The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

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.

6000 days

Part 3 of 3.
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The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

I want my kids to get that very good news.

Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

Not the answer we were expecting.

For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

Now isn’t THAT nice.

We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.

OMG…My secret is out.

It’s been 11 years since I first stepped out of the closet by posting quotes from famous nonbelievers on my office door at the Catholic college in Minnesota where I taught.

I took another step out when I published a satirical novel about a secular humanist professor at a Catholic college in Minnesota, did a book signing at the college bookstore, and ended up profiled in the local paper under the heading “Profile of Unbelief.”

I blew my cover even more with the nonreligious parenting book I co-authored and edited in 2007, not to mention the Newsweek article about it that same year. Being named Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008 probably didn’t help my camouflage, nor did the release of my second nonreligious parenting book the year after that.

Traveling all over the country teaching nonreligious parenting workshops and writing about it on my Facebook page every time is a bad way to keep the whole thing hushed up, as was launching a secular humanist charitable foundation in 2010.

The bumper sticker on my car, my email address, and the 515 blog posts about secular parenting are also, now that I think about it, dead giveaways.

Ah, well. Despite these minor slip-ups, my secret was still safe in some distant corners of the world.

Like my own family.

“Did you hear that Dale is AN ATHEIST??” wrote one cousin of mine to another a few weeks ago, I just found out. “I cried all day. What should we do??”

Damn, I thought. Who squealed?

I picture Richard Dawkins being collared at a family reunion. “Bless me, if it isn’t Cousin Dickie! What have you been up to, old bean? Godly work, one hopes, wot?”

Embrace the awkward

“Why did you do that? Seriously Dad.”

We were driving back to Atlanta from the triennial North Carolina reunion of Becca’s mostly Southern Baptist extended family. Even though we differ about as much as can be imagined in politics and religion, it’s a family I’m terribly grateful for, and more so all the time. It’s a real pleasure to watch each other raise families and get older.

As we drove, Becca and I did our usual post-game show in the front seat, with the kids chiming in from the back. At one point we hit on something that happened at dinner on the final night.

That’s when I learned I had embarrassed Connor (15).

“It was so awkward,” he said.

Aha. I really should have figured that. “I guess so,” I said. “But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”

“But this didn’t break ice!” he said, exasperated. “It MADE ice!”

Though it’s almost never mentioned, my worldview seems to be common knowledge in the family. I don’t push too many points, but neither do I leave the lowest-hanging fruit completely unplucked. Most of all, I follow the advice I give in workshops: Be out and normal. Act as if there’s nothing unusual about the religious and nonreligious sharing a world, a country, a family, a table, a marriage, a friendship. Because there isn’t, of course. What’s a tad unusual is for religious folks to know they are sharing all these things with nonbelievers, all the time. It’s a good opportunity to see that the world spins on.

Whenever I have to figure out whether and what to say or do this or that as an atheist among the religious, I tend to operate from that one principle: be out and normal. Things usually go just fine. Once in a while, though, as dads are wont to do, I’ll end up embarrassing the urchins.

After that last supper (stop it), the family patriarch, a good-humored Baptist minister in his 70s, gave away some prizes he’d brought with him — T-shirts, pins, that sort of thing. He asked everyone to write down a number between 1 and 100. We all did.

“Now,” he said, “what I didn’t tell you is that each of the numbers I’ll read off has something to do with me.” He smiled. “The first number is…73. That’s my age.” Woohoo, someone hollered, and won a T-shirt.

Next he called the first two digits in his address, phone number, and Social Security Number, giving away prizes to the closest number.

Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.

It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.

“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”

I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do, after all. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.

When at last Uncle Bill raised his fingers to indicate the number he had chosen, I could only hope that the family atheist was not the only person in the room who was pretty confident that a Baptist minister giving away a cross would choose the number 3.

But I was.

As I unfolded the paper and slowly raised it for all to see, a small gasp went up in the room, or in my head, I’m not sure which. Pastor Bill’s face went ashen, and he looked down, then up again, and sighed, then smiled resignedly. “Okay. It’s yours.”

And here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won (by way of religious insight) from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table of his Baptist cousins.

That I get.

Still, I can’t quite picture myself doing it differently — not writing a number down, for example, or taking Connor’s later advice — “You could have just not shown it!”

But I did show it. And I accepted the cross respectfully, praised the craftsmanship — it really is a striking piece — and later restored color to the pastor’s face by telling him I would be giving it to his (quite devout) sister in recognition of her 20 years as my mother-in-law.

