Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

middle school kabuki


We live in a lovely subdivision of rolling hills. The parking lot of the neighborhood pool at the top of our block is the only relatively flat patch. I take the kids up once in a while so the girls can ride their bikes in a circle. Connor often comes along to take shots at the basketball hoop on the side of the lot. I drag along a beach chair, sit in the sun and watch the show.

A couple of days ago, our trip to the lot gave me the opportunity to watch a fascinating, age-old dance — the passive-aggressive kabuki play of middle schoolers exploring interpersonal ethics on the fly.

As Connor (12) dribbled the ball around the corner and entered the lot, a complication came into view. Three other middle schoolers were sitting on the curb by the basket — not under the basket, but juuuust off to the left, 5-6 feet from the drop zone. They saw Connor, paused for that telling second, then continued talking to each other. Connor also saw them, stopped dribbling for juuuust that telling second, then continued toward the hoop.

Anyone who thinks they greeted each other and proceeded to work out the emerging conflict of interest has neither met nor been a middle schooler. Neither did they come to blows. The three continued to sit, passively asserting one of the oldest and dodgiest rights in legal history (known various as squatter’s rights, “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” “I Was Here First,” or “You Can’t Make Me”) and silently daring the Boy to infringe on that right.

The Boy, on the other hand, was silently countering with the Greater Need principle, also known as “You Can Easily Slide Over, but This is the Only Hoop.” Both sides were relying on the obviousness of their respective claims.

He began shooting. The three continued talking as if basketballs were not landing inches from them. Connor did the best shooting of his life, since each successful two-pointer went straight down and could be recovered with a quick lunge before it brought things to a head (so to speak). At last one shot hit the rim and went wide left. Three heads ducked. Still no eye contact, though Connor smiled nervously as he ran for the errant ball (preparing himself for the “Heh heh, isn’t this a funny situation we’re all enjoying” defense).

Push, for some reason, never came to shove. After ten minutes and no ball-squatter contact, the girls were ready to go home, and we all did.

It’s interesting to guess what would have happened if someone had actually taken a ball to the head. Since both sides were showing a lack of common sense, outrage over the other’s failure to see what had been the “obvious” solution tends to be the only remaining option for both sides. Instead, it was middle school kabuki to the end.

ohh, to get that brain space back

Click ULTIMATE BIBLE QUIZ to test your Biblical knowledge! Forty multiple-choice questions! Fun for the whole family! My score, gawd help me:

You know the Bible 91%!


Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses – you know it all! You are fantastic!

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Please, please, please vacuum some of this stuff out of my head. I need the room. I can’t even remember my children’s names, but I know what book comes after Colossians.

the interfaith alliance

I don’t usually wax too political in this space, but there’s an activist organization I’m getting all hot and sweaty for lately. It’s The Interfaith Alliance (TIA), a coalition of 185,000 members from over 75 different religious and nonreligious perspectives founded in 1994 “to challenge the radical religious right” by protecting religious pluralism and the separation of church and state. They’ve had it with the use of religion as a tool of political manipulation and division. They think it’s bad for the church AND the state.

I have a collective crush on these people.

The president of TIA is Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana and host of the program State of Belief on Air America Radio.


Gaddy is a Baptist who remembers that church-state separation was woven into the founding of his denomination and remembers why. He is awesome. He is a force of nature. (And I’m not only saying that because he declared himself “so impressed” with my “important work” when he interviewed me on December 22. Goodness, I’ve forgotten about that completely.)

It was TIA that pointed out last week, in a way both brilliant and hard to refute, that “if a potential employer asked you questions about your religious beliefs in a job interview, it wouldn’t only be offensive, it would be illegal.” Yet one interviewer after another in the presidential campaign asks questions about personal religious convictions. And what is a campaign if not an extended job interview?

Asking how a candidate thinks religion and government should intersect — well, that’s a terrific question, and one that’s rarely asked. Instead, we get a litany of questions that violate the Constitutional guarantee that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (Article VI, section 3), in spirit if nothing else.

