Q: 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 “[But] the notion that there is a ‘marching in lockstep’ black religious community is outdated,” she adds.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.”
(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.
Peer-reviewed research is great when you can get it, but a lot of the questions at the heart of my work fall in the remaining gaps between studies. Until those gaps fill in, I have to find other ways of ferreting out the answers.
I’ve long been interested in what people get out of going to church. I attended long enough myself and know enough churchgoers to know that one common answer — “they go to stay out of hell” — is a cartoon. True for some, but not for most of the churchgoers I know.
To find out, you can ask them directly, and I do. But in the category of You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone, you can sometimes get even better answers by asking former churchgoers what they miss about church. Sometimes I do this in person; sometimes I turn to the Goog.
A search for quoted phrases like “I miss about church,” “I miss most about church,” “I miss from church,” “I liked most about church,” and so on doesn’t turn up a lot of people missing the idea of God or heaven. Some, sure. But mostly they’re missing exactly what the Wisconsin/Harvard study said they were getting out of it in the first place: community, connection, purpose, inspiration, personal growth, support.
What I miss about church is the feeling of community
I always left feeling inspired to be a better person
The only thing about church I miss is the instant community support
I miss the opportunity to have a good sing
I miss joining with others to do good
I miss the feeling of belonging that I had
I miss the feeling of connection and common purpose
I miss feeling a part of something greater than myself
The fellowship and feeling of community is about the only thing I miss about church
Volunteering gives me the same satisfaction I once derived from church, a feeling of connectedness to my fellow man
Not all of us miss all of those things equally, and some of us don’t miss any of them one bit. Tom Flynn’s recent piece titled “Why Seculars Don’t Sing” gives articulate voice to the latter, even as its title overreaches on two counts, and by miles. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But a lot of entirely secular people do feel a certain sense of loss when they leave church, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with God or worship.
As a movement, we often act as if church is about God, period. If we can just pry people away from that delusion, goes the reasoning, they’ll walk away whistling. When we grasp that it’s mostly about something else and start building meaningful secular alternatives that go waaaaay beyond the intellectual, I think we’ll be amazed at how quickly God takes a powder. Until then, we really don’t deserve a bigger slice of the cultural pie. Fortunately there’s all sorts of recent action in this area, from Volunteers Beyond Belief to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and an ever-greater focus on community and mutual support among local groups.
So if you were once a churchgoer: What if anything do you miss, and have you found good secular alternatives? What do you see as the greatest need?
One of the real pleasures of being neck-deep in the freethought movement at the moment is how quickly the conversation is growing up. Not that it isn’t still fun and worthwhile to throw tomatoes at bad religion. But we’re also talking a lot more about building our own community, including — psst, here’s the grown-up part — learning from what religion has done well.
If religion did nothing but scare people into giving money or doing as they’re told, or comfort them with fables, or validate innate hatreds, I wouldn’t bother looking for anything to borrow. But we’re getting beyond these half-answers to recognize benefits that might actually be worth a good think.
One such benefit came out in a study in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review. Other studies had suggested that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers by several life-satisfaction indicators, but this one actually dug in to ask why that might be.
Turns out there’s another essential variable: Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers only if they have significant friendships in the congregation. As the number and significance of the friendships increase, so does life satisfaction. And those who attend church regularly but have no strong connections to others in the congregation show less life satisfaction than non-churchgoers.
Now there’s something worth noticing.
“[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect,” said UW Madison’s Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers. “People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network within their congregation….We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”
[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)
God is the frame in which many people hang their most deeply felt human needs. One of the best things we can do as a movement is think about how best to reframe that legitimate human picture.
Okay, hiatus over, sort of. At least I can start blogging again.
I seem to have two gears right now. For weeks at a time I commute up 15 stairs to my home office. There’s no sound for seven hours but a slow-breathing dog at my feet and my inbox rattling under a constant light hail of email. I rise only to get the mail and pee. Then I suddenly fly around the country speaking to hundreds of people about big ideas.
Now I’m back in the Cone of Silence.
That’s not a bad combination, really. Each is a great antidote for the other. But I do seem to remember middle distances and smaller crowds, like going five miles away to a restaurant with one other favorite person. Gotta get that in the mix again.
But I have to say, the nine events I did in the last three weeks were really fun. And believe me, ‘fun’ was not always the first word that leapt to my mind after visiting a freethought group. The spirit and attitude in the secular movement is just remarkably different compared to even 5 or 6 years ago. I’m not the only one who’s noticed that it’s more often actually fun now to meet and hang out with other secular folks than it once was. We seem to be more varied in age, gender, color and culture, funnier, more relaxed, less maniacally focused on One Thing, and much more likely to talk about things like building community and raising kids and food and travel and movies and sex.
It used to be maybe one in four groups that really had an engaging social feel to it. But I felt this in every single place I went in the past three weeks, without exception — from a secular homeschool community center and an Ethical Society in Baltimore to Camp Quest South Carolina to PBB workshops in Austin TX and Raleigh NC to the convention of the Atheist Alliance of America in Houston to the fun and funky Triangle Freethought Society. We’re normaling up, folks. And of course the more fun and normal we are, the more fun and normal humans will hang out with us.
Oh by the way: if you were in a group that I spoke to before 2006, and you’re wondering…Yes, honey. You were one of the fun ones.