Parents gather to nurture nonbelief
BY YONAT SHIMRON
On Sunday mornings, when many of their contemporaries are taking their seats in church pews, a group of young parents mingle in the living room of a suburban home while their children run around playing games.
This congregation of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., triangle residents has no creed or ceremony, just a desire to get together and offer each other support for rearing children without religion. Taking their cue from a primer of the same name, they call themselves Parenting Beyond Belief, and they meet nearly every Sunday, in a city park, an indoor playground or in people's homes.
Americans unaffiliated with any particular faith have grown faster than any religious group according to two recent surveys of the U.S. religious landscape. These "unaffiliated" have doubled in the past 20 years and now account for 16 percent of the population.
Increasingly, they are vocal about their nonbelief and eager to speak out about it.
"No one should be alone in their disbelief," said Keri Rush, 40, of Wake Forest, N.C.
Not everyone in the group is an atheist. Some prefer to call themselves "freethinkers" or "humanists," or "spiritual but not religious." Some are even believers. But they share a disdain for organized religion and a desire to rear their children with the tools to think for themselves.
These parents know what it's like to fumble for the right answer to questions such as "Why don't we go to church?" and "Is God real?" and they want to share their responses with like-minded parents.
For example, when 6-year-old Evan Spiering announced one day that "God created the world," his father, Todd Spiering, answered, "Grandpa believes that. Some people believe other things."
Spiering, 31, a self-employed carpenter who hosted the gathering Sunday, said he wants his three children to question and probe.
"We don't have to act like we have it all figured out," Spiering said. "I'm more comfortable not knowing."
Only Minneapolis had a parenting group for nonbelievers when Dale McGowan, the Atlanta-based author of "Parenting Beyond Belief," set out to write his book three years ago. Today, there are at least 32 nationwide by his count - the Raleigh chapter being among the most active. A father of three children, McGowan said the idea for the book came to him when his son began asking questions. "I felt like I was shooting in the dark and needed guidance," he said.
Though only the Raleigh group takes its name from the book, the parenting groups consist of families wanting some kind of community to replace the religious one they left behind or grew up without. At last count, 71 people were on the e-mail list.
This group also wants to provide their children the opportunity to be with children from similar homes. On Sunday, parents ladled a cheesy chicken soup into bowls, while the children noshed on crackers, tortilla chips or sandwiches.
Atheism coming out
It's not always easy being an atheist. A 2008 Gallup poll found that only Scientologists fared worse than atheists in the public's views. Both groups ranked at the bottom of the favorability list. Those attitudes are more hardened in the South, where polls show more people identify as religious than in any other part of the country.
"Where I work, I'm not really out as an atheist," Bruce Harris, 36, a graphic designer who lives in Cary, said during the gathering Sunday. "My boss assumes that everyone around him has some religion. It doesn't occur to him that there are atheists."
The group, Harris said, provides him an opportunity to be himself. "You don't have to walk on eggshells," he said.
A spate of books by atheists has helped ease some of the loneliness. Best-selling books such as Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great" and Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" have lent some respectability to nonbelievers, and at the least made their existence better known.
But members of the parenting group said they are not as strident as these writers. The Triangle is also home to several atheist groups, including one organized-like the parenting group - at Do something, Learn something, Share something, Change something - Meetup.com
Several parents said they preferred the company of the nonreligious parent group. Whereas atheists are defined by what they don't believe, members of this group want to be known for their desire to raise caring, responsible, ethical children.
"People think if you don't believe in God you have no morals," said Niki Ashmont, a social worker from Zebulon who attended Sunday. "That's just not the case."