Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

message from the future: the kids are all right


I’ve received quite a few lovely emails from secular parents thanking me for Parenting Beyond Belief. I LOVE these messages. They give me a ridiculously inflated sense of my own contribution to things. I always feel smart and handsome afterwards.

But a message today was particularly nice. It was from a secular kid, now all grown up. “My parents raised me without indoctrinating me into any faith,” she began. And they did so even though they themselves had been raised in orthodox religious homes.

My dad was willing to talk about his skepticism of religion with me in a very matter-of-fact way. I have memories of sitting at the kitchen table and having a conversation about how unlikely it was for Jesus to be the son of God and how much more likely it was that he was just a normal guy that people wanted to believe he was something more.

She went on to describe her earliest exposures to religion:

[My parents] gently encouraged me to explore different beliefs. Our family only went to church on Christmas and Easter (and that was really about keeping in touch with their cultural traditions), but it’s not so easy to ignore Christianity in the South. So, when I got a little older, they let me go to Sunday school when my friends invited me. I attended the Sunday schools of various Christian faiths like a mini-anthropologist: eager to learn, observant, and a bit detached from the whole thing.

This reminded me of a scene, not too long ago, in our own family. We were sitting in my mother-in-law’s Episcopal Easter service — high-church Episcopal, all gold iconography and slow processions with the Bible (of all things) held aloft.


I enjoy this immensely as theatre, as sociology, as a glimpse into a different expression of our shared human longings. But Connor was slouched low in the pew in clip-on tie and plastered hair, the perfect archetype of the miserable child in church.

I leaned over and whispered, “What if you had a chance to travel back to ancient Greece and watch a ritual in the temple of Zeus? What would you think about that?”

He smiled amazedly at the thought. “That would be so cool!”

“Well, just imagine you’re an anthropologist now, visiting from the future, where rituals have changed. There’s nothing quite like this anymore where you come from.”


He sat up wide-eyed and engaged the rest of the time.

Her message went on:

I knew I didn’t believe in God in elementary school (though, it didn’t stop me from exploring various belief systems when I got older, because, why not? I was willing to check them out). The majority of my friends that are non-believers were teenagers or young adults before they felt comfortable admitting their atheism and agnosticism. In addition, childhood beliefs are so hard to shake, that some of them still feel residual guilt over abandoning their faith and a fear of God’s retribution. I am forever grateful to my parents for–well, it’s kind of negative way of putting it, but I feel like, “Thanks mom and dad, for sparing me from religion.” I am able to go to an Orthodox church today, enjoy and respect it–the cultural traditions, the icons, the hypnotic nature of the rituals and the chanting–without being resentful of it or buying into all of the mythology.

I hope your book and website makes parents feel more comfortable with their decision to raise their kids without religion. Their kids will thank them later!

And that’s what this message felt like to me, like a note from my future kids as I hope and expect they will be: happy, bright, well-adjusted, free of resentments.

That lack of resentment in the second generation is a common pattern in many struggles for social transformation. Feminists have described the same thing with a mixture of amusement and pique. They resented the patriarchy and fought like hell so their daughters didn’t have to grow up butting their own heads against it. In return, they were accused by men and women alike of being too harsh, of being “obsessed with gender,” of pushing too hard and too fast. As a result of their efforts and sacrifices, their daughters now grow up never having known a time when women couldn’t fly planes, or vote, or wear jeans, or expect (if not always achieve) equal pay for equal work and an environment free of demeaning harassment.

Today, those daughters of the revolution — and believe me, I spent fifteen years teaching them — often roll their eyes at their mothers’ generation for making “such a big deal” out of gender issues. They can afford to roll those eyes, of course, because of the dragonslaying their mothers and grandmothers did.

My correspondent isn’t rolling her eyes, of course — but if thirty years down the road my kids are living in a country where a completely secular worldview is no big deal, then hey…I’ll gladly watch them roll their eyes as Dad sits in his recliner, ranting at the ottoman about this or that battle long since won for them.


After good input from several fronts, I’m abandoning the idea of working with King James. I do love the poetry of it, and it is the version the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible uses, but let’s use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which is searchably available here.

I’d also hoped to use Bible Gateway, which is unbeatable when it comes to comparison of versions, but they don’t include the NRSV, for copyright reasons.

