Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Review: The Humanist Approach to Happiness

One of the great benefits of being a secular humanist in the 21st century is easy access to the thoughts and insights of others who share your basic worldview.

Even a generation ago it took some genuine effort to find those voices. And step one was overcoming the natural inertia of not knowing whether there was anything to find. The belief that Madalyn Murray O’Hair and I were the only nonbelievers on the planet kept me from even trying to discover otherwise until I was in my early thirties.

Now it’s all just a Google or Amazon search away.

For many years, virtually all of the books for nontheists had a kind of superhuman quality to them — stratospheric works of science or philosophy that blow your hair back with articulate rigor. I couldn’t read The End of Faith or pretty much anything by Russell or Hitchens without feeling both amazed and a little bit cowed by the intellectual horsepower.

I leave such books grateful for the support they provide my own position. But until recently, there hasn’t been much in the way of personal accounts of everyday folks living a humanist life.

Nica Lalli’s Nothing: Something to Believe In, published less than four years ago, was a welcome departure from the hifalutin’ — a personal account of a life lived without religion. Andrew Park’s Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) was also a wonderful read — not just because it describes my parenting seminar at Harvard for several pages (heh), but because it’s the voice of someone so damn normal, living a life very much like my own.

The latest entry on the shelf by and for humanist mortals is Jen Hancock’s The Humanist Approach to Happiness, a book that likewise distinguishes itself by the author’s down-to-earth voice and perspective.

Look in vain for arguments against religious belief or ways to deal with the evangelical schoolteacher. To paraphrase the cover tagline, this book is one humanist’s thoughts on personal ethics and how to lead a happier, more productive life.

Jen never tries to speak universally. She speaks for herself, clearly and informally, thinking out loud about decision making, simplicity, honesty, body ethics, sex, vibrators, relationships, addiction, self-image, pooping, death, and more. Her own thoughts are salted with quotes from Bertrand Russell to Britney Spears, including some keepers I hadn’t seen before. The net effect is a conversation about everything with an intelligent, unpretentious friend.

About thirty pages in, I began to recognize something I have seen before: the relaxed assurance of a second-generation humanist. I flipped the book to read the author blurb, and sure enough, Jen is that still-elusive beast — a humanist who was raised by humanists. PBB contributor Emily Rosa, also a second-generation humanist, writes with the same delightfully relaxed style.

Jen makes one point that for all its obvious simplicity is rarely made: that behaving ethically and doing good tends to increase a person’s own happiness. It’s often implied that doing good is an uphill battle, a fight against our sinful nature that requires surrender to a greater power. In fact, doing good is one of the smoother paths to a satisfying life. The rewards, both internal and external, are substantial.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Jen writes a regular humanist column for her local paper, surely one of the few in the country. Her authorial style resembles the personal voice of the columnist — a good thing for this kind of work.

The Humanist Approach to Happiness is a delightful read and a useful resource. Learn more at Jen’s website, or grab it (for under 11 bucks!) at Amazon.

cul de sac

culdesacWhat a few weeks it’s been.

In the midst of the hectic usual, two people my family loved died. One, my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother, was expected. The other, my stepfather — though 84 — was not.

The kids have done really well. Deep sadness, especially at bedtime, but also that lovely working-through, that profound engagement.

Great-Grandma Huey was first, and they stared into her casket with the same combination of grief and wonder I felt when my dad died. She’s clearly not there. So where is she?

The girls had been a blur of questions and commentary since her death days before, including a tangent into reincarnation. I think it was Laney who eventually connected that idea to our natural cycle — that every atom in us has been here since the beginning of time, part of planets and suns and animals and plants and people before coming together to make us. That every bit of us returns to the world to fuel the ongoing story is a gorgeous natural symmetry that never ceases to move and even console me, and my kids have long been enamored of it.

The service was personal and emotional in that Southern Baptist way, including the usual fluster of assurances that she was now in the very Presence.

After all that, I was perplexed to hear the minister read from First Thessalonians at the grave:

We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

For an hour we’d heard about Grandma’s current seat in heaven. Now Paul tells us she will sleep in the ground until the Second Coming, only then rising to meet the Lord.

