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

And we have a title!

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 1.18.17 PMThe process of naming this book was longer than the process of naming my kids. But it’s done, and I’m very happy with it.

I like titles concise and accurate, but also with a little poetry. Parenting Beyond Belief also happened after a long process, and I love it.

The title of this book had to reference marriage generally and the secular/religious marriage in particular. It had to be as inclusive as possible, not only on the religious side but on the secular side as well. It isn’t just a book about Christians marrying atheists, for example. But it also couldn’t be overly broad (referring to “Nones” or the “unaffiliated,” for example, which includes many believers).

I liked the idea of a title that evoked the wedding vows about accepting each other no matter what. “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” that sort of thing. This book is about secular and religious partners accepting their differences of belief. After toying with awkward, non-poetic things like “In Belief and in Disbelief,” we opted for the poetic concision of In Faith and in Doubt. The subtitle, as usual, brings the specifics: How religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong marriages and happy families.

There are no perfect options, but this one splits the many goalposts as well as I can imagine.



STATURDAY: Mixed-belief marriages by age group

old-couple-holding-hands[1]Younger people are statistically more comfortable with mixed marriages of all kinds, including race and religion. So it seems counterintuitive that the likelihood of marrying someone of a different worldview actually increases with age at marriage:

• Married between age 16-25: 48% are in mixed-belief marriages
• Married between age 26-35: 58% are in mixed-belief marriages
• Married between age 36-45: 66% are in mixed-belief marriages

It makes more sense when you consider two things: (1) The very religious often marry young, and (2) the older you are, the more likely you are to have mingled with people of different religious beliefs. Your pool of potentials tends to get much more diverse during and after college (or once you start your career) than it was when you were 18.

(Stats from Riley Interfaith Marriage Survey, conducted for ‘Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley, Oxford Univ. Press, 2013.)



Finding the book

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

maze1While I’m writing this one, I’m continuously “finding the book” — trying to refine my own sense of what the finished product will look like. Harder than usual, since this is mostly new ground.

The chapter structure has been one of the challenges. The book is not just tips for having the baptism conversation or dealing with pressure from the mother-in-law. That’s part of it, but there’s also a lot of big picture content that needs to be layered around those issues.

Here’s the current plan:

1. Intro/Big Pic
I start with a snapshot of my own wedding and the thoughts in my head as I married the Southern Baptist woman of my dreams. Pull back to examine the scary literature on mixed-belief marriage. Dissect that lit to find a strong tendency to exaggerate or spin (or completely disregard) research, or use research well past its expiration date, in order to sustain the idea that couples must share beliefs. Replace that hypothesis with a more positive one supported by current research. Establish the unique framework of the secular/religious marriage.

2. Meet the Believers
What it means to be an individual believer today, and how that differs from the popular perception. The wide spectrum of actual belief and practice (as opposed to official doctrine), and the enormous and growing overlap with secular values.

3. Meet the Nonbelievers
What it means to be an individual nonbeliever today, and how that differs from the popular perception. The wide spectrum of approaches and tone among the nonreligious, and the enormous and growing common ground with religious progressives.

4. Meet the Mix
This sprawling middle section is where my survey data will spread their wings. A frame-by-frame look at the secular/religious marriage as revealed in that survey and in individual interviews. How the flavor of the mix (Catholic vs. Jewish vs. Evangelical vs. Mainline Protestant vs. Hindu vs. Islamic on the religious side, anti-theist vs. academic atheist vs. ritual atheist etc. on the nonreligious side) and the intensity with which those labels are held affect the issues that arise.

5. The Issues
A series of short sections describing individual issues in the secular/religious marriage, including extended family pressure, wedding, churchgoing, family identity, parenting issues (from baptism to child autonomy to rites of passage and churchgoing/Sunday school for the kids), communication, divorce, and funeral/memorial planning.

6. For Better
Survey respondents were asked to name any specific positives or benefits they have derived from being in a marriage that bridges the widest belief gap of all. After the long section on challenges, the book ends with a look at the very encouraging responses to that one question.



Catholics in the mix

The secular/religious mixed marriage survey is now closed, and the data diving begins…

We ended up with over 700 respondents from 46 states, seven Canadian provinces, and 20 other countries. A lot of good, rich, in-depth answers that I’ll gradually dole out in the blog.

One interesting bit is the Catholic connection. According to the survey, the most common childhood religion for people in secular/religious marriages by far is Catholicism (22%) — more than twice the number of Baptist upbringings, which comes in second at 10 percent. The most common current identity for the religious partner is also Catholic.

Haven’t drilled down into the switching data yet, but I’ll bet many of the mixed couples were both Catholic when they married, then one fell away. That would fit the results of the religion-switching study the Pew Forum did several years ago — the Pew-Switching Study, as it were — which showed that 25 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are former Catholics.

Here’s a graphic representation of the Pew study (click to enlarge):

(Courtesy of Michael Spencer.)



