Five Things Worth Knowing About Coptic Christians

800px-Coptic_monksThe horrifying beheadings of as many as 21 Coptic Christians by the Islamic State in Libya— as well as the rather remarkable airstrikes launched by Muslim-led Egypt in retaliation on Sunday — had me thinking and reading a lot about Coptic Christianity this morning. Thought others might be interested, too. So here’s a VERY brisk overview.

1. Only Egyptians are Coptic: Coptic Christians are Christians native to Egypt. In other words, if you’re not Egyptian, you’re not a Copt.

2. Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Middle East.  Today there are 14 to 16 million Coptic Christians in the world; 12 million of them still live in Egypt.

3. Copts have been Christian for a long damn time. There are lots of different branches of Christianity, and none claims to be older than the Roman Catholic Church — which considers Jesus’ apostle Peter to be its very first pope — and the  Eastern Orthodox (Catholic) Church — which was founded by the apostle Paul. But the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is pretty damn close. Coptic Christianity is said to have been founded during a mission by yet another apostle, Mark (of “Gospel of Mark” fame), in 42 CE — just nine years after Peter and Paul began their ministries and 600 years before Islam came along.

4. Belief-wise, Copts are basically Catholics without the Pope. The underlying theology of Coptic Christianity is so similar to Catholicism, the differences really aren’t worth getting into here. But if you’re interested in the details, click here for more information.

5. They may be a minority, but they are a valued minority. Copts constitute 10 percent of the Egyptian population; the other 90 percent of the population is Muslim. And they haven’t always been treated well as a result. But Egypt’s strong reaction to the recent beheadings by extremist jihadists tells me that these Copts are being viewed as Egyptians first and Christians second. It’s also a great reminder — isn’t it? — that just because jihadists revere Muhammad doesn’t mean Muslims revere jihadists.

10 Simple Ways to Mark Darwin’s Birthday

Featured on BlogHer.comEvolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.

By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin’s 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it’s still banned today in some schools.

Today — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday. And it’s one of the only secular holidays we’ve got. So let’s celebrate!



1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.

2. Make a toast. Darwin’s name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they’re too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.

3. Drop the “theory.” As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase “theory of evolution” so often is because, during Darwin’s day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading. [Read more...]

Impress Your Kid (Or Your Date) With Some ‘St. Valentine’s Day’ Trivia

Whirling DervishesFor the most part, I’m fine with being a nonbeliever. Like Bill Mahr says, “it requires so little of your time.” But every once in a while, I’m struck by how much my worldview has limited me. Take, for instance, the fact that I’ll never be a Whirling Dervish. Now that’s a real bummer! I’d love to be able to spin like that. Even worse? The chances are, like, zero that I’ll ever be sainted.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wendy! Don’t be so negative! You are a fantastic person, and you help so many others in need.” And to that, I say, “Thank y
ou. Really. I’m touched and humbled by your words.” But the truth is, I’m not saint material. First of all, there’s a whole, like, process to being sainted, and despite my skills in various areas, Catholics have surprisingly strict requirements: believing in God, performing miracles and  being deadm— just to name a few!

The whole subject is really interesting, actually, which is why I’m dedicating this installment in the Holiday Cheat Sheet series to a real saint: St. Valentine.

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Valentine’s Day ranks at about 5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said it’s rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday. (Although the fact that my nephew’s Jewish preschool doesn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day proves that the connection isn’t entirely lost.) [Read more...]

‘Mommy, What’s a Bible?’

DSC_0101-703x1024Latest in a series  for secular parents offering age-appropriate explanations for religious concepts.

Several years ago, an atheist friend of mine agreed to send his eight-year-old son to Vacation Bible School camp with some friends from the neighborhood. As camp week approached, the two would discuss “VBS” from time to time. One day, his son asked: “Dad, what does VBS stand for”

“Vacation Bible School,” my friend answered.

To which his son replied: “What’s a Bible?”

It was a funny moment — and a wake-up call for my friend, who hadn’t fully considered the importance of religious literacy. I still don’t know how he answered the question — but here’s how I would.

The short answer:
The Bible is a collection of very old books full of stories about God.
[Read more...]

On Stephen Fry, the Super Bowl and the General Assholishness of a God Who Kills Babies

This weekend was a heck of a thing, wasn’t it? First off, the Seattle Seahawks made sports history Sunday with one of the weirdest, wildest and most alarming endings to a Super Bowl game ever. The catch… the ill-fated play… the off-sides foul… and, finally, the fight. My God, men! Which brings me to the other weekend upset. On Saturday, Stephen Fry was asked in a rather hilarious interview (made hilarious in large part by the interviewer’s reactions) what he would say to God if he ever got to heaven. Please watch the video, if you haven’t already. It’s short and totally worth it (much like the last two minutes of the Super Bowl). Essentially, Fry says he would begin the conversation by calling God out on bone cancer in children, then he would make it clear that any God who would inflict so much suffering on children for no reason is “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God,” as well as being “monstrous” and  “an utter maniac who deserves no respect whatsoever.” [Read more...]

Atheist Momma Julianne Moore Inspires Happy Dance

150121_THR_JulianneMoore_0327Secular parents may be a minority, but judging from Julianne Moore’s most recent comments to the Hollywood Reporter, we are also in some damn fine company.

“I learned when my mother died five years ago that there is no ‘there’ there,” Moore, a mother of two, told the Hollywood Reporter. “Structure, it’s all imposed. We impose order and narrative on everything in order to understand it. Otherwise, there’s nothing but chaos.”

It wasn’t the first time the Oscar-winning actor had revealed her atheism publicly. In 2002, while appearing on Inside the Actor’s Studio, she gave the world’s best answer to the question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say at the pearly gates?”

