Science-Based Gift Giving Guide 2010

November 2, 2010

If you’re looking for the best gifts to give your science-loving family this holiday season, we have the perfect guide for you. Listed below, are all of the authors, artists, and products that have been featured on Parenting Within Reason (and Podcast Beyond Belief), including some book recommendations by Dale McGowan and Jim Randolph from our soon-to-be-released latest episode. Plus, you’ll find some brain boosting games recommended by Nurture Shock author, Ashley Merryman in our interview with her.

If there’s a product that you think our readers would enjoy, please list it in the comments section. And if there are some products on here that you really enjoyed, let us know, and be sure to click the link and review it on amazon too.

Books for Parents

Books for Kids




*Recommended by Dale McGowan

**Recommended by Jim Randolph

***Recommended by Ashley Merryman

Winter Solstice… for a Change

December 16, 2009

I’ve been reading “Raising Freethinkers” by Dale McGowan (and others), and it’s inspired me to approach the holidays from a secular perspective. It’s so easy to fall into the familiar Christian traditions that are so pervasive this time of year. Sometimes I have to catch myself and think about what message I want my kids to receive, and whether I want to reinforce the myths of the virgin birth.

I’ve decided to be honest with Sasha (in the spirit of freethought) about all the reasons people celebrate during the holiday season. I’ve been sharing with Sasha that “some people celebrate the birthday of a baby named Jesus, who (they think) has special powers”. I also read to her the story of Christ’s birth, as told in the illustrated new testament given to her by a close friend.

There’s really no reason to hide the nativity scene from Sasha – she’s bound to hear about it eventually. I actually think that the story of the virgin birth is an interesting myth, worth retelling, if for only the reason that it’s so ingrained in our culture anyway. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t feel compelled to hammer the message of the immaculate conception into her little mind. A simple explanation of Christ will suffice, and then an explanation of what our family believes… that this time of year is a time for family and for giving to others. We’re also going to celebrate the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, to which the Christian founders borrowed in the name of Christmas.

I’ve never celebrated Winter Solstice before. The idea has previously seemed kind of goofy, like a pagan ritual that some bearded hermit would do with his three wiccan wives. But, once I get passed that unpleasant image, it doesn’t seem any less silly than celebrating the birth of a god in which I don’t believe. The challenge is celebrating the Winter Solstice without steering my family into a bunch of oddball rituals.

If Winter Solstice still involved druid cloaks and Gregorian chants than I would seriously reconsider my involvement in it’s celebration.

The interesting thing is that the traditional Winter Solstice celebrations, such as Saturnalia and Yule, involved decorating the house with evergreens and pretty lights, giving gifts to the children, and having feasts with the family (and with servants). Yeah, OK, that sounds like all the harmless traditions of Christmas, without the trappings of faith.

So, for the first time, my family and I have decided to also celebrate Winter Solstice. I’ve decorated my house in blue lights, which I’m officially declaring as the secular hue of choice (who knew, right?). I’ve also decided that on the 21st of December I will have a fondue feast and invite my friend and his daughter, who are also secular humanists. The reason I chose meat fondue is because it’s a holiday tradition from my own childhood. Why not map an old tradition that my parents gave me onto new ones for my own family?

Being that this is my first attempt at celebrating Winter Solstice, I’d be more than happy to have some recommendations for rituals that other people do at this time. Anybody else out there celebrate the shortest day of the year? Holler back and let me know.

PLAN for a RANDI Christmas!

November 30, 2009

The James Randi Education Foundation has begun the “Season for Reason” campaign. Their goal is to raise $25,000 for the purpose of creating a web site geared toward teaching critical thinking skills to children. Those who donate at least $100 to the JREF will receive a free “Best of TAM” DVD, featuring speakers from the world’s premiere conference for skeptics.

Another way to help the JREF is to register for their customized Visa card, complete with James Randi’s doubting face plastered on the front. Anyone who applies, who is approved, and makes at least one payment before the end of the year will qualify the JREF to recieve a donation of $50 courtesy of Visa. The credit card also holds a 0% interest rate for a year, but I encourage people to be cautious and skeptical of any such claims.

And what can you do with your card when you receive it? Why not buy the gift of vaccination for children in underprivileged nations from James Randi’s favorite charity, Plan. You might know Plan from their commercials with Laurie Metcalf giving an emotional appeal to sponsor one of the many children around the globe living in squalor. What you might not know is that James Randi vouches for the charity, sponsors several children, and has even visited some of them to verify that Plan is taking care of their communities, as promised.

I will be following my own advice, and am looking forward to receiving the doubtful visage of Randi to be relocated to my wallet. And one of my lucky friends will receive vaccinations for children in Pakistan, which will also trigger Visa’s donation to the JREF, which will be used to teach critical thinking to students. It’s a win-win-win situation!

War on Winter Solstice?

December 11, 2008

I’m an atheist. I’m OK with that. Christmas is not considered a holiday for atheists, and I’m OK with that too.

December 25th is now considered a day for christians to celebrate the myth of a virgin birth, but the day has not always been their property. The world used to be full of diverse religions, myths, and pagan rituals that were celebrated in December, but as christianity spread, it gobbled up and assimilated the various cultural traditions and transformed them into what many people now celebrate as Christmas.  The holidays historically belonged to the pagans, so atheists should feel comfortable enjoying the holidays too.  We all have a right to be festive and merry and not feel guilty about contradicting our convictions.

