Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

The Power of Two: How Shared Dissent Can Make All the Difference

 

First published in 2011, this article feels especially urgent in 2018. Erin is now a junior in college.

A few days ago, Erin, my eighth-grader, made me proud. That alone is not news. But in this case she showed courage in someone else’s defense, and when that happens, my shirt buttons grab their crash helmets and wince.

“Guess what happened today,” she said.

I gave up.

“I was at the table in the cafeteria with these three other kids, and two of them asked the other girl where she went to church. She said ‘We don’t go to church,’ and their eyes got big, and the one guy leaned forward and said, ‘But you believe in God, right?'”

Oh here we go. I shifted in my seat.

“So the girl says, ‘Not really, no.’ And their eyes got all big, and they said, ‘Well what DO you believe in then??’ And she said, ‘I believe in the universe.’ And they said, ‘So you’re like an atheist?’ And she said ‘Yes, I guess I am.'”

I looked around for popcorn and a five-dollar Coke. Nothing. “Then what??”

“Then they turned to meee…and they said, ‘What about YOU? What do YOU believe?'” Another pause. “And I said, ‘Well…I’m an atheist too. An atheist and a humanist.'”

She’s 13, old enough to try on labels, as long as she keeps thinking. She knows that. And she’s recently decided that her current thoughts add up to an atheist and a humanist.

“And I looked at the other girl, and…like this wave of total relief comes over her face.”

Oh my word. What a thing that is.

“Erin that’s so great,” I said. “Imagine how she would have felt if you weren’t there!!”

“Yeah, I know!!”

I’ll tell you who else knows — Solomon Asch.

The Asch experiment is one of the great studies in conformity. When you are alone in a room full of people whose opinion differs from yours, the pressure to conform is enormous. But when individuals were tested separately without group consensus pressures, fewer than 1 percent made any errors at all. The lesson of Solomon Asch is that most people at least some of the time will defy the clear evidence of their own senses or reason to follow the herd.

One variation in the design of the study provides a profound lesson about dissent. This is the one that Erin’s situation reminded me of. And it’s a crucial bit of knowledge for any parent wishing to raise an independent thinker and courageous dissenter.

In this version, all but one of the researcher’s confederates would give the wrong answer. The presence of just one other person who saw the evidence in the same way the subject did reduced the error rates of subjects by 75 percent. This is a crucial realization: If a group is embarking on a bad course of action, a lone dissenter may turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members to join the dissent instead of following the crowd into disaster. Just one other person resisting the norm can help others with a minority opinion find their voices.

This plays out on stages even larger than the school cafeteria. On April 17, 1961, the US government sent 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The idea was to give the US plausible deniability—barely plausible, but still. It was supposed to look like the exiles did it on their own.

Well, it did end up looking like that. The invasion was a mess of lousy planning and execution. Most of the 1,500 were killed or captured by a force of 20,000 Cuban soldiers, and the US government was forced to essentially pay a ransom of 53 million dollars for the release of the prisoners. And that’s in Mad Men dollars—it would be $510 million today. Cuba’s ties with the Soviet Union were strengthened, and the stage was set for the Cuban Missile Crisis six months later.

In short, it was a complete disaster. And in retrospect, that should have been obvious to those who planned it. But among President Kennedy’s senior advisers, the vote to go ahead had been unanimous. Why? It came out later that several of them had serious doubts beforehand but were unwilling to express those doubts since they thought everybody else was on board. It was the height of the Cold War, and nobody wanted to look “soft.” The climate of the discussions made real dissent too difficult to articulate, so a really bad idea went unchallenged.

The presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger was there for most of the discussions, and he later said that he was convinced that even one dissenter could have caused Kennedy to call off the invasion. ONE. He said he wished most of all that he had found the strength to be that dissenter.

At least Kennedy learned his lesson. During the Missile Crisis later that year, he made a point of fostering dissent and encouraging the collision of ideas among his advisers. The resulting policy led to the peaceful conclusion of what may have been the most dangerous crisis in human history (so far).

