Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Short Bus

I finished reading The Short Bus by Jonathan Mooney an I really liked it. (Note to those following the blog closely: I failed again at reading Religion for Atheists and I have to return it unread, again. But I promise I'll pick it up again after my vacation!) Mooney tells his story with compassion, both for himself and for the people he meets. Heck, he even has compassion for the bus. He makes his points well, too. As far as I can tell, Mooney has two main points in this book:

1) We should celebrate all people for their abilities, and we should never treat anyone as less than human because they think differently than we do.

2) Labels cause more difficulties than they are worth.

I love the first point. After all, that's a fine Humanist statement, and Mooney tests it with visits to a girl who is both deaf and blind, a man who seems to make no sense when he talks, and Burning Man. But he manages to find some beauty in everyone he meets and is convincing in his argument that one school model cannot serve everyone and everyone deserves the opportunity to learn.

On the second point, though, Mooney and I differ a bit. I think labels, when used correctly, can be very helpful. That's why teachers like IEP's (Individualized Educational Plans.) A well-written IEP gives a teacher valuable information about how a child learns, so that she doesn't have to discover it all again. Valuable weeks of school time can be saved, as well as plenty of frustration. In terms of a child's self-worth, and ADHD kid is going to be much better off in my classroom, on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, if I know he's ADHD and don't ask him to do things he physically can't do, than if I don't know he's ADHD and spend a lot of time trying to get him to sit down and be quiet.

Here's a better example: My Dad has really poor working memory. (Working memory is the part of the brain that remembers instructions and remembers to remember things.) To be clear, he's a really smart man: he has a PhD, he reads great literature, he can hold his own in an argument and he knows more about dinosaurs than any adult really should. But when he says he'll be somewhere, he may or may not show up.

This has been true his whole life. As a child, I often found myself waiting to be picked up at piano lessons, or driven past acting classes and having to double back because my dad got distracted while driving. He even forgot my daughter's first birthday celebration. When these things happened, there would be fights and recriminations and denials and no explanation to be found. These disputes caused a decent amount of stress in our family, and to this day I have anxiety whenever I have to meet someone or wait for someone.

Then, in his sixties, my dad got diagnosed with ADHD. Suddenly, everything made sense. We now understand what my dad can do and what he can't. He understands it, too. So when he's supposed to be  at The Little Jewess's school for a special event, my mom makes sure he leaves early, and then he calls her when he gets there. He keeps his phone on so we can call him if he's not where he's supposed to be. My mom is now 100% in charge of their calendar, and she goes over with my dad where he's supposed to be when so he doesn't forget.

My dad's diagnosis was a moment of huge relief for all of us. Suddenly, there were books and websites he could turn to for hints on how to remember things better. My mom no longer blames him for not doing things he can't do, and instead of enabling him, she can structure things in a way that my dad doesn't forget and there is no crisis, and no ensuing fight.

So I kind of like labels. The catch is, the label can't be everything. You have to see the person above all, and treat that person with respect, even if that person needs help.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My people!

I just read this article on Friendly Atheist, and boy, did it get me excited! Mary Johnson is one of my people. Her whole journey really resonates with me, and I love that although she is now an atheist, she still can see the value and appeal of religion.

Check out this quote:

I believe that humans need ritual and art and encouragement. I’m in the process of becoming a Humanist celebrant so that I can help people celebrate weddings and births and funerals in a secular context. I’m encouraged that people like Alain de Botton and Greg Epstein and Miriam Muroff Jerris are taking on the challenge of creating meaningful Humanist rituals without supernatural references.

I could have said that! Plus, it takes me back to my original idea for my presentation. Probably, I can focus on deBotton, Epstein and Jerris and that will be enough for one presentation. I wonder if Jerris would answer some interview questions for me. After all, she did reply to my e-mails.

But what REALLY got me going was the discussion in the comment. It seems that Friendly Atheist's readers are up in arms because Johnson used the word "soul" in her last sentence. Personally, I think she was using the word partly as a metaphor and partly because she was asked to address "anyone who is sitting in a church pew right now," so the use of religious terminology was appropriate in that context. But I often say that religion gets a lot of things right, and I think the idea of a soul is one of them.

Let me be clear: I think it's incredibly unlikely that there is any kind of life after death. I don't believe that there is some kind of permanent part of us that is endowed by a deity. 

However, there is the essence of a person. That thing that is not my brain and not my body: the me that metacognates. I know it's not a real thing--it's generated by the chemicals in my brain. But I also know that it is real in my experience of myself and my experience of those I love. It's the thing that makes each of us who we are, different from everyone else. It's the part of my husband that I love all the time, even when his body and his brain are pissing me off. Although I know it's only a concept, it's a concept worth talking about, from time to time, and when we talk about it, we need a word for it. "Soul" is a long-established term for just that thing, and it comes in handy. Because the rest of this paragraph makes very little sense.

