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Let me introducing you to Russ:

russRuss is a theology prof and a dear friend of mine who represents for me all that is good and noble in the faithful. He is a force for good in the world, a kind, gentle and admirable man. If all believers were like Russ, I’d be thrilled. They’re not, of course, but neither is he unique. And whenever I find myself ready to make a categorical statement about the faithful, Russ’s face pops up before me — and he usually looks plenty hurt, because he himself rarely deserves what I’m serving up.

Russ complicates my life in a good way. I’m convinced he’s got it factually wrong, and that he, like most moderate believers, does too little to acknowledge the genuine harm that religion does, but he is a deeply good guy. As a result of knowing Russ, and dozens like him, I avoid generalizations. I cannot oppose an idea just because it is Christian. I’m forced to actually look at it and think about it, to assess it on its merits, because it may be just as good as Russ. I still make critiques — boy howdy, do I — but they are smarter, more accurate, and more on-target because of Russ. I paint just as vividly, but with a narrower brush. That’s a very good thing.

Russes work both ways — all ways. A Russ is someone you know and love who is on the opposite side of any line of difference. The Cheneys got themselves a Russ when their daughter came out as a lesbian. Those Christians who might be angry at the inclusion of a PBB review in their favorite parenting magazine would be opposing something without thinking, just because it is associated with disbelief. I’d guess they don’t have a Russ on that issue, someone they know who would make it tougher to hate and fear nonbelievers indiscriminately. They need to know a good, decent atheist. Fortunately there are millions of them. Of us, I mean.

And they probably already do know some, of course — but the irony is that the very same hatred and fear that can be cured by knowing each other keeps us from revealing ourselves. And on spins the wheel. Once you know a “gay Russ,” why, it’s a hell of a lot harder to hate and fear gays. Same with a black Russ or an Iraqi Russ. Slurs and stereotypes start sticking in the throat. This is why it’s so important for members of marginalized groups to be out.

One of the purposes of the book is to normalize disbelief so that, in the future, everyone will have an atheist Russ in their lives. At which point a book on secular parenting might get about the same reception as one on vegetarian parenting. Parenting Beyond Beef, perhaps.

I’m the humanist/atheist Russ in the lives of many Christians I know. I complicate things for them. My face floats before them and they put away the broad brush. So, nonbelievers: Do you have a Russ? And believers, how about you? I’m available. We won’t always agree, but who needs that? If we can just keep each other’s humanity in sight, we’ll do fine.

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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.