© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The children of the revolution

yawnOne thing is pretty much guaranteed for any social movement that struggles against the mainstream: the children of the activists won’t understand what the big frackin’ deal is.

U.S. civil rights pioneers often end up with kids who (while enjoying the fruits of the struggle) ask their parents, “Why is it always about race with you?” Second-wave feminists spent their youth breaking glass ceilings, only to have their daughters (who’ve never known a time when they couldn’t vote or play hockey or run a corporation) roll their eyes with embarrassment at Mom’s “obsession with gender.”

Without putting myself anywhere near the same plane as those, I’ve started getting a taste of that second-generation thing myself. It’s a good thing for the most part, a likely sign that our own efforts have made it possible for our kids to transcend our obsessions, to find the next beast that needs struggling against instead of tilting with ours — or just to enjoy living in a better, saner world.

When Becca recently brought up the idea of starting a secular parenting group in our area, my 15-year-old son — a classic apatheist — said, “I don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“I kind of don’t get why you need something like that. Just don’t believe. Why do you have to get in a group with other people who don’t believe?”

“You don’t have to,” Becca said. “But some parents who aren’t religious find it helpful to see how other nonreligious parents handle the issues that come up.”

“Like what?”

I offered an example. “I just got an email from a mom this morning. Her family is going to church with her parents for the first time, and she wanted to know what her son should do during communion. You know, when the congregation goes to the front for the…”

“But that’s so obvious!”

“Oh? What’s the obvious thing to do?”

“You just do it! You’re in a church, so you do what the church people do. That’s respectful.”

I remember being fifteen, seeing things so clearly, constantly stunned at the density of others.

“Okay. Do you know what communion is?”

He paused. “Well…not really, no.”

“It’s a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Most important part of a Christian service. It’s a way of saying, ‘I believe in the divinity of Jesus, and here’s the moment I’m closest to him.’ So some people feel it’s more respectful to not do it if you don’t believe it.”

“Huh.” Another pause. “So you told her not to let him do it?”

“Well no, I said I’d explain to him what it means and let him decide what to do. He can see what it’s like to stay sitting when most people go to the front, or to take part in a ritual that means you believe when you really don’t or aren’t sure. It’s good experience.”

Two weeks later we visited my mother-in-law’s Episcopal church. I reminded the kids that they could choose to do whatever they wanted. They could sing or not, pray or not, kneel or not, commune or not. And if they had any questions, they could ask us.

Delaney (9) noticed the Stations of the Cross before the service. I told her it was the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, and we walked the circuit. As a second-generation freethinker (in the lower case), she didn’t have to recoil or push against it. To the kid who was Athena for Hallowe’en, it’s just another cool mythic story.

During the service, Erin (12) was obviously pondering her choices. When the first kneeling moment came, she looked at her Grandma (kneeling), then at the padded kneeler, then at me (sitting), then at the kneeler again. She half-knelt, looked uncertain, then dropped back into the pew. The second time, with a deep breath, she went for the full kneel. Third and fourth times, she sat.

Trying something on for size is classic Erin, and she left the church knowing what both feigned conformity and sore-thumb honesty felt like. Much better than just yakking about it.

Communion came and went, and Connor stayed in his seat. We exchanged wry smiles. Yeah yeah, his eyes said, whatever.

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This was written on Monday, 29. November 2010 at 12:58 and was filed under belief and believers, extended family, My kids, myths, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. This is one of the classic sentences about learning and thinking and growing up, EVER!

    she left the church knowing what both feigned conformity and sore-thumb honesty felt like. . .

    Comment: JJ Ross – 29. November 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  2. Well, technically, if you’re not baptized you can’t (aren’t supposed to) take part in the communion service. At least, that’s what they always said before communion at my Episcopal church (“all baptized Christians are welcome to partake in the Communion”). So nobody would think anything about it if they didn’t get up to partake–no big deal. There’s no disrespect being shown whatsoever by not going to the communion rail, and in fact, you’d be in perfect “conformity” by *not* going if you’re not baptized.

    Comment: yokohamamama – 29. November 2010 @ 7:10 pm

  3. Seems to vary by church, even within a denomination. The Episcopal service we sometimes attended in Minneapolis said that, but the one here does not. Others say “Wherever you are in your faith journey,” or “Catholics only,” etc. Generally ends up 95 percent of the room no matter what the preamble is.

    Comment: Dale – 29. November 2010 @ 8:14 pm

  4. As a second-generation atheist myself, I find myself in great sympathy with Connor’s “I don’t get it” reaction. On the other hand I’m not quite an apatheist (great term, new to me) and I wonder if that’s why I find so astonishing — indeed, somewhat horrifying — both Connor’s assumption that “doing what the church people do” is the obvious and respectful option, and Erin’s experiments with kneeling as part of a religious ritual, when she is not a member of that religion nor a regular participant in that particular religion’s practices. To me it seems obvious, instead, that one should *absolutely not* engage in any religious ritual without both understanding and acceptance of its meaning, and that in the absence of either, the only respectful response is quiet abstention.