All of the Christmas traditions that I fondly remember from my childhood were once pagan traditions that were borrowed by the church. Time has passed, dogma has spread, but we still celebrate the way pagans did thousands of years ago. That isn’t to say that we should go back to sacrificing bulls or anything, but it does mean that atheists can, without hypocrisy, participate in giving gifts, visit family, share big meals, decorate a tree, and sing carols.  You don’t have to a member of a church to join the fun.

December 25th has long been the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we don’t actually know when (or if) he was born. The Bible does not specify the time of year, and two of the gospels omit the virgin birth entirely.  Some scholars have interpreted Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth as a summer event, but we’ll never know whether it happened at all.

We do know that December 25th was celebrated as Sol Invictus – a day to worship the birthday (rebirth) of different sun gods such as Mithras and  Sol (Janus) during the winter solstice. This makes sense, since the winter solstice marks the shortest day of sunlight.  Each year the Romans entreated their sun god to return, and each year he did reliably return in the form of longer days.  Christians didn’t celebrate December 25th until the 4th century.

276px-standing_osiris_edit1svg1Jesus seems to be a combination of several ancient myths of sun gods and vegetation gods, all who were said to have died and resurrected.  These Dionysus-Osiris messiahs were shepherds and/or divine children with mortal mothers and/or deities who died and were resurrected and/or associated with wine miracles.

The origin of the candy cane is reported to be a shepherds crook, and even if it were, we could trace the shepherd staff back to Osiris.  Take a look… he’s holding a shepherd staff that looks just like a candy cane.

Sol Invictus stemmed from previous winter celebrations, such as Saturnalia, in which Romans decked the halls with evergreen wreaths, went caroling (in the nude), and ate huge feasts.

The three wise men may be a corruption of Egyptian mythology about Orion’s Belt pointing to the star Sothis (today known as Sirius- part of a stellar holy trinity associated with Osiris).  When Sothis rose in the east, the Nile would flood; the event was so important that it marked an Egyptian year (called the Sothic cycle).  Lending credence to this claim is that the translation of “magi” is “astrologer”, so they were three astrologers who were following a star.  It seems like symbolism to me.

Christmas trees originated with an ancient German cult.  The trees were used to worship Attis, a virgin-born god who died and came back to life as a pine tree.

Christianity and Santa have little in common, aside from the fact that the jolly old elf is  supposedly inspired by a saint, and yet the Santa myth has nearly overtaken the story of the nativity. Even the “saintly” origins of Santa Claus were stolen from German myths of Odin flying around on a magic horse called Sleipnir for whom the children left offerings (of milk and cookies, perhaps?).  Odin gave the children gifts for being nice to his mutant horse.  Odin eventually evolved into Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands, but St. Nick’s mythology included little Ethopian slaves who helped the “good saint” fill shoes with goodies.  Another early image of Santa Claus came from Danish folklore of a yule goat and a jolly old elf named Tomte.

While many skeptics have shied away from deceiving their children with blatant lies about Santa, I think it teaches them an important early lesson that they are vulnerable to being fooled by authority figures.  I will encourage my kids to solve Santa on their own, and I won’t continue the lie after they have figured it out.

This post was inspired by the Freethought Radio Podcast interview with author Barbara G. Walker.  It was an extremely good episode by the way, since the FFRF are knee deep in controversy with their atheist sign on the state capitol in Washington.


Science For the Kids – X-mas 08

November 28, 2008

Today is Black Friday.  I’ve been up since 4am helping my FIL buy a 42″ flatscreen at Wal-Mart.  I ordinarily wouldn’t voluntarily visit a Wal-Mart on any day, let alone on a day when the place is swelling with rabid shoppers, but family comes first.

For those of you who are snobby science-loving shoppers, like myself, I have three gift ideas picked out to recommend.  Please understand that I have not used these products or tested them myself.  These are just the coolest looking science toys that I could find.  I recommend that you read the reviews for each product before taking my blind advice.

I think the best science toys explain not only “what we know”, but “how we know what we know”.  That’s why I am excited about the Milestones in Science kit by Thames & Kosmos.  This kit will walk you and your child through the history of scientific discoveries and help you reproduce the very experiments that had our wise ancestors saying “EUREKA!”.  I love the concept.  I can only hope that they executed it well.

Charlie’s Playhouse has Darwin-inspired toys that engage young minds about evolution, including a giant time line with info cards of several ancient creatures.  This gift really helps young minds understand our diverse ancestral tree of life, and gets the kids thinking about fact-based reality before the phone book ripping zealots can brainwash them.

This being a skeptic blog, I do want to encourage logic and reasoning, which is why the last gift I’m recommending is the new incarnation of Clue called Clue Suspects.  This seems like a neat twist on the classic game, except instead of using process-of-elimination, the game is played by using reasoning and deduction.  This is meant to be a solitaire game, so it’s perfect for the only-child.  I like the idea, it sounds like fun, and I think I found the perfect Secret Santa gift.  Sh… don’t tell.