Links and Comments: Raising Kids with or without faith; Benford hosts evolution debate; the Lake Wobegon Effect

Slate: “Why Hold a Child Hostage to My Doubts?” The confusing, complicated desire of parents with no religion to raise their kids with faith.

Why would parents with no religion think their kids need to be raised into a faith culture? (And why one particular faith culture as opposed to any other?, is my thought, not addressed, though I do understand why.)

Because religion offers easy answers to the difficult questions that children tend to ask, perhaps.

The trouble with children, of course, is that they want to know what’s real and what’s just a story. I dread the day when my daughter asks me if the stories in the Bible are true. My real answer is that some of them are and some of them sort of are and some of them aren’t and that even the ones that aren’t at all are still important because they are our stories. That should work for a 3-year-old, right?

In contrast, there are in fact books about “How to Raise Moral, Ethical and Intelligent Children, Free from Relgious Dogma”, to take one example: Dan Arel’s Parenting without God.


Gregory Benford, in the latest issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction [Subscribe!], describes his task at UC Irvine, over the decades, of hosting various speakers to the campus. Here’s one, with Benford’s gloss on the perennial evolution/intelligent design “debate”:

In 1993 my friend, the biologist Michael Rose, and I assembled a public debate between him and the leading anti-evolutionist in America, Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at UC Berkeley and author of Darwin on Trial in 1992. Michael and I were both astonished by the rise of antiscience in our culture, and we sought a way to take on “intelligent design,” an attempt to put a patina of secularity on top of what is a fundamentally religious belief.

I opened the debate by saying I had no strong religious beliefs because I was an Episcopalian. That got the expected laugh because the crowd was quite fundamentalist. Unlike previous biologists who debated Johnson, Rose used offense, not defense, taking Johnson to task for what he thought a theory of life’s development should be. This revealed that the alternatives to evolution were laughable.

Rose wore a small, calm smile. At the half hour point John­son’s face began to twitch, eyes narrowed, ears reddened. I watched the audience, having little to do. They resembled a slow-motion crowd at a tennis match, attention swaying lazily, but now watching Johnson as Rose spoke. Rose scored points and Johnson’s face clouded, vexed.

At the end, Johnson, blocked from his favorite arguments by having to fend off Rose’s reasoned points, was visibly angry. Rose walked across the platform and shook Johnson’s hand, but Johnson refused to shake mine. I felt grand, since I made him do it in full view of the crowd. A bit more than 1500 paid $10 each to get in, with 300 UCI students getting in free. So UCI made $15,000 out of fundamentalist Chris­tians, and Johnson got blunted. Plus, it was fun.


Last Friday’s Science Friday broadcast, with Ira Flatow, had a segment on Are ALL Minnesotans Above Average?, an allusion to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” in which “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” It’s a joke, but it keys off a fundamental human mental bias, about motivated reasoning and self-enhancement. Why people think they are special, a bit better than everyone else; why people think they are safer than the average driver, and so on. (It has an obvious survival advantage.) Some academics actually describe this as the “Lake Wobegone Effect”.

David McRaney’s second book, You Are Now Less Dumb, reviewed and summarized here, concludes with a long chapter about the “self-enhancement bias”, which is generally about the idea that people feel they are rather more special than everyone else. Better drivers, etc. And it occurs to me since Friday that this might explain what I’d always thought was a quandary: why people are so confidant that their religion must be the correct one, despite the evidence of so many other people in the world who adhere to different religions and are apparently just as confidant that theirs is the one true faith. How can that possibly be rationally justified? Is it just a matter of good luck, to have been born and raised in a community that happened to have identified the one true religion?? Well, no, it’s because of this perception by every person that they’re a little bit better, more special, than everyone else, and this feeling slides into a rationalization that their own religion is surely the one true religion, despite whatever all those billions of other people, who are not so special, must think.

Again, these mental biases promote survival. They are not about accurate perception of reality, which is actually not necessary for survival, but which some of us find interesting nevertheless.

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