Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Boy, the stuff I don’t know about Islam

kaaba332I know just enough about Islam to embarrass myself at Ramadan parties. Half of what I learn confirms Islam’s common ground (good and bad) with Judaism and that other one.

That common ground is especially fun when evangelical grandma takes the Belief-o-Matic Quiz and learns she’s 70 percent Muslim.

Then there are the differences, and they can go pretty deep. While cruising a webpage titled Effective Islamic Parenting, I came across this intriguing difference in a list of “General Laws of Development”:

An infant child comes into the world perfectly good and only becomes other than perfectly good while growing into adulthood due to the influences upon him/her during their years of development.

Compare to a passage I’ve quoted before from evangelical radio minister John MacArthur in his book Successful Christian Parenting:

The truth is that our children are already marred by sin from the moment they are conceived. The drive to sin is embedded in their very natures. All that is required for the tragic harvest is that children be allowed to give unrestrained expression to those evil desires.

In other words, children do not go bad because of something their parents do. They are born sinful, and that sinfulness manifests itself because of what their parents do not do.…There’s only one remedy for the child’s inborn depravity: The new birth — [to be ‘born again’].

Anyone out there with enough knowledge of Islam to confirm that it does not include a doctrine of inherent human sinfulness? If so, it’s a pretty fundamental difference, and one I did not know.

MoL Flashback: Where thanks are due

(First appeared on November 19, 2007.)

leaves329898Thanksgiving — 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,” I wrote 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.

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.

Best Practices 3: Promote ravenous curiosity

br2What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
BERTRAND RUSSELL, in Sceptical Essays (1928)

t5409here was a time when I was a quiet, closeted nonbeliever. It was a smallish moment that tipped me from passive disbelief to secular humanist activism. Not some Robertson/Falwell nonsense, nor a Bushism, not the abuse of children nor the disempowerment of women nor the endless throttling of science, not some reversal of social progress nor the spreading of ignorance and hatred and fear. These are all good reasons to become an activist, but the thing that tipped me was a simple moment of incuriosity.

My son Connor had always been a fantastically curious kid. I saw him once off by himself at the edge of our local wading pool, oblivious to a hundred other screaming, splashing kids, studying a tiny plant growing from a crack in the cement. For fifteen minutes. That’s my boy.

(via xkcd)

We had him in a Lutheran preschool, a great local program where he received a low-key, brimstone-free exposure to Judeo-Christian ideas and some early practice engaging those ideas with fearless curiosity. But there came a point, toward the end of his third and final year there, that I wondered if he had picked up something else.

One Sunday afternoon in April 2000, following him up the stairs of our home, I said, “Connor, look at you! Why are you growing so fast?”

“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “I guess God just wants me to grow.”


That reply would make a lot of parents all warm and woobly inside. Me, not so much. For me it was a sucker-punch to the heart. He had given his very first utterly incurious reply. He didn’t have to care or wonder about his own transformation from infancy to kidhood — he’d handed off the knotty question to God.

It kicked off a whole new phase in my life, that moment on the stairs. The next morning, the day after attending our Baptist church (for the last time), I dropped my son at his Lutheran preschool and headed off to my job at a Catholic college. When I got to work, I started posting timid quotations from nonbelievers on my office door with a sign inviting discussion, hoping to draw out debate or expressions of interest or even agreement from some of the closeted nonbelievers I knew were on campus.

Two years later, I published a satirical novel about a humanist professor at a Catholic college. A year after that, I came to blows with the college administration over free speech and hypocritical college policy. Three years after that I quit the job, and a year later Parenting Beyond Belief was born.

It all goes back to my allergic reaction to my son’s moment of bland incuriosity.

It was just a case of the intellectual sniffles for Connor. I’m sure he was back on his curious feet five minutes later. But it helped me to define one of the central values of my own life.

It’s not that religion is inherently incurious. Religion and science are both planted in the cortical freakishness that demands answers. It’s just that religion wants the answers it wants, while science wants the answers that are in the answer key. Also known as “the actual answers.”

