Thursday, November 20, 2008

moving from anger to hope

by writerdd

I'm tired of being angry. Have I said that already? I'm sure I have. I am tired of the bitterness, the doom and gloom, the fear mongering, and the angry arguments that have been taking center stage in the national dialog -- and in the dialog between atheists and believers -- for the past 8 years.

I didn't pay attention during this election cycle. I already knew I would vote for the Democratic candidate, and I got so angry during the 2004 election that it almost made me sick. So this year I deleted all the political blogs from my RSS reader, I fast-forwarded through all the political ads on recorded TV, and I skipped the debates. But on November 4, I wanted to watch the election results come in so I turned on CNN and watched all night. All through the evening I could feel an electricity in the air. It was like a fog was burning off or after a long arctic winter the sun was about to rise. The anticipation was palpable. And when the results were announced -- Obama had won! -- and the new President Elect got up to give his speech, I was shivering with excitement. I wanted to shout along with the crowd, "Yes We Can!" I believed that change was coming, and it would be wonderful.

On Wednesday, I heard several Republicans say "Now we're in for it," "the country will be facing a rocky road for a few years," "we're headed for trouble," and "there goes the Constitution." Apparently many of my Christian relatives and friends were afraid and depressed about the election results.

John Marks, author of Reasons to Believe, noticed the same thing:

I wept for joy as I heard [Obama] speak in Chicago. Millions of Americans didn’t. Millions are scared and horrified. This may be sad and even disgraceful, but it’s also true and can’t be wished away. Let’s not get all self-righteous about these nervous Americans. Let’s follow Obama’s lead and see them as our fellow citizens in need of hope and inspiration.

After I recovered from wondering how these people could have missed the rocky road, trouble, and attacks on the Constitution that had occurred during the past 8 years, I found myself wondering how the negative reaction of conservative Christians was different than my reaction after the previous two elections. It also made me think back to my days as a fundamentalist Christian, when there was pressure all around me to be afraid of Democrats, of left-wing heathens trying to destroy morality and bring our culture to collapse. The peer pressure was intense, but having been raised in New York, mother of all blue states, and having been influenced by my teachers and my Jewish-atheist-communist grandfather, probably the most moral and upright person I have ever known, I knew the fear was unfounded. At least in part, the pressures of the fledgling religious right to force all born again Christians to conform to their political agenda pushed me away from the church. And the contemporary fear mongering of the mature religious right, married to the Republican party, gave me a sour taste in my mouth and made me feel that the majority of Christians today are judgmental, bigoted, fools.

Recently I've been in touch with several friends from my born-again days, some of whom are still devout Christians. I don't know what I expected, but they are the same nice, caring, enjoyable people they were when we were friends. They are not clones of James Dobson or Pat Robertson. And I am not a clone of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. I don't want to demonize my friends because of their beliefs and I don't want them to demonize me because of my unbelief. We are not red and blue states, we are the United States, as Obama said; we are not Christians and atheists, we are human beings; we are not believers and unbelievers we are friends and relatives; we are not holy and heathen, we are mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and teachers and firemen and writers and computer programmers.

I still intend to do what I can to combat religious fundamentalism and bigotry in the name of God (and bigotry that has nothing to do with God). And I think that religion, although it is sometimes used for the greater good, has a tendency to decay into legalism and hate of anyone who is "other." Regardless of the good intentions of individuals, the movement of groups is more often inspired by fear than by love. This tendency can make religion dangerous and I hope that individual spirituality will someday replace organized religion. But in the meantime, I also intend to hold out the hand of friendship to people regardless of their beliefs about God, and to find a way that we can all work together to make this country, and the world, a better place for everyone.

I'm tired of being angry. I choose to reject fear. I choose to reject anger. I choose to reject division. I choose to embrace hope.

