Death and Religious Diversity

June 9, 2011

Where does our persona (some would say “soul”) go when we die? Science can’t definitively answer that question, but we can make reasonable guesses about our final destination.

Energy can Neither be Created nor Destroyed – What happens to all that energy in our bodies when we die. If it can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere, right? To answer this question, we need to ask what we mean by energy. Then we must ask whether there’s a reasonable real world answer for where this energy is transferred (which there is). And finally, we must ask whether it’s plausible that our biological energy could experience  an afterlife dimension for all eternity. When those questions are answered logically, we see that the natural scientific explanation for death, that there is no afterlife, makes much more sense than anything proposed by religion.

What About Reincarnation – It’s appealing to believe in reincarnation because we have no memories of when we were infants. What if our hard drives are pre-erased so that our new life won’t be contaminated with memories from a previous life? Unfortunately, there’s no good scientific explanation for how this reincarnation would happen. Our ever-increasing population size becomes a huge problem for reincarnation, and it becomes even worse when you factor in the belief of some cultures that we go through several iterations of reincarnation from animal to human. Should we count bacteria? It’s all very implausible, and we should question our wishful desires for such a theory to be true.

Heaven and Hell – There are a few factors that go into this widespread belief. The most obvious reason that heaven is so compelling is that we need to feel that death is not the end… that we will see our deceased loved ones again. The second reason that this idea is popular is that we would like to think that there is a universal form of judgement for those who escape punishment for their crimes on Earth. But, I think we can all agree that most people live their lives in a morally gray way. Isn’t it sad that some people believe that truly righteous, morally centered individuals will burn in a lake of fire because they didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior? The crime does not fit the punishment, but more importantly, the reward does not fit the deed. How many jerks and morally depraved individuals are considered to be residents of heaven simply because they asked for forgiveness and accepted Jesus on their death bed? Does this seem reasonable?


The question came up at UU church this past Sunday about how to handle it when your children are confronted by the beliefs of their friends in things like hell. “How can you be an atheist? Don’t you realize that you will go to hell?” Yes, this is a disturbing image for our children to confront, but true religious diversity and tolerance implores us to look at the situation from the perspective of these children who are indoctrinated into their religion. Should it truly be a surprise that these children are concerned that their atheist friend will actually be burned in a lake of fire for all eternity? It’s a terrible image for children to imagine, and we should remember how it must feel to truly internalize the “reality” of hell.

This is why it’s important to make the punishment of hell a non-negotiable for relatives. Grandma wants to share her love of Christ? Fine. Grandma wants to strike fear in the heart of your child by threatening them with eternal damnation? Not fine. And how should kids handle their friends? They should just say that they don’t believe in all that stuff (assuming they don’t), but kids should also be taught to empathize with the reason their friends would be concerned. Accommodation and acceptance are important lessons to be taught to little humanists, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t speak up for their own beliefs when challenged.

So what do atheists think about death? I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe we just die. It’s not the most attractive answer, nor is it the most interesting, but sometimes reality doesn’t match the story in our hearts. What happens when we die? The same thing that happens before we are born… nothing. But, people do live on after death. As cheesy as it sounds, they live on in our memories and they live on in what they’ve created during their short time on Earth. Isn’t that enough?

Parent-Approved Kidnapping and Brainwashing

May 29, 2011

When I was a kid, my church youth group thought it would be a funny idea to show up at my door in a gorilla suit and abduct me in a van. The idea was to snatch up the kids who hadn’t been to church in a while and show us the fun that was happening at one of their picnics. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted it.

Pretty harmless, especially since my Dad forewarned me that a gorilla would be kidnapping me and that I should pretend like I’m surprised. He didn’t want me to freak out – thanks dad!

Unfortunately, my innocent experience is becoming a common tactic with certain reform schools, but these brainwashing academies don’t use gorilla suits. Instead, they just send goons to your bedroom to wake you up and haul you off to their prison program. And instead of having a good time at a party, these children are stashed away at rehabilitation centers where they are emotionally abused (and sometimes worse), force-fed religious propaganda, and social engineered to be church-approved automatons.

