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

see you in a bit

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I’ve been ordered by my family to go one week without opening the laptop, starting tomorrow. Thought I’d share a funny moment from this afternoon before I go.

I was sitting at the breakfast table, panting and sweating after mowing our STEEP front yard, when Laney (6) asked if I could play catch with her.

“Aw sweetie, I’d love to, but you know what I just did?”

“You mowed the lawn.”

“And if I juuuust finished mowing the lawn, then I am…what?”

“Uh……free?”

“hey, mr. cunningham”

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You never know someone until you step inside their skin and walk around a little. –Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
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A few years ago I was teaching a seminar on the use (and misuse) of the arts in the Third Reich when a student asked a great question — one of the best I ever heard as a professor:

“What would you say is the basic difference between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’?”

What an unusually great question. I stared at the carpet for a week or so as I worked out an answer. Then, amazingly, an answer that I still consider the right one came bubbling to the surface.

I think the central distinction between liberal and conservative is the attitude toward difference. Conservatism embodies our evolved tendency to value what is familiar, shared, and traditional while distrusting the unfamiliar or foreign. Liberalism tends instead to distrust sameness and to see greater value in diversity and change. It seems to (liberal) me that this distinction is at the root of things.

Correct me since I’m wrong.

We watched To Kill a Mockingbird a few days ago. I wasn’t sure if the kids would take to it — B&W, some wooden acting, etc. — but once again they surprised me. As of this morning, Laney and Erin have watched it three times.

I remembered the story as an indictment of racism, but the racial narrative is just one thread in the larger message of the film (and book) — that we fear what is different or unknown, and that that fear drives us to kill mockingbirds (i.e. to hate and harm the innocent).

Tom Robinson is a black man falsely accused of beating and raping a white woman. Mrs. Dubose, the cranky elderly neighbor, is assumed by the children to have a pistol under her shawl. The unseen Boo Radley is assumed to be a homicidal maniac who “eats raw squirrels,” while his father is assumed to be “the meanest man who ever drew breath.” Even a dog walking down the street erratically is assumed rabid and has the Bush Doctrine unleashed on him.

If my definition of the difference between conservatism and liberalism holds water, To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an extended tribute to the liberal impulse and indictment of the conservative. But again, I’m a damn liberal, so I might very well be engaging in confirmation bias. I’d be interested to see if a conservative sees it differently.

There’s one scene that seemed relevant to the nonreligious — who are, after all, among the hated-different-unfamiliar in our society. A classic lynch mob has gathered at the jail to kill Tom Robinson, only to find his lawyer, Atticus Finch, sitting in the doorway, reading a book.

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The mob already has Atticus neatly labeled and dismissed as a “nigger-lover” and a “tricky lawyer” (and now a book reader! Pinko elitist to the core, this one). Having replaced his humanity with a caricature, they will find it a simple matter to do whatever it takes to get past him.

But then Atticus’ children Jem and Scout show up. He orders them to leave. They refuse, and Atticus does not beat them to death (permissive parenting!). Then Scout recognizes a face in the crowd: Mr. Cunningham, a farmer for whom Atticus has done work and whose son Scout knows. “Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” she says:

I said Hey, Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember? We had a talk. I went and got my daddy to come out and thank you. I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you?

She says his name. She says her name. She reminds him of their connection and offers a kind greeting. Cunningham’s body language says it all. He squirms. He looks at the ground. He tries to hide behind the brim of his hat. He can’t keep the caricature from dissolving in the face of Scout’s humanizing connection.

I spend a lot of time telling nonreligious parents that one of the best things we can do for our children is to be out — to have our views known by those around us. It’s far less important to engage and challenge other beliefs than to simply put a known and loved (or hell, even mildly liked) face on the abstract bugaboo of religious doubt.

It works for every kind of reviled “other.” It’s easy to go to war against distant foreigners as long as “they” are “over there,” safely unknown and simplistically drawn. It’s easy to convince yourself that gays are a perverse threat to all that’s holy as long as you don’t know anyone who’s gay. And there’s no difficulty in convincing yourself that atheists are immoral hedonists if you continue to assume that those around you are all believers.

