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

So…who’s your Russ?

Let me introducing you to Russ:

russRuss is a theology prof and a dear friend of mine who represents for me all that is good and noble in the faithful. He is a force for good in the world, a kind, gentle and admirable man. If all believers were like Russ, I’d be thrilled. They’re not, of course, but neither is he unique. And whenever I find myself ready to make a categorical statement about the faithful, Russ’s face pops up before me — and he usually looks plenty hurt, because he himself rarely deserves what I’m serving up.

Russ complicates my life in a good way. I’m convinced he’s got it factually wrong, and that he, like most moderate believers, does too little to acknowledge the genuine harm that religion does, but he is a deeply good guy. As a result of knowing Russ, and dozens like him, I avoid generalizations. I cannot oppose an idea just because it is Christian. I’m forced to actually look at it and think about it, to assess it on its merits, because it may be just as good as Russ. I still make critiques — boy howdy, do I — but they are smarter, more accurate, and more on-target because of Russ. I paint just as vividly, but with a narrower brush. That’s a very good thing.

Russes work both ways — all ways. A Russ is someone you know and love who is on the opposite side of any line of difference. The Cheneys got themselves a Russ when their daughter came out as a lesbian. Those Christians who might be angry at the inclusion of a PBB review in their favorite parenting magazine would be opposing something without thinking, just because it is associated with disbelief. I’d guess they don’t have a Russ on that issue, someone they know who would make it tougher to hate and fear nonbelievers indiscriminately. They need to know a good, decent atheist. Fortunately there are millions of them. Of us, I mean.

And they probably already do know some, of course — but the irony is that the very same hatred and fear that can be cured by knowing each other keeps us from revealing ourselves. And on spins the wheel. Once you know a “gay Russ,” why, it’s a hell of a lot harder to hate and fear gays. Same with a black Russ or an Iraqi Russ. Slurs and stereotypes start sticking in the throat. This is why it’s so important for members of marginalized groups to be out.

One of the purposes of the book is to normalize disbelief so that, in the future, everyone will have an atheist Russ in their lives. At which point a book on secular parenting might get about the same reception as one on vegetarian parenting. Parenting Beyond Beef, perhaps.

I’m the humanist/atheist Russ in the lives of many Christians I know. I complicate things for them. My face floats before them and they put away the broad brush. So, nonbelievers: Do you have a Russ? And believers, how about you? I’m available. We won’t always agree, but who needs that? If we can just keep each other’s humanity in sight, we’ll do fine.

Too hot the buzz?

After working for months to generate excitement about the book, the buzz is now beginning to freak me out. Just a bit. Expectations are so high across the board, it’s slightly terrifying. What will the other monkeys say when they discover it’s nothing but word scrambles and sudoku?

I give a portion of my book profits to various good and noble causes. For Calling Bernadette’s Bluff it was the National Center for Science Education and Doctors Without Borders. I’ve decided a portion of PBB profits will go to the most amazing organization I’ve ever been involved with: Nonviolent Peaceforce, an NGO that trains unarmed civilian peacekeeping teams and sends them to conflict zones around the world — currently Sri Lanka and Mindanao (Philippines), soon Colombia and Uganda. They work with local groups to build and sustain nonviolent strategies for conflict resolution. I’m their US communications coordinator at the moment, just an interim position, and I don’t want to tell them until I leave in May, so please don’t put it on the Internet or anything…

Just heard from the book’s publicist at Amacom that they’re having a very tough time getting parenting magazines to review the book. One editor after another claims s/he’s really really interested in the idea him or herself, but too concerned that a review would anger Christian subscribers into cancelling their subscriptions.

I couldn’t help thinking of a time, not too long ago, when periodicals would reject stories by or about African Americans for fear of angering white readers. I can just hear the editors at the time saying, “I think it’s a fine idea myself, but…” Saying such a thing today would be considered outrageous, but it’s still fine and dandy to accept or even promote bigotry against nonbelievers.

One invited contributor — thankfully only one — declined the offer to participate for the same reason. She is an agnostic, but also a prominent author of books for children, and said she simply couldn’t risk the potential backlash from religious parents. “I don’t need the controversy,” she said. He or she.

Now: It seems important to note that they’d surely be hearing from only a small minority of their religious readers. Most religious folks are just as sane and tolerant as you and I. I say this with confidence, having known countless Christians who are among the finest people I am likely to meet. And I use just one of them to shame myself whenever I pull out the broad brush. But that’s fodder for another post.

noevilmonkeys

Googling for relevance

Once PBB is released, the Amazon rank can give us some idea of the audience we’ve found. For now I can assess interest in the book by Googling the title in quotes to see how many sites mention it. I’ve done this twice a month since November, with the following results:

Date…….Google hits

01 Nov 2006 — 7 hits
15 Nov 2006 — 24
01 Dec 2006 — 30
15 Dec 2006 — 33
01 Jan 2007 — 49
15 Jan 2007 — 125
01 Feb 2007 — 602

Well helloooo there, relevance.

