2,000 year-old book is literally true from beginning to end?  I don’t need to be ‘right.’  I do my best to not be dogmatically bound to any set of ideas.  I am willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  Unfortunately for AiG, the evidence doesn’t favor their version of reality. If my blog post about anthropocentrism ‘convinces’ someone by turning them on to science and skepticism then yay for me.

In an odd turn, Purdom goes on to ask what I would do if my son were to grow up to be a murderer. ‘But if the Bible isn’t true and humans are animals, then she wouldn’t have a basis for saying what her son did was wrong, because after all, he’s just an animal, and morality doesn’t apply to animals.’ That statement is, of course, wrong and I’m not going to rehash the whole secular morality thing here.  If you like, you can read my recent post about atheism and morality. But the bottom line is that if Purdom needs ancient texts and an invisible space daddy to help her distinguish right from wrong, then that is not morality.

She concludes her post by quoting some Bible passages and with an expression of concern for my son. Her concern is patronizing and unwarranted.

My son is healthy and happy.  He is bright, inquisitive, and affectionate.  He is being raised in a home where he is valued and loved, where his questions and ideas are welcome and critical thinking is encouraged.  He has a mother and a father who spend time reading with him, playing games and doing puzzles.  And yes, we take him to the zoo.

Trust me, Georgia.  The kid is alright.

Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little Snowflakes

24 Feb

My four-year-old has a book of science activities.  One rainy day not so long ago, my husband and son decided to pull out the book and complete a biology activity on classifying living things.  The objective was to cut out pictures of animals in old magazines and decide how they should be grouped together.  Should they be grouped by the number legs they have?  By whether or not they are plant-eaters or meat-eaters?  Sea or land animals? Daytime or nighttime creatures?

Let’s be honest here.  My boy is only four.  Even with my husband’s help, the project basically turned into playtime with magazine clippings, safety scissors and glue sticks.  By the time they showed off their final product, the animal photos glued on their poster weren’t even close to being classified in the right groups.  Mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles had all been mixed together on his poster board in a beautiful, biologically diverse, gluey mess.  For some reason, amphibians and those spineless invertebrates didn’t make the poster. Maybe we don’t subscribe to the right magazines.

To my rapturous joy, near the top of the poster was a picture of a sleeping Homo sapiens.  That’s right.  My husband had thought to include a picture of a human baby.  It was glued squarely between an ocelot and a rhinoceros (at least they got them in the same phylum and class, right?).  Still, I thought it was quite clever of my husband to use such a simple exercise to demonstrate the characteristics we share with the animals on this planet and, in doing so, show that we are animals too.

Parents expect their children to have short memories, and are thus caught off guard when something we think was overlooked or forgotten ends up being significant.  Several days later, I was pretty sure my son had moved on from the kingdom Animalia to more exciting things like trucks and candy. Out of the blue one day he asked me, “Mommy, are we animals?”  My mind immediately went back to the science activity he’d completed the week before.  “Yes, we are animals,” was my response.

“But, Mommy, we seem… different.”

There it was.  An uncomplicated observation from a very brainy boy.  There was no disputing it. He was right.  We are… different.  So how to help him understand our place in the animal kingdom?  I was taken back to my own childhood where I was raised in a very anthropocentric mindset.  Not only was I taught that human beings were the most significant and special of all god’s creatures, my parents took it even further than that. I was taught that I was god’s special girl, that god knew me before I was even born, and that god knew the number of hairs on my head at all times. Why this hair-counting, voyeuristic god didn’t completely creep me out at the time, I have no idea.  Maybe I wanted very much to hear how special I was and maybe the god myth filled that need.

Yes, humans are different, but are we supreme?  And if we are supreme, was it a god or gods that made us that way? The Bible would lead us to believe so.  Why, it is completely integral to the Genesis story.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ Holy Bible, NRSV, Catholic Edition

What does science tell us?  Well, for starters science in no way confirms the Genesis account.  Science tells us that we are very tiny life forms in a very, very big universe.  Compare your mass to the mass of the planet.  Then, compare our planet to our entire galaxy.  Then think about our galaxy in terms of the entire observable universe.  It blows the mind.  We are so tiny compared to all of that, how can one ever begin to feel special or significant?  We are not only tiny in size, but in time as well.  The age of the universe is reckoned at approximately 13.7 billion years. The Earth itself is dated at 4.5 billion years old.  Out of that 4.5 billion years, anatomically modern humans only originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago.  This means that for the majority of the life of the universe and, indeed, our planet humans have not been around. How then can we be supreme, the most significant entities in the universe, as Christianity would have us believe?

