Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Anatomy of a Frequently-Asked Question [Greatest Hits]

[Another favorite in a series from the archives while I’m too busy to think. Next new post on Groundhog Day.]

First appeared on April 16, 2008


In a recent article in USA Today (“Am I raising ‘atheist children’?”, March 17, 2008), author Nica Lalli addressed a common question for nonreligious parents: “How would you respond if one of your children became religious?” As the topic went rippling through the nonreligious blogosphere, both the consensus inside nonreligious parenting and the false assumptions outside of it were revealed in comment threads.

Like so many questions we hear, the way it is asked is at least as revealing as any answer. Sometimes I can barely hear the question itself for the clatter of the thrown gauntlet. The tone of the question often implies that all my high-minded claims of parental openness are a self-deluding sham—that hearing that one of my kids had chosen to identify with religion would cause me to fly into an icon-smashing, garment-tearing, child-disowning rage, well before the child had reached the stirring refrain of “Jesus Loves Me.”

There’s a strong consensus among nonreligious parents against putting worldview labels on our children or guiding them by the nose into our own. It’s not unanimous; some of the blog comments I’ve seen since Nica’s piece made me wince, like the atheist mother who said she would not “let” her child identify with religion.

Fortunately, no hot or staining beverages were in my mouth when I read that. Let? Let? I’m not even sure what that means. But that view is happily rare. Most of us are more committed to parenting our children toward genuine autonomy than churning out rubber stamps of ourselves.

One of the many problems with the question is the implication that religious identification is a single point of arrival, like the day a young adult’s daemon takes a fixed form in His Dark Materials or palms begin flashing red in Logan’s Run. Did it work that way for you—or did you pass through a number of stages and try on a number of hats along the way? I thought so. And see what a lovely person you turned out to be.

A close relative of mine went through a period of experimentation with different worldviews. After being a fairly conventional New Testament Christian for a while, she became something of a Manichaean dualist, believing the world was divided into good and evil, darkness and light. She eventually went through a sort of Einsteinian-pantheist phase before adopting a benevolent, utilitarian humanism.

Then she turned six.

I encourage my kids to try on as many beliefs as they wish and to switch back and forth whenever they feel drawn toward a different hat, confident that in the long run they will be better informed not only of the identity they choose, but of those they have declined. Were I to disown my kids each time they passed through a religious identity, I’d have to keep a lawyer on retainer.

Now let’s get specific. My child has become “religious,” you say. Is it “Love-your-neighbor” religious…or “God-hates-fags” religious? “Four Chaplains” religious…or “9/11 hijackers” religious? Dalai Lama…or Jerry Falwell?

Adding to the difficulties is the almost comic range of meaning of “religion.” A good friend of mine has verses from the Book of Psalms scrolling around the walls of his bedroom and believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the sole path to salvation—yet describes himself as “not at all religious, really.” Then you have the Unitarians—the majority of whom are nontheistic—who tend to insist, sometimes downright huffily, that they are religious.

Just as troubling as the idea that I’d protest any and all religious expressions in my children is the notion that I’d applaud any and all nonreligious outcomes. Though many of the most ethical and humane folks I’ve known have been nonreligious, some of the most malignant and repugnant SOBs have been as well. So, then: Is it “Ayaan Hirsi Ali” nonreligious—or “Joe Stalin” nonreligious?

Perhaps you can see why I consider the question, “What if your child becomes religious?” as unanswerably meaningless as, “What if your child becomes political?”

I have three compassionate, socially conscientious, smart, ethical kids, with every indication of remaining so. If they choose a religious expression, it’s likely to be one that expresses those values. They might become liberal Quakers, or UUs, or progressive Episcopalians, or Buddhists, or Jains, framing their tendency toward goodness and conscience in a way different from but entirely respectable to my own way of seeing things. We could do far worse than a world of liberal Quakers.

If instead one of my kids were to identify with a more malignant religion, I’d express my concerns in no uncertain terms. But the consequences of the belief would be the main point of contention, not the fact that it is “religious.” And my love for my child, it goes without saying, would be reduced by not so much as a hair on a flea on a neutrino’s butt.

EyePlejjaleejins [Greatest Hits]

[Another favorite in a series from the archives while I’m too busy to think. Next new post on Groundhog Day.]

First appeared on March 11, 2008

Yesterday I read through a parenting book called How to Raise an American. The book is full of helpful advice for raising children with an unthinking allegiance to the nation of your choice. This one is pitched at the United States, but the techniques described will work equally well — and have worked equally well — to produce unquestioning loyalty to almost any political entity. Lithuanian, are you? Just change the relevant facts, dates and flags, and this book will help you create a saluting servant of Lithuania, singing the National Hymn with pride:

Lithuania, my homeland, land of heroes!
Let your Sons draw strength from the past.
Let your children follow only the paths of virtue,
working for the good of their native land and for all mankind.