It’s the single greatest gap between common belief and actual binding scripture, and the minister had put it right out there. I looked around. No one else was listening for content.

I quietly cursed myself for never being able to do otherwise. Once in a while would be nice.

As the crowd dispersed, Delaney suddenly pointed at the casket and whispered, “What is that thing on the outside?”

I’d been wondering too. The coffin was sitting in what looked to be a solid metal outer box. As Laney spoke, the cemetery workers closed the lid (of what I’ve since learned is called a burial liner, a fairly recent innovation used in the U.S. and apparently nowhere else), cranking down hard on four handles, sealing it tight.

Erin looked at the sealed apparatus, appalled. “So much for returning to the earth,” she said. “She’s never gettin’ out of there.”

After all of our talk about the beauty of going back into the system, of being a link in an endless chain, Grandma’s atoms end up bicycling in a cul de sac until the end of time — or until the sun goes nova, I suppose. Until then, the license to dance is revoked. I think it struck us all as just…wrong.

Now all three kids want to be cremated. Laney wants to be scattered from a cliff over the ocean. I’m following other processes with interest. But one way or another, I want my atoms on a through street.

(More later.)

“My Christian wife” – a guest spot by Larry Tanner

A self-described “hard-line Atheist” interviews himself about his strong, loving marriage to a fervent Christian. A great read, and plenty to discuss.

beckyMy wife is the most special and wonderful person. She is a Christian of deep belief. She enjoys being part of an evangelical church. She likes the people of the church, the community, and the many opportunities for participation.

She and I are very different in some respects, but together we work. We met in 1995 and have been building a life together ever since.

I figure some might be curious about the relationship of a hard-line Atheist and a fervent Christian, so I put together a self-interview. That is, I wrote some questions and answered them myself below. If folks like the subject and format, perhaps I’ll ask the wife if she would be willing to answer questions from y’all.

1. Let’s start with an obvious question: How is it that two people of such different–perhaps even opposing–beliefs get together and build an apparently happy marriage?
My wife and I actually share many beliefs in common. Our values are fundamentally similar, and our differences are often complementary rather than contradictory. Religion and religious belief are places of difference between us, but in most every other place, we are in just the same place.

Anyways, I think people make more of religious difference than there needs to be. My wife and I are different people, and we always have been. We have different jobs and different backgrounds. We don’t always vote for the same people. We like different foods. Our tastes in music and art can be way off.

As far as I can tell, religion is just another difference. It’s something that each of us has and keeps in the household, but it doesn’t really define our home. It doesn’t dominate our relationship at all. Rather, our lives together are dominated by just living. We try to be together in the morning. I leave for work, and then I come home at night and we try to be together with the kids until their bedtime routine starts.

Maybe if we had both been Catholic or Jewish when we started dating, things would be different today. But since we started out with difference, I think that religion quickly and necessarily became bracketed as a personal thing and not a universal thing.

When we first met, my wife was a practicing Catholic and I identified as Jewish. I don’t remember the state of her belief, or my own. When we moved in together in 1997, she took a spot teaching Sunday school at the local church, and I eventually got involved with my local Hillel house. I even taught the kindergartners in Hebrew school!

If we ever saw our religious differences as a problem, we didn’t see it as a big problem or as a relationship problem. We wanted to be together; that was always the important point. We didn’t even need to say it. From the beginning of our relationship, being together was implicitly understood and not being together never entered our minds.

2. You both went through changes in religious thinking, right?
Very much. In the 2001-2003 timeframe, my wife started to move away from the Catholic church. We were back in the Boston area by then, and the child sex abuse scandal had started to hit. The response of the Church to these horrific acts perpetrated by priests and then knowingly covered up at the highest levels of the institution–well, it was too much to take. The Church’s position on homosexuality was probably also an issue for my wife. Our oldest daughter was confirmed Catholic–that was in 2003–but I don’t think my wife went to church very much in those days.

It wasn’t until 2006 that my wife found a Christian religious community that she liked. This community called itself non-denominational. She found many people there who were about her age and also having children. The religious message was personal and positive. The services were energetic and carefully crafted. I think my wife felt that this community had a lot of people who could understand some of her questions and problems in a way that I never could have.