That’s why it’s important for those who differ from the majority — blue people in red states, red people in blue states, gays, atheists, the works — to be out of the closet, to be a smiling, normal, ethical contradiction to all the fearful assumptions. So I try to convince nonreligious folks to seize those “Hey, Mr. Cunningham” moments and put a human face on disbelief. And it’s equally important for us to avoid drawing a caricature of all religious belief — to recognize the normal, sane, ethical believers all around us. That’s the way the caricature crumbles — one person at a time.

three koans at turner field

We all went to see the Braves play the Diamondbacks on Sunday, our first trip to Turner Field since moving to Atlanta — and it was exactly as captivating as I had expected. Not a sports guy, you see. But in the stands, as one by one the kids joined me staring at the sky, wondering why baseball is called a spectator sport, I was peppered with questions so difficult to answer they were practically koans — those essentially unanswerable, Buddhistic questions on the order of “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “Is there another word for synonym?”

Here are three, each a perfect illustration of the asker. After reciting each koan aloud, sound the bell and lose yourself in contemplation:

KOAN #1 (Delaney, 6)
What makes gravity?

KOAN #2 (Erin, 10)
Hey, why aren’t there any girls on the baseball team?

KOAN #3 (Connor, 12)
Why is card-counting against the rules at casinos if it’s really just a way of carefully paying attention?

Not just because I said so

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We often talk about moral development as if it’s a mysterious process by which a child, born either tabula rasa or seething with apple-infused evil, somehow becomes good. Or not.

In our rush to replace amorphous mystery with rock-solid fable, any discussion of morality will eventually run straight to the most obvious off-the-rails moment in modern history: Nazi Germany. And even though the technique is so overused that it has its own fallacy and even a Law to describe our tendency to overuse it, I think it would be even dafter to not look to Nazi Germany for moral lessons.

But why stop with the guy on top? And why do we waste time debating whether Hitler was a Christian or an atheist, as if both worldviews were not already rife enough with examples on both extremes?1 Nazi Germany consisted of millions of people, some of whom participated in the horrors, others of whom heroically opposed it. Why not look deeper than Hitler for our moral lessons?

Fortunately someone has. Everyday Germans of the Nazi period are the focus of a fascinating study discussed in the PBB seminars and in the Ethics chapter of Raising Freethinkers. For their book The Altruistic Personality, researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted over 700 interviews with survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe. Included were both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it). The study revealed interesting differences in the upbringing of the two groups — specifically the language and practices that parents used to teach their values.

Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have been raised in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors said, is the single most common word used by rescuers in describing their parents’ ways of talking about rules and ethical ideas.

Ethicist Jonathan Glover applied the same questions cross-culturally, looking at the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda in addition to Germany, and came to similar conclusions. Dictating a set of authority-based rules turns out to be the worst thing we can do for ethical development — yet we are continuously urged to do exactly this because it feels ever-so-decisive and bold.

The alternative is not a home in which kids are free to ignore rules. All that’s required to get kids actively engaged in their own moral development is a willingness to explain the reasons behind the rules. My kids know they have the right to hear our reasoning, and yes, it’s sometimes a pain. But it’s a path that leads more reliably to ethical adults who will question both commands and commandments rather than boldly do whatever Zod says.

In short, instead of doing what feels right, I humbly suggest we try the approach that appears to, uh…work.

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1Not that it isn’t a fascinating sidebar to the topic. If you’re interested, start with this excellent and thorough Wikipedia piece on the complex subject of Hitler’s beliefs. Good news: both atheists and Christians can reasonably disown him, and neither should throw him into the other’s camp.

sex and the balls of the evangelical

Life in Lubbock, Texas taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on Earth, and you should save it for someone you love. –Butch Hancock, country singer/songwriter

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COLORADO SPRINGS — After dessert, the 63 men stood and read aloud a covenant “before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.”