And there's another thing. My mother, whose relationship to religion is very confusing so I won't try to explain it here, told me a story that made me wonder about all of this. When my grandmother died, my mother was with her. My mother reports that Nana's last breath was peaceful, and exactly like my first breath, but (obviously) backwards. My mother felt in that moment that death was completely natural. She also says that there is no question in her mind that her mother left the room at that moment, and that she want up.

Do I think Nana went to Heaven? Of course not. But neither do I think my mother is lying, or deluded. She is not a Christian and does not believe in Hell, so there was no interest in her believing her mother went up instead of down, or to the side. What I think is that she experienced something we can't explain. She had a sensation of some kind, and other people have experienced this same thing, and that's where the whole idea of a soul going to Heaven came from. What was it? I have no idea. But I know it brought my mother some comfort. She still had a really tough time with the idea of her mom rotting under the ground. She couldn't watch the body being lowered into the grave, and a few months after my grandmother's death I started singing that lovely childhood diddy about "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout" and I thought my mom was going to have a panic attack.  (To be clear, I was an adult when all of this happened--there was no child abuse involved.) But she likes the idea that her mom left the room with that last breath, and I can't prove that it didn't happen.

So, to sum up: I don't believe in eternal souls that go to Heaven if we're good, but I do notice that each of us has an essence of some kind and I think "soul" is a useful term for it. Lay off the poor woman.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Another kind of homework

Last week, in my capacity as a Religious School teacher, I went to a conference on teaching children with learning disabilities. The keynote speaker was Jonathan Mooney, and each attendee was given a copy of his latest book, The Short Bus. Mooney was such a compelling speaker that I decided his book would be my next read.

The Short Bus is a memoir about a trip Mooney took around the country, driving a "short bus" emblematic of the buses that drive Special Ed students to school, and visiting children and adults who are labeled with various learning disabilities. Interspersed with that story are Mooney's reflections on his own childhood and school experiences.

The central question of Mooney's discourse is whether labeling children helps or hurts them, whether school is adequately preparing kids for life, and whether the benefits these kids get from school is worth the price they pay for dealing with the labels. It struck me that this is at heart a Humanist question.

What do we owe our children?

Humanism would dictate that we owe them all an equal opportunity at life. I suppose that is the heart of the education debate in this country. What gives a child that opportunity? For now, I will put aside issues like poverty (which is the most important educational issue of our time) because I want to react to Mooney's book. The question then is, do we need to develop each child's strengths, whatever they may be, or do we need to teach them all the same thing?

I have difficulty answering this question. On the one hand, it seems ideal to give each child confidence and expertise in his or her greatest strengths. But I am parenting an 8-year-old. I know some of her strengths: swimming, art, music, geography and communication. But what strengths does she have that haven't yet been discovered because she hasn't yet been exposed to them? And what strengths are yet to develop? And are they really strengths, or is she just developing in these areas ahead of her peers? Are her weaknesses (math, self-monitoring, gym) developmental, essential, or because she hasn't yet found the best way to learn those things? It's very hard to tell.

So I have to advocate for a generalist approach to elementary education. However, I am very glad that The Little Jewess is in a Montessori school. Montessori teaches each child individually, which means TLJ can be ahead of her peers in reading while receiving remedial help in math. She's also learning to monitor her own time and take a strategic approach to resolving differences with other children.

It's clear to me that nobody should be dehumanized in the way that the people in Mooney's book describe. But I'm not sure what the solution might be.

I look forward to reading the rest of The Short Bus to find out what ideas Mooney has.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Oh, Penn

I finished Penn Jillette's book God, No! several days ago, but I've been too angry to compose anything readable. That, and I've been watching the Olympics obsessively and trying to be a parent and hold down a job. But back to Penn.

He's a Libertarian.

That's right. A rich, able-bodied, straight, Christian-born man who's a Libertarian. Now, don't get me wrong, I realize that Penn and Teller work hard. They work really hard. And Penn, being the talker of the pair, has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and he can take credit for all the hard work he's done. I even think it's good that they have found material success and give a great deal of the credit for that success to the two of them. But they had help. They had some good luck--that helped. The government makes television work, and cleans the streets outside of their theaters, and keeps the lights on, and keeps civilization going so that people feel safe enough to go out and see a show--all of that helped.

Oh, and they might have had a smidgeon of help from the giant ball of entitlement they're living in.

They could have been born women in Saudi Arabia, or farmers in China, or poor people in America. In some situations, nobody gives a damn how good you are at magic, or how hard you work, or how fast you can talk.

And that's why we--we, all of us, and we, Atheists--have to work together to make sure that everyone in the world has basic rights. We, Americans have to make sure that nobody in our country is starving, or going bankrupt because of medical bills, or living on the streets. I'm a Liberal because I think Government does certain things well. Sure, Government screws a lot of things up, too, and we need to fix those things, but the answer is not to get rid of it all together.

