Friday, 03. May 2013 by Dale
Off to a great start with the new form for sharing stories about religious/nonreligious marriages. To make sure all categories are covered, I’m going to prime individual questions once in a while.
If you’re in a religious/nonreligious mixed marriage, or once were, or almost were…let’s start with the first time you and your partner discussed the difference in your beliefs.
Ours happened in 1990 when I was 27. After the usual series of misfit relationships and a lot of thinking, I’d become incredibly picky. I finally knew exactly what I was looking for…and Becca was IT. Compared to everything else she brought to the relationship, the fact that she was a churchgoing Christian was a footnote. Honestly, if I’d learned she had a second head growing out of the back of her neck, I’d have bought it a little hat. This, at last, was the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life, the person I wanted to raise a family with, grow old with, the whole cliché.
We’d known each other for years and been dating for a few months, but my atheism had never come up. I finally decided it was time. I was terrified of the possibility that I’d lose her over it, but I knew this was too big to be an “oh-by-the-way, funny-thing” moment later on. If it was going to be a big deal, it needed to be a big deal right then, before we got engaged, before we got married.
I decided that a fast-moving car was the right place to bring it up.
We both lived in LA at the time and occasionally drove to San Francisco to see her parents. Perfect. Somewhere around Kettleman City, in the middle of nowhere, I got the nerve. I don’t remember the exact words I said, but at some point it was out there: I don’t believe in God, it’s something I’ve thought about seriously for years, and it’s not likely to ever change. Is that, uh…okay with you?
The tires thrummed for a while. She clearly hadn’t seen it coming, and she seemed a little shaken.
Finally she said, “Well…is it okay with you that I do believe?”
I said yes, of course. I’d known that from the beginning.
“It has to be okay for me to go to church.” You’ll note that this was not in the form of a question. I said it was okay, of course it was. At which point I learned why it was so important for her to go to church. And as is so often the case, it had nothing to do with God.
She laid out the whole story. Her stepdad, a former Baptist minister, had an ugly falling out with his church when he left his first wife. As a result, he didn’t allow Becca’s very religious mom or her daughters to attend church. Becca vowed to herself at the time that she was bloody well going to church once she got out of that house, and that no one was ever going to keep her from it again. It wasn’t religious uniformity she needed from her eventual husband. She just needed to know that that particular bit of family history wasn’t going to repeat itself. It was never about salvation. As much as anything, her churchgoing was an act of proxy redemption for her mom.
By the end of the conversation, I was relieved, we knew each other a lot better, and the biggest secret I had was out in the open. And it had gone just fine.
So if you’re in a religious/nonreligious marriage, what’s the story of your first discussion across that line? Sharing in the comments is great, but please be sure to also share on the story form. Your story might make an appearance in my book.
Friday, 26. April 2013 by Dale
Thanks for participating in the first mini-poll of several. These polls won’t form the basis for any actual conclusions in the book, but they’ll help me think some things through, including the wording for questions in the full survey coming in a few weeks.
Though people in secular/religious mixed marriages have always been a part of my audience, readership for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers (and this blog) skews significantly toward couples in which both partners are secular. Makes sense, since the books and blog are mostly about raising kids without religion. But even with that skew, 22 percent of the 509 respondents to this poll so far are in a secular/religious mixed marriage.
You can roughly double that number that once you get outside of the PBB skew. Religious intermarriage has been rising steadily for a century, from 26 percent of all US marriages begun in the 1910s to 45 percent of marriages begun in the past decade.1 And nearly half of all married nonreligious Americans currently have a religious partner.2 (This comes as a big surprise to many nontheists I talk to who are convinced that secular/religious marriages are simply impossible.)
The increase in religious intermarriages parallels an overall increase in acceptance of the idea. About 60 percent of those who reached adulthood in the 1930s felt that shared religious beliefs were “very important” for a successful marriage. For those who became adults in the 1950s, that dropped to 50 percent. And for those who came of age in the 1990s, that feeling plummeted to 23 percent.