If you can’t get the NRSV, just grab something and come on in!

bookin’ through the bible 2

[Back to bookin’ through the bible 1]


Before we begin, let’s select our study materials. You will need:

1. A Bible OR a link to the text online. We’ll be referring to the NRSV.
2. A concise online commentary from the believers’ perspective. I recommend this one.
3. A concise online commentary from the critical perspective. I recommend this one.
4. The brilliant and fun OT commentary David Plotz did for Slate: Blogging through the Bible.

1. Pick a Bible

Naive skeptics and believers alike might think this doesn’t much matter, but it does. Rather than waste word count explaining why, I’ll demonstrate it. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was the Son of God, in Matthew 26:64:

Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said. (King James version, 1611)
Jesus saith to him, Thou hast said. (Young’s literal translation 1898)
“That is what you say!” Jesus answered. (Contemporary English version, 1995)
Jesus said to him, “You have said so.” (English Standard Version, 2001)

This lawyerly, even Clintonesque non-answer has long been a source of discomfort in Christian circles. Why didn’t he just say YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT I AM! instead of the 1st-century equivalent of I’m rubber, you’re glue? Solution for some denominations? Stick your hand up his robe and MAKE him say what you need him to say. Here’s Matthew 26:64 in three other editions:

Jesus said to him, “What you said is true.” (New Life Version, 1969)
Jesus said to him, “It is as you said.” (New King James, 1982)
Jesus answered him, “Yes, I am.” (Worldwide English version, 1996)

My suggestion, and the suggestion of many others, is to go with King James. It predates the modern revisionist trend and is the most beautiful English translation by a mile. the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

2. The Approach

Keep your approach as unmediated as possible. That said, the insights of others who’ve spent serious time with this book can be very helpful indeed. That said, you want to balance your input between believers and skeptics.

So for our little study time together, I’ll recommend the following:

Read the assigned book for the week (e.g. Genesis) without commentary.

THEN read the Introduction for that chapter from the New International Version (NIV) Study Bible, available online (or the believerly source of your choice).

THEN read the relevant section in the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, a tremendous online resource that provides the text of the Bible with running marginalia calling attention to the good, the bad, and the ugly.

THEN, for the Old Testament, read the relevant section of David Plotz’ Blogging through the Bible.

I’ll provide these links in each post.

3. The Selections

Yes yes, the best thing to do is to read the entire Bible. There, I said it, and I suppose it’s true, and others are doing that as we speak. Having done it myself, I can assure you that by reading a balanced selection of complete books from the Bible, you can get an excellent idea of what all the fuss, positive and negative, is about.

I’ve selected books in much the way you’d select a grade school basketball team, allowing the Christian and Skeptic captains to choose books alternately. I started by scanning Christian Bible study websites to see which books they are excited about. Unsurprisingly, the four Gospels at the center of things, followed by the Epistles of Paul, followed by Acts and Hebrews.

Skeptics, on the other hand, want you to read the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), followed by Judges, followed by a New Testament mix-and-match.

Here are four ways to slice it:

PLAN A (The Toe-Dip)
Busy as hell? Just read Genesis and Luke. Total commitment: 5 hours.

PLAN B (The Scriptural Sponge-Bath)
For a good scriptural flyover, read Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus from the OT, and Luke, Acts, and Revelation from the NT. Total commitment: 12 hours.

PLAN C (To the Waist, with Water Wings)
This is our baby. Genesis; 1 Corinthians; Mark, Matthew, Luke, John (the approximate order written); Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Ecclesiastes and (just for fun) Song of Songs; Acts; Revelation. Total commitment: 25 hours.

PLAN D (Full Immersion)
The whole megillah. Total commitment: 80-90 hours.

We’ll be following Plan C. I’ll be giving very minimal commentary, mainly pointing you to others who’ve already done that work. Remember that the goal is literacy and clear-eyed knowledge of this influential book, both for ourselves and for our kids. Here’s an approximate blog schedule in 11 installments. These will be interwoven with posts on unrelated topics. Drift in and out as you like:

Dec 3 — Genesis
Dec 10 — 1 Corinthians
Dec 17 — Mark
Dec 24 — Matthew and Luke
Dec 29 — John
Jan 8 — Exodus
Jan 15 — Leviticus
Jan 22 — Deuteronomy
Jan 29 — Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs
Feb 5 — Acts
Feb 12 — Revelation

So start by reading the intro to David Plotz’ Blogging through the Bible — but don’t read his Genesis post yet! — then go y’all forth now and read Genesis! Here are your links:

Book of Genesis online
Believers on Genesis
Skeptics on Genesis
Plotz on Genesis


carpe momento


There was a time when I was, shall we say, emotionally reserved. Not quite Spockish — maybe Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai. The music behind the menu selections on a DVD can bring Becca to tears, but until recently I could watch the scene in The Notebook where James Garner brings his wife out of her dementia just long enough to dance with her before she slips back under for another year — and never stop trying to remember the theme from The Rockford Files.

