Homeschooling: My Experience

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As you may know if you’ve read some of the posts on my blog, I was homeschooled for the majority of my education. As a homeschooler, I used to get a lot of questions in my daily life about whether or not I enjoyed it, how I made friends, etc. I always answered those questions positively, but lately I’ve had some negative feelings towards my personal homeschooling experience, and a change of heart in how I think homeschooling should be treated by the government. I don’t think it should be banned, nor do I think that every family that homeschools does so for the wrong reasons. However, I might personally have benefited from going to public school in high school, or from being homeschooled in a different way. I can’t possibly cover all of the details of my entire homeschooling experience in one post (it encompasses the majority of my education, with the exception of 9th grade and college), but I’ll summarize what I remember and discuss my working opinion on it.

My homeschooling experience was pretty good in elementary school. My mother taught me how to read, and how to do math, as well as other subjects. While I did get a bit behind in math (I took forever to learn multiplication), I loved being homeschooled. I had plenty of close friends who were my age–most of them also homeschooled–who either attended church with me, or went to the same weekly co-op* classes.

Well into my elementary school years, but not quite at the end of them, my younger brother was diagnosed with dyslexia, and my mother began to focus most of her attention on him. While I probably didn’t experience as much educational neglect as some, even my mother will admit that she found herself focusing less and less on my education in order to help my brother learn to read. She also had to walk him through other subjects since he couldn’t sit down and read a chapter in a textbook by himself, or fill out a workbook without assistance reading and writing. His dyslexia was severe; eventually she realized he was beyond any assistance she could give him, and put him in public school. I don’t blame her for spending so much time with him initially in the hopes that she could continue to homeschool him. However, I am frustrated that she never really returned to me afterwords. Even after he went to school, she supervised my education about as much as a high school substitute teacher does.

Because I loved to read, I was reading–Nancy Drew and The Saddle Club, but from about fifth through 8th grade, I learned very little without teaching it to myself. How was I supposed to know what I should be learning about? My mother did give me educational materials, but because she barely supervised me, I excelled in the subjects that interested me and almost completely ignored the ones that didn’t. Thankfully, she found some decent math books (The “Key To” workbooks saved me from complete mathematical incompetency.) So I began to make up for lost ground in math. She also gave me books on ancient Greece and Rome, and I completely devoured the book on Greek Myths she gave me. I recently found a timeline she helped me make, which I never finished. It began with the creation story, and included such Biblical adventures as “The Flood,” interspersed with real historical events. There was a constant thread of Christianity throughout my education, and it invaded every subject. Even the Key To books were made by a Christian company.

9th grade was terrible. My mother decided she didn’t have it in her to homeschool me through high school (not that she was supervising me much to begin with), so I asked to go to Catholic school. The one I attended turned out to have a terrible administration, and a heavier workload than what I have in college right now as a senior. I was a straight A student somehow, but I was exhausted and miserable. Because it was a private school, my parents blew what little money they had saved for my future college education paying for it; (which shows they didn’t have much saved up, but still). In hindsight, I should have gone to public school. Seeing how miserable I was, my mother took me out of that school at the end of the year to homeschool me again. She told me public school was my other option, but I refused at that point. I didn’t think it could be any better than the private school, since that was “real school” too, and my experience had been so terrible.

Homeschooling for high school was very different from homeschooling for the lower grades. There are fewer people who continue all the way through those years, so I often lost my peers to traditional education. Another way in which high school homeschooling differs from other years is that for many families, the question of being able to get into college is a big deal. This means being more organized, perhaps even homeschooling through a school that provides a diploma (I used NARHS). This was a good thing, because for once I was keeping track of my courses, the time I spent doing them, and what I did. My mother got me involved with a Catholic homeschooling co-op too, thinking that would be a great way for me to meet more high school aged homeschoolers, and take some classes. The co-op involved families with children of all ages, and the year I joined, about two thirds of the high schoolers were about to graduate. I didn’t make many friends there, though. I quickly discovered that they were from a stricter form of Catholicism than my parents–something I hadn’t known existed.

I’m working on a page about this now, but basically, some Catholics refuse to acknowledge the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II), and insist on some rituals that seem antiquated to the more mainstream, Roman Catholics. Wikipedia describes this stricter group as “Traditionalist Catholics,” but I knew them as Tridentine Catholics–“Tridentine” referring to the type of mass they attend, which is always in Latin.  Since my experience with this group, I’ve heard them referred to as “fundamentalist Catholics.” While they aren’t Biblical literalists, that description and the negative connotation of “fundamentalist” illustrates the way I felt about many of their beliefs, even when I was a practicing Catholic.

