Girl Scouts Flap Rears Its Silly Head Once Again

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After reading yet another story on the flap over the Girl Scouts book I wrote, I'm reminded once again at how irrationally freaked out some parents become when their kids are exposed to ideas different from their own. Whether it's nonreligious parents instructing their kids on what to think about Catholicism, or conservatives instructing kids on what to think about gay marriage, the short-sightedness involved in both is the same. Push too hard in one direction and you brainwash your kid, crush their self-esteem and damage your relationship with them in the process. Instead of teaching our kids what to think; we need to teach them how to think. After all, if our ideology is so brittle it can't stand up to a little opposition, then it's not an ideology worth having.  Here's a blog I wrote in January. Thought it was worth a rerun.

So, remember when Glenn Beck's The Blaze accused me of injecting the name of a liberal website called Media Matters into a Girl Scouts book I wrote?And how the story prompted a minor shit storm when Fox News decided to feature the issue on two different segments, the Grapevine and Fox & Friends?

And then remember how then I wrote a response on this blog, mostly to clarify for the conservative newsies that I was not the droid they were looking for?

Last week was fun, wasn't it?

Well, I had kind of assumed the good times were behind us and that the bevy of rabid over-reactions — which included, but were not limited to, someone calling me "a notorious atheist who infiltrated the Girl Scouts" — were in the past. But, thanks to the Lord Almighty, it's not over yet.

On Tuesday, The Blaze published a follow-up story: Author Denies Inserting Media Matters Reference into Girl Scouts Book. The reader response was not nearly as plentiful as it had been to the first story, but the level of vitriol did not disappoint. One Blaze reader likened me to a serial killer.

"Wendy Thomas Russell, the author with ink-stained fingers, said 'It wasn’t me!" wrote this particular reader, whose moniker is Spandamonkey. "Notice the three names, just like a serial killer."

Please tell me Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty is not the only one getting a kick out of this.

Honestly, the name-calling doesn't just amuse me — it fascinates me. As my husband said, “The fact that conservatives are so up in arms because of one link in one book shows how fragile people consider their own values. If conservative values are so frail that they can be completely undermined by exposure to a single slightly progressive website, those conservative values can't be very strong.”

See why I married that guy?

All kidding aside — and, believe me, I've done a lot of kidding in the last couple of days — there are a couple things about this dust-up that really do concern me:

First, it concerns me that the Girl Scouts, a national organization that promotes honor, leadership and citizenship, is being stereotyped as liberal and dangerous to conservative ideals. I worked on three books for the Girl Scouts. I know how stringent the group's guidelines are. I know how hard editors worked to make sure they were being sensitive and fair and true to the Girl Scout’s philosophy and founder every step of the way. The fact that one reference to one  website was made in one book — and it slipped under the GSA radar — does not a conspiracy make. Far from it.

It also concerns me that, despite the amazing opportunities and self-esteem girls receive from the Girl Scouts, parents are now threatening to pull their kids out of the organization en masse. And why exactly? Because they're afraid their kids might see the name of a website? Because they think they might actually — gasp! — look at it and see what it says? Oh no! Crash! Bam! Boom! They saw! They saw! Now they're ruined little whores!

Let's face it, conservative parents are not the only ones who are guilty of running away and hiding their kids from things they don't agree with. Liberals do it all the time, too. Sheltering our kids from political and religious views that scare us is universal. And, yet, it’s so much of what I’m trying to move us away from. As my smarty-pants husband said, if we parents really believe in the strength of own values and beliefs, then we ought to know they’ll compete well in the marketplace of ideas. We ought to be confident enough to let our kids see the world as it really is, and people as they really are.

I'm not saying all liberals should go out and buy NRA subscriptions, or that conservatives need to subscribe to Planned Parenthood newsletters. But do remember: Kids will always benefit from exposure to different ideas, beliefs and ways of life — as long as parents are there to provide a guiding light.

Trust me, they can handle it. And, you know what? We can, too.

