Friday, December 10, 2010

Parents Need to Relax

Parents can breath a collective sigh of relief, or may decide to pout, as they take a less intimidating role in the significance they have in developing the personalities of their children. Primarily genes, and to a lesser degree, culture, peer groups and plain ole’ chance seem to influence a child’s personality more than any method of parenting. Identical twins are just as similar regardless of being raised together or independently; adopted siblings are no more similar if they are raised together or apart. Identical twins can be so alike that they may choose to wear a rubber band around the same wrist, find sneezing in elevators to see the reaction of others equally appealing or score very similarly on a battery of psychological testing even when they weren’t raised in the same house. This may sound odd but identical twins being raised in the same household are no more similar than ones being raised apart. Adopted siblings generally grow up being nothing alike whatsoever regardless of having exactly the same upbringing.

Far from being a blank slate that is highly malleable, we come prepackaged with genetic information that contributes to our personality in ways that parenting never could. So, we can stop ruminating about all the times we didn't put Mozart music up to the fetuses ear or how we didn't spend enough time reading to our children in hopes that they might be the next great intellectual of our time. Children's intelligence has much more to do with their genetic predisposition than how stimulating you may have been as a parent. So, what about the importance of having a father in the home or the importance of having two parents of the opposite sex in the household? Does this not make a significant difference in the child's personality, intelligence and success? Nope, it sure doesn't so we can put another point up on the scoreboard for reality and our religious conservative friends that continually harp on the necessity of a father figure and sanctity of marriage are still desperately trying to score their first point.

All of these findings are well-researched scientifically. This doesn’t give parents a license to mistreat their children either. Children remember the way their parents treated them and may be less inclined to help their parents when the script is flipped and the parents need care from the children. Obviously, gross negligence and abuse can leave lasting scars on a person’s life that will affect their interactions with others later in life. This TED video gives a good summary of Pinker's argument. It's based on his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Danger of a Soul

As I’ve iterated in the past, I used to long for the return of Christ when things got particularly bleak. While nuclear war should have been the last thing I would ever wish for, I almost saw it as a passage to a better life; a life where there was no more anxiety, insomnia or depression. This was a misguided fantasy of an ultimate, eternal state of utopia. I seemed to be okay with the fact that billions of people would suffer in the process, many of them children. But, I always thought that any present suffering upon the innocent would be insignificant in light of an eternity in paradise. It’s embarrassing to say that I would take any news like Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami that devastated Indonesia in 2004 as signs that Jesus’ return was drawing nigh. Instead of feeling compassion for those who lost their lives, I felt a sense of hope for the future.

Through the church, I was taught that every human is endowed with a soul, this immaterial component of humanity which survives death and reunites us with our maker in heaven. The soul is unique to humans only. Therefore, it was easy to rationalize that even if my life was a mess on earth, it would be righted in the world to come. Sometimes, I just didn’t want to wait any longer.

There are clear dangers in living with this mentality. On one extreme, we may rationalize the act of murdering our own children so that they may inherit heaven all the sooner. Indeed, Susan Smith believed that she was doing a benevolent service for her two children when she sent them to the bottom of a lake. Andrea Yates had similar motives when she systematically drowned all five of her children in 2001. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature: “Allusions to a happy afterlife are typical in the final letters of parents who take their children’s lives before taking their own.” We also had the strong displeasure of witnessing Kamikaze hijackers fly into New York’s Twin Towers in 2001. If people did not believe in a soul which survived death, I strongly doubt that people would have the gall to participate in such heinous acts. On the other end of the spectrum, you would find people like me who had a dangerously skewed perception of reality. The fact that a massive natural disaster just occurred is not cause for rejoicing!

Can Hell be a deterrent against committing violent acts? This is possible but it’s dishonest and cheap in comparison to not doing violent acts just because you want to do what’s right and beneficial for others. Furthermore, the promise of heaven can induce people into doing all sorts of horrible things such as the events of 9/11.

Many Christians start to devalue the life we have here on earth in subtle or not so subtle ways. Indeed, they are taught not to love the world but to speak against it and its evil ruler, Satan. As an atheist, I have already made some changes in my life as I move forward; you may call them New Year’s Resolutions. Most of them consist of increasing my focus and attention upon exercise, nutrition and meaningful relationships. As Pinker points out when pondering the idea that life might lose its purpose if we cease to exist upon death, “On the contrary, nothing invests life with more meaning than the realization that every moment of sentience is a precious gift.”