Kids start off curious. Our job is to simply prevent it from being blunted by familiarity and passivity. I try to wonder aloud myself ( “I wonder why different trees turn different colors in the fall”) to keep my kids dissatisfied with the mere surface of things — the coolest stuff is behind the curtain, after all — and to always, always reward their curiosity with engagement, no matter how tired I am.

Not that I have to try all that hard. I have a house full of full-time wonderers, 100% distractable by their curiosity. Now that Becca’s teaching again, I’m the morning guy, and it only took a week or so for me to realize I can’t simply send Laney (7) upstairs after breakfast to put on her socks and shoes. When ten minutes pass and the bus is in view, I sprint up the stairs to find her engrossed in a book, tracing the rain on the window, or trying to sing while drinking water.

Saturday I watched the final game of her soccer season with Laney as goalie. When I saw the hot air balloon rising over the horizon, I knew without a doubt what would happen. Sure enough, five minutes later the balloon caught her eye, and she stood enchanted, unable to take her eyes from it as the ball sailed by and into the net.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but I imagine it’s responsible for more than a few easy goals.

Her body language and crimson face broke my heart. It took her several minutes to clear her head and wipe the tears from her eyes.

When we got into the car at the end, I didn’t say “you’ve got to focus on the game.” She got that message clearly enough, as she will all her life. Instead I asked if she saw that amazing hot air balloon.

She lit up. “It was awesome,” she said. “I wonder how they work?”

Secular Homeschoolers — guest column by JJ Ross

You think YOUR secular kids face some tricky issues in Christian-branded society? Ha!

bks44093 Picture a homeschooling family. Do you see a bible in the picture, prominent in the foreground — perhaps on the kitchen table around which six or seven modestly-dressed children do their lessons, while their denim-jumpered mother bakes bread and solemnly applies her righteous rod to strays?

Kathleen Parker’s column this week about the GOP might as well be about homeschooling:

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch…is what ails [us] and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh.

You could say I’m a “constituent” of homeschooling, but in a radically different picture from the evangelical right wing oogedy-boogedy branch. Heck, not just a different picture, a whole different story, written in another language.

Last week Dale said of secular parent blogging:

“Our greatest deficit — the lack of a connected, mutually supportive community — is slowly being erased. Equally important, this chorus of voices helps us to build consensus about the best practices for nonreligious parenting. So visit ‘em, read ‘em, comment and link up — and let me know who I missed.”

He can picture secular homeschool parent bloggers as a friendly neighborhood in that community. So if homeschooling, like Harvard, had a Humanist of the Year Award — and why don’t we, come to think of it? — Dale would deserve it. 🙂

We’re just starting to find ourselves and each other in the blogosphere, a search made more challenging by the fact we don’t know what to call ourselves. (Homeschoolers Beyond Belief?) Secular, inclusive, rational, atheist, freethinking? The online homeschooling community fights over the word “homeschool” itself, never mind the weight of all those adjectives hung around it like baggage on a skycap’s cart.

Some of us are trying Thinking Homeschoolers and Evolved Homeschoolers on for size. The main lesson I’ve taught myself so far is that it takes real thinking — knowledge work if you will — with plenty of detours through link farms and those insipid generic “about homeschooling” blurbs, to discover solid secular homeschooling resources that endure.

Three comprehensive favorites:

National Home Education Network with discussion forums (now read-only) on thinking topics such as networking between religious and not-religious families

Sandra Dodd’s Radical Unschooling and her “merrily unschooling” family blog

A to Z Home’s Cool

A secular network of trustworthy — preferably jaded — independent homeschooling parents doesn’t just connect us with the good stuff; it helps steer us around the bad. There’s the HSLDA to get to the bottom of, of course, which I won’t link because those patriarchs blot out the homeschooling sun without any help from me. Then there’s an elaborate online con game in which an individual (with many names) sets up a fake but believable show of influence as homeschool leader and authority, quoted by reporters, selling products and running private schools, sometimes from dozens of intertwined sites very unlikely for one parent to suspect, detect or connect.

It takes running down rabbit trails and then networking in controlled chaos, to share what we learn in places innocent newbies are likely to find it, and save them starting all over again — real education! I would give you three infamous names to prove the point, except then Dale would get indignant letters threatening legal action. (That’s how they operate. See why you probably won’t hear about them without some networking?)

