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A new father's story.

Recently, while making the rounds of right-wing radio, I came upon James Dobson's Christian show, Focus on the Family, as it presented an hour-long "Tribute to Children." It was made up of taped phone messages from parents (mostly mothers) thanking and complimenting their children, sharing anecdotes from their family lives, and praising God for the blessings he had bestowed upon them. Along with the program's sappy musical background and overt religiosity, I resented the self-congratulatory tone that permeated the program. It seemed another example of the religious right's manipulation of the family as a political tool.

Christian radio is saturated with "family talk," but its depiction of the family is deliberately restrictive. Focus on the Family, for example, would have you believe that all healthy American families are anti-choice, distrustful of government, and, well . . . Christian. The idea that supporters of abortion rights, universal health care, and gay marriages might also refer to themselves as pro-family is simply not entertained. When such issues are broached at all, Dobson's folksy voice tightens up with alarm as he begins to warn of "the enemies of the family." What about the obvious fact that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists also love their children? Let's just say it's not a hot topic on Christian radio.

After listening to broadcasters like Dobson indirectly segregate the world into "Christians who love their children" and the rest of us, I have to wonder what they would make of my feelings for my twenty-month-old son, Jacob. If I called in, would Focus on the Family air a salute from me to Jacob? Probably not. My professions of love for him would undoubtedly conflict with the program's agenda. Truthfully, even liberal believers might find my views peculiar, because, while religious people regularly turn to their children as evidence for and examples of God's benevolence, fatherhood has only confirmed my naturalistic and atheistic leanings. To be blunt, my son has certified me as a humanist.

How to explain such a position? Well, I could start with the intimate look at raw physicality that the birth of a child provides. While labor and delivery might take place in a sanitized white hospital room, they are messy in ways that only nature is capable of. The blood, the stretching and slipping of skin, organs, and even bone, the resiliency of both the mother and child's bodies in the midst of their struggle -- these realities ground the experience of birth in the realm of biology. It is a decidedly natural event. The child itself, shaking and crying as it is physically severed from its mother, reinforces this sense of rock-bottom reality; there is no doubt that the child is a material being, however animated. When I held Jacob in my arms just moments after his arrival, counting his fingers and crying out in joy to my wife, it was the eyes of a living, breathing person who looked up at me, not the eyes of an angel.

The emotional intensity of delivery seems similarly earthbound. I can't begin to address the pain my wife Robin experienced during labor. However, as a sympathetic partner, I can speak to the primal surges of fear and frustration that accompanied it and, in our case, the overwhelming sense of happiness and relief we felt at our son's healthy entrance into the world. In an attempt to capture the intensely emotional nature of this experience, people routinely refer to birth as a miracle, but, of course, it is actually as regular as rain and as natural and instinctive as the emotions that attend it.

I heard a minister recently gushing over the presence of "the spirit" in the delivery room where his daughter was born. "I looked down at my child, and I felt the spirit move through me," he said. "There was a miraculous and mystical connection." I resisted the urge to interrupt his sermon by asking, "In other words, it felt great, right?" Who doesn't feel an outpouring of emotion at the birth of his or her child? The incentive to rejoice in our offspring's existence has been fine-tuned to an exquisite degree by millions of years of natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists have argued convincingly that the love we feel for our children is instinctive and ancient, formed by Darwinian forces over millennia in order to ensure the safe passage of our genes from one generation to the next. In his book The Moral Animal, Robert Wright provides a thumbnail sketch of how this process might work:

Suppose a single ape gets some

lucky break -- gene XL,

say -- which imbues parents with an

ounce of extra love for their

offspring, love that translates into

slightly more assiduous

nurturing. In the life of any one ape, that

gene probably won't be crucial.

But suppose that, on average, the

offspring of apes with the XL gene

are 1 percent more likely to

survive to maturity than the offspring

of apes without it. So long as this

thin advantage holds, the fraction

of apes with gene XL will tend to

grow, and the fraction without it

will tend to shrink, generation by

generation by generation. The

eventual culmination of this trend

is a population in which all

animals have the XL gene.

