Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

The children of the revolution

yawnOne thing is pretty much guaranteed for any social movement that struggles against the mainstream: the children of the activists won’t understand what the big frackin’ deal is.

U.S. civil rights pioneers often end up with kids who (while enjoying the fruits of the struggle) ask their parents, “Why is it always about race with you?” Second-wave feminists spent their youth breaking glass ceilings, only to have their daughters (who’ve never known a time when they couldn’t vote or play hockey or run a corporation) roll their eyes with embarrassment at Mom’s “obsession with gender.”

Without putting myself anywhere near the same plane as those, I’ve started getting a taste of that second-generation thing myself. It’s a good thing for the most part, a likely sign that our own efforts have made it possible for our kids to transcend our obsessions, to find the next beast that needs struggling against instead of tilting with ours — or just to enjoy living in a better, saner world.

When Becca recently brought up the idea of starting a secular parenting group in our area, my 15-year-old son — a classic apatheist — said, “I don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“I kind of don’t get why you need something like that. Just don’t believe. Why do you have to get in a group with other people who don’t believe?”

“You don’t have to,” Becca said. “But some parents who aren’t religious find it helpful to see how other nonreligious parents handle the issues that come up.”

“Like what?”

I offered an example. “I just got an email from a mom this morning. Her family is going to church with her parents for the first time, and she wanted to know what her son should do during communion. You know, when the congregation goes to the front for the…”

“But that’s so obvious!”

“Oh? What’s the obvious thing to do?”

“You just do it! You’re in a church, so you do what the church people do. That’s respectful.”

I remember being fifteen, seeing things so clearly, constantly stunned at the density of others.

“Okay. Do you know what communion is?”

He paused. “Well…not really, no.”

“It’s a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Most important part of a Christian service. It’s a way of saying, ‘I believe in the divinity of Jesus, and here’s the moment I’m closest to him.’ So some people feel it’s more respectful to not do it if you don’t believe it.”

“Huh.” Another pause. “So you told her not to let him do it?”

“Well no, I said I’d explain to him what it means and let him decide what to do. He can see what it’s like to stay sitting when most people go to the front, or to take part in a ritual that means you believe when you really don’t or aren’t sure. It’s good experience.”

Two weeks later we visited my mother-in-law’s Episcopal church. I reminded the kids that they could choose to do whatever they wanted. They could sing or not, pray or not, kneel or not, commune or not. And if they had any questions, they could ask us.

Delaney (9) noticed the Stations of the Cross before the service. I told her it was the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, and we walked the circuit. As a second-generation freethinker (in the lower case), she didn’t have to recoil or push against it. To the kid who was Athena for Hallowe’en, it’s just another cool mythic story.

During the service, Erin (12) was obviously pondering her choices. When the first kneeling moment came, she looked at her Grandma (kneeling), then at the padded kneeler, then at me (sitting), then at the kneeler again. She half-knelt, looked uncertain, then dropped back into the pew. The second time, with a deep breath, she went for the full kneel. Third and fourth times, she sat.

Trying something on for size is classic Erin, and she left the church knowing what both feigned conformity and sore-thumb honesty felt like. Much better than just yakking about it.

Communion came and went, and Connor stayed in his seat. We exchanged wry smiles. Yeah yeah, his eyes said, whatever.

Where thanks are due

[Re-running a post from long ago — a Thanksgiving story by Marilyn LaCourt. Since first reading this in 2007, our family has adopted this as our own tradition. It’s a wonderful, emotional experience and has become one of my favorite holiday traditions. Happy Thanksgiving everybody.]

Thanksgiving Ritual
by Marilyn LaCourt

leavesLast 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.

One of these things is not like the others

linkyDelaney’s (outstanding) third grade teacher put together a nice slideshow for the parents to watch during the “Thanksgiving Feast” day at school this year. In the show, each student offered a list of things s/he is thankful for.

I don’t mean in the least to diminish the lovely expressions of gratitude by her classmates when I say that I would have recognized my daughter’s own list of gratefuls even if I were blindfolded and they were read by James Earl Jones. Not better or worse, but distinctively Delaney. Can you find her in this sampling?

Student A: I’m grateful for my parents, my school, God, my country, and my teacher Miss Jones.

Student B: I’m grateful for my family, food, my house, my pets, and my teacher Miss Jones.

Student C: I’m grateful for God, Jesus, my family, a roof over my head, and my teacher Miss Jones.

Student D: I’m grateful for my family and friends, for a roof over my head and a meal every night, for a good education, and for freedom of speech.

Help Foundation Beyond Belief finish 2010 strong

FBBsquare300It’s been a great year. With six weeks to go in 2010, the humanist members of Foundation Beyond Belief have raised over $70,000 for 37 outstanding charities.

Now we’re asking for a little help ourselves.