Cross posted on Sheep to Shawl.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

is religious fervency hormonal?

by writerdd

I don't mean this as a joke, but as a serious question. One of the big turning points for me as I was leaving religion, was realizing that the times I felt moved by the sermons in church were usually when I had PMS. I realized this during a period of time when I was struggling because I couldn't find a church that was meeting my emotional and psychological needs. I was probably outgrowing my need for religion, but I wasn't aware of that yet. Here's a bit I wrote about that memory, and some further thoughts on the topic:

A couple of my friends went to Cleveland Christian Fellowship a few miles south of town. I was, by now, fed up with the internal politics at New Life Bible Church, and had visited Cleveland Christian a few times in the past, so I decided to go there for a while.

It was the most cheerful church I’d ever attended. The worship team led the congregation in upbeat songs with snappy tunes and the band played background music filled with bright major chords. Electric guitars, a synthesizer, and drums made the meeting feel more like pop concert than a church service, and with their big hair and shoulder pads, the worship leader and backup singers looked as if they’d stepped out of an MTV video. Usually the worship leader segued into one or two slow songs, ballads about Jesus or the Holy Spirit, before ending with one last burst of joy and praise. Sometimes there was special music before the sermon, and someone from the congregation sang a popular Christian song accompanied by a karaoke-like recorded arrangement.

When the pastor finally came out onto the stage to speak, everyone was in a great mood, warmed up by the music, ready to be inspired for the week. The sermon was usually upbeat, too. None of fire and brimstone of Calvary Baptist, none of the quiet introspection of Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, none of the intense self examination of the house churches I’d attended, none of the serious study of New Life. Sometimes it seemed to me like this church was not much more than a social club. But I had nowhere else to go.

A couple of months after I started attending, I surprised myself by starting to cry at the end of the sermon, when the pastor asked us to give more of ourselves to the Lord—to pray more, to read the Bible more, to witness more, to praise God more. Whatever I did, it was never enough. I always failed in my attempts to maintain my devotion. I was slipping away again, letting the cares of the world distract me, falling into sin. A tear dripped down my face, then another, then another. I closed my eyes and turned my face up toward heaven to pray, letting the tears flow freely, even though I knew my mascara and eyeliner would run. I needed to find a way to restore my relationship with the Lord and start over once again.

When the service was over, I stopped in the ladies room before driving home and was glad that I had a tampon in my purse from last month. As I took the tampon out of the wrapper, it hit me. I was crying because I had PMS, not because God was speaking to me. Had this happened before? How many times? Had all of my spiritual awakenings been the result of hormone fluctuations? I didn’t want to think about it, but I couldn’t stop myself.

For the last couple of years, I've been feeling an interest in spirituality again (although not in Christianity or any other religion), as I have begun to go through menopause. It makes me wonder if, at least for many women, these feelings stem from hormonal changes. It's always been comforting to me to realize when my bad moods are tied to physical causes, and it would comfort me now to realize that these feelings I'm having can be dealt with medically. It seems to me that many more women than men are involved in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches and other spiritual movements, or at least is is the women who usually start getting involved and the men often seem to go along to keep the peace in the bedroom. I wonder if any studies have ever been done about this.

Cross posted on Skepchick.
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Misquoting Jesus

The other day I found myself getting curious about the curious idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of "God." Not really so that I could debate any fundamentalists; I don't tend to hang out with fundies, and in any case they're impervious to rational debate. Maybe I just wanted to feel smug.

I want to recommend the book I found -- "Misquoting Jesus," by Bart D. Ehrman. It's scholarly but short and readable, and it explores in detail the question of textual alterations in the many copies of the New Testament.

It's no secret that the manuscripts that were eventually stamped with the official seal of approval and became what we know as the New Testament were hand-copied by scribes over the course of hundreds of years, leading inevitably to copying errors. What I didn't quite realize was that here and there, scribes deliberately altered certain passages in order to promote doctrines that they favored and get rid of bits that would appear to support competing doctrines.

Ehrman, by his own account, started out as a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist, but his intellectual curiosity and honesty eventually pulled him away from that position. His own current beliefs are kept scrupulously out of the book, but whatever he may think of Jesus, he makes it clear that the Gospels were written by human beings, who had the usual range of human motivations and failings.

