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

The cover

I really wondered what direction the publisher would go for this cover, and once again, the design team at AMACOM Books did me proud.

IFAIDcoverEvery cover design process gives me hives. So far they’ve all turned out really well: The non-praying mother-child hands of Parenting Beyond Belief, the curious kid on Raising Freethinkers, the solo questioner on Voices of Unbelief, and the nautilus on Atheism For Dummies… So many ways to go wrong on these topics, and every time they’ve gotten it right.

But for this one, I didn’t even know what to recommend to them. How do you capture the religious side of the topic without evoking a specific religion? How do you depict the nonreligious side? I didn’t want any cheese-bag thing like one person standing outside of a church, holding hands with someone inside. I wanted something that included people without being heteronormative. Racial diversity. Positive. Interesting. Something that evoked warmth and affection and normalcy without being boring. Some reference to parenting would be good, since so many of the issues relate to that.

I gathered my notes over the course of several weeks. Then suddenly my editor sent the cover you see here, saying, “Here’s the jacket. I hope you like it!”

Wha…here’s the jacket?! My heart sank. I steeled myself to roll back a creative process that had already run its course without me.

I clicked on the attachment…and fell in love.

Crafty buggers. They skirted the questions about depicting religion by not depicting religion, or irreligion. You don’t have to — it’s in the title! It never would have occurred to me to do that, which is why design is best left to designers.

It’s interesting, fun, warm, informal, personal, affectionate. The anonymity is awesome. Didn’t get racial diversity, but it’s at least deniably heteronormative.

I’m happy. Onward.

Let no man put asunder

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

The secular/religious marriage survey wraps up in nine days. Just as I’m transitioning from general ‘interfaith’ marriage research to a tighter focus on the secular/religious marriage, my friend Laurie Miller Tarr shared this stunning photo with me — the tombstones of a Protestant husband and his Catholic wife, buried in the respective grounds of their faiths on opposite sides of a cemetery wall in the Netherlands in the 1880s.

Sad and lovely.

grave

In faith and in doubt

Wedding4A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

Saturday is our 22nd anniversary. For 13 of those years, Becca was a religious believer; for the past nine, she has not been.

Whenever someone learns that, the next questions are how and why she made that decision, and how much I had to do with it. The answer is simple: She became more curious about it, thought and read more about it, and changed her mind. Having a secular humanist around the house probably stirred her curiosity in a way it wouldn’t have been if we shared a faith, but I played no active, intentional part in the change.

I was reading a lot of Karen Armstrong and A. N. Wilson in the early 2000s, before the Four Horsemen had saddled up, and Becca began picking up the books herself as I finished. She also started tuning in to the conversations I would have with our kids as they worked through their own ideas. I noticed, but I don’t even recall that Becca and I talked much about it.

It was some time the following year that our daughter Erin, then 7, asked her point-blank if she believed in God. After a long pause, Becca said, “I don’t think there is a God…but I wish there was one.”

I had no feeling of having “won” anything. It was interesting to watch her make that transition, and there had been a few minor frustrations over our religious differences before, but I never needed her to change. I never for a moment needed her to be anything other than who and what she was. I loved and accepted her completely before, and I do now.

Becca’s 2008 post about her transition

In the beginning

An ongoing series of five-minute posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

Wedding4I’m working on the intro right now, which starts with a bit about my own wedding to Becca, 22 years ago this month. If major religious differences doom a marriage, ours really should have been toe-tagged at the altar. Our religious differences were arguably about as major as they could get — a committed Christian believer marrying an equally committed atheist.

I’d identified as an atheist for 15 years at that point. I read the Bible critically at 13, argued theology with classmates in high school, and debated preachers in the plaza in college. I was a vocal critic of many aspects of religion and still am.

Becca was a born and raised Southern Baptist. I’d recently witnessed the adult baptism ceremony that confirmed her in the faith. Her stepfather, uncle, and grandfather were Baptist ministers. Her parents met at a Baptist college. She went to church every Sunday and planned to continue doing so once we were married.

So why was I crying tears of joy as she came down the aisle? Why was she smiling so enormously as she approached me? And why are we still very happily married 22 years and three kids later?

The short answer is that people are more interesting than their labels. The long answer is this book.

I’m not just looking at secular/religious marriages that have worked, but also those that struggle or fail. My hope is to figure out what accounts for the difference.

(REMINDER: If you’re in a secular/religious marriage, please take the survey and submit your stories!)

Once again, into the mix

blendLast year, while I was writing Atheism For Dummies on an insanely short timeline, I did something counterintuitive — I committed to a daily 5-minute blog entry about the process. As it turned out, that helped me structure my time and mark my progress, and I got to bounce ideas off my readers in a way that improved the book. (In case you haven’t seen it, here’s your shout-out.)

As I transition out of the heavy research phase and into the heavy writing phase for my current book on the religious/nonreligious mixed marriage, I’m going to make the same dumb commitment again. Starting Monday (he said), I’ll write a short, unpolished post at the end of each weekday as I work my way through this incredibly complicated project.

Thanks for coming along for the ride! I appreciate the company.

Take the mixed marriage survey
Share your mixed marriage stories

Stories: The first discussion

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.

kettlemanWe 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.

Shit.

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.

Sharing stories: the religious/nonreligious marriage

As you may know, I am writing a book on marriage between religious and nonreligious partners. In addition to an upcoming survey, I am collecting stories to personalize the issues. If your marriage straddles that religious/nonreligious divide, I’d like to hear your insights and stories by using this form.

Possible topics include:

  • The first discussion of your different views
  • Extended family issues
  • Dating across lines of belief
  • The wedding
  • Churchgoing
  • Holidays
  • Family identity issues
  • Talking about differences in belief
  • Kids and baptism, naming, circumcision, etc.
  • Kids and churchgoing / Sunday school
  • Kids and religious identity
  • Separation or divorce
  • Death, loss, funerals
  • Other/General
  •  

    Submit one story or ten, one sentence or a hundred. What have you learned? What would you do differently? What has made your relationship stronger, and what weakened it? Are you both in the same place belief-wise that you were when you married? Did kids bring out the complexities of the issues in a whole new way? Has the mixed marriage made you more tolerant of other beliefs…or less?

    Thanks in advance for anything you can give. I can’t wait to read them. The form will be available until July 1, so no particular rush. Take your time and dig deep, then click here to submit your stories!

    Counting heads and changing attitudes

    graphThanks 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

    Contradicting the universe

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

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

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

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

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