Thursday, January 23, 2014

Secular Parenting

It is Sunday, January 19th, and the Freedom From Religious Foundation has posted a question on their facebook page, welcoming insight from fellow heathens: 

"To freethinking parents: What do you think is your most challenging thing about raising freethinking children?"

The responses all carry similar concerns and stories. Most parents wrote that they worried or still do worry about peer pressure from other children to 'go to church' or 'believe in god' (usually, considering this is America, the Christian one). 

Others expressed their desire to not raise their children to be anti-religion or anti-theists. As in, most stated they wanted their children to choose for themselves what to think, but didn't exactly want to deal with the backlash from fellow students who might suddenly experience disillusionment. Which starts to feel a lot like the Santa Claus paradox: "Yes, you know Santa isn't real, but don't tell the other kids yet, it would really upset them, and it's not your place." 

Granted, there is a finesse to maintaining a certain level of decorum around very religious people who think how you 'choose to live your life' in the 'wrong' way. It's hard enough to make friends at a young age. Why, on top of that, breed bitterness? 

Many from the south (or the Bible Belt) mentioned that bullying and open prejudice are often a struggle to deal with. One mother said she is called a 'Satanist' and other parents talked of how they cannot understand why (so hypocritically) to admonish or attack a secularist is deemed kosher, or socially acceptable. Then again, hive mind explains that. 

In rarer cases, parents spoke about how their spouses' different beliefs create some animosity. Being married to someone who is aloofly religious or spiritual can obviously cause trouble when world views differ in some significant way and offspring are involved. 

And an overwhelming number of secularists I've found on FFRF's post and an atheist parents' forum have talked about how difficult it is to keep family members from trying to indoctrinate their children. People don't exactly want to overtly cut-ties with loved ones, but pushing religion onto youths is not only forceful, but inconsiderate.

Some of us are nowhere near having kids, and likely neither are we considering settling down any time soon, but it's a topic to muse on. 

How will we teach our babies about these issues? What will we tell them about all the various religions and where they came from? How will we explain that secularism and religiosity existed at the same time, no matter what era or culture? And how polite will we be when not only are we pressured, but our children as well, to 'believe'? 

Often, homeschooling and a message of tolerance, with an emphasis on critical thinking (and reflection) are suggested. But full time homeschooling is rarely feasible for the average household, especially in this economy. Most often, both parents have to work, daycare is expensive, and not all adults are familiar with how to educate a child (and perhaps, nor do they have the patience!).

I would recommend introducing the theory of evolution and a wealth of information on paleontology, anthropology, and paleoanthropology at a young age, along with historical analyses of religious institutions as social structures (as related to morality, welfare, governmental control, and so on). But I also recommend not focusing particularly on Christianity. I would focus on West and Central African belief systems, maybe make available information on Chinese mysticism or the function of supernatural beliefs in Papua New Guinea tribes and the 'spirit' leaders which led to cannibalism. Other great venues of study are Islam, Neo-paganism, Hinduism, and Judaism, to list a few.

In sum: teach them everything. Tell them to teach themselves. Make them look up words on their own. Let them do their own research. If they ask, tell them what you think. Do what you can, but accept deviation. Accept confusion. Don't spread bitterness. 

Atheist Parenting Handbook: $30. Diapers: $11.99. Raising a kid to question, not to tithe: Priceless. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

To Train Wreck a Child

I’m not a fan of censorship, but the truth is that in a world where ideas can spread quickly and widely, there are certain things that can be dangerous to say because a crazy person may hear a violent idea and take it seriously. I’m not sure what can/should be done about this except make people aware of the reality, so here it goes.

I will also add that I think this danger is particularly true of religious ideas and religious people because if you truly believe in Heaven and Hell, the threat of Hell is far worse than death, and the promise of paradise is far more appealing than a mortal life. This makes it very easy for a good person to do horrible things, thinking they’re good things to do. After all, what does it matter if a person dies as long as they go to Heaven? It goes back to the quote by Steven Weinberg which says, “With or without it [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion", although I would like to see this quote expanded to simply say that crazy people, not just religious people, will do bad things, thinking they're doing good things, but religion certainly helps. 

A recent example of this phenomenon occurred in November 2013 when yet another child died after his parents followed the parenting advice in the Christian book, "To Train Up a Child".