It's a good book. Well worth reading if you're curious about this stuff.
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Friday, November 14, 2008


Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an awful awareness of death. These moments are no fun at all. I envy religious people, who "know" they'll enjoy eternal life. The prospect of eternal nonexistence, however remote it may seem when you're in good health, is difficult to come to grips with. I guess the Catholics have to worry about eternal damnation, but I understand they have some procedures in place for avoiding that outcome.

I don't have a perfect salve to heal this hurt. One thing that helps is if I know I've done things during the day that I truly enjoy. When a day is wasted on stress or mired in mindlessness, the day is gone forever. Looking forward to doing some fun things tomorrow helps too.

I also find that it helps if I spend some time with kids. If you have grandchildren, they may be a good antidote. I'm childless, but I teach private music lessons. Right now two of my favorite people in the world are bright, articulate, inquisitive ten-year-olds.

And as some of my friends in 12-step groups like to say, "H.A.L.T." Don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. When I take care of myself physically, the anxiety recedes, if only a little.

On my tombstone I want a quote from Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower": "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke." Sometimes it's easy to laugh, but sometimes it's not easy at all.
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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Secular Weddings, Secular Rituals

Like many of you, I was transfixed by the events on November 4th, during the elections across this great country. I was also glad to see that someone who is articulate, and skilled at speaking well was the one elected to be our next President. But, while I cheered the idea that we are now electing a man who would not even be able to vote, due to his race, less than 100 years ago, I mourned the idea that the trade off, for some, was to exclude those who love someone of the same sex, and those who are Atheist, are still pariahs.

National Public Radio posted several conversations regarding the recent Bills that were up on ballot boxes, asking if the public would approve the rights for a same sex couple to:
  • Adopt a child;

  • Marry;

  • Have family rights in case one is placed on life support;

  • Have the right to have a school dance include same-sex couples;

  • Have the ability to handle the final arrangements for a domestic partner of the same sex.

The arguments against "Gay Marriage" tend to come from those who believe that religious thought has a place in legal contracts. Aside from having church or chapel weddings, the idea of marriage has been historically of a way to build land, add new family members, and promote a growing community.

Increased land offers increased taxation. Land is built for industry, farming, and services, which is directly used to increase jobs promote increased market and products. The legality of marriage has far more to do with Taxation than religion, and therefore having the argument that "God doesn't recognize marriage between Sam and Dan" doesn't hold water. In fact, many church parishes grew from the addition of families and the land held by these families. Churches exempt from taxation benefit from the land growth, and those who are members, using their property for religious ritual, assist in the avoidance of taxation.

Atheists are often subject to the same arguments of not being able to wed in a church or chapel. Wedding Chapels in Las Vegas do perform rituals for those who are Atheist, and you can request the removal of biblical phrases from the ceremony. Yet, we are told that since we do not hold the tenets of the belief system of this institution, then we are doing nothing more than mocking those who are more pious. This comes from a city that has drive-through chapels, men in capes performing services, and yes, even Elvis as the celebrant.

If we changed the laws to exclude those who do not want to be part of a church, then we exclude homosexual couples who do have a religion belief system in place. If we change the laws to exclude Atheist couples from marrying because their beliefs aren't in tune with those held by the chapels, then we are saying "Take our money, but not our thoughts".

But, both non-wedded domestic partners, who are either gay, or Atheist, or even combination of both, are losing rights by the laws that allow:

  • Insurance for blood related or marriage related relatives;

  • Medical proxy during crucial hospital events;

  • Ownership, property rights, and probate rights- including the dispensing of children after a long term relationship ends, or during a medical crises, or even death;

  • A partner to incriminate another even though married couples don't have that same caveat.

Probate rights are in play most prominently after a loved one dies. The way most Probate laws are written, only couples sanctioned by a religious ceremony, who have their licenses from states supporting the union, are considered "married". But, there is a strong movement towards Secular Ceremony. Whether gay, or straight, the Secular Celebrations community offers the rite of passage from single-hood to wedded bliss. Another Secular Celebration site, done by Humanist Alita Ledendecker is in Tennessee. And, Mel Lipman, the man who helped power up the Freethought Movement everwhere he has ever lived, is finally moving back to Las Vegas to continue his work in providing both wedding and funeral rituals to those who prefer to halt the religious chatter. His work is primarily through the LVFT and HALVOSON movements.