The gesture signaled that the fathers would guard their daughters from what evangelicals consider a profoundly corrosive “hook-up culture.” The evening, which alternated between homemade Christian rituals and giddy dancing, was a joyous public affirmation of the girls’ sexual abstinence until they wed. (from “Dancing the Night Away, With a Higher Purpose,” New York Times, May 19, 2008.)

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The photo is of a “Purity Ball” in Colorado Springs, where evangelical dads pledge to protect the “purity” of their daughters until marriage. It’s one of a growing number of such balls from coast to coast. “It’s a huge effort,” said one evangelical father. “A single ball won’t do it. Spreading the message that abstinence works takes a lot of balls.”1

Let’s begin by recognizing my common ground with these evangelical fathers. I too want to keep my daughters from becoming pregnant (and my son from getting someone pregnant) before certain events run their course. “Certain events” for me include education and time getting to know one’s adult self; for evangelicals, it’s marriage. So let’s just say we’re both happier with the idea of a daughter who is pregnant at 25 than at 15. I’ll call that common ground. But then the ground opens up. The Times article continues:

“Fathers, our daughters are waiting for us,” [event host] Mr. Wilson, 49, told the men. “They are desperately waiting for us in a culture that lures them into the murky waters of exploitation. They need to be rescued by you, their dad.”

(“Rapunzel, Rapunzel…”)

“The culture says you’re free to sleep with as many people as you want to,” said Khrystian Wilson, 20, one of the Wilsons’ seven children, including five girls. “What does that get you but complete chaos?”

This is another constant refrain: you have a choice between being Raped by The Culture (one monolithic thing) or being Rescued by the Men of God. Either way, there’s a man on top.

I for one never got the memo that I could sleep with as many people as I wanted to. That’s a bad idea for reasons that go beyond “purity.” The invitation to promiscuity is out there, but so are other voices. How about teaching kids to discern between good messages and bad, even when Dad is not in the room?

For the Wilsons and the growing number of people who have come to their balls, premarital sex is seen as inevitably destructive, especially to girls, who they say suffer more because they are more emotional than boys.

There was a time when I’d revel in the double entendres of that sentence, but I’m far too mature now. Instead, let me point out the continuing message that girls are weak and in need of male rescue.

Recent studies have suggested that close relationships between fathers and daughters can reduce the risk of early sexual activity among girls and teenage pregnancy…Abstinence is never mentioned at the Colorado Springs Purity Ball, but a litany of fathers’ duties is — mainly, making time to get involved in their daughters’ lives and setting an example.

Excellent! Again we overlap as evangelicals find their desires in sync with the research. But as the name “Purity Ball,” the white dresses and the constant pledging make clear, S-E-X in general and abstinence in particular are the unmentioned elephants humping in the corner. As is so often the case in the evangelical movement, any research that is inconvenient to their preferred narrative is simply ignored. The abstinence-only approach, like so many of our well-intentioned crusades, makes things worse:

But studies have also shown that most teenagers who say they will remain abstinent, like those at the ball, end up having sex before marriage, and they are far less likely to use condoms than their peers.

An inconvenient truth.

In a ballroom after dinner, bare but for a seven-foot wooden cross at one end, the fathers and daughters gathered along the walls. Kevin Moore, there with his three girls, told the men they were taking a stand for their families and their nation. Then he and Mr. Wilson walked to the cross with two large swords, which they held up before it to make an arch.

Is it chilling in here, or is it just me? Read that bolded passage again — an amazing condensation of religion, militarism, nationalism, authority, and patriarchy. That’s our favorite soporific, a seductive brew that bubbles up over and over in human history, right before everything goes to flaming hell.

Each father and his daughter walked under the arch and knelt before the cross. Synthesized hymns played. The fathers sometimes held their daughters and whispered a short prayer, and then the girls each placed a white rose, representing purity, at the foot of the cross.

The girls, many wearing purity rings, made silent vows. “I promise to God and myself and my family that I will stay pure in my thoughts and actions until I marry,” said Katie Swindler, 16. Every half-hour, Mr. Wilson stopped the dancing so that fathers could bless their daughters before everyone.

Yeesh. Yeesh.