Many think that times of crisis and war are the worst possible times for argument and dissent. Hitler certainly thought so. He often said the mess of conflicting opinion in democracies would cause the Western powers to crumble before the single-minded focus of his military machine. He got the difference right but misdirected the praise. Military historians are pretty much agreed that the stifling of dissent in the Third Reich’s military decision-making was its fatal flaw. It was entirely top-down. Only if Hitler’s plans were flawless could that system be stronger than one in which ideas contend for supremacy.

So Montgomery and Patton’s pissing contests, MacArthur and Truman’s showdowns, and the constant whirl of debate among the Allies and even among the branches of the American service was a better approach to running a war than the single-minded dictates of dictators, from Napoleon to Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Crush dissent and you will most often end up shooting yourself in the foot. United We Stand is bad policy, even in wartime.

Dissent is often discouraged in the corporate world as well. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s research found that corporate boards that punish dissent and stress unity among their members are the most likely to wind up in bad business patterns. It’s corporations with highly contentious boards that tend to be successful. Not always—it depends on the nature of the contention—but when boards generate a wide range of viewpoints and tough questions are asked about the prevailing orthodoxy, they tend to make better decisions in the end. All ideas have to withstand a crossfire of challenge so the bad has a chance of being recognized and avoided.

A list of corporations with boards that valued conformity and punished dissent reads like a Who’s Who of corporate malfeasance: Tyco, WorldCom, Enron.

There’s something so counter-intuitive about all this. It seems on the face of it that uniting behind an idea or position or plan is the best way to ensure success. And it can be, if the idea or position or plan is good in the first place. And the best way to ensure that it is good is by fostering dissent from the beginning.

And “from the beginning” really means long before the meeting even begins — while the decision makers are still in the eighth grade cafeteria, learning to accept the presence of difference in their midst.

Had the other girl in my daughter’s story not mustered the courage to self-identify first as a person with a different perspective — in this case an atheist — Erin would have been statistically less likely to share her own non-majority view. Once the girl spoke up, Erin’s ability to join the dissent went up about 75 percent. And once Erin shared the same view, the other girl enjoyed a wave of retroactive relief at not being alone.

The other two kids also won a parting gift. They learned that the assumed default doesn’t always hold, and that the world still spins despite the presence of difference. They’re also likely to be less afraid and less astonished the next time they learn that someone doesn’t believe as they do, which can translate into greater tolerance of all kinds of difference.

A Bump in the Fence Line: One Step Further from Bigotry

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, gay among straights, atheist among believers — and still a good egg. Granting the exception can be a first step toward dismantling assumptions and stereotypes.

Multiple studies have shown that support for same-sex marriage is strongly linked to having close friends or family who are gay. It’s less a comprehensive change-of-heart than a willingness to accommodate someone in your own circle.

I learned from Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard  that social psychologists have an even better name for this kind of exception-making. 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.

It’s not always a positive thing. Re-fencing can also be a way of resisting that bigger step, a form of “stereotype maintenance” rather than stereotype change.

But it can be a start. 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.

Owning Einstein

One of the great games in the culture wars is claiming the good and smart for your team and pushing the monsters away. Picture Christian and atheist captains in a sandlot choosing basketball teams.

ATHEIST: Einstein, we get Einstein!
CHRISTIAN: No way, he used the word God!
ATHEIST: Well Jefferson then.
CHRISTIAN: You WISH!

And so it goes until only Hitler is left, standing alone in short pants.

The push-me-pull-you process is done by cherry-picking quotes, and Albert Einstein is the three-point shooter everybody wants. To complicate that, I’m including five excerpts from Einstein’s correspondence, adding up to a clear and nuanced picture by the end. We’ll start by picking the atheists’ favorite cherry, then keep moving around the tree.

Five excerpts from correspondence and interviews of Albert Einstein

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Letter of March 24, 1954 to a correspondent asking him to clarify his religious views [source]


I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

Letter to Guy H. Raner Jr., September 28, 1949 [source]


My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.

