‘IT’S A … BOOK!’ Launching Book (Almost) Nothing Like Having Baby

Book cover

They say launching a book is like having a baby.

They are wrong about that.

Because blood, that’s why. And pain. And your mom pacing anxiously outside the door to the maternity ward because the nurses had been SO RIDICULOUSLY CONFIDENT that yours was going to be a brief labor — so confident they even talked you into letting the goddamn epidural run out, rather than refilling the bag — and now it’s been 30 minutes (THIRTY FREAKING MINUTES!) and no adult has come out of the room yet, and no baby has cried, and your mom is going to have a full-on panic attack if they don’t open that door, like, now.

Launching a book is not like that.

Then again, if you look at the whole thing a little more poetically and a little less literally — goddamn poets, always making things so not literal —  it is kind of like having a baby.

Because I made it, that’s why. And because so much anticipation goes into the darn thing.

Looking back on it, I’m not sure which scared me more — the idea of childbirth or bookbirth. The gestation period was certainly a shit-lot longer for the book. Four years! Which even my kid will tell you is a dumb amount of time to work on any one project, much less a writing project. “It takes me, like 15 minutes to write a book!” she once told me. “TRY HAVING A BABY!” I wanted to yell. But didn’t. Because that would have been completely irrelevant, that’s why.

February 2014: Still in the "gestation" period. This is what "getting organized" looked like in my world.

February 2014: Still in the gestation period. This is what “getting organized” looked like in my world.

Publishing a book is daunting. You have to stop writing it, for one. You have to be okay with it not being even in the vicinity of perfect. You have to be willing to handle negative reviews and deal with rejection gracefully and bravely put yourself out there in a hundred-thousand different ways. You also have to speak in public. That’s the part that made me want to not finish writing this book more than just about anything. (In that way, the possibility of success scared me even more than the possibility of failure.) I even considered joining Toastmasters but ultimately decided I was more of a trial-by-fire gal. I’m still not over my fear of public speaking, but the fire is starting to burn, and I haven’t run for the hills yet — so that’s something. [Read more...]

4 Reasons I’m Glad I Came Out as an Atheist

I wrote this for AlterNet, but it also ran in Salon (tweeted out under a ridiculously inaccurate headline) and is slated to run in the next issue of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s newspaper, Freethought Today

Jim Morrison Coming out of any proverbial closet can be hard. For those of us who have hidden part of our identities from people we know and love, finally revealing that thing can be daunting. Fear and anxiety, no matter how ungrounded, have a way of clutching our hearts.

When I decided four years ago to write a book aimed at secular parents, I knew that it would require that I disclose my atheism to my friends and family. My own parents were comfortably secular themselves, which no doubt made the task a whole lot easier. But I had plenty of other loved ones who felt strongly about their faith and would surely be offended or uncomfortable with my stance — not to mention worried about my daughter’s eternal soul. So I definitely felt that sense of coming out of a closet.

I took a few days to send a bunch of e-mails and make a few phone calls. And while no one disowned me in the process, the revelation did hurt some people I love, at least a little. And that made it hard.

But now, four years later, I can candidly say that, for me personally, being “out” has been one of the most surprisingly gratifying choices I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

1. It turns out I really enjoy shattering people’s assumptions. I don’t fit the media’s stereotype of a non-believer — who does, right? — so it’s nice to be able to spread the “good word” that atheists, agnostics and other “nones” are just as likely as the next guy to be engaging people, good parents and involved community members. I particularly enjoy slipping my atheism into conversation with religious people who already know and like me; it forces them to confront any stereotypes they might have. Always a good thing.

2. I like religious people more now. When I was closeted, it was way too easy to sit back and become preemptively resentful. I sometimes felt a little pissed that others were “free” to share their views while I had to keep mine to myself. I assumed, as many do, that people’s reactions would be negative if I were to inject my views into these conversations. But once I was out — and because I only brought up my atheism in truly neutral ways, not as a point of conflict — the reactions from religious people have been overwhelming positive. Some quietly disapprove, sure. But, in my experience, religious people have been, outwardly, very lovely about my lack of belief. (As lovely, incidentally, as I am about their belief.) They don’t insult me or shy away from me. They don’t avoid the subject (well, some do, and that’s okay!) or make snide comments. They don’t try to change me. And with every positive experience I have, I am more open and less judgmental of “religious people” myself.  I find that the more open I am about myself, the better I feel about the people around me. [Read more...]

Religion Lost 7.5 Million Americans in Two Years—But Why?

