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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page A10

BOSTON — They are not religious, so they don’t go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.

harvardsem2293Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.

“It’s exciting to know that we could be meeting people who we might perhaps raise children with,” said Tony Proctor, 39, who owns a wealth management company and attended the seminar at Harvard University with his wife, Andrea, 35, a stay-at-home mother.

Humanism is both a formal movement and an informal identification of people who promote values of reason, compassion and human dignity. Although most humanists are atheists, atheism is defined by what is absent — belief in God — and humanists emphasize a positive philosophy of ethical living for the human good.

The seminar’s organizers wanted to reach out to people like the Proctors — first-time parents scrambling for guidance as they improvise how to raise their daughter without the religion of their childhood.

“I’m often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion,” said John Figdor, a humanist master’s of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. “Are we really not tending our own people?”

Across the country, religious observance hits a low for people in their mid-20s and steadily increases after that, “in conjunction with marriage and children,” said Tom Smith, of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, which has polled people about religious affiliation and practice for decades.

Religious congregations are good at supporting parenting, said Gregory Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard who organized the seminar. Although most humanists may not believe in God, he said, they do believe in sharing their lives with others who share their values.

“Why throw the baby out with the bath water?” Epstein asked.

Most Americans are religious and believe in God, but a growing number of people have no religious affiliation. In 1990, 8 percent of respondents in the General Social Survey said they identified with no religion. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, the figure had doubled to 16 percent.

In recent years, the chaplaincy at Harvard has hosted humanist speakers such as novelist Salman Rushdie, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). Student interest is booming. But something happens when those students graduate, marry and become parents.

For the Proctors, especially for Andrea, who grew up in a Catholic household, arriving at the seminar took a lifetime of questioning.

Growing up, she attended church each Sunday, took Communion and was confirmed. She became disenchanted after a sex scandal at her parish was poorly handled, she said. Then in college, she was “exposed to a lot of different beliefs in religions and science. It causes you to question.”

Tony grew up fascinated by his neighbors’ ability to find community at church, which he sometimes attended with them. “Every Sunday they would go to church and see friends. That was a neat thing,” he said.

The Proctors found themselves making decisions about religion when they had a daughter last year. Andrea said her parents asked, “Of course you’re going to baptize her, right?” She answered, “Actually, no.”

Instead, Andrea did a Google search for someone who might perform a nonreligious ceremony to mark Sienna’s entry into the world and found Epstein, the Harvard humanist chaplain.

Epstein officiated at the ceremony, while both sets of grandparents spoke about their hopes and dreams for the child, Andrea said. The Proctors named “guide parents” instead of godparents.

By the time they got to the Harvard seminar more than a year later, they were ready to organize a larger community of families like themselves.

A room full of concertedly nonreligious people has its idiosyncrasies. At the seminar, someone sneezed, and there was a long silence — no one said “Bless you” or even “Salud” or “Santé.”

For sale were T-shirts saying “98% Chimpanzee” or showing a tadpole with the words “Meet Your Ancestor.” There were also children’s games from Charlie’s Playhouse, a Darwinian toy company, illustrating the process of evolution.

A recent study found that many Americans associate atheists with negative traits, including criminal behavior and rampant materialism.

People often ask, “How do you expect to raise your children to be good people without religion?” said Dale McGowan, the seminar leader and author of “Parenting Beyond Belief.” He suggested the retort might be something like, “How do you expect to raise your children to be moral people without allowing them to think for themselves?”1 He advocates exposing children to many religious traditions without imposing any.

At the seminar, Andrea Proctor was thrilled to meet another mother who would like to start a group of parents and children meeting weekly or biweekly.

“We just put a huge pool in our back yard,” Tony Proctor said. “We might have to start humanist barbecue pool parties.”

(Read and comment online. Caution: Many of the comments, as usual, are tending toward the vicious at the moment, so have some eggnog before you read them.)
1Robin did a nice job on this article, but this is not quite what I said. The quote above assumes that all religious parents do not allow their kids to think for themselves, a false and ridiculous assumption. For the record, my suggested reply to the question, “How are you going to raise your kids to be moral without religion?” was this: “Calmly reply, ‘Why, by avoiding moral indoctrination, of course, which research has shown to be the least effective way to encourage moral development. And what’s your plan?'” Oh well. I’m a silly, oversensitive monkey to even point it out.

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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.