Email lists were the hot ticket when we started homeschooling in the 1990s. For years they were my lifeline. Ten years ago the secular National Home Education Network (NHEN) was born of and built on email lists. But — maybe in a form of punctuated equilibrium, or would it be climate change? — it’s not the same today. My blog partner Nance Confer and I still operate Parent-Directed Education for a static membership, 28,000 archived messages dating back to the summer of 2001.

If you’re just burning to roam the archives of a particular list, it may be worth joining. State and local email lists often thrive; I hear two good examples are VA Eclectic HS with Shay Seaborne and Stephanie Elms (see her bloglink below) and Ben Bennett’s Indiana Home Educators Network (IHEN).

And there are tightly focused mentoring lists, for new unschoolers say, or college prep advice. But generally I no longer recommend email lists, for any homeschool parent comfortable in the blogosphere.

So think blogs, maybe find a couple here that speak to you. Then see who comments there, and who’s on that blog’s blogroll. Follow at your leisure, to infinity if you like. The universe is expanding, not contracting. 🙂

This has worked better for me than searching for atheist or rational, plus homeschooling or school choice or education freedom, etc. Oh, yeah, here’s a tip — don’t assume “rational” means merely logic and thinking. It can indicate ideology more than analysis, code for Ayn Rand discipleship as an “Objectivist” and sometimes coupled with an extreme brand of libertarian homeschool politics that uses Founding Father quotes and defend-the-constitution rhetoric to forward its fascist fringe beliefs. There is one blog for example listed on every “rational” homeschool blogroll I see, that’s anything but. So I don’t go back to that blog. Just sayin’ — it would be RATIONAL to vet your links more thoroughly, ahem, unless you too actually believe Obama is Jesus and Hitler all rolled up into one Marxist plot to overthrow America.

With that [drum roll please!] here’s a grab bag of 15 smartly secular homeschooling blogs, from my own little corner in my own little chair, just right for my home and hearth:

Bore Me to Tears

Cocking a Snook!

Doc’s Sunrise Rants

Farm School

Get In and Hang On

Home Education, Religion, Politics & Eclectic Stuff (HERP&ES)

Happy As Kings

HMS Indefatigable

Mental Multivitamin

The New Unschooler

O’Donnell Web

Rolfe Schmidt


Throwing Marshmallows

Unschool Days
JJ Ross blogs about thinking parenting and secular homeschooling at Cocking a Snook!

REVELATION (bookin’ through the bible 13)

[back to ACTS]

Thomas Jefferson considered it “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” Robert Ingersoll called it “the insanest of all books.” Even Martin Luther, who knows a thing or two about being offensive, found it “offensive.” And though some modern theologians call it the “least important” book in the Bible, the Googlemind has a rather higher opinion of its significance:

Google hits for various canonical books:

— “Book of Luke” or “Gospel of Luke”: 414,000 hits
— “Book of Matthew” or “Gospel of Matthew”: 517,000
— “Book of Genesis”: 685,000
— “Book of Love”: 827,000
— “Book of Records”: 893,000
— “Book of Revelation”: 1.14 million

So whether or not it’s theologically “important,” the Book of Revelation clearly has our attention.

I Googled the phrase “The Book of Revelation is the most” to see what word comes next. Some favorites:

controversial–mysterious–troubling–important–detailed–thoroughly literary–dynamic, powerful, awesome, devastating–dispensational–thoroughly Jewish–puzzling, cryptic, frightening–misinterpreted–unusual–beautifully orchestrated symphony–extreme–hard to understand–fascinating–beautiful, majestic–bewildering–hopeful–comforting…

…book in the Bible. And now that Barack Obama has been proven to be the Antichrist — the Beast having chosen to reveal himself through the Illinois Lottery — we’d better take a look at the book that has warned us about him lo these many years.

rapt66095A brief synopsis, for those of you who haven’t (yet) had the pleasure of devouring Left Behind:

John of Patmos had himself a “vision.” It starts with Christ appearing with eyes of flame, feet of bronze and a sword coming out of his mouth. He explains to John (in an understandably sword-muffled fashion) that he, John, should watch carefully so he can describe the vision to the churches.