Those days are long gone. Parenting has made me a complete sap. A couple of weeks ago, Becca came back from Target and laid a couple of pretty pairs of socks on Laney’s and Erin’s pillows and a box of Connor’s favorite energy bars on his. “Just a little surprise,” she said. “They’ve been working so hard lately.”

I burst into tears.

This is me lately. The Notebook is entirely out of the question. I can’t even make it to the end of Charlotte’s Web.


I think I know what’s behind it. The winds of change are blowing hard around here lately. The youngest entered kindergarten, the middle is on the cusp of puberty, and the oldest — once a suckling babe — is 20 months from high school.

Becca and I (I realized last week with a shock) have reached the precise midpoint of our children’s childhood. Twelve years ago our eldest was born; twelve years from now, our youngest will enter college.

Erin, at age nine, is the emblem of all this, exactly midway between entering our home and leaving it. So it’s not surprising that a recent picture of Erin made me gasp:

erin violin

Like all photos, it was a moment trapped in amber. But this particular moment had an absurdly large number of meaningful elements trapped in it — all of them in flux. Some had already changed in the weeks since it was taken. Everything else would change before you could sing “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Let’s take a quick inventory:

First the obvious. My little girl will shortly turn ten. Then eleven. Then twenty-six.

If she sticks with violin, the little blue tapes on the neck will come off soon. But she probably won’t even make it that far — she’s decided to switch back to piano, which means this photo narrows the frame to four possible months of her life, our first four months in Atlanta. Back on the dresser, beneath her bow, is her third grade league championship baskeball trophy from Minnesota (8-and-0, woohoo!). The design of the names on the wall is an idea from a dear family friend we left behind — Erin wanted her letters caddywompus, and Delaney wanted hers straight across.

Above Erin’s bed in the black frame is a collage of photos from her going-away party in Minnesota, signed by her friends. The Beatles poster has since given way to Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus.

At the head of her bed is an interesting blob of amber in its own right: a photo of Erin, Delaney, and Connor at Christmas in 2005. Will she still have a photo of her brother and sister over her bed in four years? It’s possible. I somehow doubt it.

I could go on with clothes, hair, Raggedy Ann, the paint on the walls, even her experiments with nail polish — but you get the idea. The shutter hadn’t even closed before these things started to change.

I could also work in some connection to meaning-making, or something about how the passage of time is especially poignant to those who know full well they are mortal. Mostly I just wanted to share a little of the intensely bittersweet feeling here at the midpoint of the most satisfying and purposeful period of my life.

Urgent Appeal: Please Help Protect Ayaan Hirsi Ali

ayaan hirsi ali

One November morning in 2004, Theo van Gogh got up to go to work at his film production company in Amsterdam. He took out his old black bicycle and headed down a main road. Waiting in a doorway was a Moroccan man with a handgun and two butcher knives.

As Theo cycled down the Linnaeusstraat, Muhammad Bouyeri approached. He pulled out his gun and shot Theo several times. Theo fell off his bike and lurched across the road, then collapsed. Bouyeri followed. Theo begged, “Can’t we talk about this?” but Bouyeri shot him four more times. Then he took out one of his butcher knives and sawed into Theo’s throat. With the other knife, he stabbed a five-page letter onto Theo’s chest.

The letter was addressed to me.

from Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Message from Sam Harris
Author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the most prominent advocate of free speech and women’s rights in the Muslim world, and for this she must live under perpetual armed guard, even in the West. Unfortunately, on October 1st of this year, the Dutch government officially rescinded its promise to protect her. Now, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s friends, colleagues and admirers must come to her aid.

I have created a page on my website that links directly to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Security Trust. The money raised by this trust will pay Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s security expenses. In the event that money remains after these costs have been met, it will be used to encourage and protect other dissidents in the Muslim world.

The ongoing protection of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a moral obligation. It is also a strategic one: for here is a woman doing work that most of us cannot do–indeed, would be terrified to do if given the chance–and yet this work is essential for preserving the freedoms we take for granted in the West.

If every reader of this email simply pledged ten dollars a month to protect Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the costs of her security would be covered for as long as the threat to her life remains.

Thanks in advance for your support.