One of things that most deeply saddens me about all this is the way it demonizes sex. Yes, it’s a powerful thing. It can turn your world upside down in several ways, not all of them good. But I want my kids to know that it’s also beautiful and amazing and fun and good. It’s the reason we’re here, after all. In evolutionary terms, it’s the best thing there is, which is why it’s fun.

Connor and I have talked about the fact that our bodies “want” to have sex for evolutionary reasons as well as emotional ones. Imagine two populations, I said. One is wired up to enjoy sex; the other is indifferent to it. Which one is going to pass its genes along, and which will die out? He got it immediately, even declared it “so cool.” And when his body starts insisting that sex is a good idea, he won’t be blindsided by the feeling (unlike some kids in Schenectady). He’ll understand it, which gives him a better chance of staying in control of it. If instead kids learn that these feelings are evil and inspired by Satan, they’ll spend their adolescence convulsed with guilt and retain a deeply dysfunctional view of their bodies and of themselves.

Equating abstinence with “purity” sends the instant message that sex is not a great good but something that renders us impure. Evangelicals counter that it suddenly goes from purely impure to wholly holy after marriage — but by then you’ve rather insulted and debased it, haven’t you? Just imagine the confusion in these kids’ heads when that coin suddenly flips.

[Thanks to Hemant Mehta, I think, for bringing Purity Balls to my attention.]
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1Unfortunately I made this one up.

Visit the new BY THE NUMBERS page for some interesting sex ed stats.

View the documentary Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque on Google Video (2006, 27 min.) The compelling story of a faith-based organization using federal funds to bring abstinence-only sex education into public schools in Albuquerque.

it’s in the mail

I’ve heard it said that no woman would ever have a second child if she really remembered what it was like to give birth to the first one.

Without in the LEAST implying that it’s as bad as birthing a baby, lemme say the same is true of writing a book: If I remembered from one to the next how hard it was, I’d never do it again.

Raising Freethinkers consists of 106 activities, 108 common questions from nonreligious parents with extended answers, and 224 recommended books, films, and websites. And it’s the details that get ya — the permissions, the citations, the 138 footnotes and two appendices. It’s trying to remember if you forgot to remember to include something. Or if you included it twice. Or accidentally included Satan in the Acknowledgements. Or accidentally left him out.

It’s the editing and proofing. I mailed it 45 minutes ago and just found two more errors. Shit.

It’s the wondering if you said something juuuust the right way — especially in a book like this.

It was completely fabulous working with Amanda Metskas of Camp Quest, Jan Devor of First Unitarian Minneapolis, and Molleen Matsumura of Sweet Reason and NCSE. To hear all my whining, you’d think I did it all myself. In fact, most of whatever real brilliance is in the thing is theirs.

At any rate, my life just got a heck of a lot easier. I just sat down at the piano, as if I had nothing better to do, and played the first ten bars of “Because” by the Beatles — ten of the most incredible measures in all of music, incredible for reasons I would only bore a music theory class with. Then I played a computer game. Now I’m blogging.

I think that brings you up to date.

[Update: I’ve now updated Northing at Midlife and Ten Wonderfull Things and will once again spend daily time in the discussion forum. Please join me there. I have also begun a complete overhaul of the Resources page to include books and videos featured in Raising Freethinkers.]

the certainty myth

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There is a criticism of atheism that never ceases to flummox and irritate me. Atheists are fools, goes the line, because you can’t be 100% certain God doesn’t exist.

Here are a few definitions of atheist that most people would agree with:

– Someone who denies the existence of God (WordNet)

– One who believes that there is no God (Webster’s New 20th Century)

– Somebody who does not believe in God or deities (Encarta Dictionary)

Nowhere is reference made to “Someone who claims to know there is no God.” There’s nothing about certainty. The atheist says, “You believe God exists, eh? Hm. Not me.” It’s quite simple. Elegantly so.

I’ve never met an atheist who was quite dense enough to claim certain knowledge of the nonexistence of God. Aside from the difficulty in proving a negative (i.e. I would also be unable to say for certain that there’s no teapot orbiting Jupiter), certainty itself is a bogus concept. The best we can do is increase or decrease our confidence in a proposition.