A nice ending, I think, and worth an awkward moment.

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.

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.)

Out of the Shadows

Guest post by ANDREW PARK
Author, Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not)

I first learned about Dale McGowan in 2007. My initial reaction was utter panic as it appeared he had already written the book that I wanted to write. A year later, knowing a bit more, I attended a Parenting Beyond Belief seminar in Cambridge, Mass., an experience described in detail in the last chapter of Between a Church and a Hard Place. I took a liking to Dale and his easygoing, regular-guy manner immediately. After the seminar was over, we stayed in touch as he graciously helped me with my account, and I came to appreciate the passion and thoughtfulness that suffuses his advice as well as the humble and funny style with which he communicates it. During a reading at my local independent bookseller recently, I said that I had a “giant man-crush” on him. I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but there it is.

I am one of those rare non-religious parents today who is himself a product of a faith-free family. Once, when I mentioned this to someone at a cocktail party, he replied matter-of-factly, “Were your parents academics?” Well, duh. As they had come of age in the 1950s and 1960s, my mother and father had shed the mainline Protestantism in which they were reared. By the time I came along in the early 1970s, they didn’t bother with religion at all. Occasionally, my mother’s misgivings about this choice would result in my brother and I being rounded up for Sunday-morning visits to the Unitarian Church or a Quaker meeting, but the habit never seemed to take, for her or for us.

My mother and father are both dead, so I’ll never know what it felt like for them to be on the vanguard of secular parenting. But I doubt it was easy. In my research, I talked at length with a couple who had been friends with my parents and shared their distaste for organized religion. He is a former Episcopal priest, and as newlyweds, they had been missionaries in Southwest Africa. But they had left church behind by the time they moved up the street from us in my Bible Belt hometown. The father, who taught religious studies at the university with my parents, had even written an academic volume on bringing up children in a “post-Christian age.” So I was surprised to learn that even they, probably the most dedicated Nones we knew, hadn’t felt entirely comfortable in this decision:

They moved in to neighbors greeting them with questions about where they were planning to go to church. Even at the colleges where they taught, where there were many non-churchgoers, they sometimes felt they were on the fringe of society, and there was no one interested in discussing how to handle religion with children when you yourself weren’t religious. When Carol saw other parents on the playground or at school, she avoided all talk of it. Ron, who rejected the term atheist because he didn’t want to be defined by opposition to a worldview that was no longer relevant to him, sometimes called himself ‘modern,’ but more often than not he just kept quiet about it.

Times have changed. Through books and blogs and meetups, non-religious parenting is enjoying much wider acceptance. There’s even one of our own occupying the White House, as Dale pointed out in Cambridge. As it was just a few weeks after the presidential election, that made my heart swell a bit. Yet I get the sense that many people are still hesitant to proclaim that this is a valid way to bring up their children. I see them at my readings, sheepishly approaching me for advice on how to celebrate holidays or fend off a more pious relative. Perhaps it’s the rude rebukes of believers that keeps them quiet. Perhaps the infrastructure to support secular moms and dads hasn’t reached their town yet. Or perhaps we just need a few more Dale McGowans in the world to coax them out of the shadows.

ANDREW PARK is the author of Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) (Avery, 2010). He is a former correspondent for Business Week whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Slate and other national publications. Andrew lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife, Cristina Smith, and their two children.

Secular parent survey results!

To help set the course for our parent community program, Foundation Beyond Belief conducted a survey of nontheistic parents in February of this year—the first of its kind, as far as we can tell. The survey was unscientific (e.g. subjects were self-selected and the survey was advertised on websites that skew in the direction of organized secularism), as is the following analysis. But the project has given us a fascinating and sometimes surprising window into the world of secular parenting.

A total of 1740 people completed the survey, including secular parents in 49 U.S. states (87% of total respondents), 10 Canadian provinces (6%), and 19 other countries (7%).

Respondents were primarily women (60/40)—interesting because organized freethought skews heavily male. Most respondents are raising 1-2 children (38 and 39%, respectively), most are in a two-parent home (89%), and the largest percentage (39.4%) are in a big city suburb.

The largest percentage of respondents (27.4%) report that they themselves were raised in a mainline Protestant denomination, followed closely by Catholic (24.3%) and a poetic tie between atheist and evangelical (11.6% each). These numbers are somewhat muddied by the fact that of the 23% of respondents who checked “Other,” about half listed a denomination that fit one of the listed categories. That’s what an unscientific survey design will get you.