This week had TIA drawing attention to an effort by Focus on the Family to put the “National Day of Prayer” (seven days away) squarely in the hands of evangelicals:

The National Day of Prayer Task Force requires volunteer coordinators to sign a pledge stating: “I commit that NDP activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians while those with differing beliefs are welcome to attend.” The coordinators must also sign a statement of faith that includes the following language: “I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation and have an ongoing relationship with God.” This clearly aligns a government-sponsored event with a particular Christian denomination, in violation of the basic provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

And so it always goes. When religion and politics mix, “religion” will inevitably become a single narrow expression of religion. In the case of the U.S., that’s evangelical Protestantism.

Anyway, I could go on all day about the great work of The Interfaith Alliance, but I’ll let you chase links on your own if you wish.


TIA homepage

The questions about religion that TIA thinks candidates should answer

The campaign for a more inclusive Nat’l Day of Prayer (if we must have one at all, *sigh*), led by a Jewish group of First Amendment defenders called…wait for it…Jews on First! Oh, how I love it!


th huxley 433

It’s confirmed: the statistic over which I was so amazed — that 39.6 percent of prominent scientists lost a parent when they were kids — is twaddle. Thanks to blogreader Ryan (who sent the full text of the article I had quoted), I am spared the fate of including a bogus stat in a sidebar in my forthcoming book.

I want to write further about my error (which was silly and avoidable, not a minor slip), but I want to quote a letter from TH Huxley in doing so. Whenever I turn to that letter, though, I am so deeply moved that I have to quote half the letter, just in case someone hasn’t read this remarkable thing. Sometime next week I’ll write about the stat error.

Huxley and his wife had experienced the most unimaginable loss — the death of their four-year-old son Noel. First, a diary entry from the day after Noel’s death, followed by Huxley’s letter a few days later:

September 20, 1860
Diary of Thomas Huxley

And the same child, our Noel, our first-born, after being for nearly four years our delight and our joy, was carried off by scarlet fever in forty-eight hours. This day week he and I had a great romp together. On Friday his restless head, with its bright blue eyes and tangled golden hair, tossed all day upon his pillow. On Saturday night the fifteenth, I carried him here into my study, and laid his cold still body here where I write. Here too on Sunday night came his mother and I to that holy leave-taking.

My boy is gone, but in a higher and better sense than was in my mind when I wrote four years ago what stands above – I feel that my fancy has been fulfilled. I say heartily and without bitterness–Amen, so let it be.

The Queen’s Canon Rev. Charles Kingsley wrote a letter of condolence to Huxley, gently suggesting that he reconsider his agnosticism and accept the consolations of faith in his time of loss. Huxley’s equally gentle response to Kingsley is the most moving testament to intellectual integrity I have ever read. An excerpt:

September 23, 1860

My dear Kingsley –I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you.

My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is—Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie….

I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.”

All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.


Sit down before fact as a little child,
be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,
follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads,
or you shall learn nothing.
I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind
since I have resolved at all risks to do this.


If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.” [“God help me, I cannot do otherwise.”]

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is—a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.
My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons. Ever yours very faithfully,

TH Huxley

[The complete text is available here.]

can death give birth to wonder? (revised)


[NOTE: In preparing the following blog entry, I fell prey to a classic critical thinking error that goes by several names: “selective reporting,” “confirmation bias,” and “being an idiot.” Though the first several paragraphs are impeccably sound, the section on the Woodward paper is, unfortunately, complete rubbish. I say ‘unfortunately’ because it would have been fascinating if true. Ahh, but that’s how we monkeys always step in it, isn’t it now? I’ll leave the post up as a monument to my shortcomings and prepare another post about the specific way in which I misled myself.]


You’ve probably seen the studies confirming the low frequency of religious belief among scientists, and the fact that the most eminent scientists are the least likely to believe in a personal God. Very interesting, and not surprising. Uncertainty would have been profoundly maladaptive for most of our species history. The religious impulse is an understandable response to the human need to know, or at least to feel that you do. Once you find a (much) better way to achieve confidence in your conclusions, one of the main incentives for religiosity loses its appeal.

