Book Review: Parenting Beyond Belief

I picked up a couple of new books on the recommendation of people in the secular homeschooling groups I am a part of. The first is Parenting Beyond Belief which is a series of essays edited by Dale McGowan. The book is a parenting help guide for raising ethical and caring children without religion.

What is of the utmost importance is exposing children to critical thinking as opposed to mindless indoctrination. Most children are not fortunate in their early encounters with the church. Most are essentially brainwashed into religion almost as soon as they begin to speak. Many of them are taught to believe everything they learn about God. Questioning the existence of God is deemed not only inappropriate but downright sinful, even blasphemous. By the time many children reach adolescence, the religious conditioning is complete, and in many cases, irreversible.

-Norm R. Allen, Jr. (Thinking My Way to Adulthood)

There are many topics covered in the book which is divided into chapters. Chapter One is filled with personal reflections by heavyweights such as Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette. A few chapters had some very thought-provoking areas for me and I will be inserting those in the appropriate chapter areas as quotes.

I don’t know who said,”Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby, “….. You have to work hard to get kids to believe nonsense. If you’re not desperately selling lies,the work is a lot easier.

-Penn Jillette (Passing Down the Joy of Not Collecting Stamps)

This chapter reiterates over and over the merits of critical thinking and coming to your own beliefs through examination of the evidence. Most atheist or agnostic parents are perfectly accepting of their child coming to their own conclusions about religion, whatever they might be. I find this admirable and I hope to do the same for my daughter.

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing was passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it out again.

-Penn Jillette (Passing Down the Joy of Not Collecting Stamps)

Chapter Two is about various aspects of living life without religion and the consequences. This chapters essays on parents who marry and disagree on religion are very thoughtful, from the ones who ended up divorced over the issue to those who simply agree to disagree (like my husband and myself). It is also repeatedly mentioned how important it is not to leave your children in the dark when it comes to matters of religion. To live in the world a person needs at least a basic understanding of all the major faiths and their rituals. This also affects many non religious people because we are to some religious people considered lesser because we do not receive our morality from a book. This often means we are ostracized or bullied for our lack of faith. This book is a nice way to know you aren’t so alone in your struggles.

We have two explicit “rules” posted in our home: (1) Always question authority; (2) when in doubt, see rule 1. I should note that our rules encourage her to question my comments, decisions, and rationale, to receive justifications beyond “because I said so.” They do not authorize anarchy. Inviting questioning is not the same as a complete abdication of responsibility. This may seem counterproductive to many parents, especially those who struggle with disciplinary issues. To the contrary, this simple concept has been a wonderful and positive influence in our home.

-Stu Tanquist (Choosing Your Battles)

Chapter Three shows how to deal with holidays an other celebrations without religion. It is pretty straight forward and gives several perspectives on the topic, as with everything else in this book, it is meant to give you ideas about what others do, while reassuring you that doing what works for your individual family is perfectly alright. Although there is some misinformation by one of the contributors as to the origins of several holiday traditions, and I recommend doing your own research to learn these things for yourself, because the answers will probably surprise you.

Thomas Paine, who named the United States of America and fanned the flames of the Revolution, believed “My own mind is my own church.” U.S. patriot Col. Ethan Allen, who organized the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont during the American Revolution, wrote what is believed to be the first rationalist book published in America; Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. Benjamin Franklin, one of the more orthodox deists of the American Revolution, nevertheless believed there should be no government support for religion. Deist and President Thomas Jefferson urged the adoption of the First Amendment, separating church from state.  Jefferson passionately argued rejected the Trinity and a supernatural Jesus, urging instead the use of reason. James Madison,  the fourth U.S. president, was the primary architect of the secular U.S. Constitution, which drew inspiration from such deists as Montesquieu and John Locke. Madison believed religion shackles the mind, and that a union between church and state had produced only “torrents of blood.”

– Annie Laurie Gaylor (What Your Kids Won’t Learn in School)

Chapter Four begins to cover the question of the ability to teach morality without religion, in the context of being good and doing good. It also explores the topic of morality teaching in schools and homes and how both the religious and non religious go about it. Chapter Five explores the specific values you might want to impart to your children and why. I personally thing the highest value I wish to pass along to my child is to think before acting, and contemplate how those courses of action will affect those around them for better or worse.

