Equality beyond belief

by Lindsay Shrewsbury

With equal rights for the LGBT community front and center these days, I felt the pull to expand on a recent Facebook post of mine (in reaction to the Supreme Court’s hearings on Prop 8 and DOMA). It’s a little bit human rights, a little bit religion, a little bit emotional, a lot of family and a lot of love.

I’ll never forget the day that my brother courageously came out to our parents. He called me on a Wednesday night; I even remember where in my kitchen I was standing. When I answered the phone I just heard crying on the other end. After a minute or two he was finally able to utter the words, in between sobs, ‘I told mom.’

The weeks and months immediately following were not easy for my parents; they were raised in a time and place and religion where it was taught that being gay was ‘wrong’. Fast forward seven years later to today: both of my parents have made huge strides in opening their minds and hearts, and choosing to support both my brother AND equal rights.

This morning my dad sent this email to my brother, it said ‘I watched the video Same Love…I support you in all of your decisions…I love you…Nothing will ever change that…Love, Dad’. I am so proud to call him my dad. He harbors no shame in who my brother is; he loves him so much, just the way he is. The world needs more fathers like my dad (and I’m happy to have married one of them – Steve!). I’m so proud of my dad + my brother.

I’m so proud of all this RED showing up in my news feed today – a statement that goes far beyond just being about equality. A statement of love and support for our fellow human beings. I’m optimistic about SCOTUS today and tomorrow. I’m optimistic that one day, my boys’ Uncle Davey will get to marry who he wants, wherever he wants…and I’m loving on the idea that one day, when my boys are of marrying age, they too will be able to marry who they want, wherever they want.

Cheers to amazing moms + dads + siblings + friends that so fiercely support their gay family members + friends – it takes your support + love to help others be confident in making the choice to come out + be themselves. You all amaze me.

The story, as most coming out stories go, goes far deeper than what I delved into via a short Facebook post. During those months following my brother’s coming out, religion and the beliefs that my parents were raised with came heavily into play. There was the day that my dad told my brother that ‘the devil was in him’ and that he needed to ‘get rid of his friends that had the devil in them’. There was the email that followed, addressed to my brother with a cc to me and my sister. In it, my dad said that my brother needed help and that ‘your sisters and I are praying for you.’ I couldn’t hit reply and type out my hasty, angry response fast enough: ‘You do NOT speak for me. I am NOT praying for him. I love him just the way he is. Please do not speak for me again.’

Where did my parents get these beliefs? Why did they take what the church taught them and turn it into a tool of judging and hate? If there is a god, did they not believe that hers was a message of love, compassion and acceptance? If they believed in a god that was judgmental and hateful, do I still respect them?

I had a hard time coming to terms with why and how my parents would believe such things. They are both compassionate and giving people. They are both college educated. They volunteer their time and money. My dad has one of the softest hearts known to human kind. How could he believe that his god would judge his son? How could he believe that his god would want my dad to judge his OWN son? I still don’t fully understand the rationale. And I probably never will.

What I do know is that my parents have both overcome this fear. They have evolved their beliefs and views. They have chosen to be free thinkers AND continue to stay involved with their church(es). I respect them for that. I respect that in a community where the majority is anti-gay, they choose to be the minority. They choose equality. They choose compassion. They choose to stand on the right side of love.

I now have 18-month old twin boys. One day I will tell them the story of my brother, their uncle, coming out. I will share with them the whole truth: the way that my parents reacted and where their reactions came from. I will explain how they chose to break the chains of fear and create a change in themselves that supported love and compassion. I will explain to them that no book or religion, no person and no group should sway their opinions and beliefs. Free from what I may teach them, free from what their father or grandfather or school teachers may teach them; free from any books or religions or public opinions. Free to be, have and experience their OWN thoughts based on what is right. What is kind. What is compassionate. And what is just.

I hope when and if any of my own sons come out as being gay, bisexual, transgender or anything in between, that there is no crying of fear on the other end of that phone call; I hope there would be no emotion of shame and I hope that not even one second would pass by wherein they believe that they have to hide who they are for fear of being judged.

