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the dreadful dangers of learning to think: a cautionary tale

August 9, 2012

Martin Pribble invited me to write a guest post on his blog this week. Here’s a snippet:

***

Last week, an article in the Washington Post reported on the 2012 platform of the Republican Party in Texas and, in particular, its scarily backward education agenda. In part, the platform statement reads:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

The GOP is right, of course. Teaching kids higher order thinking skills does empower them to challenge the fixed beliefs imposed on them through religious and parental authority. And so it ought.

Not so very long ago, but in a life far away, I was a Christian fundamentalist and homeschooling mum. No doubt that admission will conjure for you images of knee-length plaits, long skirts and minibuses and you wouldn’t be far wrong. But imagining that I was also an entirely unintelligent religious redneck would be a mistake. Deluded is not the same thing as stupid.

In fact, I considered myself rather intellectually diligent; my faith and the lifestyle I had built around it were sustained by the belief that I had done a great deal of solid thinking about them both. I was a keen Bible student; I understood hermeneutical principles and was quite adept at using scholarly Bible study tools. I believed my views to be founded on solid truths that I had subjected to dispassionate reasoning before I’d embraced them. I could not see that my thinking was bounded by invisible stainless steel walls, that I engaged in rigorous intellectual wrestling only inside terribly narrow boundaries. The myriad assumptions upon which Christianity is based were simply invisible to me.

Read more here.

crosspost: spare the rod (and spare me the rest)

November 19, 2011

I came across the excellent Meming of Life blog this week. It’s written by Dale McGowan, author of the latest books to be added to my wishlist, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

Authoritarian parenting has been receiving a great deal of attention in the media of late, with the release of that most distressing video of Judge Adams mercilessly thrashing his 16-year-old daughter. Michael Pearl of To Train Up A Child infamy has been in the press again too, denying even tangential culpability in the violent deaths of children at the hands of parents who followed his advice to literally whip their children into submission.

So when I came across a blog that explains the basics of a rational approach to parenting, a sensible, caring alternative to using physical force to control children’s behaviour, I thought it well worth sharing. I particularly like Dale’s admission that spanking certainly works if immediate compliance is the only goal. But in his view rational parenting has higher aims: to teach the child to reason for themselves, to have respect for themselves and others, and to learn that self-control can be achieved without the use of violence.

I’m republishing Dale’s post here with his kind permission.

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Spare the rod (and spare me the rest)

by Dale McGowan

Nothing focuses the mind like scrutiny. I can get pretty flabby in my thinking when I’m just bouncing ideas against the inside of my skull like Steve McQueen’s baseball in The Great Escape. I’m always a genius in the solitary confinement of my head. But the moment I have to explain myself publicly, I put my ideas on a quick and painful diet.

Since the release of Parenting Beyond Belief, I’ve had to tone up my thoughts on parenting a bit. How can children be good without reference to a god, how can we explain death without heaven—these questions I can answer in my sleep. According to my wife, I often do.

More challenging are the essential questions. What is the essence of secular parenting? How is it fundamentally different from religious parenting? Those are the questions I love the most. They are instant liposuction for my head.

Secular parenting is not motivated primarily by disbelief in God. My religious doubts sprang from thinking for myself, not the other way around, so it’s freethought, not atheism, that’s down there at the root. When someone asks for the foundations of my parenting, I paraphrase the Bertrand Russell quote that begins my book: Good parenting is inspired by love and guided by knowledge. In other words, next to the love of my children, my parenting philosophy is motivated primarily by confidence in reason.

But I’ve wondered lately if my more practical parenting decisions aren’t rooted just as solidly in my confidence in reason. On reflection, they are indeed.

Take one example: I don’t spank my kids. This is interesting to me because religious fundamentalists spank in earnest, citing the biblical injunction “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

spank

There’s something doubly funny about the invocation of that scripture. Funny Thing #1 is that it isn’t scripture. Funny Thing #2 is its actual source—a bawdy poem by Samuel Butler intended to skewer the fundamentalists of his time, the English Puritans:

What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styl’d;
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child.
Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part II (1664)

He’s lampooning the Puritan obsession with sexual abstinence as the cure for passion, using “the rod” in this case as a wickedly funny double entendre, and making sly reference to an actual passage from Proverbs: He that spares his rod hates his son: but he that loves him disciplines him promptly (Proverbs 13:24).

I never tire of hearing sex-averse fundamentalists quoting from a bawdy satire that was aimed at them—and invoking a penis in the bargain. It’s almost as much fun as watching my homophobic aunts happily shouting along with the refrain to “YMCA” as if it’s a song about recreation facilities. But as tempting as it is to refrain from spanking just because fundamentalists spank, I have a better reason. That’s right: confidence in reason.