“To Train Up a Child” is a Biblically-inspired discipline manual for parents, encouraging them to beat and starve and.... well, beat, and beat, their children, into submission and obedience. This book is an example of a bad idea that a few crazy people took seriously. I call them crazy because a normal, well-adjusted person does not read a book like "To Train Up a Child" and think, "Oh, I see, I should beat my children half to death." The people who follow this type of advice are most likely mentally unstable to begin with, and exposure to ideas like those in "To Train Up a Child" are what pushes them over the edge.

And this is not the only well-publicized example of this kind of thing happening: the case of Bill O'Reilly's joyful repetition of "Tiller the Baby Killer" before Tiller's shooting, the political climate prior to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, these are all cases where a violent message was promulgated, and then surprise surprise, somebody believed it.

The latest example of this kind of bad idea, which I fear could result in violence, recently arose in the wake of a Satanic church in Oklahoma City attempting to erect a statue of Satan next to a statue of the Ten Commandments, following legislation that religious monuments on public land are okay as long as they are funded with private money. A guest on FOX proposed, in what seemed to be genuine sincerity, that the Satanists should be shot.

...But hang on, these are Satanists. Aren’t these people spreading the exact same kind of bad ideas that crazy people could hear and act upon?

Well, no. First off, the statue itself doesn’t have any writing on it: it’s just a goat-man in a chair. Furthermore, in an interview with Vice Magazine, the Satanic Temple’s spokesperson, Lucien Greaves said that the purpose of the statue is to remind people what religious freedom entails, and he even admitted that they don’t actually believe in a literal Satan.

“The idea was that Satanists, asserting their rights and privileges where religious agendas have been successful in imposing themselves upon public affairs, could serve as a poignant reminder that such privileges are for everybody, and can be used to serve an agenda beyond the current narrow understanding of what ‘the’ religious agenda is ...

“While the original thinking was that the Satanic Temple needed to hold to some belief in a supernatural entity known as ‘Satan,’ none of us truly believed that.

“We’ve moved well beyond being a simple political ploy and into being a very sincere movement that seeks to separate religion from superstition and to contribute positively to our cultural dialogue.”

Even with the benevolence and simple political goals of these Satanists, I'm still worried about people in Oklahoma City. Given the precedent of events in my own lifetime, I would not be surprised if someone in Oklahoma City got shot this year because of their connection to or support of the statue of Satan.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the world we live in. All it takes is a call to arms (literally), and there will be blood, especially if the fear of Hell or the promise of Heaven is involved. And you know what? It seriously has me thinking, for my own safety as an atheist, just in the rare case my neighbor is one of these crazy people...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Psychology in Question

Therapists, in general, do the best they can. We would all like to believe that we are entrusting ourselves to the care of highly trained and logical human beings, interested in helping us beyond a diagnosis. They’ll address familial struggles, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and a long list of other psychological troubles, but rarely, if ever, will it be acknowledged that there could be an underlying issue. Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS for short) is often not mentioned. And yet, Dr. Marlene Winell has written an entire book on the subject, called “Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion,” (which can be purchased here) and has been in her field for over twenty years.

Some of the symptoms of RTS she lists on her website are broken into four categories- cognitive, social, emotional, and cultural, which is unexpectedly expansive. She expounds as follows:
  • Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making
  • Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning
  • Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks
  • Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music).
She also lists identified causes.

Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and
home results in:
  • Suppression of normal child development - cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested
  • Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned
  • External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source
  • Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline
While many secularists may be aware of the aforementioned issues they experience while stuck within a denomination (usually to avoid ‘family rupture’) or upon leaving one, finding treatment for this particular syndrome is usually accomplished through self-motivation, because too often, therapists will only focus on what they can detect -the symptoms- and leave it at that, or look for another label. This could simply be because it’s assumed that the general population is more religious than it actually is.

This has become ever more apparent in the way newscasters frame stories and how research is conducted. A fortnight ago, NBC’s nightly newscaster, in briefing about an upcoming segment, insinuated that nonreligious people experience depression at higher rates, though the actual study they reference in the press release online states at its end, “The findings only show an association between cortical thickness and religious belief ‘and therefore do not prove a causal association,’ the study authors stressed.” Meaning, the authors do not want people to interpret their findings to mean that x means y conclusion, though they seem to be doing that themselves. The study was done over the course of 5 years with MRI scanning, and only 103 adults (aged 18 to 54- second and third generation individuals, either children or grandchildren of those diagnosed with depression- indeed, a highly stratified group) were scrutinized, tested, and questioned about their level of religiosity. The findings do state that there seemed to be no significance regarding how frequently participants went to church, but that’s beside the point.