(To foster an even higher degree of rabid Lithumania, leave out the part about ‘all mankind.’ Pfft.)

It goes without saying that the same techniques promoted in this book fostered unthinking allegiance to Germany in the 1930s, China in the 1950s, and probably Genghis Khan in the 1220s, for that matter. These are irrelevant, of course, because we are very, very good and they were all very, very bad.

All the same, I’d prefer my kids forgo unthinking allegiance in favor of thoughtful critical engagement. That way, if our nation ever did do something bad — hypothetically, campers, hypothetically — my kids would be in a position to challenge the bad thing, though all around them salute and sing.

It’s Kohlberg’s sixth and highest level of moral development — to be guided by universal principle, even at a high personal cost, to do what’s right instead of what is popular, patriotic, or otherwise rewarded by those around you.


During her after-school snack several weeks ago, Delaney (6) asked, “What does ‘liberty’ mean?”

I realized right away why she would ask about ‘liberty’ and was once again ashamed of myself in comparison to my kids. I don’t think I pondered the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance until I was well into middle school. When I was her age, I’m certain that I thought “EyePlejjaleejins” was one word that meant something like “Hey, look at the flag.” I certainly didn’t know I was promising undying loyalty to something.

“Liberty means freedom,” I said. “I means being free to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt someone else.”

“Oh, okay.” Pause. “What about ‘justice’?”

“Justice means fairness. If there is justice, it means everybody gets treated in a fair way.”

“Oh! So when we say ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ it means ‘everybody should be free and everybody should be fair.'”

“That’s the idea.”

“Hmm,” she said. “I like that.”

I like it too. A fine, fine idea. I also like the idea that the next time Laney said the Pledge, she had a little more knowledge of just what she was pledging her allegiance to.

There’s an email that circulates quite a bit during the times we are asked to stand united against [INSERT IMPLACABLE ENEMY HERE] — the text of a speech by the comedian Red Skelton in which he recounts the words of an early teacher of his. The teacher had supposedly noticed the students going through the rote recitation of the pledge and decided to explain, word for word, what it meant:

It would have been interesting, even instructive, if Skelton had held up a photo of himself and his class saluting the flag, which for the first 50 years was done like so:

bellamy salute

This gesture was replaced with the hand-over-heart, for some reason, in 1942.

Delivered in 1969, Skelton’s piece is a bit saccharine in the old style, of course. And I’ll refrain from answering his rhetorical question at the end, heh. But the idea itself — of wanting kids to understand what they are saying — I’m entirely in favor of that.

Getting kids to understand what the pledge means solves one of the four issues I have with the Pledge of Allegiance. There is the “under God” clause, of course (which the Ninth Circuit court essentially called a constitutional no-brainer before wimping out on procedural grounds) — but that’s the least of my concerns.

Far worse is the fact that it is mandated, either by law, policy, or social pressure. No one of any age should be placed in a situation where a loyalty oath is extracted by force, subtle or otherwise.

Worse than that is something I had never considered before I heard it spelled out by Unitarian Universalist minister (and Parenting Beyond Belief contributor) Kendyl Gibbons several years ago, at the onset of the latest Iraq War, in a brilliant sermon titled “Why I’m Not Saying the Pledge of Allegiance Anymore.” At one point she noted how important integrity is to humanism:

One of the most basic obligations that I learned growing up as a humanist was to guard the integrity of my given word. Who and what I am as a human being is not predicated on the role assigned to me by a supernatural creator; neither am I merely a cog in the pre-ordained workings of some cosmic machine. Rather, I am what I say I am; I am the loyalties I give, the promises I keep, the values I affirm, the covenants by which I undertake to live. To give my loyalties carelessly, to bespeak commitments casually, is to throw away the integrity that defines me, that helps me to live in wholeness and to cherish the unique worth and dignity of myself as a person….We had better mean what we solemnly, publicly say and sign.

And then, the central issue — that the pledge is to a flag, when in fact it should be to principles, to values. One hopes that the flag stands for these things, but it’s too easy for prcinples to slip and slide behind a symbol. A swastika symbolized universal harmony in ancient Buddhist and Hindu iconography, then something quite different in Germany of the 1930s and 40s. Better to pledge allegiance to universal harmony than to the drifting swastika.