Obviously, this sort of outsourcing of parenting is in complete violation of my principles as a parent who wants to raise my children to be freethinking individuals. I’m disgusted with what I’ve read about schools that are part of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs.

Check out this article on reddit to read a first hand account of a girl’s experience at one of these hideous programs. Despicable!

My Fascination With the Duggars and Quiverfull

January 22, 2011

On episode 42 of our Parenting Within Reason podcast, we interview Vyckie Garrison, who is the editor and a contributing writer of  the blog No Longer Quivering.  Vyckie left the Quiverfull movement and writes about her experiences within it.  Quiverfull followers believe in letting God plan their families, and they often have ten or more children.  (Vyckie had seven.)  They also homeschool and instill the idea of submission among wives and daughters, who are brought up as domestic servants and “helpmeets” for their husbands.  Vyckie really gave us a wonderful interview.  She was very open about her life and her journey away from the Quiverfull movement.  Her blog is a fascinating read, especially because the women who write for it break up their posts into continuing episodes that draw the reader in.  The stories have completely hooked me.

The Duggars belong to this form of fundamentalist Christianity, and I have not been able to get enough of their show since I learned this.  I love watching 19 Kids and Counting, as much as it sort of freaks me out and scares me.  I find the kids and the parents totally charming, even when they’re talking about how the earth is 6000 years old.  While doing a little procrastinating from another writing project, I came across the video above.

The Quiverfull movement has become a topic of peculiar fascination for me.   I first heard about the Christian Patriarchy on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog.  He posted several excerpts from Katherine Joyce’s book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.  Geek that I am, I asked for the book as a present, ironically enough, for Mother’s Day.

One of the aspects of Quiverfull that I find the most alarming is that some parents within it adhere to a strict philosophy of child rearing espoused by a couple named Michael and Debbie Pearl, who have published the book, To Train Up a Child.  Excerpts can be found here, and this is the passage that is most emblematic of the training method advised by this book:

There is much satisfaction in training up a child. It is easy and challenging. When my children were able to crawl (in the case of one, roll) around the room, I set up training sessions.

Try it yourself. Place an appealing object where they can reach it, maybe in a “No-no” corner or on an apple juice table (That’s where the coffee table once sat). When they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, “No, don’t touch it.” They will already be familiar with the “No,” so they will pause, look at you in wonder and then turn around and grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, “No.” Remember, you are not disciplining, you are training. One spat with a little switch is enough. They will again pull back their hand and consider the relationship between the object, their desire, the command and the little reinforcing pain. It may take several times, but if you are consistent, they will learn to consistently obey, even in your absence.

That’s right.  Use a switch on the child when he or she reaches for a toy.  Specifically, the Pearls recommend a quarter inch plumbing supply line.

The idea here is that by teaching your child to obey you rather than follow his own natural inclinations, you will instill enough obedience for the child to forego his sinful nature.  Obedience is the most important trait according to this thought process.  If you can’t obey your parents, you won’t obey God, and you’ll end up in Hell.

Vyckie says she did not practice this particular form of discipline with her kids, but she did emphasize obedience as the highest virtue, and she tells us in the interview how it drained the spirit right out of her children.  Once liberated from this dogma, the kids began to flourish and grow as individuals.

Vyckie’s blog has a heartrending series of apologies from parents who feel now that the stress upon obedience wrought psychological damage upon their children.  In an especially moving post, one writer speaks of the intense love she felt for her baby and the gratitude she felt upon finding guidance to protect her child:

If I could sum up the message that this book spoke to a young mother who deeply loved her baby, it was this:

“Momma, your baby is a sinner. He/she will try to manipulate you. Things like a child not liking a diaper change and squirming to be free are an example of a sinful will attempting to dominate you. You may think this is a little thing, but it’s huge. Why? Because if you let the child dominate you, the child will win. If the child wins, the child will learn that rebellion pays. The child will then grow up to probably reject God and go to Hell, because a rebellious heart will not want to follow God. So, Momma, never ever let your child win. Your child’s exertion of will [which includes anything you deem unacceptable---grumpiness, for example] is an act of war, and parenting is about the parent winning any and all battles of wills.”