Letter to M. Berkowitz, Oct. 25, 1950. Einstein Archives 59–215.00


I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

From a 1930 interview with poet, writer, and later Nazi propagandist G.S. Viereck. [source]


The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.

In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism…With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

With friendly thanks and best wishes
Yours, A. Einstein

Letter from Einstein to author Eric Gutkind, Jan. 1954, in response to receiving Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.” [source]

It’s curious to see people like Einstein (and Sagan and Tyson), whose views are apparently identical to mine, framing atheism as something it almost never is –a position of absolute certainty — and rejecting the label on those terms. If theism can include strong conviction rather than certainty, atheism should as well. It’s an opinion strongly held for good reasons, not an immutable dogmatic claim.

At least Einstein makes his reasoning clear in these letters. You know, I’ll bet that puts an end to all of the confusion.

When Being ‘Out and Normal’ Mortifies the Kids

 

“Why did you do that?? Seriously Dad.”

It was late summer 2011, and we were driving back to Atlanta from the North Carolina reunion of Becca’s mostly Southern Baptist extended family. Even though we differ about as much as can be imagined in politics and religion, it’s a family I’m grateful for. It’s a real pleasure to watch each other raise families and get older.

As we drove, Becca and I did our usual post-game show in the front seat, with the kids chiming in from the back. At one point we hit on something that happened at dinner on the last night.

That’s when I learned that I had embarrassed my fifteen-year-old son.

“It was so awkward,” he said.

Ah. I really should have seen that coming. “I guess so. But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”

“But this didn’t break ice!” he said, exasperated. “It MADE ice!”

Though it’s almost never mentioned, my worldview seems to be common knowledge in the family. I don’t push too many points, but neither do I leave the lowest-hanging fruit completely unplucked. Most of all, I follow the advice I give in workshops: be out and normal. Act as if there’s nothing unusual about the religious and nonreligious sharing a world, a country, a family, a table, a marriage, a friendship. There isn’t, of course. What’s unusual is for religious people to know they are sharing all these things with nonbelievers, all the time. It’s a good opportunity to see that the world spins on.

Whenever I have to figure out whether and what to say or do this or that as an atheist among the religious, I tend to operate from that one principle: be out and normal. Things usually go just fine. Once in a while, though, I end up embarrassing the progeny.

After that last supper (stop it), the family patriarch, a good-humored Baptist minister in his 70s, gave away some prizes he’d brought with him — T-shirts, pins, that sort of thing. He asked everyone to write down a number between 1 and 100. We all did.

“Now,” he said, “what I didn’t tell you is that each of the numbers I’ll read off has something to do with me.” He smiled. “The first number is…73. That’s my age.” Woohoo, someone hollered, and won a T-shirt.

Next he called the first two digits in his address, then his phone number, then his Social Security Number, giving away prizes to the closest number for each.

Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.

It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.

“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”

I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.

When at last Uncle Bill raised his fingers to indicate the number he had chosen, I hoped that the family atheist was not the only one in the room who figured that a Baptist minister giving away a cross would choose the number 3.

But I was.

As I unfolded the paper and slowly raised it for all to see, a small gasp went up in the room, or in my head, I’m not sure which. Pastor Bill’s face went ashen, and he looked down, then up again, and sighed, then smiled resignedly. “Okay. It’s yours.”

Here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won by way of religious insight from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table with his Baptist cousins.

That I get.

Still, I can’t picture myself doing it differently — like not writing a number down, or taking Connor’s later advice — “You could have just not shown it!”

But I did show it. And I accepted the cross respectfully, praised the craftsmanship — it really is a striking piece — and later restored color to the pastor’s face by telling him I would give it to his devout sister in recognition of her 20 years as my mother-in-law.

Worth an awkward moment, I think — even if my boy would disagree.

Counting heads and changing attitudes

graphThanks for participating in the first mini-poll of several. These polls won’t form the basis for any actual conclusions in the book, but they’ll help me think some things through, including the wording for questions in the full survey coming in a few weeks.