I don’t think God exists, and theists think he does. Why, in that equation, are atheists tagged as arrogant asserters of certainty, while theists get a pass? I don’t get it.

I saw this most recently, and depressingly, when a Google alert of mine popped an old blog entry by Dilbert creator Scott Adams into my inbox. It includes this passage:

This brings me to atheists. In order to be certain that God doesn’t exist, you have to possess a godlike mental capacity –- the ability to be 100% certain. A human can’t be 100% certain about anything. Our brains aren’t that reliable. Therefore, to be a true atheist, you have to believe you are the very thing that you argue doesn’t exist: God.

Chuckle. I guess.

Adams is an agnostic himself, and I assume and hope he’s just riffing for laughs. Surely he knows that his beliefs are identical to almost any given atheist. Surely. Well, I’m not so sure. Many people hold this incredibly daft assumption, and few apply it to theists, as if belief is the default and atheism an assertion.

And I know where the problem started.

The problem, ironically, was started by my hero, Thomas Huxley. Prior to his coining of the word “agnostic,” it was probably understood that atheists were people who simply said, “I don’t believe in God.” Huxley wasn’t somewhere in the muddy, shrugging middle, 51-49 for-or-against belief. He had a very strong conviction that God did not exist. But it wasn’t certain, and he wanted to underline this, so he created the word “agnostic” (Latin for “not knowing”) to name what should damn well be true of the entire human race. None of us knows…but surely it’s OK to say what you think the deal is.

Thanks to our monkey tendencies, though, the upshot of Huxley’s clarifying coinage was greater confusion. Agnosticism was instantly assumed to mean “don’t know, don’t care,” and the myth of atheism as an assertion of absolute certainty was reinforced by contrast to the new term. Neither is accurate (as Russell will show shortly). They are really two different ways of saying the same thing: I think God is pretend. Agnosticism simply leans on the word “think,” and atheism leans on “pretend.”

Bertrand Russell himself was conflicted on this point, and referred to himself as an atheist or an agnostic depending on the audience:

I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

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None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of Homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

from “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” in A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas (1947)

Unfortunately, in the essay “What is an Agnostic?”, Russell gives this unhelpful backhand, even though it is written for an entirely popular audience:

An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.

*Sigh.*

I, like every atheist I know, am an atheist and an agnostic and a humanist and a freethinker. Each has a different emphasis; all are compatible. Questions?

One Safe Generation


I’m thrilled to announce that ONE SAFE GENERATION has now gone live at the Institute for Humanist Studies. Many thanks to Matt Cherry and the rest of the folks at IHS for providing a home for this project.

ONE SAFE GENERATION is a humanist initiative to create a more humane, ethical, and reasonable world by breaking the chain of inherited violence and fear. Our goal is to make it possible for one generation to grow up free of violence. In support of this goal of “one safe generation,” we are advancing initiatives to combat violence against children in the home, in the community, and on the fields of war. Below is the introduction to the site. Throughout the summer I will post periodic focus pieces highlighting the elements of this project.

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One Safe Generation
Introduction

Our reason, our judgment, and our ethics are all severely impaired when we are afraid. Examples of individuals, groups, and nations thinking poorly and acting immorally under the influence of fear are innumerable.

Violence and other social pathologies are perpetuated from one generation to the next, as victims of violence in childhood are likely to become the perpetrators of violence in the next generation. From corporal punishment and neglect on the individual level to the forced conscription of child soldiers and the disproportionate victimization of children in war, each generation of adults has a choice to pass on traditions of violence and fear—or refuse to do so.

ONE SAFE GENERATION is a humanist initiative to create a more humane, ethical, and reasonable world by making choices to break the chain of inherited violence and fear. Our goal is to make it possible for one generation to grow up free of violence at all levels, from the family home to the urban streets to the field of war.

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By recognizing that all manner of social pathologies—from violent conflict to religious fundamentalism to the suppression of free expression—are ultimately rooted in fear, humanists can focus our energies on that root cause even as we work to lessen the damage done by its various expressions.
One generation liberated from violence and fear would be more rational, more compassionate, more confident, and far less likely to perpetrate violence on its own children. By allowing a single generation to grow up safely, the tradition of inherited violence can be broken and the future remade.