To make a long story short, these people were Catholic versions of the Duggar family. The average number of children in a family was somewhere around six or seven. It would be higher except for those families with low fertility or who married at an older age. I knew one woman who had birthed twelve children naturally. Another mother at that co-op told me that Catholics need to have lots of babies because Muslims are having more babies than Catholics, and it’s important to maintain a Christian majority. Most of the Tridentine women also followed what they referred to as “Vatican Modesty Guidelines.” I had to do a bit of searching to find what they were talking about–something about necklines and two fingers…but I found this page here, and suddenly understood why they all dressed like they were from the wrong decade, while the boys dressed normally. (The Duggars dress a lot like them, if you’re curious as to what that looks like.) The Tridentines had sexist habits too, for example, they always asked boys to lead prayer if there were any on hand, even if the only one available was six years old and not particularly good at leading prayer. Not only did I not fit in in my jeans and t-shirts, but I was also a woman. I soon discovered that the preferred Tridentine options for my gender were between perpetual baby making and joining a convent, neither of which appealed to me. I wanted 2.5 kids and a nuclear family, a fairly conservative aspiration, and for that, I was strange.

After two years of not learning much at co-op, and rebelling a little, my mother sent me to my local community college to take classes. It was a fantastic decision. I earned transferable college credits that wound up saving me time and allowing me to take more courses that interested me when I became a real undergraduate. I also learned real information. I took a chemistry course–my first well-taught science course, perhaps in my entire life. I also took intro to psychology, a course I recommend to everyone. Aside from my time at the community college, most of my homeschooling experience in high school was useless as far as learning is concerned. I was thoroughly under prepared for my college major (English) because I read very little cannon literature in high school, and did little to no analysis of what I read. My mom didn’t know what was typically required and didn’t bother to research it for the most part (or didn’t implement what she’d researched). I took two years to finish geometry, and the same amount of time to finish biology, and can’t remember much. I taught myself algebra II, and wound up retaking it in college. I taught myself physics, inventing my own labs, and I’d be lying if I said I actually learned anything. The best I could do was memorize. I couldn’t really apply much of my knowledge. Lucky for me, the tests weren’t hard.

One of my biggest complaints about my homeschooling experience is the quality of the educational materials with which I was supplied. My mother, like many of the Christian and Catholic homeschoolers we knew, believed that Christian publications were the best option, since they proclaimed God-centered facts. The problem she didn’t anticipate was that in order to do this, they often had to teach false or irrelevant information. Take the American history book that was forced upon me in high school, for example. My middle school years had been filled with trips to historic sites in places like Williamsburg and Philadelphia, so I had a clear sense that America had more protestant than Catholic influences, but this book begs to differ. In it, I learned a version of American history that emphasized Catholic contributions to US history above all others, and frankly stretched some facts upon further examination.

Perhaps the worst texts I ever used were the LIFEPAC high school health workbooks from Alpha Omega publications. The name of the publisher alone gives away the bias, and boy did it have one. It was a fundamentalist health text that spent way too much time on spiritual instruction and skipped sex ed altogether. It also contained tons of outdated information that even I, sheltered and under instructed though I was, noticed.

I did graduate with a high school diploma. I did finish my work. The paperwork says I was educated, but in hindsight, I beg to differ. I’ve spent every year of my college education playing catch-up in my classes, and in my social life. My home education did not prepare me for life outside of home. I prepared myself for that life with little assistance in far too many areas.

Because of my experience, I support legislation that would set some regulations for homeschooling. I’d like it to remain legal, but there needs to be a system in place to prevent educational neglect, while still giving parents the freedom to help their children learn at their own pace and in whatever learning style that best suits them. I personally believe that homeschooled students should be evaluated about once per year, maybe twice. They should have to show that they’re actually doing work. I strongly feel there should also be legislation preventing parents from using propaganda textbooks. Sure, teach your kids your religion, but don’t corrupt their education with it by refusing to teach them anything else. I’m fine with parents choosing their texts as long as the options are all actually good, factual ones. Currently, there are way too many pseudo-educational texts, and homeschoolers use many of them.

The problem I have with homeschooling isn’t homeschooling itself. It’s the fact that so many families choose it in order to shelter and indoctrinate their children. I was hardly exposed to non-Catholics prior to college. I didn’t learn how sex worked until I was 15, and many of the “facts” I was given about it at the time were incorrect because I learned them from another high school kid.

This sheltering and indoctrination is what I often jokingly refer to as homeschooling “on the wrong side of the closet.” It’s a serious problem though. Some children enter the world having no idea that a fair number of the people they’ll meet in the working world will not follow their exact form of Christianity, will not be straight, will not be white, and will not be republican. It shocked the heck out of me when I first realized as a college freshman that the majority of students in one of my classrooms thought the legalization of gay marriage in the US was inevitable. I agree with those people now, but I used to think it couldn’t possibly be true; everyone I’d met before then, except for a handful of people, supported DOMA. I was so sheltered that I hadn’t been exposed much to democrats. I don’t want future children to be as unaware of reality as I was, or to grow up without ever being taught important facts. I want them to be more prepared than I was for everyday life outside of their parents’ watchful over protection.