Of those in mixed worldview marriages, 47.8% report very little tension between the parents over issues of parenting and religion, and 41.1% report some tension and occasional issues. Just 6.7% reported frequent issues and 4.4% experience significant, severe conflict over parenting and religion.

I was surprised and pleased to see that only 11 percent of mixed secular/religious marriages in the survey seem to be grappling with these issues on a frequent or severe basis. It’s no less troubling for those people, of course, but as the Foundation develops its parent support program, we can be more effective and efficient in offering solutions if we know the extent of the problem.

The next question also produced something of a surprise to me:

Just over a quarter of respondents (25.5%) report an extended family that is moderate to intense in its religiosity. My surprise is partly an artifact of reportage—the vast majority of my own correspondence and contact with secular parents comes from those in a deeply religious extended family.

Over a third of respondents (35.2%) are in an extended family that ranges from secular to mildly religious, while the largest proportion (39.2%) are in a situation of significant variety, either split along two or more sides of the extended family or scrambled up within the whole.

I think this can be an ideal situation for raising kids who genuinely think for themselves. If your extended family is too uniform (either strictly religious or strictly secular), a parent has to expend more effort to be sure other points of view are represented. When my wife Becca, a fairly conventional Christian believer for most of our marriage, came to self-identify as a secular humanist, it eliminated what small tensions we had over those questions but also deprived us of what had been a handy safety valve against unintended indoctrination. Fortunately we still have a variety of views in the extended family to provide that diversity.

Fewer than half of respondents report significant religious pressure or indoctrination directed at their kids. Family members, unsurprisingly, are the source of most pressure from those who do report it:

(Totals exceed 100% because respondents were free to choose more than one source of pressure.)

And what’s the pressure about? You can probably guess:

How do secular parents expose their kids to religion?

Another question asked about the parent’s feelings about his or her child’s eventual worldview. I’ve often said that it seemed to me that most secular parents are genuinely committed to raising their kids to make their own choices, and the survey seemed to bear this out. Even most of those who hope their kids choose atheism affirm a desire that the choice be their children’s own:

(Complete purple question, which was very carefully worded: “The choice is theirs, and though some religious identities would make me heartsick, others would be fine”)

Finally, two related questions that are of central importance as we build the Foundation’s secular parent support program:

The greatest need of nontheistic parents by far seems to be simply finding and connecting with other nontheistic parents. This result was profoundly influential for the Foundation. It became clear that our original plan to train seminar leaders would not meet the most common need. What is needed is ongoing support for local groups that can help remove the crushing sense of isolation that so many secular parents feel. What’s needed is not a lecture but an opportunity to socialize, to mingle, to informally share experiences and ideas—to simply be with other parents who are raising their kids with the same challenges and opportunities.

Best of all, nearly 1,000 respondents expressed an interest in being contacted if a secular parenting group formed in their area, and nearly a third of these were willing to help start such groups. Ute Mitchell, our parent community coordinator, is currently using the contact data from the survey to help form groups in the ten U.S. states with the most survey respondents (some obviously the result of higher population):

…after which we’ll continue with other states and provinces SOON. We’re also continuing to build the parent resource section of the Foundation website, which will launch in the coming weeks.

Thanks again to all participants! More surveys to come.

Foundation Beyond Belief in NYT

Atheists’ Collection Plate, With Religious Inspiration
BY SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN

ALPHARETTA, Ga. –– Four or five Sundays in 2005, his own atheism notwithstanding, Dale McGowan took his family into the neo-Gothic grandeur of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis on a kind of skeptic’s field trip.

Mr. McGowan went because he wanted his three young children to have “religious literacy.” He went because his mother-in-law, Barbara Maples, belonged to the congregation. He went because, as a college professor with a fondness for weekend sweatpants, church gave him the rare chance to wear the ties she invariably gave him for his birthday.

Something else began to strike Mr. McGowan on those visits. He listened to the vicar preach about ministering to the poor, and he learned that the cathedral helped to sponsor a weekly dinner for the homeless. Most importantly, he watched as the collection plate moved through the pews and as his mother-in-law, who volunteered at those dinners, dropped in her offering.

All those details added up to a nonbeliever’s revelation. The theology and the voluntarism and the philanthropy, Mr. McGowan came to realize, were part of a greater whole, a commitment to charity as part of religious practice. And on that practice, this atheist felt lacking. To put it in church slang, he was convicted.