Psychologist James Leuba was apparently the first to ask scientists the belief question in a controlled context. In 1914, Leuba surveyed 1,000 randomly-selected scientists and found that 58 percent expressed disbelief in the existence of God. Among the 400 “greater” scientists in his sample, the figure was around 70 percent.1 Leuba repeated his survey in 1934 and found that the percentages had increased, with 67 percent of scientists overall and 85 percent of the “eminent” group expressing religious disbelief.2

The Larson and Witham study of 1998 returned to the “eminent” group, surveying members of the National Academy of Sciences and finding religious disbelief at 93 percent. All sorts of interesting stats within that study: NAS mathematicians are the most likely to believe (about 15 percent), while biologists were least likely (5.5 percent).

[Here’s where the nonsense begins. Avert your eyes.]

But I recently came across a related statistic about scientists that, given my own background, ranks as the single most thought-provoking stat I have ever seen.

As I’ve mentioned before, my dad died when I was thirteen. It was, and continues to be, the defining event in my life, the beginning of my deepest and most honest thinking about the world and my place in it. My grief was instantly matched by a profound sense of wonder and a consuming curiosity. It was the start of the intensive wondering and questioning that led me (among other things) to reject religious answers on the way to real ones.

Now I learn that the loss of a parent shows a robust correlation to an interest in science. [Not.] A study by behavioral scientist William Woodward was published in the July 1974 issue of Science Studies. The title, “Scientific Genius and Loss of a Parent,” hints at the statistic that caught my attention. About 5 percent of Americans lose a parent before the age of 18. Among eminent scientists, however, that number is higher. Much higher.

According to the study, 39.6 percent of top scientists experienced the death of a parent while growing up—eight times the average.

Let’s hope my kids can achieve the same thirst for knowledge some other way.

Many parents see the contemplation of death as a singular horror, something from which their children should be protected. If nothing else, this statistic suggests that an early encounter with the most profound fact of our existence can inspire a revolution in thought, a whole new orientation to the world — and perhaps a completely different path through it.

[More later.]


1 Leuba, J. H. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (Sherman, French & Co., Boston, 1916).
2 Leuba, J. H. Harper’s Magazine 169, 291-300 (1934).
3Larson, E. J. & Witham, L. Nature 386, 435-436 (1997).
4Woodward, William R. Scientific Genius and Loss of a Parent, in Science Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 265-277.

Anatomy of a Frequently-Asked Question

[This column also appears in the April 16 edition of Humanist Network News.]


by Dale McGowan


In a recent article in USA Today (“Am I raising ‘atheist children’?”, March 17), author Nica Lalli addressed a common question for nonreligious parents: “How would you respond if one of your children became religious?” As the topic went rippling through the nonreligious blogosphere, both the consensus inside nonreligious parenting and the false assumptions outside of it were revealed in comment threads.

Like so many questions we hear, the way it is asked is at least as revealing as any answer. Sometimes I can barely hear the question itself for the clatter of the thrown gauntlet. The tone of the question often implies that all my high-minded claims of parental openness are a self-deluding sham—that hearing that one of my kids had chosen to identify with religion would cause me to fly into an icon-smashing, garment-tearing, child-disowning rage, well before the child had reached the stirring refrain of “Jesus Loves Me.”

There’s a strong consensus among nonreligious parents against putting worldview labels on our children or guiding them by the nose into our own. It’s not unanimous; some of the blog comments I’ve seen since Nica’s piece made me wince, like the atheist mother who said she would not “let” her child identify with religion. Fortunately, no hot or staining beverages were in my mouth when I read that. Let? Let? I’m not even sure what that means. But that view is happily rare. Most of us are more committed to parenting our children toward genuine autonomy than churning out rubber stamps of ourselves.