I loved my baby. How grateful, absolutely grateful I felt, that someone was there to show me the way.

The mother then expresses her regret:


I am so very very sorry. Everything I did, I did out of love. But that doesn’t excuse any of it, nor does it take it away. And I am sorry.

I suppose I find this so emotional, because I can relate so well to the ferocity of love that a new mother feels, along with the weight of responsibility for not only keeping this new being alive but somehow instilling virtue and life skills.  So many of us feel clueless and turn to books.  Who knows?  Maybe swaddling will turn out to be totally wrong and I’ll have to regret that one.  It’s easy to get misguided as a parent, and we all do the best we can.  Sleep training?  I’m still torn.  I’m sure I got that one wrong, if only because I never quite decided to do it one way or the other.  We’re all looking for answers, and the secular parents among us might find the wrong answers, too.

I hope you’ll give episode 42 a listen.  It’s a great interview.

What Happens When You Bring Up Kids Without Religion? Data Sample of Two

November 23, 2010

Colin’s post got me thinking about my own upbringing.  Every time I speak to my brother, I’m struck by our differences and similarities, and every time I hear parents talk about bringing up kids without religion, I think, “It’s no big deal!  I grew up without religion!”  If you’re wondering if a secular family produces secular kids, the answer, based on a data sample of two kids in my family, is that you have a 50/50 shot.  I adopted my father’s atheism, but my brother married a cute Catholic girl, and he converted.  But there’s really more to this story than just those simple facts, and my brother and I have both become skeptics, really.  In fact, I’d give him some credit for being more skeptical than I am. Read the rest of this entry »

I was late to the “Don’t Be a Dick” party

September 14, 2010

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

This is Phil Plait’s speech from TAM. I didn’t get to go and have missed much of the raging debate over how to debate that’s been happening on skeptic blogs. (I’m busy changing diapers and earning a living, not to mention occasionally writing screenplays.) Phil touches on many of the same ideas I just posted about.

My favorite quotes:

“Not everyone is born a skeptic.”

“How many of you lost your faith because someone called you an idiot?”

His story about talking to a high school girl who is a young Earth creationist (very end of the speech) is pitch perfect. I speak as someone who went to a governor’s school like Phil describes in Georgia, so I feel like I know this young girl.

Great Day for California

August 4, 2010

Since this is my first post at Science Based Parenting, a little introduction is in order.  I’m Julie, and I started Rational Moms with my friend Jessie in October 2008.  I’m a writer and sometimes actress living in Los Angeles.  Since my town is kind of the center of the woo universe, Jessie and I, upon becoming parents, decided we needed some kind of soap box where we could express ourselves.  So we started a blog and asked a bunch of other moms to join us.  And now, we’re all here, merged into one coed science based conglomerate.

So yes, I live in California, and as many of you have heard by now, Prop 8 has been overturned!  I’m beyond happy about this.

Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling makes for some interesting reading. Excerpts can be found here.  Most notably, for a blog about science based parenting, Walker dismissed the so-called evidence from one David Blankenhorn that gays and lesbians were inferior parents:

… The evidence does not, and does not claim to, compare biological to non-biological parents. Blankenhorn did not in his testimony consider any study comparing children raised by their married biological parents to children raised by their married adoptive parents. …

The studies do not … support a conclusion that the biological connection between a parent and his or her child is a significant variable for child outcomes…

Blankenhorn’s reliance on biology is unsupported by evidence, and the court therefore rejects his conclusion that a biological link between parents and children influences children’s outcomes.”

You gotta love that. Judge considers the evidence, finds it doesn’t support the hypothesis presented, and makes a decision based on the facts. This news gives me just a little faith in humanity.

science based politics

July 30, 2010

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Partly because I’ve been spending almost all of my typing time typing code, and partly because I’ve been completely exhausted for weeks.

