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

Ho ho ho no mo

And so, as predicted, Santa has darkened the McGowan fireplace for the last time.

linkyDelaney (8) followed the same classic curve as the other two. She started last year with the ancillary technical questions of a child who’s begun to smell something funky but doesn’t reeeally want to dig to the back of the fridge just yet.

“Regular reindeer don’t fly. How do Santa’s reindeer fly?”

“Well…some people say they eat magic corn.”

Magic corn. The rapidity with which this sharp, science-minded, reality-loving inquirer would happily swallow lame answers of that kind and skip tra-la away demonstrated as clearly as anything could that she was more interested at that point in perpetuating this particular belief than in figuring things out—a fact further underlined by her disinclination to ask the obvious, direct question that we would willingly have answered at any point, namely “Is Santa real?”

(Sorry about that sentence, I’m reading Infinite Jest again.)

Same with many kinds of belief. It’s not that true believers of various kinds don’t ask questions — it’s that they so eagerly accept poor answers to those questions in order to preserve belief. It’s something we all do at various times and places in our lives. Yes you do, and have, and will. Me too.

At some point (with Santa, anyway) the weight of inconsistency eventually becomes too great, and the direct question is asked. And when it’s asked, you ANSWER, and congratulate the child for figuring it out.

Just before Christmas, Laney’s questions intensified, but remained oblique. At one point she looked Becca in the eye and asked the most convoluted almost-direct indirect question I’ve ever heard:

“When I’m just about to have kids of my own, are you all of a sudden going to tell me something that I need to know about something?”

“Uh…not that I know of,” Becca replied. Which was true.

“Good, because I love Santa.”

“Who said anything about Santa?”

“Never mind.”

Two weeks after Christmas, Erin (12) came downstairs at bedtime with a look of panic. “She’s figuring it out, and I don’t know what to do!!”

“Figuring what out?” I asked.

“Santa! Laney’s asking all these questions and I don’t know what to do!! I did your thing about ‘Some people believe…’ but then she keeps going and going!”

“That’s awesome! That means she’s finally ready to figure it out. Just answer every question honestly. Do you want me to come up?”

“Yes. No. Well, in a little while.”

I waited ten minutes, then went upstairs. The girls were sitting on their beds facing each other and looked up with little smiles as I entered.

“What’s up in here?”

Laney nodded sagely. “Well…I figured something out.”

“What did you figure out.”

“I figured out…the thing about Santa.”

“What thing is that?” Say it, girl!

“That…well, he isn’t real.”

“Oh, that.” I smiled and sat next to her. “How does that make you feel?”

“A little upset. I really loved Santa!”

Now with Laney being the youngest, I knew there was a risk of her feeling embarrassed at being the last to know. But we’d always played with a very light touch, allowing her to believe until knowing became more interesting — which it now apparently had. Time to let her walk proudly through that door.

The key is to underline the proud. I asked how she had figured it out, and she proceeded to describe a fascinating trail of clues that I hadn’t even known she was following.

She sleeps in my T-shirts, and one night found a half empty box of candy canes nestled in the drawer. “Who buys candy canes in a box?” she said, further noting that this year there were no canes on the tree, only in…the stockings.

“And all of the Santa presents were in Santa paper except the ones for you and Mom. And there was still a price tag on one of my presents.” And on and on she went. She had noticed these things because she wanted to, because she had reached a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

So I turned on the praise. “Look what you did!” I said. “You used your brain to figure out all of those clues…and you did it yourself!”

She beamed.

“Was it fun to figure out?”

“Yes,” she admittedly, it actually was.

“And the best thing is that all of the good stuff about Christmas,” I said, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

She has shared her findings with every significant adult in her life, proof that pride quickly eclipsed disappointment. “Guess what I figured out all by myself,” she says. Only one adult went into a “Yes, Virginia” genie re-bottling attempt.

“Grandma,” Laney said patiently. “You don’t have to do that. I looked at all the clues and figured it out. It’s fine.”