John is taken before the throne of God where he sees twenty-four chosen ones and four Creatures covered with eyes, giving glory to God. Seven seals on seven scrolls are opened by a lamb. As each is opened, various things are loosed on the world—war, plague, death, earthquakes, and (my personal favorite) really outrageous food prices.

Sun black, moon red, stars fall, sky disappears, mountains flung, 144,000 people are marked with the seal of God.

As the lamb opens the seventh seal, everyone takes a thirty-minute break. Thank you, unions.

Seven trumpets sound, bloody hail and fire, sea turns to blood. Locusts that look like horses with lion’s teeth and sting like scorpions fly out of the abyss and for five months sting anyone who do not have the seal of God on his or her forehead. One third of humankind is killed.

John eats a scroll, and a war breaks out in heaven. A dragon is defeated. Seven vials of wrath opened. An angel tells birds to feast upon dead human bodies. The beast and the false prophet are cast alive into a lake of fire. The rest are killed with the sword of Jesus. A thousand years pass, God sends Satan to deceive us all, and whoever isn’t found in the Book of Life is cast into the Lake of Fire as the rest ascend to glory.

The End.

Imagine if you will my shock and surprise upon learning that John’s home island of Patmos has been the Mediterranean’s premiere source of hallucinogenic mushrooms for thousands of years.1

For many years I wondered not so much at how anyone could believe such unhinged ravings, but why they would even want to—why such a blood-soaked festival of flying monsters and burning flesh appeals to anyone. And it does, you know. The End of It All is not simply accepted by fundamentalists—it is yearned for.

rapt66095William Miller, founder of the Adventist movement, predicted that the end of the world would come on October 22, 1844. When it didn’t, his followers referred to it not as “The Day of Phew!”, but as “The Great Disappointment.”2

When yet another, later prediction maddeningly passed, the first one had to be renamed The First Great Disappointment. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

Many denominations, including Sarah Palin’s Assemblies of God, capture the yearning for the end perfectly by calling the coming end of the world “the blessed hope.” And she almost got the nuclear codes.

But I’ve come to empathize with the yearning to some degree, even if I don’t share it. It isn’t just about the triumph over death—it’s the triumph over injustice and evil. No matter how bad and unfair things seem, says John of Patmos through his shroomy haze, the wicked will one day pay in the most horrible way possible, and you’ll get to watch.

Compared to most of humanity, I’m a shar-pei sitting in the warm, fat lap of obscene privilege. I have never been the impotent victim of genuine injustice. I have recourse when I’m wronged, and I’m rarely seriously wronged. But to be a slave in the 17th century, or an impoverished Irish peasant in the 19th, or a Sudanese villager in the midst of civil war, to be shit upon relentlessly, to live in fear of an oppressor and to know you will die unvindicated for whatever happens to you—to live like that, imbued with our innate sense of fairness and to see none of it—I can see how Ultimate Fiery Justice would exert an irresistible pull. I’ve even seen the need for ultimate justice ( “Without it, Hitler would never pay!”) offered as the reason to believe.

I have considerably less empathy for those who define evil so misguidedly that the burning flesh they dream of smelling is not that of a slaveowner or warlord, but of the gay, the Jew, and the atheist. Not that I don’t know where they got such a grotesque and immoral definition of evil (HINT: See 1000-page preamble to Revelation).

Perhaps the most revealing moral question we could ever ask is whose shoes you’d like to see disappearing under the surface of that eternal lake of fire, with the prize going to those who say “none of the above.”

Okay, there it is. I had predicted the Bookin’ Through the Bible series would end last February (a date now known as The First Great Disappointment), but I proved infinitely distractable. Maybe that’s God’s problem as well—Armageddon’s on the calendar, but it just keeps getting pushed back.

1“Magic mushrooms hit the God spot” (Australian Broadcasting Corp)
22000 years of end-of-the-world predictions
UK Channel 4 documentary on the continuing worldwide spread of end-times beliefs

(Click on the bible study series link in the sidebar to thumb through the rest of the series.)