What are your thoughts on homeschooling? Have you had an experience with it? Feel free to comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think through your comments before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

 

* (In homeschooling “co-op” is when a group of parents who live near an area, often but not always subscribing to the same religious beliefs, get together regularly with their kids, and the parents take turns teaching classes to groups of the kids in subjects that they’re good at. A parent with an art background taught art, one with a chemistry background would teach chemistry, etc. It’s as close to traditional school as homeschooling usually gets.)

 

 

On Banning Religious Attire

Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A while ago, I made a post about variety of practice and religious head coverings. To summarize what I covered there, in countries with secular governments like the US, people are generally free to practice their religion to whatever extent they feel is best, and in whatever way they feel is the correct way to practice it, so long as they don’t infringe on other people’s rights. Some people in a religion will follow every teaching to a T, while others may pick and choose what aspects are important to them. Head coverings are a great way to observe variety of practice because they’re visible. I go to a fairly diverse school, and live in a fairly diverse area. I’ve met Muslim women who wear the niqab, or hijab, and other Muslim women who wear their hair loose and enjoy the freedom of spaghetti straps and shorts. I’ve also seen Sikhs who cut their hair, and Sikhs who wear turbans. I’ve even met Christian women who choose to cover their heads for religious reasons.

While I think religions are a complete waste of time, I respect and support the rights of people to practice their religions as they see fit, so long as, again, they are not infringing on other people’s rights. To be clear, I don’t support parents or spouses of adult women insisting that those adults wear certain clothing, but if a woman wants to make that decision for herself, who am I to tell her what to wear?

In light of the recent events in France, there has been a new push to fight against radical Islam, and with it (partially thanks to a woman being a suspect in those events), there have been an influx of posts on social media seeking bans on Muslim religious attire. While it’s no secret that I dislike religion, I can’t get behind posts like this, which a friend of mine shared from Britain First’s Facebook page:

Image from Britain First's Facebook page.

Image from Britain First’s Facebook page.

Do Burkas and other garments that conceal people’s identities make me uncomfortable? Somewhat. Do they make a lot of people uncomfortable? Yes. But so do ski masks, and I don’t see a huge push to ban those. Frankly, in the winter, ski masks are very useful. In a bad storm, even I will cover my head and face and hardly show any more skin than the woman in the above photo. The discomfort we feel from not knowing someone’s identity does not mean he or she needs to reveal it.

I do think that some religious garb might not always be acceptable in the workplace, but a good reason for banning the religious attire should pertain to the article of clothing hindering the person’s ability to do the job. A waitress, cashier, or business owner wearing a hijab (headscarf) is not a problem. Restrict the same person to a burka though, and you might have an argument for requiring different garb, because it might get in the way.

In preparation for making this post, I read some arguments for banning the burka, and many of them didn’t really apply to the article of clothing itself, but rather to the attitudes surrounding them, and to other issues it might somehow hide. Some arguments pertained to domestic violence. Can the burka cover up abuse? Potentially. So can long sleeves, hats, scarves, and gloves…should we ban those too? One article argued that domestic abuse is higher in countries that allow the burka. What it didn’t mention, is that a fair number of those countries in question actually require the burka–and I’m not advocating for that. When you’re talking about women choosing to wear an article of clothing rather than being forced to wear it, the whole picture changes. Some say it isolates women, and I’ll concede to that point. But some religious people WANT to isolate themselves. I don’t like it, but if a person says “I’m not going to talk to anyone for a year,” that’s that person’s decision to make, not mine. That’s a pretty isolating thing to do, but I’m not going to call for that person’s arrest, nor will I call for the arrest of a person choosing to wear a garment that hinders social interaction. That’s the individual’s decision.

I’m not involved in Islamic communities, nor am I particularly experienced with the religion, so I don’t know what people in these communities are saying, but I think western countries need to think about the laws they make and how they’re worded. Entire groups of people can feel alienated and angry over being forbidden to practice their religion in some way, so any rule prohibiting some form of religious practice needs to be well justified. No, child sacrifice is not allowed–that’s murder. That’s well justified. But banning the burka throughout an entire nation? I’m not convinced.

I would argue, though, that Muslim women should consider the reason behind their choice of attire. Don’t do it to satisfy someone else. Do it because it makes you feel happy. If it doesn’t, then don’t wear it. If it’s making your life difficult, is it really worth it? I suspect that burkas can contribute to objectification of women because they cover their faces–the body part that makes them recognizable as individuals rather than simply as a generic woman. As with many pro-modesty arguments, people on the other side might say just the opposite:  that it prevents women from being objectified. However, I think that a focus on preserving individuality is necessary to prevent objectification.

From my experience in a strict religious upbringing, (albeit Catholic rather than Islamic), I feel that the main problem when it comes to clothing in devout communities isn’t the clothing itself. It’s the attitude behind it and the way it is enforced. It’s the fact that religious leaders and parents often force their children–usually daughters–to dress and act a certain way, well after they’ve reached legal adulthood. It’s the emphasis on ideas that hurt both genders like the incorrect notion that all men are extremely sexual and women are responsible for preventing them from lusting. Those things need to be corrected from within each religion’s culture, but ultimately, a woman walking by in a burka isn’t harming me or the people around me. I just hope she’s genuinely choosing it for herself.