One of the many problems with the question is the implication that religious identification is a single point of arrival, like the day a young adult’s daemon takes a fixed form in His Dark Materials or palms begin flashing red in Logan’s Run. Did it work that way for you—or did you pass through a number of stages and try on a number of hats along the way? I thought so. And see what a lovely person you turned out to be.

A close relative of mine went through a period of experimentation with different worldviews. After being a fairly conventional New Testament Christian for a while, she became something of a Manichaean dualist, believing the world was divided into good and evil, darkness and light. She eventually went through a sort of Einsteinian-pantheist phase before adopting a benevolent, utilitarian humanism.

Then she turned six.

I encourage my kids to try on as many beliefs as they wish and to switch back and forth whenever they feel drawn toward a different hat, confident that in the long run they will be better informed not only of the identity they choose, but of those they have declined. Were I to disown my kids each time they passed through a religious identity, I’d have to keep a lawyer on retainer.

Now let’s get specific. My child has become “religious,” you say. Is it “Love-your-neighbor” religious…or “God-hates-fags” religious? “Four Chaplains” religious…or “9/11 hijackers” religious? Dalai Lama…or Jerry Falwell?

Adding to the difficulties is the almost comic range of meaning of “religion.” A good friend of mine has verses from the Book of Psalms scrolling around the walls of his bedroom and believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the sole path to salvation—yet describes himself as “not at all religious, really.” Then you have the Unitarians—the majority of whom are nontheistic—who tend to insist, sometimes downright huffily, that they are religious.

Just as troubling as the idea that I’d protest any and all religious expressions in my children is the notion that I’d applaud any and all nonreligious outcomes. Though many of the most ethical and humane folks I’ve known have been nonreligious, some of the most malignant and repugnant SOBs have been as well. So, then: Is it “Ayaan Hirsi Ali” nonreligious—or “Joe Stalin” nonreligious?

Perhaps you can see why I consider the question, “What if your child becomes religious?” as unanswerably meaningless as, “What if your child becomes political?”

I have three compassionate, socially conscientious, smart, ethical kids, with every indication of remaining so. If they choose a religious expression, it’s likely to be one that expresses those values. They might become liberal Quakers, or UUs, or progressive Episcopalians, or Buddhists, or Jains, framing their tendency toward goodness and conscience in a way different from but entirely respectable to my own way of seeing things. We could do far worse than a world of liberal Quakers.

If instead one of my kids were to identify with a more malignant religion, I’d express my concerns in no uncertain terms. But the consequences of the belief would be the main point of contention, not the fact that it is “religious.” And my love for my child, it goes without saying, would be reduced by not so much as a hair on a flea on a neutrino’s butt.

Looking back…and it’s about time (1)

Guest column by Becca McGowan


Alright, alright…I admit I haven’t been reading Dale’s blog. He’s been blogging for about nine months – oh, a year? – but somehow I never get around to reading it. Oh, I hear about what he writes on occasion as the day winds down and he shares a response that a reader had to a particular entry…it’s just that I never get around to actually reading the blog myself.

Nevertheless, I’ve been invited to write an entry. I don’t even remember the last time I had to write something of this length that others would read. I can’t even keep up with an easy book journal. I find writing intimidating. But as I thought about writing an entry, I actually became excited and curious: What would I write about, who would read it and how honest would I be?

Here goes…

I find people’s personal stories fascinating. We learn so much about each other when we know something about each other’s pasts. So I’m going to start with my personal story, specifically my family of origin and the role of religion in my upbringing. I feel very strongly that our families of origin play a significant role, positive and negative, in how we ourselves parent.

My mother is the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. Let me emphasize the Southern. My mother and her three siblings seem to have loved their father dearly. Their descriptions and my memories of him are of a very loving, generous and kind man. Our son is named after him.

My father was also raised in a Southern Baptist family, and his father was in the military. I don’t know how regularly they attended church or with what intensity their beliefs were practiced. My parents met at Oklahoma Baptist University, and when I was born, my parents attended First Baptist Church, Atlanta.

Since the word “Baptist” has occurred four times in two paragraphs, it’s safe to say I have a Baptist background.

