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Series finale: Last column (for now) on secular parenting

July 23, 2011

Yes, folks, this will be my VERY LAST faith column. At least for a while. Having two deadlines a month shouldn’t be that hard, right? Well, it wasn’t when I just had one child. But since Baby 2 arrived in February, I’m finding the whole process to be insanely challenging. Something had to give. Will miss writing the column. I started writing it in 2006 while I was still the full-time religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, and I had the great fortune of continuing it after my first daughter was born. That made for a nice transition from reporter to stay-at-home mother. Hard to believe I’ve been churning out two columns a month for five years.

I will still maintain this blog. And pick up the occasional freelance piece. For now, though, I’m going to focus on my girls.

I’m glad to go out with a bang — on the Life front with a photo by the fabulous Statesman photog Laura Skelding — and with a topic that has long interested me: secular parenting. Raising your kids outside of religion isn’t easy. Especially in Texas. I had the pleasure of getting to know a fellow mama Angelique Lugo and to profile her effort to bring a Parenting Beyond Belief seminar to Austin on Oct. 15. Look for more posts about the seminar this fall.

Here’s the full text (including my little goodbye note at the end):

Austin mom organizes secular parenting workshop


One day last spring, Angelique Lugo’s 5-year-old son dropped the “J bomb” on her.

He came home distraught because a boy at school had insisted a man named “Jason” lived in his heart.

Lugo and her husband, who live in North Austin and don’t practice a religion, addressed their son’s immediate concern — that a literal man was living inside him. But the incident raised a larger issue for the Lugos — how to explain that the boy at school wasn’t talking about a guy named Jason but a god named Jesus. And that this wouldn’t be the last he heard of him.

When it comes to religion, Lugo, a 38-year-old sign language interpreter, has been bobbing about in what she calls “murky waters” for years. She was raised Catholic (her mother sent her to catechism “just in case there’s a hell”) but doesn’t consider herself a Christian. Her husband is an atheist, but that label doesn’t work for her either. She didn’t plan to raise her son with a religion, but knew she couldn’t insulate her son from proselytizers and well-meaning religious friends forever.

She needed guidance.

“It’s not a matter of going to church or not going to church,” she said. “For me, it’s a matter of being comfortable with where you are at the moment … and having the tools to articulate it.”

Lugo figured other parents needed those tools, too, so she contacted Dale McGowan, a kind of guru for secular parents.

The Georgia-based author of “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion” and “Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide For Parenting Beyond Belief” leads seminars that help nonreligious parents navigate a religious world.

“I’m hoping if we can meet in these murky waters in the workshop that we’re going to walk away knowing we’re not the only ones with these questions and hopefully forming a support network,” Lugo said.

Unable to find sponsors to cover McGowan’s speaking fees upfront, Lugo reached out to a handful of like-minded mothers in the Austin area. The women created a Web site and Facebook page, designed fliers and secured a location — Trinity United Methodist Church, a congregation liberal enough to, as the pastor Sid Hall told me, welcome “people who support all kinds of mythologies or no mythologies at all.”

The four-hour workshop will be held Oct. 15.

The group still needs to sell enough tickets in advance — Lugo is urging people to register by Sept. 1 — to pay McGowan’s speaking and travel costs. Getting the word out has been tricky primarily because there isn’t a single place where secular parents gather. And organizers need to be careful about language, assuring people that Parenting Beyond Belief isn’t necessarily an atheist seminar (McGowan isn’t anti-religion) but also making it clear atheists are welcome.

McGowan estimates about 8 million to 10 million people are raising their children outside religion. And though they might choose different labels, the parents who attend his seminars often have similar concerns. The most frequent question is how to handle religious family members, he said.

“Nonreligious parents deal with varying degrees of pressure from their own parents or siblings about churchgoing, baptism, christening, and sometimes salvation itself,” he told me in an email interview. “Some are ostracized, some endure a kind of drip-drip-drip of passive-aggressive comments, while still others report sneaky proselytizing of the kids — even kitchen-sink baptisms!”

McGowan helps parents negotiate those situations and provides ideas on creating secular rituals and encouraging kids to become religiously literate, think critically and also be respectful of others’ beliefs.

Often the most painful aspect of secular parenting — particularly for those who grew up in church — is the loss of community.

“One thing I never do is try to talk parents out of that feeling of loss. It’s a real human loss, not just a religious one,” McGowan said.

It is easier to belong. And he sees many nonbelievers return to church for that reason.

“Being part of a church community confers real benefits to parents: an established community, a defined set of values, a common language of meaning and symbols, rites of passage, a means of engendering wonder, comforting answers to the big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss,” he said. “Nonreligious parents and families have most of the same needs and so must find other ways to fulfill them.”

That’s why Lugo believes secular parents need each other.

Lugo knows her son likely will make friends with kids from religious families. She knows he will be invited to church and will ask what his parents believe about God. She wants to be better prepared for those conversations.

And ultimately she wants her son to make his own choices, even if she doesn’t agree with them. In the meantime, she said, “I’m learning to navigate that grayness and … trying to be a decent role model for my child.”


Parenting Beyond Belief workshop

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 15

Where: Trinity United Methodist Church, 4001 Speedway

Cost: $40/single and $65/couple


Taking a break

I started writing a twice-monthly faith column in 2006 when I was the religion reporter for the American-Statesman and continued writing it after I left the newsroom in 2009 to start a family. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to stay connected to sources and readers. But I’ve decided to hang up the column for now. It’s fitting that my last piece is on parenting as I made this decision in order to focus more on my daughters who, at ages 2 and 6 months, have little interest in their mother’s deadlines. I will continue to weigh in on religious matters on my blog, and I look forward to contributing to these pages in the future. Thank you for reading and for making Central Texas such a diverse and fascinating place to write about.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    July 23, 2011 2:53 pm

    Parents don’t worry about it, it won’t do any good. I was born 74 years
    ago when Texas was truly the buckle of the Bible Belt in a family without a Bible and without a conviction beyond honesty and “if you lie you die”.

    Yet, I became a disciple of Christ 26 years later, not because of anything I heard or was exposed to (for there was school prayer then), whether it was peer pressure, or anything else I was exposed to; but solely on the evidence acquired after many years studying the philosophies and the religions seeking an answer to Why!

    Meanwhile many of my church going friends ended up where I began as
    I ended up where they never really were; churched but ignorant of the religion of Christ.

    Exposure is no guarantee of what who will be. The determining factor is just who that individual really is, but be assured that a person convinced against their will, is of the same opinion still.

  2. July 24, 2011 2:30 pm


  3. Thomas F. Camp MD permalink
    July 24, 2011 3:49 pm

    The R.E. programs for children in the Unitarian Universalist Churches cover the subject of all (well, “Almost all” as said in Gilbert and Sullivan!) the great religions and mythologies equally and designed for the age appropriate understanding of the children. The UU congregations are a mixture of Theists, Diests, Agnostics, Athiests, Ethicists, Philosophers etc. coming from multiple religious backgrounds. The Lugos could obtain information by contacting the Unitarian Universalist Association via the internet or one of the 3 local churches to obtain information. If they wish to do R.E at home, the UUA has a mailings program called “The Church Of The Larger Fellowship” which we used for ourselves and young children when we were stationed in England in the early 1960s. We do not proselytize, but reading your very nice columns, I thought you/they might have an interest in this.            Tom Camp MD

    Thomas Camp MD
    jNatura non facit saltum-Q.E.D

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