Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Screwing with Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote a terrific book. Loved it the first time I read it, then read it twice more. And the more I read it, the more I liked it. Just super.

Not everyone feels the same about this book. Some were so disturbed by what he wrote that they cut whole passages out before its publication. Most people didn’t get to read the book in its complete and original form until 1958, when the excised passages were restored.

What? No no, not that Darwin book. I’m talking about his Autobiography.

Darwin sat down to write his autobiography in May 1876, “as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult,” he added, “for life is nearly over with me.” He apparently knew this from a line on the title page he had just written: Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Chills.

The idea to write a sketch of his life came from Julius Victor Carus, a zoologist in Leipzig who had translated the Origin into German and needed some bio-bits from Darwin for an encyclopedia entry. Ten years later, Darwin decided to write “recollections of the development of my mind and character,” driven in part by realizing “that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather [Erasmus Darwin] written by himself, and what he though and did and how he worked.”

He also said he thought the attempt at such a thing “would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.” Ironic, since it was one of his children who was to serve as the slicer-dicer of Charles’s recollections, and one of his children’s children who made it whole again.

The Autobiography first appeared publicly as part of Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis, a.k.a. Frank, and published in 1887.

Dear Frank is our villain in this tale, his father’s own Lord Braybrooke. But the more you learn about why Francis Darwin did what he did, the harder it is to fault him too thoroughly. Unlike Braybrooke’s flaying of Pepys’ Diary, Frank acted out of primary concern for the reputation of the author, his father, and the strongly expressed wishes of his mother Emma. Usually an author’s desires are plenty clear — he or she wrote the words he wanted included. But there was some disagreement about whether Darwin ever intended to publish his Autobiography, which does complicate the sorting of intent.

It got nasty. In the five years between Darwin’s death and the publication of the Autobiography, the Darwin family tore itself up over what should appear and not appear in the book. At one point, one wing of the family considered suing the other.

So Frank did his best. Then 71 years later, with the principals in the original fight all safely dead, his niece did better.

In its original unbuggered form, the Autobiography was a genuine page-turner, full of the kind of keen observation that made Darwin Darwin. Instead of the natural world, Darwin’s eye and mind are turned on himself and those around him, as well as the sometimes agonizing and deeply honest development of his own opinions. He says both flattering and unflattering things about people living and dead and expresses opinions both kosher and heretical.

In its buggered form, Darwin is an undiscerning dodderer. He likes everybody and everything just fine, especially those alive at the time of publication. (That’s right — in an interesting reversal, the dead are the only ones of whom Frank allows his dad to speak ill.) And the wonderfully complicated ebb and flow of his opinions on religion is reduced to a hazy, misleading mumble in favor of the status quo.

Fortunately for me, it was Nora’s edition that reached me first, which is probably why I read it more than once. But I wasn’t fully aware of its tortuous history until much more recently.

Portrait of a Book-Buggering

1573928348An incredible ability to pay attention may have been Darwin’s defining characteristic. This was the guy who found it possible to study barnacles for eight years straight. That superhuman ability to observe and notice was surely the reason he was able to figure out the puzzle of natural selection. And as a result of this well-honed ability, the original Autobiography is just bursting with sharp observations of the people around him.

Sir Frank’s version? Eh, nassomush.

I’ll focus on four of my favorite passages from the original. First there’s Darwin on himself, a childhood memory:

About this time [age eight], or as I hope at a somewhat earlier age, I sometimes stole fruit for the sake of eating it; & one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, & was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighbouring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather large flower-pot, & by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches & plums, which fell into the pot & the prizes were thus secured. When a very little boy I remember stealing apples from the orchard, for the sake of giving them away to some boys & young men who lived in a cottage not far off, but before I gave them the fruit I showed off how quickly I could run & it is wonderful that I did not perceive that the surprise & admiration which they expressed at my powers of running, was given for the sake of the apples. But I well remember that I was delighted at them declaring that they had never seen a boy run so fast!

That fun bit of Charlie candor was entirely cut, lest the world learn that he picked fruit that wasn’t his when he was eight.