The answer is that we are not supreme.  We are, collectively, a blip on the radar.  The earth will still be here long after we are gone.

How are we to go about the 80 or so years we have on this planet knowing how tiny and inconsequential we are?  The answer is that we are not insignificant.  We are living things!  You, reader, are the product of millions of years of gradual, inching evolution.  Every cell in your body is a triumph of nature.  You are incredible because you are here and you are alive.  It is not necessary to believe in a deity or that as humans we have something supernatural within us that separates us from other animals.  Our significance is our place in the natural world, and the fact that that place is only temporary.

My little boy is far too young to understand this, so my response was a visit to the new Africa exhibit at the zoo.  My overly-cautious little one looked on as I stood inches away from a chimpanzee, separated only by a pane of glass.  The chimpanzee put his hand up to the glass.  I held mine up to meet his.  His eyes met mine and we considered one another.  In absolute awe (and yes, a little choked up), I looked back at my tiny son as if to say, “See.  Not so different.”

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.” – – Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998.

Out of the Mouths of Babes and Skeplings

29 Dec

Greetings and welcome to the new-and-improved Cupcake Atheist.  We are very excited about our new home here at wordpress and about the total redesign.  It is much, much more cupcakey thanks to my designer who took the time to spice up this blog even while smack in the middle of the holiday hustle and bustle.  Please feel free to say howdy in the comments section and to subscribe to follow this blog via email.

For my first blog post in our new home, I must brag a bit.  My little boy is a thinker.  My husband and I are both atheists, but his grandparents are super religious.  I’ve had a couple tense conversations with the grans about boundaries in terms of sharing their faith.  In my view, any sharing at all is completely inappropriate knowing that my husband and I are openly atheist and anti-theist.  Well, apparently all of the boundary discussions were totally unecessary.  My little guy can handle things just fine himself.

My husband and I celebrate winter solstice, but lest we be left out of the family festivities we accompanied the grans to a gathering on xmas eve.  They were worried about making it back home in time to attend a church service that evening.  As we were leaving the gathering and getting buckled in the car, I (out of politeness) asked if they thought they would make it back in time for church.  My son piped up then, and this is the conversation that followed:

Boy child: You want to go to church?  Why?  To learn about god?

Granna:  Yes.

Boy child: But god isn’t real.

Granna:  He is real to some people.

Boy child:  Have you ever SEEN god?

Granna:  I see god all around me.

Boy child:  [more persistent this time] But god isn’t REAL!

At this point, I interjected and gently let my son know that he had made his point.  But silently, I was bursting with pride.  Here is the kicker, though.  I wasn’t necessarily proud of my son’s insistence that god isn’t real.  He gets that from listening to my husband and myself. He was simply regurgitating what he hears us say in the same way a child being brought up in a religious household would say the opposite.  What made me the most proud was the way he questioned what he was being told.  “Have you ever seen god?”  Beautiful.  Without really understanding the importance of what he was doing, my little almost-four-year-old was exercising critical thinking.  He was asking for a bit of evidence.  This was preschooler skepticism in action.

I was equally satisfied with my mother’s responses.  They just served to reinforce my impression that religious people don’t understand why it is they believe what they believe.  Let’s break it down, shall we?  “He is real to some people.”  Um, no.  God is either real or not.  God either exists or not.  God cannot be real to some people and not to others.  I think what she was trying to say is that some people believe in god and some don’t, which is true.  But still, that doesn’t say anything about the plausibility of god’s existence, only that some people buy it and some don’t.  Next: “I see god all around me.”  Again, nope.  People see nature all around them and they don’t understand how it all works.  Instead of turning to science or skeptical inquiry to help them make sense of things, religious people fill in the gaps of their knowledge with a deity.

When we were safely back home and the grans were on their way to sing hosannas, I grabbed my little skepling, looked him in the eyes and told him how proud I was of all his questions.  I told him he has a good brain.  I never want him to be atheist just because his father and I are atheist.  I want him to think through things and arrive at conclusions based on facts, evidence and reason.  As he grows, I expect that his questions will become even more insightful.  Whatever the future holds, I am one proud mommy.

 

 

 

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