But if every parent in the world let exhaustion stop them, nothing would ever get done.

Lately, I’ve been in sort of a black mood, which I’m sure shocks everyone. Not so much on the parenting front, because things there are going pretty well. The Highlander moved to a new school, a Montessori school, and he’s doing much, much better. He’s stopped throwing fits when I drop him off. He seems happier to be there. And he’s picking up great habits, like picking up his own dishes. He’s always been a good kid, very helpful and sweet, and the new school is nurturing those qualities instead of stifling them.

He still gives his mom all kinds of trouble about going to bed if I’m not home, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t my fault.

The dark and dreary mood I’m in these days is coming from outside the family. When I was worried about the immediate emotional problems of the Highlander, it was easy not to worry about the future and the world outside. But now that he seems to be out of immediate danger, more emotionally healthy and happy, I’m starting to worry about things like the imminent collapse of western civilization. Every parent goes through this, of course, the bit where you worry about what kind of world your kids are going to grow up in.

And frankly, to me, things look bleak. I’ve always had an upbeat attitude about the resiliency of the planet, people, societies, and so forth. But lately that’s been being carved into by the pronouncements of various religious and political mouthpieces.

Normally, on this blog, we tend to keep religion and politics out of the discussion. Science-based parenting isn’t restricted to some particular political ideology or religious position, and we don’t want to alienate anyone by assaulting their political or religious opinions.

But science-based shouldn’t be limited to parenting, or medicine, or nutrition. Science–the methodical investigation of the real–is applicable to everything. And it seems to me that our politics needs more science and less religion… and that need is pressing.

Right now, there is no way I would send my kids to public school in my area. The local public schools are failing. That failure is going to have consequences for every child who goes to those schools. That means that our society is going to squander the potential of those kids to contribute. I think everyone agrees that this is a problem. But there is much disagreement on solutions.

Why? What possible reason could there be to disagree on what the best solutions to such a problem are? Wouldn’t it be incredibly simple to just develop some metrics, set up some test schools, and determine how well a particular approach works? Why is it that instead of working on something useful like that, we’re actually arguing over settled facts like the value of abstinence only sex-education?

How can a society as large and complicated as ours is expect to survive if we don’t care about reality because we care more about appearances?

I could list examples of these kinds of problems all day, in areas from the environment to science funding to taxes to space exploration. There is no party, in America, that is a friend to reality rather than ideology.

Societies collapse. The earth is littered with the remains of civilizations that didn’t see the end coming. In every one of those civilizations, there were parents. Near the end, some generations of parents had a chance, maybe, to make sure that the next generation didn’t inherit a collapsing world.

Lately, I’ve been worried that we are one of those generations, and that we’re missing that chance.

A Skeptic Goes To Church

July 18, 2010

As a skeptic, I steer clear of dogmatic religions that insist their congregations adhere to a strict view of spirituality and divinity. In fact, I’m uncomfortable with most churches, even the more liberal and accepting churches, such as the mega-church I visited (out of courtesy and curiosity) in Chicago. The reason is that I simply do not have faith in their god, or a desire to believe in anything supernatural.

I’m a naturalist. My personal choice is to appreciate the world for it’s actual inherent qualities, as proven by science, rather than how I imagine things to be, or wish them to be. I also believe that truth is provisional based on current evidence, and that truth can change depending on our collective knowledge. But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in ritual, community, and the humanist principles of ethics and morality, all of which are understandably important to our society. So, when I was invited to attend a new Unitarian Universalist church in my area, I accepted the invitation with an open mind.


From what I can understand, Unitarians have diverse beliefs, including many who are atheists. The UU service I attended today was all about empathy, a subject that some would consider a spiritual topic, and thus outside of my science-based comfort zone.  But, as anyone who has read Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness blog knows, there’s a great deal of science behind teaching kids to be empathetic to others. I felt like I was able to contribute ideas from the science-based perspective to the conversation.

