Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Change is…Good?


A post from June 2007.

In seven days, after 16 years in the same beautiful Victorian house in a Minneapolis neighborhood we love, our family is moving to Atlanta. Loss is a full-time occupation at the moment.

The picture above is a cup of dirt and grass my five-year-old daughter collected from around the legs of her swingset as we dismantled and discarded it. The new family wants the swingset out of the yard, so rather than waving to it as we drive off, my kids had to watch as I euthanized it.

First we gave them a full afternoon to ride the swings and say goodbye.


Then the ax fell.


Our move is not part of God’s plan. It’s not even a job transition. Either of those would have made it easier to deflect the kids’ occasional plunges into grief at the coming loss, not to mention our own. We could claim it was out of our hands.

Instead, we’re stuck with free will. We’re moving because I no longer have a brick-and-mortar job, which makes it possible to live closer to family and to flee the northern winter. We’re moving, in other words, because Mom and Dad decided to move.

Free will is a bitch.

A few months ago, everyone was thrilled about the move, but the approaching reality is more, shall we say, textured. Two nights ago my eleven-year-old boy literally cried himself to sleep. Like me, he doesn’t make friends at the drop of a hat. Unlike me, he has also acquired an actual girlfriend before acquiring an actual pimple.

When he asked me why, why, why we were moving, and whether it was too late to bump that inexorable momentum off course, I had nowhere to hide — no shoulder-shrugging over some transfer by a heartless corporation or the need to move to the high desert so little Timmy’s tubercular lungs could breathe freely again. No, our boy’s life was being uprooted because we, his parents, decided it would be. Three months ago he was excited about the idea. Three months ago he didn’t have a girlfriend.

Even beyond the near future, the consequences of such a move are staggering. Had my own family of origin not moved from St. Louis to LA in 1974, I would almost certainly not have gone to Berkeley, met Becca, and had the kids I now have. I’d have different kids, with a different woman. Joyless marriage and wretched, snot-nosed kids, I’m sure of it. As a result of my parent’s long-ago decision, that horrible woman is now probably married to someone else. She doesn’t know what she’s missing. Heh.

Now here we are, rewriting the lives of our children and of countless others born and unborn with a single decision. They’ll now grow up with different friends and most likely marry different people than they would have. Assuming they have kids, tens of thousands of human beings will end up existing who would never have come to pass had we stayed put — and tens of thousands of others who would have resulted from their likely unions here will never be. Did we kill off the next Gandhi…or the next bin Laden? Or, on the other hand, have we now set into motion the creation of another future hero or monster?

Free will isn’t for the faint of heart.

I love to think about the chaos of innumerable butterfly wings that beat out the details of our brief lives. So do my kids. It’s endlessly fascinating to consider the real consequences of the absent helmsman. But here in the present, we’re drowning in the losses of the moment.

That’s okay. It’s good for all of us in the long run. I don’t think kids benefit from being too thoroughly protected from the experience of loss. It’s a guaranteed part of the experience of being alive. They’ll gain at least as much in resiliency, adaptability and self-knowledge from this transition as they will lose.


PBB Top Ten for June

10. PBB translated into Arabic!

Well, not yet. But I have been contacted by an Egyptian atheist who is enthusiastic about Parenting Beyond Belief, sees a strong need for an Arabic translation, and offered to do it himself. I declined for the moment, partly because the publisher controls all translations, but mostly because PBB is quite culturally specific, with references to church-state separation, Christmas, baptism… I know that sounds a bit like the question Bertrand Russell once received from an Irish woman when she heard he was an atheist: But is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in which you disbelieve? But it’s true – PBB is about being a nonbeliever in a largely Christian context. What’s needed, I told my Egyptian friend, is an Arabic book by Arab atheists and humanists dealing with the issues of being a nonbeliever in a primarily Islamic context. Plus that way I won’t have to deal with my fatwaphobia.
9. The Amazon rank

PBB has been rolling along with very good numbers on Amazon – typically between 2000 and 4000 out of four million (the top one-tenth of one percent). But a recent story about PBB in the Minneapolis Star Tribune caused a phenomenal spike to #721 – the top two-hundredths of a percent.
8. The UU side of things

As PBB readers know, I love Unitarian Universalists for many reasons. They also drive me crazy, which is OK, since they drive themselves crazy, too. Having redefined religion as…well, as pretty much anything you want it to mean, from the Flying Spaghetti Monster to a swift kick in the pants, some UU fellowships around the country are hesitant about being connected to this book. “I’m not sure that we as a religious community should be involved in promoting a book about raising children without religion!” said one (utterly nontheistic) UU correspondent. Thus am I failing to reach large swaths of the one community most likely to want and need this book, all because of the goofy way we define and redefine and undefine words.