Let me here confess that I have spanked my kids. It was seldom and long ago, before I had my parental wings. I’m still ashamed to admit it. Every time it represented a failure in my own parenting. Most of all, it demonstrated a twofold failure in my confidence in reason.

Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, that parent is saying you cannot be reasoned with. In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more confidence in the former than in the latter.

I try to correct behaviors by asking them to recognize and name the problem themselves. Replace “Don’t pull the dog’s ears” with “Why might pulling the dog’s ears be a bad idea?” and you’ve required them to reason, not just to obey. Good practice.

_______________________________

“Every time a parent raises a hand to a child,
that parent is saying you cannot be reasoned with.
In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable
substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more
confidence in the former than in the latter.”

_______________________________

The second failure is equally damning. Spanking doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse. The research—a.k.a. “systematic reason”—is compelling. A meta-analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies compiled by Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff at Columbia University found that ten negative outcomes are strongly correlated with spanking, including a damaged parent-child relationship, increased antisocial and aggressive behaviors, and the increased likelihood that the spanked child will physically abuse her/his own children.

The study revealed just one positive correlation: immediate compliance. That’s all. So if you need your kids to behave in the moment but don’t care much about the rest of the moments in their lives—hey, don’t spare the rod!

mary spanking christ
Max Ernst, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child
before Three Witnesses
(1926)

Many people think a no-spanking policy is just plain soft on crime. And if spanking were the only way to achieve good behavior, I might just have to spank. I have very little tolerance for kids who are out of control, whether yours or mine. (Just so you know.) Fortunately, many other things get their attention equally well or better, without the nasty side effects. A discipline plan that is both inspired by love and guided by knowledge finds the most loving option that works. Spanking fails on both counts.

Instead, keep a mental list of your kids’ favorite privileges—staying up late, reading time before bed, Xbox, freedom, dessert, whatever. If they really are privileges rather than rights—don’t withhold rights—they can be made contingent on good behavior. Choose well, and the selective granting and withholding of privileges will work better than spanking. Given a choice between a quick spanking or early bedtime for a week—heck, my kids would surely hand me the rod and clench. Too bad—the quick fix is not an option.

The key to any discipline plan, of course, is follow-through. If kids learn that your threats are idle, all is lost.

I hope it’s obvious that all this negative reinforcement should be peppered—no, marinated, overwhelmed—with loving, affirmative, positive reinforcements. Catch them doing well and being good frequently enough, and the need for consequences will plummet. It stands to reason.

In the long run, if our ultimate goal is creating autonomous adults, we should not raise children who are merely disciplined but children who are self-disciplined. So if your parenting, like mine, is proudly grounded in reason, skip the spankings. We all have an investment in a future less saddled by aggression, abuse, and all the other antisocial maladies to which spanking is known to contribute. Reason with them first and foremost. Provide positive reinforcement. And when all that fails—and yes, it sometimes does—dip into the rich assortment of effective non-corporal consequences. Withhold privileges when necessary. Give time-outs, a focused expression of disapproval too often underrated.

And don’t forget the power of simply expressing your disappointment. Your approval means more to them than you may think.

the trouble with ‘liberal christianity’

November 11, 2011

 

This week I read a great article on examiner.com by self-described former evangelical Christian William Hamby. Hambly does a terrific job outlining some of the problems with Liberal Christianity such he sees them. Here’s an excerpt:

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What does it mean to be a “liberal Christian?” What is it exactly that separates “Nice Christians” from the vitriolic firebrands dominating the American airwaves?  I am often told that there are lots of good Christians out there who don’t hate gays, atheists, or liberals, but what exactly do these folks believe and why?

Specifically, we must ask why a group of Christians feel like it’s important to identify themselves by beliefs they do not have.  For starters, they probably don’t believe that homosexuals are abominations, or that they deserve death.  (Or at least a good old fashioned fag drag.) Perhaps they don’t believe that everyone outside of their church is a hellbound heathen.  Perhaps they don’t believe that atheists are immoral and depraved.  Maybe they don’t believe the Bible is inerrant.

The thing is, they are not being especially good Christians by maintaining these beliefs.  They are being good people.  The Bible — the inspired word of God, and the ultimate codebook for Christianity — disagrees with such liberal attitudes.  In both the Old and New Testament, homosexuality is strongly denounced.  In the entire Bible there is not one passage specifically mentioning homosexuals in a positive light.  Likewise, the Bible is quite clear on non-believers, especially in the New Testament.  (The Old Testament doesn’t have a well developed concept of eternal punishment.  Hell in the modern sense was introduced in the NT.)  Heretics, non-believers, and heathens are destined for the lake of fire.  The Bible also specifically mentions its own inerrancy.

In order to be a “liberal Christian,” one of several tactics must be used:

Find out exactly what Hamby thinks those tactics are by reading his full article here.

