Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Q&A: Black youth in secular families and the black church experience

Black-churchesQ: I am a white mother with two fantastic African American sons who were adopted from the foster care system. I have some guilt assocated with being a nonbeliever and not exposing my sons to the culture of the traditional Black church. On the other hand, I worry that if I take our sons to a church of that nature, that they will fall prey to fear-based beliefs that could hold them back in life. I suppose I am just not 100% sure that I am doing the right thing by them. What do you think you would do in my situation?

A: This excellent question is outside of my own knowledge or experience, which is my cue to defer to those better grounded in the topic.

Nonbelieving black parents confront the same question you’ve raised, of course, so I spoke to Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, board member of Foundation Beyond Belief, and a mother of three.

“There is often a misconception that [the Black church experience] is something that all Blacks must embrace, which is simply not true,” Thomas said. “My suggestion is if the boys do not express an interest in attending a Black church, then don’t make them go. So it isn’t something that she HAS to expose to her sons, unless they ask her. Then it would be fair to take them to a service for the experience.”

Author and activist Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson notes that the black church is not a necessary element of the black experience for all African Americans, though there is a common misconception that it is. “Despite high-profile sex abuse and financial scandals, the Church is still perceived as the ‘backbone’ of the black community,” she writes in Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011). “[But] the notion that there is a ‘marching in lockstep’ black religious community is outdated,” she adds. And for all the community and identity benefits found in black church communities, there are also troubling downsides of involvement, especially for kids. Hutchinson cites the overwhelming opposition among many prominent black churches to marriage rights for gays and lesbians as a “morally indefensible” position with which many others in the African American community, including black atheists, strongly disagree. She goes on to cite regressive gender attitudes and other undesirable messages frequently woven into the black church.

So it seems that there are at least as many pitfalls as advantages in connecting them with the black church, and that most of the advantages of cultural connection can be had by other means. I strongly recommend you pick up Sikivu’s book, which addresses many of these issues brilliantly. But as Mandisa Thomas suggests, going with them to an AME or other traditionally black church — not as regular members, but on occasion, as part of their religious and cultural literacy — and talking about it afterward, can be a valuable experience.

Finally I spoke to Ayanna Watson, an attorney in New York and founder of Black Atheists of America, who offered alternative ways to expose young African Americans to their cultural heritage.

“While the church is extremely influential, there are ways to get around it,” she said. “She can most certainly take her children to events that are outside the church. While the influence of religion will still be there, it will likely not be as much. Some examples include museums, art exhibits, performances, and plays. If she has not already, she should make sure she has plenty of books/online articles that she can proffer to her children discussing prominent members of the black community. Black nonbelief is nothing new, it’s simply a topic that is often avoided by the masses. By exposing her children to these individuals and instilling (and reinforcing) critical thinking skills, I would think she would be fine.”

Atheists of color – a list (Greta Christina)

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Home is where the tonic is

homeI’ve had a few requests to go back in time, to my previous life. Why not?

Before I was a writer, I was a musician, including 15 years as a music professor. I conducted a college orchestra, composed and arranged music, and taught music history and music theory. Once in a while someone will ask if I miss it. I really don’t. I enjoyed it, then had enough.

There’s one exception: I never tired of thinking and talking about music, especially how it does what it does. I do miss that. It’s like magic, the fact that pitches arranged through time and bumping and grinding against each other can make me feel happy or sad, scared or triumphant. Except it’s not magic. I know how it works.

I’d ask my theory students to bring in CDs of music they liked, and we’d start each class by listening to that for a minute or two. I’d ask what was going on in the music, what was making the emotion happen. For the first few days of the year, the freshmen would point to the lyrics, every time. I weaned them off of that by week two. Lyrics are window dressing. Good lyrics can enhance the emotion, but they’re almost never the root of it. Take the saddest song you know, put polka music under the words, and watch what happens to the emotion. Elton John broke the mold on this technique when he takes these lyrics…

I’m getting bored being part of mankind
There’s not a lot to do no more
This race is a waste of time
People rushing everywhere, swarming ’round like flies
Think I’ll buy a .44
Give ’em all a surprise

Think I’m gonna kill myself

…and puts them over an upbeat honky-tonk piano.

But take a heartbreaking song, keep the music the same and change the lyrics to la la la… and most of the time it’ll still break your heart.

A lot of the emotion in music comes from the skillful use of dissonance and consonance, tension and release. But the best composers also know how to toy with one of our most deep-seated narratives — the quest for home.

It’s a quest that’s laced into every human culture. Think of Odysseus wandering the Mediterranean in search of Ithaca, the children of Israel in search of the land of milk and honey, even the idea of humanity working its way back to Eden.