While many people in our country proudly stand against the status quo, and vote for the idea that a black man can lead us, there is still fear over the idea that family, as defined in a religous book, (Torah, Quaran, Bible, etc), will no longer stand as the "right" way to live. In fact, in the last forty years, more divorced couples have raised children than those who have stayed together. More couples who are domestic, and "common-law", as determined by the laws of the states in which they live, end up lasting in their relationships far longer than those who are considered "regular" wedded couples.

The idea that an Atheist can raise a child as a single parent is scary to many people. Yet, when adoption agencies withhold children from these families, they are also teaching a child that being different and thinking differently will only get you punished by the world around them. If we decide, as a country, to unite people in Secular ceremony, rather than religious rite, we are opening the idea that living without the rules of a storybook god won't change that people will love each other, no matter what the sexual orientation, the color of the skin, the accent of their voice- and dedication to that love is what is important.

The government makes money from Wedding Licensing. It loses money from property taxes on churches. It gains money by not recognizing the rights of those who have no legal binding marriage, absorbing property for sale for profit. It gains money from sales taxes relating to the cost of a wedding, and it gains money from the use of permits, and all other expenses relating to weddings. It even has a cut in the cost of plane tickets for the honeymoon. Rather than telling a group or groups of people "we cannot recognize your love for each other", it would be a smart business move to say, "We must recognize the financial contribution you have made because of this union." By removing a church from this equation, it could also gain property taxes from the ritual sites. It is just good business to allow same-sex couples, and Atheist couples to maintain their right to pursuit of happiness by promoting the options for these rituals.

Obama chorused his speech with "Yes We Can". As he did, the numbers fell for those four states who were struggling with rights for homosexual people. The key point people made was "Gay people choose to be gay". Just like that cow that chooses to be a source of milk, it simply is what it is. There are those genetically, and certainly hormonally, different enough to disprove the "choice" theory. The fact is we CHOOSE to be Atheists, whether we're born straight, or not.

The fight is now on, and the world is now ready to battle the next round of human rights. The rights of gay people to be family, and the rights of Atheists to become family without the sanctioning of a religious organization. Can we win this fight despite all of the walls of hate ahead of us? "Yes We Can"

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a peek into my struggles

by writerdd

For the past year, I have been trying to write a book about my de-conversion from Christian to atheist. Actually, it’s something I’ve been working on for four or five years. Last year (2007), I wrote about 30,000 words, stories about my life. This year, I tried to put them together into a book. So far, it’s not working. It’s hard to take 46 years and condense it into something that can be read aloud in six or seven hours. It’s even harder to focus your memories in a way that makes a story that is true and is still interesting to other people. I don’t know why I can’t write this book, actually. When I have written short bits of it and post them on the Skepchick blog, many readers have found them interesting. But when I try to put it together into a book, to create a longer narrative, it all falls apart and turns into a boring pile of shit. (Maybe, I can’t help thinking that my mother is thinking, maybe God is trying to tell you something. Don’t hold your breath, mom.)

So, what is this book I’m trying to write? It is, at least in part, the story of going against the crowd. While America was experiencing a religious revival, fundamentalists were becoming more vocal and prevalent the news, and conservative Christians were filtering up the ranks of government and into the White House, I was losing my faith, quitting church, and voting for Democrats. I’ve never followed trends or been popular, but in the last two decades of my life, I have found myself consistently moving in the opposite direction of society. Everything I have done has been diametrically opposed to cultural trends. While America was becoming conservative, I was becoming liberal. While  mega-churches were growing exponentially, I was sleeping in or going to the movies on Sunday mornings. While Christian books were becoming national best sellers, I was reading and writing about atheism.