On the other hand, UU World – the outstanding quarterly magazine of the UUs – is publishing a large excerpt of the book in the upcoming Fall issue.
confused monkey
7. I’m sorry…can you repeat the question?

I did an interview recently with a wonderful, friendly reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. She had read the book, found it fascinating, quoted back large passages to me – and then, ten minutes into the interview, said, “But…you do believe in God, right?”
6. “Tis 15,000 visitors, I muttered”

The PBB website (including the forums and blog) is getting pretty darn lively:

March 2007: 3783 visitors
April 2007: 7991 visitors
May 2007: 9743 visitors
June 2007 (proj.): 15,000 visitors
[NB: actual visitor count for June: 16,500]
5. Secular Nation

Secular Nation, the quarterly magazine of Atheist Alliance International, is devoting its entire Summer issue to secular parenting, including a feature by yours truly. Once it’s live, you’ll find it here.
4. The Secular Web
The Secular Web — the largest secularist website in the solar system — will also have an article of mine as Featured Article for July. Once it’s live, you’ll find it here.
3. Ask Miss Dale
I’m beginning to get a stream of requests for advice. One young mother is feeling the need to set ground rules for her evangelistic father now that her daughter is getting to the questioning stage. Another in my own city has four kids in an evangelical private school (for the academic rigor (in most areas (not science))) but is being driven insane by the overwhelming religious indoctrination and wants nonsectarian options. Others are seeking books on this or that topic, strategies for approaching a public school that’s violating church-state principles, or resources for counseling upon the death of child. I’m deeply moved and increasingly aware of the crying need that PBB has begun to address. There’s so much more to do.
2. Removing the scales from mine eyes

Friendly and well-meaning Christians continue to invite me to “dialogue” or to “have a cup of coffee” because they find me “intriguing” and want to “understand better” where I’m “coming from.” This is a lovely idea in principle, and something I enjoyed for many years. But even if it doesn’t begin as a conversion attempt (and it usually does), these people each enter the conversation convinced that I just haven’t sat my silly self down with the right Christian. They are also convinced, without exception, that they, at last, will be that right Christian. They’ve heard this heroic narrative so many times – the blinded atheist from whose eyes the scales can be made to drop by the right turn of phrase – and just can’t wait to be the one standing all in white, hearing those scales tinkling on the tile between us.

If I consent, they give me the same, tired seven or eight or nine or twelve unconvincing things that convinced them. Once I heard the same seven or eight or nine or twelve things for the twentieth time, I gave myself permission to start declining these invitations. At which point I am inevitably accused of an unwillingness to listen to God’s Truth.
1. PBB is going to Harvard!

After years of hard work and countless all-nighters, PBB has finally made it to Harvard! Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein has just informed me that Parenting Beyond Belief will be included in his course on Humanism and Atheism next year at the Harvard Divinity School.

Rubbernecking at evil

Any kid knows there’s only one way to view evil:

Notice the difference between the Venetian blinds, above, and the blackout curtains, below:

The second girl is playing hide-and-seek. The first one is looking at something forbidden — or maybe playing hide-and-seek the way I always did.

I always admired Lot’s wife for peeking. Turning her into a condiment seems harsh, even for Jehovah. Two cities were being destroyed by God’s own napalm, including her own home town, and she was curious. We’re all rubberneckers when it comes to evil -– repelled and fascinated at the same time. We cover our eyes, then splay those fingers for a goggling glimpse. We’re curious, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The classic Disney films look darkness smack in the eye. Even when the medium is a cartoon, classic Disney evil is rarely cartoonish. Bambi’s mother is shot to death, and we watch the dawning realization in Bambi’s eyes as he treads back out into the snow to find her:


Snow White is poisoned. Cruella de Vil wants to make puppies into a coat, for chrissakes. This is genuine evil.