But my parents eventually left First Baptist because of disagreements with church ideas and wound up at Mount Carmel Christian Church. Notice the missing denomination.

The change did not go over well with my mother’s parents.

My parents eventually divorced. When I was in second grade, I moved with my mom, sister, and new stepdad to San Francisco. This reintroduced the Baptist thread, because stepdad was a Southern Baptist minister. Or had been, anyway—he left the church when the church turned its back on him during his divorce. His feelings of rejection and church hypocrisy were intense. Soon after we moved to San Francisco, by his orders, our family stopped attending church.

Not exactly how my mother had envisioned our new life in California.

My stepfather eventually began playing racquetball on Sunday mornings, which gave my mom an idea: she could take us girls to church during racquetball time. He wouldn’t have to go. But another family dynamic comes into play here – one we definitely don’t have time to get into: Our family, he said, did things “as a family” or not at all. Either we all went to church, or no one went to church. Since he wasn’t going, neither would we.

What’s a well-intentioned Christian mother to do? Well, since Tuesday nights was our stepdad’s late night at work, we started praying before our meals on Tuesday nights. After the meal my mom would choose a passage from the Bible, read it to us, and try to discuss it with us. If we heard his car come up the alley, we quickly put everything away.

This went on for years.

During this same time, our family began going to Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco—but only for Christmas and Easter services. (My stepdad was raised in the Episcopal Church so perhaps he felt some desire to reconnect with that denomination.) Since Mom got to pick what we did on Mother’s Day, we went to church on that day as well.

So let’s sum up: We have the Southern Baptist preacher’s daughter who occasionally goes to the Episcopal cathedral and one night a week secretly teaches her daughters about Christianity. We have the former Episcopalian turned Southern Baptist minister turned church-rejecting stepfather. And you have me, the quiet, observant, relatively compliant teenager.

Decision number one: When I go to college, I’m going to church every Sunday.

Decision number two: When I get married, we’re going to pray before dinner.

I headed to UC Berkeley, and sure enough, began going to a local church. I don’t even remember the denomination. Even after spending a Saturday night at a boyfriend’s place (okay, that’s my first sweaty-palmed honest phrase…what if my mother reads this?!) I would get up on Sunday morning, put on my nice clothes and walk to church. I continued going to church during college and during grad school at UCLA. And all along, it had more to do with defiance of my stepdad than belief.

When Dale and I got married, we didn’t pray before meals but did attend Wooddale Church, a Baptist-aligned megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. We went to Wooddale for about five years and even participated in a commitment ceremony with our two-year-old son, promising to raise him in a Christian home.

But it was wearing on Dale, and one day, as we were driving home from church, he said, “I just can’t go to church anymore.”

Let me stop there for a moment. As an elementary school kid, I wanted to go to church to make new friends and participate in the social activities I remembered from our time in Atlanta. As a teenager, I was completely neutral towards the Tuesday night prayer and bible verses. I was more in love with the fact that we were doing something behind my stepfather’s back. As a college student, I was in control of whether I went to church. And now, as a married woman, I was going to church with my family.

So “I just can’t go to church anymore” didn’t sit well.

Looking back, though — and it’s only recently that I have looked back — I realize it still wasn’t about belief vs. disbelief. I was still “siding” with my mom against my stepdad, still fighting a battle that was long since over.

There’s more, of course…but why not leave you with a cliffhanger until next time?

[On to Part 2]

BECCA McGOWAN is an elementary educator. She holds a BA in Psychology from UC Berkeley and a graduate teaching certificate from UCLA. She lives with her husband Dale and three children in Atlanta, Georgia.


happy birthday, big blue

pbb cover

One year ago today, Parenting Beyond Belief was born. The doctors were a bit worried at first — she was mostly blue, for one thing — but her spine was straight and she had two hands. Different sizes, sure, but two.

