Tossing the Round Peg: The Power and Joy of Secular Parenting
Tossing the Round Peg: The Power and Joy of Secular Parenting
by Dale McGowan
“Yeah Connor.” He was six at the time, and “Hey Dad” could be a prelude to anything.
“I think God is pretend.” Hm. Is that right, I thought. I could have said Congratulations! Or I could have said Go to your room. Instead, I asked him why he thought so.
“Because astronauts went way up into space and they never saw him.”
Oh, okay. Easy one. “But people who believe in God say he’s an invisible spirit, and that he’s everywhere—so astronauts wouldn’t see him.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Then I think he’s real.” “How come?” “Because the people who wrote the Bible said he was real.” “Yeah, that’s true. They did.” Pause. “But...hey, wait a minute. How do we know they were right? People wrote a lot of other books that said completely different things.”
I find it hard to imagine a conversation of quite those twists and turns going on in most religious households. They’d be duty-bound to set the child straight after line three. And many atheist parents do little better, opting for Congratulations! and ending the inquiry just as decisively.
I advocate a third route: I want my kids to work it out for themselves.
That doesn’t mean I’m indifferent about where they end up. I want them to reject religion. I think religion is an absolute cancer. But I only want them to join me in that assessment if they come to it on their own. It’s too important to do any other way.
That may seem self-contradictory, but it isn’t. I also want my kids to reject racism, but not on my mere say-so. They must see why it is bad. If instead I tell them racism is bad because I say it’s bad, and my authority later fades in their eyes—as to some degree it must—opinions founded on my authority alone are likely to fade along with it. An opinion founded on their own reason, on the other hand, is only likely to be dethroned by their own reason.
They’ll grow up knowing my opinions, and I’m sure they’ll consider them, but if I really want them to reject racism and religion, the very best thing I can do is encourage them to develop their thinking skills. Both racism and religion fall to tatters under critical examination. So we must teach our kids to think well, then trust them to do so.
In matters of religion, that means keeping them off balance and undeclared until they are old enough to make their own decisions. If in the meantime they’ve trained their minds well, I’m confident those decisions will be good ones. If I had to choose a single sentence as the foundation of my parenting, it might be Teach them to think well, then trust them to do so. When I started pulling together Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, the first comprehensive book on parenting without religion, that idea was at the heart of it. And somehow, amazingly, after I brought twenty-five other writers into the book, from Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette to the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, the same foundational idea could still be seen running like a golden thread through the entire manuscript.
As the contributions began rolling in and the collection coalesced, I marveled at the emerging consensus. I’ll say that again: a group of twenty-five freethinkers from a wide range of perspectives were coming to consensus—a general agreement on the basic challenges, principles, and joys of parenting without religion.
A few of the central challenges they identified:
• Helping kids to be freethinkers in a world that stigmatizes and fears religious doubt;
• Teaching empathy for people who are still stuck in religious mythology;
• Being honest about our own opinions and values without indoctrinating our kids;
• The relative lack of infrastructure and resources for secular families.
Notice that death and morality are both missing. These are discussed in detail, and they are indeed challenging, but they’re no more challenging for secular than for religious parents. They’re just different. We seemed to agree on that as well. There’s also a fair consensus that we often overestimate the power of religion to seduce our children. To the contrary, religion requires a tremendous amount of propping up and special effects to take root. All we have to do is withhold the props and it falls over under the weight of its own absurdities. If we’ve raised good thinkers, they won’t fail to notice that the silly thing is face down.
The need for props is amazing, if you think about it. Christianity offers release from our single greatest human terror—death—for the mere cost of an uttered sentence. Yet it’s so preposterous a collection of nonsense that they have to back up this free gift with the threat of eternal combustion if you refuse it.
Penn said it best in his essay “Passing Down the Joy of Not Collecting Stamps”:
You don’t have to worry too much about your kids. You don’t ever have to teach Atheism. You don’t have to teach an absence of guilt for things they didn’t do. As Atheist parents, you just have one more reason to keep your kids away from priests. Tell your kids the truth as you see it and let the marketplace of ideas work as they grow up. I don’t know who said, “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby”...but some guy or gal said it, and it’s a more important idea than any Jesuit ever came up with. You have to work hard to get kids to believe nonsense. If you’re not desperately selling lies, the work is a lot easier.
He’s right, you know. We often have too little confidence in reason. I’m confident that if my kids develop a love of reality and the ability to think well, they will not run to religion no matter how pretty the stories.Those first two steps,of course, are essential, so I put my energy there, not in fending off exposure to religion.
Which gets to another, perhaps surprising consensus among the authors—that our kids must be religiously literate. Exclusive exposure to a single religion leads to ignorant, blinkered thinking, but exposure to multiple religions reveals religion as a human cultural artifact and denies any one of them the high ground.
The study of religion – as opposed to indoctrination into religion – aids our understanding of the religiously saturated world around us. It can also inoculate our kids against the more poisonous religious ideas. Here’s Rev Roberta Nelson, a Unitarian humanist minister, in her essay, “On Being Religiously Literate”: Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from religious questions. If you do not provide the answers, someone else will – and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.
I allow religious ideas to wash over my kids from every direction—every direction, not a single one. That’s crucial. They hear about baby Jesus and baby Hercules in the same breath. Jehovah gets no more air time that the Everlasting Brahmin, and Jesus no more than Mithras. Skepticism is such a central value in our home that I don’t have to watch and worry and screen out ideas.
