Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Humanism for kids?

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In our new issue, Danny Postel discusses his attempts to provide his children with some "humanist" reading material, partly as a counterbalance to the Christian texts (and religious services) their mother, a Catholic, has introduced them to. But Danny's attempts to find some humanist reading raised some interesting questions. What exactly constitutes "humanist" reading? He found some books specifically packaged as "humanism for kids", but were they any good? Could best approach to "humanist parenting" be to expose children to a wide (and contradictory) range of philosophies and world religions, thus highlighting that none may represent the objective truth? And, in the end, does "humanism for kids" simply represent indoctrination in just the same way as "religion for kids"? Is humanist parenting ultimately about raising free thinkers, the price of which being that free thinking could lead children to making choices you don't like?

Read Danny's consideration of all these questions, and let us know what you think by commenting on this post. If you're a parent, we'd love to hear your views and experiences.


dh said...

Forcing any subject into a childs reading material is a form of indoctrination. I agree that raising a 'free-thinking' child is the appropriate course of action, even if the child chooses a lifestyle you may not agree with.

Cubik's Rube said...

There's a quote I can't really be bothered to Google, about how propaganda is always what the other side are doing while we're trying to spread the truth. It's tricky sometimes to avoid similarly arbitrary labelling when deciding that someone's "indoctrinating" their kids, while someone else is "educating" theirs, but there must be some distinctions we can draw. Even if I can't think exactly what they'd be.

However, it does seem to be a case where the bias is often strongly weighted against atheism and humanism. Just like any atheist with the gall to speak up about her lack of faith might be in danger of being labelled a "militant" (while the religious militants are actually, y'know, murdering people), so it's apparently very easy for any efforts to steer children toward godless thinking to be seen as indoctrination. Even some atheists were decrying Dawkins as a fanatic trying to put together some brainwashed band of loyal youth recently, when all he'd done was make a donation to support another organisation hosting secular summer camps.

It is important that a free-thinking child might well make independent decisions you disagree with, but I think simple religious belief on its own is far from the worst thing that might happen to them. However religious or secular their upbringing, kids can still be taught tolerance, and compassion, and a love of science, and a curiosity about the world - the idea that God exists might not be a hindrance to any of these.

Hmm. Well, I'm just thinking aloud at present. (And without any particular insight, having never even had a cat, let alone a tiny human of my own.) I liked Danny's approach to it all, though, and I don't imagine his children are in danger of growing up into anything less than fine young men to be proud of, even if they do find something worth reading in the Bible from time to time.

She Means Well... said...

I was raised vaguely Church of England but rapidly reached my own conclusions, working through agnosticism in my 20s and ending up in downright atheism in my 40s.

My husband is a luke-warm Greek Orthodox Christian and, as we live in Greece, his family (primarily his mother, a devout believer) is an important influence on our 12-year-old son.

I have never taken an anti-religion stance per se, as I believe kids need to grow up with some kind of ethical code. I even go along with many of the religious events here, because of they are significant as something that unites a community in a positive way. But I never hid the fact that ma-in-law should not hold her breath waiting for me to convert to the "one true faith". And I DID dig my heels in when talk of making him an altar boy came up (I suspect that if I hadn't, young'un would have put up some healthy resistance anyhow).

I have made it clear to my son that there are many options when it comes to working out the meaning of life, the universe and everything.... I have encouraged him to keep an open-minded when considering all manner of things, even 'tricky' issues that a religious outlook can make easier, such as the death of my father (his grandad).

I don't plan to shove Richard Dawkins down his throat any more than I want my mother-in-law to spoonfeed him the word according to whichever saint is being celebrated on a particular day.

He knows about and participates in his Greek family's religion. He also knows about other religions. And he knows that his Mum has no religion, and yet still tries to be ethical, compassionate, tolerant and understanding (trying to dispel the myth that the godless are morally bankrupt).

I'm optimistic. He's a smart, thoughtful kid. Some day, he'll reach his own conclusions - based on free thought, I hope - and even if I don't happen to agree, I will never try to convert him to the "gospel according to Mum".

She Means Well... said...

As a footnote, I just remembered a blog I posted on this subject a while ago - A Cynic's Plea.

If you're interested, you can check it (and any of my various other ramblings) out at http://shemeanswellbut.blogspot.com/2009/06/cynics-plea.html

Christopher Gray said...

Everything we teach our children comes in the form of stories - even scientific theories are stories, but they're special ones with evidence, and which are open to discussion. It's just a matter of letting children understand that some stories are old and 'fabulous' (or fablous, if there is such a word), while others are intended to be an actual explanation.

I have a four year-old daughter who is absolutely fascinated by the David Attenborough series (mammals particularly). He's the master of rational explanation and simple exposition of ideas, flowing simply through causes and effects. The first episode I showed Jo, she asked dozens of questions, and almost immediately she'd asked each one, based upon what she was seeing, Attenborough would deliver the same question, with a suitable answer. That's why he's so good.

It's my experience that all children are 'rational humanists' and you have to go through some strange processes to get them to accept things that they can't see for themselves.

As is always the case, of course, the real breakthroughs come from parental involvement: talk to your kids and discuss things with them. That's more powerful than any book.

Caspar Melville said...

Fascinating discussion. I wrote about a similar issue from another perspective in an article from 2006 about why kids like monsters. You can read it here: http://newhumanist.org.uk/418

foolfodder said...

There's a Point of Inquiry episode about this topic here: http://www.pointofinquiry.org/dale_mcgowan_raising_freethinkers/

Anonymous said...

Hey! These are some fabulous documentaries on atheism, that I think we all would find very informative: http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/the_atheism_tapes_daniel_dennet/

Vini said...

I love all this talk and that's the best thing about Danny's conversations and his piece a a whole. it opens up ideas to thought and consideration. Thanks Danny, I'm forwarding this to some friends right away.

Jon said...

Don't fret over what the children are learning at this early age. Their "reasoning" minds have not yet developed and to try to guide them in a particular direction is more worrisome than it's worth.
I, too, am a temporary agnostic (Dawkins) and my wife a Christian. She takes our 5 yr old to church every Sunday that we are home. I don't worry about her learning about the stories of the Bible.
My guidance is to not take anyone's word as the final answer to anything. Research all you can about whatever the subject is and make up your own mind. There are no imperatives. Facts, as also Truths, change with the more we know.
I know as she grows that questions will arise that will need to be answered, not just by her mothers or my point of view, but by her own point of view, and that point of view will be an educated point of view.
I find it more disappointing when either side of a debate has little to no knowledge of the others point of view.
What your children are learning now will be tempered with what they will learn as they mature. For better or worse, they will be the better for knowing both side of the debate.

Anonymous said...

What I think is that children should be exposed to all kinds of thinking including the subject of religion. Danny did not mention that how he became an humanist himself at the first place. Did he went through the process of reading and thinking independently. Whether his family were christian or humanist themselves when he was 6 or 10 years old? It is very important to know that if he was growing up as a christian kid and what happened that he became an humanist? for example I am from a muslim family and during the process of more education and more reading I became an humanist myself. My advise to my own kids is that you should go through reading all religions including humanist then decide what makes you more happier and content in your life as a person, THAT's your religion. At this present moment I have a daughter who feels closer to christianity and a son who is a pure humanist. And after all, we all want to be content and happy for who we are.

Anonymous said...

I think you were foolish in allowing your wife to indoctrinate your children whilst they were very young. The Jesuits knew the power of early teaching all too well, reference the oft-quoted "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." At this stage I think you need to be qutie aggressive in exopsing them to other ways of thought, partly through showing them different religions but also by making your own disbelief much more clear to them. I presume they are both old enough now to know that Santa Claus is nto real? I would suggest that you liken God to Santa. Be prepared for dissent from your wife and her church.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's too early to worry just yet. The beginning of the article is so perfectly fitting: the mortality of the butterfly stirring questions in the child. I think we have to remember how terrifying the idea of a finite existence is to the young mind. I think of the God concept as a temporary bridge out of this anxiety. Once they catch their breath, your kids will be free to examine the bounty of ideas you've laid before them. As they get old enough to enjoy more complicated ideas through cinema and literature, i'm sure christianity
will fade to its proper size in
the sea of ideas.
I think one has to be really intellectually isolated to hang their entire world view on one sacred book's take on existence.
By exposing your kids to many
voices and traditions, you have
made such isolation unlikely.

Anonymous said...

There is as much possibility that "Santa" exists as there is "God" because there is as much indication that "Santa" exists as there is "God". It is obvious that they are both equally man-made myths. Why do we need to debate the existence of "Santa" any longer? When are we going to grow up?

David Cahill said...

An American in China, I live in a society where the vast majority of the population (ethnic Muslims and a few Buddhists, Taoists, and underground Christians aside) are brought up not only without Christianity but without any religion at all, and they do just fine. Of course, China has its own "religion" of state communist ideology and propaganda, but that's another issue. Danny's situation is tricky because he has to take his kid's Christian mother into account. If I had children, I would be reluctant to introduce anything about Christianity into the household, with the exception of Christian art (sacred music, painting, architecture), and that's only because I happen to like it, though purely for aesthetic reasons. I suppose that could be a kind Trojan horse enabling Christianity to get a foothold inside my kid's consciousness, but so what? And I certainly wouldn't expend any energy worrying about whether my kids were getting equal access to all spiritual options or not. Christians hardly worry that their kids don't have access to atheism or agnosticism. Isn't this idea of equal access to all points of view the argument used by the Christian right in ensuring school children are given access to alternatives to evolutionary theory such as "intelligent design"? Yes, kids need to be inculcated in some kind of moral framework or set of core values. I believe this is possible without religion. Kids can be taught by example that "right" and "wrong" is a matter of common sense. The meaning of life and the mystery of the universe are vital questions in their own right, without resorting to religion. Happiness and peace with one's place in the world can arise from work, productivity, or creativity alone. Altruism, sacrifice, and responsibility (to family, community, country) are worthy ends in themselves. When Christianity comes up, it is enough to know that it's an inextricable part of our cultural heritage, nothing more and nothing less. An appreciation of Christianity as culture does not entail being pious.

QuickBen said...

There are a lot of interesting posts on this article. I've been a bookworm all my life and i feel that my non belief in the supernatural was an inevitable result of reading about a vast range of subjects from an early age.
When you understand that so many people in the world hold contradictory beliefs it becomes difficult not to see that they can't all be true, and therefore, your own religous background can make no claims to be "more right" than any other.
The only "indoctrination" i have subjected my child to is instilling a love of reading and learning. Where he focus's this energy is entirely up to him, whether its reading the bible, or the Lord of the Rings. I have every faith that when he's old enough to ask the big questions, he'll be able to do so from a reasoned opened-minded standpoint.
If he turns out religious, that'll be his choice and i'll support him but i think that being brought up in a house where religion plays no part and having a broad education
will make this unlikely.

