Parenting Beyond Belief
On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion
Copyright © 2007 Dale McGowan
All right reserved.
Chapter One Personal Reflections
The first and most important task of Parenting Beyond Belief is to let secular families know they are not alone—that millions of other families are wrestling with the same challenges and asking the same questions. This chapter includes personal reflections by freethinking parents and children, as well as adults recalling when they were children, all grappling with familiar issues and offering hard-won advice to parents raising kids without religion.
A second task—as noted in the Preface—is to raise high the big tent of disbelief. Just as there is no one "right way" to raise children, there are many different ways to be a nonbeliever. This chapter is framed in a perfect pair of bookends to illustrate the range of approaches to secular parenting. If Penn Jillette is a bull in a china shop, Julia Sweeney is the one running around catching plates and saying Oh, jeez. Their approaches are different, but the wattage of wisdom and insight in these two essays could light up the Vegas strip. Norm Allen continues with tales of growing up in a Baptist home where his mother nonetheless encouraged her children to think hard and well—even questioning the existence of God.
Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins shares a heartfelt letter to his 10-year-old daughter Juliet about his own intellectual values. And just as readers of a certain perspective might be unnerved by the presence of ministers in these pages, so may some others find Dawkins' approach disrespectful to religious belief. There is a good reason for this: He does not respect religious belief. Not one bit.
This raises an important question, one that makes for excellent dinner table conversation. Is it okay to disrespect someone's beliefs? Notice that the subject is beliefs, not believers—we can presumably agree that people themselves deserve respect. But can we allow disrespect—not just disagreement, but disrespect—for opinions?
If the word "respect" is to retain any meaning whatsoever, then respect must not be granted to all opinions automatically. I might disagree with an opinion but still respect it, if I feel it was arrived at by legitimate means. I have several Libertarian friends, for example, who think all taxes are coercive and should be eliminated. I, on the other hand, think reasonable taxes are an excellent means to accomplishing good collective ends. Though I disagree strongly with my friends, I respect their opinion, since they back it up with reasoned arguments.
I also have some friends who believe their actions are dictated by the constellations. When asked their reasons for this belief, they offer anecdotes, selective observations, and special pleading. I love and respect these friends personally, but it would be silly to say I respect their beliefs in astrology, since I do not respect the reasoning behind them. I don't often browbeat these friends about it, since their beliefs do not greatly impact the world, but I withhold my respect for those beliefs.
Because he thinks religion does greatly and negatively impact the world, Richard Dawkins' disrespect for religion leads him to passionate and strident denunciation of what he sees as a real and present danger. After the attacks of September 11, he wrote, "My last vestige of 'hands off religion' respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11, 2001, followed by the 'National Day of Prayer.'" While it is perfectly acceptable for readers to disagree with such an opinion or with the way it is expressed, this impassioned and well-informed voice should no more be excluded from the conversation than those thoughtful religious nontheists at the other end of our big tent.
Secular kids themselves are well represented by Emily Rosa, who describes an upbringing that kept her "itching for the truth" and a fourth-grade science experiment that briefly catapulted her into the national spotlight. She also offers some serious advice to secular parents to relax, play, laugh, lighten up—so as not to raise a grim generation of obsessive debunkers.
Like Emily Rosa, Anne Nicol Gaylor grew up in a freethought home. Anne describes her family's interactions with religious neighbors and friends in "I'd Rather Play Outside." We also hear the great twentieth-century philosopher and peace advocate Bertrand Russell describe his upbringing, which—despite his deceased father's explicit instructions to the contrary—took place under Christian guardianship. The effort to instill religion in the boy failed to take, producing instead one of the most articulate and persuasive voices of disbelief in modern times. And Dan Barker rounds out the chapter with a fascinating dual perspective: First, as an evangelical minister, Dan raised four children in a Christian home, then he lost his faith, divorced, remarried, and is now raising a daughter in a home actively devoted to freethought.