What are your thoughts on banning the burka? Are there arguments I didn’t cover that you think are worth considering? Do you disagree? All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think your comments through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

 

A Brief Announcement

My last semester of college just started. I’m actually typing this post in-between classes. I’m going to have to post every one to two weeks unfortunately, due to a hefty workload and  perhaps too many extracurricular activities. I will make an effort to be as regular as I can, though. Once I get into my schedule, I plan to pick a day of the week and make that my posting day. It will probably be a weekend.

After college, I plan to up my posting regularity to twice a week as long as that isn’t too tough with whatever work schedule I end up having. That’s it for now! A new post is in the works, as well as a page I promised ages ago.

-Nancy

Being (Mostly) Openly Atheist

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When it comes to my atheism, I am mostly out of the closet. My parents know. My boyfriend knows (and turns out to have become an atheist right around the same time). My friends at college know, as do the majority of my professors (They’re fantastic). My parents took it the worst, but ultimately, so far, everyone has accepted that I no longer believe in God. Everyone, that is, except the people I’ve conveniently neglected to tell.

1 – My extended family.

2 – My godparents.

3 – My family’s church friends.

Basically anyone I don’t at least interact with on a weekly basis.

At first, I explained my decision not to tell them with the notion that they didn’t need to know–which was true. They didn’t. But then I found myself in a bit of a tricky situation over the weekend. There was a death in my family, and at the funeral (which was, of course, a mass), the time came for everyone to receive communion.

If I chose to receive it, I would gravely offend my parents, who taught me that receiving communion while not in good standing with the church (which I’m not, since I no longer attend mass) is a mortal sin–the worst kind of sin. Because I don’t believe, I don’t care about the part where that offends God. Nevertheless, I don’t want my parents to be miserable, thinking about how my soul’s been further damned by such a heinous sacrilege against the real presence of Jesus, whom they believe the bread and wine become in the Eucharist. I know my parents. They’ll spend ages praying for me and freaking out about what God might do to me if I stand up and eat a cracker that He’s chosen to grace with His presence. My other option was simple:  don’t receive communion. That choice came with repercussions too, though:  I would be outing myself as a sinner of some kind, if not specifically an atheist. Why is that, you ask?

There are only a few reasons not to receive communion:

1) Failing to fast adequately (1 full hour) before communion

2) Not being in “good standing” with the church. This can range from “Oops, I committed a mortal sin and haven’t been to confession yet,” to “I’m not Catholic.” Both apply to me. (For more details on who is and isn’t allowed receive communion, check out this link.)

Because I arrived early to the funeral (It took place two hours away, so we gave ourselves extra time getting there), everyone knew I had fasted the required 1 hour. They also assumed I was a devout Catholic, because that’s how my parents raised me. While one extended family relative did know (that Buddhist uncle I mentioned in my post on belief in an afterlife as a coping mechanism), I assumed that no one else did. I hadn’t told them. My grandparents were there! I didn’t want them to know.

Maybe they won’t notice if I don’t receive I thought as I waited for everyone to arrive. When it was time for the funeral to begin, I realized to my horror that there were only 10 people there. (The relative who passed away had been estranged from the family, and seemingly from everyone, since really only family and some close friends of ours came, none of whom knew him except for my grandma.) That meant that if I didn’t receive communion, people would notice.

I realize this seems like I’m making a big deal out of the decision of whether or not to participate in a meaningless ceremony, but Catholics can be very judgmental. This is the same issue Catholics who use contraception, or have premarital sex, or cohabitate face every Sunday. They technically can’t receive communion in a state of sin (and there are supposedly grave repercussions if they do for their souls,) but if they choose not to, it casts suspicion on their behavior.

In the end, I chose to make life easy for my parents, who I’ll have to live with at the end of next semester since I’ll be graduating in May. I stayed in the pew and let everyone else receive “Jesus.” No one said anything to me. I hope my grandmother wasn’t looking as people went up to receive. As I waited in the pew, I realized that most of the people who received were the row in front of me:  my parents and grandparents. My brother received communion too, as did one of the family friends. My cousin and aunt, sitting beside me, didn’t receive either. They’re atheists too. I can’t remember if my uncle did, but I really don’t care. What I realized suddenly, sitting in that pew, abstaining from the cardboard-tasting unleavened bread I’d eaten every Sunday since second grade, was that I was in good company. I wasn’t the only non-Catholic there. My grandmother’s best friend, who is Jewish, had come. My uncle, the Buddhist, contributed by reading the first scripture reading. My cousin and aunt, my fellow non-believers, were sitting right next to me. Five out of the ten people there weren’t Catholic. Many of us had been raised that way, but this funeral wasn’t our cup of tea.

