Raising ethical children without religion

Parenting Beyond Belief edited byDale McGowanStartribune.com features an interview with Dale McGowan the editor of Parenting Without Belief  – an anthology of essays that aims to help parents show kids how to find meaning and behave well without using supernatural explanations:

Q What are this book’s most important messages for parents?

A One: Never fear a question. The whole idea of free thought is that you sit down before a fact like a little child, then follow it wherever it leads. My own kids have gone to a Lutheran preschool. I’m happy to have them exposed to religious ideas; the only ones I won’t tolerate are hell and the assertion that doubt is bad. I say, let the child ponder ideas and run with them.

Two: Avoid saying that something is the way it is “because I said so.” Take the time to give a reason in discussions about truth or morality.

Three: The failure of empathy is responsible for a tremendous amount of destruction in the world. It’s dangerous to divide ourselves from others and demonize them.

Four: One of the ways to ease the pain of death so people don’t have to run for religious comfort is to accept and acknowledge its reality.

Q What’s the biggest challenge in raising your own children this way?

A Trying to raise children to think for themselves is hard in a culture that often devalues that. This culture often sees unthinking faith as an automatic good and hatred of faith as the only alternative. I have so many people say to me after book discussions that they didn’t think secular humanists could be so friendly. Once people get past assumptions, they see we’re just people, too.

Q Religious people sometimes say you can’t have values without religion. What do you say?

A I have never known a parent who had the least trouble explaining why something was right or wrong without turning to religion. Some might say you can’t do that without the Ten Commandments, but then I’ll hear them say to their child, “Don’t hit her! How would you like that if she did that to you?” When it comes to explaining to kids why they should be good, reason works best.

Q What is your faith background?

A I grew up in a nominally religious home. My dad died when I was 13 and he was 45. I was consumed not just with the need for consolation but with a real hunger to know where he was. I began reading the Bible, talking to ministers, going to church with Mormon, Baptist, Presbyterian and evangelical friends. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that religion was a human construct we use to explain the things we don’t understand and to help us feel better.

Q What has been the response to the book?

A It’s been very well received. It’s a relief that it’s not being viewed as just another entry in the culture wars. Something about planting this particular flag on the mountain of family values is getting people’s attention. Even some Christian readers say they found a lot of the essays useful.

Q Are you surprised at the sudden popularity of atheist and agnostic books?

A Not really. When President Bush was first elected, I was at an Atheist Alliance convention and everyone was moaning. I said, “Listen, this is a good thing, this will open up the conversation about religion in a way it hasn’t been before.”

Q Atheist curmudgeons Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens lump religious zealots and moderates together. Do you?

A I agree with them that we shouldn’t have to say please and thank you to religious people simply because they’re religious, but I don’t go as far as they do. The good things that come from religious observance are quite visible, but the ways in which it harms our discourse and our social fabric is frequently hidden under a surface of smiling piety that makes those problems difficult to address. Once you have overt harm that everyone sees — like religious people flying planes into buildings, for crying out loud — then the conversation bursts open and you’re going to hear that annoyed tone.


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