Anonymous said...

This brought back memories of raising my children. They started attending Sunday school when the younger, then about six, asked why they didn't. I inferred some peer pressure. They went all the way through confirmation, by which time each in his own way had decided that this stuff wasn't for them. One of them, though, fondly recalls playing a lead role in the Christmas pageant one year.

The fundamental fact is that your kids are children. Whatever they think, or think they think, now, they will think otherwise in six months. And otherwise again in another six. And so on.

If you are not absolutely certain that your own opinion of religion is correct, do not attempt to inculcate it. If you are absolutely certain, then the problem is much bigger and hasn't much to do with the children.


RonaldA said...

I have one book title to recommend and one thought to contribute. The title is The Plain Truth of Things (and there's a companion volume) by Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl - not necessarily secularist but promoting discussion between parents and children as well as the right values. The thought is about "the right values." We should be encouraging reason and a commitment to truth as well as understanding that on some issues people have differences of opinion. This are both difficult steps for a young mind as well as for some older but not necessarily mature minds. Stressing respect without a commitment to truth often slides into an incoherent relativism and total skepticism, rather than building the capacity to ascertain what is truth and what is not. Yes, promote respect for other people's opinions and an open mind, and also a critical and skeptical attitude about all opinions. But a critical and skeptical mind is one that knows how to reason scientifically, historically, and socially. People are able to become philosophically committed to knowledge and to finding paths to knowing, rather than being lost in a broader, more negative skepticism.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine was loaded with the task of teaching RE as well as English at a local grammar school. She did. She had them reading Norse sagas and Greek myths, Hindu gitas, Buddhist tales as well as Bible stories, introducing them all with "And another great story is..."

I followed that with my kids. The oldest, in Britain had to undergo the compulsory RE, and complained how boring it was. I told him the Bible was a great piece of prose, the basis for any decent writing in English, and read some passages. He was impressed.. but complained that they were using some bland modern translation. I complained to the school, and told them to get out the King James version pronto..

I told him that if he wanted I would happily withdraw him, but he would stand out (which he didn't like) or we could get a posse of like-minded parents together and break the back of the class by exclusions. He decided to stick with it.

Here in the USA, peer group pressure from church (and even some synagogue) going kids is the issue, apart from the Oath of Allegiance.(under God). I have put my second son on the myth diet. He gets books and films on Hercules, Beowulf, Leif Ericsson, Eric the Red, the Norse myths, ancient Egypt, and I even let him keep a VHS on Noah he won at a school raffle. It's just another story, and anyway, knowing biblical references no more implies belief than all the Christians who cited Greco-Roman deities as literary tropes.

The expanded myth mix dilutes the message: I have no real fear he is going to start sacrificing horses to Odin, or cattle to Zeus, but jit ust puts them all in perspective. It's a story...no more, no less.

On the other side, proselytising humanism is an altlernative belief - it risks becoming the enemy. A laid back lack of belief in silly things is far more effective and far less likely to provoke counter-reaction from kids. I am equable about other people's religious beliefs, like supporting Manchester United. After all people do irrational things, and as long as it does not impinge on me, or is not force-fed to my children or the public, I see no reason to attack, even if I will forcibly defend my own good sense lack of belief and refusal to bow to superstition.

Ian Williams

Anonymous said...

"Daddy, why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?"

No, no, that's in people years. They actually live to be 1000 in butterfly years. Not so bad, eh? Jesus was actually kind of nice to Butterflies. What he really hated was subatomic particles. They don't even live very long in subatomic particle years. Of course, Jesus himself only lived 33 years. The secret was that he was the only human to live in butterfly years. So he actually lived to be a few million butterfly years. True! It's in the @gnostic Gospels, Gospel of St. Max, Ch. 6, Verse 66.

You should look at Sarah Silverman's great clip on this topic.


John Clark & Max

Regina said...

I believe that a belief in the un-provable is hard-wired into us, like our preference for sweets. Just as kids usually choose the sugar over the broccoli, so will they choose religion over no religion. When I Believed, the world was a much more interesting place to me. I was part of a community of believers, the universe had laws I could understand and learn to use (I thought), I had love and the comfort of knowing that a divine entity was out there rooting for me and watching over me at all times. The world had magic in it.

I miss that. Sometimes I miss it a lot.

Now that I believe that it's just a godless, random universe, the world is a duller, flatter place. I think most people choose to to have a religion because it makes the world look safer. It gives you behaviors, rules, rituals, an afterlife and explanations for the unexplainable. Who wouldn't want that over a bleak, unpredictable world?

I think you'd have to be raising your kids with a mother who shares your views in order to keep them from believing in a god. Given a choice, I think they'll go for Christianity. But, like me, they might also grow out of it.

Verencemos said...

I'd recommend 'The Big Bang Book' which my 5 year old son loves - its not explicitly a humanist book, butit gives a scientific explanation of how we came to be, and I like the arguement between the scientists it shows about why the dinosaurs died out - it shows there's room for doubt, and we might not have an answer yet. Its got great pop ups too.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry too much. Your kids will wind up great regardless, as their Dad, (and Mum too I expect) thinks about these things, and reads to them and is involved in their lives. Give 'em a bit of space, and they'll grow up fine on eway or the other.

Anonymous said...

So, who named the kids Theo and Elijah? It seems lthat your wife had the upper hand even before they were born.

Steven Cox said...

Danny's discomfort with other types of thinking is what he is teaching his children right now. Danny....don't pretend to be an open and inclusive freethinker if in fact you aren't. And, I'm not telling you to be open to all types of thinking, even those that seem incorrect to you. But, you should at least be aware that your intolerance is what you are teaching your kids right now.


Angry Pancho said...

I'd talk about evidence and how important it is in knowing any truth. And then I'd use some construction like this: science is about the truth and religion is about what should be.
Then explain that what should be isn't always the cases, unfortunately.

Noelle said...

I grew up as a 'secular humanist' -- no one went to church, (though I was baptized Catholic), and although I heard many "Bible Stories" in fable form, my mom reminded me that they were just stories, that taught moral lessons. We exchanged presents at Christmas because everyone has a bit of "Jesus-like-ness" inside them, so his birthday is like everyone's birthday.

This is all well and good but it made my childhood a profoundly weird one. What is the moral lesson in Noah's Ark? What is the moral lesson in "Solomon could speak to the birds?" Why was Jesus so good that we compare our best selves to him? Why did other people think Jesus was God? My Mom couldn't answer these questions well, I don't think, because she herself grew up with a thorough grounding in Catholicism. She couldn't understand the weirdness (especially for a kid, who craves concrete answers) of knowing only a quarter of the story and disbelieving it at the same time.

Most of all the notion that other people (huge numbers of other people) believed these things to be true was unsettling. How could they believe a storybook was real?

I didn't want to ask my parents for clarification because the "They're moral fables" answer was already so unsatisfying so I built a bit of a pantheon by myself based on the pop culture images of these things.

In middle and high school, I felt... out of touch. I wanted reverence and awe and connection to a big picture and a community. I learned about Paganism and the holidays that marked out the natural year, the cycles of the moon and sun, the dualism of male and female and light and dark. But the fact that all of this was made up continued to bother me.

I hit a science bug, after that. I picked up The Elegant Universe on a whim, and became (since these things somehow went together) the most rabid nihilistic atheist and anti-theist you ever did see. It was like the natural next step. There was no reason for anything to exist, no why, no meaning, and people were dumb little children for inventing meaning. (Of course, I still found the lack of reason and meaning profoundly upsetting, which is what fueled my extreme-ness)

Today I've graduated college with a degree in religious studies, and have settled into humanism (or what I call "99% Skeptical Catholicism", I like the fables). And I blame that interest on my early upbringing. But, if I could give advice:

Make sure your kids get awe and reverence. Their saints should include Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightengale, Abe Lincolin, but make sure they have saints. Give them more than one kind of "origin story" for the world, but make sure they get the whole story. Make sure they have a community, and connection to the past. Above all, make sure you don't disparage any line of thought -- I never felt free to ask my Mom about religion because she talked about it in a sarcastic tone, and I didn't have the words, at 8, to articulate "I want a stronger sense of community."

Anonymous said...

My girlfriend is a devout Buddhist (The Chinese Mahayana "Buddha has magical powers to save you" Buddhism, not the Westernized "Buddhism is just a philosophy" stuff) and I am an Atheist (That includes a disbelief in magic Buddhas and karma/reincarnation) so I often wonder about this issue coming up in the future. My mother was very big into Hinduism, but I never really bought into it, although it wasn't for a lack of her trying. I'm not sure why that was, but it is an interesting question to ponder. Thank you for writing the article!

Sugar said...

Danny Postel seems very proud ( I might even say smug) of his determination to present his worldview to his children, but appears not to have considered how his attitude to this undermines his wife and her beliefs. If it's this important to you to be an atheist, why would you marry a Christian and raise children together. it's less 'Mummy's beliefs' and 'Daddy's beliefs' than 'Daddy is sensible and Mummy has her silly made-up stories she likes'. There's open-minded and there's mixed messages.

Fabrulana said...

Thank you so much for this article. I have been looking a long time at this problem myself trying to think how to handle it. I will definitely get the recommended books and try them out.

Anonymous said...

"Forcing any subject into a childs reading material is a form of indoctrination"

What nonsense. What about mathematics? Is that indoctrination?

Now for the bigger issue here--why marry a woman with whom you have wildly divergent worldviews, objectives, and childrearing philosophies? The notion of one parent battling another for their child's mind and soul is nauseating.

If you have the courage of your convictions, marry someone who shares them so that you can pass them on to posterity. Otherwise, what's the point? This story seems to be about as egregious an example of the UNexamined life as I can think of.

Anonymous said...

This probably wouldn't help the author (since my solution would probably lead to huge family tensions) but I intend to explain to my children the difference between what is real and what is not. That is not indoctrination, it's simply teaching them about the world.

I will not be saying, "Well, some people believe x and others believe y," without adding, "but all the evidence points to y, and those who believe x are probably deluding themselves".

joey said...

Even i think its a good idea to leave the kids on thier own to decide which way they want to follow and what thier heart feels..it will encourage the child to look out for different prospects of life and at the same time religion.

joey said...

Even i think its a good idea to leave the kids on thier own to decide which way they want to follow and what thier heart feels..it will encourage the child to look out for different prospects of life and at the same time religion.

She Means Well... said...

I am quite shocked by the sentiments of some people commenting here. For instance "If it's this important to you to be an atheist, why would you marry a Christian and raise children together".

Does this mean that we should all only marry people who are a mirror image of ourselves? I hope not.