So I remain convinced that our family’s Santa period was jolly well-spent. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists -– and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

And I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.

“To focus, encourage, and demonstrate”…what the Foundation is (really) all about

fedby Dale McGowan, Executive Director, FBB
[First appeared in the Foundation Beyond Belief blog]

It’s been interesting to watch news of Foundation Beyond Belief spread around the blogosphere. Most of the descriptions I’ve seen are pretty accurate, but there’s one persistent misconception: that the sole purpose of our charitable giving program is to demonstrate the generosity of atheists and humanists.

Time to fix that broken meme.

Our mission statement includes not one but three main purposes—”to focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.” Demonstrating our generosity as a community is important, but it’s arguably the least important of the three. Far more important is focusing and encouraging that generosity and compassion in the first place.

FOCUS
“I am a humanist,” said Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country, “which means in part that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.” And most of the time, this is how humanism plays out—in a million individual acts of decency, generosity, and kindness. The Foundation exists in part to create from those million individual decent acts a powerfully motivated community of philanthropic humanists, making the world a better place not in spite of, but because of, their worldview.

ENCOURAGE
As I’ve noted before, when it comes to charitable giving, churchgoers give a much larger percentage of earned income to discretionary causes than non-churchgoers. Arthur C. Brooks (author of Who Really Cares) sees in this statistic “evidence of a gap in everyday virtue” between the religious and nonreligious (p. 40).

There’s a more obvious explanation. Fifty-two times a year, churchgoers pass a plate full of the generous donations of their friends and neighbors and make the decision whether to add to it or not. Non-churchgoers have no such regular and public nudge. So it seems reasonable that the difference in overall giving has much more to do with whether or not you have systematic opportunities for giving than some “gap in virtue.”

One of the central purposes of Foundation Beyond Belief is to create that opportunity, thereby building a systematic culture of giving among nontheists. By doing this, we hope to encourage humanists to be better humanists and to energize a previously under-represented sector of philanthropic giving.

It’s not a zero-sum game, taking dollars that individuals already donate on their own and “putting an atheist stamp” on them. The idea is to create new income for good charities by encouraging the nontheistic community to give more.

DEMONSTRATE
Our worldview makes our virtue no better or worse than anyone else’s. But when we focus our efforts and encourage each other to express the best impulses at the heart of our worldview, that will demonstrate to others the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.

Tell your friends and family about the Foundation. And when you do, be sure to mention all three purposes. We’re not just looking for credit—we’re also creating a focused community of giving and encouraging each other to the best possible expression of our inspiring worldview. We think those are things worth doing and hope you’ll agree.

And if you haven’t joined yet, NOW’S THE TIME!

Secular homeschoolers: Darwinfish out of water

homeIf you think you face a challenge raising kids without religion in a majority religious culture, rest assured that you face nothing compared to what I hear from some secular homeschoolers.

Sure, there is the occasional crossing of church-state lines in U.S. public schools, usually by individual teachers insufficiently enamored (or aware) of the separation principle. And there are some more serious issues at times like the Texas science curriculum fracas. But school administrations are generally so keen to avoid church-state dustups that they often overcorrect. And if they fail to act, the courts, more often than not, do the right thing. Not a perfect system by any means, but one stacked in the long run in favor of sensible separation.

Now once you step outside of that protection — into homeschooling, for example — all bets are off. It’s a majority-rules, market-driven world out there. And since the majority of homeschooling parents by most counts are homeschooling to provide a religious framework and to avoid what they see as the “aggressively secular education” of the public schools, the providers of nearly all things homeschool frequently cater to that point of view.

This can make matters tough for secular homeschoolers. Homeschoolers of Maine (HOME) is having a convention in March in which vendors display curricula for homeschooling parents. If you are a homeschool curriculum provider, you have just two more days to reserve your space, so act now!