And I think it’s good –- even important -– for kids to see this stuff. They grow tremendously by engaging fictional evil. You can practically see it happening, see them grappling with and recoiling from –- and goggling fascinatedly at -– that evil. Just imagine Harry Potter without Voldemort. (Actually you don’t have to imagine it. Just check out one of the worst kids’ movies ever made, here.)

It can’t be a coincidence that two of the pivotal moments in the ethical development of my own kids were Disney moments. Connor developed into an instant Manichaean watching 101 Dalmatians at the age of three –- the Glenn Close version -– and discovering, through splayed fingers, that evil exists.

For the following year, Connor announced 15 to 20 plans per day for “getting bad guys.” “If a bad guy came, I would run between his legs and get away.” “If a bad guy came, I would run so fast into him that he would smack down.” My favorite: “I’m gonna start keeping my feet pointing two different ways when I walk, so if a bad guy comes, he won’t know which way I’m gonna run.” For half a day, he walked around the house like Charlie Chaplin. That one film seared the problem of evil into his consciousness like nothing before or since.

Disney introduced Erin (“the B”) to evil as well, and at the same age – but her reaction was decidedly different. Her epiphany came as Snow White entered the deep, dark forest, fleeing the wicked Queen. The Queen had certainly gotten her attention, but Erin’s eyes didn’t pop – and I mean POP — until Snow White fled into the storm-whipped forest.

“Daddy, LOOK!!”

“Oooh, yeah, look at that.” The whipping branches of the trees had transformed into gnarled hands, which were reaching ever closer to Snow White as she cowered and ran down the forest path. I looked over at Erin, whose dinnerplate eyes were glued to the screen.

“What ARE those?!” she asked, breathlessly.

“Looks like some kind of evil hands, B.”

“Daddy,” she said in an intense hush, “…I want to BE those evil hands!”

Shocked orang

I peeled myself off the ceiling, frantically waved down a passing trucker, and made a new life for myself in an undisclosed location.

In fact, the evil hands episode was the visible birth of one of the central threads of Erin’s personality: a fascinated obsession with good and evil, right and wrong. Erin is the one to notice, aloud, when we drift 3 or 4 miles above the speed limit. Or 20. Three minutes after condemning a passing smoker, she will furtively take a drag on a straw or pencil in the backseat, then recoil in giggly horror. When I was her age, I was taken with the polarity of true and false. But for Erin, it’s the polarity of right and wrong that holds the greatest fascination.

About a year ago, she went through a brief period of self-recrimination, literally dissolving into tears at bedtime, but uncharacteristically unwilling to discuss it. The morning after one such nighttime session, we were lying on the trampoline together, looking at the sky, and I asked if she would tell me what was troubling her. “Did you do something you feel bad about, or hurt somebody’s feelings at school?” I asked. “There’s always a way to fix that, you know.”

“No,” she said. “It isn’t something I did.”

“Something somebody else did? Did somebody hurt your feelings?”

“No.” A long silence. I watched the clouds for awhile, knowing it would come.

At last she spoke. “It isn’t anything I did. It’s something…I thought.”

I turned to look at her. She was crying again.

“Something you thought? What is it, B?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“That’s OK, you don’t have to say. But what’s the problem with thinking this thing?”

“It’s more than one thing.” She looked at me with a worried forehead. “It’s bad thoughts. I think about saying things or doing things that are bad. Like…”

I waited.

“Like bad words. That’s one thing.”

“You want to say bad words?”

“NO!!” she said, horrified. “I don’t at ALL!! But I can’t get my brain to stop thinking about this word I heard somebody say at school. It’s a really nasty word and I don’t like it. But it keeps popping into my brain, no matter what I do, and it makes me feel really, really bad!!”

She cried harder, and I hugged her. “Listen to me, B. You are never bad just for thinking about something. Never.”

“What? But…If it’s bad to say a bad word, then it’s bad to think it!”

“But how can you decide whether it’s bad if you don’t even let yourself think it?”