    But I have no in-laws who would expect me to join them in an Episcopal church service — or any religious service. My experiences with formal religious services are almost exclusively limited to weddings and funerals, and those mostly in the very diverse and largely apatheist California Bay Area, so I can’t say I’ve ever felt like a sore thumb when simply sitting quietly while some of the people around me kneel, rise, bow their heads and pray, go forward to take communion, or whatever. I’ve certainly never seen 95% of the people in a room take communion!

    I suspect this background is the source of my mild impatience with the concept of secular parenting groups — and also with the conscious care so many areligious parents take in avoiding the “indoctrination” or labelling of their children as atheists. In my experience, atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the default state. It’s just what you are if you haven’t been taught nor developed a faith in some specific set of religious beliefs and practices — and as such, isn’t terribly interesting. Who needs a special group in order to reinforce that? Lack of religious belief does not seem quite enough, by itself, to form a community around — and it certainly isn’t a good enough reason to get up early and drive across town on Sundays!

    This is why I prefer to call my family “humanist”; that term describes, as well as any one word can, the values in which we DO believe and that I strive to teach my children, rather than merely indicating something that we do NOT believe. And I don’t have any qualms about teaching my children to be humanists. I’ll be astonished if either of them fails to eventually outgrow belief in anything supernatural (for now they are still young enough that they like to think that fairies, elves and wizardry MIGHT be real, and gods are in much the same category) but I’m not exactly teaching them to be atheists. I just assume that is the most likely result given that I am not attempting to teach them otherwise.

    Oh, and by the way: WHERE can I find a version of the Bible presented as cool mythic stories?! I have often longed for such a thing and have never found it.

    Comment: hollyml – 30. November 2010 @ 5:56 am

  5. @holly:

    the only respectful response is quiet abstention.

    The problem with this is that it lends the practices an air of forbidden mystery and attraction that I find unhelpful to an open process.

    Lack of religious belief does not seem quite enough, by itself, to form a community around

    This is mostly true. I think it is often enough to form a community around, but not enough to keep a community around. It has to develop into something that serves the same human needs served by other communities or it shrivels and dies.

    In my experience, atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the default state. It’s just what you are if you haven’t been taught nor developed a faith in some specific set of religious beliefs and practices

    I’m actually preparing a post on this very concept. After years of believing exactly this, I’ve come to see it as both technically true and misleading.

    Oh, and by the way: WHERE can I find a version of the Bible presented as cool mythic stories?! I have often longed for such a thing and have never found it.

    As it happens, I’m working on a book proposal for that right now.

    Comment: Dale – 30. November 2010 @ 6:47 am

  6. I don’t know how to do the quote thing, but I may or may not have just squealed with delight at this:

    ” ‘Oh, and by the way: WHERE can I find a version of the Bible presented as cool mythic stories?! I have often longed for such a thing and have never found it.’

    ‘As it happens, I’m working on a book proposal for that right now.'”

    Comment: joley – 30. November 2010 @ 8:28 am

  7. I was taught that at our grandparents’ Catholic church, if you didn’t want to (or weren’t eligible to) receive communion, you could walk up, and when it’s your turn you simply cross your arms across your chest (hands on your opposite shoulders) and the priest would bless you instead.

    Comment: Rianpie – 30. November 2010 @ 11:49 am

  8. Yes, that’s an option. Their heart’s in the right place with that one, but I’ve always found it a tad demeaning.

    Comment: Dale – 30. November 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  9. As a half-breed strong atheist (father is one, mother isn’t really) who’s married to a 2nd generation atheist woman who’s 9 months pregnant with what will probably (hopefully) be a 3rd generation atheist, I can see a little bit of my future in this post (maybe, hopefully). The problem with an apatheist view is that we are still immersed in a religious-leaning society where atheists/agnostics/free-thinkers/humanists are demonized to the highest degree (even more than dem der “scary moslums”!1!1). We are still discriminated against (reference the custody judge citing a divorced father’s agnosticism as a contributing factor to losing child custody, linky: http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2010/11/losing_custody_due_to_agnostic.php#more ).
    One wouldn’t be wise to be a apa-racist, because racism is obviously still prevalent in our society. The so-called “Gnu” atheists have done a fantastic job of letting mainstream society know that atheists are among you, but we are far from done. We should be working towards fostering an environment of equality that we don’t have yet – like proportional representation in our government, for one example. Just like (warning: not a great analogy coming) someone shouldn’t say “Well, MLK was here so we don’t have to care about racism anymore” it is also unwise to say “Well Dawkins wrote some books or there’s a book about being atheist parents and atheists were acknowledged in a president’s inauguration speech, so I don’t need to be vocal about my atheism because it’s a dead issue.”
    This will be something that I will try to impress to my daughter, just because something doesn’t seem overtly oppressive doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. And apathy will not bring about improvement.