Films that aren’t beating the dead horse of unrequited love often return to the story of the search for, or return to, or loss of, home. Think of Gone with the Wind, The Trip to Bountiful, Apollo 13, Cast Away, all three Toy Story films (especially 2), Planet of the Apes…. And the two films that elevated home-lust to a fine art –- The Wizard of Oz and E.T.

Music mines the same ground. Composers establish the idea of home, then take you away and tempt you with the promise of return, measure by measure, phrase by phrase, and over the course of a full composition.

Music has several ways to establish an emotional home. The tonic pitch (or keynote) is one of them, and the harmony (or chord) built on that note is another. If you’re in the key of F, then F is home. Sing with me:

Hap-py Birth-day to you
Hap-py Birth-day to you
Hap-py Birth-day dear Sally
Hap-py Birth-day to…

Aack. Unsettling, isn’t it? And not just because a word is missing. It’s unresolved because the missing last note is the tonic, the arrival. It’s home:


Two notes in the scale are most important: the tonic, which is home, and the dominant, which is a big neon arrow pointing to home. In “Amazing Grace,” the first two notes are dominant and tonic, respectively:

A-ma-(zing grace)…

See how the first pitch points to the second, and how the second feels like home, the center of the tonal universe? There’s a cool reason for that I won’t get into now. But you can feel it, can’t you? First there’s the promise of home, then the promise is fulfilled. That’s grace for you.

If I were playing “Amazing Grace” on the piano, I’d be playing chords, and most of the chords would be the tonic chord, built on that tonic pitch, and the dominant chord, built on the dominant pitch. If the key is F, the tonic chord is F-A-C, and the dominant chord is C-E-G. So now there are two ways to promise home, and two ways to be home: the melody and the harmony. And composers can do wonders by promising home, then fulfilling, delaying, or denying that promise, or fulfilling it in the melody but denying it in the harmony, and on and on.

No surprise that Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” plays with the idea of home. In the second verse, for example (“Settle down, it’ll all be clear”), the melody floats up above the tonic while the harmony is on the tonic. But when the melody drops down to the tonic home (“trouble it might drag you DOWN”), the harmony moves away from home. It’s cat and mouse. Melody and harmony don’t both find home at the same time until a strong downbeat on…what word?

I’m gonna make this place your HOME.

Not a coincidence.

There’s a moment in Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun” that always makes me choke up. Yes, the lyrics are wonderful, but it’s the way he underpins them musically that closes the deal. This song is about home too, and being away from it, and coming back — perfect for this device. The part that always gets me is, “I’ll be seeing my dad, my brother and sisters, my gran and my mum.” Start around 1:25 and listen for about 20 seconds:

The melody on “gran and my mum” is a straight walk home in the melody — Bb-A-G-F. He could have gone home in the harmony at the same time, and it looks for a while like he will. “My brother and sisters” is all dominant, pointing straight to home. If he’d gone home to the tonic harmony on “mum”, it would have sounded like this:

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But he didn’t do that…because that would suck. Instead, he did something nuanced and wonderful:

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It’s called a secondary dominant, a kind of momentary harmonic trap door into another key. You think he’s headed for home (F), which is of course the whole message of the song. The melody does head for home (Bb-A-G-F, “gran and my mum”), but the harmony under it sidesteps through A major to d minor. The result is an unfulfilled yearning for home. It also happens every time he says “me and your mum” and “make you feel safe in this world.”

It’s made even more effective because he stretches the measure by a beat each time he says “me and your mum.” Then, at 5:20-5:26, “your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles, your grandparents, cousins” is one long, beautiful, building phrase extension on the dominant, all pointing toward home (F), then resolving home in the melody but again, not in the harmony on “me and your mum (5:27-5:30) will be waiting for you in the sun.” And I cry.

Knowing why it works doesn’t diminish the impact a bit. It just adds a deep sense of wonder over what music can do.

I’ll throw one of these into the mix once in a while. I do miss it.

Contradicting the universe

One of the hardest things about being human is realizing that the universe couldn’t possibly care less than it does whether you are happy or safe, or fulfilled, or even alive. And most of the pieces of the universe all around us — the ones shaped like us — only rise slightly above that level of zero concern. Most of the time, I’m just an obstacle between them and the front of the checkout line at Kroger. On most days, if I’m honest, they’re usually about the same to me.

The loneliness and isolation of being a feeling thing in an uncaring universe can be devastating. There was a time when I felt it intensely for several years running. It helped me understand why people are drawn to the idea of a loving God, an insight I’ve never forgotten. It solves not just death, but that crushing universal indifference.

Wedding3If you’ve ever been there, then had someone smile at you or say something kind, you probably remember the momentary realization that at least some small piece of the universe was not indifferent to you. You probably remember it washing over you like a warm bath. I sure do. If you’ve never felt it, take my word, holy cow. I’m sure it saves lives.