Sam Harris

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

In 2005, TIME included Ayaan Hirsi Ali in its list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People. If you would like to know more about her, please read Christopher Caldwell’s fine profile in the New York Times Magazine. You can also read the essay that Salman Rushdie and Sam Harris recently published in the Los Angeles Times, or the one that Christopher Hitchens wrote for Slate.

bookin’ through the bible 1

church sign

You’ve got to love the Bible — not for what it reveals about an alleged supreme being, but for what it reveals about us, the monkeys who wrote it and who’ve kept it a bestseller for two millennia and counting.

The fact that this mishmash of exceeding good and outrageous evil, of genuine wisdom and utter nonsense, of sublimity and unintended farce, of perfect love and bottomless hate, continues to resonate for so many people in the 21st century is a function of what it really is: a mirror. We are good, evil, wise, nonsensical, sublime, farcical, loving and hateful. How can you not love a book that shows us so unashamedly for the self-contradictory mess we are?

Here’s a thoughtful take from the good folks at Skeptics Annotated Bible:

For nearly two billion people, the Bible is a holy book containing the revealed word of God. It is the source of their religious beliefs. Yet few of those who believe in the Bible have actually read it.

This must seem strange to those who have never read the Bible. But anyone who has struggled through its repetitious and tiresome trivia, seemingly endless genealogies, pointless stories and laws, knows that the Bible is not an easy book to read. So it is not surprising that those who begin reading at Genesis seldom make it through Leviticus. And the few Bible-believers who survive to the bitter end of Revelation must continually face a disturbing dilemma: their faith tells them they should read the Bible, but by reading the Bible they endanger their faith.

When I was a Christian, I never read the Bible. Not all the way through, anyway. The problem was that I believed the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God, yet the more I read it, the less credible that belief became. I finally decided that to protect my faith in the Bible, I’d better quit trying to read it.

The most popular solution to this problem is to leave the Bible reading to the clergy. The clergy then quote from the Bible in their writings and sermons, and explain its meaning to the others. Extreme care is taken, of course, to quote from the parts of the Bible that display the best side of God and to ignore those that don’t. That this approach means that only a fraction of the Bible is ever referenced is not a great problem. Because although the Bible is not a very good book, it is a very long one.

But if so little of the Bible is actually used, then why isn’t the rest deleted? Why aren’t the repetitious passages — which are often contradictory as well — combined into single, consistent ones? Why aren’t the hundreds of cruelties and absurdities eliminated? Why aren’t the bad parts of the “Good Book” removed?

Such an approach would result in a much better, but much smaller book. To make it a truly good book, though, would require massive surgery, and little would remain. For nearly all passages in the Bible are objectionable in one way or another.

Perhaps. But to the Bible-believer…each passage contains a message from God that must not be altered or deleted. So the believer is simply stuck with the Bible.

Jefferson made one such attempt at corrective surgery with the New Testament.

Whether you’re a believer or a nonbeliever, to get a real grasp of this strange and influential book, at some point you’ll have to go straight to it. Spoonfeeding and cherry-picking add up to religious illiteracy. And with religion dominating and influencing everything from individual actions to world events, religious illiteracy is something we can no longer afford. That includes secular parents. UU Rev. Bobbie Nelson hit the nail on the head in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from [religious] questions–you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them. If you do not provide the answers, someone else will–and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.

boy and bible

If that sent a chill down your parental spine, and your exposure to the Bible has so far been secondhand, it’s time to get up close and personal with this long-resonating collection of goat-herd lore.

But like SAB said above, there’s nothing like picking up a Bible to make you want to put it down again. The Bible is protected from close examination by the very idea of plowing through 770,000 words in six-point font (including no fewer than 10,941 shalls). While the daunting size and tedium of the bible serves the needs of the church, which giddily stands in the explanatory breach, it also prevents understanding on all sides. It prevents secularists from engaging the exquisite poetry of Ecclesiastes and Luke (etc) and the faithful from recognizing the genuine poison of Deuteronomy and Revelation (etc etc).

But 770,000 words of Bible prose is roughly 80 hours. I wouldn’t ask you to do that — there are too many books both good and influential to spend that much time on one that’s merely influential. Fortunately you don’t need to read the whole thing to greatly enhance your Biblical Quotient. Crack the cover and you’ve already passed up as much as 72 percent of Christendom.

We here at Meming of Life International have designed a multi-tiered bible reading plan for the secularist. Whatever your level of commitment, from toe-dipping dilettante to full immersion dilettante, we’ve got a plan to match your lifestyle.

