By Jennifer Filipowicz (aka Super Happy Jen)
“What will you teach your children?” This was a question posed to me when I recently wore an atheist t-shirt to a child’s birthday party. What a broad question, thought I, and not knowing quite how to answer, it stuck with me.
Today my three-and-a-half-year-old found a fly buzzing around my bedroom. “When flies are outside we don’t kill them but when they come inside we have to kill them!” he exclaimed.
“Or we could just live and let live,” I replied, not wanting to raise a murderous child, or find the fly swatter.
A few minutes later, my son asked to watch a video about bugs. Using the miracle of the internet, I managed to find something before his attention span waned, the BBC documentary series “Life in the Undergrowth” with David Attenborough. Since the bug that sparked his interest was a fly, I chose the episode about flying insects.
Two sections sparked discussion. The first was of two damsel flies contorting themselves bizarrely for carnal purposes.
“What are those bugs doing?”
“They’re mating…um…making babies.”
Luckily the damsel fly quickly started laying eggs.
“What is that bug doing?”
“Because its babies come from eggs.”
Later on, the show featured a wasp laying its eggs inside a caterpillar. I’ve heard these types of insects used as evidence against a benevolent god, with the wasp larvae keeping its hosts alive until they are eaten from the inside out. Now I started to think perhaps I had chosen a documentary too adult for my young ones eyes. Did I really want to expose him to the cruelty of the world so early? We watched as the wasp larvae exploded out of the unfortunate caterpillar, and I thought of how best to explain what was happening. In the end my son summed it up perfectly: “Ew!”
So what will I teach my children? I will plod along, taking advantage of some teachable moments and missing others. And for his part, my son will forget some things I say and absorb the rest. And if we don’t get to the topic of religion, I doubt that will matter. There is so much more to learn.
I have the privilege tonight of telling my readers about a wonderful project that's gotten me feeling very excited. The author Dale McGowan has edited a book of essays for parents on the topic of raising a child without religion, titled Parenting Beyond Belief, to be released next month.
This is a particularly important gap in atheist literature, which is why I'm so glad to see a serious effort being made to bridge it. Although some books, like the FFRF's Just Pretend, have addressed this topic, we badly need more of them. And 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.
In terms of laying the philosophical foundation for our position, atheists have done more than enough. In terms of creating an effective media presence and political organization, we still have a long way to go, but encouraging progress has been made. Now, books 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.
But what's really grabbed my interest is that Mr. McGowan has lined up a truly amazing array of atheist celebrities and luminaries to be his contributors. The book features original essays by Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillette, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Michael Shermer, and more! With a cast of contributors like this, how could you possibly go wrong?
I recently had an opportunity to interview Mr. McGowan, and he graciously consented to answer my questions:
Daylight Atheism: What gave you the inspiration for this book?
Dale McGowan: There was a bright light, and a fluttering of wings…
Actually, the idea occurred to me four years ago when I was editor of the Family Issues section of the Atheist Alliance WebCenter. I wanted to post a monthly review of books on parenting without religion and was stunned to find almost nothing out there, and certainly nothing comprehensive. There's Anne Stone's Living in the Light, a beautiful piece of work, and Jane Wynne Willson's Parenting Without God, also an excellent book. But both had limited releases by small presses – so limited that I didn't even find them until recently.
This was no fault of their own, of course, and no reflection on the quality of the books. Mainstream publishers simply wouldn't touch the topic, as I learned from two years of trying to get a contract. If there's no competition, they said, it means there's no market. Finally I convinced one very mainstream publisher otherwise – Amacom Books of New York. Now we'll see if I was right…
Daylight Atheism: You've lined up an impressive array of celebrity contributors, including Dan Barker, Penn Jillette, Richard Dawkins and Julia Sweeney. How did you get all these people to agree to participate?
Dale McGowan: The project sold itself. They all responded enthusiastically to the very idea right from the start. The only obstacle was that these are very, very busy people, and I showed an unfortunate talent for contacting them at the worst possible times. My request hit Richard's desk the very day that his documentary "The Root of All Evil?" aired in Britain. I contacted Penn the week his new daily radio talk show went on the air while he was doing eight live shows a week in Vegas with Teller and wrapping the season of Bullshit. Julia was between an off-Broadway run of Letting Go of God and a Hollywood Bowl performance, and Dan and Annie Laurie were doing what they always do – twelve things at once. But they all agreed that the project was too attractive to pass up, and I'm grateful for that.