Readers may reasonably wonder why these personal essays—indeed most of essays in the book—refer almost exclusively to Christianity when speaking of "religion." This reflects only the cultural context of the authors and of the expected readership for this book. Since most of the readers and writers will have grown up in a Christian-influenced culture, it is natural that discussions of religion are most often framed in terms of that local manifestation of religious belief. There is also a tendency to address Catholicism more often than other denominations. This stems from two facts: that Catholicism is the oldest and most visibly dogmatic of the Christian denominations and that more nonbelievers, interestingly, were formerly Catholics than anything else. Again, the context with which a writer has the most experience will naturally figure more prominently in his or her work.
Though each of these stories is unique, common threads run throughout these essays, including courage, honesty, and optimism. There are many good ways to raise children, with or without religion. These examples are not models to follow but invitations to find your own way—and assurances that you will.
Navigating Around the Dinner Table
I LOVED BEING CATHOLIC. Well, most of the time. I mean, I didn't like it when people didn't answer my questions or take my sporadic natural skepticism seriously. But other than that, I felt lucky. I mean, being Catholic was cool to me. I felt sorry for the people I met who weren't. Which were hardly any people. Because everyone I knew was Catholic. And they belonged. Not just to parishes and schools, but to this great big club called Catholic. And there were rituals we all knew and outfits we wore—school uniforms. And the priests wore all black except when they were saying a Mass, when they wore a cape! I mean, come on, it rocked. Plus there were all the other medieval-like things associated with being Catholic. You knelt in obedience and submission, but to me this was not humiliating—it was like you lived in a castle! And incense was strewn through the Church on occasion, and that too seemed mystical and otherworldly. And then there was the fact that everybody I knew knew everybody else and where they went to school and where their parents went to school. It was a close-knit, safe feeling.
But then I grew up, opened my eyes, and realized I didn't think there was any supernatural reason for doing all these things. I didn't think there was any good evidence for a God at all, let alone one who cared who showed up at church. And I moved away from Spokane to Los Angeles, a place where Catholicism didn't knit the community in the way that I had experienced. Even when I did go to a Catholic Church in L.A., my mind has this pesky habit of actually listening to the words being said at Mass. I would inevitably leave angry, or bemused and distant like an anthropologist, but certainly not connected. Eventually I stopped going and just got used to describing myself as an atheist. Then I got proud of saying I was an atheist. And during this time, I adopted a little girl from China.
It didn't dawn on me right away that I wasn't raising her with any religion. I mean religion to me meant those old ritualistic ceremonies that we went to when we visited my home town. And it was still a little fun to go—I mean, my dad or my brother would hold my daughter and she wriggled like the other 2- and 3-year-olds. But then a couple of things happened that changed everything.
The first thing was that my dad died.
Wow. Just saying that shows you I had changed. I didn't say he "passed away," because he didn't pass away. He died. My daughter was 41 /2 at the time and very close to my father. He was the guy she made Father's Day cards for on Father's Day, the man who she liked to have hold her. My dad used to take naps next to my daughter on the bed and I remember seeing them in there— my father with his oxygen machine and my daughter curled up next to him— and it was all so dreamy and loving and cute.And so, it was a big deal when he died. And my daughter had questions.
When she asked "What happens after we die?" I said, "To be honest, darling—we decompose." And she wanted to know what that meant. A bird had died in our backyard and so we watched how it disappeared a little bit every day. When I tell this story to people, they look at me horrified. Like I was forcing some horrifying truth onto a little kid too small to understand it. But actually, she got it just fine, possibly because I didn't only say that. I said two more things. "When you die, your body decomposes," I said. "It breaks down into all these teeny parts you can't even see—like dirt or air even. And then those particles become part of something else." And my daughter said, "Like what?" And I said, "Well, like a flower or air or grass or dirt or even another person." And she said, "Well, I want to be another person!" And I said, "Yes, I understand. But even if some of your molecules became part of another person, it wouldn't be you. Because You are You and when You are gone, there will never ever be another You in this world. You are so special and unique that this world will only ever make one of You. With You they broke the mold, so that's it! Only You. Right here, right now."
And she seemed to kind of get that. In fact, it made her feel special.
And then I told her a second thing: that her grandfather did live on after he died, inside of the people who were remembering him. And in the ways he influenced those people, even when they weren't thinking of him. Like, how Grandpa just loved orange sherbet. Now, because of that, we eat orange sherbet too and we remember him when we do it. Or even things that we might not think about him while we do, like when we watch some basketball on TV. We might do that because of Grandpa who loved to watch basketball on TV. Because of him, we are different. In probably thousands or even millions of ways. And that difference is what makes him live after he dies.