The issue is that the sample size is not at all large enough to even begin to surmise that those who are ‘spiritual’ are less at risk, despite their genetic predispositions. It’s also very reckless to fail to take into consideration possible underlying factors that would contribute to cortical thickness, like genetics, health, socioeconomic standing, culture, level of social engagement, history of trauma (or lack of trauma), and so on, with many overlapping points. Far too little research on the subject has been done for it to be rampantly spread among so many outlets (including the Daily Mail, Fox News, Health Day, local Chicago area broadcasts, UK magazines, and countless blogs trying to spin it into a sensational sound byte).

On top of that, there’s no clear control group. They had some participants say that religion and spirituality were of little importance, but from what I've read (including the JAMA abstract and conclusion, and everything else listed for those who do not have a subscription), no one said “of no importance” or identified as secular or non-religious clearly enough for it to be a representative and credible study.

If any secularists are experiencing any kind of depression, why has it not been nationally and globally reported that it could just be due to genetics, or perhaps, because of RTS? Why the sudden interest in ‘sizing up’ our brains and dividing us into either one category or another in the first place? Well, for one thing, it’s much simpler to say there are physiological differences among the religious and nonreligious than it is to say that both parties struggle differently over a variety of concerns. And of course, media outlets are all about pushing the ideology that religion is a good thing, religion breeds happiness, and so on (at least, in the US). And it’s much more difficult for therapists to identify RTS and acknowledge its legitimacy when many are encouraged to be ‘mindful’ of those with religious and spiritual differences.

Dr. Winell touches on this, saying:

“We have in our society an assumption that religion is for the most part benign or good for you. Therapists, like others, expect that if you stop believing, you just quit going to church, putting it in the same category as not believing in Santa Claus. Some people also consider religious beliefs childish, so you just grow out of them, simple as that. Therapists often don’t understand fundamentalism, and they even recommend spiritual practices as part of therapy. In general, people who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it really is.

In the United States, we also treasure our bill of rights, our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. This makes it extremely difficult to address a debilitating disorder like RTS without threatening the majority of Americans. Raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. No one wants to be pointing fingers for fear of tampering with our precious freedoms. For therapists who don’t get it, parents who merely force church attendance aren’t exactly axe-murderers.
But this is the problem. Sanitizing religion makes it all the more insidious when it is toxic. For example, small children are biologically dependent on their adult caretakers; built into their survival mechanisms is a need to trust authority just to stay alive. Religious teachings take hold easily in their underdeveloped brains while the adults conveniently keep control. This continues generation after generation, as the religious meme complex reproduces itself, and masses of believers learn to value self-loathing and fear apocalypse.”

To hear Dr. Winell speak about RTS at the Texas Freethought Convention on the matter (circa October 2010), view her talk in four parts here. To view the online blog, make an appointment, or perhaps donate, visit her website.

I highly stress watching her speak on RTS, especially if the legitimacy of the syndrome is questionable to any of you. It’s important to note that religion, especially fundamentalist and extremist parties of certain sects and the systematic way in which indoctrination occurs, has lasting effects. It’s not all charity work and potlucks and singing and praying. It is suffocating, and RTS can develop regardless of one’s affiliation or lack thereof.

Which is why the objectives and conclusions of Columbia University in New York’s researchers seem so presumptuous in their publication “Neuroanatomical Correlates of Religiosity and Spirituality: A Study in Adults at High and Low Familial Risk for Depression.” They state the importance of their work, saying in JAMA Psychiatry, “We previously reported a 90% decreased risk in major depression, assessed prospectively, in adult offspring of depressed probands who reported that religion or spirituality was highly important to them.” First of all, I don’t know where team leader Lisa Miller PhD. got that figure. If that statistic is reliant upon the honesty of survey subjects, I think it should be mentioned that people tend to have difficulty speaking truthfully about their depression, even if it’s through an anonymous outlet, and they should probably include the survey size. Because, oh, I don't know, their results might be skewed depending on geographic location and a number of other influences. Secondly, what they don’t mention is the likelihood of their human subjects experiencing something other than ‘spirituality.’ As mentioned before, the sample size is too small, no control group is apparent (for secularists at risk for depression or for those who are not at risk in general), and according to NBC’s report, only once was MRI technology used to measure cortical thickness over the span of five years, thus pointing to the obvious: more studies need to be done.