I got lucky when it came to communion. The only person who said anything to me was my atheist cousin, who proudly showed me the notes she’d taken in her cell phone during mass. They were her thoughts on the religion, such as “priests need to get laid.” and “Quick, the church needs new seats! Give me money!” Some of them were downright hilarious, and I enjoyed laughing with her and sharing an atheist moment with a relative. My brother joined us and read some, admitting that despite his reception of communion, he considers himself agnostic right now, bringing the total number of non-Catholics at the funeral to a whopping 6/10. That’s 60%. I’m increasingly thinking that being openly atheist might not be a bad thing. Overall, those 10 members of my family and its close friends weren’t exactly lacking in religious diversity. I was just happy to not be the only non-Catholic there. I’m not sure if I’ll go out of my way to tell my grandparents about my atheism, but at least it seems I can relax and be myself around them. In my panic, I had forgotten that I wasn’t the first one to ditch Catholicism.

That just leaves two more groups:  Godparents, and my parents’ religious friends. My godparents came over to dinner a few nights ago, and I said grace for the first time in a while, just to dip back into the closet for one meal. They’re very sweet, but they’re devout Catholic republicans who moved to the south and love it there for all the wrong reasons. I also have more education than they do, even though they’re older than my parents and I haven’t yet finished college. The disparity in education is sometimes glaring, which makes me nervous about their ability to think critically and take the news objectively. Then there’s that last group. My parents’ religious friends believe in spiritual warfare and possession. (Not sure what that is? Check out my post about it here.) I think it’s safe to say I’ll be sticking to the closet with those two groups for as long as I can.

Overall, so far, being out has been good for me. It’s been emotionally freeing, and if you read my “Why Atheist?” page you’ll see that it’s gotten me out of attending mass. I know that not everyone has such a positive experience with coming out as part of a minority group, though. Feel free to comment with any stories you have about being openly atheist, or otherwise being yourself in a way you weren’t sure your family or other people would understand and accept. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think your comments through before posting.

As always, happy thinking!

-Nancy

Better Dead Than in Sin: Ideas that Led me to Atheism

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the reasons I started this blog was to express some of the ideas that led me to atheism. I’ve done a fair amount of commenting on issues I find important, so I’d like to spend a few posts on some ideas that really sent me running from my devout Catholic upbringing. This post is about a big one:  the idea that it is a good thing for a person to die young if he or she is pure enough to instantly go to heaven. It sounds sad, but the theology behind it is well established. In fact, it is an idea that I saw celebrated in Catholic stories a lot as I grew up. I’ll give some examples of those stories here, and then attempt to explain why I have a problem with the idea, and why perfectly kind, sane people come to this conclusion.

I first encountered this idea while watching the Spanish film The Miracle of Marcelino. My parents stumbled upon it in a Catholic book shop and sat us down to watch it as a family. You can find out more about the film here, but to give a quick summary (with spoilers, sorry), there’s a boy named Marcelino who’s an orphan raised by a bunch of monks in a monastery. The monks forbid him from going to the attic, but one day he goes there and finds a huge, life size statue of Jesus on the cross. He talks to the statue, and offers bread and wine to the statue…which then takes the bread. The statue is alive! Jesus teaches the boy things, and offers Marcelino a wish. Marcelino wishes to see Mary, Jesus’ mother–and to see his own mother, too. Jesus tells him he will “have to go to sleep” for that to happen, and opens his arms for the boy to sleep in them. The boy obeys, and the audience understands that he has died and gone to heaven. Oh happy day!

The ending of that movie always bothered me. Why was this boy’s early demise being celebrated? Forget heaven; when a child dies, it’s supposed to be a tragedy! He had so much life ahead of him, and Jesus–of all people–KILLS him! I understood that it was a happy ending because he was going to heaven, but I always maintained some irritation with the ending.

Around the time that I encountered that film, I was involved in a Catholic girls group called “Little Flowers.” They’re meant to be kind of like a Catholic version of Girl Scouts–only, we did pretty much nothing that the Girl Scouts do, to my knowledge, except wear sashes with badges. We earned those badges by memorizing Bible verses, and learning about saints and the virtues they exemplified. (The group is named for St. Therese, and you can learn more here if you’re so inclined.) One saint we studied was St. Rita, whose story definitely relates to this post.

I won’t tell the whole story (more of which can be read here) but basically, St. Rita married into a family that was feuding violently with another one. Her husband eventually renounced the feud, supposedly thanks to her influence, but not everyone in the two families did. Because of this, her husband wound up getting killed by members of the other family in the feud. Rita’s sons, who it is alleged were good Christians up to this point, decided to avenge their father. Rita tried to convince them not to, but when that didn’t work, she prayed to God to take their lives before this tragedy could occur. If they murdered someone, that would damage their immortal souls with mortal sin. Wikipedia explains: “Her sons died of dysentery a year later, which pious Catholic beliefs claim was God’s act to take them by natural death rather than risk them committing a mortal sin punishable by Hell.” Of course, the idea that God killed her sons was stated as a fact in the version of her story I was told. That pissed me off even more than the Marcelino story. At least the Marcelino story could be taken as the boy’s choice, since he asks to see Mary and his mother, (though I don’t think he even fully understood that he would have to die in order to do that,) but this is a mother actually praying for God to kill her sons! I was horrified. Even as a devout Catholic, I openly despised St. Rita.