I won’t go over my changes here, since they are pretty well documented in this blog.

3. Surely, you and your wife must have strong disagreements about religion.
No doubt. We don’t talk about it very much. She has her space to express what she believes, and I have mine. It’s hard for us to talk about these disagreements with each other because I am not able to convey the sense that I take Christian belief very seriously. I take it seriously to some extent. I know that lots of people call themselves Christian, and I am familiar with a lot of the history and background of both early and established Christianity.

But I have limits to the deference I’ll give ideas that I feel have been demonstrated faulty. I can’t make it sound as though the story of a virgin-born-of-a-virgin who was impregnated by a ghost and who birthed a miracle-working human sacrifice makes any sort of sense to me. And I know the arguments around the story and the history of some of its details. Once I feel I’ve thought through a question and seen it resolved satisfactorily, I generally prefer not to revisit it and rather move onto some other question.

For my part, I have no desire to make Atheist arguments or to force Dawkins and Hitchens on my wife. What’s the point? She’s an intelligent human being and I’ve got my work cut out for me just defining the contours of my own thinking. We both have our own “spiritual” questions that we’re pursuing, and it’s enough that we support each other in our respective pursuits.

At the end of the day, our religious differences and our different rationalizations for our beliefs have very little to do with the practicalities of our love and our household. Maybe, after the kids have grown up and we’re retired, we’ll spend our days debating the lack of evidence for gods and the ridiculousness of all religious beliefs. I suspect we’ll rather spend our days having more fun together, but who knows?

4. How do your differences in religion and Atheism apply to the way you raise your children?
In terms of how we raise the kids, I don’t think there are any issues. I don’t openly scoff at Christianity or Judaism in front of my children. I also don’t push Darwin’s Origin of Species or Dawkins’s The God Delusion on them. The fact is that I don’t need to do this. The reality of my Atheism will become apparent to my children when they are old enough to see it. They’ll notice I don’t go with them to church and that some of the books in my library make cases for Atheism.

Parenting is a practical art. It’s hard to get kids to believe or to know things in the exact way you want. They develop beliefs and knowledge through their own doing and their own experiences. Neither my wife nor I is interested in controlling our children’s intellectual environment to the extent that they can only have these-or-those thoughts or only come to such-and-such conclusions about the world. So, we both parent in the day; that is, we try to handle each day as it comes and enjoy it as best we can.

Honestly, I don’t think personal religious or atheistic beliefs have much impact on what we parents need to do as parents. We need to be with our kids. We need to play with them, teach them, help them, encourage them, and show them we enjoy all that. To me, in marriage and in parenting, togetherness is the name of the game.It’s all about being in the same place at the same time.

It’s not about using the children as my personal social experiment. It’s not about making the children live out my dreams and my ideas. It’s not about coercing the children to think and act like me. It is about enabling and empowering them to grow according to their own reasoning and desires.

We parents are an extension of our children, not the other way around. We are their conscience until it becomes their responsibility to tell themselves what’s right and necessary. We are heir butlers until they are fully able to get the items they need and can clean up after themselves. We are their cheerleaders until they learn how to develop their own confidence and motivation. We are their counselors until they are able to take the lead in making the tough decisions that affect them.

My wife and I share this fundamental outlook in most ways, if not in every single way. We agree on the major things and differ in some of the details. We want the same seeds and are comfortable with however the flowers develop. This is why it has worked so far for us, and why I have no reason to be anything less than very optimistic about the future.

[First appeared at Textuality.]

Larry Tanner will now take your questions!
Larry Tanner is senior proposal lead for a New England-based robotics company. He is currently preparing a dissertation in Anglo-Saxon literature and textuality. A married father of three children, he teaches English literature and composition at a local community college. He can be contacted via email at lartanner[at]hotmail[dot]com.

Dazed and confused

confuciusErin (12) is in the middle of a nice comparative religion curriculum in her social sciences class. Looks to be much better than the usual slapdash.

