Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr?

Ramadan… is… over. And you know what that means: 30 days without food, drink, sex and everything else worth living for has finally — FINALLY! — come to end for millions of Muslims around the world. This is a huge accomplishment which deserves a huge party, which is exactly the purpose of Eid ul-Fitr.

I have to say, and I’m not trying to be flippant here, I don’t know how marriages, friendships or even business partnerships stay together in Islamic communties. I get so seriously bitchy after going hungry for only an hour or two, I cannot imagine maintaining even basic civility after 12. I would be one of those Ramadan-ragers, for sure. (And just think of the 200,000 Muslims who live in Sweden, where it’s light 18 hours a day in the summer? THOSE POOR PEOPLE!)

On the other hand, and no offense to Catholics, but Muslims make Lent look like child play. They’re going to give up one stickin’ thing in the name of Jesus — and THEY EVEN GET TO CHOOSE IT? Nuh-uh. No way. I’m calling shenanigans. Plus, tons of Lent-observers just use it as motivation to diet anyway. (By a show of hands, how many people do you know who give up chocolate or fatty foods for Lent? I rest my case.)

Anyhow, all’s I’m saying is you have to hand it to those crazy sons-of-bitch Muslims for hanging in there for a whole month. For showing just how selfless a person can be. Even if they do cheat once in a while.) Muslims deserve this party, and I hope they’re having the time of their lives. Eid Mubarak, everyone!

Holiday: Eid ul-Fitr (pronounced: EED uhl-FIT-er)

Literal Translation: “Festivity for breaking the fast”

Religion Represented: Islam

Not to be Confused With: Eid al-Adha

Date: The first day of the Islamic month of Shawwal

Celebrates: The end of Ramadan

On a Scale of 1 to 10: A solid 10

Back Story: Ramadan is considered the holiest month because it was during Ramadan that Allah was said to have first contacted the prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an, as a result, makes direct reference to Ramadan and its rituals. Every year, from the first sight of the waxing crescent moon until the the last sight of the waning crescent, Muslims throughout the world remember what Allah is said to have told Muhammad about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. While the Qur’an never mentions Eid ul-Fitr, it was a holiday celebrated by Muhammad and is considered (by most) as just as holy.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

The Food and Fun: In many ways, Eid ul-Fitr is a lot like Christmas. Everyone wears the best clothes they own (and often receive new clothing as gifts). They decorate their homes, cook huge feasts and exchange presents. Sometimes feasts will be laid out on rugs in front of houses, so people can wander from one home to the next, trying out a little of everything. In this way, Eid creates a communal atmosphere, where the fortunate and the unfortunate mix together. Giving to the poor and unfortuante is not only emphasized, it is required. Charity is carried out in numerous ways. Some give money, others time. It is customary in many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to put together baskets of food and leave them on people’s doorsteps, or buy gifts for children and then hand them out in the streets. Here are some pictures from this year’s Eid.

The Prayer Service: Eid services are always held in huge outdoor venues, which ensure that many people can come together (again, very communal.) Muslims are required to bathe (cleanliness is extremely important in Islam, to the point where bathing facilities are often included in mosque design), dress in their finest clothes, wear perfume and arrive early at the worship service (waiting is considered a virtue.) Weather permitting, Muslims walk to the service while reciting the following: “Allahu-Akbar, Allahu-Akbar. La ila-ha ill-lallah… Wa-lilahill hamd.” This translates from Arabic as: “Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest. There is no god but Allah… And all praises are for Allah.”

Then comes the prayer service. Here’s a video to show you what that looks like.

Watching the video made me fascianted with Muslim prayer rituals — all those hand movements and bowing and so forth. I found this great little video, narrated by an Islamic child, which shows “how to pray.” Watch and learn!

Conveying Meaning to Kids: I think showing both these videos (or others like it) would be a good start; maybe even make it a game: Who can memorize the prayer positions the fastest. Kids love learning secret handshakes; seems to me this is not a whole lot different. Honestly, I think one of the best thigs we can do in our own Islamaphobic country is to familiarize our kids with Muslim people — their dress, their beliefs, and their rituals. Also, don’t forget to check out the books I mentioned here.