I haven’t felt that terrible isolation or those brief respites in about 24 years, ever since one particular piece of the universe put me at the center of her concern and let me return the favor.

So there’s my definition of love for Valentine’s Day. It’s a contradiction of the universe.


handsI’m thrilled to announce that I’ve reached a deal for my next book with the folks who did Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers — AMACOM Books in New York. The topic is marriage and parenting between religious and nonreligious partners. No title yet, and I hate even the working titles I’ve come up with. (More on that soon.)

I’ve been hoping to get this done for about three years now, but other projects kept butting in. Many of the most common questions I get from secular parents are about issues around this kind of mixed marriage. Though there are several books on marriages between partners of two different religions — including half a dozen titles on Jewish-Christian intermarriage alone — there’s nothing for the biggest belief gap of all. And since there are at least five times as many nonreligious people in the U.S. as Jewish, we’re talking about a much larger population, one that’s totally unserved.

The issues are also different when instead of two religious traditions, you’re blending natural and supernatural worldviews. Existing interfaith marriage books aren’t all that helpful with this different set of questions.

This is a complex project that will take all year. Since detailed data are sparse for the topic, I’ll be conducting a large-scale survey sometime in March or April, as well as a series of interviews with mixed couples.

Like the Dummies book, I’ll be blogging the process and asking questions along the way — just watch for posts with the “mixed marriage” tag. Thanks in advance for your help!

Q&A: Lean on me

(Here’s the first in my new occasional Q&A series. Click Ask a Question in the sidebar to submit your own question.)

Q: I saw a note on Pinterest recently that really grabbed me, and I’ve not been able to shake it. It was a list of suggestions for parents. One of the entries was “give your children something to believe in – because there will come a time when they are alone and scared or sad, and they’re going to need something to believe in.”

My husband and I are, at the least, agnostic….But I do want to know that if something really shakes the lives of my children, they will have some way of comforting themselves, some way of (eventually) coming to know that everything will be all right. How is this accomplished?

A: How I love this question. It cuts right to the core of the ultimate reprieve that religion offers from fear and vulnerability. Life may be incredibly hard and unfair at times, but believing that Someone Somewhere who is all-powerful and all-good has a handle on things and will see to it that justice prevails in the end… I can easily see how that idea can make life bearable, especially for those who are in much closer touch with the raw human condition than I am.

It brings to mind the Russell quote I’ve written about before: “Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking….When I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness.” And there’s the key to the question. If I can’t offer them the kindness of God to lean on, what can I give my kids to help them through the inevitable times they will feel the opposite of triumphant?

You may have heard the Christian acronym J-O-Y, which stands for “Jesus, then Others, then Yourself” — the supposed formula for true happiness. Take away Jesus and you have the real-world resources I hope to build in my kids: the support of other people, and a strong self-concept.

Kids need to develop the ability to connect emotionally and meaningfully with others, and that’s a skill that starts at home when they are young. You care for your child and encourage their natural empathy for others. They become the kind of people who attract others to them in mutually supportive relationships.

As they get older, peers overtake family as the leaning posts. It’s no coincidence that teenagers often become obsessively centered on their peer group for identity and support as they are pulled through a period of rapid change, and that they focus more on those who are going through the same transition than on the all-too-familiar family they are transitioning away from.

They’ll also make connections based on interests and passions. In addition to a really tight group of friends, my daughter Erin (15) is passionately involved in photography, volunteering, volleyball, animal rescue, and acting. She’s in specific clubs that connect her to others with the same interests, and if those interests continue, she can continue to be connected to those larger passion communities throughout her life.

Those interests won’t all continue, of course, nor will all of her current friendships. Some will fall away as she grows older and her circumstances change, but she’ll retain the ability to connect. It’s not a static belief she needs, but that ability, that skill. Those mutually supportive connections with other human beings, connections she has built herself, will get her through hard times, as well as the strong self-concept on which those relationships are based.

And, when she’s 21 or 31, if we’ve built the right kinds of connections between us and earned it ourselves, her family will be that ultimate connection she can always lean on. To paraphrase Tim Minchin, we are the people who’ll make her feel safe in this world.

But I’m not headed into White Wine in the Sun here. There’s another song that captures this humanistic idea of people caring for each other better than any other.

R&B legend Bill Withers wrote it after he moved to LA in the lates 1960s following a stint in the Navy. He was really alone for the first time in his life, feeling vulnerable, away from the personal connections that had made him feel safe growing up in a small coal mining town in West Virginia. He sat down and wrote one of the great songs of all time about what he was missing. Not a particular belief, not God, but somebody to lean on. And unlike God, that human relationship can be mutual — which to my mind is SO much more satisfying and meaningful.