He had this to say about Charles Lyell, one of his greatest influences:

Charles_Lyell2

Charles Lyell

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. On such occasions, while absorbed in thought, he would throw himself into the strangest attitudes, often resting his head on the seat of a chair, while standing up. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Frank removed the best part of that one – Lyell’s quirk with the chair. See how it reads without that:

On my return from the voyage of the Beagle, I explained to him my views on coral-reefs, which differed compared to his, and I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the vivid interest which he showed. His delight in science was ardent, and he felt the keenest interest in the future progress of mankind.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzngk.

In one long passage, Charles offers incisive character sketches of a half dozen colleagues and friends:

brown

Robert Brown

[Scottish botanist Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy. He was rather given to sneering at anyone who wrote about what he did not fully understand: I remember praising Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences to him, and he answered, “Yes, I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books.”

Oh, snap!

owen

Richard Owen

I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer, who was a charming man, had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day,” and so it has proved.

hooker

Joseph Hooker

At a somewhat later period I became very intimate with [botanist Joseph Dalton] Hooker, who has been one of my best friends throughout life. He is a delightfully pleasant companion & most kind-hearted. One can see at once that he is honourable to the back-bone. His intellect is very acute, & he has great power of generalisation. He is the most untirable worker that I have ever seen, & will sit the whole day working with the microscope, & be in the evening as fresh & pleasant as ever. He is in all ways very impulsive & somewhat peppery in temper; but the clouds pass away almost immediately. He once sent me an almost savage letter for a reason which will appear ludicrously small to an outsider, viz. because I maintained for a time the silly notion that our coal-plants had lived in shallow water in the sea. His indignation was all the greater because he could not pretend that he should ever have suspected that the Mangrove (and a few other marine plants which I named) had lived in the sea, if they had been found only in a fossil state. On another occasion he was almost equally indignant because I rejected with scorn the notion that a continent had formerly extended between Australia & S. America. I have known hardly any man more lovable than Hooker.

i9610-wd

TH Huxley

A little later I became intimate with Huxley. His mind is as quick as a flash of lightning & as sharp as a razor. He is the best talker whom I have known. He never writes & never says anything flat. Given his conversation no one would suppose that he could cut up his opponents in so trenchant a manner as he can do & does do. He has been a most kind friend to me & would always take any trouble for me. He has been the mainstay in England of the principle of the gradual evolution of organic beings. Much splendid work as he has done in Zoology, he would have done far more, if his time had not been so largely consumed by official & literary work, & by his efforts to improve the education of the country.

He would allow me to say anything to him: many years ago I thought that it was a pity that he attacked so many scientific men, although I believe that he was right in each particular case, & I said so to him. He denied the charge indignantly, & I answered that I was very glad to hear that I was mistaken. We had been talking about his well-deserved attacks on Owen, so I said after a time, “How well you have exposed Ehrenberg’s blunders;” he agreed and added that it was necessary for science that such mistakes should be exposed. Again after a time, I added: “Poor Agassiz has fared ill under your hands.” Again I added another name, & now his bright eyes flashed on me, & he burst out laughing, anathematising me in some manner. He is a splendid man & has worked well for the good of mankind.

herschel

Sir John Herschel

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to. He was very shy & he often had a distressed expression. Lady Caroline Bell, at whose house I dined at the C. of Good Hope, admired Herschel much, but said that he always came into a room as if he knew that his hands were dirty, & that he knew that his wife knew that they were dirty.

That priceless passage, including some of the best available portraits of these guys, was reduced by Frank Darwin to this yawny blob of paste:

[Robert Brown] was capable of the most generous actions. When old, much out of health, and quite unfit for any exertion, he daily visited (as Hooker told me) an old man-servant, who lived at a distance (and whom he supported), and read aloud to him. This is enough to make up for any degree of scientific penuriousness or jealousy.

I may here mention a few other eminent men whom I have occasionally seen, but I have little to say about them worth saying. I felt a high reverence for Sir J. Herschel & was delighted to dine with him at his charming house at the C[ape] of Good Hope & afterwards at his London house. I saw him, also, on a few other occasions. He never talked much, but every word which he uttered was worth listening to.

Gah!