Is there any chance of raising kids to be free-thinkers when the only "suitable" marriages would be those between with the same religious (or no-religious) beliefs?

Don't forget, church-goers don't have a monopoly on morality. My husband is Greek Orthodox (of the more rational kind, admittedly), and I am an atheist. And yet, we respect one another's beliefs and have the same values that we aim to pass on to our son - together.

I don't have to become the godless equivalent of a fire and brimstone preacher to show our son that there are other ways of looking at the world, and that sound thinking and rationality has a place everywhere.

Nor do I have to embark on an unholy war with his father (who I happen to love, despite the fact that we come from different countries and traditions). We just try to show him by example how to be both 1) a good person and 2) a thinking person.

By exposing our son gently and matter-of-factly to the fact that there are different points of view, and encouraging him to think for himself, I am confident that he will come to his own conclusions in time...

Anonymous said...

The human brain still requires its developmental phase, and the easier form is to push up against things. If your children are going to be so called free thinkers, they may come to it faster if they have a foundation, either religious or intellectual, to push up against, and thereby develop their own reactions and ideas about their reactions. (It's a process that's been around for a long time.) As a freethinkin' parent, it's your job to nurture a sense that they may EVENTUALLY go against your position, but it's not just a matter of 'what they want now.'

If you do NOT take some stance on the issues of existence, and be clear and well defined, they will have less of a clarity of your personal position, and sure it makes sense that they should embrace the church which at least defines it's position in some manner.

P.J. Ryan said...

It's striking that you're open to the truth yet reluctant to accept it might be found in organized religion. This is a classic Humanist problem that begs for resolution. You should read Chesterton's "Orthodoxy", you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Norman Hanscombe said...

Why such angst about what our children believe? I can understand deeply religious people, be they evangelical theists, true-believing Marxists, or anything in between, to indoctrinate their offspring into following whatever that person’s one true faith happens to be --- but 'humanists'’?

IF they want to encourage systematic analysis of human behaviour, surely their time could be better spent simply alerting their offspring to the existence of a kaleidoscope of conflicting 'truths', and encouraging them to try to understand WHY our species seems to have this all too often overpowering need to believe in something --- no matter how bizarre that comforting belief may be?

I’m not convinced that it’s fair to ask all youngsters to think too deeply about issues which conflict with whatever the local norms happen to be. I’ve always been an iconoclast; and could live with the consequences; but I’ve been careful about pointing out inconsistencies inherent in others’ deeply held beliefs, because no matter what rational analysis of those beliefs may indicate, if holding them helps individuals face life (and their actions aren’t causing others too much of a problem) is it fair to take away a comforting crutch? Helping people to “see the light” re their beliefs’ logical shortcomings doesn’t always help them cope with life’s challenges as well as their crutches --- theistic and non-theistic alike.

rp said...

What does it really mean to be a free thinker?

I was brought up in a household that did not require me to pursue a particular path. I was exposed to some pretty heavy philosophy at a young age, some Western, some Eastern, some religious, some that wasn't.

What happened to me though was, I fell in love with story, because lessons that were taught to me were taught from the perspective of so many people. Often my father would tell my brother and I a Zen parable about a monk who stopped to smell the roses while being chased by a tiger. Or it may have been a story about an epic Hindu battle. Or perhaps it was watching the Ten Commandments during the Christmas break - which we celebrated with our Christian cousins even though our immediate family's ancestory was Hindu.

I think the larger idea here is do we know what it means to think freely - without judgment, but with open-minded inquiry guiding us? Do WE understand the difference between literal and metaphorical? Do WE understand that there is something to learn from all religious texts, if we don't become close minded and take them absolutely literally? When we are given the opportunity to question that which we have witnessed, and to engage ourselves in these stories that have carried human wisdom for thousands and thousands of years, then I don't think we have to worry too much about our children becoming mindless.

The real question here is, do WE understand what it means to be awake? Maybe it's the adults that need to figure out whether they've been indoctrinated before worrying about how kids are becoming indoctrinated by secular or religious beliefs.

Gregg said...

When my seven year-old daughter was invited to a church function where they were to play fun games and learn about Jesus, my reaction was, "Hell, no." And about the same age, when we were at a giant Jesus monument about which were displayed the ten Commandments, she already had opinions about them all. Stealing, lying, and "kissing" your neighbor's wife were wrong. She thought the first commandment was awfully bullying in tone, though.

So I'm sure she'll find her own path, and I'm pretty sure it won't be snake-handling.

My mother was raised by atheists, and found herself at a disadvantage in literature classes, so sent all six of us to Sunday school. At least one of our parents would go to church, as well, even though we knew they didn't really believe all the stuff the church taught. I do not remember thinking it made much difference whether I believed in God or not.

How did it work out? Most of us are not particularly religious. Two of us lean toward Buddhism. The most logical of the six, the oldest, a mathematician, became a Catholic! But at least we all know the names Matthew, Peter, Luke and John; and although we don't know who begat whom in great detail, we know Cain was the bad guy - as are we all because of that damn snake.

Oh - and we can understand that most Americans believe Jesus died for our sins, and although we may not believe it, we can understand this belief through our various humanistic prisms...because, despite the churchgoing, our father's admonition to "do the greatest good for the greatest number of people" ultimately made the most sense (notwithstanding my number-crunching Christian brother's beliefs).

HawkeyeGK said...

I've been struggling with this issue myself, and I recently revisited Parenting Beyond Belief to get a variety of perspectives.

The one that really resonated with me was Penn Jillette's piece that concluded, "Tell your kids there is no god and be done with it. Jesus christ, your kids aren't stupid."

I think there is some real wisdom there. I've concluded that just because I came to be an atheist by my own discovery that doesn't necessarily mean that's the best way. As I recall my confusion and anxiety on the topic, I remember reading my first book on atheism and feeling for the first time that I wasn't alone in my doubts.

Tell your kids what you think, but at the same time, tell them that it is important that they investigate and come to their own conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Characterizing Catholicism as a "literalist" Christian religion is simply untrue. For instance, the Catholic church has no problems whatsoever with the theory of evolution and natural selection as biological processes, and indeed has been at the forefront of encouraging education and learning of all kinds practically since its inception. Perhaps you ought to discuss your religious differences with your wife before you assume that her religion is synonymous with the media's homogeneous portrayal of Christianity in America. It may surprise you to know that many Christian sects in America and elsewhere are skeptical that Catholics are even Christian! It would seem to me that you ought to delve a bit more into what the religion stands for before buying out the "secular humanist" section of the bookstore. At the very least it is not your business, nor anyone else's, to do more than give your child options for belief of lack thereof-- admitting that you would be displeased with your child developing deeply held religious convictions speaks more to the narrowness of your mind than to the value of "skepticism."

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the kids are named Theo (God), and Elijah (My Lord is God).

Anonymous said...

Something tells me that your wife does not waffle on the repercussions of teaching Catholicism.

writch99 said...

Your discomfort is coming from the myth that parents have to always act as if they know everything and have all the knowledge to pass to their children. A terrific book (really a long essay), On Truth, The Tyranny of Illusion, is available from Freedomainradio


Stephan Molyneau

[quoted paragraph]
Fiction as Facts

When you were a child, you did not have the ability to objectively validate the commandments of those who had power over you. Your susceptibility was a great temptation to those who would rather be believed than be right. All power tends to corrupt, and the power that parents have over their children is the greatest power in the world.

A child is biologically predisposed to trust and obey his parents – this has great utility, insofar as parents will often tell their children not to eat poisonous berries, pull hot frying pans off the stove, or run around all day outside without sunscreen on. The requirements of survival tend to discourage endless “trial and error.”

When parents instruct their children, they can either present that instruction as conditional, or absolute. Conditional instructions – do not hit your brother except in self-defence – tend to lead to endless additional questions, and quickly reveal the parents’ lack of knowledge. As the child continues to ask what exactly defines self-defence, whether pre-emptive strikes are allowable, whether teasing can be considered aggression and so on, the fuzzy areas innate to all systems of ethics quickly come into view.

As these fuzzy areas become clearer, parents fear once more the loss of moral authority. However, the fact that certain areas of ethics are harder to define than others does not mean that ethics as a whole is a purely subjective discipline. In biology, the classification of very similar species tends to be fuzzy as well – at least before the discovery of DNA – but that does not mean that biology is a purely subjective science. Water can never be perfectly pure, but that does not mean that bottled water is indistinguishable from seawater.

Due to their desire for simple and absolute moral commandments, parents spend enormous amounts of energy continually herding their children away from the “cliff edges” of ethical complexities. They deploy a wide variety of distractive and abusive tactics to achieve this end – and all these tactics are designed to convince the child that his parents possess absolute knowledge of ethical matters.
[end quote]

I might add absolute knowledge about a lot of things. This essay should be required reading for all parents and prospective parents.

Another excellent book that might help you solve the "indoctrination conundrum" is Stephan Law's "The War for Children's Minds" In this small but very important book for liberals, Law will help you get over your discomfort. Liberals do not try to control thought, but work to guide actions. That is the essential point to remember and the way you keep from being a hypocrite. The important lesson liberal parents should impart to their children is that all knowledge is conditional and there are no absolutes. Therefore do what you can to praise your children when they demonstrate open-mindedness and skepticism, and encourage them to question everything, and everybody.

Even mom and dad. But you may need to run this by mom.

Anonymous said...

I'll second Ian Williams' comment above: just add more mythology. My kids love the stories, get their sense of wonder fed, and it gives me easy parallel stories for anything they hear. It also can be quite useful for distinguishing stories from science, so a question like your butterfly one can be answered in contrasting ways.

Don D.

Anonymous said...


The author doesn't even believe in his secularism enough to be willing to teach it to the people who should matter most to him -- his kids.

If he really thought that secularism was true and religion was false he'd be willing to teach his kids the "truth". Teaching kids is, after all, a parent's #1 responsibility.

Christians know better. We know that God is truth and have no fear of saying so or of teaching our kids the truth about Christ.

God allows U-turns so any secular humanist like this author, who is so lacking in confidence in his own philosophy to teach that philosophy to his own kids is welcome to admit the hollowness of secularist thinking and pursue truth into the welcoming arms of God.

Anonymous said...

I always find it strange when 'secular humanists' or agnostics, who are pretty clearly pluralists, or to some extent relativists (or at least think that no one has a monopoly on truth), think that Christianity is somehow the lesser option. They are hoist by their own petard, unfortunately, in embracing inclusivism while denouncing exclusivism. It is a funny contradiction to argue that everyone is right, except for the one who thinks that only some people are right. What they mean, of course, is that the only one who is right is the one who believes that everyone is right, making even less sense. I'm sure the author would have slept more easily had his son been reading the Bhagadva Gita, but this is equally ludicrous.