Rather than adopt faith, however, Mr. McGowan set out to emulate it, or at least its culture of giving. He set out to, in effect, create the atheist’s collection plate. By now, five years later, that impulse has taken the form of a nonprofit foundation that solicits donations from atheists and bundles them into contributions to organizations in fields like public health, environmentalism, gay rights and refugee aid.

Within the next week or so, Mr. McGowan expects to cut checks for a total of $12,025, the first benefits collected and disbursed by the Foundation Beyond Belief.

Read the full article

Ho ho ho no mo

And so, as predicted, Santa has darkened the McGowan fireplace for the last time.

linkyDelaney (8) followed the same classic curve as the other two. She started last year with the ancillary technical questions of a child who’s begun to smell something funky but doesn’t reeeally want to dig to the back of the fridge just yet.

“Regular reindeer don’t fly. How do Santa’s reindeer fly?”

“Well…some people say they eat magic corn.”

Magic corn. The rapidity with which this sharp, science-minded, reality-loving inquirer would happily swallow lame answers of that kind and skip tra-la away demonstrated as clearly as anything could that she was more interested at that point in perpetuating this particular belief than in figuring things out—a fact further underlined by her disinclination to ask the obvious, direct question that we would willingly have answered at any point, namely “Is Santa real?”

(Sorry about that sentence, I’m reading Infinite Jest again.)

Same with many kinds of belief. It’s not that true believers of various kinds don’t ask questions — it’s that they so eagerly accept poor answers to those questions in order to preserve belief. It’s something we all do at various times and places in our lives. Yes you do, and have, and will. Me too.

At some point (with Santa, anyway) the weight of inconsistency eventually becomes too great, and the direct question is asked. And when it’s asked, you ANSWER, and congratulate the child for figuring it out.

Just before Christmas, Laney’s questions intensified, but remained oblique. At one point she looked Becca in the eye and asked the most convoluted almost-direct indirect question I’ve ever heard:

“When I’m just about to have kids of my own, are you all of a sudden going to tell me something that I need to know about something?”

“Uh…not that I know of,” Becca replied. Which was true.

“Good, because I love Santa.”

“Who said anything about Santa?”

“Never mind.”

Two weeks after Christmas, Erin (12) came downstairs at bedtime with a look of panic. “She’s figuring it out, and I don’t know what to do!!”

“Figuring what out?” I asked.

“Santa! Laney’s asking all these questions and I don’t know what to do!! I did your thing about ‘Some people believe…’ but then she keeps going and going!”

“That’s awesome! That means she’s finally ready to figure it out. Just answer every question honestly. Do you want me to come up?”

“Yes. No. Well, in a little while.”

I waited ten minutes, then went upstairs. The girls were sitting on their beds facing each other and looked up with little smiles as I entered.

“What’s up in here?”

Laney nodded sagely. “Well…I figured something out.”

“What did you figure out.”

“I figured out…the thing about Santa.”

“What thing is that?” Say it, girl!

“That…well, he isn’t real.”

“Oh, that.” I smiled and sat next to her. “How does that make you feel?”

“A little upset. I really loved Santa!”

Now with Laney being the youngest, I knew there was a risk of her feeling embarrassed at being the last to know. But we’d always played with a very light touch, allowing her to believe until knowing became more interesting — which it now apparently had. Time to let her walk proudly through that door.

The key is to underline the proud. I asked how she had figured it out, and she proceeded to describe a fascinating trail of clues that I hadn’t even known she was following.

She sleeps in my T-shirts, and one night found a half empty box of candy canes nestled in the drawer. “Who buys candy canes in a box?” she said, further noting that this year there were no canes on the tree, only in…the stockings.

“And all of the Santa presents were in Santa paper except the ones for you and Mom. And there was still a price tag on one of my presents.” And on and on she went. She had noticed these things because she wanted to, because she had reached a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

So I turned on the praise. “Look what you did!” I said. “You used your brain to figure out all of those clues…and you did it yourself!”

She beamed.

“Was it fun to figure out?”

“Yes,” she admittedly, it actually was.

“And the best thing is that all of the good stuff about Christmas,” I said, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

She has shared her findings with every significant adult in her life, proof that pride quickly eclipsed disappointment. “Guess what I figured out all by myself,” she says. Only one adult went into a “Yes, Virginia” genie re-bottling attempt.

“Grandma,” Laney said patiently. “You don’t have to do that. I looked at all the clues and figured it out. It’s fine.”

So I remain convinced that our family’s Santa period was jolly well-spent. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists -– and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

And I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.