PBB opened on Amazon at 3300, the top one-tenth of one percent. A book that opens around 3000 typically settles contentedly into the 30-40,000 range after 6-8 weeks. Though the rank has gone up and down, it has been remarkably steady in the long haul, averaging around 3600 out of 4.5 million. Last night I checked the rank: 3302. So the audience continues to find the book, which is lovely.

This site now averages 1400 visitors a day, including a secular parents discussion forum, this blog, a page of resources for nonreligious parents, and the seminars. And the manuscript for a follow-up titled Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief is due to the publisher in five weeks and should be released around December.

the seminars

I am not a people-person. Folks always tell me they’re shocked to learn this. I suppose I do navigate PeopleWorld fairly well when necessary, but it doesn’t come naturally. I’d always rather be with a few familiar old shoes than a crowd of any kind. Parties suck the energy out of me, even as they make a bass-drumming bunny out of my wife. I disappear once or twice during any given party — simply decamp to the bathroom to splash water on my face and not chat for a few minutes. I’m not proud of this social ineptitude, but there it is.

Hiking alone for five days straight, on the other hand, or working alone in my home office every day, seeing only humans with whom I share DNA (in one way or another) for days on end, even weeks? Bliss.

So saying a seminar tour is more than a tad out of my comfort zone is…well…accurate. But we all have to move out of our comfort zones, or so I’ve heard.

Which is why I am surprised and even a bit pleased to discover, with six cities down and hopefully 30 to go, what it is that I look forward to as I leave for each trip.

It’s the people and their stories.

I am endlessly fascinated and moved by the human stories I’ve been hearing on the road. I simply can’t get enough of them. The mother of a newborn who is wrestling with her mother-in-law over baptism. The couple who recently found their way out of fundamentalism together and were immediately cut off (along with their daughters) from the rest of their family. The mother who pulled her daughter out of a religiously-saturated public school in the South to homeschool her — only to find the local homeschooling group required a pledge to follow “Christ-centered curricula” and to never teach evolution. The father whose ex-wife has converted to conservative Islam and now seeks full custody of their daughter — and appears close to getting it.

Then there are the adult nonreligious children of nonreligious parents, who wonder what the big deal is, as well as couples from families that are both religious and entirely open.

I’ve met people with deep scars and deeper resentments from having the fear of Hell drummed into them as kids, as well as the parents of a seven-year-old currently being terrorized to tears with that grotesque idea by his playmates.

Those most wounded by religion in the past often have the hardest time hearing that their kids need to be religiously literate. They want to keep the damn stuff as far from their kids as possible. I try to make the case that this is a recipe for producing a teen fundie — an attention-getting claim if ever there was. (I’ll make that case in an upcoming blog.)

One gentleman argued that we must say the word “evidence” as often as possible to our kids, suggests calling the winter holiday “Chrismyth,” etc, to drill home the difference in the religious and nonreligious approaches to knowledge. I’m not a big driller-homer, myself. I like to achieve the same things more subtly. But we all have to find our level.

I met a young woman for whom the section on helping kids deal with death had a special intensity: her husband, the father of their kids, has been diagnosed with brain cancer. I’ve been haunted by the thought of her and her kids nearly every day since we met. It completely breaks my heart, in no small part because my own dad died when I was young. I saw my own mom, widowed at 39, in that woman, and myself in her son.

A lesbian couple is currently working on pregnancy, even as they worry about coming out as nonbelievers to the evangelical parents of one of the women — something they want to get out of the way before a child arrives. “I love them dearly,” she said, “and they’ve just come around to accepting that I’m gay, and we’re talking again. Now I’m going hit them with this?”

I spoke at length with the parents of an impressionable seven-year-old (what other kind is there?) who has been invited, repeatedly, to join his friends at a Wednesday night bible study. The hitch? No parents allowed. One wonders why.

The seminar ends with suggestions for helping kids think about death. A child who becomes obsessively fearful of the idea of her own death is often stuck in a false concept of oblivion — what I call “me-floating-in-darkness-forever.” I offer a few specific ways to reframe this. After one seminar, a man approached and shook my hand.