JohnBUK said...

Children will and want to believe in fairies, ghosts etc. They are not going to differentiate at this age the difference between "real" and "imagined". Therefore why bother trying to "disprove" or "balance" the "argument". As long as they read widely then eventually when they are old enough they will start to make up their own minds on these types of issues. Of course the religious posters here will not be "concerned" at indoctrination - that's what convinced them and most of the populations centuries ago!

Gregg said...

It's not quite true, that, as one anonymous poster writes above, that discomfort with "teaching" secular humanism to one's children implies that we secular humanists lack the courage of our convictions, unlike, say, Christians, who are quite sure that they are right.

Being sure you are right is not one of the most treasured beliefs of secular humanists, because it lessens our appreciation of the many humans who believe differently than we do. We have friends who are Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists. We would like to think that every life is precious. I think that's why it is called secular HUMANISM. We are understandably a little uncomfortable teaching our children that those who believe differently than we do are doomed to eternal torment.

Avida Novitatis said...

Great article, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Danny sounds like a wise father, in that (insofar as it was possible for him to do so) he raised his kids to make up their own minds. I did so with my children (they were raised Unitarian), which blew their Christian friends' minds in middle and high school. "You mean you are supposed to 'decide' what religion you want (if any) when you're an adult? How is that even possible?" If they decide that Christianity, or Buddhism, or atheism, is the most congenial point of view to their souls, more power to them. We all need to get through the night as best we can.

David Page Coffin said...

Seems that almost every parent feels a responsibility to raise their children to be, think and believe some certain way, ignoring the most current findings (google Do Parents Matter?), and forgetting that it was by no means necessarily their own parents who taught them to be who they are.

My experience, vividly recalled, is that I never accepted on faith anything I heard about religion or Ultimate Reality as a child; I was then as I am now: Constitutionally incapable of ignoring the obvious incapacity of humans to Know The Truth. My parents didn't teach me that. Nor did they teach my 3 sisters to become conservative, fundamentalist Christians; they did that on their own, despite being raised by a New-Thought Christian mother and a secular, skeptical father, both vociferously liberal.

It's also clear to me that, despite all the wonderful things my parents shared with us and exposed us to, and how much I love them for all they aspired and struggled to be, the most profound things I learned from them came from their actions and the way they lived, not from what they, or any other authority, said about life. I treasure all I learned from them, but I was always myself first and foremost, for better or for worse.

Anonymous said...

If you don't indoctrinate your kids then some government or the church will be perfectly happy to do it for you. Be prepared to see your child march off to kill and be killed by brown people or fall in to one of the money sucking submissive cults preaching origianl sin.

Anonymous said...

I admit to a certain amount of limitation on this subject because I don't have kids myself, but I've been wondering about this myself as I grow away from the religion I grew up with. What do I do? As I grew up, I realized just how pervasive my religion was and how angry it wound up making me. I didn't see why I was being held responsible for flaws that were placed there by my creator.
Now that I'm a young adult about to finish a Master's, I'm much more low key about this. For starters, I'm just a little screwed up and my parents screwed me up, yes, but that's entirely unavoidable. If your children are half as intelligent as you'd like them to be, a little bit of irrationality and neurosis is to be expected and if anything, should be taken as side effects of a healthy mind trying to work out the kinks in its interpretation. My parents are still fantastic people that did their absolute best and still encouraged many of the best parts of me. In the end, I had it pretty good, so I can only complain so much.

That being said, I was raised in a religious household and was baptized into the Baptist church when I was 15. We were socially and politically conservative but quite liberal when it came to religion. My personal conduct was always the focus of my religious exploration and my family, both my extended family and my church family, encouraged this exploration. My church had five ordained ministers in the congregation and continues regularly to ordain women, so debate and openness and a HEAVY dose of scholasticism were always part of my tradition. I was that pain in the ass kid that was pestering my Sunday School teachers about why dinosaurs didn't find their way into the Bible.

That being said, I also didn't understand or encounter intolerance until I met atheists in college who looked down their noses at me for believing in God. My personal experience has always been so open that I expected people to have different perspectives, and I rather like the Alice Walker quote regarding the enterprise--people don't go to church to find God, they go to share God with each other. I wanted to know what they thought and expected it to be different, with the intent of learning from them. I never expected to be the object of ridicule for what I believed.

My point is that my religious upbringing has done me some harm, but this is irrelevant. Religion is never about God, it's about us. Dogma is dogma and it's an intellectual phenomenon, not a spiritual one. You would do well do avoid it in any stripe it presents itself. Regarding the science fiction and fantasy books that were recommended to you, I wouldn't be quite so quick to write them off. Oddly enough, The Chronicles of Narnia remain favorites of mine even today because I didn't read into a single iota of the religious instruction. I also love The Golden Compass and am as annoyed by the atheistic preaching in that book as I am by the overt Christ imagery of Narnia. The literature that stayed with me were the stories that taught me about people; I learned love from Christ, but I learned far more about passion, empathy and ethics from Ender Wiggin in Speaker for the Dead. What will make your children open to new experiences is having a broad range of different ones. You'll never be able to combat the need to create a simplified worldview because you yourself do it--how can you expect your children not to? What you can do, however, is to help create a fluid one that adapts to and incorporates new knowledge rather than rejecting it regardless of the source. Just as dogma is dogma, truth is truth, and an intellectually minded individual will always veer towards that which is built on more solid ground, logically speaking. You're not gonna like everything they do--they're their own people. So don't. Just have faith in them.

Katherine Beatrice said...

I think the writer is asking the wrong question. I understand the question, "What am I doing for my world view." However, a better question would be not, "What is the influence?" rather, "Why is my child so attracted to the church and religion?"

I find that most children are innately attracted to the idea of God and a force outside themselves. They see an enchanted world and look for the author of that enchantment. Children are simple and filled with wonder and an intelligent creator is an obvious answer to them. It is a comforting answer to them because it provides the same sense of security that a parent might provide. Children are trying to figure out how and why the world works. Religion gives them a paradigm through with to understand this. Religion also accepts mystery and children are both excited by and interested in mystery and wonder. Though they ask why my experience is that they are not asking for only a scientific answer but are also asking a question of meaning. Most philosophical views that are not religious cannot answer this.

I think the fact that the author tends to see religion as flat and literal reveals that he doesn't know much about religions. They are rich with symbol and story and meaning. They are in fact much less literal than science. I believe the authors children are intrigued by church because it is offering them meaning and giving them permission to enjoy an enchanted world. That is the world as they see it with the tools they prefer to discover it and put it in a larger framework of meaning.

I appreciate that the author honors that "free thinking" doesn't really mean free from adopting any established paradigm--lets face it he has one laid down by philosophy. None of us are really free from the influence of other paradigms or even our own. All paradigms have a center and a boundary--that is what makes it a paradigm. And yes, his children might choose a religious paradigm. I was raised by secular humanists and to their surprise I chose a religion. However, I think this it has helped them appreciate how flat their vision of religion was and it has made me a religious person able to understand and even appreciate other paradigms even if I don't agree with them.

Lee Horowitz said...

No guarantees, of course, but my recipe is omnivorous reading.

Be sure to include the history of religions, especially those in and around late antiquity, history of philosophy (I happen to have been very impressed by Bertrand Russel's History of Philosophy when I was a young teen), history of science, lots of sci fi, popularizations such as "The Education of T C MITS", anthropology (What kid doesnt love reading about Indians , er Amerinds, I mean) and the like.

I wish there were a "Wellhousen for Kids", but I guess thats not going to happen.

dpocius said...

I feel for you. I found myself in your shoes raising my daughter (now 29). When she was 5, my wife suggested she accompany a neighbor child to an AWANA meeting, where she was apparently first "infected". A few years later, my wife resumed attending an evangelical and somewhat fundamentalist church, something she hadn't done since well before we met, and taking Debbie, of course. Then, later on, it was youth groups, where she met her future husband, and a bachelor's degree in religious studies at a prestigious Christian college. Now she lives in the Denver suburbs, raising my grandkids to be good little Christians.

Where was I in all this? As a secular humanist, I stayed out of the fray, promoting the ideas of free, rational, critical thinking wherever possible, but it was no match for the literalism and certainty a young mind craves, which my wife was only too eager to provide.

Do I sound a bit bitter? It's always easier to promote a set of concrete notions to a child than it is to float the idea of postponing a philosophical decision until adulthood; Nature abhors a vacuum, after all. And when you know you're right, and the community-at-large backs you up, it's easy to compromise on the "ends justifies the means" thing. My wife conveniently assumed that my not saying no meant yes, when she bothered to inform me at all. Nothing overt; just the assumption that she was doing the right thing, of course, and how could you possibly object? My rationalization that Debbie would outgrow this didn't pan out of course. I totally underestimated the ability of the mind, even one as sharp and quick as hers, to rationalize mythology as reality in the face of actual, to-the-eye reality. Living in Christian America, I didn't stand a chance, as it turned out.

The only thing my daughter ever did to disappoint me was to adopt without question the Christian faith, and the only thing I'll never forgive my wife (and myself as well) for was to manipulate me into letting this happen.

Luke Lea said...

I grew up in a household similar to your children's, except that both of my parents were "non-believers" (Mother an atheist, Daddy an agnostic) and it was my grandmother who was the religious one. She took me to Sunday school and in due corse I had a crisis of faith at the end of high school.

Mama(for that is what I called Grandmother) gave me the money I needed to go to college, for which I asked her in tears. But when she did so she asked me to promise her one thing: that I would believe in God. I remained silent because I was unable to honestly make such a promise. But being of a religious temperment by nature (by birth I suspect) I did promise myself that if there were a God I was going to find out. And thus I began a life-long search.

What did I find? Well, I never found God in the sense of a being who I feel certain exists. But I did find something else, something more important: the meaning of "God" as our ancestors understood the word: a blind faith that that in spite of all appearances to the contrary there is justice in this universe and everybody gets what they deserve in the end, if not when they live when they die.

I also learned something about the historical circumstances under which this idea arose amongst a small trading/pastoral tribe on the fringes of ancient civilization and how this idea evolved under the pressure of historical events: that if there is no real justice in this world, which evidently there is not, then it must be something that happens when you die: an experience of some kind that makes up in intensity what it lacks in duration and which they described as best they could with the word "eternal," -- a possible experience which gives, or would give, significance to all the unrequited suffering and pain most ordinary people experienced in this world, especially those who are poor and powerless and lived lives of drudgery and servitude.

It was this faith in the possibility of compensation (as William James called it -- or was it Emerson?) that gave them to courage and stamina to go on: to endure the crimes committed against them and make the sacrifices which could not be avoided, and which were, in the final analysis, necessary to establish the foundations of modern democracy, which we in the West enjoy today. It was our ancestor's faith, in other words, that gave a kind of narrative meaning to their lives, and it is thanks to this faith, if not the faith itself, which allows us to enjoy the world today.