Don't Label Me, Man

We humans are all about labels. From such an early age, labels are so central to our identities. We're constantly looking for ways to divide and unify, divide and unify, divide and unify — starting with gender and age, and then blossoming into 150 million other identifying marks. It's all so, well, annoying.

When I decided to write a blog for nonreligious parents, my belief system suddenly became central to my life and work. I've felt I had to label myself as nonreligious — atheist, if pressed. But prior to a year and a half ago, religion played absolutely no role in my life. I didn't think about it. I didn't care about it. I didn't fight about it or talk about it — or not talk about it. When asked, I'd say I wasn't religious, but that was rare because so few people around me seemed to be basing our relationship on that particular piece of knowledge.

Even today, if it weren't for my work, I wouldn't be all that curious about people's religious choices. The way I see it, we're defined by our actions, so when the people around me are humble, noble, gracious, and ethical, I tend to ask approximately zero questions about what made them that way. I don't have time; I'm  too damn busy trying to model that same behavior myself.

Sometimes labeling can be a good thing, I don't deny that. It can make lonely people feel not so alone. It can help organize the disenfranchised and educate the ignorant. But wearing labels can feel really shitty, too. Especially when those labels are used against individuals — to pigeonhole them, prejudge them and put them down. Labels also sometimes remove our sense of independence and freethinking. (The irony, of course, is that even "Independent" and "Freethinking" have managed to become labels of their own.)

This is all to say... oh, hell, I don't even know anymore. I guess I'm just trying to come to terms with the fact that none of the traditional labels of non-faith — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secularist, naturalist, ignosticist, apatheist, etc. — seem really to apply to me. Not when it comes to these labels as "movements" anyway.

Even "humanist" has become a loaded word. At its core, humanism is simply a devotion to the humanities — and it sounds so damn nice, doesn't it? Human, humanitarian, humanity. All beautiful words! "Humanist" seems to roll off my tongue the same way that "atheist" gets stuck in my throat. But, more and more, I see "humanism" acting as a secret code word for "atheism." Which, I suppose, isn't a bad thing. Perhaps "humanism" helps keep stereotypes at bay, at least for a while. Perhaps Nonbelievers Formerly Known As Atheists can relax a little, let their guards down, redirect, refocus, breathe.

So here's my question: Do you think it's important to have a label when it comes to religion/non-religion? Why ? And what the hell do you call yourselves?

By the way, I'm on vacation next week and won't be posting again until after the holiday; so, everyone, enjoy your Fourth of July!

Stereotypes Broken, A Winner is Chosen

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On Monday, I asked the fine readers of this here blog if a religious person had ever surprised them. Not a jump-out-and-say-boo sort of surprise, but rather the kind where a religious person acts or believes in a non-stereotypical way. I also told you that one lucky commenter would be chosen at random to win a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer.

By "random," of course, I meant that my assistant, Isabella Bird, would draw the name. Because, frankly, it felt weird drawing the name myself. And also: It was way cuter this way.

The answers I received were great!

• One of the most touching to me was Karen, who wrote about her next-door neighbor, who is a devoted member of a local mega-church.

“She invited me to her Bible Study once,” Karen said, “but I declined, and without ever having a real conversation about it, she has picked up on the fact that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. She is a wonderful neighbor and would do anything for me, so I was afraid her realization would hurt our friendship. To my surprise, she is just as sweet as ever, and never brings up anything religious around me. One day when her teenage son had some friends over from his youth group, and he invited my son to come over as well, my neighbor was quick to assure me that they wouldn’t be sitting around talking about church stuff. I think she goes out of her way not to make me uncomfortable in any way. She has also surprised me by being quite liberal, and sharing many of my political views. I’m sure we’ll get around to talking about religion one day, and I think it will be an interesting conversation. But right now, I am just glad to have her next door.”

• "B" told about a pastor who once contacted her regarding her opinions on religious prayer at City Hall. She assumed the pastor would try to convert her, but it was the opposite: “He surprised me by genuinely wanting to understand why I do what I do, and what led me to not ‘believe,’” she wrote. “We have since met several times, and the conversations are always interesting.”