The same is true of a flag — any flag. Here’s Kendyl again:

I will not give my allegiance to a flag; it is too flimsy a thing, in good times or in bad; if it is even a symbol for the values I most cherish, that is only because of the sacrifices that others have made in its name. I will not commit the idolatry of mistaking the flag for the nation, or the nation for the ideals. Yet I must find an abiding place for my loyalty, lest it evaporate into the mist of disincarnate values, powerless to give any shape to the real lives that we live in the real world. Therefore my allegiance is to my country as an expression of its ideals.

To the extent that the republic for which our flag stands is faithful to the premises of its founding and to the practices that have evolved over two centuries to safeguard our freedoms and equal justice, it has my loyalty, my devotion, even my pride. But to the extent that it is a finite and imperfect expression of the ideals to which my allegiance is ultimately given, to the extent that it falls into deceit and self-deception, into arrogance and coercion and violence, into self-serving secrecy and double standards of justice, to that extent my loyalty must take the form of protest, and my devotion must be expressed in dissent.

It remains to this day one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches I have ever heard. And it continues to motivate me to raise children who pledge their allegiance conditionally rather than blindly. That will make their eventual allegiances all the more meaningful.

The complete text of Kendyl’s talk is here.

Raising Freethinkers is released


Okay, my precious Memlings, come and get it… 🙂

Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief

Book Description
Praised by Newsweek as “a compelling read” and Library Journal as “accessible and down-to-earth,” Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief offered freethinking parents everywhere a compassionate introduction to raising caring, ethical children without religious guidance. Now, for the more than 40 million people in the United States who identify themselves as nonreligious, Raising Freethinkers offers solutions to the unique challenges secular parents face and provides specific answers to common questions, as well as over 100 activities for both parents and their children.

This book covers every important topic nonreligious parents need to know to help their children with their own moral and intellectual development, including advice on religious-extended-family issues, death and life, secular celebrations, wondering and questioning, and more.

Complete with reviews of books, DVDs, curricula, educational toys, and online resources relevant to each chapter topic, Raising Freethinkers helps parents raise their children with confidence.

From the Back Cover

“I raised my own freethinking sons not that long ago, and I had little choice but to do it without much practical support. This book is the best, most comprehensive com­pendium of secular parenting strategies and tips I can imagine. It shows how, without the aid of any supernatural overseer, you can raise kids who are moral, compassionate, curious, and fully aware of the nuances of a truly civilized human society.”
–Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of Playing Smart and Loving in Flow, creativity blogger for, and advice columnist for and

When the book first arrived, I riffled through it, found two errors, and set it aside for a week.1 When I finally picked it up and read in earnest, I was thrilled. It really is exactly what we wanted it to be, and, I hope, just what was needed.

Many thanks to Amanda, Jan, and Molleen for their superb work on this project!
1In answer to the many questions I’m now getting, the errors were small. The headers in Appendix 1 are hard to read because of the shading used, and one time when I intended to say “Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild,” I apparently typed “Hail Satan, father of lies.” I’m sure most people won’t even notice it.

Buy from Amazon
Buy Raising Freethinkers

at last

Of all the unbearably wonderful inaugural moments, this is one I can’t resist sharing.

Back on topic soon.

Seminar news in game show form

Match the nicknames to the cities:

1. Chicago
2. Colorado Springs
3. New York

A. The Big Apple
B. The Windy City
C. The Vatican of Evangelical Christianity

Well done! Bonus round:

Q: What do all three cities have in common?

A. All three include the letter O as in “Obama”
B. All three exclude the letter B as in “Bush”
C. All three are hosting the Parenting Beyond Belief seminar in the coming weeks
D. All of the above

(Answer: D as in “Dale is punchy with writer’s fatigue and posting gibberish.”)

If you’ll be in one of these cities on the dates indicated, why not click on a link below and register for the seminar? I promise to get some sleep before I get there.

Chicago (Jan 24)
Colorado Springs (Mar 1)
New York (Brooklyn) (Mar 28)

“…and a nation of nonbelievers”

I wrote a while back about the fact that President Barack Obama — gosh lemme say that again, actual friggin’ no kidding President Barack Obama— was raised in a nonreligious home.

Now the American Humanist Association has congratulated Obama with an ad in the inaugural edition of the Washington Post:


And how lovely — how surpassingly, achingly, tearfully lovely — that that final meme sounds again and again in Obama’s work, from The Audacity of Hope to a speech in 2006 to the Inaugural Address itself:

Whatever we once were, are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

That’s a meme worth keeping very much alive.

I’d like to buy another consonant [Greatest Hits]

[Another favorite from the archives. Next new post on Groundhog Day.]