In other words, understanding, not belief, is what is most necessary today. Without that understanding it is more likely we will blow the opportunity that has been given to us -- a very rare opportunity by all historical standards -- to live in freedom, with a measure of leisure and affluence.

Pardon the typos. I am an old man.

Avery said...

This article is the funniest thing I've read in weeks. The next time someone says "atheism is not a religion" I'm linking them to this.

Anonymous said...

A free thinker I wish you to be
But you can only be free
If you agree with me.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Reform Jew. I believe God exists and there is an afterlife, but I don't have any particularly specific beliefs.

When my son was seven or eight, he asked me what happens after we die. I told him what I believe -- that there is some sort of afterlife, but the specifics are uncertain, and the important thing is to live life well.

But wanting him to have broader knowledge, I started telling him about other beliefs: Heaven and Hell, reincarnation, that there is no afterlife, etc. I attempted not to show any particular favoritism towards any.

When I finished, my son said, "I don't know what to believe. But that one where there's nothing after we die? I don't like that one."

I think children, in general, want to believe in something. The cannot conceive of not existing anymore -- heck many adults have troubles with that concept -- so they fill in with something else. If parents or other relatives don't provide it, friends will.

The best a parent can do -- and I mean that, no matter what one's belief about religion is -- is to say what one believes, tell about what others believe, and let the child grow up.

Simon said...

"I'd like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious?"

If he is a free thinker, he ought to disagree with you on some things.

I think the problem is that it is hard to be a free thinker if before you can manage critical thought you are indoctrinated in some cult. Still shedding the damage to my own Id.

I'd say stop him going to church, stop him reading the Bible (it isn't suitable reading for children), and failing that do explain the problem of evil, and that some butterflies do live for over a year (at least that one myth can be squashed easily).

Anonymous said...

I am an atheist....a non-practicing person of the hebroid line.....I practice by eating bagels and lox, and that is the extent of my religious belief. I have no children. My wife is a lapsed Brazilian catholic who spent the last 5 years before 18 in a convent working as a "Cinderella" for the nuns who were close friends with her oldest sister 18 years her senior.

Anyway, I read how you were agonizing over whether you should turn your son's mind in your direction, or not. You thought it might be called "indoctrination" if you were to present him with your ways of thought. There is nothing for you to feel guilty about when it comes to saving your son from the sickening and persistent mind-fucking that exudes from every hole in the church.

Either you want your son to be able to distinguish that which is real in the real world, or you are willing to let his mind be perverted and filled with fantasy and fear and guilt so he will be unable to see reality as it is, and be, perhaps, screwed up for the rest of his life. There are so many religious psychotics out there it scares me. In fact, belief in a god, to me, is a form of psychosis. There are so many people who believe blindly that it has become the acceptable norm, but try to remove their delusion and they will kill to defend it...........very sick, and indefensible. I assume you saw Religulous.

My 17 year old nephew has attached himself to the Brazilian catholic church group here in SW Florida that his single mother has pushed him toward. He has friends there, he was just confirmed, too. I attended the ceremony and was overwhelmed by the undignified way people were sitting and standing and compelled to get down on their knees as they gave up the last thread of human self esteem to a myth.....a fantasy that threatened there eternal existence and peace of mind.

I keep exposing him to my way of thinking in hope that he will not completely surrender to the craziness. He wants to study law, and he is at the top of his sophomore class.

I guess your son has gone through catechism already, or is doing so. Forget jesus, you are his only saviour.....assert yourself.

Robert N Bellah said...

Dear Danny:

Hispanic Catholicism is a practice and only incidentally a theory. Your humanism is a theory. You can't fight a practice with a theory. Practice is embodied, verbally much more narrative than theoretical. There is such a thing as liberal Catholicism. Worth finding out about. And how about asking your children what are their favorite Biblical stories and then reading them together? You can ask non-antagonistic questions about the stories that will make them think. And how about the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the good Samaritan, etc., stories that call deeply into question the culture in which we live that claims to be Christian but is so far from it? Humanism after all came out of Biblical religion and owes a lot to it even when it criticizes it. How about the common ground? And how about thinking of humanism as a practice, not just a theory? What kind of practices does a humanist teach his children, how are they embodied, what stories to they live by. I am suggesting that you fight fire with fire and don't worry if you get a bit burnt along the way.

Theology is not science and cannot answer scientific questions, so clearly Jesus did not create the butterflies. But theology is trying to make some larger sense of the practices that are at the core of any religion. Thus "God" is not a scientific object in which one can believe or disbelieve. From a genuinely religious point of view God is not an object at all. We can only resort to metaphor and say "God is the ground of Being, without which neither we nor anything else can be." But then to turn that into a "scientific" statement gets us right beck into the same mess. In short to think we can disbelieve in God is not to understand what "God" means. So to understand "God" we have to see how the term is used in practice, not in theory. Otherwise we end up with religious fundamentalism or Enlightenment fundamentalism and never get anywhere.

Robert N Bellah, Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

Anonymous said...

"Forcing any subject into a childs reading material is a form of indoctrination"

Actually, my job as a parent is to teach my child. Leaving them to find out (whatever) on their own is post-modernist nonsense. Of course I'm going to expose my child to what I consider good books. Of course I'm going to tell them exactly what I think. And I will always include, "this is what I think," and, "question everything," and, "does that make sense to you?"

In a world in which they are constantly bombarded with religion and religious imagery/ideas, I think it is very important to expose them to secular alternatives, explicitly. Otherwise, they will be left with the idea that there's no alternative to religion and "everyone does it."

Great article and thanks for the book ideas.

Hawaii Professor said...

Despite the author's attempts to raise children to be humanists, it is very ironic that his children are named Theo(dore) "Gift of God" and Elijah "Yahweh is God." Their very names assume a base belief in the existence of God and that God invites relationship with people.

D Rudd said...

Buy Calvin and Hobbes. Get the entire collection. It's hilarious, broad, childish and full of magic. However along the way it grapples with serious ethical, moral and religious dilemmas in the context of family, love, nature and age. He'll laugh when he young, ponder when he's a teenager and when he's twenties and for the rest of his life he'll grapple with many different angles there are to life and will remember them as reflected in Calvin and Hobbes. It will appreciate massively over time. It's also a way to get them thinking without cramming it down their throat and them totally forgetting everything you've just read to them (which I'm positive they did as it's a patently ridiculous thing to read to a small child. It even sounds boring to me).

Rita Sevart said...

God is love. Let your children experience this additional love and allow them to learn about the spiritual world. It is an important part of our history and our culture. It will give them a set of values and they won't be indoctrinated. When they get older, they will choose what they want to believe.Why do people need to put down their religious upbringing? It gives them a base on which to make decisions in their lives. Good luck--they'll be fine adults.

Anonymous said...

Why did the author captalize "Universe"?

Anonymous said...

I think you must be careful to not debase your wife's beliefs. Your admitted disappointment if your children choose to be religious suggests you not only don't believe but you believe people of faith are harmful and very different from you. If your wife is the exception, make sure you embrace her take on religion as a reasonable choice, otherwise this theoretical argument becomes personal and your children figure out you are calling their mother's beliefs naive or harmful. In other words, to me, true free thinking includes holding dear the possibility that some of your own thoughts might be wrong.

Gravy Vision said...

Harry H. Otsuji
Humanism is a world view that posits that man is the measure of all things. If this is the case, how does one account to one's child that there is a whole universe, almost infionite in scope, impacting on the lives of people on earth, lost amongst billions and billions of stars? Moreover, humanist are pragmatist operating on a moment by moment basis, because there is no unified system to account for the existence of all things. Pragmatist operate on the basis of what works, which means that there is no absolute value system against which to measure one's actions and those of billions of other human beings. Finally, a humanist who is a pragmatist acts upon the belief that all things are relative, that he/she essentially motivated by what is felt and not by a unified belief system. Every action in one's life is negotiated based upon what I feel at the moment. Bringing up one's child in this kind of "belief" system ultimately, and at a very young stage, I might say,will result in a confused and neurotic person amongst a world of neurotics. Children being nutured in an environment with father and mother with conflicting world views and ideology will result in conflicted and confused ones.

/s/ Harry H. Otsuji

jane said...

The kids are doing more than reading books. They are going to services. They are participating in *ritual*. To understand other religions, take them to other religious services. If you want them to develop a secular way of thinking, it will take secular rituals: playing games, exploring nature, conducting experiments, arts and music, and most of all sharing yourself in fun activities.

Larry Clapp said...

I think you're in a tough spot. Religion (via Mom, no less) offers certainty, and plenty of it. Your discussions with your kids reveal only uncertainty, at least as I read it.

I think you need to emphasize what you are certain about: live fairly. Think for yourself. Improve the world. Have good relationships. Treat yourself and others well. Test your beliefs.

A friend of mine (who is Jewish, and was in fact studying to be a rabbi) married a hard-core atheist (which kind of snuffed the rabbinical plans, but that's another story), and she described her situation thusly: My husband is the most moral, honest, kindest person I know, and if I was forced to choose between a moral, honest, kind atheist child, and an immoral or dishonest or unkind child that gave lip-service to Judaism, I'd choose the atheist child every time.

(Note that this is not meant to be an either-or. Her point was that she'd rather a child of good character, Jewish or not.)

My point is: if your child is moral, honest, kind, etc -- embraces your other core values -- is Christianity really all that bad?

Anonymous said...

So the author wants to raise the kids as freethinkers but he wants them to think as he does.

It reminds me of the big flap a number of years ago. Schools had eliminated a "moment of prayer" from the schedule. When someone wanted to ad a moment for "silent meditation" the "freethinkers" objected because they were worried that someone might use the time to pray.

Anonymous said...

I think that the first step in raising kids free from the scourge of theistic thought is to marry someone like-minded.
I think you've made a poor choice in marrying a believer. But, hey, some people are into S&M so if you get off on having a relationship with someone who disagrees with you about something so critical, have at it.

Anonymous said...

Danny really does not want to raise free thinkers. He wants to raise his children to be free to think like he does. At least he admits that it would bother him if they did not think like he does. Therefore, he is on his way to realizing that he does not want what he says he wants.

Anonymous said...

What's the worst that can happen? They grow up religious? Your wife has already reached that point; is it so awful?

If I were your partner I would be feeling that there was some implicit criticism in all of this, and I wouldn't like it... and I say this from the PoV of a rabid agnostic (assuming there can be such a thing).

A Motley Fool said...