The service was more of a group discussion, almost like a formal meet-up group. This particular church has no regular pastor, so the members alternate who leads the discussion each week. I enjoyed this interactive format, but the thought crossed my mind that open discussions have the potential of putting the group at risk of  argument and division.  There weren’t any arguments today, but I wonder how unitarians manage to stay unified when their members are so diverse in beliefs. If there’s one thing that potentially holds me back from joining, it’s the worry that beliefs for which I feel strongly (such as being pro-vaccination) will naturally put me at odds with others in the church.

Also, I personally enjoy debating subjects in which I’m passionate, and church does not seem like the appropriate place for disagreements. Perhaps attending UU church will teach me patience and understanding for the points-of-view of others, something that I sometimes lack being an outspoken advocate for science and reasoning. Everyone can learn the lesson of perspective taking, even an old rationalist curmudgeon such as myself.


Some skeptics would be bothered by the rituals of UU church. I accept their discomfort, which is probably based on their distaste for catholicism and other christian churches, but I’m not one of those people. I enjoy the symbolism of lighting a candle to represent the search for truth, and I’m pretty sure that everyone in attendance understood that the flame was just a flame and not a magical light of truth. I’d much rather be at a service that lights a flame for truth than a service where people are expected to eat a wafer that reportedly becomes the actual flesh of a sweaty bearded man as soon as you put it in your mouth.

We also went around the room and spoke about our joys and sorrows. Again, I saw this as being very therapeutic and appropriate for a church service. After we mentioned our joys and/or sorrows, we placed a rock in a bowl of water, presumably the ripples caused by the splash signify how we are all connected to each other. I don’t know exactly, but I thought it was a nice ceremony. The kids seemed to really enjoy sharing their joys and sorrows before they moved on to their own activities.


This congregation of Unitarians believe:

In the worth and dignity of every person;
That all people should be treated fairly and with kindness;
That we should accept one another and encourage spiritual growth;
In a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
that all people should have a voice in the world;
In working for a peaceful, fair, and free world;
In caring for our planet earth, the home we share with all living things.

OK, so I bolded my favorite line because it best matches my own principles, though I’m personally less interested in the meaning of truth than I am the details. I think everything else is fine, except that I personally disagree that people should be “encouraged” toward spiritual growth because I don’t personally believe in a spirit. I do, however, understand what people mean when they say the word “spiritual”, and they’re not necessarily talking about the disembodied everlasting ghost that resides inside our corporeal vessel. Sometimes “spirit” is just used as a catch-all term for the seemingly abstract areas of our mind: peace, joy, love, hope, etc. Anyway, that’s how I will choose to interpret the term.


I enjoyed the conversation and making new friends. I will go back.

Having Faith in LOST

May 24, 2010

*It’s the day after the season finale – you know there’s spoilers here. Move on, LOST virgins*

Those of us fanatics of the LOST cult probably feel like we overspent our resources (time, intelligence, and emotions) on an epic mystery that never provided fundamental resolutions to the questions that it raised. The followers all waited at the appointed hour for the answers to be revealed, to be justified, to give us completion before we set ourselves ablaze and moved on to the next adventure.

LOST was like the bible, in that it told hundreds of irrelevant tangents that independently seemed purposeful, but those details end up being completely ignored in favor of over-arching thematic choices, character narratives, and nonsensical magic.

Here’s a random sample from the bible on the page that I opened:

Joab, the son of Zeruiah, was commander over the army. Jehoshophat, the son of Ahilud, kept the records. Zadok, the son of Ahitub, was a priest.

Seems like the bible might need an editor, right? Try opening any random page in a bible, and you’ll get a mess of red herrings that are complete drivel. The message that Christ died for the sins of the world is a drop in a sea of stories that serve no purpose and answer no questions. LOST has the same problem. I can pick any random script and find plot worm holes that lead nowhere:

MILES: The people who hired me told me his name’s Benjamin Linus, they gave me this picture, and that’s all they told me. They said “find him” and for what they’re paying me I don’t need to know anything else, do you?