Unfortunately, I’ve set a new goal: an absolute 1000-word limit per post, about six minutes of reading, and we’re just about there for today. In the coming weeks I’ll include a few more posts outlining our patented Bible Study Plan for Non-Goatherds™. So get yourself a Good Book…so you have something to read when you’re done with the Bible.

Winter Celebrations in a Secular Family
guest column by Jane Wynne Willson

photo by Lin Zhang Jones

Winter Celebrations in a Secular Family
by Jane Wynne Willson
Contributing author, Parenting Beyond Belief

“Do you celebrate Christmas?”

I’ve been asked this question many times and was asked it again just this week, when speaking to a group of seventeen-year-old students at a local girls’ school in Birmingham, England. Although I am used to the question, it still makes my hackles rise, implying as it often does that humanists who celebrate Christmas are hypocrites.

I pointed out to them that more or less all the ways we celebrate ‘the festive season’ predate Christianity by hundreds of years. In fact, rather than humanists stealing a Christian festival, the exact reverse is nearer the truth. For Christians to accuse us of hypocrisy is the height of impertinence.

From the plum pudding to the evergreen tree, from the turkey (or, earlier, the goose) to the pantomime, it is hard to think of a “Christmas” custom that does not find its roots in paganism. Just as re-birth has been celebrated in Spring since time immemorial, so a celebration in the depths of Winter, at the time of the shortest day when the sun appears to stand still in the sky, is a natural instinct. It is a desire shared by those of different religious faiths and none. Christmas, like Easter, has quite simply been hijacked by the Christian church.

Scene from “How the Chrinch Stole Mithrasmas”

Even more interesting to me than these ancient symbolic customs, which are still practised usually quite unwittingly today, are the so-called “Nativity” stories that reappear in mythology all over the world. The Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, the Three Kings, the Stable, the Shepherds and the Massacre of the Innocents, are by no means unique to the Christian version of the story. Much scholarly work has been done on these traditions and, in many instances, the similarities are remarkable.

So we humanists must certainly not apologize for sharing in the winter celebration widely known as Christmas. We can exchange gifts and secular cards, enjoy good food and wine and, if we are lucky enough (like I am) to have family and friends whose company we enjoy, then we can have a happy few days together.

If Christians have a dig at us or, even worse, if they blame us for “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” as they do—well, we do our best! We tend to refer to “the festive season” and prefer “Season’s Greetings” in the cards that we send. It would be an uphill struggle to seek to change the well-established name of the festival. Although one possibility, living as I said in Birmingham which is known affectionately as ‘Brum’, would be to initiate a campaign to substitute the name ‘Brumalia’. This was what the Romans called the Winter Solstice.

brum lamp

One extraordinarily irritating reaction to humanists who celebrate the festive season in a secular way is to blame us for the materialism that has crept into much of what goes on in the Western world in December. The buying of wildly expensive presents, which can often be ill-afforded, most humanists would see as a dreadful development. Some people seem to imagine that the bigger the present, the greater the love you are showing the recipient, usually your child. How sad! The real culprits in this must surely be the advertising industry and other commercial forces. Secularism and the decline in religious belief should not be blamed, and we need to argue this case.

A Winter Festival is a time for mutual tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude to others. People will celebrate in their own way and according to their own beliefs, or, in the case of children, according to the life stance into which they happen to have been born and are being raised. From their early years at school, children from humanist families will be familiar with the other religious festivals that fellow pupils celebrate, such as Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah, as well as Christmas. Joining in each other’s festivities, and learning to understand each other’s traditions and beliefs, is important, particularly in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society.

So, fellow humanists, Happy Winter Solstice! Happy Brumalia! and Happy Winter Festival!


jwwA lifelong agnostic, JANE WYNNE WILLSON became involved in the Humanist movement in the UK when her oldest child met religion head-on at a state primary school. Since then she has been active at local, national and international levels, serving as president of the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association. In addition to authoring Parenting Without God, New Arrivals, Sharing the Future, and Funerals Without God, she contributed the essay “Humanist Ceremonies” to Parenting Beyond Belief. A retired Special Needs teacher with four children and ten grandchildren, Jane has a deep interest in bringing up children happily with a strong basis for morality but no religion.

For information on secular celebrations, visit Secular Seasons.

Happy Birthday, Earth Kids! (Sorry Uncle Sam’s missing the party, but they wouldn’t let us kill you)

UNCRCOn November 20, 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted into international law the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), one of the most important and progressive documents since the invention of kids. Children born on that day finished childhood today — happy birthday, kids! — having grown up under the most comprehensive set of child protections in human history.