May we suggest…

pcmicro112099I get a steady trickle of requests for my thoughts on the best science-oriented toys and games for kids. With Krismas fast approaching, the trickle has now grown to a burbling splurt. So I’ve spent the last few weeks researching the current product market, reading reviews, and haunting the Discovery Store to create a new page for the PBB website: Recommended Gifts.

The result is a list of 25 extremely cool and unique science-oriented gifts for kids. I’ve leaned toward the fun and wonder-inducing, as well as those least likely to end up under the bed by 4 pm on the 25th. There’s a microscope that hooks up to your PC, Smithsonian’s Crime Lab Investigation kit, laser chess, Boomwhacker musical tubes, a fossilmaker, and (I’m sorry, I’ve never stopped being intrigued by this since I first saw it at age seven) Newton’s friggin’ Cradle.
Perhaps best of all (here in the midst of our national post-trickle-down unpleasantness), 15 of the 25 items are under 25 bucks. All have been vetted for quality and the ability to reveal the “intoxicating wonders of the real world”1 to our kids. More to come in the weeks ahead.

Last and certainly least, ordering through these links will help support this website and the Parenting Beyond Belief Seminars. So shop early and shop often!

ALSO: The Resources page has been completely revamped to focus primarily on books and other resources that are reviewed in the upcoming book Raising Freethinkers.

OH AND THEN THERE’S THIS: A reminder that registration is now underway for the next three Parenting Beyond Belief Seminars, in Boston (December 6), Austin (December 13), and Chicago (January 24).
1Parenting Beyond Belief, p. 222

The first really, really hard goodbye

“Daddy!! Something’s wrong with Max!!” Erin’s face was a mask of anguish. “He’s making sounds I’ve never heard before…and he’s laying wrong!”

Erin’s guinea pig Max, the first pet that was all her own, was clearly not OK. The vet confirmed an upper respiratory infection the next morning, dispensing a little medicine and not much hope.

“Guinea pigs are prey items,” he said, introducing me to a colorful new term I was glad Erin didn’t hear. “They don’t handle stress well. But sometimes the medicine works. He’ll either get better quickly…or he won’t.”
Erin held him all evening, cooing and stroking and sobbing. In the morning, he was gone.

When Erin’s heart breaks, it takes every other heart in the room with it — and her heart is as broken now as I’ve ever seen it. I know when her sadness crosses into heartbrokenness because the inside ends of her eyebrows turn upward like little tildes. It kills me. I can weather her sadness, but when the eyebrow tips head north — well, I hereby warn her future significant others to keep those eyebrows smooth and flat.

Still, I know the loss of Max, as eyebrow-creasingly painful as it is for her, is an important experience for her. Pets can contribute, however unwillingly, to our lifelong education in mortality. Though we don’t buy pets in order for kids to experience death (with the possible exception of aquariums, aack!), most every pet short of a giant land tortoise will predecease its owner.

The deaths of my own various guinea pigs, dogs, fish and rabbits were my first introductions to irretrievable loss. At their passings, I learned two things Erin is learning now: how to grieve, and just how deeply we can love. They certainly helped prepare me for the sudden loss of my father. It didn’t make the loss itself any easier, nor did it shorten my grief, which continues to this day. But the grief didn’t blindside me in quite the way it would have if my father’s death had been my first experience of profound loss.

When we looked into the cage Thursday morning and saw that Max was still, Erin screamed, then did the precise opposite of what I would have done: she flung open the cage, grabbed him, hugged him to her and wailed.

I’ve never had this kind of equanimity with dead bodies. I recoil from lifelessness. When Opie, my own dog of 13 years, died ten years back, I nearly paid someone $300 to remove his body from the yard. When (for lack of $300, and no other reason) I did it myself, it took all of my personal steel. Ever since I stared at my dead father, I just can’t bear the recognition of what’s no longer there.

Erin hugged Max’s little body to her for an hour and keened. She stroked his fur and touched his teeth and gently rolled his tiny paws between her fingers, all the time whispering Maxie, Maxie. Please wake up.

