Armed With Thinking Skills,
Our Kids Need Fear No Charlatan
My brother in law and his wife are very religious people and they have been kept teaching their ideas to my five-year-old kid. To try to help my boy to get another point of view, I tried to look for some books for kids about evolution but I could not find any. I was wondering if I can get some suggestions from you. Have you ever seen any publications about atheists, human evolution?
Thank you very much for your help.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: let my kid be an atheist
Date: January 28, 2004 1:28 PM
As we all learned in the Newdow case, the law, in regards to schools, is very strict in stating that you, the parents, are the only ones who have the right to give your children their religious education. Upholding this principle may just cost us our Pledge of Allegiance. If you do not want another person to influence your child's religious upbringing, and if that individual continues to do so anyway, against your will and perhaps even behind your back, I would suggest that such a person is committing child abuse. A hundred-dollar visit to an attorney might give you some very stern language to place in your quiver in case you find yourself really needing a full dose of it someday. Meanwhile, you'll have what you need in the interim to systematically "lay down the law," building your case in small increments. After all, the most effective way to introduce a new idea is slowly, over a period of time.
The law says what it does because it makes good moral sense. Surely they would not stand still while a neighbor or relative taught their children a religion that they felt teaches false doctrines or worse, demoralizes them with explicit rock or rap music, and violence-based television, or adult-oriented sexually provocative comic books.
If push comes to shove, I have been quietly developing the theme of just how immoral the basic teachings of the Christian doctrine of redemption happen to be, if you're willing to face up to what they really teach. Interestingly, I am getting a lot of good material for this position by studying the Victorian Era agnostics and secularists! Other web sites emphasize the sexual debauchery of the Bible and still others show what a whining, self-indulgent adolescent the biblical deity would be if he only existed. This line of reasoning will get you nowhere real fast if dished out in full measure, but it can be helpful to stow a few darts for when the discussion becomes heated to the right degree of fury.
Understand, though, that your relatives sincerely believe that they are obligated to give to this child what you refuse to give him: the keys to forgiveness, fellowship with God, and ultimately, eternal life in the form of a real-life version of the "Get Out Of Hell, Free" card.
As for resources for the youngsters, Madalyn Murray O'Hair had some good books for the kids, and I think the Freedom From Religion Foundation also has some. The Counsel for Secular Humanism (Paul Kurtz) which sponsors the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has a whole program for children, with a children's version of their "Skeptical Inquirer" that's been in publication for years. I believe Michael Shermer's Skeptics Society might have some things going on for kids, but he's working hardest to help shore up our education system, so I don't know what kinds of resources he offers directly to children. Finally, our Web Guide, under Science, features the "learning aid" mark, which indicates an Internet tool that we think the kids might get something out of.
Your best bet, I think, is to interest him in science and history, in that order. The Deists who built this country's government were all scientists in addition to whatever their vocation happened to be. You have a golden opportunity to build this foundational assumption in your child, that every responsible person studies science and becomes fluent in its philosophical bases regardless of whatever else they might do in life. This was before Darwin came along and legitimized atheism with a realistic answer to the Argument from Design: until then, the intelligent among us were creationists because it sure looks as if we have been designed -- at first glance, anyway. Read the Introduction to Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, where he says,
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
He then goes on to show natural selection to be the creative design process that it is, working in hindsight, of course, but "patiently" building organisms that fulfil the genetic goal of survival through procreation. You do well to learn a very simple explanation of Liberal Scientific Method that you can give to him, and this can be found in Chapters Two and Three of Jonathan Rauch's wonderfully brief book about political correctness run amok, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
In it, he introduces (or reintroduces) the reader to what he sees as the "third pillar" of liberal society, along with capitalism and democracy. This essential but forgotten leg of the tripod that upholds freedom, he argues, is the "liberal science" of developing knowledge by choosing between conflicting views. Then warns against attacks on this institution by fundamentalists. These enemies of freedom are not the regular crew of religious fundamentalists, mind you, but by a two-front attack waged, on the one side, by intellectual egalitarians who claim that everyone's opinion has equal weight and on the other by humanitarians who don't want anyone to say anything bad about anyone.
His explanation of liberal scientific method was such a revelation that it prompted me to change not only my essential outlook on reality but (surprisingly) my moral system as well. This is because scientific method is a moral system! Yes, in liberal science there are two main moral points. First, nobody holds the keys to knowledge; that is, nobody is the final arbiter of what we as a society call the truth of any matter. "Everybody's ass is up for grabs," as comic and social critic Lenny Bruce might put it.