Abandoned Pews 1Sometimes it seems like America is hemorrhaging religion.

According to the 2014 General Social Survey, 7.5 million adults—about 3 percent of all adults in this country—severed religious ties between 2012 and 2014. Think of that. In 2012, these folks checked a box identifying their religious identity as “Protestant,” “Catholic,”  “Jewish,” “Muslim,” — or some other religious group. Then, just two years later, they marked: “no religion.”

So what gives? Why the sudden switch?

The short answer is that no one knows for sure why Americans are abandoning the pews. But, likely, it is a combination of factors. A perfect storm of religion-undermining elements.

Barry Kosmin, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and author of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), observes that religious convictions fluctuate on a societal level in direct relation to a perceived need for external comfort. It’s the reason “comfortable” people tend to be less religious than those whose lives are in chaos. Kosmin cited affluent Japan, where some 84 percent of the population claims no personal religion, versus impoverished Haiti, where the figure is 1 percent.

“The more your life is helpless,” he told me, “the more you look for external assistance.”

But the economy is not the only factor in religion’s losses. [Read more...]

A ‘Religious’ Book U.S. Kids Aren’t Reading — But Should

A little over a year ago I interviewed British philosopher and author Julian Baggini, who wrote a fantastic book for kids called Really, Really, Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion (2011, Kingfisher). While I found it at my public library, it’s not one you’re likely to run across in major book stores. While very well-received in Britain, the book has flown largely under the radar here in the United States. And that’s too bad for us — because it’s a great starting point for kids ready to explore religious issues.

Each section of the book seeks to answer a question that could easily come from a child. The questions include: What is religion? Can we criticize religion? Should we fear God? Why do people worship? What if there is no God? Does religion cause wars? Do I have a soul? and What should I believe?

Great questions, right?

Big Questions

The answers are equally compelling, mostly because Baggini — himself an atheist — writes from a perspective that is, as he puts it, “basically, genuinely open-minded.” The book differs from faith-based books of its ilk in two main ways. First, Baggini constantly urges children to make up their own minds about how to answer these questions and what to believe. And, second, he makes clear those who don’t believe in any religious notions live perfectly happy, fulfilling lives.

It’s that second point that makes this book so special — and so important. It’s also the reason that the British have embraced it more than Americans; the British are far more secularized as a nation than we are.

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion is part of a series and, therefore, was not conceived by Baggini, who has no children himself. Still, the straightforward tone and broad knowledge he brings to the project is perfect for kids.

One of the more interesting aspects of our conversations centered on the notion of interfaith dialogue. Although the idea that people of varying religious backgrounds can come together and cooperate with each other is a lovely and refreshing and progressive in many ways, “interfaith” repeatedly fails atheists and agnostics. Sometimes there is an illusion that we secularists are involved in these dialogues, but we’re not. Not really.

Julian Baggini“Multi-faith isn’t really open-minded,” Baggini says, “because the (central focus) is that we should be religious in some way.”

Make no mistake: Baggini’s book is not exclusively for nonreligious kids. It’s appropriate for all kids and all families. There is no bias against faith, just as there is no bias against non-faith. The book takes an approach of true compassion for all. And that, Baggini says, is because there is still so much mystery in the universe. Why paint a picture of “truth” when some truths cannot be known.

“Some of us are going to turn out to be wrong,” he says, “and some of us are going to turn out to be right.”

In the meantime, let’s be nice to each other.

While some parents stumble through those first conversations about religion, it’s the basic questions — Who is God? What is religion? — that may require the most attention. Baggini theorizes that Culture Wars could be tamped down considerably if  people would simply stop defining certain concepts so narrowly.  The term religion, for example, means so many different things to different people, he says. “Part of the reason atheist-vs.-religious debates aren’t very fruitful is because there is too narrow of a view about what religion is.”

In making it clear that these terms are wishy-washy at best, then we leave plenty of ideas open to interpretation by the children who are exploring them for the first time.

“You’re too young to settle on the view that you’ll have when you’re an adult,” Baggini says, “but that’s no reason not to start thinking about this.”

Baggini is the author of many books on philosophy, including The Pig that Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (2006) and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His new book, just out, is called The Shrink & The Sage: A Guide to Modern Dilemmas. You can follow him on Twitter at @microphilosophy.

