How does one raise a thoughtful, moral and religion-free child?

March 24, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Ebonmuse (one of our authors, who also writes thoughtful posts at Daylight Atheism) recently interviewed Dale McGowan who has edited a book of essays on raising a child without religion.  McGowan’s book, Parenting Beyond Belief, will be released next month.

Ebonmuse writes:

The book features original essays by Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillette, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Michael Shermer, and more . . .

This book looks to be of superlative scope and quality, covering a wide range of important topics: religiously mixed marriages, secular education, humanist ceremonies, moral instruction, teaching children about death, and more.  [B]ooks like this may well be at the forefront of the “third wave” of atheist activism – atheists moving into society, living alongside everyone else in openness and honesty, establishing a set of social structures that can directly compete with and provide an alternative to religion.

Ebonmuse’s post intrigued me enough that I placed my order for a copy of Parenting Beyond Belief.  I look forward to reading it, then discussing it on this site.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy raising two open-minded daughters (aged 6 and 8 ) without the benefit of McGowan’s book.  Notice that I’m not really trying to raise them “without religion.”  We regularly discuss various religious traditions. On several occasions, I’ve taken my daughters to churches (not just weddings and funerals). One of my daughters received 1 1/2 years of her kindergarten and 1st grade school education at a neighborhood Catholic school.  I want my children to be exposed to many types of religion in order to enable them to make meaningful choices.  After all, it is up to them to decide whether they will ultimately follow a religion or join an organized religion. I’d be sorely disappointed if my children refused to follow religion simply because I didn’t follow one.  I want them to consider this issue carefully for themselves.

Even at their young ages, they sometimes suggest that they don’t see the point of religion. From their viewpoints, most religious beliefs are strange.  Whenever they ask how one basket of fish and loaves can feed thousands, I can’t really defend the claim.  Instead, I remind them that whether they follow a religion will be their own choice. What they do with their minds and their bodies is up to them, not their parents.  We urge them to make sure that their choices are well informed, however.

In the meantime, the claims of many religious people cause my daughters to ask questions.  They ask the same questions all children would freely ask if they weren’t pressured (or, in some cases, humiliated or berated) into keeping such questions to themselves.  Why do people drink the blood of Jesus?  How can wine really be blood?  How do we even know that there is a God?  How does one determine how to be good?  Is there really a hell?

How does a “neutral” agnostic answer questions like these? This won’t sound so “neutral” to most Believers, but here’s how I approach these questions:  People don’t really drink the blood of Jesus.  Wine doesn’t turn into blood.  Reasonable people disagree about what God is or whether God exists.  Being “good” is about recognizing that every other person that exists is worthy of respect and kindness.  Hell is a false and degenerate idea designed to scare children and adults into doing what other people want them to do, and it often works.  I tell my children that many people sincerely believe in hell.  I tell them that believers-in-hell aren’t stupid—many of them are brilliant—but for reasons unknown the thought of hell haunts them. 

My children and I sometimes read the Bible together, without skipping the embarrassing parts. I’ve warned them that most Believers are cherry-pickers who pretend that the violent and self-contradictory parts don’t exist.  We don’t cherry pick.  My children know, for instance, that Genesis contains two contradictory versions of creation—we’ve slowly read these passages together.  They know that God, allegedly omniscient, wandered puzzling through the Garden of Eden calling out: “Adam, where art thou?” 

We discuss the fact that many members of organized religions insist that their own religion is the only true religion.  We discuss that many such people make comparable claims for the superiority of their own religion, and that most of them rely upon highly questionable ancient writings when making such claims.

Without prodding, my children have come to their own conclusion that the idea of hell is hideous and baseless, and inconsistent with a loving God.  My kids agree with me that doing something nice is not impressive if it is motivated only by a fear of hell.  They know that I will be dead some day, and they will someday be dead too, and they know that dead means really dead, as illustrated by their now-deceased pet dog, who they witnessed being euthanized at the end of a long struggle with cancer.  We don’t talk about “doggy heaven.”