[Thanks to William Hambly for permission to share his article.]

religious trauma syndrome – dr marlene winell

November 8, 2011

This week, a Facebook acquaintance (thanks, John!) pointed me at a great video series by psychologist Dr Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. In Part 1, a young man who recently deconverted from the Christianity in which he was raised tells his story. In Part 2, Dr Winell talks about her childhood growing up with Christian missionary parents, and her own process of leaving her faith as an adult. She describes her feeling of emotional involvement Christ – as though he were her first lover.

In Part 3 (embedded below), Dr Winell describes difficulties facing former believers, many of whom are still suffering trauma symptoms decades after deconversion. She explains that this is because religious experience, particularly when it is learned when we are very young, is located in the primitive, emotional part of the brain. She describes the devastating emotional impact on the mind of a small child caused by their accepting the doctrines of hell, sin, and Jesus’ horrific suffering on our account. She goes further than to describe the practice of indoctrinating children in Christianity as abuse – she bluntly states that it is, by definition, a form of terrorism.

This video might be of particular interest for those who entered Christianity as teens (as I did) or as adults and who are struggling to understand the distinct differences between our religious experiences and comings out, and those of our children born and raised in the faith.

Dr Winell expands on these themes in Part 4 as she discusses the harmful Christian ideals of death to self, the external locus of control, and Christianity’s unhealthy obsession with Jesus’ death. She shares some statements from recovering ex-believers: their loss of identity and sense of reality, their ongoing fear, their sense of being utterly alone. Dr Winell also outlines the clinical definition of RTS , what makes it distinct, more serious, and more complex than many other psychological disorders. It’s definitely worth watching.

More information can be found at Dr Winell’s website. I’ve just ordered an e-version of Dr Winnell’s book Leaving the Fold. Watch this space for a future review.

the righter you get it

October 30, 2011

People coming out of a life of faith face a whole lot of challenges. Often our leaving costs us all or at least most of our friends. Our support networks vanish overnight and we have to learn how to build new relationships from scratch. Without a written moral code, we find ourselves dropping long-held beliefs and values on the table, picking each up in turn for examination as we decide which deserves a place in our new lives, which are due for revision, and which we will discard. The victims of spiritual and psychological abuse so prevalent (some would say inherent) in Christianity, we – and our poor children – often have to navigate a prolonged period of fragility as we begin the slow journey to recovery and wholeness.

Unbelievers tend not to understand us. For those who have never been susceptible to religious sentiment, it’s almost impossible to comprehend its appeal. When we finally find the courage to reach out to non-believers and seek new  relationships, it can be difficult to find a way of engaging wholeheartedly. Often we are reluctant to share our backstory for fear of being misunderstood or even despised.

It is a pretty rough ride – and sometimes a frightening one – but even at its bumpiest and most scary, it’s a journey of joy and wonder. I’m not the only one who has found that coming out, walking into a world of intellectual truthfulness, embracing a new found agency, and growing towards a healthy and functional adulthood provides a thrill that makes all the difficulties seem almost irrelevant.

And while I’m terribly sad that some very precious friendships were not able to survive my transition to a life beyond faith, I understand that everything has its time. So, in reality, I don’t mind too much that my new atheist friends may sometimes misunderstand me or even that my old Christian friends reject me. But there is something that really gets my goat…


First, some backstory…

It’s a common misconception that fundamentalism is a wholly anti-intellectual exercise suited only to humourless ninnies who are incapable of thinking logically or independently. That’s not how I remember it. I was for more than 20 years a wholehearted worshipper of Christ. I devoted my life to loving Jesus, finding out what pleased him and then living it with a whole and joyful heart. Knowing and loving my Saviour and sharing his sweetness with my children was the dearest thing to me. Sure, I didn’t always manage to live up to my own ideals, but I believe my motives were pure.

My then-husband had studied to be a minister so our home was bulging with Bible translations, commentaries, books on theology, and hermeneutic helps. My children remember me studying the Bible surrounded by more than a dozen open volumes. They also recall that I always first submitted my understanding to God in prayer. I genuinely wanted to know what God thought on any matter. If you could show me that God desired me to do, think or act a certain way I’d have crawled over broken glass to do it. On the other hand, if I couldn’t see a thing in Scripture, I wasn’t one to rush off following what Christian leaders or friends were doing even if they could make a strong case for it. When my best friend and her family became Amish and she and her girls all started wearing cape dresses and head coverings, I agonised over the Bible to see if I could agree with their new practice. I ended by saying that it would break my heart that my worship might not be pleasing to Christ because I was inappropriately attired, but that I just couldn’t see either uniformity of dress or the necessity of head coverings for contemporary women in Scripture. Had I been able to, I’d have frocked up in a flash.