The CRC laid out a set of universal rights for children. Governments of countries that have ratified the CRC are required to report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child periodically to be examined on their progress with regards to child rights in their country as specified in the Convention. In the course of eighteen years, the CRC has revolutionized child welfare around the world.

The language is simple and clear: The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that affect them. Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. They have the right to a free primary education. They should be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation, abuse, abduction, sale and trafficking. Governments must do everything they can to protect and care for children affected by war, and children under 15 should not be forced or recruited to take part in a war or join the armed forces. Stuff like that.

190 UN member countries have ratified the convention either partly or completely. Only two countries on Earth have not: Somalia and the United States.

At the time of the Convention, Somalia was riven by civil war, which may explain their failure to ratify. But what about the U.S.? Why can’t the U.S. sign a simple and effective human rights guarantee for children that is universally acceptable to the rest of the (non-Somali) world, from England to Syria to Iraq to Japan? Because American religious and political conservatives of the time saw a winning issue and organized opposition that continues to this day.

Yes, dear reader, I’m winding up a small rant. Please turn down the volume on your computer.

U.S. religious and political conservatives in the early 90s led by Pat Buchanan torpedoed our ratification of the CRC by organizing a storm of fear and ignorance. Article 14 of the Convention, Buchanan said, would forbid religious parents from raising their kids in their family faith tradition.

Here’s Article 14 in full:

1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Freedom of thought. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of religion. I should have known Satan was in on this!

The Vatican ratified the convention, for crying out loud, as did Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a number of other explicitly religious countries. None of them saw any threat of losing their religion, and there’ve been precious few children ripped from the arms of their devout parents by UN peacekeepers. But American conservatives are unrivaled when it comes to manipulating our fears. As a result, the U.S. stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world in our ability to fearfully wet ourselves over nothing.

The other problem for religious and political conservatives was Article 37a:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.

Those bastards wanted to take away our national right to execute children! Why, they can pry the lethal injection syringe out of my cold dead hands. If pot-smoking hippie cultures like Saudi Arabia and Iran want to give their kids permission to run wild, that’s their business. Our civilization depends on our ability to kill and imprison children.


Look, I know I’m sounding shrill. I hate that, I really do. I’d much rather provide light entertainment, but this kind of thing makes me feel like the top of my head is coming apart, and I don’t know how else to react. I’m exhausted from embarrassment over our collective decisions and actions as a nation. It just goes on and on. And when the international community is trying like mad to improve things for the next generation and the most privileged country on Earth can’t bother to join in…surely it matters enough to shout about.

Anyway, Happy Birthday to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thanks for the invitation. I wish like hell we could have been there.

UNICEF information page about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Full text of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

A paper on religious conservatives’ objections to the CRC

U.S. organizations endorsing the CRC
, including many religious groups

What individuals can do to encourage U.S. and Somali ratification of the Convention

where thanks are due


Thanksgiving — one of my very favorite holidays — is mentioned twice in Parenting Beyond Belief. “There should be no difficulty in secularly observing a holiday dedicated to gratitude,” says I, in “Losing the Holy and Keeping the Day“:

We can express to each other our thankfulness for each other, for our good fortune, and for life itself. No eavesdropping deity required. There is an additional opportunity to note that the Puritan pilgrims were pursuing the kind of freedom of religious observance to which secularists should be devoted – fleeing harassment and religious persecution in England and heading to the New World where they were free at last to burn witches.

Okay, leave that part out.

The book explores the issue of gratitude a bit further, naming it one of the “Seven Secular Virtues”:

The most terrible moment for an atheist, someone once said, is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank. I suppose it was meant to be witty, but it’s pretty silly. Nonbelievers of all stripes should and do indeed feel enormously grateful for many things, and I’m not aware of any terrible moments. Whereas religious folks teach their children to funnel all gratitude skyward, humanists and atheists can thank the actual sources of the good things we experience, those who actually deserve praise but too often see it deflected past them and on to an imaginary being.

We have no difficulty reminding the four-year-old to “say thank you” when Grandma hands her an ice cream cone, but in other situations – especially when a religious turn-of-phrase is generally used – we often pass up the chance to teach our kids to express gratitude in naturalistic terms. Instead of thanking God for the food on your table, thank those who really put it there – the farmers, the truckers, the produce workers, and Mom or Dad or Aunt Millicent. They deserve it. Maybe you’d like to lean toward the Native American and honor the animals for the sacrifice of their lives – a nice way to underline our connection to them. You can give thanks to those around the table for being present, and for their health, and for family and friendship itself. There is no limit. Even when abstract, like gratitude for health, the simple expression of gratitude is all that is needed. No divine ear is necessary – we are surrounded by real ears and by real hearers.