Then came a monologue both stunning and familiar — that ancient litany of regret, guilt, and helplessness:

I wish I had given him a funner life. He didn’t have enough fun.
Do you think he knew I loved him?
I should have played with him more.
I wanted to watch him grow up!
Do you think I did something wrong? I must have done something wrong!
I want to hear his little noises again.
It isn’t fair at all. it isn’t fair. Things should be fair.

She sang in a concert at the end of the day and was all smiles for two full hours — then lost it again when we returned home. So it’s been for two days.

Even our dog Gowser, who always had a special fascination with Max, has spent hours staring into the cage, then pacing, then staring again, whimpering quietly with confusion.


We buried Max in the backyard this morning under a metaphor of falling yellow leaves. Erin placed him in the shoebox on a layer of soft bedding. She put his water bottle to his lips once, twice, three times, convulsing with tears. She added food pellets near his head, like an ancient Egyptian preparing Pharoah for the journey to the next life. Flower petals, then Max’s favorite toy, and at last — this nearly did me in — she carefully dried her tears and placed the tissue in with him.

We talked over the grave about what a lucky guy he’d been to be born at all, that a trillion other guinea pigs never got the chance to exist, to be loved and cuddled like he was. She liked that.

Experiencing loss and regret has one undeniable payoff — it can make us appreciate what we still have. It’s no coincidence that Gowser has received more love and attention in the last three days than ever before.

Grandmas Gone God-Wild

This guest column by Robyn Parnell is one of three winners in the first annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition.


Grandmas Gone God-Wild

by Robyn Parnell

What defines good or evil? Can moral authority exist without divine dictate? If there’s no god, who pops up the next Kleenex? These questions are pieces of existential cake for secular parents compared to dealing with Grandmas Gone God-Wild.

Our family recently attended my husband’s (H) family reunion. As is her custom after such visits, H’s mother (MIL) wrote to our children. As is their custom upon receiving snailmail, my daughter (D) and son (S) handed their respective notecards to me, requesting translation (“I can’t read Grandma’s handwriting.”)

The notes seemed innocuous, if gushier than usual. Grandma thanked them for coming to the reunion, praised their characters, and effused about the pictures she’d taken: “D, You are a beautiful person, inside & out; it’s fun to see your smile!”

D, who loathes family photo sessions, lasered me an I-know-what-she’s-doing-and-it-won’t-work! look. We both giggled, then gasped, as the notes’ closings caught us off guard: “We didn’t discuss it when we were with you but we are still disappointed & sad that you all have rejected God. He is really a loving God – so hope you get to know Him sometime! We love you!”

“All that stuff about the smile and being a beautiful person – ick,” D sputtered. “She was buttering me up!”

“Just when I thought this conflict was over….” S spoke as if narrating a horror movie. “It’s back from the grave with an icy hand!”

Years ago, our family realized that our naturalistic world view isn’t compatible with religion. We neither concealed nor proclaimed this fact, although our car’s accumulation of freethought-friendly bumper stickers (“What would the Flying Spaghetti Monster Do”) was a likely pointer.

During a summer visit, MIL noticed our de-churched Sundays and questioned H, who confirmed her suspicions. It brought out a side to the heretofore moderate, MYOB Lutheran lady that neither H nor I anticipated.

At first she confined her Save-An-Apostate efforts to H. Then, during a Spring Break trip to my in-laws’ home, out of the breakfast table blue MIL asked H and me why we’d “rejected God.” (“It was weird,” said S, who’d overheard the conversation. “The calmer you and Dad stayed, the more upset Grandma got.”) And after yet another family trip, MIL sent H a four-page letter on the subject. One good thing has risen from this situation, she wrote: her faith is stronger, and she prays for us daily.

“The last thing we intended by leaving religion was to create a religious fanatic,” I chuckled. H concurred, and drafted a reply. Which he didn’t send. He told me he didn’t want to encourage “that kind of relationship” with his mom.

Prior to the reunion trip, our children told me they dreaded Grandma harping on “the religion thing.” “It’s like she thinks we’re a problem she has to solve,” D moaned. MIL’s notes provoked more than indignant laughter from her grandchildren — disappointment, anger, and betrayal flashed in their eyes. So now, I told H, you have a problem to solve.