ONE SAFE GENERATION will gather valid research and resources in a single, accessible location; counter the advocates of violence in public forums; advocate progressive public policies on related issues through op-eds and legislation; and encourage support for existing organizations and advocates in three areas:

    1. Nonviolent parenting
    2. Advocacy of progressive child social policies
    3. Protecting children from the effects of war

In identifying fear itself as the enemy, Franklin Roosevelt made a statement of greater lasting import than he may have intended. In these pages, you will find resources for information and action in the service of raising a generation of children less fearful, and more hopeful, than any of their ancestors dared dream.

References:

    Bloom, Sandra. Ph.D. Neither liberty nor safety: the impact of fear on individuals, institutions, and societies, part I. Psychotherapy and Politics International, Vol. 2, Issue 2 (2004)
    Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. ‘Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review, Psychological Bulletin 128 (2002)

the essence of war

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The final manuscript prep for Raising Freethinkers is killing me. It literally has its hands around my throat, applying steady pressure to my windpipe, saying Who’s the tough guy now, eh, paesan? Writers…youse guys make me wanna puke. I remember this in the final days before PBB was submitted, too, that ghastly realization that it’s about to be tooooo laaaaaate to change anything.

I don’t read much during periods of intense writing, preferring audiobooks to another half-hour of line scanning. But I decided the other day, weirdly and out of the blue, that I don’t know enough about India. I pulled the first volume of Durant’s Story of Civilization off the shelf and lost myself in Indian history for a bit.

I was rewarded almost immediately with a line I will never forget, one that captures the essence of war. Durant describes the Indo-Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent about 4000 years ago:

Their word for war said nothing about national honor, but simply meant ‘a desire for more cows.’

(from Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization, vol I, p. 397.)

ode to a mother-in-law

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< Sadly, the very first thing that comes up in a Google Image Search for "mother in law"

There’s a laugh line in my seminar that isn’t meant to be a laugh line. It’s entirely serious, but they always chuckle.

In the section on extended family issues, I recommend letting your kids go to church once in a while with trusted relatives — and they chuckle at the word “trusted,” just a bit. It’s a knowing chuckle, of course. There are both trustworthy and untrustworthy religious folks, and many of us have both in our extended families. The untrustworthy are the sneaky proselytizers, the ones who tell our kids in whispers that Jesus loves them, that “I’m praying for your mama and daddy,” or even drop little hints of hellfire — not as a threat, of course, but as the thing they’re working so hard to save mama and daddy from.

The trustworthy are those who preface their input to my children with “I believe” statements instead of presenting everything as…well, gospel, and respect our decision to let the kids work it out for themselves in the long run.

It is my very good fortune to have a mother-in-law in Category #2.

The daughter of a Southern Baptist minister, graduate of a Baptist college, and devout churchgoer, she nonetheless has been absolutely fabulous about respecting our choices with the kids. I am quite certain she’d rather her grandchildren were being raised in the church, but she’s never pushed the point. When our kids do attend, perhaps 3-4 times a year, it’s always with her.

Her stock has begun rising even further with me lately. A few weeks ago I heard (secondhand) that a member of her church asked if it bothered her that neither of her sons-in-law is a Christian.

“Pfft,” she said. “You listen here. Those two boys treat my girls like queens. I can’t ask for more than that.”

She’s also been known to suggest that I’m more Christian than many Christians she knows. Considering the source, that’s a compliment I’m very pleased to take.

As I talk to nonreligious parents around the country, I encourage them not to assume too much about their religious relatives. Even those who are very serious about their own faith are often more willing to bend than we sometimes think. It’s not always the case, of course. Some will do their level best to put you in hell well before you’re dead, and once you’ve seen that in action, it’s more than an assumption. But I’m convinced that we jump to that conclusion too often. And I’m glad to hold up my own mother-in-law as an example.

Happy Mother’s Day, Babs!