Years later, when I was a sophomore in college, one of my English professors assigned a number of Flannery O’Connor stories, some of which–you guessed it–contain the theme of this post. Considering her biographical information, I wasn’t surprised to encounter this idea in her work. O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic who grew up in Georgia. She lived from 1925-64, and was a prolific writer who listed Catholicism as her main reason for writing. Her target audience were non-believers, and those of little faith. There are a few examples of this idea in her stories, but the one I’d like to focus on is the one involving a particularly young child. In her short story titled “The River,” a little boy named Harry, raised by faithless, neglectful parents, is brought by his babysitter to a religious event. At the event, a preacher baptizes people in a local river while proselytizing. For the first time, the little boy learns about Jesus and heaven, and is baptized. He is only four or five years old though, and misunderstands the preacher, who says that the way to get to heaven is through the river. The preacher was talking about baptism, but Harry takes it literally. The next day, thanks to his parents neglecting him again, Harry makes his way to the river with a pedophile on his trail. The pedophile doesn’t catch him though, because Harry throws himself into the river trying to get to heaven, drowning himself. It isn’t an intentional suicide. He doesn’t understand what he’s doing, and he got baptized the day before, so he’s definitely going to heaven! Isn’t that great?

Maybe I was always a little skeptical, but even as a Catholic, reading that story, I didn’t find it to be a happy ending. Famously, however, O’Connor did. He goes to heaven, and escapes a terrible life at the hand of neglectful parents! He also doesn’t get raped! Isn’t that a good thing? While I admit that the rape would have been tragic had it happened to such a young character, I can’t shake my disgust with her for thinking that ending his life at such a young age is a good idea. She’s the writer. She could have found plenty of other ways for him to achieve salvation without him dying, couldn’t she?

I’m not the only atheist who can partially attribute a deconversion to this idea. In Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show about her deconversion  from Catholicism titled Letting Go of God, she describes an experience after a retreat in high school where this idea came into play:

I remember after the retreat all of us seniors were in this bus going back to school on these really scary, winding switchback roads, and another senior, Larry…turned to me with this big beatific grin on his face and he said, “Just think, if this bus got into a big accident right now and we were all killed, we would all probably just go straight up to heaven.” We all nodded like “Yeah! Our souls are so clean and pure at this moment, how wonderful would it be if we were all killed in a big bus accident right now, because we’d all fly straight up to Fred!”

(Fred was the name the retreat leaders had decided to use instead of “God.”) As I listened to her story (which is a long but entertaining one that’s available on YouTube at this link, if you’re interested.) I realized I really related to what she was saying. I had thought the exact same thing at various times in my life. I remember walking out of confession, saying my penance, feeling clean and pure, and thinking, how long do I have to stay like this? How long can I keep this up? Keeping my soul spotless felt just like trying to keep my room clean. It might last a day, or a couple of weeks if I was lucky. Eventually the laundry would pile up, my books would get strewn across the floor, and my pairs of shoes would wind up separated by great distances under more dirty laundry. I couldn’t keep it up. What if I were able to die immediately after confession? I’d be spared the torment of purgatory (or worse if I’d been especially bad) and go straight to heaven!

After thinking this, I’d always feel disgusted with myself. I don’t want to die young! I love life. I really enjoy being alive. I enjoy creating things. I enjoy painting, and making music. I enjoy thinking, and writing, and traveling. I enjoy doing community service, and learning more about the world. Even with the belief I used to have in an afterlife that included heaven, I didn’t want to sacrifice a fulfilling life on Earth in order to get a guaranteed spot. I certainly couldn’t expect the characters in these stories to feel that way either. St. Rita’s sons might have wanted revenge, but they might also have wanted other things. I suspect living was pretty high on that list. What about Marcelino? What about Harry? Am I supposed to accept their deaths as what they wanted?

I have a cousin who died from SIDS, and the most important question my parents asked after his death was “Was he baptized?” I think it’s because if he was, and was (as they believed) going to heaven because of that, that would make his death less tragic. So Catholics create stories around this idea, celebrating it in characters who aren’t real (or if they were, as might potentially be the case with St. Rita, we’re far removed from them.) Readers and viewers get to watch from a distance, without the emotional attachment they have to their loved ones, making it easier for them to (hypothetically) see these people’s deaths as a good thing. I was never able to see it that way, though.