Clearly it was beliefs that will seem strange to many led me to hold this attitude of obedience to the principles of the Bible. Essential to this sort of faith life is (a) believing in the existence of God, (b) believing that he is in fact the Christian god and (c) believing the Bible is his inerrant Word, revealing his will for his people. Although we all know of fundamentalists who are stupid, stupidity is not a requisite and, in fact, the vast majority of my Christian friends were very clever. But once you are convinced that God is real and that he has provided us with a book that contains his will, it’s impossible for those of us who love Christ the way I did to ignore what God apparently says on a matter. Or to cherry pick the bits that suit us. For us, either the Bible is God’s Word or it isn’t. Either he means us to do what he has said, or he doesn’t.

This is not to say that I was a Bible literalist. I was well acquainted with hermeneutic principles. I understood how to interpret Scripture in light of context and originally intended meaning, and was able to intelligently apply these and many other orthodox hermeneutic guidelines to my Bible study. I was not one of the King James 1611 club but used an New American Standard Bible and a parallel Bible containing four further versions, and referred to numerous other translations regularly. With more than a passing understanding of the nuances of interpreting ancient texts, I was not one to knowingly take a scripture out of context and apply it thoughtlessly to my life. Decisions about Christian practice were taken seriously in our home. Jesus was our example who didn’t hesitate to obey the Father but even gave up his own life in obedience. Christianity, I had often been heard to say in those days, could be summed up in two words: ‘Yes, Lord’. To the best of my ability I lived what I believed.


What was that about a goat?

So I find lately I’m seeing red when continuing Christians who were pretty Quiverfull but not quite so QF as me imply that the reason my family was so damaged by our faith (and possibly the reason my faith has now died) is that I was doing it wrong all along, that I was obeying scriptures that were not meant to be taken seriously. Or, as in one recent conversation, the implication was that had I only had access to an obscure and, I was assured, more accurate translation of the Bible, I’d have known that God didn’t intend, for example, for women to obey their husbands. I was assured in the ‘right’ translation, women are never actually instructed to obey in this way.

With respect to those sincere believers, in my view the Bible is clear that God intends his followers to obey his instructions, particularly those that are plainly reiterated many times in Scripture.

19This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away,he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.   (Book of James, Chapter 1, NASB)

As my friend Vyckie Garrison has said, QF women like we were simply took biblical Christianity to a logical end. Just as James advocated in the verse above, we were doers of the Word. Not as unthinking automatons but as servants of Christ whose motivation was to know him and please him in every aspect of our lives. This seems extreme only because most Christians don’t choose to follow Christ’s instructions so wholeheartedly as we did. I freely acknowledge that my faith in the Bible was at the root of the destruction that was wreaked in my family, but I contend that we experienced such destruction because we were getting it right – at least, more right than your average liberal Christian – and not because we should have chosen more wisely which particular sections of the Bible to obey, or because we should have sought longer for a translation we could tweak to suit our existing preferences.

And speaking of goat bothering, I have known more than one Christian woman to comment, ‘I’m so grateful God didn’t lead me down the path you went down!’ At best these statements seem rather heartless, at worst they display an appallingly smug arrogance. If that’s how God plays the game, clearly he’s a very nasty fellow indeed. If he takes those who love him most and tricks them into living their lives in obedience to him without qualm that that obedience will certainly lead to misery and shame, he’s not a god I would choose to serve. I know I wouldn’t have understood or lived my Christianity perfectly, but if you are following the Creator of the universe with your whole heart, wholly open to his leading, you’d think he’d be at least powerful enough to give you a gentle shove in the right direction. By all means structure your Christianity so that it doesn’t destroy you, just don’t claim you aren’t picking and choosing in order to keep your nice Jesus while defending yourself from the real truth of your religion which, done properly, will beat the crap out of everything you hold dear.

So that is why I sit where I currently do. My faith conversation runs like this: I figure, either God exists or he doesn’t. If he does, he’s either the Christian god or he’s not. If he is the Christian god, then either the Bible is his book or it isn’t. If the Bible is God’s book…I want nothing to do with it or him. So, yes, this probably qualifies me as a true apostate. I am, for now, willing to acknowledge the (remote) possibility of the existence of a kind of supernatural something or other. However, if the Bible is his Book, then I choose him not. Let the dice fall where they may, I cannot find Christianity by the Book compatible with functional adulthood. Indeed, in my view, the righter you get it, the wronger you may turn out to be.

the child catchers

October 11, 2011

Hi All!

The US-made documentary Jesus Camp screened here in Australia on the weekend. I decided to write about it on my other blog which is read mostly by non-Christians…but it might be of interest to some of you as well. If you’d like to read it, it’s here.

And watch this space. More to come soon…

apologies….

October 9, 2011

Sincere apologies for the long absence. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with my studies. Anyway, I’m back. I’ll try and write a new post in the next couple of days….and plan to be a bit more regular after that.

 

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