I attended a debate between a theist and an atheist last year. The theist made several points that I thought were well taken. But when the discussion turned to morality, he said something I will never forget. “We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,” he said. “If not for the seventh commandment…” He pointed to his wife in the front row. “…there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!” His wife to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss. I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really? How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what your wouldn’t want done to yourself is wrong  in every moral system on Earth. Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don’t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone?

-Dale McGowan (Chapter Four: On Being and Doing Good Introduction)

Chapter Six covers a very heavy  topic. Death, and how to explain it to children without the use of comforting religious euphemisms can be very difficult. But I think most children will surprise you with their ability to understand the basics of life and death when you use clear examples.

What is the bloody meaning of life? Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. I’d guess you believe as I do – that there is none, save what we invent. By saying there is no meaning of life, I mean no universal , inherent meaning that applies for everyone. What is called for, then, is a is a conscious quest for meaning, the kind of self-directed meaning making urged by such great existential thinkers as Victor Frankl. Psychiatrists like Irving Yalom suggest that pondering such questions is important for good mental health, even if the answer is ultimately unknowable.

-Donald B. Ardell (Supporting Your Children in Their Quest for the Meaning of Life)

Chapter Seven is all about wondering and questioning, which is probably an aspect that ultimately started each one of us on the journey to non religion. We all have different reasons and ideas for why we chose to be without religion, and our children will be no different if they should choose a similar path. This chapter has helpful hints on how to help children navigate their own journey to their personal truth.

Creating not just an interest but also a fascination with the great questions about our meaning and purpose is, to quote Dr. McGowan, “a perfectly normal option for raising healthy, ethical, well-rounded kids in a loving and honest environment.”

-Donald B. Ardell (Supporting Your Children in Their Quest for the Meaning of Life)

Chapter Eight is about science, and more specifically the myth that non religious people hold science and facts to be some sort of pseudo religion instead of believing in ancient holy books of whatever variety. It is about the natural wonder in the real world. It gives a basic overview of the many principles of evolution and how they work as well as some basics about the universe and space.

We must teach our kids to doubt and doubt and doubt not to “tear everything down” but to pull cheap facades away so they can see and delight in those things that are legitimately wonderful. How will they recognize them? It’s easy – they’re ones left standing after the hail of critical thinking has flattened everything else. Magnificent, those standing stones. Supporters of the scientific world view are sometimes accused of having “faith” in ideas such as evolution and therefore practicing some kind of religion. The less you know, the more reasonable this assertion is.

-Dale McGowan (Teaching Your Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder)

Chapter Nine is advice for finding your community without the network of religion that most other people have. The Unitarian Universalist church is a nice resource if you have one locally. It is all the trappings of church without the dogma.  The chapter has a large list of websites, groups, and so forth for help. I also have an entire page of secular Facebook groups for homeschooling parents. Thankfully there are many non religious Facebook pages in general for non parents or non homeschoolers as well.

Active, coercive teaching cannot make integrated learning happen. Children often fail to listen to their parents but they seldom fail to imitate us. If you want them to say “please” and “thank you,” for example, say “please” and “thank you” when you talk to them. Telling them to say it may well be an exercise in futility, and your authority as a parent is undermined by their noncompliance. Far better in all respects to teach by example. Also remember that our cooperative instincts are far stronger than our willingness to obey.

-Robert E. Kay (Thoughts on Raising a Curious, Creative, Freethinking Child)

I found this book to be thought-provoking and quite wonderful. I am pretty solid in most of my ideas for how I want to raise my daughter already, but someone looking for ideas would probably get a lot of good use out of this book. I enjoyed it greatly and would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to raise children without religion.

The follow-up book Raising Freethinkers, again edited by Dale McGowan, offers a great amount of help for parents in how best to actually raise children with all the values discussed in the first book. Whereas Parenting Beyond Belief was a book to help you determine how you want to raise your children with certain values and traditions, Raising Freethinkers is the practical manual on how to achieve these ends. I am not yet sure if I will be reviewing both, but they seem to be a matched set for anyone who is interested in reading them.


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