• Elaine was able to name four people in her life whose open-mindedness has surprised her. One conservative friend, she said, “has told me she loves the fact that I know more about her Bible than she does, and that inspires her to learn more about her own beliefs.” And two Mormon friends “continuously support me, in every way” and “give me space to even discuss and ridicule their beliefs.”

• Ben said the two most religious people he knows are both people he respects: his father and a colleague. “I respect my father because of the consistency of his belief. He set up a foundational belief that God is first and the Bible is his word. Everything in his life rises and falls on that. Of course, I see this as a house of cards, but I admire his dedication and conviction. I respect my coworker for the humanity of her faith…[She] describes herself as a fundamentalist (Pentecostal) Christian. In spite of her conservative bent, she consistently surprises me with her tolerance and concern for others.”

• Lisa told a fantastic story about how her mother never experienced “faith” so much as she experienced “knowledge.” There wasn’t a part of her that doubted the existence of God or Jesus, or her relationship with them both. As a result, church was a place she went to be with God, not to prove herself to God — or anyone else. "She would sometimes nap during the sermon and when nudged by one of her four children would say, ‘I’m here for God. I can sleep during the sermon.’”

• Annie Neugebauer learned that you can’t tell a book buy it’s cover, or a man by his tattoo. She said she once met a guy with a “religious” tattoo but later found out he doesn’t believe in organized religion at all, but rather “faith and personal study.”

• Melissa said she is constantly surprised by a Christian missionary named Jamie Wright who writes a blog from her home in Costa Rica.You can find it at theveryworstmissionary.com. Perusing some of Jamie's old blogs, I found this paragraph:

“When I get out of the car and am walking up to the entrance of Target, it makes me physically happy. Like, I get this full feeling in my chest, and I get a little pep in my step, and by the time I get to the door a smile has spread across my face.”

That's when I knew, despite our vast religious differences, that she is my people.

Not all surprises, though, were of the pleasant variety.

• Michael Barton shared a sad story about a friend of his who ended their relationship over a Facebook remark.

"A long-time friend and I would always have interesting conversations about religion, I knowing he was a very devout Christian and he knowing I was an atheist. I thought it was great that he was interested in learning more about evolution. And understanding the viewpoints of non-believers. He moved on to Texas for school and I to Montana, and we stayed connected through Facebook, chatting all the time and commenting on each other’s posts. In 2010 (I think), when the National Day of Prayer was big in the news, I had made a comment about it on his page (responding to something he posted about it), and he basically said 'That’s it, Michael. We’re done.' And I haven’t heard from him since. It hurt. We had known each other for over a decade."

• John Holmes made a really intersting observation, too. He agreed that people may be incredible diverse in how they feel about and act on faith, but when they choose to belong to an organized religion, they must take “some responsibility for what religion does in their name. The fact that they don’t take everything in their religion literally doesn’t absolve them of this responsibility.”

John speaks from experience.

“My Catholic wife is always telling me that I should stop focusing so much on the negative things the priests say, but I am concerned that my children hear all the bad things, too.”

Thanks everyone so much for your excellent comments!

And now for the winner.

As it's important to me to do things as traditionally as possible, I pulled down my bowler from the hat rack and put all your names on slips of paper to be jostled about playfully. But, as I soon found out, my assistant was totally not into that. Which she let me know by flying off the table and damn-near ramming her face into the wall. So instead, we decided to put all the names out on the table and let her choose from the pile. She did a great job, too, especially if you're Lisa — because that's whose name she picked out and then shredded to pieces.

Congrats, Lisa! Send me an e-mail, letting me know if you’d like a hardcover or Kindle copy, and all the pertinent info. I’ll get it out to you today!

Has a Religious Person Ever Surprised You?