I read recently of a woman who had lost her husband unexpectedly. She was devastated and bereft of hope – until her neighbors and friends began to arrive. Over the course of several days, they brought food, kept her company, laughed and cried, hugged her and reassured her that the pain would ease with time and that they would be there every step of the way. “I was so grateful for their love and kindness during those dark days,” she said. “Through them, I could feel the loving embrace of God.”

She was most comfortable expressing her gratitude to an idea of God, but the love and kindness came entirely from those generous and caring human beings. Humanists and atheists are not impoverished by the lack of that god idea; they must simply notice who truly deserves thanks, and not be shy about expressing it.

Group prayer of any kind, including religious grace, has always bothered me. It’s coercive, for one thing, and one person speaks for everyone, assuming a uniformity that is never really accurate. After the “amen,” I always want to submit a minority opinion: “I consent to clauses 1, 2, and 4, but dissent from 3 and 5 for reasons as follows…”

On several occasions, I’ve even seen group prayer used manipulatively (“And may the Lord bless and protect those among us who have been making unwise choices lately” [all eyes go to cousin Billy]).

BUT…the options to religious grace can bring their own problems. The old “moment of silence” can feel hollow; others can seem a bit forced (humanist meditations with Baptist intonations); while some, even if accurate, seem both abstract and forced (“thank you to the truckers and turkey wranglers and assembly-line workers”).

The best option I’ve ever heard just arrived in my inbox yesterday in the form of a short story by Wisconsin author/educator Marilyn LaCourt (The Prize, 2004):

Thanksgiving Ritual
by M. LaCourt

Last year I had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at my friend’s house. I arrived just as we were being invited to take our places at the table and I felt a little awkward because I didn’t know a number of the other guests. I looked toward the kitchen expecting someone to bring on the food. It sure smelled good, and I was hungry.

Imagine my confusion when my host looked around the table at each of his guests and asked, “Who wants to start?”

I knew there was supposed to be food, but I still didn’t see any, not even a relish dish or a breadbasket to pass. What were we supposed to do? Pass imaginary bowls filled with imaginary mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey and cranberry sauce? No one spoke.

Finally my host’s eyes settled on his seven-year-old niece.

Cindy stood up, cleared her throat and smiled at her brother. “Thank you, Jimmy, for teaching me to play games on your computer.”

Jimmy blushed and said, “You’re welcome.”

Eric, a nice looking young man with bright blue eyes was next. He thanked his parents for giving him his first telescope when he was ten, and for the many hours they spent encouraging his appreciation for the wonders of the universe. I learned later that Eric had been accepted into a post graduate program to study Astronomy.

My friend, Ron, the host, said thank you to his wife. “I really appreciate the way you put up with my complaining, your understanding and patience with my cause fighting. I love the wonderful meals you prepare for me everyday, your companionship and your sense of humor. Thank you for being my wife.”

Liz smiled and answered, “You’re welcome.”

I was beginning to get the picture. I had some thank-yous of my own and was getting heady with the whole idea, but I decided to watch and listen a bit longer.

“Thank you for taking care of me when I had such a bad case of flu last winter, Rose. I know how terribly unpleasant that must have been for you, and you were so kind to put your own life aside for a few days to stay with me.” Gina’s eyes were damp when she looked at her daughter. “You were such a comfort.” Then she turned to her son- in-law. “Thank you too, Karl, for fending for yourself and the kids while she was taking care of me.”

“You’re welcome.” “You’re welcome.”

Then Rose stood up and walked over to where her husband was sitting. She bent down and gave him a kiss. “Thank you, honey, for working so hard and supporting us and giving me the opportunity to be the stay at home mom I’d always hoped I could be.”

Chuck thanked his friend Bob for all the wonderful tomatoes and other produce Bob gave him during harvest time. He also thanked Jerry and Judy for teaching him how to make the world’s greatest apple sauce.

Jean thanked Patty for listening when she needed a sympathetic ear.

Juan thanked his grandmother for the loan and told her he had put the money to good use. Sonja thanked her neighbor, Dorene, for the wonderful homemade mayonnaise and other goodies. And on it went.

I was thinking about all the wonderful people I wanted to thank. I guess I was drifting off in some sort of a trance when I heard the next person mention my name.

