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Guest post by ANDREW PARK
Author, Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not)

I first learned about Dale McGowan in 2007. My initial reaction was utter panic as it appeared he had already written the book that I wanted to write. A year later, knowing a bit more, I attended a Parenting Beyond Belief seminar in Cambridge, Mass., an experience described in detail in the last chapter of Between a Church and a Hard Place. I took a liking to Dale and his easygoing, regular-guy manner immediately. After the seminar was over, we stayed in touch as he graciously helped me with my account, and I came to appreciate the passion and thoughtfulness that suffuses his advice as well as the humble and funny style with which he communicates it. During a reading at my local independent bookseller recently, I said that I had a “giant man-crush” on him. I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but there it is.

I am one of those rare non-religious parents today who is himself a product of a faith-free family. Once, when I mentioned this to someone at a cocktail party, he replied matter-of-factly, “Were your parents academics?” Well, duh. As they had come of age in the 1950s and 1960s, my mother and father had shed the mainline Protestantism in which they were reared. By the time I came along in the early 1970s, they didn’t bother with religion at all. Occasionally, my mother’s misgivings about this choice would result in my brother and I being rounded up for Sunday-morning visits to the Unitarian Church or a Quaker meeting, but the habit never seemed to take, for her or for us.

My mother and father are both dead, so I’ll never know what it felt like for them to be on the vanguard of secular parenting. But I doubt it was easy. In my research, I talked at length with a couple who had been friends with my parents and shared their distaste for organized religion. He is a former Episcopal priest, and as newlyweds, they had been missionaries in Southwest Africa. But they had left church behind by the time they moved up the street from us in my Bible Belt hometown. The father, who taught religious studies at the university with my parents, had even written an academic volume on bringing up children in a “post-Christian age.” So I was surprised to learn that even they, probably the most dedicated Nones we knew, hadn’t felt entirely comfortable in this decision:

They moved in to neighbors greeting them with questions about where they were planning to go to church. Even at the colleges where they taught, where there were many non-churchgoers, they sometimes felt they were on the fringe of society, and there was no one interested in discussing how to handle religion with children when you yourself weren’t religious. When Carol saw other parents on the playground or at school, she avoided all talk of it. Ron, who rejected the term atheist because he didn’t want to be defined by opposition to a worldview that was no longer relevant to him, sometimes called himself ‘modern,’ but more often than not he just kept quiet about it.

Times have changed. Through books and blogs and meetups, non-religious parenting is enjoying much wider acceptance. There’s even one of our own occupying the White House, as Dale pointed out in Cambridge. As it was just a few weeks after the presidential election, that made my heart swell a bit. Yet I get the sense that many people are still hesitant to proclaim that this is a valid way to bring up their children. I see them at my readings, sheepishly approaching me for advice on how to celebrate holidays or fend off a more pious relative. Perhaps it’s the rude rebukes of believers that keeps them quiet. Perhaps the infrastructure to support secular moms and dads hasn’t reached their town yet. Or perhaps we just need a few more Dale McGowans in the world to coax them out of the shadows.

ANDREW PARK is the author of Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) (Avery, 2010). He is a former correspondent for Business Week whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Slate and other national publications. Andrew lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife, Cristina Smith, and their two children.

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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.