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  1. #1

    Default Identity Crisis: Helping Secular Kids Connect and Belong

    Hi everybody! I’m Dale McGowan, author/editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. Thanks for inviting me as a featured poster.

    When Topsy asked what topic I’d like to start with, the question of identity and community came to mind immediately.

    About five years ago, I posted this question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page: “How do you help your kids achieve a sense of belonging?” I’d been thinking about this as my son Connor entered high school. He seemed a little disconnected from others in an unhelpful way.

    The comment thread quickly exploded into two camps. Some expressed outrage at the question. It brings to mind tribalism, division, us vs. them. One said, “This doesn’t sound like something an atheist parent should even ask! It sounds like a question from a religious parent!” Another said it was “Very disappointing. I’m a member of the human race, that’s all I need.”

    Yeah, I always loved that idea. I’m a member of the human race, a citizen of the world. Leave all that toxic parochialism behind. “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” Thomas Paine. Imagine there’s no countries…and no religion too. This is the dream, right?

    But the other half of the thread said, “Yes, please. This is a big issue for us. We really struggle with this. I’d love to see this discussed.”

    And for all the good things we did for our kids, I think we didn’t consider early enough how we could help our kids establish the part of their identity that tangibly connects them to other people.

    I’m not a social person myself, not a belonger. I’m an introvert and perfectly happy that way. I’d rather spend three hours in a book than one hour at a party. So when I rejected religion intellectually, I was also able to walk away from the social and emotional benefits, the multi-layered sense of belonging that religious people enjoy, just because of who I am.

    There’s been some great sociology done about the benefit of congregational life. You know the old finding that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers? A 2010 study put an asterisk on that.

    The people with the highest life satisfaction were churchgoers with close friends in the congregation.

    Next were non-churchgoers.

    The lowest level of life satisfaction in the study was churchgoers without close friends in the congregation.

    One of the researchers said “[The life satisfaction boost] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than theology. People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church IF they build a social network within their congregation and gather on a regular basis for activities that are meaningful to the group. The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”

    There’s that word: Belonging.

    I didn’t think about this need much for Connor because he was a lot like me. He’s a science-minded introvert too. But unlike me, he never had a defining interest in high school, never had a community that connected him to other people. When he left for the University of Minnesota, I wondered if he had a way to break down that mass of humanity—64,964 students!—and not feel so alone. He’s a humanist, sure. He embraces that. But is humanism a tangible enough identity to really establish a sense of belonging and connection in that mass of humanity?

    The only crisis of belonging I had was my own freshman fall quarter at UC Berkeley. 32,000 other undergraduates, 400 miles from home for the first time. The feeling of isolation was really paralyzing at first.

    But I joined the Cal Band. It’s one of those student organizations with a century of history and traditions and a deep sense of belonging and shared purpose. I had been really active in my high school band, and I basically transferred that sense of belonging to the college setting. Once it kicked in, I wasn’t one of 32,000 anymore. I was one of 160 people with whom I shared a purpose. I got together with a group of close friends on a regular basis and participated in certain activities that were meaningful to the group.

    In other words, it served the same purpose for me that church serves for many others.

    The problem with being a “citizen of the world” is that when I felt vulnerable and needed to know who I was, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the world, or even Berkeley. I needed an identity within that whole. And that, I think, is what we need to help our kids find as well.

    Music ensembles can do this for kids. So can sports. Clubs built around shared interests. Volunteering. All of these are examples of gathering on a regular basis to participate in meaningful activities that connect us to others. And they can all serve to supplement our humanist philosophy with a positive tribe of passion and purpose.

    Belonging isn’t just a religious thing—it’s a human thing that religion has done. And just like charity, and the search for meaning, and meditation, and comfort in times of loss, and all sorts of other things, we need to help kids in nonreligious families find other ways to satisfy that need to connect with others.

    Is this an issue in your family as well? How have you dealt with it? Happy to get into any other topics as well, and thanks again for inviting me in!

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  3. #2


    Yep. We left church in 2012 because my husband and I could no longer "pretend" to believe. We were very young parents when we had children. Neither one of us wanted to belong to a church as adults. He and I didn't identify as atheists, but we knew we didn't believe in much of anything. But, pressure from our parents became too difficult to wade through. They kept telling us that children MUST be raised in a church. Our children won't learn morals or right from wrong without the church. So we started going. We joined and left so many churches over 15 years because we never fit in. Most churches were just too legalistic and conservative, others were downright fanatical. None of my children are very religious because we never pushed bible study or prayer in our home. We went mainly for the social (when I think back on it now). However, the beliefs, the superstition, the misogyny, and the black and white thinking started to get to us. Plus, I could not go on pretending to believe in a god. It was absurd for me and I was tired of it all. So we left. It was the single most heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and painful thing we've ever done as a family. My family cut us off (they are only just now starting to come around, but awkwardly so). Our former (so-called christian) friends, when they see us in public, act like they don't know us. My children lost a huge social structure we have yet to replace. Although we've had lots of conversations about the relief we all feel about leaving church, all 5 of us can say we miss the social aspect. Of belonging somewhere. That feeling of be connected is just simply *gone*. We have done everything we can to find a group of some kind to belong to and it is just not there. We have a Sunday Assembly starting up in Boise, but church has burned us so badly, the idea of attending anything remotely churchy feels ominous.