Curious about other religious holidays? Check out the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents!

Raising Critical Thinkers Means Letting Our Kids Criticize Us

We’ve all heard the cliche about letting kids rule the roost. Countless books, TV shows, teachers (neighbors, in-laws, airplane passengers…) repeatedly instruct us to set strict rules, limitations and boundaries for our kids. They tell us this is the key to good parenting. They insist we demand courtesy and respect, and not allow them to display anger, disappointment or frustration “inappropriately.”

Largely because of these influencers, we start putting our kids in time-outs for talking back, or being unkind. We become infuriated when they speak to us in voices dripping with sarcasm and defiance. We remind ourselves that if our kids don’t respect us now, then they won’t respect us ever. And if we fail at asserting our authority, even for a moment, we are screwed.

Yet, amidst all this traditional authoritarianism, we have the gall to tell our kids it’s important to think for themselves, to question what they hear, to value their own opinions, to assert their independence. What’s more, as nonreligious parents, we rely on their critical thinking skills to spare them from brainwashing, propaganda and indoctrination.

Our real message becomes: “Question authority… Just not mine.”

Linda Hatfield, parenting coach and founder of Parenting from the Heart, says the the only way to truly empower children is to let them challenge our decisions and opinions — and win. When we use punishment, shame, guilt, bribery and rewards, she says, not only do children lose valuable self-esteem and miss out on excellent opportunities to think things through — but the parent-child relationship is damaged (which breeds a whole manner of other problems, she says.)

In her Los Angeles-area parenting courses, Hatfield insists that kids be able to challenge their parents without being punished for it. “Even if you don’t agree” with them, she says, “give them credit when they do their own thinking.”

In this way, she says, children will learn that it’s not only okay, but good, to question what others tell them. And they’ll respect our decisions and advice far more for the rest of their lives because we have respected them first.

 “What I think is most important,” Hatfield says, “is what we model.”

Now, I’m the first to admit, this is easier said than done. Kids are just so immature sometimes. They never just say: “Gee, Mommy, I strongly disagree with you. Please reconsider your decision and let me have that ice cream now, rather than making me wait until later.” Instead, they scream and cry and spit and embarrass us in public places. It’s tough. Even when we do think they have the right to challenge us, we often don’t feel we can, in good conscience, give in to their demands because they’ve been such shits about it.

But Hatfield, who runs her parenting courses and workshops alongside her husband, Ty, asks parents to understand that most of what they consider “misbehavior” is actually age-appropriate; kids, she says, are behaving not to be bad (a word she loathes) but because they’re going through normal developmental stages. So instead of blasting them for doing what you want them to do — challenge what they hear! — Hatfield asks parents to focus on the message, not the method — and to stop taking things so damn personally.

By all means, tell them that spitting is not okay, and that there’s no need to yell.* But then allow yourself to reconsider your own conduct and decisions, Hatfield says. Does it really matter whether the kid has ice cream now or later? Maybe it’s a good time to say “Yes.” If nothing else, take the opportunity to teach them to value their own opinions and feelings, and encourage them to help find compromises and solutions that work for both of you.

Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, says he talks about this in his workshops. In an e-mail, he told me:

“My kids heard from a very early age that they always have the right to know the reason for a decision AND to question it if they feel it’s wrong or unfair. I told them I couldn’t just say ‘Because I said so’ and the few times I’ve said that, they’ve gleefully called me on it. I’ve made a point of changing my mind, out loud, when they have a good point. That does more for their growing autonomy than almost anything else I can do. I can attest that the result of all this is not chaos but a pretty smoothly functioning home with scads of mutual respect.”

Here’s a cool video of McGowan speaking at a freethought festival in April:

*If you’re yelling this bit yourself, it’s probably not going to work. Just FYI.

Letting Kids Choose Their Clothes (And Their Faith)

When my daughter was still an infant, my husband and I took her to a local coffee shop for breakfast. At the booth over was an early-30s couple, each with multiple tattoos and piercings and jet-black hair to match their clothes. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the couple except for the company they kept. Sitting across from them sat a little girl dressed head-to-toe in pink. She was their daughter. In addition to a pretty pink dress and shoes to match, the 6-year-old wore a shimmering headband, which held back a long mane of perfectly combed, blond hair.