The second moral point is that anybody is qualified to overturn anything that we have called a truth. I like to say that a humble patent clerk would have been just as qualified as Albert Einstein to overturn the science of physics as we knew it: all you'd need is the best evidence and the soundest arguments, all of which you then submit to your peers specifically for the purpose of asking them to try to disprove your ideas.
Hey, wait a minute! Albert Einstein was a patent clerk when he published his paper on special relativity! That's how he was working his way through school at the time! Graduate student Joycelyn Bell was the first to identify the pulsar, which continues to mystify astronomers by revealing some new quirk that fractures and disintegrates what we thought we knew about matter-energy!
The true value of scientific method (and the great joy, I might add), comes from a firm grounding in the basics of the method itself. This includes first the way in which scientists first agree to pursue truth wherever she may lead (even if that's a place they don't want to go). It then accentuates way in which scientists take their ideas and submit them to their fellows, who then put those ideas under the most rigorous scrutiny they have thus far been able to develop. Having learned (and appreciated) the strict standards to which scientists hold themselves and one another, one can only roll one's eyes at the various pseudoscientific claims made by religionists and others propagating what my scientist friends call "woo-woo science."
Speaking of which, you'll also want to become intimately familiar with the ways in which charlatans and hucksters use trickery to fool their audience. I sat down and spread out on my table seven or eight books, chapters, and articles on logical and rhetorical fallacy. With this, I spent several evenings assimilating the information before me (and shooing eight kittens and cats off the books). Then I put together the third section of our "Introduction to Activistic Atheism."
My father was constantly asking me, "Do you believe that?" whenever we'd watch TV and the ads would come on. Occasionally he'd give me an answer or walk me through it, but most of the time he just let me hang there with the question. This at least gave me the ability to handle not knowing the answers, if nothing else.
Another thing that my folks and several others did was to teach me the principles of agnosticism. You do well to find Robert Anton Wilson's book, "Quantum Psychology" and just grit your teeth during the occult portions. Apart from that, he is a genius at showing that we really don't know.
Finally, keep in mind that an atheist is anybody who is not a theist: we need not know for a fact that the Christian god-claim is falsehood in order to be an atheist. This matters little to your kid, but it is important for you to think and speak in terms of the Christians' claim that a god-exists, rather than saying things like "I don't believe in God." This subtly validates their god-claim as well as sending the message that the Christian god-claim is the only one, that the question is binary: "Is there a god or is there not a god?" This is wrong. The question is, "Which, if any, of the 5,000 or so different god-claims are worthy of our assent?"
One final book recommendation: any biographies of any great men and women!
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight years of service to people
with no reason to believe
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: let my kid be an atheist
Date: January 29, 2004 7:15 AM
Thank you so much for your reply.
I hope I can work hard on these studies. For now, I told my boy to doubt the input from anybody, including myself, asking, "How do you know?" I tell him things like, "Scientists work very hard to study so they can work even harder in search of the answers to every question. But those believers just sit there, interlocking their fingers and closing their eyes, in search of an answer. Which way do you think will make things work?" But I still think that our side needs a lot more children's books so we might better educate our kids.
As I mentioned in the last e-mail, my boy came to me and said, "Dad, I know how people come from."
I asked him, "How?"
He replied,"Uncle Abel said that God made us from sand."
I don't think it is useful if all we can say is, "Uncle Abel could be, and most likely is, mistaken about this. The scientists I spoke to you about would say that his answer is wrong." To speak like this is not good enough because I don't have anything to support my idea, I don't even have a way to give my child a basic understanding of how science works.
So the next day I went to a bookstore to look for some children's books about human evolution. Guess what! They put My First Bible in the Nature section!! There was nothing about evolution in the children's book section!
I sincerely hope somebody would put effort in this field, that somebody who knows how to do this would enable the rest of us to support their efforts to bring this knowledge to the children. If they don't teach it in the schools any more, at least we need to know where we can obtain resources so we can teach the kids ourselves, like you said your mother did for you. It is so easy to let other people place religious ideas to our kids' heads, but we do not have anything that we can fight back with!
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: let my kid be an atheist
Date: January 29, 2004 2:56 PM
Some sneaky customer put that My First Bible in the science section! This is precisely the dishonest "morality" that I'd be struggling night and day to keep from influencing my kids (if I had any children)!
If a store employee did this, then she or he needs to be sternly reprimanded, if not fired: even most Christians would agree. If the owner did this, then you need to go back outside and take another look at the sign in front of the store: make sure you didn't mistakenly go to a store whose sign says something like,
Or something along those lines!
The evolution books might have been removed due to pressure from Evangelical preachers leading their congregations to picket or write letters.