But could it not be that thicker cortices may actually be associated with RTS, or a side effect of an aggressive mental pursuance of religiosity in place of medication and therapy? Could thicker cortices be a sign of something else? With so many variables in the mix and so little mention of RTS and other determinants or the cortical thickness of secularists, I can’t help but distrust the study.

And I can’t help but wonder why they’re looking at religion as if it’s the answer to major depressive disorders for those with familial risks.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Only Fifteen Years To Live

The eve of my twenty-first birthday, I saw a fifteen year old die.

I volunteer in the emergency room in a local hospital once a week. I've seen patients come in with problems from gunshot wounds to tailbone cysts to extreme constipation. They're either fine and get discharged (most of them), or they go to another part of the hospital for care. But even the gunshot wound looked like he would at least survive. I'd never seen anyone die before, much less a young teenager.

I was wandering around the ER as usual, making beds and stocking shelves, when one of the nurses came up to me and asked if I'd like to watch a trauma. I was placed in a corner of the room, next to the trash can (my usual spot--when a trauma patient is brought in there's at least ten people in the room, ready to give care. It's rather like a play that only needs the star actor to begin.). Usually, the ambulance calls in the basics en route. This time, all they knew was that it was a 15 year old female. The atmosphere was relaxed--someone joked that maybe the girl just had a splinter. Then someone looked down the hall.

"Oh, shit. They're already doing compressions."

It was amazing how quickly the atmosphere changed from jovial to deadly serious. I was also amazed at how efficient the response team was. Within less than a minute the girl was on the table receiving CPR, being hooked up to the defibrillator and sensors, being breathed for, and receiving two different IVs.

Now, we've all seen CPR on the TV. Someone's not breathing, their heart isn't beating, and our hero steps up and singlehandedly does a few pumps and maybe some mouth to mouth, and voila! They're fine and ready to go on with the story not two minutes later. Real CPR isn't like that. In TV shows, approximately 5% of CPR patients make it with full recovery. In real life, cardiac arrest survival is anywhere from 8-40%, depending on the cause of arrest and the speed and type of CPR received. Real life patients usually have broken ribs and distended abdomens, and sometimes brain damage. I knew all of this when the girl came in. What I didn't expect was the noise as her chest was compressed, the blood trickling out of her mouth, the bloody foam suctioned out of her lungs, and the quiet desperation of the lead team member asking if anyone had any more ideas that might save this girl's life. Over twenty minutes after she was admitted to the hospital, the team leader called her time of death. Again, I was surprised at the rapidity of the team as they covered her with a sheet and began to wipe her down. No tubes or sensors were removed. This was a coroner's case.

After she was called, I did what everyone else did--walked out of the room and went back to work. It seems harsh, but you have to be able to bury your shock and sadness until you get home, and take care of the other patients. The girl was beyond help now. She didn't care if we weren't all in the room with her. The truly hard part was when the family was allowed in to see her body. The door was closed for privacy, but I could still hear her mother screaming.

I walked around the next day in a bit of a haze. I was so lucky! Here I was on my twenty-first birthday, having fun. I got cake, two of my classes were canceled--I was having a great day. But I also thought of the girl, and knew that this was the worst day of her family's life. It was sobering. It made me think about what a short time we're here and conscious and alive. The girl is gone. She no longer cares because she is dead. But her family is still here, and still cares and grieves. People can't treat their lives lightly. Nor hould they treat other peoples' lives lightly. A suicide bomber might think he's going to heaven to enjoy his 72 virgins, but he's leaving behind many families who are in pain. A person may kill themselves looking for peace, and they leave behind people who loved them. On the other hand, Scrooge dies and people dance on his grave. Death is messy and awful, but it's something that comes for all of us. When you're gone, you'll be gone for good--uncaring, unknowing, nothing. But how will you be remembered? As we go into the new year, let's give some thought to helping others and ourselves, and live each day like it's your last.

Addendum: For those who may be wondering, there were no drugs involved. It was a cardiac arrest. For those who may be worried about HIPAA, as long as there are no identifying characteristics (46 year old blond male from Chicago named John Smith had this on this date), you can share stories like this one.