It’s not that I’ve been traveling completely on my own. I started writing my book in the wake of 9/11 and under the influence of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Like some readers here, I have felt afraid of and intimidated by fundamentalists. I felt the need to fight against religion and to stop it from encroaching on secular society, the society that I’ve chosen to live in. I felt threatened by the people I used to love, and disgusted by the same religion I used to embrace.

I haven’t even finished a first draft, and I find myself in a completely different frame of mind. Being pissed off all the time is hard, and when I look back into my own past, I don’t see the strident, belligerent, bigoted Christians that I see on the evening news. What happened to the Christians that I used to know? What happened to the churches that I used to enjoy attending? Was it really me that changed, or was it American Christianity? Maybe we grew apart, like lovers who married too young and found, after just a few years, that they no longer had anything in common. At least we didn’t have any children, I can tell myself. Does this make divorce any less painful? 

Now I just find myself feeling confused. I don’t believe in God any more, and I have no desire to go back into a life of faith, but I don’t want to be angry all the time and I don’t want to have my happy memories tainted by more recent stories of religious abuses. I don’t want to demonize good people who are sincerely trying to improve themselves and the world, but I also don’t want to let religious zealots and bigots force me, or anyone else, to follow their antiquated Biblical sense of morality by taking over control of our legislature and courts. I don’t want to ignore the real dangers of religion gone wild, and pretend that the ugliness is not happening because my personal memories are happy.

I constantly have to fight the black-and-white mentality that I adhered to as a fundamentalist. Being an ex-fundamentalist is being like a recovering-alcoholic. You’re never quite free of that past, never able to relax and have just one beer, just one thought. You have to be on guard all the time. In my flight away from fundamentalist Christianity, I found myself with the tendency to fall into a kind of fundamentalist atheism. At first I denied the possibility of the existence of such a thing. Atheists have no holy book, no deity, no sacred creeds, nothing to take literally or to be fundamentalist about. And yet, many atheists and skeptics latch onto the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking that fundamentalists employ. They believe that literalist readings of holy texts and fundamentalist interpretations of religions are more valid than metaphorical readings and liberal interpretations. They see the world as an us-versus-them situation, where you must choose to be on the side of good or the side of evil. The only difference being which side each group considers good.

I don’t want to be a white-and-black atheist fundamentalist any more than I want to be a black-and-white Christian fundamentalist. Like Lokai and Bele, the two-colored men on an old episode of Star Trek who looked identical to the crew of the Enterprise, but who hated each other with a vengeance because one was white on the right side of his body and the other was white on the left, Christian and atheist fundamentalists are nothing more than mirror images of each other, more alike than they are different. Although I still agree that on some level the idea of atheist fundamentalism is an oxymoron, I am beginning to understand how some people can use the term without irony. Can both things simultaneously be true?

To none of my questions can I find satisfactory answers. "I don’t know" goes through my mind more than any other conclusion. It frustrates me, but perhaps ignorance, the admission of ignorance, is the cure to the fundamentalism that has plagued me for so many years.

It’s hard to write a book when you don’t know what you think about a subject. It’s even harder when the book is about your own life and you have no idea where you are going to end up. Sometimes I am afraid my forays into my past will allow the sirens of Christianity to call to me again, that I will once again be sucked into a world of wishful thinking and blind faith. Sometimes I am afraid that I will lose my way and forget who I am and what I’ve been through. I do remember where I came from and a few stops along the way, but the biggest changes in my life happened on days that are forever lost to my memory. So how I can I even begin to tell this story? And why am I obsessed with telling it anyway?

I find myself thinking that maybe it’s too late to write this book. The small wavelet of atheist popularity is over. Once again, I’ve missed my chance to travel with the crowd. Readers are bored with polemics against religion. When George W. Bush leaves the White House, no one will care about religion seeping into politics any more. When the Democrats are back in power, the Religious Right won’t be in the news any more. But I can’t stop thinking about my life and how it has played out against the backdrop of American society. On the other hand, I don’t give a crap about the larger society or any universal messages that might be contained in my story. It is my personal journey and it doesn’t need to be anything need to be anything bigger to be important or meaningful. 