If you believe some of the terrible books I’m currently reading on interfaith marriage, this change in attitudes is a disaster. Many of them, including recent titles by decent publishers, bang the drum of religious uniformity as a vital component of a successful marriage. Scratch the surface and you find that many or most of these are actually more concerned about their religions than about the marriages. And it’s true — religious intermarriage has had a deleterious effect on the cohesiveness and retention of many religious traditions. But the effects on marriages, though real, are seriously overstated in the literature. (More on all that later.)
The rest of the mini-polls, like the full survey itself, will be directed at those who are currently or formerly in secular/religious mixed marriages. I will also be creating a form to submit your own stories of dating, marrying, raising kids, and dealing with extended family across that religious/secular gap.
Thanks for your help with this.
1Cited in American Grace (Putnam and Campbell, 2010), from Gen. Social Survey
2Faith Matters survey (2006)
3World Values Survey, 1982 and 1990
Friday, 19. April 2013 by Dale
The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
MARK TWAIN, Letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888
Well into the writing and research for my book on religious/nonreligious marriages and ready to start blogging it a bit. As I did with Atheism For Dummies, I’ll be looking for your help to chew on some ideas. If you give me even half of the terrific input you gave last time, I’ll be grateful. It really helps.
Right now I’m looking for the perfect, concise term to denote the marriage of religious and nonreligious partners.
I can pretty much guarantee we’re not looking for an existing word, at least not one used in this context. We’re going to need a new coinage here, or at least a repurposing. The term should denote this kind of marriage without including other mixes, such as marriages between adherents of two different religions. For that reason, “mixed marriage” and “interfaith marriage” don’t do the trick, though they are useful for the larger categories.
The ideal word would be concise — four syllables is an absolute max for a single word, maybe five for a two-word term. And even though its meaning doesn’t have to be obvious at first glance, it would be nice if it didn’t rely too much on knowledge of ancient Mediterranean languages to make sense.
If I introduce the term up front in the book, I can then use it in place of long, tedious phrases (“When couples in which one partner is religious and the other is nonreligious…”). The new term might even make it into the title, who knows. In any case, if you coined it, you’d certainly get a loud shout in the Acknowledgements.
So help me find le mot juste here. Help me find the lightning.
Thursday, 07. February 2013 by Dale
I’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!
Friday, 07. December 2012 by Dale
By Mari-Jane Williams
From the Washington Post Lifestyle section, Dec. 6, 2012
Answering awkward questions is an inevitable part of parenting: Where did I come from? Why doesn’t Santa ever die? Why is that lady so big?
Often, though, the toughest questions are about God and religion. For parents who are not religious, the holidays highlight those queries and at times make us second-guess our choices.
It’s one thing to be ambivalent about religion yourself, but as parents, we want to make sure we expose our children to as many different views as possible.
“It’s easy when you’re childless to sort of float and do what you think is right for you,” said Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief,” (Amacon, $17.95). “As soon as you have kids, all those questions come to the fore. A number of friends of mine were entirely nonreligious, but once they had kids, they felt that they ought to be going to church.”
Other parents have the added stress of trying to navigate a holiday of another faith, because Christmas is so pervasive this time of year.
“It’s hard,” said Esther Lederman, the associate rabbi at Temple Micah in the District. “If you’re a Jewish parent, you’re trying to make your child not feel bad that Santa isn’t coming to your house. ”
We spoke with McGowan and other experts about how to expose children to the religious traditions of the holidays without compromising your beliefs. Here are some of their suggestions.
Be honest about your doubts, and ask them what they think. The questions don’t need to cause anxiety for parents, McGowan said. Just be honest with your child and tell him that many people celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but you don’t. Then give him a chance to talk about what makes the most sense to him.
“They need to know that most of the people around them see the world through a religious lens,” said McGowan, who lives in Atlanta.
“Every time I make a statement about what I think is true, I let them know that others think differently and that they get to make up their own minds. It’s not necessary to put blinders on them and not let them see the religious aspect of the holidays. That would be strange.”
Take your children to religious services during the holidays. Andrew Park, the self-described “faith-free dad” who wrote “Between a Church and a Hard Place” (Avery, $26), says he and his wife take their children to services at different churches on Christmas Eve to expose them to a variety of faiths and customs.