It's useful to remember that children go through developmental phases, and I believe, based on years of teaching philosophy to children, that they can go through philosophical phases too. What teenager isn't the most radical of cultural relativists? What small child doesn't possess a beautiful and innocent faith in god when they barely know what the term means? What University student isn't an anarchist, then a socialist and finally, after they get a job, a capitalist? Be patient.

Couch said...

What's wrong with all you people? You realize that none of you have any substance and this "humanism" you "believe" in is just more shallow tripe bandied about by people who are selfish and want a world full of people who only care about themselves...and not the community at large..
You are the people who sit around sipping coffee at Starbuck's bragging about how you donated $1000 to Katrian Relief...but end up cutting people off in traffic and acting rude to salespeople when you don't get your way...
It's amazing how you secularists love to talk about how nice you are...and that nobody needs God in their life...but, perhaps if you did allow Him in, you'd be that much nicer to your fellow man...instead of trying to assuage your guilt by talking platitudes you know better than to believe...
No atheists in foxholes...but I suspect we've not had enough turmoil in this country for that to be proven true any longer...
Maybe if you didn't have so much time on your hands to think about such trash...you'd realize that there's more to life than you and your shallow world...

JohnBUK said...

Couch, of course we don't have any substance we are just genes keeping in the race. As for the rest of your generalisations well, some will be like that and some won't, just like those in your religion I suspect. The only difference is you have chosen to go along with the brainwashing dreamt up in the last few centuries, we have chosen to question it. We don't demand everyone adheres to our views and we welcome questioning and criticism - something many religions do not tolerate. Why ever not do you think?
As for the conundrum concerning the children's education - let them be, welcome all views, just teach them to question and they will have the necessary armaments to protect themselves and make good judgements.

Gravy Vision said...

JohnBUK states:
"As for the conundrum concerning the children's education - let them be, welcome all views, just teach them to question and they will have the necessary armaments to protect themselves and make good judgements."
The conundrum is worse than what he thinks. I believe that today's children are unteachable. They're more tech savvy than most of us and everything they, from their perspective, want to know, they can get online. Why do they need to think, when they've been taught to feel their way through life? Aand by the way "the necessary armament to protect themselves," is a Biblical concept articulated by the Apostle Paul, 2,000 years ago. If you have a Bible look up Ephesians 6:10-18. If a kid is a humanist there aren't many judgments he has to make. Feelings don't take rational thought. Also instructional is Mark Bauerlein's book, "The Dumbest Generation." His focus is on anyone under the age of 30. If you find questioning, thinking, teachable young people, let me know where you can find them;I've been looking and haven't found any yet. JohnBUK's advice is: "let them be." And that's the problem:How do you teach anyone, young or old, anything that doesn't want to be bothered.


/s/ Harry H. Otsuji

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting perspective, to be sure. As a Christian Dad, I realize that our American society seems to be espousing secular, non-religious perspectives on nearly everything. Every movie and novel has a love story, a sex scene, pursuit of selfishness, and is filled with various hedonistic messages. It seems we only have 2-4 hours out of a 168 hour week to make intentional efforts to offer counter-cultural messages that point people away from themselves and toward their Creator.

It would seem that the daily indoctrination toward a practical atheism and worship of self is quite well established in our world. And it takes a great deal of effort, faith, and prayer to see a true internal spirituality toward God take root in individuals.

You reveal your cards when you admit the difficulty of allowing your sons to possibly reach different conclusions than you - based on their free thinking and exposure to Christianity. This reveals a barrenness in supposed "free thinking". It sounds more like the "PC" liberalism I experienced in college. No one was truly "free" to think for themselves. There was quite an entrenched expectation that your supposed freedom to think required everyone to come to the same secular, liberal, atheistic conclusions.

Rather, Jesus said, "the Truth will set you free, and you will be free indeed." If you desire your sons to be truly free, perhaps they really will become followers of Jesus.

padremambo said...

What you don't want is your kids to be idiots.

I grew up in a non-religious family, although my atheist father read from scripture on the holidays because he thought it was better to teach about good religion rather than bad religion.

For him, Christianity was about the social gospel. It was perfectly OK to say that myths have meanings and tell us something about human nature. But had a more scientific and neutral view of religion: it was simply one way we express culture.

I think the mistake would be to invest too much of yourself in what your children think. It is most important to state what you believe and be open yourself.

But if there is one way to ensure a child doesn't become religious, go to an Episcopal Church for a couple years. It won't hurt - Episcopalians are generally a liberal bunch - but it will be boring enough to inoculate against fundamentalism.

Anonymous said...

I was raised a Unitarian-no creeds-no dogmas.I am still a Unitarian. We have a community of ethical people inspired by all the great prophets and leaders throughout time. We meet in a beautiful church building, have formal services with wonderful music and thought provoking sermons. Our members are active in the larger community supporting other organizations helping the poor and the homeless. Typically members come up with their own definition of god or no god.Most do not believe that Christ is the son of god. They do not believe in being saved or believe in hell. Each member builds his own theology in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Check it out.


I am a Unitarian. it is the thinking person's church which satisfies intellectually and spiritually. We call ourselves a fellowship of seekers. We do not want to believe in ultimate truth but in unfolding knowledge throughout our lifetime. there is a great religious education for both children and adults.

She Means Well... said...

In light of some of the more rabid comments here, all I can say is:
"Can't you just feel the love?"

Cal said...

A couple posters recommend Unitarianism. I concur, but particularly for one aspect they've neglected to mention: other like-minded adults discussing ethical and moral issues can have an influence on children that mere parents often lack. The discussion turns from "just something Daddy believes" to "we are not alone in these opinions." You're looking for balance with the Catholicism of their mother; and it sounds like there is no specifically Humanist group for you to attend with your children. The Unitarians may be a comfortable spot for you to consider.

Anonymous said...

If those kids knew what a pig their father was, they would have never liked to be born. Kids learn from books other's ways of life and thinking. They learn from their parents how to be MAN.

Cary said...

Thanks, Danny. I see many people have posted responses in very small font on the website. I’ll only add for you the following observations based on my experience thusfar:

a) the mother determines the religious upbringing; you are irrelevant
b) kids don’t care about dueling philosophies or arguments; you can’t treat this like an Oxford Forum debate
c) raise your kids, jointly, in the values you hold dear as a family, and expose them to those values as living principles through your actions, your associations, and, yes, even your religious affiliations. The kids will learn the values, not the religion. That’s why kids who are going to religious services because half-hearted parents think they need it (or if they are excluded from same, similarly half-heartedly), or if you just give them some meaningless “tour de world religions”—values are not a tasting menu—they will feel nothing but the void you are exposing.

We ended up joining a Reform Jewish congregation, mostly at my shiksa wife’s initiative (see point “a” above) because we share the values represented there. The God bits are not important from a simply factual perspective. Even I, agnostic that I am, find it deeply satisfying.

Or, as Emma (now 7) said a while back: “I don’t believe all the stories in the Torah,” but she loves going to services.



Ann said...

I wish you wouldn't have made the statement about teaching evolution as an antidote to religion. Those of us who teach evolution have enough trouble telling people that it's possible to be a person of faith and still be a person of science.

Teach your children to be open-minded and inquiring and compassionate. Then, if they're lucky enough to experience real moments of grace that lead to faith, they'll still be rational, thinking, open-minded adults, and they might still love you and support your nursing home expenses!

Paul said...

"In his butterfly question he seemed to reason, syllogistically, that if Jesus was God, and God created the world and its life forms (butterflies being one of them), Jesus "invented" the winged creatures. Either that or God and Jesus are simply interchangeable in his mind." Actually from a Christian perspective your son is pretty well spot on. Jesus is fully God and did participate in the Creation. Furthermore, per Colossians 1.16-17 "...all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." So the fact that a butterfly or anyone of us continues to exist from one moment to the next depends on the active power of Jesus Christ.

Regina, I will pray for you. "As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever." 1 Chronicles 28.9

ping said...

Two points and a suggestion.
One; your are turning the debate into a tennis match between you and your wife, a point to her and then a point to you and you are asking your children to be the judges. That is to be the judges in a debate which has puzzled humanity for ever, a debate that probably has no answer.
Secondly; do you realy want to win? Do you want to defeat your wife on this issue?
I do not make these points to be critical but to support the suggestion that the best role model you can be for your children is to refuse to participate in the debate. Not be a humanist or an athiest or an agnostic but to be totally neutral. It worked for me with my children.

W.C. said...

I do, indeed, feel the non-judgmental love emanating from the comments...but I digress.

Anyway, Danny, this is what I would do:

1) TALK TO THE WIFE ABOUT THIS! I am assuming, perhaps naively, that you married this woman because you love her. Surely the topic of faith has come up - it certainly has in my inter-faith relationship. Tap into that mutual love and respect, and have a chat about the direction of your children's spiritual upbringing*. Simply put, you don't want them to adopt Christianity just because they think it's the only thing, and if she respects you (and is secure in her faith), she will agree. Mention that you want to expose your children to many different ways of thinking - why not go, as a family, to a synagogue? Or a Buddhist temple? Science museums? The key is that it is done as a family, and as such there is no covert powerplay between you and their mother. If the children get the idea that you two are "battling" for their minds, they will resent it (I know I did when my mother and grandmother did this).

*Having been raised Catholic, I know that sacraments can be testy if the parents don't share a worldview. How some people have done it is if one parent really insists on sacraments, the child will go only until First Communion. Any sacraments thereafter MUST be actively sought by the child (which is really how it ought to be done anyway). Again, be gently honest about your feelings.

2) Next time your children say something about religion, don't, as some as suggested, launch into a tirade. That was easily the thing I hated most about Baptist school - I couldn't say a bloody thing without being thoroughly "corrected". Point out how others might think. If your child says "God is Jesus", you could say "Some people think so. Are there other ways of thinking about God?" If the child can't think of any, mention some: "Some people think that there are many gods. Some people think that there are no gods." This encourages a multi-perspective worldview based in observable truth (since everything in that is completely provable), which is probably how you reached your beliefs.

3)If asked what you think, don't lie. For one, it would be inauthentic. Secondly, it sets you up as a source of non-theistic thought, which will be much more important as they get older and start actively thinking about what they believe about the world. Again, you and your wife need really show that you respect each other even though you have different worldviews. This will show your children that people with differences can coexist peacefully without trying to force others to change.

4) Finally, don't worry too much. Almost nobody believes the same things they did as kids, even if the "label" doesn't change.

My apologies for the long post, but I grew up in a similar situation and I may have to deal with this if/when I have children. Hopefully it helps.

Josh Strike said...

I'm a vehement atheist. I despise the hypocritical self-righteous idiocies of every organized religion, no matter how peaceful or unobtrusive it claims to be, and I have no patience for the superstitions that guide the bulk of humanity. It might have turned out otherwise. As a kid, my agnostic parents and communist / atheist grandparents never once tried to force atheism on me. Rather, they encouraged me to think of what "God" means and to come up with me own religion -- and then demonstrated to me how other people had come up with and propagated their own systems of behavioral controls which were and are equally without foundation or objective merit.