I would hope that when and if we ever get that phone call that they call us out happiness and joyful anticipation to share the news; instead of an ‘I told mom.’ among painful sobs, I hope it will be an ‘I told mom!!!’ in ecstatic excitement.

Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

“Crashing the Party”

by Clare Wuellner, board member of Foundation Beyond Belief

I can’t remember where I read it, but sometime late last year, someone on-line posed the request: “Tell us about your non-theistic holiday traditions.”

Our family has Christmas covered. My in-laws do it up full-on Christian-style. Giant pillared house set on a giant yard nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Giant holly bushes be-speckled with screaming-red berries. Wreaths and lights in every window greet us. Inside, will be an entire dining room table covered with cookies and cakes. Lots of love and decorations and presents and extended family and traditions (yes, some involve giving witness to their deep religiosity), stacked up over more than a decade of Christmases. It’s the sort of thing every family should get to go home to, in their own way.

In high contrast, for the past twenty-something years Thanksgiving has been a jumble of miserable attempts at tradition. Thanksgiving was traditionally my parent’s shift on the holiday roster, so that meant it had to be messy. The best Thanksgivings were spent away from my parents. That only happened when we were lucky and getting home was just too difficult for one reason or another. We’d forgo the trip home, spend Thanksgiving with friends, and actually relax and enjoy a laughter-filled, loving holiday.

All that was supposed to change last year. My husband and I were excited for Thanksgiving to happen. At the beginning of summer—after having been married for nearly 50 years—my father left my mother.

Last year was supposed to be the start of a New Thanksgiving Tradition. One that I was looking forward to the same way I look forward to The Big Martha Stewart Christmas at my in-laws’ every year. Maybe even more.

It had been my mother who had made time with my parents untenable. With her out of the picture, we could finally enjoy my Father’s company. But that went away when I watched my Father’s chest fall for the last time on November 2nd. Continue reading

Posted in Holidays, Reflections | 1 Comment

The Life and Times of My Freethinking Family

by Jessica Kelton

My journey to Parenting Beyond Belief has been a long one, filled with questions, confusion, reason, logic, and finally—at least some degree of clarity. My husband and I have quite the task at hand in encouraging our children to embrace freethought and skepticism.

A little background on my history will provide some clarity. I was raised in what I call a “theistically neutral” home with parents whom were raised Catholic and reared in Catholic schools. They chose not to raise my brother and me as Catholics and we were largely left to our own to decide our beliefs. At 17, I entered a Church of Christ denomination that some of my friends had embraced, became baptized, and received an athletic scholarship at a small southern Church of Christ university. Looking back, I was essentially taken advantage of and brainwashed as a young adult at this college. I think of it as a breeding ground. It’s a whole different blog post! However, I married young (at the encouragement of the culture of the college) had two children, and divorced 6 years later. I often struggled with my belief and only stayed in the church for several years for a reason Norm Allen sums up quite well:

“I was constantly fearful of going to Hell. This is a tremendous—and totally unnecessary—psychological burden for children to have to bear. I strongly feel this is tantamount to child abuse, and no loving parent should encourage his or her children to embrace such an unconscionable belief.”

That being said, my children now spend half their time in a Christian home with their biological father, and the other half of their time in my husband and I’s freethinking home. Imagine the potential for confusion! My children, at the tender ages of 3 and 5, have already been spoon-fed Christian doctrine, which they often regurgitate all over our freethinking home.

What’s a freethinking parent to do? My goal is not to “convert” them to atheism. My goal is to teach them to think critically as they grow and encourage them to make sure their beliefs, whatever they may become, are based on thoughtful reflection, critical evaluation, and reason. By no means should their actions be the result of following one book, studying one creed, nor the eternal promise of heaven or unfathomable damnation or hell. At dinner last night, my five year old said, “God is real. I’m going to ask Daddy if he is, and if he says yes, you are telling a lie.” I said, “Sweetie, if someone told you that purple unicorns were real but you never saw one, would you believe them?” I try to encourage the importance of not believing everything someone says—a statement doesn’t equal truth.

