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Meet my boy, Connor.

the boy
Connor is nearly twelve, wickedly smart and funny, endlessly creative and thoughtful and kind. I’ve had more outright conversational joy from Connor in the nine years since he started talking than from most of the rest of our species. Combined.

He wants to be an engineer. Sometimes he shares with me his plans for reversing global warming. Once he shared an idea for exceeding the speed of light—and I still can’t figure out why it wouldn’t work, at least in theory. Last week he sketched an ingenious idea for an inexhaustible light bulb. (I know why that one won’t work, but importantly, kept my pie-hole shut.) At the age of seven, he proposed a device that could identify which person in a packed elevator had farted. A panel in the floor would then light up under the perpetrator.

(We were alone in an elevator when he came up with that one, of course—and when the door opened and admitted an elderly lady, we vibrated with swallowed laughter, imagining the floor lighting up beneath her.)

But sometimes—much of the time—the topic is philosophical. Connor wonders about consciousness, death, ethics, time, and the idea of gods. One of his favorite riffs is to marvel at the fact that he was born at all, which brings us to one of the central differences, imho, between the religious and secular worldviews.

Let’s begin with a song, one that captures a large whack of my own worldview—so much, in fact, that it is one of our favorite lullabies:

It’s inherently humbling, that scientifically-informed worldview. Instead of being specially made in the image of the creator of the universe, given dominion over the world and all that’s in it, and having God’s only son take our form to come to Earth and die so we could live forever, it turns out we’re one transitory species among millions, an unimaginably small blink in time on an unimaginably small dot in space—trousered apes who will disappear into complete non-existence upon the death of our bodies.

But remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely was your birth. And it was this thread that my son and I riffed on the other day, picking up an inexhaustible thread.

It started with boxer shorts.

Connor needed boxer shorts immediately. I’ll spare you the reason, a familiar hash of peer pressure and arbitrary norms and middle school locker rooms. I ran him to the mall and we bought a few pairs. On the way home, I suddenly flashed on something from long ago. I turned and mentioned to Connor that he owed his existence to (among many other things) boxer shorts. What follows is, I submit, a definitively secular exchange of wonder.

Boxer shorts? This was news to the boy. Not the general idea of owing his existence to countless small happenstances, mind you. He has long enjoyed the knowledge that several hundred things could have prevented his parents from meeting, from finding each other attractive, from dating, from marrying, and from staying married long enough to spring off. He understands that one particular sperm and one particular egg had to meet for him to ever exist. And he vibrates with dawning excitement as he extends these had-tos back through the generations, back to his Confederate great-great-great grandfather who was felled by a Yankee bullet through the neck at nineteen and bled profusely—almost, but not quite, enough to erase the great-great-great grandson he would one day have. Connor has worked his way back through a million generations of humans and prehumans to imagine two ratlike creatures rocking the casbah at the precise moment the asteroid slammed into Chicxulub 65 million years ago, further clinching the existence of their great-great-great etc grandson. (Oooh, baby, one rat says to the other. Did you feel that too?)

But boxer shorts—that was a new one. He demanded to know what I was talking about.

We’ve already done the sex talk (went very well, thank you). So now I told him that the sperm can get sluggish if they are too warm, that briefs hold the testicles against a man’s warm body, and that four months after his mom and I started trying to create him, without luck, I saw this article that suggested switching to boxer shorts, and boom…

His eyes were wide. “You got pregnant.”

“Well Mom did, technically, but I…”

He clutched his head. “Oh my GOSH! What the freakin’ heck!” (His current favorite pseudo-swear.) He seemed to get it. He turned toward me with an electric look, the look of a person who just missed getting hit by a train. “What if you saw that article a month EARLIER?”

Oh yeah, he gets it. “Or later.” We’d added another casual causal coincidence to the march of time—his father stumbling over some random magazine article…at GreatClips, I think it was, while I waited for a haircut…

“WHAT IF SHE FINISHED THE OTHER HAIRCUT BEFORE YOU SAW THE…?”

Boy does he get it.

I have several religious friends who think that God fixes these things for us. He put the mag there, you see, and kept the haircut going until I could read it. We each have one ideal mate, and God works things out so we meet, fall in love, have the children we’re supposed to have when we’re supposed to have them. Setting aside the revolting idea that God wanted an abused woman to marry her abuser, etc etc, we still end up with a world that makes me yawn, a world with a good measure of the wonder stripped out. In that world, we are Jehovah’s chesspieces, moving in preordained patterns, how exceptionally tedious. Tedious in a holy way, I mean.

Meditating instead on how amazingly unlikely was your birth—well, if you haven’t done it, please be my guest. It’s hard to take existence quite so much for granted once you realize how very, very, very close you came to missing the dance entirely.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.