This comes back to the idea of belief in an afterlife being a way to cope with death–not just our own impending deaths, but the deaths of those we care about. It probably helps some, but when one follows the possibilities for that train of thought, it becomes very dark. I don’t see anyone arguing for the murder of all babies immediately after they’re baptized, but that would certainly guarantee all children a spot in heaven. Is that a happy ending? I encourage religious people to think about why they feel sad to know that a child has died, even when he or she has been baptized, and why they (I presume) are opposed to the idea of all baptisms ending in infanticide. Don’t tell me the only reason is to keep from committing a mortal sin yourselves. That shows zero care for the children, who would be the victims of such a violent action. For me, what it came down to was that life is worth living, and for God, if he existed, to create life and then take it away abruptly seemed unfair, even if the child is to be rewarded in paradise.

I suppose I never completely bought into the idea that life in this world exists only to prepare us for life in the next. I think life in this world can be pretty darn awesome, and even as a Catholic, I believed that. It just didn’t fit with the other ideas that were being presented to me.

How do you feel about these ideas? Is early death a good thing if it takes a person to heaven, or is it just tragic? Feel free to leave comments. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful of everyone and think things through before posting.

Happy Thinking!

-Nancy

Monitored Visitation: The Shackles of Courtship

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Imagine being restricted to monitored phone calls, and visitation during specified hours, with guests who must go through a detailed security screening. Sounds like prison, right? What if dating worked that way?

While this does not reflect how many people experience dating, it is the reality for some, who participate in a form of dating commonly used and promoted by the deeply religious:  courting. Courting is often defined as dating with marriage as the ultimate goal. Despite it being a fairly accepted definition in my experience, I find it to not be a very clear one. There are plenty of people who consider what they do “dating,” not “courting,” for whom marriage is still the ultimate goal. I consider myself to be one of those people. True, dating can be casual, but many people enter long-term relationships prior to marriage with the intention of finding a spouse or life partner, and those relationships should not be discounted as less serious just because those involved do not label themselves as “courting.”

Another problem I have with that definition is that it says nothing about how it differs from dating in practice, only how the two differ in intent. In my experience, the main difference in the way the two are practiced is who is in control. In dating, the people making the decisions are typically the people who are dating each other. While a dating couple may choose to involve their families by introducing each other to them and asking for their advice, that isn’t typically the be-all, end-all. Dating partners are free to make their own decisions, with or without their parents’ approval. Courtship, in my experience, is the complete opposite. In courtship, the parents of the couple (especially the girl’s parents) tend to have at at least a fifty percent say in every decision–sometimes more. It is usually the father who has the most power, as the man and head of the household. He often maintains complete veto power over any and all decisions. As one girl explains, “my parents were firmly entrenched in the values of courtship, and any potential relationship would be controlled completely by my father.” (Check out her story about rebelling against her patriarchal family here.) In courtship, the parents are with the couple every step of the way, sometimes in ways that are downright invasive, and excessive. This control is the main issue I take with the practice.

At one of my homeschooling co-ops back in high school, there was a young couple (seniors) I suspected would be getting together soon. They were always side by side at co-op, and had chemistry so thick that the air practically dripped with their excitement to be with each other. I soon discovered that they were together in a sense, however, they were expected to court. I don’t know much about their courting experience because we weren’t close, but I did hear one startling thing:  when it came to communication over distances, they were required to limit themselves to infrequent phone calls–every other week. Furthermore, each and every one of those phone calls had to be monitored by their parents. I realize this sounds bizarre. What parent tells his or her daughter “Oh, you two want to talk? You can call him next Thursday. But I have to be on the other line.” It’s ridiculous. I used to make excuses for it. They’re teenagers, I said. Their parents want what’s best for them. Maybe their parents don’t trust them to date, so they’re taking extra precautions. This kind of parental monitoring doesn’t end when children turn 18, though. In families that practice courting, this level of parental control is expected, no matter what age the children are when they begin to look for a future spouse. You may have laughed when you saw 30-year-old Toula Portokalos in the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, living with no freedom at the mercy of her father’s control, but there are real people in the United States living this antiquated life.

Fast forward four years. I’m now a senior in college, and during the fall semester, one of the student organizations I’m part of planned a mandatory, 2-day retreat for its leaders. As annoyed as I was for having to attend something at a time when I had a great deal of assignments due, I had a good time and really got to know the other members of the group. In a brief dull moment though, I did a head count, and realized someone was missing. Someone who had attended every meeting. On the way back, one of the attendees told me why. The missing student is Indian. (Meaning, she’s from India. I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but there was this idiot called Columbus.)  Her family is very strict, and as a rule, they do not permit her to spend the night anywhere other than home without her parents. No slumber parties. No retreats. Nothing. If she were under 18, I wouldn’t make a big deal about this, but she’s an adult college student with a job. Legally, she’s autonomous, but in her family, she isn’t. While this particular example isn’t overtly part of the culture of courting, I suspect that it stems from a similar source. This type of precaution, like the excessive monitoring of potential suitors, is often presented by conservative families as a way of protecting the girl’s purity–her virginity. The father ensures it by keeping his eye on her. I do not know if this is the case for her family, but a fair number of Indian families practice arranged marriage. It is still common in their culture, and I have known a young man who was nearly forced into one. Excessive parental control works well with a culture that promotes parents’ choice over the couple’s. The more I learn about courting, the more I see how it can become dangerously close to arranged marriage.