In our home at holidays we often employ the use of vivid storytelling to describe the history of holidays, rather than stripping them of the fun of Santa and the Easter bunny. My husband created an entertaining act this year on the origin of Easter coming from the symbols of new life: eggs and Easter bunnies. When we sit down at the dinner table together, sometimes my children want to say a prayer they have memorized. I don’t stop them. But we do encourage them to thank the farmers who grew the food and the hands that labored in the kitchen. This encourages a dialogue of “Where did this vegetable come from?” “Where did this milk come from?” I much prefer this to the isolated, cumbersome—“God provides for us” dictation. It’s critical for children to be exposed to such logic and encourages them to embrace a wider worldview and understand why some people are not as fortunate as us.

Of course, I worry that if my children do choose to embrace logic and reason and think for themselves (and I hope they do!), they will find themselves “different” from their peers and subject to discrimination. No one wants to be that kid. I worry they won’t be invited to parties and sleepovers because their parents are atheists and don’t even know what that really means.

My biggest wish is that I instill in them a desire and responsibility to stand up for themselves, for what they believe in, as well as what they don’t. I hope that they have the courage to examine cultural taboos and make their own independent choices without being swayed by emotionality and the supernatural.

And if we come out in 20 years and have found different paths and varying degrees of belief, I’ll love and support them regardless, just as my parents taught me to do.  That’s the unending, complex and fulfilling joy of being a parent. In the end, I hope that families of all creeds can look at our amazing family, well-mannered children and not be shocked that we are nontheists, or even be able to use the term atheist so bluntly. Perhaps other parents that have rejected theism are able to see our family, and it gives them courage to “come out of the atheism closet” and experience the same liberation I have.

Posted in Coming out, Mixed marriage, Reflections, Religious literacy | Leave a comment

Christianity and the pressure to believe

by Lisa Morguess

My ten-year old son, Joey, announced to me a while back that he is atheist.  When he said that, it made me a little uncomfortable.  For some reason, it feels a little different to me to hear a kid say “I’m atheist” rather than just “I don’t believe in god.”  I’m not exactly sure why; maybe it’s the applying a label to oneself.

I really don’t believe that kids this young are old enough, mature enough, or worldly enough to apply any sort of label like that to themselves – mainly because I’m not convinced they really understand what it means.

To be clear, my husband (Jewish by birth and rearing, agnostic by belief) and I (atheist) have never, ever tried to instill in any of our kids our own beliefs with regard to religion, faith, or god.  We are open about what we each believe and why, but what we try to instill in them is healthy skepticism and critical thinking.  “Question everything,” we tell them.  “Don’t take anybody’s word for anything; think for yourself.”

So when Joey recently confessed that talking about god makes him uncomfortable, I was curious.  I asked him in what context – at home?  At school?  He said at school.  Often his friends talk about god and church and it makes him uncomfortable.  He feels like the odd man out, and suddenly he’s not sure what he believes.

I’m glad he’s questioning things, I really am.  But it’s made me realize that it’s possible that he (or any of my kids) might eventually adopt Christianity out of a sense of peer pressure – in order to fit in.  Because we live in the Bible Belt of Southern California – it’s a very conservative, predominantly Christian, right wing community.  At their tender young ages, a couple of my kids have already been told by their friends that it’s a sin to not believe in god, and that they will go to hell.  That pisses me off.

I’ve been asked by some of my own Christian peers if it would bother me if my kids grew up to be Christian.  I guess the truth is that yes, it would bother me.  To accept such big, profound “truths” that have no evidence to back them up – well, some people call that faith.  But the fact is that buying into Christianity requires a departure from rational and critical thinking.  In any case, if my kids make up their own minds and Christianity is the conclusion they come to, then of course I’ll have to accept it.  But I certainly hope it doesn’t come to pass as a result of peer pressure or wanting to fit in.

It’s very sad to me that kids even think about this sort of thing – god and hell and sin and all of that.  It robs them of some innocence, I think.  Kids should be able to get through the growing up phase of life with their exuberant curiosity about everything intact – without being burdened with thoughts about some invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful being who demands devotion and doles out favors and punishments at his whim.