As the family stood up to leave, it was impossible not to notice:  These two Morrissey types had given birth to a Barbie doll. The mother caught me mid-smile, and smiled back. “All she wears is pink” she told me. “I buy her all these black T-shirts, but she won’t touch any of them.”

After they left, I thought: I love that little family. And now, all these years later, I still do.

There is something I viscerally respond to when parents don’t expect their children to be Mini-Mes, when they let their children’s individuality outweigh our own personal preferences, or even embarrassment. My reaction was the same one I experienced many years later when I read an incredibly sweet and supportive wedding speech written by the father of a lesbian bride.

Embracing every part of our children that makes them different from us is the true test of our unconditional love. We are showing them, in no uncertain terms, that we want to support them on their life journeys — not just drag them behind us on ours.

After my daughter told me, at 5 years old, that “God made us,” I nearly panicked. After pacing the kitchen and explaining the contents of the ill-fated (or so I thought) conversation, my husband uttered 14 words that changed everything for me.

“To me,” he said, “it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”

It was my “Aha” moment. And in everything I’ve done or said to Maxine since then, this mantra — it’s what you do in life that matters, not what you believe — has propelled me forward in my work, and in my life.

Now that my daughter is almost 7, I understand all too well the plight of the hipsters in the coffee shop. Sometimes I feel the tug of opposition when we’re out shopping and Maxine gravitates toward the bright, almost florescent, prom-style dresses that look like they’ve been bedazzled by Cher.

But I do try very hard to support her choices. Because letting our kid dress like “an Australian’s nightmare,” as Spinal Tap’s long-suffering manager Ian Faith so eloquently put it, is  the right thing to do. By allowing our children to choose what they like, we are affirming that their opinions are valid, that their taste is respected. We are telling them it’s better than okay to be who they are; it’s wonderful.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we need to allow or support every choice they want to make. But let’s do keep our eyes on the goal here: to allow our kids to explore the world and make reasonable choices.

Sikhism in 60 Seconds

Twelve years ago, a mass murder sparked America’s interest in Islam. Now it’s happening again — only, this time, the religion is Sikhism. As Sikhs all over the world today mourn the loss of six of their own who died Sunday in a Wisconsin temple, they also find themselves explaining who they are to a country mostly unfamiliar with their customs and beliefs.

“We are pretty sure that this is a hate crime because there is so much ignorance,” Rajwa Singh of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, Md., told NBCWashington.com. “People mistake us (for) either being Taliban, or being part of Bin Laden’s network, or al-Qaida because of our turbans and beards.”

Let us not be the “people” Singh speaks of. Here  is Sikhism in a nutshell.

Sikhism is a relatively new religion, having been founded in 1500 in the Punjab (northwestern region) of India. It boasts some 30 million adherents worldwide and 314,000 in the United States.

Like most major religions, Sikhism has a “star of the show” — a single person who found a new way to live and brought that message to his people through a traveling ministry. In this case the star was Guru Nanak Dev, who (like Buddha) saw suffering and confusion in the world and set out to bring peace, compassion and truth.

Nanak’s message was fairly simply. There is one God — or “Waheguru” in Punjabi. Waheguru, whose literal translation is “Wonderful Teacher,” is believed to be a shapeless, timeless, genderless presence that created many worlds, including ours. Sikhs do not embrace the traditional notion of heaven or hell. What they seek is a “spiritual union” with Waheguru, which they attain through a balance of work, worship and charity. They also put great importance on avoiding the “Five Evils”: ego, anger, greed, attachment and lust.

Sikhism is about the most inclusive religion you’re likely to find, which is part of what makes Sunday’s killings feel particularly brutal and senseless. “Sikhs believe that no matter what race, sex, or religion one is, all are equal in God’s eyes,” reads a Wikipedia passage. “Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.

Sikhs have one sacred text, called the Guru Ganth Sahib, a book that reads a bit like an extended poem. The book is a compilation of traditions, teachings and philosophies learned from Guru Nanak and his nine successors, all of whom were hand-picked by the previous guru. The last of the nine died in 1708.