There are two exceptions—two bits of intellectual terrorism that I will not permit my children to consider: the idea of hell, and the related notion that doubt is bad. Both of these are designed to paralyze thinking, so I won’t allow the serious consideration of either in our home.
My stomach sank just two weeks ago when my nine year-old daughter Erin came home from school with the news that her three best friends all agree she’s going to burn in hell.
“Sweetie,” I said, kneeling before her, “what’d they say that for?”
“They were talking about church and stuff,” she said, “and they asked if I believe in God and go to church. And I said no, I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church. And then their eyes got really big and they said, ‘Oooh, you’re gonna burn in Hell.’”
I waited for the first teardrop to appear. “I’m so sorry they said that, punkin. How did that make you feel?”
Instead of tears, she shrugged. “It was pretty mean,” she said. “But also silly.” I looked at her in amazement.
It is silly, of course, a profoundly stupid and childish idea, but how did she come to that so directly? It took me years and years to shift Hell from “terrifying” to “terrifying but unlikely” to “silly.”
And then I remembered. Of course. She’s been inoculated.
I said the idea was never seriously considered in our home, but that doesn’t mean we never talked about it. If I’d hidden the idea of Hell from my daughter all these years, protecting her from even hearing of it, the sudden invocation of the flames by her friends could have burned a fear into her that would take some serious undoing. But we’ve talked about religious ideas for years. I’ve always made my opinions clear, but I go to great lengths to let her know that other good people think differently. “Dad, did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?” “I don’t think he did, no. I think that’s just a made-up story to make people feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara, I know she thinks it really happened. Then you can make up your own mind, and even change your mind back and forth about it a hundred times if you want.” That’s the usual approach.
But Hell is an exception. Hell gets no hearing from me. I will not allow my children to be terrorized by anyone with the sick fantasy of an afterlife of eternal punishment, especially one meted out for honest doubts. If ever there was a religious idea with human fingerprints all over it, Hell is it. So I’ve always told my children that Hell is not only fiction, it’s also...
That’s right. She was using my exact word. Silly.
Even if there is a God, I’ve told them repeatedly, he’s not going to care if you guess wrong about him. That sounds like a human king, not the all wise creator of the universe. He might care about how good you are, or even respect your honest doubts more than the dishonest belief of people who are just trying to avoid Hell. But in any case, the idea that any god worth his salt would create a hell to punish his children for guessing wrong is just plain silly.
Just as we inoculate our kids against diseases by putting small amounts of the bad stuff into their arms to build resistance, we have to inoculate them against toxic ideas that can paralyze their abilities to think freely. Specifically invite fearless doubt and they can live without medieval ignorance and fear trailing them through their one and only life. Tell them about Hell, then don’t just ‘disagree’ with it: laugh it to smithereens.
Moral development is another important topic in the book, and psychologist Jean Mercer’s piece does a marvelous job of walking us through the Theory of Mind model and Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development: fear of punishment; hope for reward; social approval and disapproval; the recognition of laws or rules as valuable in themselves; the “social contract” level, in which laws and rules are seen as desirable, but potentially changeable; and the final stage, in which a person thinks in terms of universal ethical principles and is occasionally willing to defend such principles even at the risk of punishment or disapproval.
The consensus of contributors is that moral development is an understandable process, and that kids can be consciously involved in their own moral development.
The topic of dealing with death is handled brilliantly by Kendyl Gibbons, perhaps the leading UU humanist in the United States. But death is also a prominent feature of six other essays in the collection. The consensus on death? Well, we’re all opposed to it.
But as for parenting, there’s general agreement to never treat death as an untouchable subject. Touch it all over. The more familiar, the less frightening. It’s a lifelong challenge, but our kids will be all the further along if they don’t have to waste time erasing heaven (and hell) from their conceptual maps.
Then there’s the wonder thread. Humans need wonder. Fortunately, the wonder inherent in a scientific worldview utterly trumps the religious imagination. This is the focus of my own essay titled “Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder” in which I compare the vague and colorless hyperbole of religious wonder—God is wonderful, no, really, really wonderful, really especially great and powerful, super-special and eternal and large and clean—to the genuinely jaw-dropping wonder of science.
• If you condense the history of the universe to a single year, humans would appear on December 31st at 10:30 pm.
• We are star material that knows it exists.
• A complete blueprint to build you exists in each and every cell of your body.
• The faster you go, the slower time moves.
• Your memories, your knowledge, even your identity and sense of self exist entirely in the form of a constantly recomposed electrochemical symphony playing in your head.
• All life on Earth is directly related by descent. You are a cousin not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales. There is no surer way to strip religion of its ability to entice our children into ignorant fantasy than to show them the way, step by step, into the far more intoxicating wonders of the real world. Help kids to fall madly in love with that incredible universe and they will never even try to fit the round peg of supernatural religion into the square hole of reality.Dale McGowan, Ph.D., is the editor of the new book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion. He holds degrees in the arts and sciences from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Minnesota. In addition to a 15-year teaching career, he was editor and featured essayist for the Family Issues section of the Atheist Alliance Web Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and three children.
Appeared in Secular Nation—Vol 12, Number 1, pages 12-14. (Published July 2007)