    Comment: TomZ – 30. November 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  10. And also my thoughts to apatheists – How lucky for you!

    How lucky you:
    – Aren’t a homosexual who is simply trying to marry the love of your life
    – Aren’t a sick child with Christian Scientist parents
    – Aren’t a teacher trying to counter the lies told to children regarding evolution
    – Aren’t living in a country where, as a woman, you are stoned to death for sex outside of marriage
    – Aren’t living in a country where you get locked in jail, for possibly a life sentence, or even get the death penalty, for posting atheist sentiments on the internet.

    If you’re an adult (an innocent child is understandable) and feel apathetic about these issues that’s irresponsible.

    Comment: TomZ – 30. November 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  11. “Forbidden mystery”? Hm, no, not exactly. Religious rituals are not something I would consider forbidden in any blanket way; they’re just actions or events in which it’s not appropriate to participate without certain prerequisites. If you’re interested enough to want to try the experience, you ought to first understand what the experience is intended to mean and what your participation might convey to others. (For whatever it’s worth, I have the same attitude about fashion choices and political events and all sorts of other socio-cultural phenomena besides religion.)

    I guess my discomfort with the “do as the church people do” choice arises because “feigned conformity” is dishonest — both to others and to self. Participation upon specific invitation, issued by someone who knows you are not a believer/member/initiate, and accepted in a spirit of openness to the experience, is different. But in the absence of that kind of invitation and interest, “trying it on for size” strikes me as much too disrespectful of those for whom the ritual may have considerably more meaning than that. In my own ignorance, and as an outsider, I do not presume to judge which particular rituals are meant to be exclusive to adherents and which are open to all who wish to sample them.

    Perhaps the difference is that if my kids had questions about an Episcopal service, they could NOT ask me. Or rather, they could ask, but I would have no answers! (What would you tell your children about appropriate behavior in the context of a religious or spiritual ceremony that is wholly unfamiliar to you? Would you still advise them to “do whatever they wanted”?)

    Anyway, I look forward to the post about “technically true and misleading” (alas, so many things are that!) and I too am squealing at the prospect of a Biblical-myths book!

    Comment: hollyml – 30. November 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  12. I don’t think Dale’s kids had free-reign to do “whatever they wanted.” They were given the choice to participate or not, and in ways that were respectful and undistracting. Not to speak for Dale, but I suspect that if they wanted to play GameBoy, or sing opera, or declaim on the historical improbability of Christ’s virgin birth, those would not be viable options (at least until later in the day). Instead, they were allowed to engage in a way that was not disruptive, dismissive, or distracting toward anyone’s worship.

    For me, the issue here is the limit and type of respect we owe to religion. I do believe the congregation has the right to practice their without being demeaned or capriciously interrupted by visiting heathens in ties. However, I do not believe they have the right to police the thoughts of those acting in the church space.

    Maybe the congregation would prefer that certain acts be limited to the (unverifiable) “true believers,” but they have neither the power nor the right to say that you can only DO this if you are THINKING that. To say to a child “you will only eat this cracker or kneel on this floor if you believe in Jesus as hard as you very well can,” is not only unenforceable, it’s wrong. In my mind, Dale showed respect for the right of the congregation to worship and the right of the individual to think.

    Might Erin’s decision to kneel send mixed or confusing signals? Sure. And articulating her choices (to herself and others) will be part of growing up and understanding those decisions. However, most religious folks don’t feel obligated to justify their faith to strangers, and I don’t think a kid kneeling in a church should feel obligated to signal “sorry, just kidding!” either.

    Comment: Allison – 30. November 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  13. Could not have said it better myself, Allison. That’s *exactly* the balance I’m trying to strike.

    Comment: Dale – 02. December 2010 @ 2:24 pm

  14. Add me to the roster of fans who is going to be waiting eagerly for the book of biblical myths!

    I agree with Allison’s take on this blog post. Totally. And I commend Dale for excellent handling of the situation (again…lol).