She stopped crying in a single wet inhale, and furrowed her brow. “Then…It’s OK to think bad things?”

“Yes. It is. It’s fine. Erin, you can’t stop your brain from thinking – especially a huge brain like yours. And you’ll make yourself crazy if you even try.”

“That’s what I’m doing! I’m making myself crazy!”

“Well don’t. Listen to me now.” We went forehead to forehead. “It is never bad to think something. You have permission to think about everything in the world. What comes after thinking is deciding whether to keep that thought or to throw it away. That’s called your judgment. A lot of times it’s wrong to act on certain thoughts, but it is never, ever wrong to let yourself think them.” I pointed to her head. “That’s your courtroom in there, and you’re the judge.”

The next morning she woke up excitedly and gave me a high-speed hug. Once she had permission to think the bad word, she said, it just went away. She was genuinely relieved.

Imagine if instead I had saddled her with traditional ideas of mind-policing, the insane practice of paralyzing guilt for what you cannot control – your very thoughts. Instead, I taught her what freethought really means.

I’m more than a little proud of myself for managing to say the right thing. That’s always a minor miracle. I don’t blog about the three hundred or so times in-between that I say the wrong thing.

In the year since that day, Erin has several times mentioned that moment, sitting on the trampoline, as the single best thing I ever did for her. As with most such moments, I had no idea at the time that I was giving her anything beyond the moment itself. I just wanted her to stop crying, to stop beating up on herself. But in the process, it seems, I genuinely set her free.

“To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting!”

To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting! — Rebekah McGowan

latte heart

That shocking phrase came hurtling from between the tender lips of the mother of my children as we sat nursing our morning lattés yesterday.

Turns out Becca had spent the end of the previous evening fencing with our nearly 12-year-old son over the appropriate bedtime for a nearly 12-year-old son now that summer has arrived. She was proposing 10pm. He was pretty much proposing dealer’s choice, but willing to settle for midnight, maybe 11:30. With occasional extensions to dawn.

I descended into my latté foam. When I surfaced, she was still there.


I set down my mug and made a conscious decision to leave the little beige mustache where it was, figuring it lent me a certain gravitas. I could feel it fizzing, not unpleasantly. “And this has something to do with freethought parenting, I’m guessing.”

“Yes. He asked why. Why, why, why. Why do I have to go to bed earlier, he said.”

“Mm. And you said?”

“I said it’s not healthy to stay up late and sleep late. And he asked why not, if you’re getting the same amount of sleep? And I said I read that somewhere. It isn’t good for kids.”

Pfft. Where did you read that? I thought.

“And then he said, ‘Pfft. Where did you read that?'”


“Yes! And I said it’s a known thing. And he said he wants to see it!”

The sweater-vested professor in me grinned. Before he gives full credit, my boy wants to see Mom’s citation page. Exterior Guy remained carefully grinless.

I paused, licking off the foam in case I needed the energy for my next move. “So it’s about what’s healthy? I mean, that’s the real reason you…I mean we …want him in bed at ten?”

“Yes! It’s not healthy for a kid to stay up until midnight every night!”

“Okay. So are you going to look it up and show him?”

“No! No, I am not.”

“No, of course not.” I explored the java reef a bit, surfaced again. “And, uh…why is that?”

“Because…well, for one thing, what if it turns out not to be true?”

Let me here confess the crashing unfairness of telling this story. In our marriage, the conversational shoe is almost ALWAYS on the other foot. For all my puffed up blathering about critical thinking and having confidence in reason, Becca’s usually the one talking parental sense into my head. So for me to take one of her rare lapses and sing about it in my blog is just outrageous. It’s just wrong.

Where was I.

Oh yeah: She said, “What if it turns out not to be true?”

“Well, if it’s not unhealthy, and that was your real concern, then you’d have nothing to worry about anymore. What a relief, eh?”

She sat in silence for a moment, then executed a twisting jackknife into her own mug. When she returned, she looked like I usually do in these discussions: moded and corroded. Plus a little fizzy mustache.

I did a strutting endzone dance (uh HUH uh HUH uh HUH). In my head, of course.