“That thing about ‘me-floating-in-darkness’? I’ve always been terrified of death because that’s the way I’ve always seen it! I never even realized I was seeing it that way until you said that. I’m walking out of here today less afraid of death. That alone was worth the price of admission!”

All that after six cities.

The trick, as you might imagine, is coming up with a seminar that serves all those different needs, and what a trick it is. Any given issue has a wide range of significance to the audience. Take extended religious family. For some, this is a non-issue: the family is secular, the family is religious but open, or the family is 2000 miles away. For others, it is THE ISSUE.

Up next: Dallas/Fort Worth. I can’t wait to hear what y’all have to say.

DEUTERONOMY (bookin’ through the bible 11)

[back to LEVITICUS]


You’re a thirtyish Israelite. You’ve been wandering in the desert your entire life and are now poised on the doorstep of the Promised Land. You can practically taste the milk and honey—which, after nothing but manna all your life, sounds pretty damn good. Just one ordeal remains: the Trial by Sermon. Moses is geared up to give you Israelites a three-sermon thrashing, telling y’all (1) why you don’t deserve the reward you are about to get, (2) all the arcane rules you must henceforth follow, and (3) the many, many people you will have to exterminate — Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites — for not vacating the Promised Land. For though Yahweh was apparently able to promise you the land, he was not in a position to evict the previous tenants himself.

(For the actual slaughterfest, read Joshua. Deuteronomy is just the marching orders.)

Hangest thou in there, O Israel, until the end of the third sermon, and I promise you, Moses will finally die. Then you can proceed to the Promised Land and get on with the holy business of genocide.

So who’s ready for the most delightful combination of comedy and genocide since Springtime for Hitler?

SERMON #1: Dad reminds us what happened last time…like we’d forget

Moses reminds the Israelites of the reason for their troubles: God tried to lead them into the Promised Land 40 years earlier and they had disobeyed. (Okay, Moses was the one who actually incurred God’s wrath, but as he makes clear in Deut 4:21, the Israelites made him mess up. Did I promise comedy or did I?)

Now, as they enter the suburbs of Canaan, Moses is essentially turning around in the front seat and saying “Now listen, we’re about to pull into my boss’s driveway again, so I’m going over the rules one more time. And if you kids embarrass me again, so help me, it’s Deuteronomy 28! Got it?”

SERMON #2: The Rules

Moses: “Now listen carefully. I can’t go with you into the Promised Land, because—as I believe I mentioned—you made me disobey Yahweh. So I’ll give you the rules and then die. They are simple rules—so simple even a Hittite could follow them:

“Once you’re inside the P.L., worship only Yahweh, and only in the designated areas. Don’t listen to people from other cultures and religions. In fact, kill them. Drink, but don’t get drunk. No shrimp or pork, and if you enslave another Hebrew, be sure to let him go after six years. No fortunetelling or witchcraft. Kill stubborn sons and all Amalekites, but NOT fruit trees, the mothers of newborn birds, or livestock that have fallen over, because that would be mean.

“No mixing fabrics, crops, or genders. Follow thus-and-such rules for marriage, loans, hygiene, and military service. Don’t sacrifice blemished animals. And if you’ve murdered someone, we have designated three cities where you can flee for asylum.

“I believe that covers everything. Oh, one more, this is important: Women are forbidden to grab the groin of their husband’s enemy (Deut 25:11, lest ye doubt). Can’t believe I almost left that one out. That is all.”

That’s the gist of the sermon, but the way it proceeds is interestingly different from the earlier attempts to lay down the law—much more lawyerly and tight. He doesn’t just instruct the Israelites to worship only one god; he backs them into an epistemological corner with a pretty impressive rhetorical Q&A. It’s like Socrates, with worse logic but a much better beard—all circularity (“Yahweh is the only real god because he’s the one who spoke from the midst of the fire,” etc.) and argument from authority. But a tip of the yarmulke for at least making an effort at argument.

