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

An outbreak of normal / Can you hear me now? 13

happycrowdA few months back I wrote about a moving open letter written by a couple who had left their church and religious belief behind. Their letter, originally intended for a few friends and family, ended up drawing several thousand visits, mostly from fellow nonbelievers with words of support and encouragement.

A few days later they posted a follow-up expressing their surprise and delight at the response. And in addition to saying some blush-inducingly nice things about me and my work, they put their finger on one of the main reasons I created Parenting Beyond Belief, something very rarely noted but always on my mind. At the risk of vanity, I’ll let them tell it:

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief and one of the primary reasons why Kirby and I were able to write the letter that we did.

I had identified myself as an evangelical Christian for over twenty years. I came to my recent conclusions about my faith without reading any views from “the other side.” I didn’t want anyone telling me what to believe anymore. I wanted to figure out what I believed. I slowly came to realize that I could no longer hold all the inconsistencies together. I couldn’t figure out how to make it all work in my head. It occurred to me that in order to end the disharmony I would have to admit that much of what I was supposed to believe in, I didn’t. It was at that point I began wonder how a person could define their worldview without the supernatural and I began to seek out “the other point of view.”

I have to admit, what I read actually scared me – vitriolic anger. There seemed to be as much hate and intolerance in the “other camp” as in the one I felt I had left.

So it seems very apropos that Dale linked to our letter when it was his book, Parenting Beyond Belief, that actually made me relax and realize that life would probably be okay. Dale’s was the first book that didn’t make me feel stupid for wasting my life for years on a silly religion….His was the first book that gave me hope that some of my friendships might survive this monumental announcement. (Emphasis added)

Most nonbelievers in our culture are entirely closeted — going to church, putting their kids in Sunday school, muttering along with grace and biting their tongues when necessary — because the only atheist they’ve seen is The Angry Atheist, and they’re just not interested in signing up for that. As long as the only option seems to be declaring war on friends and family and on the person you were last week, most people would understandably stay put.

I remember this struggle myself when as a doubting teen I knew of just one atheist on Earth: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Two things were true of Madalyn: she did courageous and important work, and she scared the living shit out of me. I could honor Madalyn for doing her thing, but that level of engagement wasn’t my thing — at least not at that point. Later I would develop the confidence to more forcefully engage the issues of my choice. But 30 years ago, I wasn’t ready for that, and if there was a way to disbelieve and not pledge myself to a life of mortal combat with those around me, I couldn’t see it. For that and other reasons, I remained closeted for years.

Eventually I stumbled on the astonishing lineage of freethinkers and went overnight from closeted isolation to the company of giants — and a member of a tradition with a thousand different ways to be.

I’ve said many times that I would never want to shut down harsh condemnation of religious ideas. I think the intelligent moral fury expressed by people like Hitchens and Condell is very well-justified. They speak powerfully to me where I am now, and I wouldn’t want to do without them. But if that level of high-pitched engagement is the only visible face of the nontheist, think of what it says to people like Kirby and Jennifer. They’ve stopped believing, they’re looking for options, and they are given two choices — continue pretending belief to keep your friends and family intact, or immediately declare war on them and all they stand for.

I’m thrilled to see so many nontheists of all stripes finding the courage to be out and normal. In the end, that has the potential for a more powerful positive effect than all of our high-flying, well-reasoned, and well-justified arguments put together.

My fundamentalism

stonetabletI am a fundamentalist.

No, this isn’t one of those glib non-confessional confessions ( “If loving my country too much is a crime, then I’m guilty as sin!”). I think fundamentalism, even in the name of something good, is a bad thing.

Fundamentalism is best described as the uncompromising adherence to a set of basic principles. Adhering to principles isn’t the sticking point. It’s the uncompromising part that presents the problem — the unwillingness to allow any other concerns into the discussion lest they distract from a laserlike focus on your guiding light.

My particular fundamentalism is free expression. I’ve become convinced that it is an essential good to be protected at all costs. Some people take this as a license to act badly, and I wish they wouldn’t, but their lack of judgment shouldn’t trammel this good and glorious thing, which in the end, torpedoes be damned, leads to a better future for everyone.

If you doubt that this is a kind of fundamentalism, read that paragraph again, changing “free expression” to “Christianity” or “Islam” or “the love of my country.” First principles are fine, but nothing should ever get exclusive control over our decisionmaking.