    I think, to answer your question, we haven't done very well - but we are working through the loss. My daughters have found connections at work. My son is struggling to find his place, but he's getting there. My husband and I have sort of given up. I believe that being part of a church cripples a person's ability to learn how to find connections outside it. It is everything. When it's gone, a person (me) lacks the skills needed to seek out friendships. In the church, it was easy. You showed up, your friends were there. You didn't have to work too hard at it. You were ordered by your holy book to get along and push aside differences. It didn't matter if you had anything in common, you were the "body of christ" and therefore, you got along. You were expected to belong and participate, so you did. Conflict resolution? Not needed, just brush it under the rug and forgive. Outside of that, I've found it hard to make friends. Where does one look? Do you look for things in common? Do you join groups, meetups, or clubs? What if they already have enough friends in their circle? Do they have room for one more? How do I maintain these friendships once I establish one? Before, I simply showed up to church and visited. Now what do I do? Call them a lot? Ask to get together regularly? I simply feel ill equipped in this area.

    So, my response is long, but this is a very huge deal for me and a subject I'd like to hear others answer too.
    Homeschooling Mamarama
    Native Idahoan Atheist
    Eclectically homeschooling since 2006.

    Son (20) - Class of 2014
    Daughter (17) - Class of 2016
    Daughter (15) - Class of 2019

  4. #3
    Senior Member Enlightened Soulhammer's Avatar
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    Oct 2012
    Blog Entries


    First of all, thank you for your books! They've made a huge difference for my family.

    Yes, definitely an issue for us. My husband and I are a "mixed match" in many categories, so a big question for us was how this was going to work and in what spaces it was going to work.

    Those questions assumed some urgency once we had kids.

    I understand that some people think worrying about belonging is wrongheaded, but there are developmental stages in which it feels like everything to a child , and adults need to acknowledge/not forget that. My teenager is there and my daughter will get there.*I'm* there.

    We haven't figured it all out, but homeschooling has made me get better fast at building family culture and community in an intentional way to meet those needs. We are not a Christian family who does Boy Scouts, but we are a family that reads sci-fi, camps, and games together. We don't all believe the same thing religiously and believe faith communities should be diverse, so we found a place for our family that mirrors that (UU congregation in the heart of the former Confederacy ).

    We've embraced social media and smartphones bc they support IRL social connections on the fly. We use these tools and actual business cards (people call them mommy cards(vomit noises)) to stay in touch with people we encounter at the UU, park days sponsored by our inclusive hs support group, and activities. I reach out within two or three days of meeting families that seem cool, and we've made some good connections that way.

    I'm an introvert, so this level of engagement isn't natural to me, and sometimes it wears me out. The thing I finally figured out in all this, though, is that although every casual connection won't turn into something profound, the more connections we make, the more likely we are to find some that will. I think it just must be a percentages game.
    Last edited by Soulhammer; 03-07-2016 at 10:50 AM.

  5. #4


    Both of my kids are introverts, but the feeling of not belonging really bothered my daughter at times. Being part of 4-H and working part time since they were 15 helped. I also created an academic team consisting of homeschoolers about 5 years ago and that gave them a feeling of belonging as well. However, there was always a mix of kids that were marginal friends, at best.

    Prior to going to college, some of my daughter's closest friends were virtual ones that she's never met. Most come from her blogging and participating in online writing groups.

    However, my daughter DID worry about going to college this past fall. How would she fare at a Big Ten school with SO many students? She thought she would sit in her room and study all day. Turns out, she's thriving. She's found so many friends and groups that are like her---she really feels like she's a "member" now. It didn't help that she went in feeling like a bit of an outsider; the school is out-of-state with 90+% of student from in-state, she's in liberal arts, she's a lesbian. But she forced herself to actively search clubs and activities that excite and interest her. College has made all the difference.

    I'm hoping the same will be true for my son next year. He's quite the nerd, spends hours programming, but doesn't really have any similar-minded cohorts locally. College should change that.

    So, in long-winded way, what I'm saying is that high school may be a lonely time for some of our homeschoolers, especially in some more rural locations. Sometimes it takes adulthood for them to come into their own.

    Homeschooled two kids for 11 years, now trying to pay it forward

    Daughter -- a University of Iowa graduate: BA in English with Creative Writing, BA in Journalism, and a minor in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies

    Son -- a Purdue University graduate: BS in Computer Science, minor in math, geology, anthropology, and history

  6. #5


    I would like to second Soulhammer's sentiment about your books, Dale. PBB, especially, has struck a chord with me

    I was born and raised atheist. Though, there wasn't a label that we used. Religion and God were simply a non-issue in our family. But, I was in public school and had opportunities everyday to "belong" in different groups. I don't even recall my lack of religion being a huge issue, just something that occasionally would come "oh, your family doesn't eat fish?"