First appeared on Sept 25, 2007

Went with Delaney to the “Dads ‘n’ Donuts” event at her school the other day. A fine selection. We finished eating and socializing in the gym a bit early, so we sauntered back to her kindergarten classroom. A couple of dads were already there, being toured by the hand around the classroom by their progeny. Laney grabbed my hand and we joined the conga line.

“This is where alllll of the books are,” Laney said. “And that’s the whiteboard. Here’s the globe, and the puppets…and this,” she gestured proudly, “is my desk!”

I barely heard the last two, since I was still riveted on the whiteboard — which, oh-by-the-way, had THIS on it — scroll ye down:



I am neither making this up nor exaggerating its appearance. Much. The actual medium was dry-erase markers, not tie-dye, but that is amazingly close to the actual appearance of the glorious crux splendidior on the whiteboard in my daughter’s public school classroom.

And what a cross it was! Every color of the rainbow! I’d have burst into a chorus of Crown Him with Many Crowns if not for eleven or twelve things.

Déjà vu. I flashed back to the near-encounter with FAITH at Curriculum Night. But this one was in full view. If anyone else had me in view, they’d have surely assumed I’d suffered a small but effective stroke. I was completely frozen and trying to stay that way. Time stopped, looked at me funny, then continued on its way. I knew that if I came to, I’d leap onto a chair and point and squeal “CROSS! CRAWWWWWWSSSSS!!” I’d have no choice: the point-and-shriek is mandated for all encounters with crosses in the by-laws of the Atheist-Vampire Accords of 1294.

A little girl entered my periphery, guiding her father by the hand. “And this,” she said, pointing to the cross, “is what we’re learning about this week!”

She paused for dramatic effect, then announced, with pedantic precision, “Lower-case t!”

What if she comes anyway? [Greatest Hits]

[I’m up against a conundrum within a paradox. Between now and February 1 I have the busiest two weeks of my freelance writing life, including resumption of the job I loved and left behind when I left Minneapolis — U.S. Communications Coordinator for Nonviolent Peaceforce. But Raising Freethinkers is also due to launch in a matter of moments, so this is no time to abandon the Meming of Life. My solution is a short series of “greatest hits” — five or six of the most popular posts from the past two years. Enjoy, and I’ll see you again with new thoughts on Groundhog Day.]

What if she comes anyway?

First appeared on October 10, 2007

Her name was first spoken in hushed tones among children all over America [over] twenty years ago. Even in Sweden folklorists reported Bloody Mary’s fame. Children of all races and classes told of the hideous demon conjured by chanting her name before a mirror in a pitch-dark room. And when she crashes through the glass, she mutilates children before killing them. Bloody Mary is depicted in Miami kids’ drawings with a red rosary that, the secret stories say, she uses as a weapon, striking children across the face.
from “Myths Over Miami” by Lynda Edwards in the Miami New Times, Sept. 1997


“Yeah, B?” It was Erin, my nine-year-old, nicknamed “The B.”

“Can you come into the bathroom with me?”

“Why, you need to talk about something?” Our family has an odd habit: one person sits on the edge of the tub and chats up the person on the commode. A gift from my wife’s side.

“No…I’m scared to go in there.”

“It’s the middle of the day, B.”

“I know, but…Daddy, just come in with me.”

“Not ’til you tell me what you’re afraid of.”

She hesitated — then said, “The mirror.”

“What about the mirror?”

She leaned in and whispered, “Bloody Mary.”

I resisted the urge to say, No thanks, I’ll have a Tanqueray and tonic. I knew just what she meant. I was a kid too, you know.

“Desirée at school says if you turn off the lights and turn around three times in front of the mirror with your eyes closed and say Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, then open your eyes — a woman all covered in blood will be looking at you from in the mirror!”

A quiver-chill went through me. I was a kid again. I remember exactly how it felt to hear such ghastly things whispered by a true believer. Their wide-eyed conviction always did a fine job of convincing me as well. But in my day, Bloody Mary came crashing through the glass at you — a detail Erin didn’t seem to need to hear.

“So just go in, leave the light on, and don’t spin around or say the name, B.” I knew how hopelessly lame a thing that was to say. What if she comes anyway? Once the concept is in your head, why, the very thought of Bloody Mary might conjure her up. She might appear just because she knows I know! And she knows I know she knows I know!

“Okay, I’ll go with you. But you know what I’m gonna do.”


We went eye to eye. “Sweetie, tell me the truth. Do you think Bloody Mary is real, or just a story?”

She looked away. “Just a story.”

“So why be afraid of a story?” Again, I know. Lame! Yes, it’s true, it’s just a story — but ultimately, in our human hearts and reptile brains, such a defense against fear is hopelessly lame.