Though people in secular/religious mixed marriages have always been a part of my audience, readership for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers (and this blog) skews significantly toward couples in which both partners are secular. Makes sense, since the books and blog are mostly about raising kids without religion. But even with that skew, 22 percent of the 509 respondents to this poll so far are in a secular/religious mixed marriage.

You can roughly double that number that once you get outside of the PBB skew. Religious intermarriage has been rising steadily for a century, from 26 percent of all US marriages begun in the 1910s to 45 percent of marriages begun in the past decade.1 And nearly half of all married nonreligious Americans currently have a religious partner.2 (This comes as a big surprise to many nontheists I talk to who are convinced that secular/religious marriages are simply impossible.)

The increase in religious intermarriages parallels an overall increase in acceptance of the idea. About 60 percent of those who reached adulthood in the 1930s felt that shared religious beliefs were “very important” for a successful marriage. For those who became adults in the 1950s, that dropped to 50 percent. And for those who came of age in the 1990s, that feeling plummeted to 23 percent.

If you believe some of the terrible books I’m currently reading on interfaith marriage, this change in attitudes is a disaster. Many of them, including recent titles by decent publishers, bang the drum of religious uniformity as a vital component of a successful marriage. Scratch the surface and you find that many or most of these are actually more concerned about their religions than about the marriages. And it’s true — religious intermarriage has had a deleterious effect on the cohesiveness and retention of many religious traditions. But the effects on marriages, though real, are seriously overstated in the literature. (More on all that later.)

The rest of the mini-polls, like the full survey itself, will be directed at those who are currently or formerly in secular/religious mixed marriages. I will also be creating a form to submit your own stories of dating, marrying, raising kids, and dealing with extended family across that religious/secular gap.

Thanks for your help with this.

————————–

1Cited in American Grace (Putnam and Campbell, 2010), from Gen. Social Survey
2Faith Matters survey (2006)
3World Values Survey, 1982 and 1990

Help me find the right word

photo[2]

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
MARK TWAIN, Letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888

Well into the writing and research for my book on religious/nonreligious marriages and ready to start blogging it a bit. As I did with Atheism For Dummies, I’ll be looking for your help to chew on some ideas. If you give me even half of the terrific input you gave last time, I’ll be grateful. It really helps.

Right now I’m looking for the perfect, concise term to denote the marriage of religious and nonreligious partners.

I can pretty much guarantee we’re not looking for an existing word, at least not one used in this context. We’re going to need a new coinage here, or at least a repurposing. The term should denote this kind of marriage without including other mixes, such as marriages between adherents of two different religions. For that reason, “mixed marriage” and “interfaith marriage” don’t do the trick, though they are useful for the larger categories.

The ideal word would be concise — four syllables is an absolute max for a single word, maybe five for a two-word term. And even though its meaning doesn’t have to be obvious at first glance, it would be nice if it didn’t rely too much on knowledge of ancient Mediterranean languages to make sense.

If I introduce the term up front in the book, I can then use it in place of long, tedious phrases (“When couples in which one partner is religious and the other is nonreligious…”). The new term might even make it into the title, who knows. In any case, if you coined it, you’d certainly get a loud shout in the Acknowledgements.

So help me find le mot juste here. Help me find the lightning.

Q&A: Black youth in secular families and the black church experience

Black-churchesQ: I am a white mother with two fantastic African American sons who were adopted from the foster care system. I have some guilt assocated with being a nonbeliever and not exposing my sons to the culture of the traditional Black church. On the other hand, I worry that if I take our sons to a church of that nature, that they will fall prey to fear-based beliefs that could hold them back in life. I suppose I am just not 100% sure that I am doing the right thing by them. What do you think you would do in my situation?

A: This excellent question is outside of my own knowledge or experience, which is my cue to defer to those better grounded in the topic.

Nonbelieving black parents confront the same question you’ve raised, of course, so I spoke to Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, board member of Foundation Beyond Belief, and a mother of three.