Turns out we both want him in bed with lights out at 10, and that neither of us really finds argument by proverb the least bit compelling. Becca has vaguely moralistic reasons — it just seems somehow wicked to stay up late and sleep in late. I agree, for some reason, though I tend to think that’s Cotton Mather speaking through us. As for me, I want sex more than twice a year (decidedly un-Matherish of me). And we both like to read in bed uninterruptedly. Plus it throws off the family rhythm to have one person waking at 11:15 am demanding breakfast. Those reasons are more than sufficient. So we agreed. And at that point, if there are no further witnesses, the gavel comes down.

And that’s the part that’s so often misunderstood when other parents hear that we want our kids to question authority, even our own. Questioning authority doesn’t mean they have permission to DISREGARD our decisions and our rules. It means they are invited to challenge our decisions, to ask for the reasons behind them, to try to change our minds — but at the end of the process, while they are children, we’re gonna win. And if they disregard a decision, there are consequences. Just like in life.

It isn’t a choice between anarchy and fascism. Giving our kids permission to know the (real) reasons behind our decisions and even to question those decisions (1) shows them respect; (2) helps them develop their own reasoning abilities; (3) keeps us honest by ensuring our reasons are indeed defensible; and (4) further defeats and diminishes the ability of later authorities to make them into compliant, unquestioning automatons, voting and spending and acting and thinking as they are told and waving the flags they are handed.

Sometimes there isn’t time to explain. Sometimes I don’t CARE to explain. Sometimes we say, “Because I said so.” The trick is to make these rare enough to actually sound funny to kid and parent alike when they happen, and to know when I do it that it’s an unshining moment in my parental career.

Once we’ve made a decision, our kids can file a minority opinion, or even appeal, if they come up with an even stronger proverb than Mom is using. Sometimes they change our minds. Happens quite a bit. But they know it only works if their reasoning is strong. Whining or raging is a quick ticket to a summary decision by the judge.

Like bedtime at 8.

couple coffee

You put your whole self in

I don’t like bumperstickers. Half the time it’s just a self-righteous scold issuing from an automotive backside like a continuous ideological fart. I don’t even care if I agree with it; no fart is good when I’m behind it.

The rest of the time it’s witless humor. I see this in front of me in traffic


and begin weeping for at least three reasons. I have changed lanes in vicious traffic just to get an especially stupid sticker out of my sightline.

Once in a very long while there’s the exception that proves the rule, whatever that means — a bumpersticker that manages to be both witty and meaningful. I saw one two years ago in the parking lot of a Unitarian fellowship in Fridley, Minnesota. It said

hokepoke sticker

I nearly wet myself with delight. Three days later I was pasting a copy on my own rear end. It’s still there. It captures the central joke of our existence, the difference between how big and serious we feel and how small and silly we are. [I’ve called this ‘the monk and the monkey,’ thinking I’d coined the phrase — then Googled it and learned otherwise. A classic monk-and-monkey moment.]
Best of all, the sticker calls into question the idea that “it” has to all be “about” some one thing.

It doesn’t, you know.

When someone hears that I think God is pretend, a meaning-and-purpose question is not far behind. But how do you get out of bed in the morning, and so on. It’s important in these moments to hide my instant, overwhelming desire to pull the person’s underwear up over his head and skip away humming I’ve Got a Loverly Bunch of Coconuts. Instead I pretend it’s a question worth answering. It isn’t, but what the hell.

I explain that we all ought to get out of bed in grateful surprise — unconditionally, every single morning — giggling with amazement at our luck to be conscious things, to be inside that tiny window of existence between two infinities of nonexistence. Most mornings I fail to wake up that way, and shame on me for that, silly monkey. For countless millennia I was mindless stuff. In a few years I’ll be that again. But for now… *HAHAHAHAHA!!!* LOOK AT ME, all up and EXISTING!!! WOOHOO!!!!!

You really have got to do that once in awhile, and mean it.

To insist on more is outrageously piggy. Our luck at even having that tiny window (most potential “people” never do, after all) and at being inside that window right now — why, that luck is so incredibly huge, we shouldn’t even be able to get to the end of our solemn declarations of the hunger for “meaning and purpose” without bursting into fits of giggles: “My existence is meaningful because…heh…heh heh….WOOHOO!!!!!!!! *HAHAHAHAHAHA!!* WHOOP-WHOOP-WHOOP!!!”