Finally, a passage that captured the personality of two major figures of the time and illustrated one of the human foibles Darwin disliked most — the craving for status and glory:

buckland

Rev. Wm Buckland

All the leading geologists were more or less known by me, at the time when geology was advancing with triumphant steps. I liked most of them, with the exception of [geologist and minister The Very Rev. William] Buckland who though very good-humoured & good-natured seemed to me a vulgar & almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science. He was not, however, selfish in his desire for notoriety; for Lyell, when a very young man, consulted him about communicating a poor paper to the Geol. Soc. which had been sent him by a stranger, & Buckland answered — “You had better do so, for it will be headed, ‘Communicated by Charles Lyell’, & thus your name will be brought before the public.

murchThe services rendered to geology by Murchison by his classification of the older formations cannot be over-estimated; but he did not possess a philosophical mind. He was very kind-hearted & would exert himself to the utmost to oblige anyone. The degree to which he valued rank was ludicrous, & he displayed this feeling & his vanity with the simplicity of a child. He related with the utmost glee to a large circle, including many mere acquaintances, in the rooms of the Geolog. Soc. how the Czar Nicholas, when in London, had patted him on the shoulder & had said, alluding to his geological work — “Mon ami, Russia is grateful to you,” & then Murchison added rubbing his hands together, “The best of it was that Prince Albert heard it all.” He announced one day to the Council of the Geolog. Soc. that his great work on the Silurian system was at last published; & he then looked at all who were present & said, “You will every one of you find your name in the Index,” as if this was the height of glory.

The whole passage was cut. Everything.

I could go on and on. Over two dozen passages like these were cut out of the Autobiography, draining much of the color and humanity out of Darwin’s self-portrait.

The reason we know what was cut is that granddaughter Nora Barlow painstakingly listed the formerly excised passages in the back of her 1958 edition, about which more shortly. I do understand Frank’s impulse, even though all of these people were dead at the time of publication except Huxley. But I am terribly grateful for Barlow’s work.

It wasn’t the character sketches that put the Darwins at each other’s throats, though. It was the question of whether Charles Darwin’s description of the development of his own religious doubt should see the light of day.

Hiding Darwin’s Religious Opinions

I had a passing knowledge of evolution in high school. Better than the average bear, but still sketchy. I majored in physical anthropology at Berkeley not for the dazzling job prospects but to fill in that sketch.

In addition to changing and deepening my understanding of what it means to be human, a fuller grasp of human evolution led me to wonder how traditional religion could in any significant way be made to fit with what we now know. (See earlier post.) And I remember wondering what Darwin thought about that.

He was seriously religious as a young man, even trained for ministry and annoyed his Beagle shipmates with fundamentalist pronouncements. If, after the Galapagos and the Origin and The Descent of Man, Darwin was still a conventionally religious man, I knew I must have really missed something. So I picked up Darwin’s Autobiography in my senior year to find out.

Nora Barlow

If I’d picked up the 1887 edition by his son Francis, published five years after Charles died and reissued many times since, I’d have been puzzled but chastened. He doesn’t get into religion much at all in that one, and when he does, he seems to mostly affirm his ongoing conventional beliefs. And I would almost certainly have never looked further.

Fortunately it was the 1958 edition by Charles’s granddaughter Nora that found me. As mentioned above, Nora restored the bits that the earlier edition had expunged under pressure from Charles’s wife Emma. Nora was able to do this because all of the family members who’d nearly come to blows over what to leave in and what to leave out were now demised.

If I’d read the first edition, I might have imagined a man with religious convictions essentially intact. Some side-by-side passages, with cut passages in red:

FIRST EDITION (1887)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted.

RESTORED EDITION (1958)
I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. [It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.]

A 12-page section titled “Religious Beliefs” underwent the most vigorous edits. The bracketed red text was omitted from the first edition:

During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. [But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.]

It’s sometimes fascinating to see what Emma insisted be struck out and what she allowed in. She bracketed a portion of the following passage for deletion — the red below — but allowed the admission of disbelief in the first part:

I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress [and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.]

It’s not even his conclusion but the strength of his confidence that apparently unnerved his wife. As for the damnation, she wrote in the margin

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief–but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there).

Tho’ the words are there. And 130 years later, the damnable words in the Bible are still there. Some books dodge the red pen more easily than others.

Francis oversaw an even more abbreviated 1892 American edition in which the entire 12 pages exploring Charles’s religious beliefs are replaced with a single bracketed fib:

[After speaking of his happy married life, and of his children, he continues:]

Jaysus. That Ninth Commandment is always the hardest.