Such genetic honing (on a far more complex scale) allowed our ancestors to evolve into what we are today: large-brained mammals requiring years of intense parental attention.

The past twenty months of fatherhood have only deepened my appreciation for a naturalistic understanding of myself and of my son. The overpowering sense of responsibility I feel for Jacob is exactly what a Darwinian explanation for human behavior would predict. How else to satisfactorily explain the inordinate amount of concern I feel for him? In a world where thousands of children die daily from hunger and disease, I reserve my deepest concern for my child's cold. The indulgent, even selfish nature of the love I feel for Jacob hardly seems to be the work of a just and all-loving god; it is as ruthlessly selective as the self-preservation instinct it expands upon. This might explain why so many people's morality goes straight out the window when their children's interests are at stake.

There is obviously some social conditioning at work in parental love, because plenty of fathers, as so many contemporary news stories tell us, abandon their children. In addition, adoptive parents clearly feel the whole spectrum of parental feelings that birth parents do. And yet it's evident to me that parents don't feel these emotions simply because they've been taught; there is something primal about them. Perhaps our feelings for our children meet at the boundaries of the old nature versus nurture debate. In The Tangled Wing, anthropologist Melvin Konnor suggests that we pick up ideas about parenting from our culture in the same way that cocks are trained to fight: "with greater ease, by more rapid processes, and drawing upon a deep well of ancient, stereotyped emotion, thought, and action; a well that is in the nervous system, its depths extending down to the gene code."

Konnor quotes his friends, who compare the intensity of parental love to the hormone-driven craze of an adolescent crush. It's easy to laugh off young infatuation, but it shares with parental affection an all-encompassing tendency to blot out the rest of the world. Both emotions leave people extremely vulnerable, and both are unabashedly physical. Robin and I don't just gaze lovingly at Jacob (although we do this often). We kiss him, squeeze him, and tickle him. We dance around the room and roll around the floor with him. We hold him close. The reawakening of such passion in my life has reaffirmed the primacy of my senses and emotions -- older and more basic inheritances than my brain's intellectual abilities.

And this resurgence of emotions has, in turn, contributed to my spiritual skepticism. Previous to Jacob's birth, I experimented for a year or two with a form of Buddhist meditation known as Vipassana. Its aim is to still the surge of emotions and thoughts that constantly rage inside our minds. However, once Jacob arrived on the scene, not only was there no time left to meditate but I also wasn't interested in stifling my emotions anymore (not these emotions, anyway). I put aside all notions of a calm and placid existence and embraced the joyful chaos of life with a newborn.

As Jacob has grown, I've watched in astonishment his move through the stages that all parents wait and watch for. From a tiny, perplexed creature lying in his carrier, looking up with wide eyes at the world, he has grown into an energetic toddler, running and climbing, pointing at objects, imitating sounds, testing reactions, touching everything, responding to language, demanding attention, and returning expressions of love. Observing their children's progress with, say, language, people are tempted to declare, once again, that it is a miracle. They should resist, and not just because it's a tired old word; it's also inaccurate. Child development is amazing, but it literally happens all the time.

Others have warned of a similar, "transcendental" temptation -- a seemingly inborn tendency in humans to attribute the magnificent order and complexity of the universe to a superior mind, spirit, or god. They point out that there is as much disorder in the universe as there is order. Entropy remains a fact of existence, and the replication and evolution of life on our planet -- extraordinary as it is -- will most likely turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. Jacob's arrival has brought that same lesson home to me on a more personal level; life's transience has never been clearer. I'm thirty-two now and a father, and though I realize how young that must seem to some, it's still quite sobering to me. Looking into my son's dark eyes, I occasionally catch a glimpse of my own inevitable absence.

I don't find the cycles of life cause for bitterness, and I am touched by the thought that I will leave a part of me behind in Jacob, and perhaps other children and even, hopefully, grandchildren. To me, the opportunity to do this is a deeper reward than the empty promise of an unimaginable afterlife. In the end, the creation and nurturing of new life turns out to be better than a miracle; it is an ancient and complex dance of nature. That we humans get to consciously participate in it, however ephemerally, is cause for joy and celebration, not metaphysical abstraction.
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Author:Pfarrer, Peter
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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