Saturday, March 31, 2012

Notable Humanists: Eugenie Scott

Hooray!  It's time for another profile of a notable humanist!  Eugenie Scott is one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto III.  She is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.  She holds a Ph.D. in physical anthropology, which studies human origins and biological variation.  She is also the recipient of many awards, including the American Humanist Association's Isaac Asimov Award for Science.  She is most widely known as a leading apologist for evolution.  In that role, she wrote, Evolution vs. Creationism: An introduction, which was published in 2004.

Scott describes her upbringing as "liberal protestant" but now identifies as a secular humanist and a nontheist.

Here are a few quotes from Eugenie Scott:

  • "When they say 'teach the controversy' - their ringing phrase - they want us to pretend to students that scientists are arguing whether evolution took place.  This argument is not taking place."
  • "Not many appreciate the ultimate power and potential usefulness of basic knowledge accumulated by obscure, unseen investigators who, in a lifetime of intensive study, may never see any practical use for their findings but who go on seeking answers to the unknown without thought of financial or practical gain."
  • "I never say that evolution is a fact.  Evolution is a theory.  It's much more important than a fact because theories explain things."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Helping Kids Through Anger: Coping Skills

We all have coping skills because we all have to cope with things we don't like.  The real question is whether our coping skills are constructive or destructive.  If I start throwing punches at someone when I'm frustrated with them, then I'm using a destructive coping skill.  That's exactly the kind of coping skill that comes most naturally.  When X is frustrating, we can cope by lashing out at X.  The next step is to recognize when lashing out at X will backfire.  So when I'm frustrated with the 6'8" body builder at the end of the bar, I might choose to lash out at the drunk pipsqueak nearby instead.  Most of us have caught on to the idea that this kind of coping is frowned upon and might get us thrown in the clink even if we win the fight.  We either learn to do it in a sneaky way ("I'll show that guy, I'll key his car when no one is looking!") or we find some other outlet for our frustrated energy.  The latter is where you're going to find the constructive coping skills (as well as plenty of other destructive ones).

One of the first steps to helping kids work through anger is to help them identify and rely on constructive coping skills.  Help them to find things they like or things that relax them.  For example, maybe a child who enjoys snuggling with something soft and warm could benefit from having a stuffed animal (stuffy? doll? plush toy?  Different families call them different things...)  Either way, the first trick to helping kids work through their anger is to support them in the development of good coping skills.  Lots of people use food for coping - that's why we talk about comfort food - but, while better than punching someone in the face, it's probably not the healthiest way of defusing anger.  The same goes for any kind of approach that can harm oneself.  The fact is that different people will get help from different things.  One person needs to talk it through while another needs to cool off alone.  One person will want to rearrange furniture and another will want to listen to music.  As parents, our role is to help our children figure out what works for them and then let them do it.

This may be easier said than done.  Sometimes a 5 year old isn't going to be able to walk away from the source of their anger to go color a picture.  Parents and teachers often frown on letting children walk away when they are the source of the child's anger.  I know my daughter gets plenty mad at me sometimes when I correct her homework, but that doesn't mean she gets to just go outside and ride her bike instead of trying those math problems again.  That's why you'll want to find a variety of coping skills that can be used in a variety of situations.

Another thing you'll want to be aware of is that when children (or anyone, for that matter) is learning a new skill, they'll need more reminders and support than usual, but that eventually (after a good long while and a lot of supported practice) they'll get to the point where they can calm themselves just by knowing that their coloring book, or stuffed animal, or sandwich hug from mommy and daddy will be there later.

So what are some coping skills that work for you and your family?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Asimov on Humanism

Jenny, over at Happiness Through Humanism, posted a cool old video from the 70's of Isaac Asimov explaining humanism.  Even better, she invited everyone to share it!

I just want to give him a friendly scratch on the ole mutton chops!  It's not lost on me that there are plenty of non-religious people out there who are just as judgmental as the far-right fundamentalists portrayed at the beginning of the video, but I like the switch to the thoughtful presentation of humanism's response to questions that I've certainly heard thousands of times.  Plus, I like the goofy, dated style.

The Reason Rally

Here is a link to a story about the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.  It does a nice job of describing the internal conflict between the desire to show that atheists are regular, friendly folks and the desire to present as a group to be reckoned with.  It's worth a read.

Have fun if you're there!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Helping Kids Through Anger

I had the opportunity to attend a conference on fathering last week.  It was a great experience - I learned a lot of useful stuff.  While I was there I bought a book called, "131 Creative Strategies for Reaching Children with Anger Problems" by Tom Carr.

In the book, the author describes 2 types of anger.  The first is Bear anger.  I think when most people think of anger they imagine the Bear.  Bear anger is loud and menacing.  No one sees Bear-style anger without being aware of it.  Tantrums, yelling, hitting, door-slamming, and throwing things are all types of Bearish anger.