Yet if you look hard enough, in all but the God-Bless-America edition, you can find one quiet sentence in which Darwin was allowed to clearly state his actual theological conclusions. Like Huxley, he utterly rejected belief in the claims and doctrines of Christianity, but said

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

The distortion of Darwin’s views continued for years. One of the most galling attempts was by Lady Elizabeth Hope, an evangelist who published a fabricated story in 1915 claiming to have heard Darwin renounce evolution and embrace Jesus on his deathbed. Francis redeemed his editorial self brilliantly. “Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publicly accused her of falsehood, but have not seen any reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., pp. 304–317,” he wrote to a publisher in 1918. “I was present at his deathbed,” said Charles’s daughter Etty. “Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. …The whole story has no foundation what-so-ever.”

Etty’s niece Nora eventually put the pieces back together, but the genie never goes all the way back in. Several of the bestselling versions of Darwin’s Autobiography on Amazon are still the Francis Darwin edition.

Thanks for trying, Nora.

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.

The Southern Baptist cafeteria

An ongoing series of posts while I’m writing In Faith and In Doubt, a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

trayA few weeks ago I wrote about the difference between official Catholic doctrine and the actual beliefs of most Catholics. Later on I’ll write about the wide variation in nonreligious beliefs. Today it’s a quick peek in the Southern Baptist cafeteria.

There’s a Southern Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas that holds the Letter of Baptism for my wife Becca. She was willingly baptized into the church as an adult in 1990, the year before our wedding, with her fiancé in attendance.

She was not a Mainline Protestant when we married — by affiliation, she was a Protestant Evangelical. If she ascribed to every piece of the denomination’s creed, the Baptist Faith and Message, we could still easily have been friends, but I doubt we would have dated, much less married. She agreed with many elements of that creed, but the Baptist Faith and Message includes a few important things that I was pretty sure Becca wouldn’t ever have endorsed, any more than I would endorse every tweet of Richard Dawkins.

I printed out the BF&M and asked Becca which of its positions she remembered holding true at that time, and which she would have rejected. Here’s a sample of her response:

She believed there is only one God and that he is perfect, all-powerful, and all-knowing. But she never believed that man brought sin into the human race by disobedience, nor that “as soon as [people] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

She believed that Christ was the son of God, but not that he was born of a virgin, nor that salvation is available only through him achat cialis.

She did not agree that “all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”

She did believe that baptism is “the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus,” as well as a testimony to “faith in the final resurrection of the dead.”

But she didn’t believe it is “the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ” to evangelize others to the faith.

She agreed that “Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice,” “work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick,” and “do all in their power to put an end to war.” But she did not agree that homosexuality is a form of “sexual immorality,” that Christians should “speak on behalf of the unborn,” nor that the strict definition of marriage should be “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

One of the statements of the Baptist Faith and Message that surprises outsiders (and insiders, come to that) is clear support for church-state separation. “Church and state should be separate,” it says, and “the state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind.” She agreed.

As for marriage and parenting, she never believed that it was her place to “submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” nor that she had “the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

The contents of her cafeteria tray made her a perfect representative of the Evangelical Left, who affirm the basics (atonement, incarnation, resurrection) but reject the conservative social platform of the evangelical churches.

The moral of the story? Aside from the God-and-Jesus theological frame, my own tray of humanist values and beliefs wasn’t all that different from Becca’s. And when she dumped theology off her tray nine years ago, most of her values stayed put.

The cover

I really wondered what direction the publisher would go for this cover, and once again, the design team at AMACOM Books did me proud.

IFAIDcoverEvery cover design process gives me hives. So far they’ve all turned out really well: The non-praying mother-child hands of Parenting Beyond Belief, the curious kid on Raising Freethinkers, the solo questioner on Voices of Unbelief, and the nautilus on Atheism For Dummies… So many ways to go wrong on these topics, and every time they’ve gotten it right.

But for this one, I didn’t even know what to recommend to them. How do you capture the religious side of the topic without evoking a specific religion? How do you depict the nonreligious side? I didn’t want any cheese-bag thing like one person standing outside of a church, holding hands with someone inside. I wanted something that included people without being heteronormative. Racial diversity. Positive. Interesting. Something that evoked warmth and affection and normalcy without being boring. Some reference to parenting would be good, since so many of the issues relate to that.

I gathered my notes over the course of several weeks. Then suddenly my editor sent the cover you see here, saying, “Here’s the jacket. I hope you like it!”