It could be that parents who want their kids to learn creationism know that they wage an uphill battle and must work harder, knowing their children will be taught evolution in school. (They may be wrong about that, however: many teachers are tired of fielding complaints from Evangelical Christians whenever they so much as say the word evolution in a classroom setting!)
In either case, I have a word for the folks on our side of this wholly unwanted "holy culture war":
We need to "get our hands dirty" whether we like it or not!
Below, I have identified several books. You might want to reward the companies with online ordering contrivances who are not afraid to carry such books -- or -- you could use this opportunity to make a statement by marching down to your local bookseller and boldly asking them to special order the books for you!
In any event, surely more than one bookseller has set up shop in your neck of the woods!
I already mentioned that it is highly illegal for a schoolteacher to teach any religious values whatsoever to a kid without the parent's knowledge and consent. (This is what Mike Newdow's case is all about: the parents have the exclusive right to control their child's religious instruction, and no others may interfere; atheism is included in the definition of the legal term even though atheism is not a religion in the philosophical sense or by the philosophical definition of religion.) Surely it is morally wrong for a relative or a friend of the family to do likewise. You may want to keep this in mind, making sure to mention it at least once to anybody who has ever breached your jurisdiction as a parent in this regard: only you have the right to control or even influence your child's religious education!
I remember as a child people (adult friends and relatives) telling me this or that about religion. We are an atheistic family (still, to this day -- we are atheistic, anyway) and my Mother would gently say things like,
Some people believe that way, but we don't believe it. They're all good people, just like we are! There's nothing wrong with them, and there's nothing wrong with being religious. It only means that some families believe certain things, and when this happens, the whole family believes that way. We don't believe that way. My parents and grandparents didn't think that way and neither did your father's family.
We just don't think it's true. But it's wrong for us to try to change them just as it would be wrong for them to try to change us. If you want to be religious, you may do so and we will still love you just the same.
She may as well have explained to me that many families require the children to learn religion if they are to be accepted as good members of the family. But she didn't do this. I'll bet she thought of doing it, but realized that she had already instilled into me the concepts of unconditional love and infinite human worth. (Personal aside: My life today would be so much better if my family would remember even a little bit about what they taught me in this respect!)
You may want to check out the Science section of our Web Guide, and familiarize yourself with where each link even remotely having to do with evolution takes you. Many of those links will take you to societies whose goal is to support the teaching of evolution in schools; others will take you to major scientific societies themselves, such as America's prestigious National Academy of Sciences= who sponsors a web page called Science and Creationism. Also listed is the equivalent society in the UK, The Royal Society. But don't stop at these two: in-between are dozens of other pro-science and pro-evolution groups, most of which at least know where to get children's teaching materials if they do not themselves make such materials available. And each of these web sites has its own list of "recommended links" and the like. One could easily make a career of this one pursuit, especially a retired person who wants to start making a real difference now that the personal nest-egg is secure (or to continue where she or he left off in retirement if fortunate enough to have worked in a position of great influence)!
Inquire of such organization and ask them where you can get books and other learning materials for your child. Tell them your problem: I'm sure they want to know about how tough it is even staying aware of what's happening, much less finding the proper teaching materials for your child. We who deal with this day-in-and-day-out often forget what it's like for the "Regular Joe" who is very busy just trying to put food in their tummies and shoes on their feet, who is exhausted after a day's work and comes home to the discovery that religious exploiters have been tinkering with your child's religious education!
Many of the groups I tell you about will know much better than you or I as to where the proper teaching aids can be found. The rest is up to you: you can stop at simply purchasing a few items for your child or you can get busy and form a local organization dedicated to helping parents in your same situation find and obtain what they need to supplement their child's science and history educations! The latter is where true change will occur, but it takes the dedicated and sacrificial work of several people in order to pull it off.
First off, if we don't have much luck finding current material, then at least I know of some excellent science books and workbooks in the children's sections of used bookstores. Plenty of children's science books were published in the early 1960s, after President Kennedy goaded the Americans to place a strong emphasis on science education. This was the result of the Cold War and our having lost the initial forays into the so-called Space Race. The embarrassing part of all this was that we had just distinguished our nation from the Soviet Union by ordering the words "In God We Trust" be printed on our currency and stamped onto our coins (this was ordered during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s but wasn't put into action until 1964. Meanwhile, any time the Soviets launched a cosmonaut into orbit, he made sure to announce to the World, while in orbit (and in English, of course), something along the lines of: "I don't see any gods up here> The only problem of trying to find older books is the prospect of getting taken by the high price of "antiques" and "collectibles."