“There is often a misconception that [the Black church experience] is something that all Blacks must embrace, which is simply not true,” Thomas said. “My suggestion is if the boys do not express an interest in attending a Black church, then don’t make them go. So it isn’t something that she HAS to expose to her sons, unless they ask her. Then it would be fair to take them to a service for the experience.”

Author and activist Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson notes that the black church is not a necessary element of the black experience for all African Americans, though there is a common misconception that it is. “Despite high-profile sex abuse and financial scandals, the Church is still perceived as the ‘backbone’ of the black community,” she writes in Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011). “[But] the notion that there is a ‘marching in lockstep’ black religious community is outdated,” she adds. And for all the community and identity benefits found in black church communities, there are also troubling downsides of involvement, especially for kids. Hutchinson cites the overwhelming opposition among many prominent black churches to marriage rights for gays and lesbians as a “morally indefensible” position with which many others in the African American community, including black atheists, strongly disagree. She goes on to cite regressive gender attitudes and other undesirable messages frequently woven into the black church.

So it seems that there are at least as many pitfalls as advantages in connecting them with the black church, and that most of the advantages of cultural connection can be had by other means. I strongly recommend you pick up Sikivu’s book, which addresses many of these issues brilliantly. But as Mandisa Thomas suggests, going with them to an AME or other traditionally black church — not as regular members, but on occasion, as part of their religious and cultural literacy — and talking about it afterward, can be a valuable experience.

Finally I spoke to Ayanna Watson, an attorney in New York and founder of Black Atheists of America, who offered alternative ways to expose young African Americans to their cultural heritage.

“While the church is extremely influential, there are ways to get around it,” she said. “She can most certainly take her children to events that are outside the church. While the influence of religion will still be there, it will likely not be as much. Some examples include museums, art exhibits, performances, and plays. If she has not already, she should make sure she has plenty of books/online articles that she can proffer to her children discussing prominent members of the black community. Black nonbelief is nothing new, it’s simply a topic that is often avoided by the masses. By exposing her children to these individuals and instilling (and reinforcing) critical thinking skills, I would think she would be fine.”

Atheists of color – a list (Greta Christina)

(Submit your own question for the blog)

Coming (Religiously) Unglued: How the American Church is Blowing Its Lead

The religious shall inherit the earth.
Last sentence of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann

Between his titular question and confident answer, Kaufmann lays out his reasons for thinking recent gains of secularism and liberalism in the developed world will gradually be reversed, an argument captured in an article of his that’s currently meming its way around.

The arguments are brutally simple: (1) Children tend to adopt the religious identity in which they were raised; (2) The religious have more children on average than seculars; and (3) The more conservatively religious they are, the more children they tend to have.

All true.

Now I’ve rather enjoyed the progressive achievements of the last 50 years and was looking forward to more. But math says no. As long as the assumptions in those statements remain unchanged, we’re stuck with a more conservative and more religious future, even in the developed world.

Fiendishly clever, that Darwin fella.

I’ve seen it suggested with varying degrees of seriousness that secular progressives need to get busy indoctrinating their kids and having more of them. I’ve already written at length about the misguided lunacy of the first idea and will again soon. But the second one is a particular knee-slapper. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories! We have fewer kids for good reasons, thangyavurrymush, including the desire to focus parental attention on fewer kids, financial constraints (including the high cost of education), awareness of population issues, and access to family planning resources. We’re not going to reverse that sensible progress to win some fuzzy demographic struggle by pumping out more puppies.

Fortunately we don’t have to go into Shockley mode after all, in part because…well, because it’s a weird and creepy suggestion, first of all, but also because the assumptions underlying Kaufmann’s work are shifting on their own, and by a lot.

A Pew study from 2009 on “faith switching” included an under-reported finding that the glue of family faith is losing its stick. While just 7 percent of respondents 65 and older have ever left the faith in which they were raised to become unaffiliated, that number rises to 13 percent for those in their 30s and 40s and 18 percent of those currently under 30. That’s 18 percent who have already left religion at a pretty darn young age. Doesn’t even count those millennials who will leave in their 30s and 40s — numbers already available for the older brackets.