Help bring the Timeline back from extinction

Screen shot 2013-07-24 at 4.19.48 PMCharlie’s Playhouse was a company that made cool, fun, unique, and scientifically accurate toys and other products related to evolution. It was founded and run by one of my favorite people ever, Kate Miller, along with her two young boys and “Charlie” Darwin.

But despite winning awards and high praise, the company’s sales didn’t keep pace with expenses, and Kate made the sad decision to close the doors a while back. “The four of us turned out to be great at product design but lousy at marketing,” Kate said. She decided instead to license out their products to other manufacturers.

51SPDXpmeNLMy favorite product from the Playhouse was the Giant Evolution Timeline, a long, laminated wonder that ran down the hallway of our house for several years. My kids would stop on the way to their rooms and run their fingers along this or that illustrated branch of evolutionary history. It was awesome.

Now Kate has announced that a company is interested in licensing the Giant Timeline, and is doing an online test of market interest. If they get enough pre-orders, the timeline will go into production!

There is no obligation, the first product is free, and no credit card number required. Now that’s hard to beat.

“This was always the dream,” says Kate. “Maybe if one kid’s evolution toy is generally available, then other companies will see there is a market and make some other stuff.”

Click through and take a look




A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

greenplusI’m going to spend over a hundred pages of the book looking at the specific problems and tensions that can arise when one partner is religious and the other is not and suggesting ways to address and overcome them.

Sometimes it just can’t be done — the negatives of the mix overwhelm the relationship and bring it to an end.

But in many cases, couples not only find their way through the challenges but can name specific advantages to marrying across that gap. The last chapter looks at those benefits, drawn mostly from a single open question near the end of the survey. I’ve been swimming in those answers all day today, and oh, the water’s fine.

The answers fall into about a dozen categories. I’m not going to get into the deets until the survey closes, but it’s really encouraging stuff — and a nice antidote to the long shelf of books claiming there’s nothing but grief in the mix.



Let no man put asunder

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

The secular/religious marriage survey wraps up in nine days. Just as I’m transitioning from general ‘interfaith’ marriage research to a tighter focus on the secular/religious marriage, my friend Laurie Miller Tarr shared this stunning photo with me — the tombstones of a Protestant husband and his Catholic wife, buried in the respective grounds of their faiths on opposite sides of a cemetery wall in the Netherlands in the 1880s.

Sad and lovely.




STATURDAY: Increase in ‘interfaith’ marriages

clintonPercentage of “interfaith” marriages in the U.S.

• Married in or before the 1950s:  20%
• Married since 2000:   45%

Intra-Protestant marriages (e.g. Methodist-Lutheran) not considered interfaith for this purpose. Riley, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part (Oxford 2013)



A bump in the fence line

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

I love finding out that a concept I’ve had in my head for years has a name.

Example: Someone dislikes all gays, then learns that his brother is gay. Instead of dropping the prejudice altogether, he will often grant an exception: “I don’t like gays, but Kevin’s okay.”

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell call this the Aunt Susan principle. Even people in relatively homogeneous families and social groups often (and increasingly) have an Aunt Susan or a “pal Al” who is different from the rest — a Jew among Christians, or gay among straights — and still a good egg. Granting the exception can be a first step toward dismantling assumptions and stereotypes, but it can also be a way of resisting that bigger step.

fencebumpToday I learned (from a great post by FBB’s Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard) that social psychologists have an even better name for this. It’s called re-fencing. Instead of tearing down the fence that separates us from a disliked or distrusted group, we build a little bump in the fence line to accommodate the one we know and love.

Re-fencing is a start, but it can easily become a form of “stereotype maintenance” rather than stereotype change. The key to helping someone move past this middle step, to encourage a more complete dismantling of the prejudice, Shoots-Reinhard says, is to “confront people with multiple instances of disconfirmation (like multiple friends coming out as atheist).” In time, hopefully, the fence becomes too curvy to stand.



In faith and in doubt

Wedding4A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

Saturday is our 22nd anniversary. For 13 of those years, Becca was a religious believer; for the past nine, she has not been.

Whenever someone learns that, the next questions are how and why she made that decision, and how much I had to do with it. The answer is simple: She became more curious about it, thought and read more about it, and changed her mind. Having a secular humanist around the house probably stirred her curiosity in a way it wouldn’t have been if we shared a faith, but I played no active, intentional part in the change.

I was reading a lot of Karen Armstrong and A. N. Wilson in the early 2000s, before the Four Horsemen had saddled up, and Becca began picking up the books herself as I finished. She also started tuning in to the conversations I would have with our kids as they worked through their own ideas. I noticed, but I don’t even recall that Becca and I talked much about it.

It was some time the following year that our daughter Erin, then 7, asked her point-blank if she believed in God. After a long pause, Becca said, “I don’t think there is a God…but I wish there was one.”

I had no feeling of having “won” anything. It was interesting to watch her make that transition, and there had been a few minor frustrations over our religious differences before, but I never needed her to change. I never for a moment needed her to be anything other than who and what she was. I loved and accepted her completely before, and I do now.

Becca’s 2008 post about her transition