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

The doubting parent’s guide to the holidays (WaPo)

By Mari-Jane Williams
From the Washington Post Lifestyle section, Dec. 6, 2012

Answering awkward questions is an inevitable part of parenting: Where did I come from? Why doesn’t Santa ever die? Why is that lady so big?

Often, though, the toughest questions are about God and religion. For parents who are not religious, the holidays highlight those queries and at times make us second-guess our choices.

It’s one thing to be ambivalent about religion yourself, but as parents, we want to make sure we expose our children to as many different views as possible.

“It’s easy when you’re childless to sort of float and do what you think is right for you,” said Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief,” (Amacon, $17.95). “As soon as you have kids, all those questions come to the fore. A number of friends of mine were entirely nonreligious, but once they had kids, they felt that they ought to be going to church.”

Other parents have the added stress of trying to navigate a holiday of another faith, because Christmas is so pervasive this time of year.

“It’s hard,” said Esther Lederman, the associate rabbi at Temple Micah in the District. “If you’re a Jewish parent, you’re trying to make your child not feel bad that Santa isn’t coming to your house. ”

We spoke with McGowan and other experts about how to expose children to the religious traditions of the holidays without compromising your beliefs. Here are some of their suggestions.

Be honest about your doubts, and ask them what they think. The questions don’t need to cause anxiety for parents, McGowan said. Just be honest with your child and tell him that many people celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but you don’t. Then give him a chance to talk about what makes the most sense to him.

“They need to know that most of the people around them see the world through a religious lens,” said McGowan, who lives in Atlanta.

“Every time I make a statement about what I think is true, I let them know that others think differently and that they get to make up their own minds. It’s not necessary to put blinders on them and not let them see the religious aspect of the holidays. That would be strange.”

Take your children to religious services during the holidays. Andrew Park, the self-described “faith-free dad” who wrote “Between a Church and a Hard Place” (Avery, $26), says he and his wife take their children to services at different churches on Christmas Eve to expose them to a variety of faiths and customs.

“Christmas Eve is an opportunity to experience what religion means to people other than their parents,” said Park, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The greater the variety of the experiences, the better. It gives them context and understanding about religion. That’s powerful. Whether they become believers in a faith or not, having that understanding helps them become citizens of the world.”

Read biblical stories. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible as a literal text, many of the stories are still fascinating and can capture children’s imaginations. Read the story of Christmas and talk about it in the context of history or ancient mythology.

“There’s something about the Christian story that is very engaging to a kid,” Park said.

He also noted that his two children, ages 8 and 10, are starting to make connections between the practice of modern religion and the way it was practiced in ancient societies, how it’s portrayed in fantasy literature, and the role it has played in history.

Make it secular. Nothing says you have to observe Christmas or Hanukkah as religious holidays, McGowan said.

If you are ambivalent about religion, you can make the holidays a celebration of family and generosity. Or focus on the celebration of light, or Santa and cookies.

“What some parents find is they pop back into the church and it really doesn’t satisfy what they’re looking for, so they look for secular ways to fulfill those needs,” McGowan said. “They are looking for ways to have important landmarks in their lives or rites of passage, and there are lots of equivalents that are entirely humanistic: naming ceremonies for babies, coming of age ceremonies around age 13.”

Read at WashingtonPost.com

You want this book

I really shouldn’t presume that you want this book. It’s just that…you kinda do.

I’m giving away three signed, personalized copies of my most recent book Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics to support the year-end fund drive of Foundation Beyond Belief.

It’s a ripping good cause. The humanist members and supporters of FBB have had an astonishing year. We raised over half a million dollars for 24 charities, including our first ever Light the Night drive for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. We expanded our network of humanist volunteer teams to 23 cities, and we’re poised to launch FBB affiliates in Australia and Canada. Next year we hope to double our membership, launch a new and improved website, and top $1 million in donations.

We make all that happen with a small, dedicated staff and a really reasonable budget. But the budget is still a positive number, and we rely on grants and direct donations to keep the lights on.

So here’s the deal: Join or donate to FBB during December, and for every $5 of membership level or $10 donation you give, you’ll be entered in a drawing for one of three signed, personalized copies of Voices of Unbelief.

Three reasons you just might want this book:

1. Most people will never own it.
It’s an expensive, large-format, high-quality hardcover, intended mostly for universities and libraries. The list price is $100 (and 0 < 100). 2. It’s unique.
The book is built around 47 documents by atheists and agnostics throughout history. In addition to the US and Europe, there are voices from Persia, Uganda, Nigeria, India, and China. The material includes essays, letters, journal entries, clandestine manuscripts, and even transcripts from Inquisition interrogations. Sure, it has Russell and Dawkins, but also Julia Sweeney and Mr. Deity.

3. It includes rare and never-before-published items.
Among several rarities, you’ve probably never read the amazing transcripts of Inquisition interrogations from the 14th century that are included -– because they’ve never been published before in English.

Click to donate to FBB – every $10 gets you 1 entry
Click to join FBB – every $5 of membership level gets you 1 entry

Thanks for putting humanist compassion to work for a better world!

Being Toto

The Wizard of Oz is a secular humanist parable.

I’m not the first to suggest this possibility. But the eye roll I got from my 17-year-old son when I said it at dinner the other night could have cleared the dishes from the table. He’s currently soldiering through an AP Lit class in which the teacher earnestly insists that no cigar is ever, ever just a cigar. When one of the short stories they read described a red ovarian cyst in a jar, the teacher looked searchingly at the ceiling. “Red,” she said, drawing out the syllable and shaping her next thought with her hands. “Passion.”

“OR,” said my boy in the exasperated retelling, “red — the color of an ovarian cyst!!”

So I knew I was in for it when I claimed that The Wizard of Oz isn’t just a story about a girl and her weird dream.

But it isn’t.

Frank Baum (who wrote the book) was a religious skeptic and Ethical Culturist. Yip Harburg (who wrote the screenplay and songs) was an atheist. That doesn’t mean a thing by itself, of course. But it takes very little ceiling-gazing and hand-gesturing to see the Oz story as a direct reflection of a humanistic worldview.

Dorothy and her friends have deep, yearning human needs — for home, knowledge, heart and courage. When they express these needs, they’re told that only the omnipotent Wizard of Oz can fulfill them. They seek an audience with the Wizard, tremble in fear and awe, then are unexpectedly ordered to do battle with Sata… sorry, the Witch, who turns out pretty feeble in the end. (Water, seriously?)

When they return, having confronted their fears, the Wizard dissembles, and Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a mere human behind all the smoke and holograms — at which point they learn that all the brains, courage, heart, and home they sought from the Wizard had always been right in their own hands.

It’s really not much of a stretch to see the whole thing as a direct debunk of religion and a celebration of humanistic self-reliance. And as a bonus, Connor actually granted me the point.