Letters, phone calls, “witnessing” books – what MIL says and sends to us is extraneous to the issue at hand, which is that she must stop sermonizing our kids. Professions of love are irrelevant. She loves them? Duh; she’s their grandmother. She needs to love them as a grandparent should: unconditionally and uncritically.

She noted their fine qualities — was that sincere? Aside from being in better moods come Sunday morning their essential natures haven’t changed since our family became religion-free. They remain the “intelligent, wonderful, helpful, kind” children she’d extolled; they haven’t started kicking blind beggars or tearing legs off flies. The only discernible change is her attitude toward them.

D & S are well aware of Grandma’s views on religion. Offering unsolicited, critical comments about their views is presumptuous; also, she’s setting herself up for not being taken at face value by her grandkids, who have experienced her not-so-hidden agenda. Praise, compliments, and (biggest ick of all) declarations of love are now seen as set-ups for the altar call. I assume MIL wants love and respect, not toleration, but she’s heading toward “Just smile and nod, you know how she is,” territory.

H rose to the occasion and sent a letter to his mother, analogizing the Serenity Prayer (nice touch, I thought) to warmly yet firmly request that, if she feels she must proselytize, she should pick on someone her own size. MIL replied with more professions of love, declaring she’d merely intended to share “the facts” with us. She did not acknowledge his request.

“We haven’t heard the last of this,” H sighed.

This calls for another bumper sticker. Perhaps I’ll append one I’ve seen elsewhere: “Lord, save us from your followers. Or just Grandma.”
ROBYN PARNELL is a writer and secular parent living in Oregon. When not working on innumerable fiction projects, she searches for worthy additions to her bumper sticker collection, which includes family favorites “God Told Me To Embarrass My Kids,” and “Jesus is My Co-Pilot, Buddha is my Navigator, And Vishnu Will Be Serving Drinks Once We Reach Cruising Altitude.” Parnell shares life with one freethinking husband, two children, and an assortment of pagan pets (cats, reptiles, spiders, dust bunnies).

Blog on, ye secular parentals!

parentscape-09When first I turned the key on the Meming of Life, I poked around the Internets a bit to see who else might be blogging about secular parenting. I found four: Noell Hyman’s Agnostic Mom, The Atheist Mama, Atheist in a Minivan, and Humanist Mama.

I started writing The Meming of Life in March ’07, two weeks before Parenting Beyond Belief was released, expecting to blog for about six months, just to see the book launch through. Still at it, 255 posts later.

In the past two years, a number of blogs have appeared with a significant nonreligious parenting focus, each helping to open that closet door a wee bit wider. Here’s an attempted timeline:

AUG 2005
Agnostic Mom

NOV 2005
The Atheist Mama

AUG 2006
Atheist in a Minivan

FEB 2007
Humanist Mama

MAR 2007
The Meming of Life
Belgian Atheist

AUG 2007
The SkepDad Blog

NOV 2007
Raising Three Thinkers

FEB 2008
Humanist Dad

APR 2008
A Secular Parenting Blog
Science-Based Parenting by Skeptic Dad

MAY 2008
PhD in Parenting

JUN 2008
Skeptical Mom

JUL 2008
Domestic Father

AUG 2008
Humanist Mom

SEP 2008
Rational Moms

OCT 2008
Atheist Dad

Our greatest deficit — the lack of a connected, mutually supportive community — is slowly being erased. Equally important, this chorus of voices helps us to build consensus about the best practices for nonreligious parenting. So visit ’em, read ’em, comment and link up — and let me know who I missed.

[Watch for a post next week featuring secular homeschooling bloggers.]

As the Right fights…

eleph330929After dominating the country’s politics for years, the conservatives’ grip on power was quickly fading. The Chief Executive was already enormously unpopular when a financial tsunami struck. Over a million homeowners ended up in foreclosure. Unemployment soared. To avert economic disaster, the government poured billions into a bailout of the financial sector. But it was too late. In the next election, voters expressed their lost confidence in conservative leadership, and the liberals swept to power in a landslide victory.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m talking about the past two months in the US. In fact, I’m describing the UK in the 1990s. The British Conservative Party held the reins for 18 years, then was trounced by the liberal Labour Party—at which point the Conservatives went through a “struggle for the soul of the Party” — precisely what’s now happening in the U.S.