    The difference, and challenge, that I felt with my kids early on in this journey, is that they are also homeschooled and have been from day one. Folks that homeschool secularly, but that are specifically atheist, are such a minority within the minority.

    Sometimes here on SHS, we will have newcomers to homeschooling ask, "How do I find other homeschoolers that are non-religious?" I often respond with, "Why do you only have to socialize with homeschoolers?" It truly can be, for most of us, nearly impossible to find local families that are like us. But why do we need to only find a group to belong to that meets every part of our checklist?

    I have decided though, in my experience, that public school families seem to be more open-minded about homeschool families than xtian homeschool families are open-minded about atheist homeschool families.

    At this point, all outside activities that my son's "belong" to are, as you said, "shared interest" activities. It just seems like the obvious solution. They, specifically, have nothing to do with either homeschooling or religion.

    I guess I'm saying that I started out this process here....“Yes, please. This is a big issue for us. We really struggle with this. I’d love to see this discussed.” and have arrived here....“Very disappointing. I’m a member of the human race, that’s all I need.”

    But it's been a journey that we have taken together as a family, and that has made all the difference.
    Homeschooling two sons (14 and 16) from day one. Atheist.
    Eclectic, Slackschooler covering 8th and 10th grades this year.

  7. #6


    Quote Originally Posted by muddylilly View Post
    I have decided though, in my experience, that public school families seem to be more open-minded about homeschool families than xtian homeschool families are open-minded about atheist homeschool families.
    Oh my gosh, YES!!

    Homeschooled two kids for 11 years, now trying to pay it forward

    Daughter -- a University of Iowa graduate: BA in English with Creative Writing, BA in Journalism, and a minor in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies

    Son -- a Purdue University graduate: BS in Computer Science, minor in math, geology, anthropology, and history

  8. #7
    Senior Member Arrived Avalon's Avatar
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    Aug 2011


    I think that creating and nurturing traditions can help, as well as sharing them with others. Through our homeschool group, we participate in a number of annual events like the Not-Back-to-School picnic, a craft fair, a Halloween walk, Medieval Day, etc... It's not always the exact same people because homeschoolers come and go, but we feel connected to the homeschool community, and we like to share the traditions with new members.

    In our family, we have an annual Crepe Brunch and barbecues in the summer and an annual ski trip (probably our most important tradition). Different friends join us for different events, depending on their time and interests, but it helps us to feel like we're involved in and interconnected with a group of people's lives.

  9. #8


    Thanks for these replies (and for the kind words about my books).

    I'm glad to hear this is relevant for several of you. This was a non-issue for me growing up, in part because I hadn't recognized how much my music ensemble community meant to me. I was a fish unaware of the water -- until the move to college during the summer before classes began (bad idea!) shifted the frame for me. It was really disorienting, and I seriously considered moving back home. But then band started, and suddenly I could see and appreciate that graspable community, the same one I had taken for granted before. Then I left college and felt the acute lack of connection again for several years.

    I have friends who say their religious identity gave them that sense of connection during those hard transitional times. Most of them when pressed will readily identify it as a human (i.e. god-irrelevant) connection they seek and find. One friend I wrote about in "In Faith and In Doubt" regained his entirely lapsed Jewish identity after college for that reason and maintains it today -- even though he's an atheist.
    Last edited by Dale McGowan; 03-07-2016 at 02:39 PM.

  10. #9
    Senior Member Enlightened
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    Apr 2015


    Dh and I are both introverts and born-and-raised atheists. So, we don't need to be around people and have never been part of a religious community. I was subjected to several international moves as a child, so I am used to being the weird outsider.
    Our kids are extroverts. DS was pretty popular while he was in school. Unfortunately, once you leave to homeschool, many schooled people forget about you. So, I am trying to find him a new tribe. We have joined a couple of secular groups (which means the people may be religious, but are not obnoxious about it and are cool with us non-religious folks). However, being the new kid is tough on DS, as a lot of the other kids have already known each other for years. I am not finding a lot of common ground with the moms, either, since they mostly hang out with the others they have known since the kids were little. Maybe just being "around" will eventually make us be part of the community.

  11. #10


    Dale, Mariamhokie brings up a great point that I wanted to get your take on. Here (on the forum), and IRL (meet up type groups), homeschoolers tend to use the phrase "Secular Homeschooler". When what they mean is that they homeschool without religion being a subject that is taught "officially". No bible study involved, or that the family makes a point to teach evolution, as an example. However, the family may very well consider themselves members of some particular faith (usually xtian) and attend church.

    I tend to think that a more precise descriptor would be a "religious family that homeschools secularly", in some cases. Maybe I see it this way because I think of myself as a parent first (secular), and teacher second (homeschooler).....there is plenty of blur in our role, to be sure.

    What is your interpretation for the use of the word secular, and how far do you feel it is from atheist/agnostic/humanist? I know that in the past there have been intense discussions, specifically on this site, that derive from the use of these words interchangeably.
    Homeschooling two sons (14 and 16) from day one. Atheist.
    Eclectic, Slackschooler covering 8th and 10th grades this year.

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Identity Crisis: Helping Secular Kids Connect and Belong