And in the years since, I've noticed one thing about my peers: The most secular of all are the ones who were forced to go to Catholic school. There's nothing like getting pushed around by nuns over some transgression malum pro quo to teach a kid that Religion writ large is not much more than the exercise of ungrounded authority for authority's sake.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else think it's ironic that an atheist named his son Theo?

Josh Strike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josh Strike said...

One other thought for humanists -- including the author -- who feel some absurd obligation to give "equal airtime" to the various poisons on the menu of world religion:

Religions don't give us equal airtime. To do so would undermine their confidence scheme, in which only adherents are privy to some absolute truth. The very concept of doubt is anathema to them, as you say yourself. Secular thought means admitting you might be wrong; it means a willingness to revise your own views based on factual evidence. But that's advanced secular thought. You can't get there without first coming to terms with the fact that what most people believe is horse puckey. Eventually, you pity them and understand why they choose to believe it. But as a person bright enough to disdain faith, please don't keep your voice down. All the rational people in the world could shout simultaneously and still have their voices drowned by the murmuring, mumbling insanity of the masses.

Sean said...


Don't let my mom hear what you are up to. She will skin you, you little devil.

Sean O'Kane

Anonymous said...

I don't find it perplexing at all that children of atheists who have a Christian believer for a spouse and who live in the context of Christian tradition, law and ethics have names with religious meaning. Of course, you can also call your kid 'Flower' or some such thing but it wouldn't(didn't:)?) turn necessarily the kid into a devotee of Linneaus, would it?

Living in SE Asia, the thing that I find most troublesome is the Christian and Islamic proselytizing for 'the people of the book'. Finally and again, something to agree on--but for what purpose?
In poor countries of S Asia and SE Asia, the missionaries proceed by (i) 'pray and we give you socio-economic development' and (ii) 'we the people of the book are the better religious folks.' (vs Taoists, Buddhists, Hindu... and a great array of folk religion). This unity-around-the-book also seems to become a mantra in the talk on the Israeli-Arab conflict. In SE Asia it is worrisome because religion suggests itself as a modernizer, an agent of development. If you adopt Jesus you can get try to use less whitener for your skin or alternatively use more because you are know at level with Western consumtpion. That to me is more interesting than that simplistic secular/religious divide frame.

The situation of strongly identifying with historic characters most of the Asians aspiring to 'modern things' would reject to swap with unless it's for 4 days participating in a Reality TV show is peculiar. Maybe there should be a Reality show to help people experience what it means to live in times where it was normal to live like no one wants to live now. That beliefs belong to certain living conditions (including ecological constraints) is soemthing that many people are not aware of. The problem is classic if you look at the example of Middle Eastern elites, whose life is better and religious belief is taken on as something individuals have discretion about. Of course, it's masked as a class war with moral degradation of the elites, but again, a Reality tV show would make things a little clearer.

Such Lovely Freckles said...

Without having read the 100 comments before me, I would recommend creating a community for children, that offers an alternative to church.

Read my article here:

JohnBUK said...

Ute, I have a slight issue with your suggestion (also having read your article). A "club" for children to attend to motivate their sense of wonder about the world around them is fine. The problem comes when we humans create "groups". We can see that when the various religious "groups" convince themselves they know the truth and therefore the others are wrong AND SHOULD BE TAUGHT THAT FACT. It usually comes about when the "leaders" of the groups are charismatic enough and clever enough to realise they are able to gain some form of power (and therefore extra resources) and we know the trouble that can bring.
We already have other groups (States, Countries etc) and perhaps we should be careful about creating others. By all means create the childrens' "clubs" but be careful about creating local AHA groups.
Better to live together than apart.

Anonymous said...

Dude, why not just raise your children in a way that allows them to maximize their intellectual and creative potential, and stop trying to micromanage their little minds? Your job, as a parent, is not to instill certain beliefs that you approve of, but to raise physically and emotionally healthy people who will be able to make their own decisions and function in the world. Teach them all the basic skills needed for success and let them apply those skills on their own. They're not going to be "failures" if they end up practicing a religion you don't like!

Anonymous said...

As an "out" atheist raising two daughters with a Catholic father in a strongly Catholic community I approached the topic of God/Jesus/Bible much in the way I approached the stories of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy: "these are stories we make up to make us feel better about things that happen, or so that we can have something for which to have a party; some people believe in the stories very strongly and other people don't."

I was also conscientious that I wouldn't be seen as preventing the children from making up their own minds. Every summer I signed them up for a week of "bible school" at a different denomination and when they came home we talked about the "stories" that the denomination believed.

Luckily, my Catholic husband believes that exposing the children to all religions would show Catholicism to be the best one ;o)

Suzanne said...

seems to me that the advice you got from the store owner was very wise; perhaps you should reconsider it

Paul said...

Anonymous with the Catholic husband wrote:

As an "out" atheist raising two daughters with a Catholic father in a strongly Catholic community I approached the topic of God/Jesus/Bible much in the way I approached the stories of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy: "these are stories we make up to make us feel better about things that happen, or so that we can have something for which to have a party; some people believe in the stories very strongly and other people don't."

You act as though your stance towards your husband's faith is magnanimous, but it strikes me as severely condescending and trivializing. Speaking for myself, my faith is not about "stories we make up to make us feel better." How would you feel if your husband told the kids, "Your mother's atheism is her way of trying to avoid the moral demands that God requires of us all"?

Anonymous said...

How do you marry someone whose world-view you find so objectionable?

I find anything labeled "Christian/humanist/Buddhist/... book for children" to be indoctrination. They all try to manipulate children using scant evidence into some narrow position. Why not just introduce them to cool stuff, stuff you're actually excited about. Honestly, tell me you're not bored by any book whose title begins with the word "humanist". I grew up in a religious home and, believe me, it's a lot of work to ensure that a kid remains religious. They tried really hard with me and it didn't work.

Goethe Girl said...

A good article against "mixed" marriages.

Gilles said...

— "Daddy, why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?"
— "For the same reason cats die after ±15 years and humans die after ±90 years, dear."

I think it's a delusion to try to raise your children without any bias, since we all have a few. I would suggest you tell them what you think about religion, but as for sexuality and war, don't answer their questions before they ask them.

Gilles said...

@ Anonymous 23 July 2009 05:23

"Does anyone else think it's ironic that an atheist named his son Theo?"

And he named his other son Elijah, hebrew for "Yahweh is my god".

Anna said...

This is a great article which I really empathised with. Many of the comments were also thought-provoking. My husband and I are both atheists (note to self: not sure what the difference between atheist and secular humanist is, must look it up) with a two-year-old daughter. When she's older, I will do the "everyone looks for meaning in their own different ways - your father and I don't believe in gods, however other people do. What's important is to be a good person" type of conversation. I'll then go on to explore in age-appropriate ways the different frameworks people have to make their lives meaningful. Personally, when I 'discovered' existentialism at 18, I felt a huge sense of relief and realisation - at last, here was something that made sense of life!

Simon said...

Anna, I think your response conflates ethics with religious beliefs.

I think teaching this misunderstanding to kids is one of the reasons that religion gets special preference on matters of ethics.

People naturally decide on good and bad, and it has nothing to do with religion, and a little to do with culture, but mostly it is innate in being human. Those without religion should be very clear on this point.

The religious like to lay claim to this territory, but the lie is laid bare by comparison of religions.

JohnBUK said...

Simon, agree whole-heartedly. I actually think "good" and "bad" are purely pragmatic behaviours. After all if the chips are really down or the commensurate rewards high enough, or we think we can get away with it then we (like other animals) will take further risks and reduce our level of what to us constitutes "bad".
To use the religious saying "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
An example; in the 1950's in the UK (and I guess the USA) it was considered quite shocking for women to have children "out of wedlock". The key driver being the shame that they would bring on themselves and their families.
Now, in the UK, we have more children being born out of wedlock than those within. I make no judgement on whether that is good or bad only that generally we have changed our standard of "bad", for that behaviour, in that time.

Alice AN said...


Most kids will question everything their thought them.

I was raised catholic - And I am now a catholic Atheist :-)

The death of the last pope sealed my break with the faith spiritually - but I do not doubt that the experience of my upbringing makes me a better person today; albeit one that does not believe in talking bushes and virgin births

Rubai said...

There's so much that bothers me about this article. First off,
the important answer to that question isn't an overall general answer about whether or not there's Jesus and his relation to God, but saying that all lives are meaningful, no matter how long or short. It's important to show kids to respect life and people's various meanings of life in all its forms, and from that respect, you naturally turn to humanism (which isnt at odds with religion)

"Philosophy for kids"??? This man is so proud of himself for giving his kid Neruda to read but then when his kid straight out asks him a question about life, he passes over it in favor of making a competitive and hollow science v. religion argument.

Rubai said...

Just as a follow up, both my parents are somewhat spiritual but mostly secular. But they never indoctrinated me with specifically "secular" beliefs. Instead, they did just the opposite. By not opposing my going to church or by having puja at our house and attending passover seders, they showed that all these kinds of faith are equally respectable. And since there's no single truth, no one Faith (even secularism) that is hierarchically better than another, it automatically makes you more accepting of others. And isn't that what you want your kids to be in the end?

Paul said...

Rubai wrote:

"And since there's no single truth, no one Faith (even secularism) that is hierarchically better than another, it automatically makes you more accepting of others"

To say that "there's no single truth" stikes me as just giving up on rational discourse. Did John F. Kennedy die in November of 1963? Apparently you think we are each free to answer that question however we want with no loss of intellectual integrity. I find that plain silly. I also believe that Jesus either rose from the dead or he didn't. I think if people who say "there's no single truth" are honest, what they really mean is, "there's no way we can verify certain religious claims, so why argue about them." But that is quite different than to say that they can be true or untrue at the whim of those who choose to believe or reject them.

Maxine Phillips said...

I enjoyed reading this, as I've read a fair number of children's books while writing a curriculum on using children's literature to teach conflict resolution. There’s a lot of doctrinaire stuff out there, both by religious people and by humanists. The bottom line is that nothing beats good literature. Period. There's a lot of crap out there that purports to teach values from all angles that's just no good.

My kids also read the children's Bible and now, as adults, can't believe they loved it so much. They're appalled by its simplisticness. They also read things like the Baby Sitters' Club series, which I worried more would rot their minds. (There's probably some equivalent for boys, too.) A novelist friend told me not to worry about trashy work, since he'd grown up reading the Hardy Boys. The key thing was reading, and then introducing decent stuff.