If there’s anything I've learned from this blog so far, it’s that no two nonbelievers are exactly the same. Each of us brings to the table so many different experiences, philosophies and opinions. Trying to generalize us is simply not possible. Yet we nonreligious types have a tendency to generalize, too. I would love to do one of those free-association tests on atheists. I'd say "religious people," and they'd say the first words that came to mind. What do you think the words would be? It seems more likely, doesn't it, that atheist brains would produce words like "illogical" and "indoctrination" before words like "faith" and "dedicated?"

Unfortunately, tapping a well of negative connotations every time we hear the word "religious" isn't just close-minded; it harms our ability to teach our kids tolerance.

The truth is, there are so many different kinds of beliefs and believers out there. They vary not just in the kind of God or prophet or world view they follow, but also in how they express, use, mold and justify their beliefs. What's more, people may subscribe to certain religions for a host of different reasons, and prefer a pick-and-choose system of belief over a dogmatic one.

I know a Catholic who doesn't believe in the virgin birth, and another Catholic who believes all good people — Christians and non-Christians alike — go to heaven. These are not exactly traditional Catholic ideas. In fact, they run directly counter to traditional Catholic ideas. Yet both these individuals are dedicated to their faith. They attend mass regularly; they have relationships with their priests. Both of these believers are true Catholics. It's just that they also happen to be able to think for themselves.

My grandmother always said there are three things you shouldn't discuss in polite company: sex, politics and religion. These days, it seems, people feel more comfortable discussing sex and politics at dinner parties. But religion? Not so much. When was the last time you questioned someone about their beliefs? Not out of anger or a desire to argue, but out of friendly curiosity and a desire to learn? I don't think many people could answer affirmatively; as a result, we're all left with far more assumptions than knowledge.

Through the last year, I've arrived at the theory that no two people on the planet believe exactly the same things in exactly the same way. That each person's religion, like each fingerprint, is a one-of-a-kind.

I wonder if you've observed this, too. Has a religious person has surprised you? Why? What did he or she do or say to break the image you had formed in your head? Was the new information positive in nature or negative? Did it improve or damage the image?

And to encourage you [lazy bastards!] to answer: On Thursday, I'll randomly pick a name from among the commenters and send the lucky winner a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer (either hardcover or Kindle edition — whichever you prefer.)

Now go!

 

Update: Seen your answers here!

Put Your Hands Up, and Step Away from the Ideology

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So, remember when Glenn Beck's The Blaze accused me of injecting the name of a liberal website called Media Matters into a Girl Scouts book I wrote? And how the story prompted a minor shit storm when Fox News decided to feature the issue on two different segments, the Grapevine and Fox & Friends?

And then remember how then I wrote a response on this blog, mostly to clarify for the conservative newsies that I was not the droid they were looking for?

Last week was fun, wasn't it?

Well, I had kind of assumed the good times were behind us and that the bevy of rabid over-reactions — which included, but were not limited to, someone calling me "a notorious atheist who infiltrated the Girl Scouts" — were in the past. But, thanks to the Lord Almighty, it's not over yet.

On Tuesday, The Blaze published a follow-up story: Author Denies Inserting Media Matters Reference into Girl Scouts Book. The reader response was not nearly as plentiful as it had been to the first story, but the level of vitriol did not disappoint. One Blaze reader likened me to a serial killer.

"Wendy Thomas Russell, the author with ink-stained fingers, said 'It wasn’t me!" wrote this particular reader, whose moniker is Spandamonkey. "Notice the three names, just like a serial killer."

Please tell me Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty is not the only one getting a kick out of this.

Honestly, the name-calling doesn't just amuse me — it fascinates me. As my husband said, “The fact that conservatives are so up in arms because of one link in one book shows how fragile people consider their own values. If conservative values are so frail that they can be completely undermined by exposure to a single slightly progressive website, those conservative values can't be very strong.”

See why I married that guy?