My daughters know how to recognize eternal regresses (they know that “Who created God?” is a valid question in response to people who claim that everything in the world had to be created).  I warn them that many people will try to pressure them into saying things they don’t believe (especially regarding politics and religion).  I teach my daughters about the elegance of science, emphasizing that science is an ongoing process requiring lots of hard work and skepticism, and that many disputes are best resolved by experiments.  They know that the Earth is much older than 6,000 years, but not just because I say so.  They know that the age of earth is best determined by replicable experiments and not by quoting sacred books.

My children also know that they are living in a world of incredible beauty and mystery.  I have taught them that it is no embarrassment to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know something.  We often say we “don’t know” around my house, not as a stopping point of inquiry, but as a challenge to learn more about the world.  For many questions, there’s no satisfactory answer.

Most important (I feel the need to stress this), my children know that I could be wrong in my own beliefs.  They know that it is their own responsibility to explore the world and come to their own conclusions. This brings to mind this quote from Anna Quindlen, from her book, Loud and Clear:

When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.

I hope that my children will be allowed to find their way in the absence of any the humiliation, threats or violence for which many religions have become famous. What I would like from Believers is to back off and let my children be.  How could that possibly be wrong?  If omnipotent sentience exists in the sky (or whatever), they will find Him/Her/It.  If not, they won’t.

I’d be lying if I said that I knew what I was doing as a parent.  For eight years I’ve been feeling my way.  To me, the most reliable rules are A) Rules are sometimes broken and B) Sometimes there aren’t really any rules.  For these reasons, I look forward to reading McGowan’s new book.  I’d be interested in how other non-believers approach how to raise children in a world that appears (certainly to me) to be bursting with distracting, wasteful and coercive superstition.


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Category: Education, Meaning of Life, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Shnakepup says:

    Bravow. Seriously, bravow. This post has put into words the various thoughts and opinions that I've always had in my head, but have never fully crystalized into such cogent explanations. I've always struggled with how I should raise my son in regards to religion; I know that I wanted him to be an atheist, but I didn't want him to be an atheist just because I said so. Thank you for this informative essay!

  2. Ebonmuse says:

    Wonderful post, Erich. Your daughters seem like two very sharp young ladies, thanks to their father, no doubt. I think we can expect great things of them – and not just of them, but of the newer generations each of which, according to surveys, is less religious than the last. I can't wait to watch them grow up and see what they may accomplish in this world.

  3. Dale McGowan says:

    What a marvelous, thoughtful post.

    I do think you're going to like the book. It takes exactly the same position on exposure to religion: it's essential that kids be religiously literate so they can make up their own minds AND understand the religious subtext of so much of our world. It's indoctrination, of all kinds, that we want to avoid.

    Hi to your lucky daughters —

    Dale McGowan

  4. Mary says:

    This is a great post, Erich. You're a thoughtful dad and that goes a long way toward raising thoughtful children. By the way, the secret of the fishes and loaves – well, at least for the fishes – is that Jesus served lutefisk and when he passed it around, everyone one said, "Just a little, please."

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    orDover raises a good point. The topic is whether atheists are being cruel by failing to make up stories that the dead parent of a child is "in heaven." This post cites to an article by Adam Wolstenholme who argues that atheist parents SHOULD make up stories about God and heaven to comfort their children. orDover disagrees:

    Wouldn’t it be equally as comforting to tell children that their dead loved ones aren’t dead at all, but that they just went on a vacation and will be back some day? Or we could tell them that their dead loved ones turned into magical fairies who constantly sit at their shoulder, offering guidance and protection. There is no end to the silly yet incredibly comforting myths we could think up to help children deal with death, and yet, I believe that if I seriously suggested my fairy model that people, even religious people, would decry the purposeful delusion. This is because heaven has what my ghost faries lack: a large population of believers.

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