Remembering Back to My Blogging Days… Last Week

I have started at least six blog posts in the last week and have published precisely none of them. Because my book. That’s why. Dumb book. Stupid book. Always-getting-in-the-way-of-other-stuff book. But, listen up: I  am really truly gonna try, very soon, to step up my game and put out some stuff that isn’t a) just a bunch of self-promotional bullshit, b) completely unrelated to secular parenting, or c) one big excuse for being lame. No, really. I am. Starting, like, tomorrow or something. Which I know is super helpful to you.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to read, look around Patheos! There are lots of people writing stuff worth reading. Like here — where Ryan Bell goes Head to Head with a Christian blogger over whether faith requires a “personal God.” Or here —where Epiphenom digs deeper into that Slate store about religious people taken more risks. Or here — where Dale McGowan shares his thoughts on the “reconciliation” of the Bible and evolution.  All these people? They’re blogging. Which is just what bloggers are supposed to do.

Oh! By the way, I have a book coming out. Did I mention that? Here’s what it looks like. It’s cute, right?FullSizeRender-2

You can totally buy it, too. Yep, it’s one of those sellable kinds. Nothing but the best for you guys.

Watch Me on Dateline! (I Mean, If You Want To)

NBC Dateline

Me being super-interesting, which you can tell by Keith Morrison’s furrowed brow. Oh wait, no. He pretty much looks like that all the time.

I’ll be appearing in a two-hour segment of Dateline NBC tomorrow (March 6) at 9 p.m. , when the show will recount — with what I can only assume will be copious amounts of dramatic music and heavy-handed voice-overs — the murder of Lynn Schockner, a Long Beach (California) housewife who lost her life in a murder-for-hire plot in November 2004.

I covered the murder trials (yes, plural) as a reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and eventually wrote a story — “A Tale of Abuse and Murder” — recounting the abuse of both Lynn and her son at the hands of her husband.

A sad but fascinating case.

With nothing whatsoever to do with religion.

Sorry, Patheos. Shameless self-promotion is so fucking boring, isn’t it? But seriously do tune in. All of us involved in the show will be live-Tweeting about it, too, which should be fun. Come join!

Here’s Keith Morrison’s promo on the segment. Man is that guy broody!

Quick! What the Hell is Purim?

I always think of the Bible as sort of dry reading — difficult to understand, weighted down by archaic language and vague descriptions, full of stories that just kind of go on and on. But, of course, that’s not always true.

And it’s especially not true in the Book of Esther.

Reading more like a Shakespearean play, the 10-chapter Book of Esther tells one hell of an intriguing story. It’s a story of honor, greed, deception, justice, irony, death and triumph. There is a clear beginning, a clear ending and even a climax and denouement. And, on top of it all, it’s a relatively quick read.

All this is good new for any Bible reader, but it’s fantastic news for our Jewish friends because, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrants are asked to read the entire story of Esther aloud. Twice.

Purim begins tomorrow — March 4 — and continues through sundown Thursday.

So without further ado, here it is, your friendly neighborhood Cheat Sheet to Purim.


Jason Gewirtz has a good wife who bakes good Hamantaschen.

Holiday: Purim

Pronounced: POOR-im

Date: Purim falls on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew Calendar.

Celebrates: The escape of Persian Jews from extermination sometime around the 4th century BCE.

Religion Represented: Judaism

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Purim is maybe a 6 or 7, says my friend Jason Gewirtz, who acknowledges that Purim is pretty much the most kick-ass of all the Jewish holidays even though he, himself, suffered some childhood trauma around Purim. (Something about having to wear a cute little beard in a Purim play when he was 4. Sounds ghastly.)

Star of the Show: Esther

The Back Story: Purim’s back story (which comes to us courtesy of the Book of Esther) is one of my all-time favorites, and reads a lot like a melodrama — which is exactly how Jews treat it. The villain of the story is the Persian king’s advisor, Haman (BOO! HISS!), and the two heros are Esther, the queen, and her cousin, Mordecai — both of whom are Jewish. The story is absolutely wonderful. And if you know it, you’ll pretty much know everything there is to know about Purim. For your reading enjoyment (or not), I’ve included my version of the story HERE.

Associated Literary Passages: The Old Testament’s Book of Esther, and the Babylonia Talmud: Tract Megilla.

Why Feminists Should Love Purim: There are precious few Biblical stories that put a woman front-and-center and show her taking heroic actions. Not only is Esther willing to “out herself” as a Jew to save her people, but the king respects her boldness and advice so much that, by the end of the story, she’s calling virtually all the shots. You go, girl.

The Food: The most Purim-est of the foods is Hamantaschen, a pastry shaped like Haman’s three-corned hat. “Leave it to the Jews to develop a snack based on the hat of the villian Haman,” Jason quips.