I'll just add a personal note re religion. As someone who was raised in a fairly liberal Protestant home (although a fairly conservative church, but not an evangelical one), I can say that it's the parents' philosophies that are strongest, not the propaganda one might get in Sunday School. One of my aha! moments was at age 14 when I returned from Vacation Bible Camp and asked my mother if it was really true that Jews were going to hell. She said that was ridiculous, and anyway, hell didn't exist. This was news to me. I wondered when they'd planned to tell me. I think they had a theory about age-appropriate information.

Anyway, in our own home, my 25-year-old has just let it go, with no sturm und drang, and may or may not ever come back. The twenty-one-year-old was a militant atheist in high school and is now majoring in comparative religion in college and exploring going to seminary. Both are active in social justice work.

Your kids will be fine whatever path they choose because of the parenting they've received from you and your wife.

ThinkAfrica said...

[not reading the comments above]

I was led to humanism and criticism of religion from a single book I was given by a family friend when I was a child, D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, a large paperback with fascinating drawings and stories that impelled me into learning all about the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece as I returned to it regularly over the years, not just a study of a different religion but a widely discredited and ridulously improbable one- if the idea of greek gods going around and impregnating people to create living superheros was silly why should Christianity be any different? Why do both The Bible and this book have fantastical flood myths? How are Greek oracles any less or more credible than the prophets of ancient Israel? Drawing these questions out for myself got me in trouble quite a bit with my religiously conservative family over the years, and thank Zeus for that!

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Anonymous said...

In the seventies I was also a young boy growing up with an agnostic father and a mildly religious, Orthodox Christian mother. As a Greek, I was exposed to ancient Greek Mythology (and was fascinated by it) from a very young age. It was this that did the trick for me: when I came across the Deucalion and Pyrrha story and compared it to Noah’s Ark, I had a revelation (as it were). Both stories deal with the Deluge. Based on what I was told at school (religion was part of the compulsory curriculum then), they couldn’t both be true, since one is Christian (well, it’s Jewish but, at the age of eleven, I could not make that distinction) and the other pagan. If the Bible, and therefore the Noah’s Ark story, is the literal truth, I reasoned, Deucalion and Pyrrha’s legend must be false. But, since the two tales are practically identical, this cannot be. On the other hand, if one is false, then both must be fabricated. Q.E.D. (And yes, at about the same time I discovered Science Fiction).

Ateizam said...

I am an atheist, but I wouldn't give my kids atheist/secular books to read. As someone stated in it's comment: It would be another way of indoctrination. Let the children be children. Let them read fairy tales, Ezop fables and such, and that would be enough for them to realize it is good to be good, and bad to be mean. Of course, it all depends of the age of the kid. But I would give kids secular books if they ask me for my opinion so I would maybe read few lines.

Greybeard said...

Reason (must we make it a 'movement' and label it with an 'ism'?) is not another doctrine, or any kind of belief system at all, so introducing reason to your children is not, by definition, indoctrination. Equipping your kids with robust intellectual crap detectors and encouraging their skeptical curiosity about everything may enable them to forge a worldview quite different from yours, but it will make them far less vulnerable to being ensnared by the claptrap peddled by all the various faith-based cults, large and small. America is so deeply contaminated with religion that it is difficult for many to imagine any discourse in which it does not play a part, but to the truly secular thinker, religion is not even wrong, it's just irrelevant. Perfect health is not classifiable as a disease, any more than bald can be described as a hair color.

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Amos said...

Dogma is a solution to confusion; reason is the developed ability to face and deal with confusions. Therein lies all the difference.

Any human who is trained to tease apart and examine confusing questions for himself will end up being his own person, to some degree. Trained in dogma, they become the trainee of the dogmatist.

crazysissymonster said...

I can't disagree with you more about religion teaching children love and to help overcome fearfulness. In fact, religion's purpose is to 'put the fear of god' into children, put them in a perpetual state of fear and emotional turmoil, not knowing what is true or false, not just the great myth, but the great mind f*ck. By the way, Buddhism is a philosophy - not a religion. Buddhism teaches the someone how to achieve enlightenment - total consciousness - comprehension/awareness of their being and the world. The shedding of your subjective perceptions and seeing reality. There is no god in Buddhism, just like there is no 'force' for an atheist. Western religions don't even permit that anyone other than a prophet could achieve enlightenment. I believe exposing children to religion is child abuse and should not be allowed. It's an adult-only activity.

crazysissymonster said...

I believe the 'ethics' of religion are truly lacking. Compassion, goodness, truth, kindness, etc., these are not going to be the primary lesson learned by taking your children to a church - not at all, instead they will be taught to suspend their reasoning abilities, to admire the priest/preacher who you know is lying and wants not just your money - but your 'soul' so he can control you and your wallet. If you want to raise your child with a sense of ethics you need to do this yourself - pointing out what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legal/illegal, what are the consequences of treating others well, the importance of insisting that others treat you well, basing decisions on rational thought - not fear, not a belief, but on facts, insight, questioning, seeking expert guidance, etc.. I can't think of anything more harmful to any child than religion. Keep religion and religious people away from your children!

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I wrote my views on this subject on my blog, here. I welcome comments.

Anonymous said...

Completely bogus argument. We need lies to fill the void of as-yet unanswered questions so we can be sure of ourselves? Why? Science will never understand consciousness? What an idiotic notion. Why not? Thousands of brilliant people are working to understand consciousness, and eventually they will. It is the author who fails to understand evolution, not humanists. Whatever historical "need" required myths to enable us to live without crippling existential angst, to the extent that it ever really existed, will surely be replaced by an ability to accept and live happily in spite of the "void" of which you speak. A void that only science, and not religion, can ever truly fill.

Anonymous said...

Some of the "benefits" of religion are that it provides comfort, solace, and sense of community; all things that children can readily understand and relate to. But philosophical ruminations about whether or not God exists are typically beyond their young reasoning powers. Thus religion holds a tactical advantage when being presented to children.

On a side note, when I was young, my father would say, "You can go to church with your mother and sisters if you want... But I'M going to the zoo (or museum)." I made my choice early, and haven't regretted it.

John said...

Caught in a busy period right now, I only have a few minutes, but I want to voice my support for all of the movements toward Freeing Minds from the scourge of the world's supersitious religions: Go atheism, agnosticism, naturalism, HUMANISM! John/Taiwan

Meg said...

While introducing your child to alternative religions (so as to show that xtianity doesn't have a monopoly on "truth") is great, I think it's also important to introduce her to some of the ancient ones. For example, the stories of Dionysus (Greek), and Innana and Dumuzi (Sumerian) have a lot of similarities to the story of Jesus.

Josh said...

The author's dilema reveals the fact that everyone, even "free thinkers," have a particular perspective on religion that they think is right/true, to the exclusion of contradictory perspectives. Teaching a child that no religion is true or that all of them are is just as open to the charge of 'indoctrination' as teaching a child that one religion is true, since any approach to religion will be based on a particular view of reality (i.e., a worldview).

Anonymous said...

but what happens when u die? if nothing happens what is the purpose of life?

Anonymous said...

then what if your wrong and u go to hell? look at the fossil record... there is a God who created us. since there is proof of the flood why not believe the rest of the bible?

Simon said...

"Teaching a child that no religion is true or that all of them are is just as open to the charge of 'indoctrination' as teaching a child that one religion is true, since any approach to religion will be based on a particular view of reality (i.e., a worldview)."

This assumes all views of the world are equally valid. This is I believe demonstrably false.

There are claims in a number of religions that are clearly bogus, and thus these views can be discounted as delusional.

The answer lies in teaching kids to think critically, and not worrying about the conclusions they will come to.

Josh said...

Sorry, but my comment does not assume that all worldviews are valid, but simply that both the freethinker and the person committed to a particular religion have a worldview that shapes how they educate their children and look at reality. This is why the father in the article admits that he would be disappointed if his son comes to believe the Bible. He has a particular view of reality that leads him to think such an outcome would be bad.
You say that there are a number of truth claims made by certain religions that are wrong and should be written off as such. I agree with this (though I would not want to limit it to religious truth claims), but I agree not because I am seeing the world with a completely objective, neutral outlook. Rather, I see the world throught the lense of my worldview, i.e. that basic set of assumptions about reality that I bring to every aspect of life and thought (and so does everyone else on the planet, including the freethinker, whether he realizes it or not). I say this because it is frequently made to appear that religious folks are biased, wanting to indoctrinate their children, while non-religious folks are neutral, objective, unbiased, wanting only to teach their kids to think critically. However, I think this is demonstratively untrue from the article on which we are commenting. It is impossible for parents to escape the impact of their religious perspective on how they educate their children and the conclusions they wish their children come to (again, the father in the article shows this to be the case).

Malcolm Mowbray said...

Try Terry Pratchett's books, discworld and other. As a Carnegie Medal winner, his writing is good - and funny. But at the same time he gently encourages free-thinking.

schalomlibertad said...

I very much enjoyed reading the two articles and like your open approach. I was wondering however if it is not overlooking something, namely the fact that religion is not necessarily about reason, logic and coherency, but rather (or also) about faith and belief. Is the issue only a matter of finding the right arguments, or exposing children to a diversity of religions? I am not sure about that. I think that religious people have a desire to believe in religious myths, to believe in that which can not be proven, and this is not so different than the people who believe in 911 conspiracy theories, the hidden hand of the market, or Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. On those topics, sometimes the best approach is not always through logical argumentation about the actual topic, but rather to get the person to self-reflect about him or herself as a subject who desires to believe. What does s/he desire in having faith? What does the supernature provide him/her that the "natural" doesn´t? Being that we are not referring to political debates, but rather in raising children, the approach would be different. But maybe there are some overlaps?

dwightLwilson said...

I loved Danny Postel's article. My favorite quote was, "All parents must confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don't like."
I am a committed Quaker who during the formative years of my oldest children was the North American denominational executive. Not only do Quakers frown on proselytizing, but I also told my 4 sons throughout their youth, "I don't care what you believe so long as you're a good person." Teaching them to think and modeling compassionate, loving behavior was my goal. They remain good, thoughtful people but I doubt that more than two of them would claim to be a Quaker now that they're 37-24.

Oh yes, there are far more secular humanistic books found in our schools and bookshelves than "Religious" books and, Christians runs the gamut from those who believe God wrote the Bible to those who don't even own a Bible and have not read a verse of scripture in years.

Anonymous said...

This is a really great article. I'm a complete agnostic, who is with a totally secular Jew. What I know about raising children could fit in a thimble, but I do spend a lot of time with my partner's (insanely great) 9 year old boy.

The only comment I'd have is it doesn't matter what children read, as long as they read A LOT and learn to love reading. Then, they'll make up their own minds.

Anonymous said...

Do you know what your son's name (Elijah) means in Hebrew?