Oh, and one last thing: Sikhs don’t trim their hair or beards because they wish to remain as close to their natural state — the way God made them — as possible. They wear turbans to show their devotion to their religion and, for more practical reasons, to keep their long hair from becoming tangled.

Girl Scouts Flap Rears Its Silly Head Once Again

After reading yet another story on the flap over the Girl Scouts book I wrote, I’m reminded once again at how irrationally freaked out some parents become when their kids are exposed to ideas different from their own. Whether it’s nonreligious parents instructing their kids on what to think about Catholicism, or conservatives instructing kids on what to think about gay marriage, the short-sightedness involved in both is the same. Push too hard in one direction and you brainwash your kid, crush their self-esteem and damage your relationship with them in the process. Instead of teaching our kids what to think; we need to teach them how to think. After all, if our ideology is so brittle it can’t stand up to a little opposition, then it’s not an ideology worth having. 

Here’s a blog I wrote in January. Thought it was worth a rerun.

So, remember when Glenn Beck’s The Blaze accused me of injecting the name of a liberal website called Media Matters into a Girl Scouts book I wrote?And how the story prompted a minor shit storm when Fox News decided to feature the issue on two different segments, the Grapevine and Fox & Friends?

And then remember how then I wrote a response on this blog, mostly to clarify for the conservative newsies that I was not the droid they were looking for?

Last week was fun, wasn’t it?

Well, I had kind of assumed the good times were behind us and that the bevy of rabid over-reactions — which included, but were not limited to, someone calling me “a notorious atheist who infiltrated the Girl Scouts” — were in the past. But, thanks to the Lord Almighty, it’s not over yet.

On Tuesday, The Blaze published a follow-up story: Author Denies Inserting Media Matters Reference into Girl Scouts Book. The reader response was not nearly as plentiful as it had been to the first story, but the level of vitriol did not disappoint. One Blaze reader likened me to a serial killer.

“Wendy Thomas Russell, the author with ink-stained fingers, said ‘It wasn’t me!” wrote this particular reader, whose moniker is Spandamonkey. “Notice the three names, just like a serial killer.”

Please tell me Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty is not the only one getting a kick out of this.

Honestly, the name-calling doesn’t just amuse me — it fascinates me. As my husband said, “The fact that conservatives are so up in arms because of one link in one book shows how fragile people consider their own values. If conservative values are so frail that they can be completely undermined by exposure to a single slightly progressive website, those conservative values can’t be very strong.”

See why I married that guy?

All kidding aside — and, believe me, I’ve done a lot of kidding in the last couple of days — there are a couple things about this dust-up that really do concern me:

First, it concerns me that the Girl Scouts, a national organization that promotes honor, leadership and citizenship, is being stereotyped as liberal and dangerous to conservative ideals. I worked on three books for the Girl Scouts. I know how stringent the group’s guidelines are. I know how hard editors worked to make sure they were being sensitive and fair and true to the Girl Scout’s philosophy and founder every step of the way. The fact that one reference to one  website was made in one book — and it slipped under the GSA radar — does not a conspiracy make. Far from it.

It also concerns me that, despite the amazing opportunities and self-esteem girls receive from the Girl Scouts, parents are now threatening to pull their kids out of the organization en masse. And why exactly? Because they’re afraid their kids might see the name of a website? Because they think they might actually — gasp! — look at it and see what it says? Oh no! Crash! Bam! Boom! They saw! They saw! Now they’re ruined little whores!

Let’s face it, conservative parents are not the only ones who are guilty of running away and hiding their kids from things they don’t agree with. Liberals do it all the time, too. Sheltering our kids from political and religious views that scare us is universal. And, yet, it’s so much of what I’m trying to move us away from. As my smarty-pants husband said, if we parents really believe in the strength of own values and beliefs, then we ought to know they’ll compete well in the marketplace of ideas. We ought to be confident enough to let our kids see the world as it really is, and people as they really are.

I’m not saying all liberals should go out and buy NRA subscriptions, or that conservatives need to subscribe to Planned Parenthood newsletters. But do remember: Kids will always benefit from exposure to different ideas, beliefs and ways of life — as long as parents are there to provide a guiding light.