The thing that frustrates me most about Libertarians is the mental gymnastics they go through to make their points, none of which make any sense in reality. Rand Paul is always saying things like, "In a Libertarian Society, every corporation has to take responsibility for the damage and pollution it causes." That's a nice thought experiment, Rand, but in real life, lots of corporations screw over the local poor people, so I like having Government keep an eye on them.

In that vein, Penn goes through a whole floor exercise routine about libraries being nice, but he wouldn't shoot anyone for not paying for one, so he can't ask the government to collect taxes. Huh? Does that mean that people who wouldn't commit robbery shouldn't be landlords? Because taxes are what we pay to make the country work. We owe that money to the Government so that they can use it to take care of the things we all use--roads, police, schools, libraries, museums, theaters parks and so forth. It's our rent, Penn, for living in this country.

And you know what else? Inequality hurts all of us. So I want you to be a little less rich so that everyone in this country can have health care. I want you to be a little less rich so that ALL old people, not just the parents of rich magicians, can die with dignity. You spend a little less time in the hot tub with porn stars and we all get bridges that don't fall down. See how that works?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A little light reading

I went to the library on Friday feeling like it was time for me to do more homework. After all, November is coming ever closer and I recently received a phone call from the Programming Officer of my Humanist Group asking me to send a description of my presentation and my qualifications to our group Secretary.

So I checked out some good ones: The Portable Atheist and Religion for Atheists (which I'm determined to read all the way through this time.) But while searching for "atheist" in the catalogue, I came across God, No! by Penn Jillette. I'm a big Penn and Teller fan, and I've been meaning to read this book for a while, so I decided it would be more fun to start with this one and move into the more serious discourse after that.

I'm almost half-way through, and I have some really mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Penn is funny, and I am really enjoying his 10 Suggestions. On the other hand, he swears way too much, and in the most vulgar way, and he appears to be a misogynist. Oh, sure, there are some women he seems to respect--his mother, his wife, and the lesbian minister who didn't ask his family to return to the church when they left--but in general, he seems to think that women were placed on this earth (or evolved, I suppose) for his personal sexual enjoyment.

Also, Penn is most certainly a Christian Atheist. He said, "I don't understand atheists who claim to also be Jewish. ...I hear hard-core atheists claim that they are Jewish because their moms were Jewish. That's not a genetic rule, that's a religious rule, and if you're not religious, you don't follow religious rules." (P. 33) That, my friends, is a Christian view of religion if I ever heard one.

I don't believe in God. I do believe in religion. There are many, many things I like about Judaism and being Jewish. I believe that Judaism was created by people and is maintained by people. I believe everything in it should be open for interpretation. But there's a lot about it that is very sensible and the structure of it is helpful in many ways. And Judaism has always been about questioning and interpreting. That's why I think the Hasidim are wrong. Somewhere along the line, they stopped questioning, and started imitating. They closed themselves off from the world. I don't think that's real Judaism, and when I believed in God I didn't think that was what God intended us to do.

But I have the freedom to make these distinctions because I was born a Jew. As a Jew, nobody ever asks you what you believe, they ask what you do. "Do you keep kosher? Do you keep Shabbat? Do you daven after dinner?" are all acceptable questions for a Jew to ask another Jew. But nobody ever asks about beliefs. And there is no creed, so we are not asked to promise to believe in anything. So Jewish Atheists do not see a clear and solid demarcation between belief and non belief. Some people keep kosher and don't believe in God. Others believe firmly in God but sit in mixed-gender seating. Your typical Orthodox Jew would be more comfortable with the kosher non-believer than the believing mixed-gender-sitter.

Christians, on the other hand, recite their creed every Sunday. It is a fact that a person who does not believe Jesus is the son of God is not truly a Christian. So for them, Atheism is a much brighter line. Becoming Atheist means that one is no longer a Christian. It all goes out the window in one fell swoop. But let's face it: there are plenty of Atheists who don't eat bacon. There's nothing about Atheism that requires the mixing of milk and meat, or working on Saturday, or eating bread in the springtime. And discussing Biblical passages with Atheists is downright fun.

So, Penn Jillette, why should I stop? Because it doesn't make sense? Of course it doesn't. But I'm Jewish, and not only does my being Jewish not hurt anyone, I teach kids to be skeptical about Jewish teachings and to participate in social justice activities. Objectively, these are good things. So no, Penn, I won't bend to your Christian definition of religion, no matter how hard you argue that it's really free thought. I'm not going to fit into the box you want to put me in. I grew up with a different set of boxes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

You think?

I saw a bumper sticker today that read, "God is pro-life." If that's the case, He should really lay off the smiting.