Free expression has defined a large portion of my adult life. My college teaching career was ended as a direct result of a free expression issue. As a result of this and other experiences, I tend to see free speech issues in fairly black-and-white terms.

It was my free-expression fundamentalism that led me last week to support Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. I looked at the issue, checked my free-speech compass, and BOOM, knew what was right.

But critics of EDMD have cited several concerns that they say should have shared the stage with free speech issues in this case, among them:

– That the existing atmosphere of general hostility toward Muslims is only exacerbated by the event;
– That the event represents a powerful majority attacking a less powerful minority;
– That moderate Muslims are unfairly attacked along with the extremists, increasing distance at precisely the time we need to be decreasing it;
– That “diluting the fatwa” is meaningful only in the abstract, and actually increases the chance of harm coming to those who most prominently depicted Muhammad;
– That many who participated took the opportunity to create intentionally obscene or demeaning images of Muhammad, and that this was inevitable;
– and more.

Not all of the arguments are equally good, and some are irrelevant (including at least one of those above, in my humble). The canard that the event represented “offense for the sake of offense” is the weakest of all, an assertion that really means, “I haven’t taken the time to figure out your point, so I’ll declare it nonexistent.” I think just about any argument that includes the avoidance of “offense” as its driving principle is hollow and misguided. Finally, I am still troubled by the assertion that those who participated out of ignorant or hateful motives irreparably taint those who did not.

But I’m also becoming more pragmatic in my dotage, and outcomes matter as much to me as abstract principles. (Those who have never thrown your entire family under the wheels of your principles may not know where I’m coming from, and that’s okay. My 30-year-old self agrees with you.)

In addition to some thoughtful opinion pieces, several people have offered convincing analogies. “There are campaigns to remove Mark Twain’s books from school libraries [because of the use of the word ‘nigger’],” said FB friend Bruce Ayati. “Would a campaign to use that racial slur, only to prove you can, be the right thing to do?” Not bad.

“Given the position of atheists in this country,” he continued, “it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening to us, where an Angry Atheist somewhere does something terrible, and we are all subjected to undeserved hostility in the name of ‘standing up’ to us and the supposed threat we pose to this country.”

Damn, that’s a good one. Damn.

The best of these and other arguments, offered by smart and articulate people, slapped me out of my hypnotic free-expression trance long enough to first confuse the issue for me, then to lead me to a change of mind. I’m now of the opinion that EDMD was not the right thing to do, and will in the end have done more harm than good. I still defend the right to do it, of course, and especially support those who are working so hard to do it right.

Considered in glorious isolation, the free-expression question was always open and shut. But nothing in human life exists in isolation, and a more thorough consideration of the context has led me to change my position. Not with 100 percent certainty. Anyone who registers complete certainty in a case like this is hereby invited to have a very nice day indeed, and my you’re looking fit.

And as before, and as always, I may be wrong. Most important, I continue to offer my strong support to those who choose to participate. How can I not, with articulate and thoughtful supporters like this?

[Thanks as well to commenters nonplus and yinyang and my old friend Scott M. for their part in slapping me awake.]

Anyone else have a principle so beloved that it sometimes blinds you to other considerations?

Image problems

cryptOur family visited Washington DC last year. Among the usuals, we were toured through something I’d never heard of before: the Capitol Crypt.

Beneath the dome of the Capitol Rotunda, below the ground floor, is a round room with forty Doric columns. A star set in the middle of the room marks the spot from which all streets in the capital were laid out.

The plan was to inter George Washington there in a stately sarcophagus. But Washington’s family refused to allow it, as George had opposed any imperial tendencies in the Presidency. He is said to have declined the title “Your Excellency” in favor of “Mr. President,” resisted a second term and refused a third, returning instead to life as a gentleman farmer.

The crypt now lies empty, a monument to our refusal of monarchy.

I loved this story instantly and was quite disappointed later — though not surprised, I guess — to learn that it’s mostly fable. After initially resisting the idea of moving his remains from Mount Vernon, Martha Washington acquiesced in 1800. Construction delays and the War of 1812 pushed the plan back. By the time it was finished in 1827, tensions between the North and South were such that Southern legislators and others refused to allow his remains to leave Virginia. So the Capitol Crypt lies empty as a tribute not so much to high democratic principle as to simmering provincial enmity.

Rats.

But it is apparently true that Washington opposed having himself revered. And we, being what we are, revere him for that.