The units are tied in with geography and culture. They’re currently on Southwest Asia, so at the moment it’s the three Abrahamic monotheisms. As usual, minority religions — Bahá’í, Gnosticism, Druze, Zoroastrianism, et al. — get the short straw, with no mention that I can see. I’d especially like to see Zoroastrianism covered, if only for all the yummy Christian parallels.) But three is ever so much better than one.

I know from Connor’s middle school years that they’ll get into the other two of the Big Five as they move east, and I told Erin as much.

“So what religion is in China?” she asked. She’s taking introductory Mandarin at the moment, so it’s a natural first place for her mind to go.

“All of them,” I said. It’s an annoying answer that happens to be true. I try to resist the tendency to paint countries with a single religion, a practice as misleading as Red and Blue states.

Most people equate China with Buddhism, but the country has a long history of pluralism of belief. Buddhism, Taoism, and various folk religions account for about half the population combined. Christians and Muslims are estimated at 2-4 percent each, with a metric smattering of Jews, Hindus, and others.

And the rest? I told Erin the largest single belief group in China is the nonreligious, clocking in at 40-50 percent — not a consequence of Mao, but a strong tradition going back 2200 years.

“A lot of those follow a philosophy you might hear about next year when you study China,” I told her. “It’s called Confucianism.”

She puzzled on the word a moment.

“Is that because they don’t really know what they believe?”

In school, out of the classroom

churchstateI’m about ready to be done with church-state issues in schools for a while. I’m in the mood to go well off-topic for a bit, to talk about child-eating mermaids and why trying to get the great works of Western civilization through the 19th century intact is like passing the Louvre’s collection of French Impressionism through a preschool on Fingerpaint Day. But since I blogged the Taylor situation last month, y’all keep sending me good on-topic questions. So as long as mine inbox groans under requests for counsel, the kid-noshing merperson will have to wait.

It seems some of you are running into the presence of outside youth evangelizing groups in your public schools, including Young Life and The Good News Club, and wondering you should be concerned. I can’t say “ask NCSE,” since they rightly confine their work to the science classroom. So I’ll weigh in, then give a plug for the folks who DO handle this end of things.

The Good News Club, a group with the stated purpose “to evangelize boys and girls with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” has begun meeting in the public school attended by the daughter of one of my readers. Turns out this is another situation on which the courts have weighed in.

Good News Club was the plaintiff in a 2001 Supreme Court case (Good News Club vs. Milford Central School). Even though it allowed other clubs to meet, Milford School had prohibited the Good News Club from meeting in the building after school, thinking it would violate the establishment clause to allow it.

The court ruled 6-3 in favor of Good News Club, the majority stating that Milford Central School was not endorsing a particular religion or even religion in general by allowing them to meet.

Here’s the case doc, a legal commentary on it, and a good article by Wendy Kaminer. And the opinions are nicely summarized and worth reading on the Wikipedia page for the case.

Parenting Beyond Belief contributor and former American Atheists president Ed Buckner once noted in a discussion forum that “Bible clubs and clubs based on religion in other ways are permitted in public schools, though with real limits (not always adhered to): such clubs cannot be endorsed by, or even be given the appearance of endorsement by, the principal, school system, etc.”

The Good News Club meeting in the school after hours is legally kosher, and I for one think it should be, with reasonable restrictions. But the fact that GNC flyers were also coming home in the backpack of this parent’s child is perilously close to endorsement and oversteps the limits Ed referred to. And there’s the rub — that these groups can so often be relied upon to overstep whatever reasonable restrictions they are asked to observe.

I recommended having a chat with the principal, who probably doesn’t know the flyers are going home. And I pointed her to an outstanding source of information.

There are several such resources, and, if necessary, sources of direct assistance in cases like these. PBB contributor Stu Tanquist described receiving quick and effective help from The Freedom from Religion Foundation, run by the brilliant team of Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. There is of course the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has earned the labels “un-American” and “traitors” for defending the constitutional rights of American citizens.

Please don’t get me going.

Then there’s an organization with which I’m constantly impressed: Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). In addition to solid advice and long experience, AU provides a spectacular set of online resources. If you’re running into a church-state issue of any kind in public schools, you can’t do much better than starting on AU’s Public Schools page to get quick, intelligent answers.