Wha…here’s the jacket?! My heart sank. I steeled myself to roll back a creative process that had already run its course without me.

I clicked on the attachment…and fell in love.

Crafty buggers. They skirted the questions about depicting religion by not depicting religion, or irreligion. You don’t have to — it’s in the title! It never would have occurred to me to do that, which is why design is best left to designers.

It’s interesting, fun, warm, informal, personal, affectionate. The anonymity is awesome. Didn’t get racial diversity, but it’s at least deniably heteronormative.

I’m happy. Onward.

Engage paddle drive!

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

paddledriveEver pedal a paddleboat? No you haven’t. No you haven’t, because the pedals on those damn things are attached to nothing. It’s like the DOOR CLOSE button on an elevator, or the pedestrian crossing button — just there to make you feel relevant to the outcome. Forward progress in a paddleboat is a fluke, more to do with random currents or the Butterfly Effect than anything you’re doing.

But you tell yourself you had fun, and that the other side of the lake didn’t look that interesting anyhow.

The first half of every book project feels like that to me. Then the paddles catch. Funny thing: no matter how long the contract is, it happens right around the halfway point. I had about 20 weeks to write Atheism For Dummies, pedaled like a sumbitch for the first ten weeks, then caught a nice tailwind in the eleventh week.

I have a year for this one, 52 weeks. Last week was Week 27…and yesterday the pedals actually engaged the paddles, and I’m flying across the effing lake.

It won’t last, but for now, woohooooo!

STATURDAY: More inclusive, period

diffThe Riley survey (conducted for Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part) asked married respondents to choose between the following statements:

1. It is better for everyone involved if a married couple have the same religion.

2. What really matters is that a married couple have the same values regardless of their religion.

An overwhelming majority (79 percent) chose #2.

This apparently irritates the author, who was after all writing a book saying mixed-belief marriage is a bad idea. So having sampled the public opinion, Riley then derides it: “Americans…are not willing to put religion ahead of ‘common values,’ a more inclusive-sounding phrase.”

No, it’s not “more inclusive-sounding” — it’s more inclusive, kind of period. And putting “common values” in scare-quotes doesn’t change that.

It’s encouraging to see so many people, including religious believers, agreeing that common values can be found outside of a single tradition. That’s why successful mixed-belief marriages are much more common than Riley and other proponents of same-faith marriage would have you believe.

The Chill Grandma

grandmaContinuing to plow through the survey data, and I’ve come across a surprising result that relates to extended family.

Of the four sides of our own extended family, one is gone, one is a mix of secular and religious, and two are very religious in belief and practice. Yet Becca and I have experienced very little interference or pressure regarding religion or our kids’ upbringing.

I’ve always assumed that was a rare and lucky thing. Some of the stories I hear from nonreligious parents make my toes curl. Shunning, tirades, threats, using kids as a wedge, pitting one family member against another, I’ve heard it all.

But if the survey is any indication, our situation may be lucky, but it isn’t uncommon at all. When asked to identify any sources of tension or conflict in their secular/religious marriage, just ten percent of respondents identified “Extended family pressure, actions, or concerns.”

Ten percent.

I actually started wondering about this last year when I asked people in one of my secular parenting workshops to raise their hands if they’d experienced pressure or conflict from religious extended family. In a crowd of about fifty, maybe 7 or 8 hands went up. Curious, I asked the same thing in the next workshop. Same result.

Given my work, you’d think I would already have had a clear view of the issue. But my skewed perception results from something I’ve mentioned before called the news paradox. You hear about something terrible on the news, or in your inbox, and you think it’s something to worry about. But the fact that it’s on the news means it is newsworthy, which in most cases means it’s rare and you don’t have to worry about it. Car crashes happen every day, so they don’t usually make the news. Plane crashes are rare, and we hear about each and every one in graphic detail. So we race down the freeway, risking a very common death, but fear air travel, the safest of all major modes.

I get a constant stream of emails from secular parents struggling with extended family issues, but I almost never hear from parents saying, “Grandma’s still being great about the religion thing. Thought you’d like to know.”

For those who do experience it, extended family pressure can be a huge and important problem, and the book will address ways to manage such pressure and conflict productively. But it’s good and important to put it in perspective, especially if that can help people to be less fearful of entering a secular/religious mixed marriage.

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.