Another assumption shift: Kaufmann points to the high religiosity and birthrate of recent immigrants, especially Hispanics, as a key driver. But the birthrate of US immigrants drops dramatically once they are here — presumably as they and their children gain more of the advantages listed above, including improved access to family planning resources. And as the Pew study shows, they are much more likely with each generation to dissolve the glue that holds them to their family religion.

Finally, it’s silly to think an increase in diversity is ultimately going to make us more conservative. The increasing nonwhite slice of the American pie has a strong progressive effect that overwhelms the residue of family-of-origin conservatism for everyone. Conservatism thrives on sameness. The more we are surrounded by genuine difference, the less able we each are to cling to fantasies of the One True Faith or the master race. It’s harder to keep the cartoons in place when you are cheek-and-jowl with real people of other cultures, creeds, and colors.

Here in my Atlanta suburb, for example, which a generation ago was easily 95 percent white conservative Baptist, my five most immediate neighbors are from Indonesia, Turkish Armenia, Korea, India, and Ukraine. Last week, my daughter’s Saudi-born fourth grade teacher taught her students how to write their names in Arabic. This is Atlanta, folks. And the same thing is happening pretty much everywhere I go.

So when you see articles like Kaufmann’s, relax. The picture is much more complex and promising than a simple birthrate analysis suggests. And rather than throw out our own family planning, do the obvious — support family planning for everybody.

As for religious identity, it’s becoming less of an automatic inheritance, thanks in large part to the churches themselves, which are falling over themselves to alienate their young folks and succeeding at an incredible rate. If we want to help the process of dissolving that glue, there’s no better way than creating a happy, normal place for those leaving religion to land and thrive.

Missing church

Quick coda to yesterday’s post.

Peer-reviewed research is great when you can get it, but a lot of the questions at the heart of my work fall in the remaining gaps between studies. Until those gaps fill in, I have to find other ways of ferreting out the answers.

I’ve long been interested in what people get out of going to church. I attended long enough myself and know enough churchgoers to know that one common answer — “they go to stay out of hell” — is a cartoon. True for some, but not for most of the churchgoers I know.

To find out, you can ask them directly, and I do. But in the category of You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone, you can sometimes get even better answers by asking former churchgoers what they miss about church. Sometimes I do this in person; sometimes I turn to the Goog.

A search for quoted phrases like “I miss about church,” “I miss most about church,” “I miss from church,” “I liked most about church,” and so on doesn’t turn up a lot of people missing the idea of God or heaven. Some, sure. But mostly they’re missing exactly what the Wisconsin/Harvard study said they were getting out of it in the first place: community, connection, purpose, inspiration, personal growth, support.

Listen:

What I miss about church is the feeling of community

I always left feeling inspired to be a better person

The only thing about church I miss is the instant community support 

I miss the opportunity to have a good sing

I miss joining with others to do good

I miss the feeling of belonging that I had

I miss the feeling of connection and common purpose

I miss feeling a part of something greater than myself

The fellowship and feeling of community is about the only thing I miss about church

Volunteering gives me the same satisfaction I once derived from church, a feeling of connectedness to my fellow man

Not all of us miss all of those things equally, and some of us don’t miss any of them one bit. Tom Flynn’s recent piece titled “Why Seculars Don’t Sing” gives articulate voice to the latter, even as its title overreaches on two counts, and by miles. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But a lot of entirely secular people do feel a certain sense of loss when they leave church, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with God or worship.

As a movement, we often act as if church is about God, period. If we can just pry people away from that delusion, goes the reasoning, they’ll walk away whistling. When we grasp that it’s mostly about something else and start building meaningful secular alternatives that go waaaaay beyond the intellectual, I think we’ll be amazed at how quickly God takes a powder. Until then, we really don’t deserve a bigger slice of the cultural pie. Fortunately there’s all sorts of recent action in this area, from Volunteers Beyond Belief to the Humanist Community Project at Harvard and an ever-greater focus on community and mutual support among local groups.