Trust me, they can handle it. And, you know what? We can, too.

Do You Share Negative Views about Religion with Your Kids?

Fifty-seven percent of the nonreligious parents I surveyed earlier this year said they viewed religion “negatively, with exceptions,” while another 21 percent said they viewed it “both positively and negatively,” depending on the specific religion. This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Hell, even religious people have issues with religion.

I bring it up, though, because I wonder how many parents are (unintentionally or intentionally) passing on these negative views to their children. I honestly don’t know, and because I’m a moron*, I didn’t think to ask that specific question in the survey.

It’s very possible that, in a quest to give kids a chance to make up their own minds, parents keep quiet when it comes to placing judgment calls on religion in general. But it’s also possible that parents feel they’re entitled, if not obligated, to share their opinions. Even parents who don’t wish to “poison the waters” might not edit themselves in every situation — including ones in which their children are likely to overhear.

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you’re not an anti-theist. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have strong opinions about some religious beliefs. (I’d be disappointed if you didn’t!)

So, I’d like to ask you….

Do you share negative opinions about religion with your kids? If so, which ones? And how old were your kids when you decided it was time? Also, do you balance out negative views with positive views, or give each view the weight you think it deserves.

Thank you kindly.

* Your cue to strongly disagree.

Must We ‘Come Out’ as Nonreligious?

I think most of us can agree that coming out of the closet when you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is important. A person’s love life is central to a person’s life — in the same sort of way that mating is central to a bird’s life. There’s just no way around it. To forever deny such a basic, defining part of one’s identity is bound to have deep detrimental affects.

But coming out as nonreligious is different. Lack of religion isn’t necessarily intrinsic to a person’s life and happiness. Not believing something is passive, not active; to “not be” something, all you have to do is nothing.

Still, there are arguments to be made that nonreligious people have a duty to out themselves, especially when they have children who are looking to them as role models. And certainly, there are benefits to speaking “your truth,” both for your sake and, many would say, for society as a whole. But there are drawbacks, too.

So help me out here: Have you “come out” as a nonbeliever to anyone? Why, or why not? And what difference did it make in your life?

Religious Charm Bracelet, Anyone?… Anyone?

Okay, I suspect you guys are going to make fun of me a little bit for this, but, hey, what the hell.

So, let me preface this by saying that, growing up, my mother had a charm bracelet she wore on special occasions. I was FASCINATED by this bracelet, which strung together all kinds of little golden goodies symbolizing some of my mom’s greatest memories. There was a child’s ring, a graduation cap, a locket. But my favorite charm was a little money box containing the tiniest folded-up dollar bill I’d ever seen in my life. A little door on the top opened and closed, and I must have opened and closed it hundreds of times. That bracelet mesmerized me. I remember asking (often) what all those symbols meant to my mom, where they came from. What’s more: the bracelet was so darn pretty — and jangly. Very jangly. That was definitely a draw.

So fast forward, like, 25 years, and I’m in a bead shop for no apparent reason (I do not make jewelry and have no interest whatsoever in beadwork), and I happen upon what can only be described as a fuckload of religious symbols. There must have 200 different kinds in this shop. Most were Christian (I live in America, after all), but some other religions were represented, as well.

So I got this hair-brained idea to, you know, make a charm bracelet for my daughter, Maxine.

Okay, before you go off half-cocked, hear me out. Here was my thinking:

1. It’s important to me that Maxine knows about religion in general, not just the one religion most prevalent in her culture. By stringing all these symbols together, side by side, I’d be putting all major religions on par with one another — with none of them more (or less!) significant than the next.

2. I’d like for Maxine to recognize religious symbols and have some sense of their back stories. It’s a challenge sometimes, though, to introduce the basic concept of religion without, you know, boring her to tears. I figured if Maxine had a bracelet with religious symbols in her jewelry box, she might drag it out every once in a while and look at it. If I got lucky, maybe she’d even ask a question or two.