Sometimes I think I need to start the book completely from scratch, but how can I possibly throw away all the words I’ve already written? I need to write, perhaps not a memoir about the past, but two intertwined stories: the story of my previous journey into and out of Christianity, and the story of my explorations of atheism and skepticism over the last few years. To me, the worlds of skepticism and atheism seem just as empty and shallow as the world of Christianity. I don’t find solace in groups or comfort in community. I have to make my own meaning, and create my own purpose in life. As much as I would like to fit in, I don’t. So where does that leave me? Where will that lead me? I have no idea. And if I don’t know where I’m going, how can I write about where I’ve been?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief

annd220909There are countless congratulatory messages for President-Elect Obama this morning, all well-deserved. The most remarkably gifted presidential candidate of our time managed somehow to negotiate an unimaginably grueling campaign, and we, despite ourselves, managed to elect him. Shout-outs all around.

But I wanted to take a moment to recognize one of the people who by Barack's own account helped make him what he is -- his nonreligious mother, Ann Dunham.

It should be a matter of no small pride to nonreligious parents that the next President -- a man who has been praised for his ethics, empathy, and broadmindedness -- "was not raised in a religious household."1 It's the other, undiscussed first in this election -- the first black President is also the first President with a completely nonreligious upbringing.

"For all her professed secularism," he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known." And even as she expressed her deeply-felt outrage over those aspects of organized religion that "dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety [and] cruelty and oppression in the garb of righteousness," she urged her children to see the good as well as the bad. "Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example," said Barack's half-sister Maya. "But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways."2

Ann recognized the importance of religious literacy and saw to it that her children were exposed to a broad spectrum of religious ideas. "In her mind," Obama wrote,

a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part--no introspective exertion or self-flagellation. Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways -- and not necessarily the best way -- that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.3

Maya remembers Ann's broad approach to religious literacy as well. "She basically gave us all the good books — the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute."4

In this and several other respects, Ann Dunham was a nonreligious parent raising a child in the 1970s according to the exact philosophy of Parenting Beyond Belief -- educating for tolerance and empathy, lifting up those religious ideas that are life-affirming while challenging and rejecting those that are life-destroying, and seeking the human foundations of joy, knowledge, and wonder of which religion is only a single expression -- "and not necessarily the best."

Barack went on to identify as a Christian. Whether this is a heartfelt position or a political necessity is less relevant than the kind of Christianity he has embraced -- reasonable, tolerant, skeptical, and non-dogmatic. His examined and temperate faith is something he sees as deeply personal, possibly because he had the freedom to choose and shape it himself -- precisely the freedom I want my children to have. It is difficult to picture this man forcing his religious opinions on others or using this or that bible verse to derail science or justify an arrogant foreign policy. It's not going to happen.

It is impossible for me to picture this man claiming God has asked him to invade [insert country here] or that ours is a Judeo-Christian nation. In fact, when he lists various religious perspectives, there is an interesting new entry, every single time:

(Full speech here.)

Is it a coincidence that a child raised with the freedom and encouragement to think for himself chose such a moderate and thoughtful religious identity? Surely not. And if my kids choose a religious identity, I'm all the more confident now that they'll do the same. anno2209Just like Ann Dunham, I don't need to raise kids who end up in lockstep with my views. If our kids turn out anything like Barack Obama, Becca and I will consider our contribution to the world pretty damn impressive, regardless of the labels they choose to wear.

Neither do I think it's a coincidence that the man who has inspired such trust, hope, and (yes) faith is the product of a home free of religious dogma. This is what comes of an intelligent and broadminded upbringing. It's one of the key ingredients that have made him what he is.

So thank you, Ann, from all the nonreligious parents following in your footsteps. We now have a resounding answer for those who would question whether we can raise ethical, caring kids without religion:

Yes We Can.
1Audacity of Hope, p. 202.
2Ariel Sabar, "Barack Obama: Putting faith out front." Christian Science Monitor, 06/16/07.
3Op cit, 203-4.
4Op. cit.
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