Her forehead puckered into a plead. “But Daddy, even if she’s just a story — what if she comes anyway?”

See? I remember.


She sat on the lid of the toilet, whimpering.
I turned out the lights. Nooooohohohoho, she
began to moan, with a dash of fourth-grade melodrama.


I walked into the bathroom myself and pulled the curtains. She followed, timidly, cupping her hand by her eyes to avoid the vanity mirror. “You don’t have to come in if you dont want to, B,” I said. She sat on the lid of the toilet, whimpering. I turned out the lights. Nooooohohohoho, she began to moan, with a dash of fourth-grade melodrama.

I walked to the mirror and began to turn. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary! I opened my eyes. “See?” I knocked on the mirror. “Helloooooo! Hey lady! Look B, nobody’s home!”

Erin peeled her hands from her eyes and squealed with delight. “I’m gonna do it!”

She walked slowly to the mirror, trembling with anticipation. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary! She peeked through her fingers.

“Eeeeeheeheeheehee!” she squealed delightedly, jumped up and down, hugged me. But if you believe she was cured — if you think Daddy’s words were really enough to slay the dragon — then you were never a kid. Maybe we said her name too fast, you see, or too slow, or or or maybe we didn’t believe in her enough. Maybe she just can’t be tricked by skeptical dads into showing herself. Erin didn’t say any of these things, but I know she was thinking them. And sure enough, the very next day, Erin was requiring bodyguards in the bathroom again.

I haven’t tried to talk her out of it. To paraphrase Swift, you can’t reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. For a while, it’s even a little bit fun to believe such a thing is possible. And thinking I could talk her out of it anyway would be denying an inescapable fact: that when I pulled my own hands from my eyes in that darkened bathroom and saw the mirror, the rationalist, just for a tiny fraction of a second, dropped back and hid behind me as my little boy heart raced at the question that never quite completely goes away:

What if she comes anyway?

[For one of the most hair-raising and powerful essays I’ve ever read, see the full text of Lynda Edwards’ gripping 1997 piece on the Bloody Mary story as told among the homeless children of Miami — complete with illustrations.]

Blue me away

Just an embedded video today — three years old and no doubt known to everyone else already, but new to me yesterday. I’m a sucker for this kind of combination of wit, originality, and message:

Share with the kids. Mine loved it.

Evolution for breakfast

vita32001One of the tropes in my seminars is the suggestion that big ideas are best consumed in little bites over many years. The old “how-do-you-eat-an-elephant” joke is right on the money. Religious education works best this way. No big lectures, no Bible marathons required. A toe-dip a day for 18 years will get you wetter than a whole catechectical bath. Best of all, you don’t get all pruney.

Same with evolution. When we lived in Minneapolis, our family used to take walks through an area called the Quaking Bog in Theodore Wirth Park. I spotted a fawn once and waved the kids over with the universal handsigns for “Come-quickly-and-quietly” and “You-call-that-quiet?” What followed went something like this:

DAD: Look, look. See the deer? You can just barely see it against the leaves.

ERIN (about 8 then): It’s almost invisible.

DELANEY (about 4): Whoa. If I was an aminal that ate deers, I’d never see them. I’d just starve.

DAD: Unless there was a bright pink one.

They laughed. The deer bolted.

CONNOR (10): Oh, good job, girls!

DAD: Okay, pink and slow. I think I’d eat nothing but slow, pink deer.

(*Munch*) That’s one bite of evolution. No need to hammer it home with big hairy terminology. No need to connect every dot on the spot. Just take a bite. Mmmm, Daaarwin.

In the previous post I wrote about the possibility of artificial selection at work on heike crabs in Japan. Fishermen toss back crabs with somewhat facelike markings on their shells, leading over the course of hundreds of generations to ever-more-facelike shell markings. I told Erin the story of the heike that night at bedtime.


This morning as the girls ate breakfast, I opened the bottle of their chewable vitamins. “I want an orange one,” said Erin.

“I’m well aware.”

“Me too,” said Laney.

“I know what color you want, girls, you tell me every morning.” I tapped two vitamins into my hand. Both purple. I poured out a bunch more. All purple. “Pfft. Of course,” I said, showing the handful of purple vitamins.

Erin chuckled. “That’s because we ask for orange every day.”

It hit me like a brick. “Hey, Erin! It’s just like the heike crabs!”

“The wha…oh, the crabs in Japan! Omigosh, it is!” Just as the fisherfolk selected and rejected crab phenotypes, we had selected and rejected vitamin “phenotypes” until purple ruled the bottle.

(*Munch*) Mmmm.
A frankly incredible annotated list of books about evolution for kids at CHARLIE’S PLAYHOUSE