In 1865, a fresco The Apotheosis of Washington was completed in the oculus of the Rotunda dome (“apotheosis” = “to transform into a god,” from Greek apotheoun) to show Washington that he wasn’t about to win a battle between what he wanted to be and what we needed him to be:

apowash

A close look reveals just how George would have felt about it:

georgemad

This is what we do. No matter how much the founder of a movement or tradition or religion resists deification, we’ll start building the temple the moment s/he’s gone.

On his deathbed, the Buddha is said to have laughed when his followers suggested he was a god. They had the last laugh, as survivors do. But Buddha is quoted in the Digha Nikaya discouraging representations of himself “after the extinction of the body” because he saw it as a denial of that extinction. The prohibition was followed until the first century CE, at which point Greek influence led to a flowering of Buddhist iconography.

Buddha could not be reached for comment.

Christianity and Judaism also have a clear prohibition on images, one that’s ignored by way of clever abridgement. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” says the version we know and say and carve into courthouses. The rest is less convenient: “…nor any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above, nor that is in the earth beneath, nor that is in the water under the earth.” The Sistine Chapel has some ‘splainin’ to do.

I’ve also recently learned that the Islamic prohibition on images of Muhammad, so much in the news of late, was originally intended not to elevate Muhammad to divine status, but to prevent exactly that. From an outstanding recent article in the Washington Post:

“In the Holy Koran of Islam,” says political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil, a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, “the one sin unforgivable is that of polytheism. The prohibition is intended to protect the faithful from that sin. The fear was that intense reverence for the prophet might if unrestrained cross over into worship.

Well what do you know. Once again, we silly monkeys take a good idea and flip it inside out. A rule established to avoid intense worship of the wrong thing instead fuels that worship. Ironically, then, the creators of the prohibition on images of Muhammad and the creators of Everybody Draw Muhammad end up sharing a principle with each other, and Buddha, and George Washington: opposition to the slavish worship of the wrong things.

MORE
Great article on aniconism
A site with images of Muhammad through the ages (currently making the rounds among moderates in Islamic countries)

Muhammad and the Middle

Meh

There’s a tactic that we self-imagined reasonables are prone to, and it just kills me, especially when I do it, and I too-often do. It’s the Knee-Jerk Middle. A controversy erupts, and we, in an effort to show how reasonable we are, declare that the truth lies “somewhere in the middle.”

Sometimes it does, of course. But just as often, it’s a pose that helps us avoid taking a position.

There was a lot of this going on Thursday, which (in case you’ve been living under a rock) was Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a day on which all are encouraged to answer violence with nonviolent action by simply drawing a picture.

It’s wrong for Islamic extremists to kill those who draw the Prophet, say the reasonable middlists, but it’s also wrong to offend for the sake of offense by intentionally violating the rule against drawing the Prophet. So a pox on both houses. It’s the way to appear reasonable without the bother of doing any real thinking or offering an alternative. I consider free expression to be not just fun and interesting but essential to progress. There exists a serious threat to free expression. If not EDMD, what response is best?

The focus on the extremes avoids the much more interesting conflict between regular old Islam, which forbids depictions of Muhammad (not just among Muslims, but by anyone anywhere) and people who find silly the idea that any group can dream up a prohibition and enforce it on the planet (“Respect our Prophet!” demands the FB Group Against ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’).

Add the violence perpetrated against those who ignore the prohibition, and ignoring it is about much more than “offense for the sake of it.” The idea has then gone from silly to obscene, at which point I’d say challenging it becomes a moral imperative.

MehMuhI may be wrong about that. But don’t try to keep me from raising the question in the first place.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day raises fascinating and worthwhile questions, my favorite kind. Add to that the fact that it’s silly for any primate to think any other primate is obligated to get moony over the same things. Sprinkle on a bit of collective courage in diluting the fatwa (“I am Spartacus!”) and I’d say you’ve got yourself a thing well worth doing.

It would be nice if we’d all do it thoughtfully and well, but we are what we are, and many have taken the opportunity to depict Muhammad grotesquely. I don’t prefer these because they confuse the issue. Far better have been a handful of drawings from the day that test the question itself in creative ways. For a collection of those [plus some that stupidly muddy the message], plus every other point I had planned to make, damn him, click over to Friendly Atheist.