All kidding aside — and, believe me, I've done a lot of kidding in the last couple of days — there are a couple things about this dust-up that really do concern me:

First, it concerns me that the Girl Scouts, a national organization that promotes honor, leadership and citizenship, is being stereotyped as liberal and dangerous to conservative ideals. I worked on three books for the Girl Scouts. I know how stringent the group's guidelines are. I know how hard editors worked to make sure they were being sensitive and fair and true to the Girl Scout’s philosophy and founder every step of the way. The fact that one reference to one  website was made in one book — and it slipped under the GSA radar — does not a conspiracy make. Far from it.

It also concerns me that, despite the amazing opportunities and self-esteem girls receive from the Girl Scouts, parents are now threatening to pull their kids out of the organization en masse. And why exactly? Because they're afraid their kids might see the name of a website? Because they think they might actually — gasp! — look at it and see what it says? Oh no! Crash! Bam! Boom! They saw! They saw! Now they're ruined little whores!

Let's face it, conservative parents are not the only ones who are guilty of running away and hiding their kids from things they don't agree with. Liberals do it all the time, too. Sheltering our kids from political and religious views that scare us is universal. And, yet, it’s so much of what I’m trying to move us away from. As my smarty-pants husband said, if we parents really believe in the strength of own values and beliefs, then we ought to know they’ll compete well in the marketplace of ideas. We ought to be confident enough to let our kids see the world as it really is, and people as they really are.

I'm not saying all liberals should go out and buy NRA subscriptions, or that conservatives need to subscribe to Planned Parenthood newsletters. But do remember: Kids will always benefit from exposure to different ideas, beliefs and ways of life — as long as parents are there to provide a guiding light.

Trust me, they can handle it. And, you know what? We can, too.

"You Worship the Devil!" "You're Homophobic!" ... Um, Guys?

A Tempe family appeared on a billboard this month promoting the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the hope of dispelling some of the myths about nonreligious free-thinkers. The Schinellers — Freddie and Holly and their four children — are pictured alongside the slogan: "Love + critical thinking = open minds."

Sometimes I realize what a bubble I live in. I'm lucky enough to have a supportive family and to live in an area of the country where people don't talk much about religion, much less judge each other for it. But in a place like Tempe, coming out as a nonreligious family is a brave thing.

A quick scan of the Internet reveals some of the more common assumptions about nonbelievers. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • We hate religion and religious people.
  • We raise our kids without a moral code.
  • We want to wipe out Christmas.
  • We're liberal, Fox News-bashing, tax-loving socialists.
  • We're arrogant, angry, militant, selfish and generally unpleasant to be around.
  • We secretly believe in God.
  • We turned away from religion because of a bad experience or trauma.
  • We don't believe in charity.
  • We can't be trusted.
  • We enjoy trampling on people's rights to express their religious beliefs in public.
  • And, my personal favorite, we worship the devil.

Now, I'm not particularly fond of any of these stereotypes. I'm even less fond knowing that children might, at any point, suffer as a result of them.  And, like the Schinellers, I lament the fact that my daughter might be judged by the faith of her family and not by the content of her character. (Something tells me that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a man of deep and abiding faith himself — would understand that lament.)

But let's be honest: Stereotyping is a two-way street. Another quick scan of the Internet reveals some of the more common stereotypes about believers:

  • They want to convert everyone else to their point of view.
  • They think everyone outside their faith will go to hell.
  • They're uneducated, conservative and close-minded.
  • They reject evolution and distrust science.
  • They think everything in the Bible is factual and/or the word of God.
  • They support school prayer.
  • They would never elect an atheist president.
  • They're homophobic and sexist.
  • They love Fox News.
  • They use religion as a "Get out of Jail Free Card."
  • They stereotype nonbelievers.

 

Stereotypes may be built on shaky ground, but they still manage to stay standing year after year. I don't know if it's realistic to hope that our generation can shift the tide of public opinion on either side of the religion debate. Or that we can — in small, everyday ways — make the world a kinder, gentler place for our kids. But I think it's possible. And don't we owe it to the Schinellers to try?

In closing, I'll mangle another brilliant line from a 60s icon: Ask not what others can do to break stereotypes about you. Ask what you can do to break stereotypes about them.