OK. Sure. Anything taken out of context will seem strange, especially a small selection pulled from one episode of six mysterious seasons, but a fundamental rule of telling a mystery is that the mysteries must lead somewhere, must be justified by a logical story, and must be answered. In the line of dialogue I randomly quoted, we find a psychic detective named Miles has been paid a large sum of money to go to an island by a sinister millionaire who wants to kill his arch-nemesis from the island where he once lived with a team of soldiers who were burying an atomic bomb. Got it?

Now, you would think that, by the end, we would have some inkling why this millionaire cared so much about returning to the island and killing Benjamin Linus. Why was he burying an atomic bomb? Why would he hire a psychic detective to find a living person?

I’m sure if I read the entire bible I would also be confused why the authors felt the need to tell me that Jehosophat “kept the records”.

At least with LOST, I felt like the journey was worth it, that it was well performed and amazingly produced, that I was given a chance to think, discuss, and imagine. At the least, as I sat at the pearly gates of the series finale, figuratively and fictionally, I had the chance to walk away and think, “Hmm… that was an interesting, complex, and emotionally draining ending that failed to answer any of my fundamental questions”.

I spent quite a bit of effort trying to solve what, ultimately, were mythological questions that had no answers. The show runners, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, wrote a passionate character-based series that was full of drama and mysteries, but as those mysteries mounted, they were unable to answer them. By including so many mysteries that went unanswered, they violated the trust of their audience.

Perhaps, ex-fundamentalists approach their deconversions in the same way. Maybe they see that the bible had so many holes in logic and storytelling that they had ignored in favor of the themes and characters. I wonder if those former christians look back at their time worshiping an illogical god, and appreciate the journey for being full of interesting stories and mythologies. Or do they feel cheated because of the investment they placed in discovering the ultimate answers.

At least with LOST, whether fans appreciated the end or not, we were able to know that these stories were fiction, that they were written by fallible humans, and that life would go on once the series ended. Some of the faithful LOST fans are willing to ignore the unanswered mysteries and appreciate the series for it’s craft and beauty. I think those people, including me to some extent, are blinding themselves to justify their emotional involvement in empty promises.

I know many people who proudly claim that they’ve never seen an episode, that they find the zealous nature of LOST fans amusing, and that they never intend to watch the series. I was disappointed by the ending and it’s multiple storytelling violations. I’m also embarrassed by the thirst that I felt for the answers, but I stand by the quality of this series. It deserves to be ranked as one of the best shows on television.

But I understand why LOST haters don’t get what all the fuss is about. I’m the same way with the bible. I bet there are some brilliant stories within it that have clearly stood the test of time. But since I’ve heard the spoilers (from Dawkins and Hitchens),  read both the completely irrational beginning and the bizarre apocalyptic ending, I have no interest in the journey in-between.That’s one season finale that I would truly regret for disappointing me, if you know what I mean.

Sleepovers and Sunday Mornings

January 31, 2010

What is considered good manners if your kid is sleeping over a friends house on a Saturday night and they invite him or her along to church in the morning?  I suppose there are several ways to go about this, but most of the time I let my kids decide.

If you happen to be a Baptist or a Catholic or an Atheist or any other -ic, -ist, or -ism, you may feel worried that your child may be “exposed” to some poisonous untruth that will either fill them with the fear of Hell or send them there.   I don’t.

First of all, if my kid is sleeping over somewhere, I already know the parents well enough to assess whether or not they are generally responsible adults around children, and I have a pretty good idea if they are fundamentalist in their beliefs.  I know enough about the different christian denominations to have a decent idea of what they will see or hear.

So for me, I think it is a good way to allow my kids to see a different part of their friends lives, and to provide talking moments after.  My hope for my children is that when they are older, they have enough information to make a sound decision, based on evidence and critical thinking, not indoctrination (by me or anyone else).

I also think it is important to understand that I have had my whole life to come to the conclusions I have made, but my 8 year old hasn’t.  For me to tell him that my way is right because I said so is no better than the fundamentalist preacher that thinks shouting makes it true.

By the way, my son did sleep over a friends house and was invited to church and happily explained that he doesn’t like church so no thank you, so I came and got him early Sunday morning.