I think religion and matters of faith should be matters for adults to contemplate.  Most adults wouldn’t think about inculcating their children with particular political party agendas, because we, for the most part, accept that political beliefs are beyond children’s understanding, and it would be ridiculous to pressure a child to identify him or herself as Republican or Democrat.  And yet, it’s a completely different story with religion.  I’ve never understood how Christian adults rejoice when a child “chooses” god, or “accepts” Jesus Christ.  Those children have been spoon-fed those beliefs from the time they were babies; there was never any choice in the matter.

It’s a confusing time for Joey.  He’s on the cusp of adolescence, so maybe his beginning to question a lot of things is to be expected.  When we had this conversation with him recently, I told him that the things his friends say about god are only things their parents and their churches have told them to believe, and that doesn’t make them true.  We told him that he doesn’t have to decide anything right now about god or anything else.  We told him that he has his whole life to think about it, and he may never decide, and that’s okay.

Posted in Coming out, Critical Thinking, Reflections | 1 Comment

An Evolution of Our Own Making

by Kimberly Hansen, from the group Parenting Beyond Religion

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For some among the ranks of humanists and atheists, their secular world view has been lifelong. But for many more of us, we have transitioned from a religious worldview, full of faith, ritual, and community, to a road much less traveled. And what a journey it can be.

My personal experience, through the tragedy of Pan Am 103, put me suddenly and squarely at odds with the faith I grew up in and the new reality of the world.

It was both a sudden and a lengthy process, but once I removed God from the equation I emerged into a world that finally made perfect sense. The flaws, the evils and tragedies lay plain as natural events and human foibles, completely understandable and expectable. Goodness became a source of encouragement and a noble, attainable goal. And the wonder of the natural, known world remained in all its unexplained glory. No need for the supernatural. A treasure trove of exploration, people in need, and endless possibilities abound to find meaning in our lives among the vast realm of reality.

Although our newfound freedom from supernatural thinking gives us a sound base and solid footing, this journey is largely socially unguided, and now our fellow travelers along the way are fewer and farther between. Here we are, emerging in larger numbers, together, yet spread apart around the world; secular free-thinkers, a small but poignant commonality uniting us. But most of us have left a larger social structure in well-organized communities full of support and resources to begin the climb at the bottom of the mountain to build new family and cultural foundations largely alone.

Lately I have come to realize the time we are living in is magical. Unlike the Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, we actually ARE living in the heyday of this new movement. We can not only read, but meet and talk with the intellectual giants who, today, are influencing this cultural shift. It is incredible, if you think about it.

I actually met Paul Kurtz, the Father of Secular Humanism, before he died. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, David Silverman, can be seen, heard, communicated with, if not in person through social media and the internet or their organizations. The wealth of content and ideas abounds. We have the capacity to be at the heart of it all, almost no matter where you reside. And we can contribute to it, unlike the Renaissance of art, philosophy and science that was left much more to greater minds.

We are living through an evolution of our own making. Negotiating this change, and trying to construct my own world view as an independent free-thinking adult feels as daunting as the idea of nation building. But it seems to me like this is the best time there has ever been to do it. And for my children, it is a worthwhile venture. I am encouraged to help grow and foster our new secular communities and meetups and to build camaraderie and support for each other as we forge a rational future for our children.

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To Cut or Not to Cut? Infant Male Circumcision

by Zachary Moore

I suppose it’s never too early to begin embarrassing my son, so I’ll take this opportunity to talk at length about his penis. I didn’t think it would be such a hot topic so early in his life, but even before he was born, the question was being posed to my wife and I by nurses, physicians, and other health professionals around us: “Are you going to have him circumcised?” I suppose it’s only fair to share in his embarrassment, so I’ll include my own humble anatomy in the discussion: like most males of my generation in America, my penis was circumcised. And it’s not something I’ve given much thought to until I found out that I was having a son of my own.

To my parents, and to my wife’s parents, there was no question – of course he’d be circumcised! After all, it’s “cleaner,” isn’t it? And don’t we want him to “look like daddy?”

To their shock and surprise, our answer to both questions was: “No.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement on circumcision reads thusly:

The AAP believes that circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages, as well as risks. The existing scientific evidence is not sufficient to recommend routine circumcision. Therefore, because the procedure is not essential to a child’s current well-being, we recommend that the decision to circumcise is one best made by parents in consultation with their pediatrician, taking into account what is in the best interests of the child, including medical, religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions.