I know this is true because I had lots of evolution books when I was a child -- amongst the other science books and projects that I had! I can even remember building a little telescope from a kit that had a bust of Galileo and a little book of his life, a working telegraph kit with a bust and book of Samuel F. B. Morse, and mock electric lamp with a bust and book of Thomas Edison. This was a "famous inventors" series, and several of my playmates (and myself) wanted to become inventors when we grew up! Surely stuff like this still exists! If not, let's go pound on the doors of a few investors and marketers and get the ball rolling again. Projects like this (producing educational materials) would certainly qualify for any number of grants and would easily fall under a nonprofit tax-exempt status, while still allowing enough income for the venture's own growth.
Despite my wild imagination, here, my point is that if they had these books and kits en masse during the times when evolution education was not controversial, then you can bet they have even better ones today, now that the need is so much greater, now that there is so much more at stake. They might be harder to find because the Evangelicals have pressured a few of the stores to stop carrying this or that. (And all a store needs is one Evangelical in an influential position and such pressure will change everything.)
The market will have become substantially smaller, too, because the Evangelicals have enticed many families away from real science so they can more easily market Genesis Tale trinkets and Noah's Ark action figures. There were no "creationists" to speak of when I was a child. We'd never heard of such a thing until the late 1970s -- even as an Evangelical Christian in the early 1970s, I had never heard of Christian Creationism! We didn't have a problem with it. If evolution was how God created us, then that was fine with us!
At age five through twelve I was doing much more than just working with the children's books and kits. In fact, I got my start by looking at the pictures in books and magazines whose text was college level and reading my parents' (and other kids' parents') nature magazines, college textbooks, trade publications, and even investment portfolios. If it had pictures, I was reading it. Occasionally even the photos can go over a kid's head, but this is rare: photos and drawings are what you need to expose the child to at this stage in life; text comes later. A staple in just about every home was at least a partial collection of the ubiquitous Time-Life series books, which can be appreciated by just about any age level because of the genius with which the photos and diagrams were made to augment the text (which, of course, never exceeded the sixth-grade level in reading skill, though it always dealt with high school- and college-level material).
I live in Portland, Oregon, which is easily the place with the highest per-capita of nonreligious people. Our big attraction is Powell's City of Books. I have a link to them in the Web Guide. They have their entire inventory online now (my friend Jeff, whom I am almost sure is an atheist, wrote their database program: I say "almost sure" because atheism is no big deal to me and I don't ask folks I meet if they are atheists or not).
I typed "evolution children" into their search and these are the two good-looking ones that I found:
Here is a third one that came up, which you'll want to check out yourself, as I'm not sure about any book which claim that it "presents both sides." Very seldom are they neutral, and you'll want to know in which direction they lean! I do like the sound of that last sentence, though, as these are the bottom line issues: the nature of science and its relationship to morality (its intimate role as a form of morality). Science is not evolution and gravity and chemistry: those things are part of the history of scientific discovery; science itself is the liberal scientific method I discussed yesterday.
This is what I came up with on just one book store's web site. Granted, Powell's is the largest store west of the Mississippi, and perhaps in the entire Universe, but there are many, many others. My favorite online source for seeking out used books is the American Book Exchange (ABE):
Here's one from the UK, and then I'll stop tinkering with the search engines (I promise!):
One group that was indispensable to our family when we were growing up is Edmund Scientifics. Simply, they sell science-related gifts, ranging from telescopes to chemistry sets to weird "magical" tricks that are simply strange scientific anomalies that are completely explainable, such as "The Famous Drinking Bird," which I'm sure you've seen at any museum gift shop! (I came up empty when I searched for "evolution" by the way.)
Speaking of which, check out the museums in your area: evolution is usually under Natural History, but is also covered under anthropological museums, who have names such as "The Museum of Man" and the like. I grew up in San Diego, and a family could make a whole week's vacation just out of the museums which lie within a few miles of the San Diego Zoo! Many museums have gift shops, and most of those have books for kids.
Here's a computer game for kids: I don't know if Edmund carrys this one, but Amazon does: it's Zoombinis Logical Journey by The Learning Company.
I am pointing out these books and toys designed to enhance thinking skills because I am convinced no parent needs to fear that some charlatan will exploit a kid who goes out into the world armed with an arsenal of thinking skills and a solid grounding of scientific method (Jonathan Rauch's book, again).
Write me back periodically and keep me abreast as to how it goes with you. Your story could inspire hundreds of others in your situation. What you learn and how you apply what you discover during this journey will be an invaluable tool for the rest of us.
Again, thanks for writing!
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight years of service to people
with no reason to believe