In 2010 our members fed, clothed, and paid school tuition for 22 impoverished children in Nepal. We have funded science education in India and in US public schools and supported efforts to fight global warming and protect biodiversity.

We put textbooks in Uganda’s humanist schools and peacebuilding teams in Uganda’s conflict areas. We funded efforts to improve access to health care for marginalized populations on four continents and in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. We helped launch a new Camp Quest in Virginia and helped build a new school for girls in Pakistan.

We’ve added humanist voices and dollars to the fight for LGBT rights, the key civil rights struggle of our time. We’ve empowered adoptions, fed the hungry, and worked to protect the most vulnerable—refugees in war, victims of torture, women under threat of religious violence, political asylees, people struggling with addiction, and those hoping for dignity at the end of their lives.

Creating a new humanist community effort has been so gratifying. But it also comes with expenses, such as grant writing, publicity, web hosting, member communications, and professional accounting. Since we are committed to remaining a 100 percent pass-through organization, we rely on separate donations for our operational costs. Because the current economy took a serious bite out of our major funding sources, we are left with an operating deficit for 2010.

Can you help us close that gap?

We have big plans for 2011, including tripling membership and donations, creating a disaster relief fund, and launching both a kids’ giving program and a cutting-edge initiative reaching out to other worldviews. It’s going to be an amazing year of active, compassionate humanism.

Please help us end our first year strong and secure by clicking on the big blue ChipIn box in the sidebar OR by going to our ChipIn page to make a tax-deductible donation of any amount to the Foundation itself.

DMcG1Deepest thanks for your support and encouragement!

Dale McGowan, Executive Director
Foundation Beyond Belief

New blog to support secular parenting groups

pbbblogWhile writing and researching Parenting Beyond Belief in 2006, I went searching for secular parenting groups in the U.S. and found precisely one.

I certainly might have missed some, but the fact that a diligent search didn’t turn up more than one is a pretty clear indication of how few and far between they were.

Zip forward four years, and though we’re still a tad short of Starbucks-level saturation, the landscape has changed pretty dramatically. I’m currently aware of more than forty groups in North America ranging in age from three weeks to three years and in size from half a dozen to nearly 150 members.

As I’ve tracked the activities and growth of these groups, I’ve come to realize how isolated most of them are from each other. Most start from scratch, finding members and planning activities by trial and error. Wheels are reinvented — and they’re occasionally square. While some groups thrive, others disappear within a few months.

One of the original purposes of Foundation Beyond Belief was to provide a central source of information and support for these groups. We did some good work along those lines early in the year, conducting a large-scale secular parent survey and helping to birth about a half dozen new groups. But we kept running into a problem.


The IRS had expressed reasonable concern that a firewall be maintained between the non-profit Foundation and the for-a-wee-smidge-of-profit world of Parenting Beyond Belief. To demonstrate their seriousness, they brought the tax exemption process for FBB to a screaming halt when a staff blog entry on the Foundation website linked to a site that in turn included a sidebar link to buy my book.

That delayed our approval by six weeks.

So we were understandably skittish about ever so much as mentioning Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, the PBB Channel on YouTube, the PBB Forum, this blog, etc. in Foundation communications. In other words, we could support secular parents as long as we avoided mentioning 75 percent of the resources for secular parents.

It eventually became crystal clear that this just wasn’t going to work. I am now in the process of building deeper support resources for secular parenting groups on this very website. And the first effort in that direction is a new blog called Parents Beyond Belief.

The blog is a space for secular parenting groups to help each other create effective communities for nontheistic parents by exchanging ideas and stories. If all goes well, you’ll hear precious little from me and tons from people who know what they’re talking about — the actual leaders and members of secular parenting groups. The first post is already up, and six others are on the way.

Don’t wait for an invitation! If you are currently in a secular parenting group and would like to submit a post about anything related to your group — finding members, naming the group, childcare issues, what to do at meetings, field trips, book clubs, play groups, food, dues, online presence, community service, resolving disagreements, you name it — just write up a brief description of your intended piece and send it to me for consideration. If it looks like a good fit, I’ll invite you to write the piece.

Guidelines for posts: Submissions must be relevant to the blog’s purpose, under 700 words, well-written and engaging.

A small group of reviewers will help me select entries in the early going. Contributors who have a few pieces accepted will be considered for a position as blog administrator. And once we have a few of those, I intend to step quietly aside and let y’all run with it.

Visit the Parents Beyond Belief blog

A mindgasm of scientific proportions

This is quite simply one of the most astonishing, original things I have ever seen. Ever.

I’ve said too much. Set aside 15 uninterrupted minutes.

It’s filled with phrases that express what I often find inexpressible. Add your favorites to the comment thread.

(Profound thanks to my step-nephew Dan Nolan for this one.)