“Thank you, Marilyn,” she said. “You helped my daughter and son-in-law through some rough spots in their marriage.”

I waved my hand in a never mind gesture. “I was just doing my job.”

Ron nearly knocked over his water glass as he stood to interrupt me.

“No, no, no. That’s not allowed.” He shook his pointer at me. “These are the rules. You only get to say ‘you’re welcome’. If you explain it away you discredit the message and invalidate the sincerity of the person saying thanks. You just got a sincere ‘thank you’, Marilyn. Now, say ‘you’re welcome’.” He sat down and fiddled with his napkin.

“Oops. I’m sorry. I mean…” I looked at the woman who’d thanked me and said, “You’re welcome.” Then I smiled at my host and hostess.

“And thank you, Ron and Liz, for inviting me to share in such a beautiful tradition.”

Ron grinned. “You’re welcome.” Liz nodded, “You’re welcome.”

It took a full thirty minutes to get around the table and all the thanks-givings. When we finished Liz excused herself to put the finishing touches on the food and Ron poured the wine.

Check out (and add to) a thread on the PBB Forum tackling the question of “grace under pressure.”

Finally, let me say THANK YOU for reading the Meming of Life — even the longer ones, like this. (Psst — this is the part where you click on COMMENTS and say You’re welcome! ) 😉


the unconditional love of reality

…CONNOR AT THE WORLD OF COKE (…after the Tasting Room)

A Christian friend once asked me what it is about religion that most irritates me. It was big of her to ask, and I did my best to answer. I said something about religion so often actively standing in the way of things that are important to me — knowledge of human origins, for example, important medical advances, effective contraception, women’s rights…the simple ability to think without fear. I gave a pragmatic answer — and the wrong one.

Not that those things aren’t important. They’re all crowded up near the top of my list of motivators. But in the years since I gave that answer, I’ve realized there’s something much deeper, much more fundamentally galling and outrageous that religion too often represents for me — something that constitutes one of the main reasons I hope my kids remain unseduced by any brand of theism that endorses it.

What I want them to reject, most of all, is the conditional love of reality.

I’ve talked to countless Christians about their religious faith over the years. I have often been moved and challenged by what their expressed faith has done for them. But the doctrine of conditional love of reality simply mystifies, offends, and frankly infuriates me.

Conditional love is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty. Conditional love is present whenever a believer expresses “sadness” for me or my kids, or wonders how on Earth any given nonbeliever drags herself through the bothersome task of existing.

Whenever I hear someone say, “I am happy because…” or “Life is only bearable if…”, I want to take a white riding glove, strike them across the face, and challenge them to a duel in the name of reality.

The universe is an astonishing, thrilling place to be. There’s no adequate way to express the good fortune of being conscious, even for a brief moment, in the midst of it. My amazement at the universe and gratitude for being awake in it is unconditional. I’m thrilled if there is a god, and I’m thrilled if there isn’t.

jump for joy

Unconscious nonexistence is our natural condition. Through most of the history of the universe, that’s where we’ll be. THIS is the freak moment, right now, the moment you’d remember for the next several billion years — if you could. You’re a bunch of very lucky stuff, and so am I. That we each get to live at all is so mind-blowingly improbable that we should never stop laughing and dancing and singing about it.

Richard Dawkins expressed this gorgeously in my favorite passage from my favorite of his books, Unweaving the Rainbow:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.

I want my kids to feel that same unconditional love of being alive, conscious, and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take. Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.

joyful child

And when people ask, as they often do, whether I will be “okay with it” if my kids eventually choose a religious identity, my glib answer is “99 and three-quarters percent guaranteed!” That unlikely 1/4 percent covers the scenario in which they come home from college one day with the news that they’ve embraced a worldview that says they are wretched sinners in need of continual forgiveness, that hatred pleases God, that reason is the tool of Satan, and/or that life without X is an intolerable drag — and that they’d be raising my grandkids to see the world through the same hateful, fearful lens.

Woohoo! is not, I’m afraid, quite a manageable response for me in that scenario. Yes, it would be their decision, yes, I would still love their socks off — and no, I wouldn’t be “okay with it.” More than anything, I’d weep for the loss of their unconditional joie de vivre.

But since we’re raising them to be thoughtful, ethical, and unconditionally smitten with their own conscious existence, I’ll bet you a dollar that whatever worldview they ultimately align themselves with — religious or otherwise — will be a thoughtful, ethical, and unconditionally joyful one. Check back with me in 20 years, and for the fastest possible service, please form a line on the left and have your dollars ready.