But it isn’t enough, is it. I don’t imagine other animals have “meaning crises,” but our cortical freakishness makes us feel that we need more than just the lucky fact of being — makes us imagine these enormous, fatal holes and cracks in our meaning and purpose.

Hence the use of God as meaning-spackle.

When I was a kid, my purposometer (purr-puh-SAH-mit-ter), was always in the 90s on a scale of 100. Didn’t even have to try. I knew what I was here for: getting good grades, playing the clarinet, getting Muriel Ruffino to kiss me (Editor’s note: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, booyah!), getting into college, getting various other girls to kiss and etc. me (mission roughly 17% accomplished). And so on.

Much like your need for a pancreas, you never even know you have the need for meaning and purpose until it begins to fail — which mine did, in no uncertain terms, as I sat black-robed and square-hatted in a folding chair on a Berkeley lawn, not hearing the words of some famous anthropologist standing before me and 150 other black-robed, square-hatted, non-hearing 22-year-olds.

For the first time in my life, I had no earthly idea what was next. It was my first genuine core-shaking crisis of meaning and purpose.

In the months that followed, my purposometer dropped to the mid-30s. I had no idea which way to go professionally. All of my romantic relationships had ended in flames and the waiting room was empty. I felt like a photocopy of a photocopy of a hollow log that wonders what the point is.

It was scary. It was unsettling. I didn’t like it one bit.

I scrambled to feed the meter with the only currency it had ever accepted: I went back to school. But I was haunted by the feeling that I was in the wrong field. I had followed what I was good at instead of finding what might fulfill me. My meter registered a cautious but bearable 50 and would have stayed there until the next square hat landed on my head, had not some damn fine M&P come strolling into view:


I had seriously dated enough of the wrong women (3, 4, or 5, depending on your definition of “serious,” “date,” and “woman”) to recognize the right one when she walked into the frame. I’ll refrain from further description of my lucky marriage, since it tends to come out like a Barry Manilow song. But when it comes to waking up everyday in grateful surprise…well, let me tell you, it’s just great to see her experience that every morning. Heh.

We were married, I got a job as a college professor, we had kids, and M&P became a non-issue. In one way or another, everything that mattered centered on them — and once the purposometer is in the high 90s, it’s pancreatic again.

It was about five years ago that I realized I hadn’t given M&P a thought in a long time. It only began to register again because my career had stopped satisfying me. My family was still my primary raison d’être, but work no longer worked. As the needle dropped, I could feel the hunger for a topping-off of my sense of purpose. I was spoiled, really. After so many years of fulfillment, even dropping into the low 80s was painful.

Last year I quit my job and became a full-time writer. There was no real M&P boost at first — the financial silence after the last paycheck was so terrifying that I was editing business books and telecommunications manuals, anything to put food on my family. If anything, the purposometer took a hit. But I slowly found work that was much more meaningful: writing for schools, writing for Nonviolent Peaceforce, and launching the parenting book. Deeply satisfying, purposeful work. Now I’m back in the high 90s. Wind from the NW, gusting to 20 mph.

Here comes the point.

“Meaning and purpose” is not an all-or-nothing commodity. It goes up, it falls down. It swings around wildly, trying to find its bearings. I don’t believe there is, or should be, one universal “meaning of life,” god-based or otherwise, no one thing that keeps all of our needles pinned. Neither do I believe we make our own meaning from pure random scratch. I think we discover what is fulfilling for us. We feel in the pits of our stomachs when we’re on a hollowing path, then register a shock of recognition when we veer onto another that fills us up.

When I was eighteen, I had no idea that family would end up being the most fulfilling element of meaning and purpose for me. I had to go hollow for a long time first. One of the most painful parts of parenting will surely be watching my kids go through trial and error in their own search for meaning — left foot in, left foot out, right elbow in, right elbow out. I may think I want them to be happy and fulfilled every minute of their lives, but no predigested meaning and purpose is going to feed them in the long run. Like everything else, the process of finding it yourself is essential to knowing when you can finally put your whole self in.

Then you shake it all about.