There’d been no real advertising at this point, but I’d sent a preliminary announcement to 300 freethought groups in the US on January 23. Two days later I thought I’d check again:

03 Feb 2007 — 9,970 hits

Ooh, didja see that?! I’m not ashamed to say I wet myself with delight. (Okay, I am ashamed.) I’m seriously concerned about the millions of unserved secular parents out there, but I also have the usual pathetic need for the approval of my fellow monkeys:

Writers are especially prone to seek out the hoo-hoo-hoos of our fellows. I started checking Google once a week, watching the meme spread like a middle-aged gut:

10 Feb 2007 — 13,300
17 Feb 2007 — 14,600

The real excitement here is that my rash promises to the publisher (i.e. that an inestimably large and hitherto untapped audience of millions of secular parents is indeed out there, dying to be tapped) were apparently true. As for me, I’m just a servant of that readership. The Googling does nothing for me personally. I could quit anytime. Really.

Okay okay, just one more toke:

27 Mar 2007 — 24,400

Aaahhhhhh, that’s the stuff. How about you: wanna hit?
Monkey

Timing is everything

Another backstory item:

As I began contacting potential contributors in early ’06, I showed a talent for doing so at the worst imaginable times. My request hit Richard Dawkins’ desk the same day his controversial documentary The Root of All Evil? aired in Britain. The same day. I contacted Penn Jillette the very week his new daily radio talk show went on the air while he was doing eight live shows a week in Vegas with Teller while wrapping the season of Bullshit while writing a film script while parenting his first infant while preparing for the arrival of his second. Julia was between an off-Broadway run of Letting Go of God and a Hollywood Bowl performance. One contributor said yes…then broke her back, I kid you not. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor were doing what they always do – twelve things at once, any one of which would kill a mortal. Yet all but a very few eventually agreed that the project was too attractive to pass up.

I once imagined writers and editors producing their work in clean, well-lighted places, unassaulted by bills or bacteria. I am now tragically uninformed about one less thing. It is a (secular) miracle that anything like this ever actually comes to pass.

PBB book launch in two weeks…ish.

Nothing saps a big announcement quite like an ish.

Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion is due for release by Amacom Books in roughly two weeks. No one seems to know exactly when. Annoyed by the imprecision? Welcome to my world.

The official release is April 30, but I’ve been told to expect the book to go public about three weeks after I get the author copies. Author copies arrived on March 19, which means the first major book on parenting without religion will go before the merciless public eye on April 9…ish.

Because of the nature of the book, strange and/or wonderful things are likely to happen, which is the reason I’ve started a blog. I’m a bit conflicted about blogging at all. At the heart of my own philosophy is the knowledge that I’m a cosmic flash-in-the-pan, a trousered baboon with admittedly better thumbs. Really grasping my cosmic insignificance should make it impossible for me to think the details of my daily life merit a widespread readership. It should also make grandiloquent phrases like “at the heart of my own philosophy” impossible to say with a straight face, not to mention words like “grandiloquent.”

Which is why this is not a blog about me. It’s about the release of an unusual book, and all the unusual things that are likely to happen in its wake, as well as the general topic of secular parenting. With occasional references to me and my lovely secular family. I’ll try to make it informal, honest, and less guarded than I am in some other venues. Occasional strong language, some nudity.

If I was going to do a blog at all, I really should have started a year ago when the project began to take off. I could have recorded the moment I asked my agent, Dr. Uwe (purse your lips: OOO-veh) Stender, to set aside, for the moment, my humorous philosophical death-obsessed travel narrative Northing at Midlife (a really good book, frankly, in which publishers are so far foolishly disinterested) and try instead to sell the concept of a much-needed book on parenting without religion.

I’d tried to find a publisher myself for such a thing in 2003 when I was the Family Issues editor at the Atheist Alliance. But publishers were unmoved.

I bring that out in people.

So I approached Agent Uwe with the idea of an anthology: 20-30 essays by big names and small on parenting without religion. He liked it, especially the “big names” part. I began floating invitations to some of the stars of freethought, like Julia Sweeney, Dan Barker, Margaret Downey, and several others. Some agreed immediately. A few others hemmed and hawed, not sure if they just might be too busy. It began to stall. I needed a kickstart.

With the kind assistance of Margaret Downey, I approached Richard Dawkins (slowly, not making eye contact, so as not to startle him) and began gently picking tiny insects out of his fur.

Richard liked the sound of the project and gave permission for us to use a wonderful letter he wrote for his daughter Juliet when she was ten. And once Richard Dawkins was with us, why, the funniest thing happened: every one of the hemming and hawing contributors pulled a muscle jumping on board.

Two weeks later we had a publisher. Two weeks after that we had fully 25 contributors writing essays on mixed marriage parenting, moral development, the wonder of science, questioning, values and virtues, meaning and purpose, secular ceremonies and holidays, dealing with death, and much more.

Between now and the release, I’ll tell a few of the stories of the past year. Once the book is released, I’m sure the present will overtake the past. I’ll take the laptop along on my mini-tours and keep the blog up-to-date as best I can. Drop questions and comments as they pop up, and be sure to visit the PBB Discussion Forum to meet the rest of the gang.