Take a moment to read and appreciate the breathtaking bloodlust in Deut 20:16. I’ll use the happiest, breeziest translation possible for this (The Message), and it still retains the ability to disgust an ethical humanist:

But with the towns of the people that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, it’s different: don’t leave anyone alive. Consign them to holy destruction: the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, obeying the command of God, your God. This is so there won’t be any of them left to teach you to practice the abominations that they engage in with their gods and you end up sinning against God, your God.

Cross-stitch THAT one on your throw pillow, Grandma.

Okay. So there’s the LAW portion of our program. Now for ORDER.


Sign no treaties with the heathens. Show them no mercy. Kill them all, smash their altars, chop down their sacred trees. And if your brother, or your son or daughter, or your wife, or your closest friend urges you to worship a rival god, show him no pity or compassion. Take his life. “Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death.”

And then it gets serious. Remember the hypothetical dad threatening his kids with Deut 28? Here goes. If you break Yahweh’s laws:

“You shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky.”

“The Lord will strike you with hemorrhoids, from which you shall never recover.” (28:27)

“You shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed.”

“If you pay the bride price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her.”

“You shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!;’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘if only it were morning!’—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”

“She who is most tender and dainty among you will secretly eat the afterbirth that issues from between her legs because of utter want.” (sometimes translated as eating the newborn itself)

Moses, creatively exhausted, dies, then (according to those who continue to assert that he wrote Deuteronomy) writes about his burial and the thirty days of mourning that followed.

Looking for the milk of human kindness in the Bible? Stick with the gospels—no no, better make that the synoptic gospels—and cherry-pick the epistles and proverbs, but steer clear of Deuteronomy. On the biblical wind-chill scale, Deuteronomy — please forgive the expression, Wiccans — is the witch’s tit.


How amazingly strange to learn that the very same evening I wrote about the death of Moses, Charlton Heston died.

Next time: ACTS
(date TBA)

Believers on ACTS
Skeptics on ACTS

[forward to ACTS]

april updates


1. I’m still at work on the Deuteronomy post and plan to post by Sunday. (More to say than I remembered…Holy Moses!)

2. We’re now into Chapter Four of Northing at Midlife, my still (dammit) unpublished travel narrative describing my secular midlife crisis on the trails of Britain. Chapter 4 is one of my favorites in the book. In today’s installment, I chat with my colon and trash-talk a beloved poet. Check it out.

3. One of my regulars (ondfly123) had a *spectacular* idea: a guest column by my wife Becca!

I, stupidly, had never even thought of it. She doesn’t even read the blog. (Her loving reply “And when exactly am I gonna find time to read your blog?!” is just one of the many ways she protects me from dangerously high levels of self-esteem.) Earlier this morning, I told her about the suggestion that she guest-blog. She screamed, then laughed and said she’d do it. Woohoo! Watch for it.
mcgowan kids
4. That has given me an even better idea. I’m going to see if my kids are interested in writing occasional posts. Turn this thing into a family affair! (Without Mrs. Beasley.)

5. I’ve been asked to write a feature for AAI’s Secular Nation magazine — “an overview/critique of several ongoing atheist and Freethinking projects that increase visibility of this community in the public square.” Vacillated, hemmed, hawed, then agreed. Hard to pass up a chance to do 3000 unpaid words when I’m under so many deadlines. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking and talking about quite a bit lately, so I fear I’ll find something to say.
matt cherry

6. Working with the brilliant and cool Matt Cherry at the Institute for Humanist Studies on an initiative we’re calling ONE SAFE GENERATION. The idea is to break the cycle of inherited violence by working toward a single generation safe from the fear of physical harm under which so many kids now grow up — everything from corporal punishment to forced conscription in war. Matt noticed that the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which has resolutions on a number of important social issues, has no stated policy position on corporal punishment. He asked me to draft a resolution, which we’ve now submitted to the IHEU for consideration at their upcoming General Assembly in Washington DC in June. I’ll share the text eventually.


7. For those of you who’ve asked about PBB events and other news: We’ve now added a NEWS box to the PBB homepage below the main menu.