    I’d also like to add to Holly: I think your statement about religious rituals being reserved only for those who truly find them meaningful etc does show what you said in the first post about having had almost no religious experiences. As a cradle Catholic, I can assure you that many of the practicing churchgoers in almost any church with a set liturgical calendar do indeed merely “go through the motions” and I have never yet met anyone who wonders or cares if the person next to them in the pew is “faking it” or not. For some, the comforting routines of the rituals are an end in themselves – comforting rituals, full stop – and nobody I know would have a problem with a child “trying it on for size”. I think your intention may be good, but you are blowing the thing out of proportion in a way which is actually more disrespectful of religious people because you are drawing a picture of a hyper-sensitive and territorial group of people for whom even an uninitiated child daring to dip a toe into their ritual pool is a disrespectful affront. Hmm, I don’t think so really – most of the people I grew up with were pretty tolerant and had a great sense of humor, too.

    At the risk of sounding like the blog scold (or – horrors! – religious apologist :() I must also say that I have never heard anything at all said before Communion apart from the set liturgy (prayers) in any of the Catholic churches I have attended in my nearly 50 years. Anyone could, if they chose, go up and take Communion and no one would ever have known if they “could” or not. I have never heard tell of any announcement such as “only Catholics” or “only baptized Christians” etc. But I realized recently that this must happen in other denominations, (perhaps where Communion is not a regular occurrence ?). It is possible that it happens in some Catholic churches but I have lived in two countries, several states and Canadian provinces and I haven’t heard it yet!

    Comment: niftywriter – 03. December 2010 @ 11:27 pm

  15. So either it’s too respectful, or too disrespectful, to be very wary of engaging in any religious ritual without an intent to understand or experience it in the generally accepted manner? 🙂

    Regardless, the reaction or potential reaction of the guy in the next pew is not actually what I meant to emphasize here. I was exploring my own reaction of horror to the idea that “doing what the church people do” is appropriate and respectful. I think it comes down to the “default” concept — which is probably a very second-generation notion. One has to have a *good reason* for performing any religious ritual, whereas abstention requires no justification. (For someone raised as a Catholic, I can imagine, the reverse might be true. Of course, only the dyed-in-the-wool atheist is being *logical*!)

    “It’s comforting” is valid enough, I suppose, as a reason although it’s an unlikely one for someone who wasn’t raised on that particular type of comfort. Maybe “Grandma is doing it” is also a valid reason but, by itself, it still strikes me as distastefully lacking in integrity. (If Grandma jumped off a bridge…) “I’m curious about what this ritual leads people to experience, and whether it’s something that might be personally valuable” is a much better reason, but that’s where you get into the question of whether someone who is not already an initiate is either capable of or qualified for the experience to which the ritual is meant to lead — and that’s something you can only investigate by asking beforehand. Of someone who might reasonably be expected to know. Which, if you’re talking about kneeling for prayer or taking communion, a second-generation atheist isn’t.

    So, I expect my children to refrain from the practice of religion — unless and until they have a real reason to do otherwise, which I don’t particularly anticipate would ever occur. And if they did have some reason to want to experiment with religion, I hope that I could genuinely wish them well, but I would have to refer their questions elsewhere.

    Comment: hollyml – 08. December 2010 @ 3:50 am

  16. Well, I sincerely wish you good luck with that!

    Personally, as a lifelong atheist with an “insider” understanding of organized religion, I have never feared allowing my children to experiment, question, participate or not participate as they needed to on their journeys toward adulthood. And I know, completely and with perfect “faith” that there is no loss of integrity involved whatsoever.

    I would argue that “expecting” children to refrain from trying out any particular expression of thought or belief is in itself a contradiction of a stance which is meant to be one of free thought and integrity.

    The entirety of human mysticism, mythology, philosophy and psychology belongs to all of us. That is the foundation of my philosophy and why I see no contradiction in allowing my children (or any children) to enjoy exposure to a wide variety of expressions. As human children, they have a right to explore the collective history of humanity, without my drawing a circle around one of the largest segments and telling them “except this”.

    I have no more problem allowing my children to “dabble” (heheh) in organized religions than I would have with them dabbling in astrology, something which many people allow without ever asking themselves about its “integrity” or “disrespecting” true believers in astrology.

    I grew up in a household (1960s) where free-thinking was encouraged – no, expected – within the larger context of a culture which my parents understood was overwhelmingly drenched in Christian symbolism, taboos and societal pressure. I am sure that it is not the only way to figure out a balance between respecting the humanity of all our fellow humans on the planet and self-respect/free thought, but I wager it was a damned good one. One which I have made a great effort to emulate with my own kids (who are now all almost grown and all avowed free-thinkers).

    Thank you for the reply to my comment as well as your other comments here. I find it helpful and invigorating to consider another point of view, especially regarding parenting. Wish you all the best.

    Thanks Dale for providing this wonderful place for humanist parents to argue, debate, think, support and above all interact with one another!

    Comment: niftywriter – 09. December 2010 @ 10:36 am

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