“Christmas Eve is an opportunity to experience what religion means to people other than their parents,” said Park, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The greater the variety of the experiences, the better. It gives them context and understanding about religion. That’s powerful. Whether they become believers in a faith or not, having that understanding helps them become citizens of the world.”
Read biblical stories. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible as a literal text, many of the stories are still fascinating and can capture children’s imaginations. Read the story of Christmas and talk about it in the context of history or ancient mythology.
“There’s something about the Christian story that is very engaging to a kid,” Park said.
He also noted that his two children, ages 8 and 10, are starting to make connections between the practice of modern religion and the way it was practiced in ancient societies, how it’s portrayed in fantasy literature, and the role it has played in history.
Make it secular. Nothing says you have to observe Christmas or Hanukkah as religious holidays, McGowan said.
If you are ambivalent about religion, you can make the holidays a celebration of family and generosity. Or focus on the celebration of light, or Santa and cookies.
“What some parents find is they pop back into the church and it really doesn’t satisfy what they’re looking for, so they look for secular ways to fulfill those needs,” McGowan said. “They are looking for ways to have important landmarks in their lives or rites of passage, and there are lots of equivalents that are entirely humanistic: naming ceremonies for babies, coming of age ceremonies around age 13.”
Read at WashingtonPost.com
Friday, 01. June 2012 by Dale
To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
From Walden by Henry David Thoreau
A question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page brought this post to mind from August 2008:
I had just been interviewed for the satellite radio program “About Our Kids,” a production of Doctor Radio and the NYU Child Study Center, on the topic of Children and Spirituality. Also on the program was the editor of Beliefnet, whom I irritated only once that I could tell. Heh.
“Spirituality” has wildly different meanings to different people. When a Christian friend asked several years ago how we achieved spirituality in our home without religion, I asked if she would first define the term as she understood it.
“Well…spirituality,” she said. “You know—having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and accepting him into your life as Lord and Savior.”
Erp. Yes, doing that without religion would be a neat trick.
So when the interviewer asked me if children need spirituality, I said sure, but offered a more helpful definition—one that doesn’t exclude 91 percent of the people who have ever lived. Spirituality is about being awake. It’s the attempt to transcend the mundane, sleepwalking experience of life we all fall into, to tap into the wonder of being a conscious and grateful thing in the midst of an astonishing universe. It doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion can and often does blunt our awareness by substituting false and frankly inferior wonders for real ones. It’s a fine joke on ourselves that most of what we call spirituality is actually about putting ourselves to sleep.
For maximum clarity, instead of “spiritual but not religious,” those so inclined could say “not religious–just awake.”
I didn’t say all that on the program, of course. That’s just between you, me, and the Internet. But I did offer as an example my children’s fascination with personal improbability — thinking about the billions of things that had to go just so for them to exist — and contrasted it with predestinationism, the idea that God works it all out for us, something most orthodox traditions embrace in one way or another. Personal improbability has transported my kids out of the everyday more than anything else so far.
Evolution is another. Taking a walk in woods over which you have been granted dominion is one kind of spirituality, I guess. But I find walking among squirrels, mosses, and redwoods that are my literal relatives to be a bit more foundation-rattling.
Another world-shaker is mortality itself. This is often presented as a problem for the nonreligious, but in terms of rocking my world, it’s more of a solution. Spirituality is about transforming your perspective, transcending the everyday, right? One of my most profound ongoing “spiritual” influences is the lifelong contemplation of my life’s limits, the fact that it won’t go on forever. That fact grabs me by the collar and lifts me out of traffic more effectively than any religious idea I’ve ever heard. A different spiritual meat, to be sure, but no less powerful.
Tuesday, 22. May 2012 by Dale
Stuck in Big Idea mode again as I’m proofing the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief. I’m likely to share a few more bits of that project as I do.
I included a sidebar about Karl Marx’s “opium of the people” remark, which is almost always stripped of context. Let’s zoom out a bit:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
As long as the human condition is characterized by oppression and suffering, says Marx, religion will blunt the pain, as medicinal opium did at the time. So he’s not completely decrying it. But zoom out a bit further and he makes his position even clearer—that the pain relief of religion is ultimately a hallucinatory happiness that keeps humanity from seeking the genuine good:
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Now there’s some nuance I can get with.