3. As you know, I love the idea of celebrating religious holidays with kids — rather than shying away from them, or even secularizing them. I see holidays as an opportunity to demystify religion, but also to promote religious literacy and religious tolerance. Symbols (the dreidel for Hanukkah or the Buddha for Vesak Day, for example) are fantastic memory aids. A bracelet, I thought, could come in kinda handy.

So there, in this cheesy bead store, I decided to go for it. With no trouble at all, I found a Star of David, a little dreidel and a charm imprinted with Mary and the baby Jesus. I also found  the Buddha and a yoga guy and about a million crosses — both with and without the crucifixion. I knew I wanted the former because the crucifixion is such an interesting (and ghastly) image, it can’t help but be compelling. Carting all this stuff around definitely got the bead lady’s attention. She asked me if she could help, and when I told her what I wanted — “to make an all-religions charm bracelet” is how I put it — she immediately got on board, tracking down the “Om” and yin/yang symbols to add to my pile

When I got home, I got out my pliers and put it all together.

The bracelet isn’t nearly finished — there are so many other religious symbols out there! — nor is it as pretty, heavy, classy or valuable as my mom’s. But it’s a start. And it jangles real nice.

So what do you think, guys? A good idea? Potentially helpful? Or a total waste of money?

On Tom, Katie and Interfaith Families

To answer your first two questions: Yes, I’m going there; and, no, I’m not above it.

Now, back to TomKat.

If media reports are to be believed — and let’s say they are for the sake of this conversation, shall we? — actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have split up based, in part, on a dispute over the religious upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri. In case you are reading this from under a rock somewhere, Cruise is the highest-profile Scientologist in the history of Scientology, and Holmes — well, she ain’t. (I’ve read she was raised Catholic, which probably means she’s a Buddhist by now — ha ha.)

There may well be much more to the divorce than this — always is — but what I wouldn’t give to know how this pair has gone about discussing religion with that kid.

Suri’s age sure seems significant. While the topic of religion may be blissfully avoided for the first several years of a kid’s life, most children get God-curious around age 5 — which is about the time they start school and meet other kids. It’s quite possible that, in the Cruise-Holmes household, religious differences played a supporting role until very recently, when Suri (through no fault of her own) pushed it front-and-center.

•••

A child changes everything.

That’s what they say, and that’s how it is. A new birth has a rather magical way of changing our lifestyles, interests, priorities, and relationships. Most of the time, of course, the changes are for the good — especially when it comes to the relationships part. Children can make us parents stronger, more resilient, more mature, more committed, more loving. But sometimes, the changes are…. well, let’s just say challenging. Like how our “parenting styles” (which some of us didn’t even know we had!) can bump up against each other, creating tensions and resentments where none existed before. Things we didn’t think were important AT ALL now seem to matter A WHOLE FREAKING LOT. And compromise is especially hard to achieve when our little innocents are the ones who might suffer when we give up too much — or too little.

Interfaith marriage is so much more common than it’s ever been. According to recent studies, upwards of 25 percent of American marriages are mixed. And, as religion loosens its grip on each passing generation, that percentage is expected to rise. In my own survey, which concluded a couple months ago, 20 percent of the nonreligious parents surveyed were married to people who held religious beliefs different from their own.

Of course, in a sense, this is wonderful news. America is, after all, the great melting pot. And the more couples comingle, the fewer divisions we’ll have and (theoretically at least) the fewer conflicts we’ll have.  But interfaith marriage isn’t easy, either, and that is especially true when a couple bears children.

According to an excellent piece in the Washington Post (Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re falling fast too) many interfaith couples underestimate the importance that faith plays in their lives. And some of them intend to become more religious after marriage — something they may not share with their partner before the vows are taken.

The Post article cites a paper published in 1993 by Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who found that divorce rates were higher among interfaith couples. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination had (at the time at least) a one-in-three chance of divorcing, Lehrer found. A Jew and Christian had a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years. (Same-faith marriages, by comparison, divorced at a rate of one in five.)

“As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence ‘many activities that husband and wife perform jointly.’ Religion isn’t just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks — it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up.”

•••

One of my husband’s heroes is Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a Presbyterian minister, civil rights activist, gay-marriage proponent and proud liberal. In his sermons, Coffin equated God with love, and love with God and didn’t let anything dilute that one true meaning.