Oh, but first you’ll want to read this, from the Regulations for Exhibitors:

HOME does not require that exhibitors and/or advertisers subscribe to our Statement of Faith, but HOME does require that the exhibitors and/or advertisers do not promote any materials that might include stories or art work containing witches, ghosts, dragons, or other occult materials; “Values Clarification” curriculum; multicultural curriculum (the ideas of valuing all lifestyles and religions as equal to the biblical view); fantasy role-playing games or curriculum; or any materials that portray the Bible as merely mythological, or Christianity as untrue or as one among many religions…Vendors who refuse to remove items deemed inappropriate by HOME will be asked to leave without refund.

Let’s be clear: HOME is a Christian homeschool organization, and they have every right to set such guidelines. But the apparent challenge for secular homeschoolers is that homeschool support organizations, whether religiously-based themselves or not, often pitch their products and services in this same way, aiming for that fearful, narrow majority. It’s similar to the effect Texas has on the national textbook market and similarly driven more by dollars on the corporate level than by ideology.

Now that we’ve affirmed HOME’s right to set their own rules, a few observations for fun:

In banning the mention of ghosts, witches, and dragons, HOME helps protect kids not only from such rot as Hamlet, Macbeth, and the Odyssey, but from The Chronicles of Narnia — and at least one other book of note.

Aside from that, I do applaud their efforts to stem the rampant tide of values clarification among kids today. And thank goodness they’re quashing the urban legend that other religions exist.

[Hat tip to my homeschooling mole.]

A guest post on secular homeschooling by JJ Ross

ADDED: Stats from the Nat’l Center for Education Statistics regarding the most commonly-cited reasons for homeschooling in the US: “Parents’ concern about the environment of other schools (85%); “To provide religious or moral instruction” (72%); “Dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools” (68%). Hat tip to Melanie K!

ADDED: Be sure to check out the secular homeschooling Q&A by Amy Page in Raising Freethinkers (pp. 217-19), as well as the list of groups and resources (229-30). See also links in the blog sidebar.

ADDED: An AP article on difficulties for secular homeschoolers

“An Open Letter to our Friends”

An honest, heartfelt open letter from a couple, parents of five, who recently made the decision to leave the Christian church and wanted to let their friends and family know.

Many of you have been hearing things about us from various sources, and some of you have contacted us to express concern or to ask about what you’ve heard. To put it plainly and clearly, we have left the Christian church. We consider ourselves, in varying degrees at various times, agnostic, atheist, humanist, or like the great catch-all answer in a multiple choice survey, “Not Sure”.

This is not a sudden thing. It is not caused by a trauma or single event. We feel that this is the natural continuation of our spiritual journey of many years…

Our decision to leave the church and our faith was one that took years to reach, had hundreds of hours of research and discussion behind it, and was the single most difficult decision that we have ever made. It’s not a step we took lightly or quickly. Actually, I would call it a realization rather than a decision. Over time, we realized that we didn’t believe most of what we said we did by our use of the name Christian, and we didn’t support most of what we said we did through our association with the Christian church…

We have been avoiding this announcement for months. We knew it was coming, but kept trying to put it off. We know that having this in writing means we have crossed a line that will separate us from a large percentage of people that we consider friends. But we also know that we are happy. We know that we can teach our children what we believe without guilt or a feeling of duplicity. We can be true to our own thoughts and feelings. We know that we have made a decision that is right for us.

Please click through to read the full letter here. You’ll be glad you did.

(Hat tip to FB friend Deb Hill Frewin)

First large-scale secular parent survey

MomgirlFoundation Beyond Belief has two sides — a humanist charitable giving program, and an education and support program for secular parents.

The intrepid and talented Ute Mitchell (of CFI Portland’s outstanding secular parent program) has signed on as our Foundation’s Parent Community Coordinator. Her first task is taking the pulse of the secular parenting world — finding out just who we are and what parents need who are raising their kids without religion in a predominantly religious world.