And she really got that.
Only one problem: Her friends at school were asking her if her grandfather was up in heaven. And she was thrown, because to say "no" sounded bad and to say "yes" wasn't what I had told her. One day we were walking home from the park with one of her friends, and the friend said, "Did you see your grandfather's spirit fly up to heaven when he died?" And my daughter looked at me and said, "Did it?" And I said, "No, we don't believe in things like that." And my daughter parroted me, "Yeah, we don't believe in that." And for a second she looked confident repeating me, and then her face crinkled up and she frowned and directed her eyes downward.
Suddenly I was seized with compassion for my little girl and how she will be navigating herself in a world where she will be a little bit different. I didn't have this burden. I was told what everyone else was told. Grandpas died and went to heaven. You would see them later when you died. Vague memories arose of my own childhood images of heaven, of a long dining table with a gold tablecloth and a feast. It was easier for me, in that way, than it will be for her.
But while I was having all these thoughts, my daughter and her friend had nonchalantly moved on to talking about their American Girl dolls. No biggy. But that moment, I think, is when all of the "what we believe" discussions began. And it made me uncomfortable. My daughter would often start conversations with me by saying, "So, we believe that ..." And frankly I hated the whole word "believe" and I also hated that she was just taking what I said as absolute truth, because in the perfect world of my head, she wouldn't be indoctrinated with anything. She would come up with her own answers, and she would never say things like, "We believe" or "We don't believe." But then I got more seasoned as a mother and realized that basically that's what we do all the time as parents, no matter what we "believe." Our job is to socialize our kids, and they have evolved to look to us for answers. Not providing those answers is wrong.
I got a little more comfortable saying things about what we "believe." Like, we believe it is good to take the garbage out. Honestly, it seems silly now that I write it. But that's how I got comfortable with that word. We believe in treating people nicely. We believe you shouldn't tell people lies. We believe that you should do your homework. That kind of believe.
Finally, I would say things like, "Lots of people believe that after someone dies, they live on. But I think that is just their way of not feeling as sad as they might about whoever they loved who died. I think that when people die, they die. And we should feel really sad and also feel happy that the flower of that person ever got to live at all." And even though many of my friends thought this was too big of a concept for a 4- or 5-year-old, after explaining it several times, I do think she got it.
That didn't mean, of course, that other people, like my mother, weren't also telling her what they believed about my dad's death. When we visited my mother, she and my daughter would make cookies and I would hear my mother going on and on about how Grandpa was in heaven and we were going to see him again and he was there with Mike, my brother who passed away. And later, when my daughter asked about this discrepancy, I just said, "We believe different things." And amazingly, Mulan got that just fine—even though it sort of made me mad. Because what story is going to seem better? The one where someone decomposes, or the one where he's at a big dinner table in the sky with other people who died? Decomposition does not stand a chance against the dinner table. But for me and Mulan, those discrepancies or different stories didn't become as traumatic as I thought they would.
A few months after this, Mulan started kindergarten at our local public school. And as part of her day at school, she said the "Pledge of Allegiance." She proudly repeated it to me, and the "under God" part made me flinch. "You don't have to say 'under God' you know," I said—and her eyes widened with fear. "What do you mean?" I said, "You can just keep your mouth closed during that part. I don't believe in God. These people in the government allowed that to get stuck in there much later. I wouldn't say it if I were you."
A few days later she came home and said, "I have to say it. Because it's nice, it's being nice to say it. You have to be nice and so you say it." I don't think I have ever heard a more heartbreaking sentence from my child. I am probably more sensitive to this, for many more reasons than religion. I have tried to stop doing things automatically because they are "nice" for years and years because I find myself drowning in doing a million things for people because it's "nice." On the other hand, it's expedient to pressure children to conform. It makes sense. It encourages community and all the behaviors that we are trying to instill in them. I understood her dilemma.
Excerpted from Parenting Beyond Belief Copyright © 2007 by Dale McGowan. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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