Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church

Sunny Schwartz, with daughter Ilana, 16 months, attended a recent seminar at Harvard University on humanist parenting.
Sunny Schwartz, with daughter Ilana, 16 months, attended a recent seminar at Harvard University on humanist parenting. (By Robin Shulman -- The Washington Post)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

BOSTON -- They are not religious, so they don't go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.

Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.

"It's exciting to know that we could be meeting people who we might perhaps raise children with," said Tony Proctor, 39, who owns a wealth management company and attended the seminar at Harvard University with his wife, Andrea, 35, a stay-at-home mother.

Humanism is both a formal movement and an informal identification of people who promote values of reason, compassion and human dignity. Although most humanists are atheists, atheism is defined by what is absent -- belief in God -- and humanists emphasize a positive philosophy of ethical living for the human good.

The seminar's organizers wanted to reach out to people like the Proctors -- first-time parents scrambling for guidance as they improvise how to raise their daughter without the religion of their childhood.

"I'm often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion," said John Figdor, a humanist master's of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. "Are we really not tending our own people?"

Across the country, religious observance hits a low for people in their mid-20s and steadily increases after that, "in conjunction with marriage and children," said Tom Smith, of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, which has polled people about religious affiliation and practice for decades.

Religious congregations are good at supporting parenting, said Gregory Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard who organized the seminar. Although most humanists may not believe in God, he said, they do believe in sharing their lives with others who share their values.

"Why throw the baby out with the bath water?" Epstein asked.

Most Americans are religious and believe in God, but a growing number of people have no religious affiliation. In 1990, 8 percent of respondents in the General Social Survey said they identified with no religion. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, the figure had doubled to 16 percent.

In recent years, the chaplaincy at Harvard has hosted humanist speakers such as novelist Salman Rushdie, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). Student interest is booming. But something happens when those students graduate, marry and become parents.

For the Proctors, especially for Andrea, who grew up in a Catholic household, arriving at the seminar took a lifetime of questioning.

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