So if you were once a churchgoer: What if anything do you miss, and have you found good secular alternatives? What do you see as the greatest need?

6000 days

Part 3 of 3.
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The aim that the child should grow up to become confidently independent is synonymous with the aim that the child should grow up mentally healthy.
Psychologist John Bowlby (1956)

We’re born with brains wired up for the Paleolithic, not for the world as it is today. We’ve developed better ways of knowing and controlling the world around us, but the fears and behaviors that protected us in that era — fear of difference, hypervigilance, out-group aggression, love of clear categories and authority, magical thinking — are still with us, even though they’ve now become either pointless or dangerous.

I want to help my kids let go of those fears so they can have a better life.

Religious and social conservatism are symptoms of those fears, reactions to the problem of being a Stone Age human. For the half of the planet still living in marginal conditions, that problem is mostly unsolved. For the rest of us — thanks to agriculture, germ theory, separating our drinking water from our poop, the scientific method, and a thousand other advances, we’ve made some serious progress. And that partial solution has made all the difference, freeing us up to live better lives than we once did.

I want my kids to get that very good news.

Education, experience, and parenting take a child from Stone Age newborn to modern adult in about 6,000 days. Or so we hope. In addition to shoe tying, the five-paragraph essay, algebra, good oral hygiene, the age of the universe, the French Revolution, and how to boil an egg, there’s something else we need to help them learn, or better yet, feel — that life is better and you have more control than your factory settings would have you believe.

At a convention five years back, author/filmmaker (and Darwin great-great-grandson) Matthew Chapman was asked why Europe rapidly secularized after the Second World War while the U.S. remained devout. He paused for a moment. “Honestly,” he said, “I think socialized medicine had a lot to do with it.”

Not the answer we were expecting.

For most of the history of our species, he said, we’ve been haunted by an enormous sense of personal insecurity, and for good reason. The threat of death or incapacity was always hanging over us. Religion offered a sense of security, the illusion of control. Once the states of Europe began to relieve some of those basic fears, people began to feel a greater sense of control and security, and the need for traditional religion began to wane.

Whether that’s the whole answer or not, I think he’s on to something here. Traditional religion is driven by human insecurity. I have a good number of friends and relations in the deep and toxic end of the religious pool, and I can’t think of one who truly jumped in unpushed. Some were born into it and raised to believe they couldn’t live without it. Other experienced some kind of life crisis resulting in a terrifying loss of control that pushed those ancient buttons — and they jumped in with both feet.

I feel immense empathy for these people — even as their beliefs make me nauseous.

I also have many friends who genuinely chose religion instead of needing it. And lo and behold, these folks tend to end up in more liberal expressions, doing little harm and a lot of good. They aren’t hostages to their innate fears. In fact, they have a lot more in common with me than with the people hyperventilating and clinging to Jesus in the deep end.

I really don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by using these 6,000 days to give them not just knowledge but also confidence and security.

Turns out we know how to do this. You start with a sensitive, responsive, and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them.

These aren’t off the top of my head, you know — they’re straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory and authoritative parenting, about which more later. Bottom line, the best practices for nonreligious parenting are in sync with the best practices for…parenting.

Now isn’t THAT nice.

We may have to contend with a lot of noise in our culture and even our own extended families, but when it comes to raising “confidently independent, mentally healthy” kids, the best current knowledge is on our side. And our additional hope of keeping our kids in charge of their own worldview decisions comes along in the bargain.

Conservative religious parents have to close their eyes and swim hard upstream against this research consensus, following James Dobson et al. back to the Paleolithic. But liberal religious parents, who share most of my parenting goals, have the same advantage I do. They can even claim one of the foremost advocates of attachment theory as their own — William Sears, a sane and sensible Christian parenting author who opposes almost every major parenting position of James Dobson.

I bang on and on about how and why to let our kids intersect with religion. They’re good and important questions. But every one of those questions rests on the much more fundamental question of confidence and security. Build that foundation first, and the rest is icing.