Not all opposition to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was knee-jerk middlism, of course. So for those who opposed it, a question:

Members of one culture insisted that those of another culture set aside one if their highest values (free expression) out of respect for a value of their own (non-depiction of Muhammad). A few responded with violence, and the threat of it continues. What response do you think would have been more appropriate?
_____________________________________________

UPDATE: A terrific conversation in the comments, on Facebook, and elsewhere has me clarifying my position. I should have made a much clearer statement against grotesque, racist, or intentionally repugnant depictions of Muhammad. They don’t just “confuse the issue”; they fuel hatred and misunderstanding, and while supporting the right to do it, I condemn the choice.

This critique goes to my heart. I am on record criticizing (e.g.) moderate Christians for not speaking out more forcefully against those who do harm in the name of their faith. By failing to directly address the ways in which EDMD was used to further the cause of hatred and misunderstanding — by saying, in essence, “Yeah yeah, some people are doing this stupidly, but back to my point…” — I am guilty of precisely the same lapse. Thanks for setting me straight(er).

I’m a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, and that includes stupid speech. But that position can cause me to gloss over other valid concerns. I think I’m coming out of this EDMD thing re-convinced that mass actions of this kind are nearly impossible to pull off effectively because of the difficulty of controlling message and method. They are a victory for free speech that often loses so many other battles they may not be worth doing.
______________________________________________

ADDED MAY 21: A fascinating article recommended by a friend in Malaysia.

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Just do it? / best practices 8

“My heart goes out to the man…who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it… ”
from A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard

We — and by “we” I mean we humans, we trousered apes — love us some unquestioning obedience.

My favorite image of my least favorite story.
Dad’s blank expression says it all.
AandI

I’m already on record recoiling from the Worst Story Ever Loved — Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s command that he kill his son.

Lot (he of the condiment wife) establishes himself as the most jaw-dropping of moral menaces in Genesis 19, a story that once again exalts the willingness to sacrifice one’s child without hesitation. But within pages, Abraham steals the crown, proving there’s no crime he would not commit, no act too vile or unjustified, so long as God ordered him to commit it. And we applaud.

That the founder of Judaism is the first on record to make use of the Nuremberg Defense is an irony too painful to contemplate. That this is then celebrated as the ultimate founding moment of three world religions is a fact that has held me in its grip for decades.

But then the anthropologist in me pops his wee head out, blinking like a mole, and asks why we love these stories, why we recast and retell them, over and over, and clutch them to our hearts, and find them inspiring.

Not all of religious stories are sickening. One of my favorite gospel scenes is Jesus’s very human cup-shunning moment in Gethsemane, praying to God and his favorite Swedish pop group to change the plan (“Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me”). I’m guessing those who love unquestioning obedience can forgive him (!) for this because he followed so quickly with an assurance that, yes yes, he knows after all that orders are orders. “I want your will to be done, not mine,” he says.

A weird sentence for a trinitarian to make sense of, but then again etc.

garciaI started with a passage from a modern version of the unquestioning hero — A Message to Garcia. Published in 1899, this essay tells the story of Andrew Summers Rowan, an American military officer who took a difficult order in the run-up to the Spanish-American War and carried it out without asking (as the author put it) “any idiotic questions.” The order: Deliver a message from President William McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia enlisting Garcia’s help against the Spanish. Rowan did so, impressing posterity in a way that probably surprised even him.

Never mind that the Spanish-American War is seen by the consensus of historians as one of the more shameful and cynical military adventures in U.S. history — quite an achievement if you think of the competition. The value of the story doesn’t depend much on the setting. I’m not even mostly interested in Rowan’s act (though Rowan, writing years later, was plenty impressed with himself). I’m interested in what our drooling admiration of the unquestioning obedience in the story says about us.

“No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man–the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it,” Hubbard says in his essay. Among the questions that count as “idiotic” to Hubbard is any attempt to clarify an assignment. The greatest felony, though, is asking why.

In the Foreword to a later edition of the essay, Hubbard recounts with astonished glee the instant demand for copies in the millions. “A copy of the booklet [was] given to every railroad employee in Russia,” he says, as well as every Russian soldier who went to the front in the Russo-Japanese War. Then “the Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese,” after which “a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of A Message To Garcia have been printed. This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of an author, in all history,” Hubbard crows, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”

Like the accidental fact that it strokes our delight in an orderly world.