Why is courting even popular when it is so controlling? Like many things in the conservative world, the popularity of courting is largely due to a negative attitude toward pre-marital sex. It is the perfect way for parents to do their darnedest to prevent that awful deed. During my strict religious upbringing, the idea that pre-marital sex can ruin relationships was presented to me frequently. Supposedly, couples who have sex before marriage do not get to know each other as individuals, just as objects to fuck. This makes their relationships doomed to fail. Also, God doesn’t like it, therefore courting is the Godly thing to do. The important thing, as usual, is keeping people “pure.”

Maybe there’s a way to do it right, but based on what I’ve seen of it, it sucks. If anything, courting actually prevents couples from getting to know each other thoroughly enough to commit to marriage, thanks to the constant chaperoning and excessive parental involvement. The more I think about it, the more I worry about people like that aforementioned couple I knew, and the Duggar daughters of 19 Kids and Counting, who also believe in courtship rather than dating.

Because they are in the public eye, the Duggars are an excellent example of courtship that can be examined in detail. An article I found, called “The Duggars’ 7 Rules of Courtship” sums up some of their courtship rules. Much like that young couple I knew, the Duggar children are somewhat restricted to monitored correspondence. Their parents expect their text messages to each other to all come in the form of group texts that go out to the Duggar parents too. The article describes how that works, and quotes the father of the family, Jim Bob, on the subject:

“It’s neat to see their conversations,” says Jim Bob, adding that the couple texts about everything from scripture to their future as a family and ideas on parenting. For the most part, Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in. But occasionally they do.

I’ve seen conservative parents comment on their children’s Facebook pages, actively getting in the way of their children expressing opinions that differ from theirs. Because of that, I find it hard to believe that Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in much, and don’t influence the conversation much with their presence. Even if they exercise restraint and really do only comment “occasionally,” the fact that they are included in the conversation means that every text is carefully constructed; it is a performance. The daughter must uphold the image of absolute purity that the parents expect, and the man must tread carefully, choosing subjects of conversation that are fit for the dinner table. If they really do have conversations about their future and ideas on parenting, I doubt they do so using their real opinions and observations because of the possibility of offending the ever-watching Duggar parents.

What kind of relationship are they building? I was relieved that shortly after that quote, it says that the couple is permitted private phone conversations for one hour per night. That’s a step in the right direction–but only a step. How private is a phone conversation in a family with 19 kids who share bedrooms (which is the case for them)? Where does the couple go to find privacy? What if they want to have a conversation about sex? If you’re serious about marriage, you need to (at some point) have open dialogue about sex, about your expectations, hopes, fears, and to clear up any confusion you have about how it works before you–you know–start. I realize they believe in waiting until marriage, but imagine going into your wedding night having never had the chance to talk to your spouse about what’s going to happen that night? That conversation is important, and with mommy, daddy, and 18 siblings wandering around, it’s not likely to occur.

I’d complain about their “no kissing, no hand holding” rules, which I’ve always considered to be extraordinarily excessive, (I know people who set similar boundaries), but really, it’s up to the couple to decide what physical boundaries are right for them. For some people, the boundary is “no butt stuff.” For others, it’s “clothes stay on.” I’m fine with that. I’m a little concerned, though, that the parents had too much say in this decision. While I understand that the parents want their children to practice the kind of pure relationship building that their religious beliefs mandate, as I’ve stated in my post about purity pledging, it works a heck of a lot better when the couple chooses it for themselves, setting boundaries that they think are important. If a couple says “We’re not kissing before marriage” because their parents want them to, but that doesn’t fit what they want as a couple (or as individuals), they’re probably going to end up kissing before marriage. I say this as someone who practiced “purity” because my parents believed kissing should be the furthest one goes before marriage, and watched my line get redrawn further and further and further until finally I literally said “fuck it,” and did just that. I wasn’t making a purity pledge for myself. I was making it for them, for my religion, and for the people around me who said it was the right thing to do. As those reasons melted away, so did my sexual boundaries. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon either. It’s an 8-part story, but this girl promised she wouldn’t kiss before marriage as part of her courting experience, and in short, that’s not what happened.

Ultimately, in any form of romantic relationship building, the actual members of the relationship are the important ones. They need to form a bond with each other. They need to find common ground. They need to understand and appreciate their differences. They need to learn how to talk about subjects they wouldn’t discuss in front of their parents, because those subjects will all become part of their lives if they get married. I’m completely fine with “dating with marriage as the ultimate goal.” What I’m not fine with, is two adults dating under the constant watch of daddy and mommy, with daddy getting the final say in any and all decisions. An adult should be able to have a private conversation with his or her significant other without their parents’ knowledge or permission. An adult should be able to make his or her own decisions.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy