Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Engage paddle drive!

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

paddledriveEver pedal a paddleboat? No you haven’t. No you haven’t, because the pedals on those damn things are attached to nothing. It’s like the DOOR CLOSE button on an elevator, or the pedestrian crossing button — just there to make you feel relevant to the outcome. Forward progress in a paddleboat is a fluke, more to do with random currents or the Butterfly Effect than anything you’re doing.

But you tell yourself you had fun, and that the other side of the lake didn’t look that interesting anyhow.

The first half of every book project feels like that to me. Then the paddles catch. Funny thing: no matter how long the contract is, it happens right around the halfway point. I had about 20 weeks to write Atheism For Dummies, pedaled like a sumbitch for the first ten weeks, then caught a nice tailwind in the eleventh week.

I have a year for this one, 52 weeks. Last week was Week 27…and yesterday the pedals actually engaged the paddles, and I’m flying across the effing lake.

It won’t last, but for now, woohooooo!

STATURDAY: More inclusive, period

diffThe Riley survey (conducted for Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part) asked married respondents to choose between the following statements:

1. It is better for everyone involved if a married couple have the same religion.

2. What really matters is that a married couple have the same values regardless of their religion.

An overwhelming majority (79 percent) chose #2.

This apparently irritates the author, who was after all writing a book saying mixed-belief marriage is a bad idea. So having sampled the public opinion, Riley then derides it: “Americans…are not willing to put religion ahead of ‘common values,’ a more inclusive-sounding phrase.”

No, it’s not “more inclusive-sounding” — it’s more inclusive, kind of period. And putting “common values” in scare-quotes doesn’t change that.

It’s encouraging to see so many people, including religious believers, agreeing that common values can be found outside of a single tradition. That’s why successful mixed-belief marriages are much more common than Riley and other proponents of same-faith marriage would have you believe.

The Chill Grandma

grandmaContinuing to plow through the survey data, and I’ve come across a surprising result that relates to extended family.

Of the four sides of our own extended family, one is gone, one is a mix of secular and religious, and two are very religious in belief and practice. Yet Becca and I have experienced very little interference or pressure regarding religion or our kids’ upbringing.

I’ve always assumed that was a rare and lucky thing. Some of the stories I hear from nonreligious parents make my toes curl. Shunning, tirades, threats, using kids as a wedge, pitting one family member against another, I’ve heard it all.

But if the survey is any indication, our situation may be lucky, but it isn’t uncommon at all. When asked to identify any sources of tension or conflict in their secular/religious marriage, just ten percent of respondents identified “Extended family pressure, actions, or concerns.”

Ten percent.

I actually started wondering about this last year when I asked people in one of my secular parenting workshops to raise their hands if they’d experienced pressure or conflict from religious extended family. In a crowd of about fifty, maybe 7 or 8 hands went up. Curious, I asked the same thing in the next workshop. Same result.

Given my work, you’d think I would already have had a clear view of the issue. But my skewed perception results from something I’ve mentioned before called the news paradox. You hear about something terrible on the news, or in your inbox, and you think it’s something to worry about. But the fact that it’s on the news means it is newsworthy, which in most cases means it’s rare and you don’t have to worry about it. Car crashes happen every day, so they don’t usually make the news. Plane crashes are rare, and we hear about each and every one in graphic detail. So we race down the freeway, risking a very common death, but fear air travel, the safest of all major modes.

I get a constant stream of emails from secular parents struggling with extended family issues, but I almost never hear from parents saying, “Grandma’s still being great about the religion thing. Thought you’d like to know.”

For those who do experience it, extended family pressure can be a huge and important problem, and the book will address ways to manage such pressure and conflict productively. But it’s good and important to put it in perspective, especially if that can help people to be less fearful of entering a secular/religious mixed marriage.

And we have a title!

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 1.18.17 PMThe process of naming this book was longer than the process of naming my kids. But it’s done, and I’m very happy with it.

I like titles concise and accurate, but also with a little poetry. Parenting Beyond Belief also happened after a long process, and I love it.

The title of this book had to reference marriage generally and the secular/religious marriage in particular. It had to be as inclusive as possible, not only on the religious side but on the secular side as well. It isn’t just a book about Christians marrying atheists, for example. But it also couldn’t be overly broad (referring to “Nones” or the “unaffiliated,” for example, which includes many believers).

I liked the idea of a title that evoked the wedding vows about accepting each other no matter what. “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” that sort of thing. This book is about secular and religious partners accepting their differences of belief. After toying with awkward, non-poetic things like “In Belief and in Disbelief,” we opted for the poetic concision of In Faith and in Doubt. The subtitle, as usual, brings the specifics: How religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong marriages and happy families.

There are no perfect options, but this one splits the many goalposts as well as I can imagine.

STATURDAY: Mixed-belief marriages by age group

old-couple-holding-hands[1]Younger people are statistically more comfortable with mixed marriages of all kinds, including race and religion. So it seems counterintuitive that the likelihood of marrying someone of a different worldview actually increases with age at marriage:

• Married between age 16-25: 48% are in mixed-belief marriages
• Married between age 26-35: 58% are in mixed-belief marriages
• Married between age 36-45: 66% are in mixed-belief marriages

It makes more sense when you consider two things: (1) The very religious often marry young, and (2) the older you are, the more likely you are to have mingled with people of different religious beliefs. Your pool of potentials tends to get much more diverse during and after college (or once you start your career) than it was when you were 18.

(Stats from Riley Interfaith Marriage Survey, conducted for ‘Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley, Oxford Univ. Press, 2013.)

Finding the book

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

maze1While I’m writing this one, I’m continuously “finding the book” — trying to refine my own sense of what the finished product will look like. Harder than usual, since this is mostly new ground.

The chapter structure has been one of the challenges. The book is not just tips for having the baptism conversation or dealing with pressure from the mother-in-law. That’s part of it, but there’s also a lot of big picture content that needs to be layered around those issues.

Here’s the current plan:

1. Intro/Big Pic
I start with a snapshot of my own wedding and the thoughts in my head as I married the Southern Baptist woman of my dreams. Pull back to examine the scary literature on mixed-belief marriage. Dissect that lit to find a strong tendency to exaggerate or spin (or completely disregard) research, or use research well past its expiration date, in order to sustain the idea that couples must share beliefs. Replace that hypothesis with a more positive one supported by current research. Establish the unique framework of the secular/religious marriage.

2. Meet the Believers
What it means to be an individual believer today, and how that differs from the popular perception. The wide spectrum of actual belief and practice (as opposed to official doctrine), and the enormous and growing overlap with secular values.

3. Meet the Nonbelievers
What it means to be an individual nonbeliever today, and how that differs from the popular perception. The wide spectrum of approaches and tone among the nonreligious, and the enormous and growing common ground with religious progressives.

4. Meet the Mix
This sprawling middle section is where my survey data will spread their wings. A frame-by-frame look at the secular/religious marriage as revealed in that survey and in individual interviews. How the flavor of the mix (Catholic vs. Jewish vs. Evangelical vs. Mainline Protestant vs. Hindu vs. Islamic on the religious side, anti-theist vs. academic atheist vs. ritual atheist etc. on the nonreligious side) and the intensity with which those labels are held affect the issues that arise.

5. The Issues
A series of short sections describing individual issues in the secular/religious marriage, including extended family pressure, wedding, churchgoing, family identity, parenting issues (from baptism to child autonomy to rites of passage and churchgoing/Sunday school for the kids), communication, divorce, and funeral/memorial planning.

6. For Better
Survey respondents were asked to name any specific positives or benefits they have derived from being in a marriage that bridges the widest belief gap of all. After the long section on challenges, the book ends with a look at the very encouraging responses to that one question.

Catholics in the mix

The secular/religious mixed marriage survey is now closed, and the data diving begins…

We ended up with over 700 respondents from 46 states, seven Canadian provinces, and 20 other countries. A lot of good, rich, in-depth answers that I’ll gradually dole out in the blog.

One interesting bit is the Catholic connection. According to the survey, the most common childhood religion for people in secular/religious marriages by far is Catholicism (22%) — more than twice the number of Baptist upbringings, which comes in second at 10 percent. The most common current identity for the religious partner is also Catholic.

Haven’t drilled down into the switching data yet, but I’ll bet many of the mixed couples were both Catholic when they married, then one fell away. That would fit the results of the religion-switching study the Pew Forum did several years ago — the Pew-Switching Study, as it were — which showed that 25 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are former Catholics.

Here’s a graphic representation of the Pew study (click to enlarge):

(Courtesy of Michael Spencer.)