Best Practices 4: Teach engaged coexistence

Editor/author, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers


Astrology survived Copernicus.

That's my simple response whenever someone suggests to me that science will eventually put religion out of business.

By all rights, astrology should have been forced out of business in 1543. Among other things, astrology is founded on the necessary condition of an Earth-centered universe. Medieval treatises on astrology include sentences like "As the orb of the World is center’d in the celestial spheres, so then is it reasonable to conclude that…" So long as the other planets orbited Earth and the constellations of the Zodiac were arrayed in reference to an Earthly center, the idea that constellations determined our personalities and controlled our destinies had at least a snowball’s chance of respectability.

But after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1543 -- followed by two centuries of theological arm-wrestling -- Earth was decisively removed from cosmic center court. At this point, astrology, shorn of its most essential assumption, should have followed geocentrism into obscurity. The fact that it did not -- that it has endured several centuries goofily unaware that new knowledge has rendered it null and void -- is enough to make it ridiculous.

Yet there's still an astrology column in the New York Times. And the Harris poll shows Americans' belief in astrology going up, not down (25% in 2005, 29% in 2007, 31% in 2008).

If astrology's coffin needed any more nails, Hubble provided them in 1924 when he first discovered the true size of the universe and distance between stars -- at which point the "constellations of the Zodiac" and all other apparent celestial patterns were seen to be associated only incidentally from our accidental vantage point. In fact, they are separated by millions of light years from each other not only in two dimensions but in the third as well. One star that appears to be snuggling another is often millions of light years behind it, just as the moon, which often appears to be right next to my thumb is actually, amazingly, not.

Yet the thing shows no signs of vanishing any time soon.

So when even so bright a light as Richard Dawkins says that the discovery of a Grand Unified Theory would "deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions," I say, with the utmost respect and admiration, pfft.

The confident demise of religion has been predicted at least since Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Several scientific commentators during the 20th century predicted the demise of religion in 25, 50, or 100 years. I think they've all failed to grasp the key fact that few religious believers are assiduously poring over facts to be sure their worldview still holds water. They stick with it because it is such a dynamite cure for what ails them (adjective meant in all possible ways).

Add to that the fact that a large part of humanity will always lack access to knowledge and security, not to mention the simple awareness of any Grand Unified Theory we might discover, and I feel confident that religion will continue, forever, to plug the hole. Religion will always be with us.

I do think religion will gradually become less influential in the developed world and (on the whole) less fanatical and intolerant, thanks in part to increased access to knowledge and security. Despite the loud evangelicals, that's already well underway. But new religious movements pop up at an estimated rate of two or three per day in developing countries. In the developed world, the thing continues to (ironically) evolve to keep pace with both our ever- and our never-changing itches.

For the record, I'd prefer this not be the case. Since it is the case, I do what I can to hasten the evolution of religious expression and practice toward the less fanatical and intolerant. It's a process that is already going full steam in Europe, by the way (at least as far as Euro-Judeo-Christianity goes. For more on Euro-Islam, see Sam Harris).

When it comes to parenting, I'm raising kids for what I call "engaged coexistence" with other world views. It rejects both the "Everbuddy's gwine tuh hail ceptin' me an my dawg" attitude of the fundamentalists and the "I hold all religions in deep respect as multiple manifestations of the True" of the New Age.

The trick is to sort out the word respect.

Respect for individuals and respect for their ideas are quite different and must be separated.
People are inherently deserving of respect as human beings, and no one can be faulted for shutting you out if you declare disrespect for their very personhood. Ideas are another matter. I feel too much respect for the idea of respect to grant it automatically to all ideas.

Even if I disagree with it, I can respect an opinion if it is founded on something meaningful, like rational argument or careful, repeatable observation. The other person may have interpreted the information differently, but I can still respect the way she’s going about it. Suppose on the other hand that someone says Elvis and JFK are working at a laundromat in Fargo and offers a dream or tea leaves or a palm reading as evidence. It would render the word “respect” meaningless to say I respect that opinion. I both disagree with it and withhold my respect for it. And that’s okay. No need to degrade the other person. I know all sorts of lovely, respectable people who hold a silly belief or two—including myself, no doubt—and wouldn’t think of judging them, or me, less respectable for it.

It's not only wrong to grant respect to all ideas, it can be downright dangerous. So I teach my kids to work toward a better, saner world by challenging all ideas AND inviting the same challenge of their own, explicitly, out loud, no matter what worldview they adopt.

That's engaged coexistence. We recognize that we're going to be sharing this apartment for the long haul and work together to keep each other's feet off the furniture.

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Tags: parenting, religion

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