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.

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

Does somebody need a hug?

like-button1A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

Continuing to mine Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace for useful insights, and it’s never-ending. What a great piece of work.

One fascinating bit is a “feeling thermometer” that charts how all the various religious and nonreligious identities in the U.S. feel about each other. Their findings, and I quote:

  • Almost everyone likes mainline Protestants and Jews.
  • Almost everyone likes Catholics, more than Catholics like everyone else.
  • Evangelicals like almost everyone else more than they are liked in return.
  • Catholics and evangelicals rate each other warmly.
  • Mormons like everyone else, while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons. Jews are the exception, as they give Mormons a net positive rating.
  • Almost everyone dislikes Muslims and Buddhists — more than any other group. Jews, however, are quite warm toward Buddhists, while cool toward Muslims.

Almost everyone dislikes Buddhists. Buddhists.

Mormons have the highest self-image of any group (a warmth rating of 87 out of 100), while those who identify as “not religious” have the lowest self-image (59). In fact, we rate ourselves lower than either Jews or Mormons rate us — 64 and 61, respectively.

We like ourselves less than Mormons like us.

I think somebody needs a hug.

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

Joe Klein apologizes (Genre: Fantasy)

Joe_Klein_2011_ShankboneIn his recent cover story for TIME magazine titled “Can Service Save Us?“, Joe Klein got something wrong.

Hey, it happens.

I happened to be in Oklahoma City when I saw the article. I had the privilege of meeting with some secular humanists there who organized volunteers, resources, and blood drives, teamed with local businesses to feed relief volunteers, and drove bulk donations around the city to distribution centers after the tornadoes. They drove backhoes into neighborhoods to clear rubble and get the rebuilding started, took people into their own homes, fed them and clothed them.

I told them about the efforts of the secular humanist organization I direct, including partnering with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to put 100,000 meals in the hands of the survivors of the storms. Foundation Beyond Belief, Atheists Giving Aid, Oklahoma Atheists, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, the Norman Naturalism Group, FreeOK, the Oklahoma State Secular Organization — the response from the secular humanist and atheist community was overwhelming. Some gave money (nearly a quarter million dollars in ten days), and others gave untold time and energy.

But Joe didn’t describe our efforts in his article.

That’s fine. I mean my goodness, you can’t name every single group that helped out, be reasonable. But unlike other organizations that he didn’t name, Joe went out of his way to specifically say that our organizations were not there:

But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals

I’d say it’s funny how you don’t see what you don’t look for.

These atheist and humanist contributions to the disaster relief effort were not hard to find. A five-second Google search turns up almost every one of them. But Klein checked only his assumptions and biases, and in so doing reinforced the assumptions and biases of his readers — just about the most shameful thing a journalist can do. Even the time-honored test of substituting another subgroup (“funny how you don’t see any organized groups of Jews/blacks/women handing out meals” etc.) should have been enough to slap the sleeping journalist awake in Klein’s head, pushing his cursor the scant few inches needed to open the browser of his choice and see whether that thing he assumed was true was actually true.

After being flooded with indignant emails for a few days, Joe posted what he must have seen as a clarification under the darkly snarky title “Secular Humanist Watch.” He didn’t say there weren’t any secular humanists in the relief effort, you see. He said there weren’t organized groups of secular humanists. He then tangents into an irrelevant discourse on his own beliefs and mis-defines atheism and secular humanism before restating the whopper:

[I]t is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.

This is the jump from carelessness to the lie. He had just been flooded with proof that there was a large, organized secular humanist and atheist presence in the relief effort. Instead of apologizing for a careless error, he opted for an outrageous doubling down. And now, instead of focusing on the good work we’re trying to do, we have to complain, something that further reinforces stereotypes. I hate that.

Here’s the apology that a person of character and integrity might have made:

Dear Readers:

In my recent TIME cover story on service, I said that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out meals after a disaster. Apparently this is not at all true. To be honest, it’s something I thought was true. I am accustomed to seeing religious organizations on the scene, as well as non-sectarian NGOs, but I was not aware that secular humanist organizations have also been present — not just as individuals, but as part of the organized, collective effort to diminish suffering and heal a broken community. This was news to me, and good news at that. With a little more care, I could have brought that news to my readers and enhanced the story.

As it turns out, it would have been quite easy to discover this fact. I simply didn’t think this particular claim needed checking. I was wrong about that, and for that I am sorry.

I’m particularly troubled to realize that my claim disregarded the hard work and dedication of real people who opened their hearts to the victims of the tragedy in Oklahoma, just as their religious friends and neighbors had opened their hearts. I erased these folks, and worse still, reinforced the popular mistrust that exists against them. That is simply not okay.

I briefly considered writing a follow-up that defended my statement on technical grounds, noting that I said there were no organized secular humanist groups, or something to that effect. But I quickly realized that this was just as untrue as the original statement, and that it was more important at any rate to reverse the harm done than to defend my own work.

So thanks to those of you who corrected me on this. I’m always glad to learn something new. It keeps me growing as a journalist and as a human being.

Much better.

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.

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.

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1Cited in American Grace (Putnam and Campbell, 2010), from Gen. Social Survey
2Faith Matters survey (2006)
3World Values Survey, 1982 and 1990

Help me find the right word

photo[2]

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.

Checking in on FBB

Foundation Beyond Belief, the humanist giving community I first announced on this blog, is continuing to grow, and I realized recently I haven’t been keeping Meming of Life readers in the loop very well. Bad Dad.

We now have over 1,300 contributing members and have raised over three-quarters of a million dollars for more than 100 charities since our 2010 launch. Volunteers Beyond Belief now includes teams of humanist volunteers in 23 cities across the U.S., and we’re launching our first international affiliates in Canada and Australia later this year.

Here’s a peek at our current slate of beneficiaries:

Now why not join up?

Q&A: Black youth in secular families and the black church experience

Black-churchesQ: 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.”

Atheists of color – a list (Greta Christina)

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