For most of the people on the planet, for a hundred reasons, life is more painful than it is for me. Before I demand that they give up their pain reliever cold turkey, I need to do something about the pain itself. That’s why I think improving the human condition is THE great humanist project.
In the meantime, I think of liberal religion as the methadone of the people — oh so much better than the original addiction, and a therapeutic step toward the cure.
Thursday, 17. May 2012 by Dale
The religious shall inherit the earth.
Last sentence of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann
Between his titular question and confident answer, Kaufmann lays out his reasons for thinking recent gains of secularism and liberalism in the developed world will gradually be reversed, an argument captured in an article of his that’s currently meming its way around.
The arguments are brutally simple: (1) Children tend to adopt the religious identity in which they were raised; (2) The religious have more children on average than seculars; and (3) The more conservatively religious they are, the more children they tend to have.
Now I’ve rather enjoyed the progressive achievements of the last 50 years and was looking forward to more. But math says no. As long as the assumptions in those statements remain unchanged, we’re stuck with a more conservative and more religious future, even in the developed world.
Fiendishly clever, that Darwin fella.
I’ve seen it suggested with varying degrees of seriousness that secular progressives need to get busy indoctrinating their kids and having more of them. I’ve already written at length about the misguided lunacy of the first idea and will again soon. But the second one is a particular knee-slapper. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories! We have fewer kids for good reasons, thangyavurrymush, including the desire to focus parental attention on fewer kids, financial constraints (including the high cost of education), awareness of population issues, and access to family planning resources. We’re not going to reverse that sensible progress to win some fuzzy demographic struggle by pumping out more puppies.
Fortunately we don’t have to go into Shockley mode after all, in part because…well, because it’s a weird and creepy suggestion, first of all, but also because the assumptions underlying Kaufmann’s work are shifting on their own, and by a lot.
A Pew study from 2009 on “faith switching” included an under-reported finding that the glue of family faith is losing its stick. While just 7 percent of respondents 65 and older have ever left the faith in which they were raised to become unaffiliated, that number rises to 13 percent for those in their 30s and 40s and 18 percent of those currently under 30. That’s 18 percent who have already left religion at a pretty darn young age. Doesn’t even count those millennials who will leave in their 30s and 40s — numbers already available for the older brackets.
Another assumption shift: Kaufmann points to the high religiosity and birthrate of recent immigrants, especially Hispanics, as a key driver. But the birthrate of US immigrants drops dramatically once they are here — presumably as they and their children gain more of the advantages listed above, including improved access to family planning resources. And as the Pew study shows, they are much more likely with each generation to dissolve the glue that holds them to their family religion.
Finally, it’s silly to think an increase in diversity is ultimately going to make us more conservative. The increasing nonwhite slice of the American pie has a strong progressive effect that overwhelms the residue of family-of-origin conservatism for everyone. Conservatism thrives on sameness. The more we are surrounded by genuine difference, the less able we each are to cling to fantasies of the One True Faith or the master race. It’s harder to keep the cartoons in place when you are cheek-and-jowl with real people of other cultures, creeds, and colors.
Here in my Atlanta suburb, for example, which a generation ago was easily 95 percent white conservative Baptist, my five most immediate neighbors are from Indonesia, Turkish Armenia, Korea, India, and Ukraine. Last week, my daughter’s Saudi-born fourth grade teacher taught her students how to write their names in Arabic. This is Atlanta, folks. And the same thing is happening pretty much everywhere I go.
So when you see articles like Kaufmann’s, relax. The picture is much more complex and promising than a simple birthrate analysis suggests. And rather than throw out our own family planning, do the obvious — support family planning for everybody.
As for religious identity, it’s becoming less of an automatic inheritance, thanks in large part to the churches themselves, which are falling over themselves to alienate their young folks and succeeding at an incredible rate. If we want to help the process of dissolving that glue, there’s no better way than creating a happy, normal place for those leaving religion to land and thrive.
Thursday, 10. May 2012 by Dale
Quick coda to yesterday’s post.
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?
Wednesday, 09. May 2012 by Dale
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.”
Brings to mind a poll cited by Amanda Metskas in Raising Freethinkers:
[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.