Sloane married plenty of interfaith couples in his day, and his personal contention (which he outlined during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air) was that marriages could absolutely withstand differences in faith — especially when the parties shared the same “level” of faith. For instance, he said, a Jew and a Christian who are both slightly religious won’t have any problem at all; the same with a Jew and a Christian who are both very religious. His reasoning: One’s devotion to faith matters more than the underlying faith itself, as long as the couple share a genuine respect for the other’s religion.

You notice who’s left out of Coffin’s feel-good scenario, though, right? Couples with different levels of faith.

Coffin contended that most problems arise when one parent is very religious and the other isn’t; when one person wants to attend church or mosque or temple, for example, and the other wants to stay home. If a couple’s religiosity is uneven, we’re led to believe, couples may feel as though there’s a “winner” and “loser” when it comes to deciding how much of one religion to bring into the house  — or keep out of it.

It’s an interesting point. Especially when you relate it back to Tom and Katie. (Yes, dammit, I’m still writing about this shameful topic. Let it go.)

If it’s true that Cruise came to the marriage holding firm to the, I don’t know, staff? of Scientology, while Holmes came draped in the light mist of her parents’ Catholicism, then they’re level of devotions were certainly not aligned. Perhaps she thought they were stronger than the sum of their religious parts. Perhaps he thought she’d come around.

The point is, interfaith marriage can work, but it doesn’t always work. And the more couples think about their faith/non-faith in the context of child-rearing BEFORE THE CHILDREN ARE BORN, the less likely they’ll be to end up on the front of Us Magazine over a story about their impending divorce.

Don’t Label Me, Man

We humans are all about labels. From such an early age, labels are so central to our identities. We’re constantly looking for ways to divide and unify, divide and unify, divide and unify — starting with gender and age, and then blossoming into 150 million other identifying marks.

It’s all so, well, annoying.

When I decided to write a blog for nonreligious parents, my belief system suddenly became central to my life and work. I’ve felt I had to label myself as nonreligious — atheist, if pressed. But prior to a year and a half ago, religion played absolutely no role in my life. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t care about it. I didn’t fight about it or talk about it — or not talk about it. When asked, I’d say I wasn’t religious, but that was rare because so few people around me seemed to be basing our relationship on that particular piece of knowledge.

Even today, if it weren’t for my work, I wouldn’t be all that curious about people’s religious choices. The way I see it, we’re defined by our actions, so when the people around me are humble, noble, gracious, and ethical, I tend to ask approximately zero questions about what made them that way. I don’t have time; I’m  too damn busy trying to model that same behavior myself.

Sometimes labeling can be a good thing, I don’t deny that. It can make lonely people feel not so alone. It can help organize the disenfranchised and educate the ignorant. But wearing labels can feel really shitty, too. Especially when those labels are used against individuals — to pigeonhole them, prejudge them and put them down. Labels also sometimes remove our sense of independence and freethinking. (The irony, of course, is that even “Independent” and “Freethinking” have managed to become labels of their own.)

This is all to say… oh, hell, I don’t even know anymore. I guess I’m just trying to come to terms with the fact that none of the traditional labels of non-faith — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secularist, naturalist, ignosticist, apatheist, etc. — seem really to apply to me. Not when it comes to these labels as “movements” anyway.

Even “humanist” has become a loaded word. At its core, humanism is simply a devotion to the humanities — and it sounds so damn nice, doesn’t it? Human, humanitarian, humanity. All beautiful words! “Humanist” seems to roll off my tongue the same way that “atheist” gets stuck in my throat. But, more and more, I see “humanism” acting as a secret code word for “atheism.” Which, I suppose, isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps “humanism” helps keep stereotypes at bay, at least for a while. Perhaps Nonbelievers Formerly Known As Atheists can relax a little, let their guards down, redirect, refocus, breathe.

So here’s my question: Do you think it’s important to have a label when it comes to religion/non-religion? Why ? And what the hell do you call yourselves?

By the way, I’m on vacation next week and won’t be posting again until after the holiday; so, everyone, enjoy your Fourth of July!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X