Do Godless Kids Turn Out All Right?

Do Godless Kids Turn Out All Right?


An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by sociologist Phil Zuckerman supplied a reassuring answer for secular parents: absolutely. In the face of a previous study finding that children raised in religious homes have “better self-control, social skills, and approaches to learning than kids with nonreligious parents,” Zuckerman laid out the good news for secular families. “Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic, and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion,” he wrote, “secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children.” Here are the details:

  • There are “high levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth.”
  • There is evidence of “strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation."
  • Irreligious societies, “such as Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, and New Zealand ... have among the lowest violent crime rates in the world and enjoy remarkably high levels of societal well-being.”
  • A significant body of research shows that “secular grown-ups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian, and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.”
  • These conclusions stem from Zuckerman’s research and from studies conducted by Vern Bengston, a professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California. Zuckerman summarizes the upshot of his findings:

    My own ongoing research among secular Americans — as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture — confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem-solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything,” and, far above all, empathy.

    I have no doubt that secular parents are perfectly capable of raising morally upstanding kids, and I am a big fan of rationality, inquisitiveness, autonomy, and the rest. Most of these are better construed as intellectual virtues, though, not “moral values and enriching ethical precepts.” And I have some trouble with the extremely broad brush Zuckerman uses to paint the landscape of religious and secular parenting. One line that particularly rankled me was this: “For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule.” Are America’s nonreligious parents an undifferentiated mass of moral educators? And are its pious households hotbeds of jingoism and militant intolerance? Might there be more than one way to be religious, or to be secular?

    For me, the best part about reading Zuckerman’s op-ed was the reminder it provided me of a book I loved in graduate school, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. In Book IV of Emile, Rousseau provides an account of a teaching he received from the priest of Savoyard at the break of dawn on a hill above the River Po, with “the immense chain of the Alps crown[ing] the landscape.” The message the Savoyard priest conveyed to Rousseau was, in a nutshell, this: God’s existence is not to be gleaned from books or religious authorities. Understanding God requires only the use of one’s senses and one’s reason. Teaching dogma is an inherently futile enterprise; you have to let children settle on their own array of beliefs:

    The greatest ideas of the divinity come to us from reason alone. View the spectacle of nature; hear the inner voice. Has God not told everything to our eyes, to our conscience, to our judgment? What more will men tell us? (Emile, Allan Bloom trans., p. 295).

    This constitutes a rejection of traditional religious education, and it entails, I think, an admonition to parents seeking to raise their children to believe, or not to believe, particular divine truths. It is one thing to re-enact and celebrate a religious culture and to expose children to the history, texts, and rites of a religion: that is the way cultural practices are reproduced over generations. But it is another thing to try to instill specific metaphysical conceptions into a child’s mind. Ultimately, the experience of coming to believe is internal, as John Locke emphasized in his Letter Concerning Toleration, and both governments and parents are ill-equipped and ill-suited to coerce young people to come to hold a particular view of the cosmos, or of the presence or absence of some kind of deity.

    What that means for how children “turn out” has to be a more nuanced story than Zuckerman tells. Rousseau’s injunction against the indoctrination of youth, and his celebration of setting kids free to find their own metaphysical path, runs both ways.

    Image credit: Shutterstock.com

     

     

    A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

    An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

    Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
    • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
    • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

    The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

    Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

    "It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

    The Barry Arm Fjord

    Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

    Image source: Matt Zimmerman

    The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

    Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

    Image source: whrc.org

    There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

    The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

    "This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

    Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

    What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

    Moving slowly at first...

    Image source: whrc.org

    "The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

    The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

    Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

    Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

    While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

    Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

    How do you prepare for something like this?

    Image source: whrc.org

    The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

    "To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

    In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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