In other words, the AAP doesn’t think circumcision is as scientifically warranted as, say, a Hepatitis B vaccine. But it also recognizes that many American parents feel strongly, usually as a result of vague cultural assumptions, that circumcision is a good thing.

Now, there is some evidence for a potential medical benefit from circumcision, but this has primarily been shown so far in populations at high risk for sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., men in Sub-Saharan Africa surrounded by HIV). Indeed, most circumcision worldwide is found among African Muslims, with only 30% of boys circumcised globally according to the World Health Organization.

In America that number is as high as 75%, and here circumcision’s popularity has more to do with 19th century medical anecdotes and Victorian antimasturbatory anxiety than good science, much to most people’s surprise.

The problem is that given my own phallo-anatomical limitation, the intact penis is something of a mystery to me. Although I don’t give a damn about having identical genitalia with my son, it does bother me that I’ll lack knowledge about his basic boy parts. If anyone has suggestions or insights for a circumcised dad raising an uncircumcised son, please do leave them in the comments here.

And, of course, If he regrets our decision, he’ll have our permission to rectify the situation when he’s old enough to choose it for himself. Something tells me, though, that he’ll probably be cool with it.

Posted in Reflections | 4 Comments

A Secular Easter, take two

by Amy Smith

Three years ago Easter Sunday we attended our church just as we did every Sunday.  Only this Easter was different.  This year we were sitting in the pews not as fully committed members but rather as silent doubters of the beliefs we had naively clung to for 33 years.

But we had begun the slippery slope of questioning.  A slope so slippery that after the big Easter extravaganza held by our church and the traditional post church potluck with our very Christ devoted family members, my husband boldly announced that he could no longer believe Jesus was raised from the dead.  There just wasn’t sufficient evidence to claim the resurrection as truth.  We’ve not set foot in a church since the moment those words came to life.

Fast forward three years and here we are approaching our second Easter as a fully secular family.  Holidays as a newly secular family are still difficult.  Easter brings with it the expectation of church attendance.  It’s the one Sunday that churches have an amped up anticipation of new followers of Christ.  They solidly prepare for this day because they know that Easter Sunday brings in mass numbers of saved and unsaved.  Even the least religious of Christians will find themselves inside church walls sat beside the hundreds of other Easter Sunday pew occupiers.  Easter service becomes a service of massive proportions.  Pancake breakfasts, onstage productions with live music, actors, and tugs at the heart, life changing messages from the pulpit, communion, and alter calls.  It’s an all day event with our families.  An all day reminder of how much Christ sacrificed  for us.

Well, what to do when one has made the decision to leave that life behind, when there is no pancake breakfast or three hours of church? What to do when that community of people is no longer your community of people?  Last year I think we just avoided the holiday all together.  We probably hid a few plastic eggs and called it good.

This year though, our boys are old enough to know that Sunday is Easter and with that knowledge comes the expectation that it’s a holiday to be celebrated.  We are ready to start our own Easter tradition.  One that lasts all day and is a celebration of our new life.  Our resurrection.

Easter will be a day when the six of us wake up and appreciate that we don’t need to buy a new Easter dress or wear a suit, we don’t need to fight the church crowds or busy restaurants, we don’t even need to go around pretending the Easter bunny is real and delivers eggs filled with candies.

Instead we’ll make our own pancake breakfast, we’ll sit in the knowledge that we love each other as we are and there is no expectation of conversion or change, we’ll celebrate the really great freedom that leaving religion has granted us, and maybe we’ll even have a super fun day of geocaching (a 21st century treasure hunt).

It was on Easter that our children became free to think for themselves.  Free to ask.  Free to seek.  Free to explore and find answers that fit.  Free to be who they choose to be instead of sitting in the belief that they are people in need of grace and salvation.  Free of a mandate.  Easter for us means freedom and that is definitely worth celebrating.

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Secular Easter

by Amy Scott

“When are you going to hide those eggs with jelly beans inside of them?”

“Is the Easter bunny going to bring us something for Easter?”

