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ball4y3As y’all know, on December 6, a number of nonreligious parents gathered at Harvard’s Fong Auditorium to get some ideas about raising kids without religion. Greg Epstein also led a discussion about how best to form a more lasting community to serve the needs of nonreligious parents in the Boston/Cambridge area.

Washington Post reporter Robin Shulman spent the day with us and wrote an article about it for the December 21 edition of the Post. Aside from one previously-noted misquote and one eyerollingly cheap shot ( “someone sneezed, and there was a long silence — no one said “Bless you” or even ‘Salud’ or ‘Santé'” ), it was a lovely and fair piece.

Early in the article, Robin used the word “congregation” to describe the intended parenting community. It wasn’t her word choice but that of Greg Epstein, who favors staking a shared claim in such language rather than retreating allergically from it. It was that single word that set off a memetic devolution of the article’s message.

It started at the Post. Reporters rarely write their own headlines. Whoever wrote this one apparently saw an opening in the word “congregation” and wrote the following head:

Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church

Like “congregation,” communion has a general meaning and several specific ones. In the general sense ( “a joining together of minds or spirits”), the headline is perfectly accurate. But comments on the article, in blogs, and elsewhere show that many readers read the specific meaning ( “A Christian sacrament commemorating the Last Supper of Christ”) and went ballistic. And well they might, since the reference to “church” does indeed narrow the meaning.

Equally interesting is the syndicated life of the meme. Robin’s unchanged article appears today (Dec 28) in newspapers and online columns around the U.S. Sometimes the headline is unchanged (as in the Loveland, Colorado Reporter-Herald, for example), but more often, the copy editor or columnist in question has his/her way with the meme, often revealing his/her own biases or intentionally stirring the pot.

Here’s a sampler of headlines currently running across the U.S., including some less wobbly than the Post headline…

Humanists Want Community, Too
(Atlanta Examiner)
(No surprise that one of the simplest, most accurate headlines of all was hat-tipped from the Friendly Atheist.)

Humanists look to form parenting group with no religious elements
Organizers of a Boston seminar wanted to reach out to parents looking for guidance
(Wichita Eagle)

Humanist families find guidance, rituals without religion
(Santa Fe New Mexican)

…some with the same wobbly c-words…

Humanist parents seek communion, support
(Canton Repository)

Humanist parents consider their own congregation
(Winston-Salem Journal)

…some that I’m sure must mean something, but who knows what…

Parents seek life without religion
(The Tennessean)

…and some that are just plain silly or willfully ignorant:

Atheists trying to replicate church
(Reformed Chicks Blabbing at Beliefnet)

Teaching Children How to Go to Hell
(Covenant News)

For those of us trying our best to articulate a clear and consistent message about what humanism is and isn’t, the key to a peaceful inner life is truly giving up the illusion of control — making peace, once and for all, with the perpetual mutilation of our carefully-crafted memes.

Add that to my resolutions.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.