The Fun: Celebrants read the story of Esther twice during Purim — once at sundown, and again the next morning. They give away food, donate to the poor and, of course, engage in some serious feasting and drinking. In fact, the Talmud literally demands that Jews get rip-roaring drunk at Purim. No shit. The Babylonian Talmud states, and I quote, “Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” How’s that for an excuse to party?

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This is a no-brainer, really. Just tell your kid the story! Either put it in your own (age-appropriate) words and tell it as a bedtime story, or check out a Purim picture book from the library. My favorite is Queen Esther the Morning Star by Mordicai Gerstein, but Queen Esther Saves her People and The Story of Esther: A Purim Tale also are good. You can also look online for videos about the story of Purim; Sesame Street has a good one. And I found this website with some very funny Purim-centered puppet videos and a slide show, among other things, that would be great for kids ages 8 to 12 or thereabouts. That and Hamantaschen, and you’re good to go.

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012

6 Types of Secular Parents: Which Are You?

Types of Secular ParentsHow do you address religion with your kids?

While researching my book, I discovered six “methods” most commonly employed by secular parents. I had many sources for this research, including my own survey, but the most helpful was the work of a researcher named Christel J. Manning, who launched the country’s first academic study into nonreligious parenting in 2005 and then wrote about her research in the Sociology of Religion in 2013.

Here are the six approaches, along with pros and cons:

1. Returning to religion for the ‘sake of the kids.’ Some parents, particularly those raised in religious environments, believe the benefits children can glean from religious participation outweigh their own personal misgivings. (Or at least that’s what they tell themselves to avoid showdowns with Grandma!) Although there is an undeniable degree of comfort in raising kids the same way you were raised, doing so is disingenuous. There’s simply no integrity in indoctrinating kids into that belief system that no doesn’t make sense to you personally. You are living a lie, and teaching your kids that assimilation is more important than truth.

 2. Indoctrinating kids against religion. This is the flipside to No. 1 — and yet it’s no more advantageous. When religion is presented as something to be avoided at all costs, parents not only remove a child’s ability to decide for herself what belief system is right for her, but they fail to teach their kids that smart, reasonable people sometimes follow religious paths, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are an anti-religious atheist, employing this strategy may seem to be the most “honest” approach — and you may be right — but you run the risk of creating a bigoted and prejudiced child, rather than a tolerant and kind one.

3. Outsourcing religious instruction. These parents enroll their children in, say, Hebrew School or Catholic catechism classes — while remaining completely nonreligious at home — all in the hopes that the children will learn what they need to know from there. The advantage, of course, is that you can remain true to yourself while still allowing your kids access to religious information. Unfortunately, when you outsource, you have no control over (and limited knowledge of) what your kid is learning. And you guarantee that they receive instruction about only one religion. Plus, you risk confusing the kid, who will no doubt struggle to understand why school provides one set of facts while Mom and Dad provide another. [Read more...]

‘Can Kids Be Good Without God?’ Are We Still Really Talking About This?

MoralityIn case you’re interested, the Los Angeles Times will be hosting a live video discussion tomorrow centered on the question: “Can kids be good without God?” Phil Zuckerman, a super-bright secular studies professor who is promoting his book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, will be joining Patt Morrison for the discussion, which will take place at 11 a.m.

Zuckerman recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Times titled “How Secular Family Values Stack Up,” where he revealed the many virtues of raising kids in secular homes. The piece was read and enjoyed by a wide audience (myself included!), but apparently sparked some debate on the site, too, specifically in regard to the fact that secular kids are just as moral (and sometimes more so) than religious kids. So the Times is now exploring the issue a bit more.

That’s all good, I suppose. But I have to say that this whole “morality-isn’t-tied-to-religion” thing is starting to feel like the new “evolution-is-true” debate. And by that I mean: It’s not a fucking debate.

I don’t know anyone personally who believes that godless people are immoral. Why? Because it’s so ridiculously obvious. Examples to the contrary are everywhere — in studies, yes, but also right in front of us. Human history is full of moral atheists.

Take William L. Moore, a postal worker and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) member who staged lone protests against racial segregation in the 1950s and ’60s. He was murdered on his final protest in 1963. Atheist. [Read more...]

What the Hell is Lent and Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food.

The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Today is Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans is having one hell of a street party today. Most Catholics (and a whole lot of secular people, too, says Tim Grobaty, the gin-loving humor columnist at the Long Beach Press-Telegram) will be getting their  ya-ya’s out because tomorrow is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks,
swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here’s the low-down on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins. In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily. [Read more...]