They eventually split into three factions: the centrist “One Nation” Conservatives, Free Market Conservatives, and The Cornerstone Group, social conservatives whose motto “Faith, Flag and Family” says it all.

Because compromise is a longstanding element of British politics (and British life in general), the three elements remain under a single party identity, struggling for dominance of the platform. But infighting among the factions is credited in part with keeping the Conservatives out of power for over a decade.

Republicans in the US have a similarly mix of the sane, the selfish, and the sanctimonious, and it’s becoming ever clearer that these bedfellows are heading into a bloody civil war. Because compromise is seen as weakness in American culture (and religion), I don’t see it ending in a three-winged party. The big red tent can no longer hold Colin Powell, Pat Robertson, George Will and Sarah Palin. I think the GOP will split in half. And (in case you were wondering about relevance) this will open a completely new way of looking ideology in the US—including religion.

The new parties:

The New Republicans are intelligent advocates of small government, limited social engineering, and fiscal conservatism. They are furious at having their party hijacked by the mindless lunatic fringe and their moralistic obsessions. The NRP will merge with Libertarians to revive Goldwater Republicanism.

Populist, anti-intellectual, ultra-nationalist and über-religious, The CAP will finally have a party unfettered by compromises with the real world. Informed by American exceptionalism and fundamentalist Christianity, it will be in essence an American fascist party.

I use “fascist” here not as a cheap epithet but as a literal political descriptor. The historian Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Political theorist Roger Griffin adds that “The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence.” A perfect description of the Religious Right.

The Christian Americans will front a candidate for President in 2012 by the name of Sarah Palin.

Freed from the unwieldy social obsessions of the Religious Right, the New Republicans will have more in common with Democrats — not everything, but more — than with the Christian America Party. It would be in the interest of the Dems to work with the NRP to keep the CAP from exerting undue influence.

But if Democrats have become too blindly allergic to the word “Republican,” they may fail to recognize the transformation of the Republican brand, driving the NRP back into the arms of the Religious Right. Which would be bad.

And now the point.

This new fault line in American politics might help dissolve another strained coalition in American life: the big tent of religious faith. Progressive religious believers have long been uncomfortable with those on the wingnut fringe of their worldview but are often compelled to defend “faith” in general because they are under that same big tent. That has made bridge-building between the nonreligious and progressively religious difficult. And that’s a shame, because as I never tire of pointing out, liberal religionists have much more in common with secularists on a wide range of issues and attitudes than they do with fundamentalism.

As Bruce Bawer (author of Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity) has noted,

theological liberals of every denomination have found that they have more in common with one another than with the conservatives in their own denominations. Responding to the research of biblical scholars and the ”historical Jesus” movement, they have de-emphasized doctrine.

Meanwhile leaders of the religious right have preached that salvation depends on believing the correct dogma, even as they have succeeded in reducing the considerable doctrinal distinctions that once divided evangelicals, fundamentalists and charismatics.

As a result, American Protestantism is in the midst of a major shift. It is being split into two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity.

These two religions — the Church of Law, based in the South, and the Church of Love, based in the North — differ on almost every big theological point.

I would simply add that Bawer’s “Church of Love” also has much more in common with the nonreligious than with the “Church of Law.”

You can see this in my August post about the Belief-o-Matic Quiz. A secular humanist shows a 60-75 percent overlap with mainstream-to-liberal Christians, while an evangelical shows only a 20-40 percent overlap with mainstream-to-liberal Christians.

The coming fracture on the right can help to isolate and more clearly define the anti-intellectual, fundamentalist side of religious expression in the US. I think that now is the time for the nonreligious to get over our allergy to the word “religion”—to begin opening dialogues and building bridges of common interest and common values with the sizeable non-insane segment of religious believers in this country.

[UPDATE: AHA! I have apparently convinced Christine Todd Whitman.]

[UPDATE: And now Kathleen Parker!]