These are some of the recent questions posed to me by my 4 and 6 year old boys.  These questions haven’t exactly come at the easiest of times.  When picking my 4 year old up at preschool, juggling a baby on one hip and assisting him with his coat and hat, he inquires when those jelly beans are going to happen.  I had an impulsive and quick response, “soon, dear.”

Wait.  What did I just say?

Obviously, Easter has come to us before.  Last Easter was a blur as we were busy preparing ourselves for the any day now birth of our third child.  It just sort of passed.  The year before I vaguely recall buying some bunny related goods and the year prior to that I have actual pictures of dying Easter eggs with my then very young sons.

Not much has changed about my worldview in the last few years.  But, my sons are now a lot more conscious about the world around them.  They know things.  Things that I did not know when I was their age.  They know, for example, that we are a family that doesn’t believe.  And they know that there are many families that do.  They know that, in fact, nearly everyone they know lives in a family that practices beliefs of God.  And they know us to be “different.”  And we know they need to be respectful of others beliefs and we have to work hard to relay that to them, because to their little skeptical minds, believing in the supernatural is a bit, well, funny.

I grew up in a conservative Methodist Christian family attending a country church faithfully every week.  I had a great upbringing and the Christians I interacted with were good folks.  I can’t complain.  But, I did have a lot of questions.  Questions that were not exactly welcomed.  Questions that had answers that did not make any sense.  I didn’t lose my religion because I was abused by religion.  In fact, religion was a beautiful part of life until it wasn’t.  I lost my religion because I don’t believe the things that it touts.  I simply do not.  For a long time I wished I did.  I am well past that stage now.  The new stage I have found myself in is the gap between my peace of mind and the way the majority of the community we live in indoctrinates children (including, by proxy, my own) into the Christian world view.  I can’t exactly stop it, and I do my best to talk to my kids about it.  But with Easter, comes a quandary.

I’ve pretty much deduced that my kids want the following out of Easter:  Candy, Gifts, Treasure Hunts, and they don’t know they want this part but likely they would enjoy dyeing the eggs.  In that order, I believe this is their motivation for Easter.  This doesn’t support my very anti-consumerism/materialism beliefs so I’m actually really good with not handing them these experiences.

Still, that little voice inside me asks, ‘are you robbing your children of memories of Easter baskets, dyeing eggs, seeking treasures inside little plastic eggs that are hidden in our family home and yard?’  Because I had those things and my experience was good and my memories are wonderful.  So I thoughtfully answer it:  Maybe.  But, what I am giving them instead are memories of hikes in the wood over Easter weekend and a treasure hunt of searching for just the right leaves and just the right rocks to explore.  I can’t actually give my children the same childhood I had, because I am not indoctrinating them into beliefs of faith, but I can give them a great, secular, childhood.  A beautifully natural life, filled with hikes and caves and explorations of the Mississippi River.  I can give them these things that I did not have and I can give them a reason to celebrate every day, not just Easter.

So the next time that my 4 year old greets me with a question about religious practices when I’m shuffling papers and focusing on zippers I’ll try harder to tell him the truth, “son, we are going to have a wonderful weekend full of treasure hunts and family fun.”  And that is just what I intend to do.  Maybe I’ll even hide a few plastic eggs along the trail.

Posted in Holidays | Leave a comment

Share your story!

Do you have a secular parenting experience you would like to share with the PBB audience?

We’re looking for more guest authors for blog posts! Your post can be about anything related to your journey as a secular parent or family member. Parents Beyond Belief is meant to be a resource and a way of building community for secular families.

You don’t have to be an expert writer (or expert parent) to qualify. Posts are typically around 700 words, include a picture, and a link back to your webpage or group’s page.

Contact Rebekah or leave a comment if you are interested.

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Darwin Day 2013

Each year in early February or on Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, a global celebration of science and reason takes place. Is your group participating in any celebrations? Looking for an event near you? Check out the International Darwin Day Foundation’s event page.

If you’re looking for some resources in explaining evolution to kids, here’s a new video by Stated Clearly, “What is Evolution?”

For some additional resources/posts about Darwin Day, check out these past posts on our blog:

Posted in For the kids, Science ed | Leave a comment