It’s easy to see why the powerful call unquestioning obedience a virtue. Garcia is supposedly assigned by U.S. military brass as required reading for the enlisted, for example, and I get that. CEOs buy copies in the thousands for their employees. But why do those of us at lower pay grades find encouragement and comfort in the idea of shutting up and doing what you’re told when it mostly ends up applying to us?

Same reason: The human fear of disorder. It’s an equal opportunity terror. Order means safety. The idea that someone somewhere has a handle on the variables and infinite wisdom offers a much more fundamental reassurance than the messy process of discourse, Natural selection has given us a fear of disorder, and questions bring disorder with them, so the confident following of the orders of superiors gets our slathering vote.

But what if the superior is wrong? What if the order is immoral? Look at those bent, disorderly punctuation marks, each one a curving road to hell. Just do it, and teach your kids the same — if you don’t mind having them follow a straight-road exclamation mark to the very dark side once in a while.

If on the other hand you want to raise powerfully ethical kids, teach them to ask those “idiotic” questions and to insist on knowing the reasons behind what they are told to be and do.

Full text of Message to Garcia, with Author’s Foreword

See also:
Best Practices 2: Encourage active moral reasoning
When good people say (really, really) bad things

Tooth and claw

Copperhead
copper

“Rachel and I can’t decide whether to go down to the creek or not.”

Our home north of Atlanta has a fantastic backyard. A little lawn near the house drops away dramatically into a wooded slope of sixty-foot trees before plunging to a creek at the property line.

After two years of admiring the creek from a distance, Erin (12) began to take a more active interest in the past year, spending long hours exploring it with friends. During the winter, they could retain the illusion that they were the only living things present. But spring has brought the return of tangible biodiversity, and in recent weeks, Erin’s least favorite living thing has re-appeared on the property — snakes. That’s what had her second-guessing her fantastic new pastime.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, knowing.

“Snakes.”

“Ah.”

“Seriously. What should we do?” She and Rachel sat on the couch, dramatically-knit tween foreheads fully deployed.

“You should go to your room and curl up in a ball on the floor.”

She switched to Unamused Tween Expression #4. “I’m sure you have a point.”

Silly thing to be sure of, knowing me as she does. But she was right.

“If your only goal is to be safe, it’s your best move. But if you want a good life, you need to spend some time figuring out which fears are worth having.”

“Snakes, Dad, duh. It’s a fear worth having.”

“Not if it isn’t going to happen.”

“But it might!”

She’s right. It might. But I want her to learn to balance risk and reward — to recognize that too manic an obsession with safety wrings all of la joie out of la vivre, that we too often worry about the wrong things anyway, and that a little knowledge can often do more than anything else to put fears in perspective.

Now — before we get to the part where I sagely assuage my daughter’s overblown fear, let me point out that I have fears of my own, that my family has lovely sport with those fears, and that they are wrong. My fears are sensibly directed at an awesome predator, one much larger than myself — the cow.

MOOOO
moo

Okay. I can hear your self-righteous tittering. You know what, forget the word ‘cow.’ Cows are named ‘Bessie.’ Cows jump over the moon. Call them cattle and now who’s laughing? Cattle stampede, don’t they. Why yes they do. And when the bulls run in Pamplona, people run too. Like mad. And cows, you will surely know, have long been associated with human death. Mad cow disease? Look at the middle word. So don’t you sit there and jeer at me. Okay then.

(Back to my daughter’s baseless fears.)

It so happens that I had a quick chat with Google after our first snake sighting last year. “Did you know there are 41 types of snakes native to this part of the country?”

“That’s supposed to help?”

“…and that 35 of them are harmless, that only two of the remaining six venomous snakes are in this actual area, and that both of those have very distinctive patterns? Did the snakes you’ve seen have clear patterns?”

Earth snake
earth

“No. They were just kind of grey. But it was hard to see because they were moving away so fast.”

“Moving where now?”

“Away.”

“Fast.”

“Yes.”

“To getting a running start at you?”

“Dad.”

I know where she’s coming from. We see something wicked in certain animals. Spiders scare us off our tuffets. Snakes hand us problematic apples. We invest them with a kind of evil agency. They WANT to be and do bad. And no matter how much I know about the natural world, I am aware of a tiny sliver of this nonsense, probably wedged in my midbrain somewhere, that still sees them this way. Even though it IS nonsense, it’s really hard to shake. Our conditioning runs deep.