 “Well, she answered, “I guess you were wrong. I do exist.” 

Still, it was the first time she expanded on the topic to any degree. For instance, in a conversation about the path that her life has taken, Moore indicated that the notion of a godless universe has allowed her to take full responsibility for her own choices and full credit for her own happiness — an opinion I think many secularists share.

“The idea that you’re the center of your own narrative and that you can create your life is a great idea,” she says, referring to a notion in one of her favorite books, Little Women. “I totally believe it. I’ve been really lucky, but I feel I’ve completely created my own life.”

[Read more...]

‘Mommy, What’s Holy Water?’

medium_5993988644For nonreligious kids, holy water is a pretty bizarre concept.

Because it’s water.

Poured in a basin.

And declared to be magic.

I’m not trying to be condescending here. It’s just that kids who have not been raised up in any particular faith group and who have not be taught that “evil spirits” are to be feared, or that souls are something to be cleansed, or that hell is an actual place, or that water can be magic — are going to think the idea of holy water sounds pretty odd.

And, especially when there are some rather distrurbing ideas associated with the concept, secular parents may have a hard time explaining it without dismissing the whole thing as a goofy ancient belief more likely to give you E. coli than to save your eternal soul.

So let’s say your kid asks you, “Mommy, What’s Holy Water?” How do you explain it, you know, nicely? Here’s my suggestion.

medium_3790685521The short answer:
Holy water is water that is found in churches or other places of worship. [Read more...]

Secular Kids are Moral Kids

IMG_4325If you didn’t get a chance to read last week’s Los Angeles Times op-ed piece titled “How Secular Families Stack Up” by Phil Zuckerman, please do. Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, is a sociologist who has spent much of his career studying secularism and its influence on various societies. I interviewed Zuckerman a couple of years ago for my book and can report that the man is a quote machine. He speaks clearly and intelligently, and he knows how to get to the damn point — which is part of what makes his op-ed piece so effective. Based, in part, on a study by the Longitudinal Study of Generations out of the University of Southern California, Zuckerman reveals that secular families exhibit high levels of “family solidarity and emotional closeness,” not to mention “strong ethical standards and moral values.” In other words, says Zuckerman:

“Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children.”

safe_image.phpEven greater (in my own secular opinion) is that kids raised in nonreligious households have proven to be more independent, progressive and open-minded.

“Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the ‘cool kids’ think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into ‘godless’ adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.”

[Read more...]

Score! Another Point in Favor of Godless God-Parenting

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetAs you may recall, I am a godless godparent to two adorable children, so it was with great interest that I read Chris Stedman’s most recent column for the Religion News Service about agreeing to become a godparent to his infant niece. Stedman is an outspoken atheist, gay activist and author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. His non-anti-religious atheist position (and, no, I couldn’t have said that more clearly) is refreshingly similar to my own, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when Stedman approached the whole godparent thing with compassion and circumspection.

When my sister was pregnant with her third child, I received an ultrasound image in the mail. Attached to it was a handwritten note: “Would you be my godfather… er… sponsor… ah… special person? You know what I mean.”

My niece is now a few months old. Next month, she will be baptized. And I’ve been asked to stand alongside her at the front of the church and pledge to be her godparent.

Being invited to support a loved one’s child is a wonderful honor. But I can also see that, on the surface, it may seem strange that an atheist would sponsor a baptism and serve as a godparent.

What touched me most about the story, though, was not Stedman’s non-anti-religious atheist position (admit it, it’s starting to grow on you), but his sister’s non-anti-atheist religious position (okay, now I’m just fucking with you). A devout Lutheran, she didn’t hesitate before asking her brother to sponsor her daughter. And her reasons were so open-minded, it nearly brought tears to my eyes —a feat that usually requires the sight of Jimmy Stewart singing Auld Lang Syne together with a bunch of his banking customers or video of police officers in Kansas City handing out $100 bills to people with shitty cars.

Here’s the part that got me.

“As far as I’m concerned, you being an atheist is a plus, not something to work around or gloss over,” she said. “I want my kids to grow up knowing that there are good people of all beliefs—atheists, Muslims, Hindus, everyone—and I want them to see that they will be a part of this family whether they grow up to share my beliefs or not.”

[Read more...]

Courting Controversy: Essay on Raising an ‘Only’ Child Kicks Up a Storm (GWEN IFILL SAID MY NAME)

safe_image.phpSometimes you set out to court controversy.

When, four years ago, I decided to write a book about talking to kids about religion in secular households, I knew I’d ruffle some feathers. It’s religion, after all, and it’s children. And if there were ever two subjects open to some passionate f’ing opinions, it’s those two, right?

And yet. And yet! Four years later I’ve rarely seen the kind of seething anger I’ve seen in the last 24 hours, since my largely tongue-in-cheek essay about the benefits of having an only child was published on the PBS NewsHour website. Titled “The case for having only one kid,” the piece recounted the many reasons people have given me over the years to have another child, as well as some reasons of my own to cap the family tree at one.

The essay gained traction almost immediately. By mid-morning, hundreds of people had shared the story, and dozens had commented — not always kindly. A great many
parents were offended, seeing my defense of having one kid as disparaging those with more than one. Others didn’t get my sense of humor (or find my humor at all humorous). Others thought my story amounted to meaningless drivel.

But among all the insults were a great number of thoughtful comments and even some really fascinating debates — all of which helped the story build momentum. Lots and lots of momentum.

By the end of the day, the essay had been shared so many times on Facebook (upwards
of 25,000) and had generated so many comments (more than 300) that it was the No. 1 story on the NewsHour’s website — far above any, you know, actual news. It was also the No. 1 story on all of  (“Even PBS Kids??” my daughter asked, when I told her.) [Read more...]