And once they were on board, I had very little trouble convincing anyone else to jump in the pool.
Daylight Atheism: Out of all the essays in the book, is there one that significantly impacted the way you raise your own family?
Dale McGowan: Not one, no – I think the impact for me is collective. There is something so powerful in reading one piece after another by these articulate and thoughtful people who are all juggling the same issues I am. Seeing them all gathered together like this takes secular parenting out of the isolation that's all too common.
Daylight Atheism: Children raised without religion may well face prejudice or ostracism from their peers or even from adults who are hostile to atheism. Does this book give advice on how a non-religious parent should handle this situation? What if someone tries to frighten children by telling them their parents are going to Hell or something similar?
Dale McGowan: This is a prominent thread in several of the essays. Though the contributors don't speak with a single voice, several contributors advocate the simple and powerful act of challenging assumptions by modeling the opposite. Meeting a reasonable, intelligent atheist who firmly but politely insists on being treated like anyone else can seriously challenge the simplistic caricature of atheism that is so common. And it's best to do this proactively rather than reactively by being an out-of-the-closet example of friendly neighborhood atheism every day of the week.
I make an exception to the Nice-Guy approach (as do several other contributors) for the grotesque idea of Hell. If anyone puts that nonsensical poison in my children's heads, they'll hear from me in no uncertain terms. It's child abuse, pure and simple, and I won't permit it.
Daylight Atheism: How should a non-religious parent explain their decision on how they intend to raise their children to religious in-laws or relatives?
Dale McGowan: This is an enormously complicated topic with so many variables. Are the in-laws Quakers—or Southern Baptists? Are you and your spouse on the same page belief-wise? Did you leave the church, or were you never in it? Have your religious views changed since you married? Is your relationship with your in-laws strong?
The answers to these and a hundred other questions will dictate how you proceed, but a few bits of advice seem solid no matter what:
• Don't do it in passing. Sit them down to address it directly.
• Reassure the in-laws that the truly important human values are shared by religious and non-religious parents. Like people of religious faith, nonbelievers value love, honesty, kindness and generosity, are captivated by wonder and moved by the mysterious, seek consolation in times of loss, and treasure the companionship of others. We want to raise children who are ethical and caring. Our shared dreams for our children show that we are far more alike than unalike. Simply pointing this out can have tremendous power.
• Show that your intention is to trust the children to ultimately come to their own conclusions – that you will no more indoctrinate them into disbelief than you would into belief.
• Get them to admit that God is unlikely to be so petty and egotistical as to punish a good person who is honestly wrong about him. This is one of the most untenable of all religious propositions, after all. I like to picture God in his heaven smacking his head at the purely stupid attributes religious people have dreamed up for him.
• Depending on their variety of belief, you might invite the in-laws to share their religious convictions with the kids, with the single caveat that the invocation of hell and all other wrath-of-god type elements are forbidden. This open invitation will often be appreciated, will defuse the accusation that you are hiding religion from the kids – and most importantly, keep the evangelizing above the table.
Daylight Atheism: I notice the book contains a chapter on humanist ceremonies as an alternative to religious holidays. What advice does it give non-religious parents?
Dale McGowan: Actually it handles ceremonies (rites of passage, etc) separately from holidays. Jane Wynne Willson wrote a marvelous introduction to secular alternatives for religious ceremonies. Regarding holidays, we have a lively mix of opinion. Tom Flynn and I did a point-counterpoint on the Santa question, while other essays address Easter and present a whole range of non-religious holiday options, from the solstices to Darwin Day to Festivus to Christmas (What's that you say? Christmas has a religious version, too?).
Overall, the book presents a wide range of options and invites secular parents to mix and match as they see fit. Every family has its own unique traditions. There's no need for one-size-fits-all when it comes to ceremonies and holidays.
Daylight Atheism: What do you most hope to achieve with this book?
Dale McGowan: If the book achieves nothing more than normalizing secular parenting, I'll be perfectly happy.
Although I'm not a parent at this point in my life, this looks to be a fantastic book and I'm very much looking forward to its release. Let's all thank Dale for agreeing to speak with me about it! (He was also recently interviewed by Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, which may also interest my readers.) If anyone has any additional questions, please post them in the comments; I'll see if I can get him to answer.