But shaking it was the key to getting Erin back to the creek, and the key to shaking it was thinking adaptively. We had to pry loose the picture of the snake, bwahaha, looking for an opportunity to bite the 100 lb. primate. There’s just nothing in it for the snake — nothing, that is, but a very good chance of getting fatally danced upon. It’s simple selection. Those snakes with a tendency to bite for the evil fun of it wouldn’t generally live to pass on those bitey genes. Eventually you have yourself a population of snakes that will bite the hairless monkey only as a very last resort, e.g. when taken unawares.

I told her these things, and she nodded. “Hm.”

“You both want the same thing, so do yourself and the snake a favor. Make some noise as you approach the creek. Take a stick and rustle the leaves in front of you. Every snake will take off like a shot and have a great story for his friends tonight. If all else fails and you end up next to a snake, it is almost certainly not venomous. And if it is, it almost certainly won’t bite you. It will run like hell.”

“And if it is poisonous, and it does bite me?”

“We’re three minutes from a hospital, and they’ll give you an antivenin, and you’ll be fine.”

She pondered warily.

“And I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”

Big hug, and she was off for the creek, planning how to spend it.

Out of the Shadows

Guest post by ANDREW PARK
Author, Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not)

I first learned about Dale McGowan in 2007. My initial reaction was utter panic as it appeared he had already written the book that I wanted to write. A year later, knowing a bit more, I attended a Parenting Beyond Belief seminar in Cambridge, Mass., an experience described in detail in the last chapter of Between a Church and a Hard Place. I took a liking to Dale and his easygoing, regular-guy manner immediately. After the seminar was over, we stayed in touch as he graciously helped me with my account, and I came to appreciate the passion and thoughtfulness that suffuses his advice as well as the humble and funny style with which he communicates it. During a reading at my local independent bookseller recently, I said that I had a “giant man-crush” on him. I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but there it is.

I am one of those rare non-religious parents today who is himself a product of a faith-free family. Once, when I mentioned this to someone at a cocktail party, he replied matter-of-factly, “Were your parents academics?” Well, duh. As they had come of age in the 1950s and 1960s, my mother and father had shed the mainline Protestantism in which they were reared. By the time I came along in the early 1970s, they didn’t bother with religion at all. Occasionally, my mother’s misgivings about this choice would result in my brother and I being rounded up for Sunday-morning visits to the Unitarian Church or a Quaker meeting, but the habit never seemed to take, for her or for us.

My mother and father are both dead, so I’ll never know what it felt like for them to be on the vanguard of secular parenting. But I doubt it was easy. In my research, I talked at length with a couple who had been friends with my parents and shared their distaste for organized religion. He is a former Episcopal priest, and as newlyweds, they had been missionaries in Southwest Africa. But they had left church behind by the time they moved up the street from us in my Bible Belt hometown. The father, who taught religious studies at the university with my parents, had even written an academic volume on bringing up children in a “post-Christian age.” So I was surprised to learn that even they, probably the most dedicated Nones we knew, hadn’t felt entirely comfortable in this decision:

They moved in to neighbors greeting them with questions about where they were planning to go to church. Even at the colleges where they taught, where there were many non-churchgoers, they sometimes felt they were on the fringe of society, and there was no one interested in discussing how to handle religion with children when you yourself weren’t religious. When Carol saw other parents on the playground or at school, she avoided all talk of it. Ron, who rejected the term atheist because he didn’t want to be defined by opposition to a worldview that was no longer relevant to him, sometimes called himself ‘modern,’ but more often than not he just kept quiet about it.

Times have changed. Through books and blogs and meetups, non-religious parenting is enjoying much wider acceptance. There’s even one of our own occupying the White House, as Dale pointed out in Cambridge. As it was just a few weeks after the presidential election, that made my heart swell a bit. Yet I get the sense that many people are still hesitant to proclaim that this is a valid way to bring up their children. I see them at my readings, sheepishly approaching me for advice on how to celebrate holidays or fend off a more pious relative. Perhaps it’s the rude rebukes of believers that keeps them quiet. Perhaps the infrastructure to support secular moms and dads hasn’t reached their town yet. Or perhaps we just need a few more Dale McGowans in the world to coax them out of the shadows.

ANDREW PARK is the author of Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) (Avery, 2010). He is a former correspondent for Business Week whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Slate and other national publications. Andrew lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife, Cristina Smith, and their two children.