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I want my ashes scattered on the streets of a big university town. They may very well be my favorite places on Earth — and what better way to express affection than showering your beloved with charred carbon?

Spending the weekend in and around Harvard Square in Cambridge reminded me so much of Berkeley I could hardly stand it. I can see now why they call Harvard “The Berkeley of the East.” (Heh.)

I remember how overloaded my 18-year-old senses were, a newly-minted freshman on Telegraph Avenue, 400 miles and a thousand light years from home. I was completely overwhelmed for the first six weeks, then gradually reached that epiphanic moment when you realize you don’t have to process or understand everything — that it’s OK to co-exist with the unfamiliar.

I began to tolerate, then like, then embrace and explore the whole incredible exciting mess. It changed me for good, in both senses of that phrase. I hope and suspect my kids will ignore the pathetic Deputy-Dog faces on their parents and dive into a university town far from home.

The weekend at Harvard was simply phenomenal. I had the pleasure at last of meeting Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain and all-around force-of-nature Greg Epstein, who placed my name in nomination for Harvard Humanist of the Year several months ago and who organized the whole shebang.

One of many high points of the weekend was learning from Greg, over a post-seminar pint at the pub, that my work first came to his attention just days after PBB was released. It wasn’t the book that caught his eye, but this very blog, so young at the time that its umbilical stump was still hanging on.

Greg was being brutalized that week for referring to Dawkins et al. as atheist “fundamentalists” (note the quotes, which change the meaning, too subtly for some). Duncan Crary (communications director for the Institute for Humanist Studies) suggested that he check out a particular post on a new blog called the Meming of Life. Titled “Unholier than thou,” the post was my own irritated response to those who were barking that my approach toward religion was too conciliatory:

One of the less helpful notions in orthodox religious thought is the idea that there is a very small circle in which we may dance….

One of the frankly hilarious features of the freethought world is our tendency to reproduce this irritating feature of religion in our own way by twisting ourselves in knots just as Gordian, just as asphyxiating, defining ever-smaller circles around ourselves and spurning those outside the circle as insufficiently pure.

Let’s call this syndrome “unholier-than-thou” (UTT).

Do you have UTT? Some symptoms to watch for:

1. Insisting that anyone who does not share your taste for slurs and epithets against religious believers is “gutless.”

2. Arguing endlessly about labels (atheist vs. humanist, humanist vs. secular humanist, atheist vs. nontheist, disbeliever vs. nonbeliever vs. nonreligious, ad infinitum). Insisting that any one label is obviously right or obviously wrong is a classic sign of UTT. Seek professional help.

3. Attempting to banish another person from the (un)sacred circle by claiming s/he has a connection to some form of thought or way of life less rigorously rational and secularly pure than one’s own. The secular equivalent of screaming WIIIIITCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Other high points of the weekend included the fact that Becca came with me, that the talk and seminar were well-received, seeing the good and great August Brunsman, Amanda Metskas, and Kate Miller again, meeting blog regulars Ryan and Jim — and that Bex and I got to walk around in snow and then leave without shoveling it.

harvardkidsThen there’s the thing that continues to move and energize me — other people’s stories. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not that kind of guy in general. But for some reason I never tire of hearing personal variations on the theme of nonreligious experience, whether childhood memories or deconversions or the stories of raising fearlessly curious kids who think for themselves. So thanks to everyone who participated on Saturday, and a special thanks to Greg and the trustees of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy for a truly marvelous honor.

Onward to Austin!
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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...