The second type of anger is Turtle style anger.  A turtle pulls its head into its shell and imagines the world has disappeared when it's angry.  I think it's easy to miss Turtle type anger.  Locking oneself away, monosyllabic responses, self-recrimination, and avoidance are all signs of Turtle anger.

In our family, my daughter is the Bear and my son is the Turtle.  Guess who's gotten more attention.  Although Turtle anger is easier to deal with in the short term, it may be more difficult to work with in the longer term - if only because it's so easy to leave it unaddressed for so long.  When a child is angry and starts hitting and screaming, parents are quick to drop what they're doing and try to fix the problem.  Perhaps they talk to the child about coping skills or something.  But when a child withdraws and gets quiet, adults don't tend to take as much notice.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to post about the anger kids feel and how to identify it, find its roots, and address it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Parenting Girls in a Sexist Society

My little girl just turned 8 years old!  I can hardly believe it.  The other night my wife, Ms. Skeptical, did something which I can only assume was meant to kill me.  Out of the clear blue she turned to me and said, "You know, we should really think about when and how we're going to talk to her about puberty.  I was talking to some people at work today about how it happens earlier now than it used to - probably related to better nutrition."

My first reaction after the initial horror and shock was that, although an intimidating prospect to consider, the task itself should be relatively straightforward.  It should just be a matter of honesty, clarity, and a basic level of anatomy and physiology, right?  Hell, Ms. Skeptical is both a female and a doctor, so she ought to be well qualified to explain how it all works.

And then I remembered the day's news.  The Catholic bishops and a large contingent of other social conservatives were up in arms over the requirement that health insurance providers offer coverage for birth control.  The rhetoric around this issue quickly shifted from political "dog whistle" sexist to overt sexist.  A few days ago Rush Limbaugh made the news for calling a student who testified on behalf of the importance of birth control to women a slut and a prostitute whose parents should be ashamed that she had so much sex that she wanted to create a new welfare program just to pay for it all.  Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick.  This is the shit our daughter - and everyone's daughters - are going to have to deal with.  More to the point: this is the shit Ms. Skeptical and I have to prepare her for.  Anatomy and physiology 101 won't cut it.

A couple more quick examples:

When Ms. Skeptical was in medical school a professor went on a little bit of a tirade about med students who complain about the hard work of their education.  He said med school was a lot like rape in that it is really just a matter of perspective.  He suggested that, like rape, if they just lay back and enjoy it rather than complaining then there's really nothing to worry about.

When our daughter was born I was the "stay-at-home-dad".  We planned for Ms. Skeptical to pump at work, but we quickly learned that the support for this was more theoretical than actual.  We had to switch completely over to formula after only a few months.

The point here is that I often forget just how much inequality there is for women.  I bet this forgetfulness affects fathers more often than mothers, but I imagine that many mothers experience it from time to time as well.  In school, we read about crusading heros like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Jeannette Rankin and, in celebrating the magnitude of their accomplishments, it's easy to imagine that the necessary changes have been made.  The danger is that we might not raise our children, particularly our daughters, to remain vigilant against the dangers of a sexist, unjust society.

The conversation we'll be having with our newly minted 8 year old will be the first in a long line of conversations about what it means to be a woman in this particular time and place.  Sometimes the challenge of parenting isn't knowing which choice to make - often the right choice if obvious, but the challenge is remembering to see that a choice needs to be made.  Time marches inexorably forward and every day our daughters and sons will continue to soak in messages about things like gender roles and equality regardless of whether we've taken the time to remember to reinforce or counteract those messages.  Once I'm prompted to consider these things, it becomes immediately clear that when raising a daughter I have to prepare her with a couple of skills.

She'll need a fighting spirit.  This means that through my parenting I need to teach her that "fighting" will right wrongs.  So, she needs to feel comfortable telling authority when she feels something is unjust and she needs to feel that if she makes a good enough case then those wrongs will be righted.

She'll also need a prepared awareness of the bigotry she's almost surely going to face due to her gender.  One big injustice often starts with a thousand small ones.  The Catholic bishops that started this whole birth control firestorm didn't just up and call women sluts.  Instead, they talked about their religious rights.  The student who testified before Congress didn't get to testify before the formal committee because they didn't invite any women to participate.  These less blatant injustices were just as damaging, or even more damaging, than the more obviously offensive name calling on talk radio.  I want my daughter to be prepared to notice prejudice long before it loses all the trappings of civility.  It's that civil, "respectable" oppression that creates an unjust society.

So wish us luck as we proceed!  And, removing the trappings of civility for a moment: fuck Rush Limbaugh.  Seriously.  Fuck that guy.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Notable Humanists: Jeannette Rankin

Given the appalling nature of the current national debate about birth control and women's rights (it's surreal to me that anyone still imagines this should be debated), I want to take a minute to highlight the achievements and contributions of a humanist woman.