I’ve spent the last four years immersed in this topic — talking to hundreds of nontheistic parents across the US and elsewhere, reading, analyzing, hanging out on the PBB Forum — but now it’s time for something more systematic. We’ve created a 10-minute survey to get a better sense of who you are and what you need. The first of several, this one focuses on general questions including parents’ background and current attitudes, family practices, and specific needs. A survey next week will go to existing secular parenting groups to see who and where they are, what’s working for them and what’s not, and what they need in terms of support. Other individual surveys will focus on specific topics including science, dealing with death, and kids’ peer experiences.

Over 400 600 700 1100 1400 1800 people have already taken the survey since it was posted two weeks ago. We’ll close it down shortly and let you know what we find.

Click here to take survey, or under the red arrow in the sidebar.

And if you haven’t yet joined the Foundation itself, now is the time! Our webmaster has installed a brand new, fully-secure donation system (now including a PayPal option) and made several other lovely upgrades to the site. Help us meet our April 1 goal of 1000 contributing members supporting ten charities working to improve this life and this world.

The old switcheroo

This is at least the fifth time I’ve written about my love of artful distillation. Analogies, concordances, wordclouds, graphics, video mashups — I’m a big fan of anything that helps me grasp the otherwise ungraspable.

Last May I came across another of these beautiful things, then promptly forgot about it until now. It’s a graphic that captures the complex findings of the Pew Study on Religion and Musical Chairs — something like that, the exact name escapes me — which explored changes in religious self-identification in the U.S. Not changes in percentage of the marketplace, mind you, but changes by individuals — how many people raised as Catholics change to something else and where did they go, for example, and the same with other categories.

Looking through the full survey itself is plenty fascinating. But an interesting fella calling himself the Internet Monk boosted my grasp of the whole thing with this simply wonderful graphic (click to enlarge):

switcheroo
(Reading this on Facebook? Click here for graphic.)

Suddenly, in graphic form, you can see why the Catholic college I worked for was so particularly skittish about a freethought group on campus: Catholics leaving the fold are more likely to head to mi casa than anywhere else. More fun: most of those who were raised nonreligious and go elsewhere go allll the way over to the evangelicals. I’ve called this the “teen epiphany” and suggested it might well be caused by too severe a parental allergy to religious exposure. Note also how few nonreligious end up Catholic, that a higher percentage of evangelicals go mainline Prot than vice-versa, and how extremely few of those raised in non-Christian religions end up Christians of any kind.

After I gave a seminar in Indianapolis last May, an atheist dad pulled me aside. Exposing our kids to many worldviews and letting them choose for themselves sounds good, he said. But can we really afford to be that open? Look at the Pew study. Our retention rate is the worst of any worldview! That’s why we need to raise our kids to be atheists, he said.

In addition to the fact that this would (1) do violence to my kids’ autonomy, (b) show that I don’t trust them to think as carefully and well as I have, (III) show no confidence in my own worldview to stand on its own, and (∆) constitute indoctrination every bit as bad as any religion, there’s another reason to relax about our “retention rate” as a worldview — and once again, it’s the Internet Monk who led me to it.

Compare the red block at the top to the red block at the bottom.

The nontheistic worldview as a percentage of the population is growing by leaps and bounds, not because children are being raised into it, but because an ever-greater number of people raised in religion are finding their way out of it. This is a good thing because it moves us out of the margin, gives the nonreligious more of a voice in the culture, and makes it more likely that any given religious person knows someone who is nonreligious. I don’t need or want to control the culture, and I don’t need my kids to follow in lock-step with my beliefs. But I would like a seat at the table, and that’s clearly moving in the right direction.

Sure, a lot of kids raised without religion end up trying on a different worldview. But as the study itself notes, many who change will change again, and again. That’s a good thing. It’s one sign that someone is at least trying to get it right.

Also worth a click: Why people left the worldview in which they were raised — and why they went where they did. Click all of the top tabs for maximum fun.