Jeannette Rankin was born near Missoula, Montana in 1880.  She is most well known for being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, where she served two nonconsecutive terms (1917-1919 and 1941-1943).  She was also a famous pacifist - in her two terms in Congress, she voted against American involvement in both World Wars.

Outside of her work in Congress, she dedicated her life to the twin causes of gender equality and peace.  For example, in 1912, Rankin was elected legislative secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Society.  In 1960, she established a women's cooperative in Georgia.  She also visited India and studied Gandhi's pacifist movement, and in 1968 she led a demonstration of about 5,000 women in Washington, D.C. against American involvement in Vietnam.

Throughout her life, she found herself fighting against overwhelming social odds.  She was often counted out due to her gender and her beliefs.  Norma Smith writes in her book, Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience, that, when she was 89, Rankin was interviewed by a minister who asked how she had sustained herself in the face of her many defeats.  She replied, "I don't know.  Just stubborn, I guess."

Here are some quotes of Jeannette Rankin:
  • "You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake."
  • "Men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn't make sense not to use both."
  • "You take people as far as they will go, not as far as you would like them to go."

Friday, March 2, 2012

How do we know...?

My dad identifies himself as a fundamentalist Christian.  For him, this means that the Bible is the inerrant word of god.  When you get down to the details, it means that he believes that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago over a span of 6 days.  When I was a kid, I remember a number of times when my dad and I were watching TV when some news report would announce some new scientific discovery; perhaps a new human ancestor or new evidence about the nesting habits of a dinosaur.  Inevitably, he would turn to me and say, "Now how do they know that?"  It was a rhetorical question.  He wanted me to approach these things critically and use common sense to see that they were likely as not just making shit up in hopes that we wouldn't understand or question it.

When I grew up, I thought about those questions occasionally.  How do "they" know the things they say they know?  So I started to read some books.  I was surprised that, unlike the quick news reports I saw on CNN as a kid, scientists were eager to explain exactly how they know what they know.  For every time my dad asked me the rhetorical question of how they know what they claim, there was an actual, non-rhetorical answer!

Now, with my kids, I like to do the same thing my dad used to do with me.  When we watch a show like Nova or Nature, I ask, "How do you think they know that?" Sometimes, it's an easy question for them to answer, and sometimes it's a bit more challenging.  Sometimes, I already know the answer and sometimes I don't.  Either way, it's a practice that I've enjoyed repurposing.  So, in the spirit of looking for answers to questions about how we know what we say we know, I'd like to share a link to a page on the Smithsonian  Museum of Natural History's website: How Do We Know?

I'll add more of these types of sites as I find them.  If you know of any others, let me know in the comments!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Notable Humanists: E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson was raised near Mobile, Alabama and in Washington, D.C.  As a child, he fell in love with ants and the natural world they inhabit.  That love followed him to adulthood - he is now a myrmecologist  and a professor at Harvard University.  Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for General Nonfiction (1979 - On Human Nature, 1991 - The Ants).  He is also the faculty emeritus of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, which is part of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, fantastic, old-fashioned museum on Harvard's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wilson is probably best known for his development of sociobiology (the precursor to evolutionary psychology), which seeks to apply a scientific approach to the biological bases of social behavior.  He later expanded upon the framework of this notion in his book Consilience.  This dense, ambitious book sets out to lay the framework for the unification of the natural sciences, social sciences, and even art and literary criticism under one system of inquiry - in effect unifying human knowledge by applying the scientific method to all areas of study and breaking down barriers to interdisciplinary research.

Wilson has described himself as a scientific humanist and, with regard to the existence of god, he supports the idea of "provisional deism", although he has also often stated that both religion and belief in god are byproducts of natural, evolutionary action.  Wilson has been clear that he feels that religion has and will always play a role in society due to the fact that it is a part of human nature.  Further, he has stated that he hopes that religious and nonreligious people work together to determine rational answers to social problems.

Here are some quotes from E.O. Wilson:

  • "People would rather believe than know."
  • "Still, if history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as  truth.  The human mind evolved to believe in the gods.  It did not evolve to believe in biology.  Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory when the brain was evolving.  Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms.  The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible.  As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure."
  • "Sometimes a concept is baffling not because it is profound but because it is wrong."
  • "Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do."
  • "Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save the creation."

A survey for non-religious parents

Wendy Thomas Russell has a very thoughtful blog that I highly recommend you peruse.  I have a permanent link to it on the sidebar (down and to the right).  She's working on a book called "Relax: It's Just God" and as part of her research she's developed an online survey for non-religious parents.  It's a fun, thought-provoking survey to take and it'll contribute to a better understanding of the issues non-religious families face.

Here's the link: