Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders — Part 2

Two years ago, after Raising Freethinkers had been out for a while, I posted about emails I’d been getting:

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. And when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted. Really.

Now I’m getting a steady flow of the same thing regarding Voices of Unbelief and Atheism For Dummies. It really is sweet of y’all, but (a) I have no special powers, and (b) I wouldn’t use them if I did. I’m a free expression fundie.

Once again, most of the reviews are gratifyingly good, and readers can generally figure out whether the negatives are worth taking into consideration. (My current favorite starts by saying “I have to admit that I haven’t read this book.”)

As I said before, I really do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down or comment on, or if you want to write your own review, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun, and thanks:

Write a review for Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics
Write a review for Atheism For Dummies

PBB is dis many!

Parenting Beyond Belief was officially born five years ago today. Such a big girl!

I didn’t even mention it when her little sister Raising Freethinkers turned three a few weeks ago. Second child, you know, whatever. Plus that birthday was in the middle of a four-month self-induced productivity coma after one of my busiest years ever. Since the day I turned in the manuscript for Voices of Unbelief, the engrossing anthology project that ate most of 2011 for me, I’ve been ending my workday at 5:00 and leaving the computer off all weekend.

I have no plans to ever be that busy again. Too many good things have happened since I stepped off the treadmill. Turns out I’m not just a parent educator — I actually have kids! Two of them. No wait, three. And I rediscovered reading. I hadn’t read a whole book in a year or more. I learned that I can only process so many words per day, and my outflow was using up the quota. I’d pick up a book in the evening and every word seemed to be “buh?” But since my four months of slackery began, books are once again filled with lots of different words. (I’m reading the Game of Thrones series, so most of the words are beheading-related — but it’s a start.)

In the meantime, Voices of Unbelief is in production, wending its way toward an October release. Remember that this is a reference book — hard cover, big format — so mostly not intended (or priced) for individual purchase. But ask your library or school to get a copy. (I think you’ll like it.)

This blog has been one of the main casualties of my long nap — just seven real posts so far this year, oy! — but it’s coming back to life. I’ll be digging into authoritative parenting a bit more very soon. There are also two book reviews and some personal stories on the way. So to those of you who’ve stuck it out, I say — thank you both.


Hey, Portlandish Oregonians!

Just nine days left until Saturday April 21, when I’ll be giving my Parenting Beyond Belief half-day workshop at Friendly House in NW Portland, 1-5pm. If you are in the area, you simply MUST come, as I am fascinating and handsome.

The content is even better. We’ll put nonreligious parenting in the context of just-plain-good-parenting and talk about religious literacy, thinking about death without heaven (or hell), raising powerfully ethical kids, the religious extended family, and ever so much more.

The workshop is sponsored by CFI Portland, to whose info and registration page I send you herewith. Sign up now, and I’ll see you then!

PBB in SF Bay Area just days away

Secular parents in the San Francisco Bay Area: Join me THIS SATURDAY, February 25, 1:00-4:30pm for the Parenting Beyond Belief Workshop at Prometheus CrossFit in Mountain View. This will be my only Northern California parenting workshop this year, and I promise to be handsome and fascinating.

Learn more about the workshop and register here!

Santa Claus: The ultimate dry run

This year, the annual reposting of my take on Santa is brought to you by Justin Bieber, whose mother didn’t want to do Santa because she was worried that Justin might draw parallels between Santa and another magical being. Now ain’t THAT a kick in the jingle bells…

IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
First appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief, p. 87. For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see p. 85.

Wheels up

Oh TSA, I do hope you haven’t lost that gloving feeling. Starting tomorrow, I’m back in the frisker for over three weeks of events.

I’ll be at the Baltimore Book Festival tomorrow afternoon — in the Radical Bookfair Pavilion, where else — then giving a talk at the Baltimore Ethical Society at 8:15. Sunday morning it’s the Parenting Beyond Belief Workshop at the Baltimore Homeschool Community Center.

On Saturday October 1, I’ll drive up to Aiken, SC for the first ever Camp Quest SC Weekend Family Camp to talk about moral development in secular families and to help CQSC distribute tree seedlings to families in honor of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement in Kenya.

The following Thursday I arrive in Houston for the Atheist Alliance of America/Texas Freethought Convention. The roster is superb, including Richard Dawkins presenting Christopher Hitchens with the Dawkins Award for Freethinker of the Year. Mr. Hitchens just confirmed that he will in fact be able to attend, despite what he has called “the long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.” I’ll be presenting on humanist philanthropy and Foundation Beyond Belief, then participating in a panel on secular family issues.

Saturday October 15 is the Parenting Beyond Belief workshop in Austin TX, from which I fly directly to Raleigh NC for a PBB workshop sponsored by the Triangle Freethought Society. On Monday I’ll address the TFS meeting with a talk on secular volunteerism, then fly home Tuesday morning from all these family-oriented events to reacquaint myself with my actual, uh…family.

(I posted this last week, then realized I hadn’t asked my correspondent below for permission to quote her email, something I generally try to do. She gave the thumbs-up, so here it is. Thanks Jan, you’re a good sport!)

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. But when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted.


A few weeks ago I got a note that appalled me more than a one-star review ever could:

Mr. McGowan,
I’m wondering if you watch the pages for your books. About two years ago I almost bought Parenting Beyond Belief but was convinced not to after I read the top comment, which said it was a book for angry athiests [sic]. I didn’t want anything like that. My son had serious trouble when his grandmother died last year, and I didn’t know what to tell him. Finally I broke down and got the book last month. And it was terrific! But I really needed it two years ago! Can’t you erase that terrible review so people aren’t misinformed??

I suddenly felt really, really tired.

I replied, explaining that I have no power to delete Amazon reviews, and (short of something clearly libelous) wouldn’t want it. I sketched out the timeless principle of caveat lector, stopping short of advising that she stay clear of the wilds of cyberspace unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The xkcd cartoon above immediately came to mind.

I do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down, or even comment on, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun. You don’t need me.

In fact, I feel another Latin phrase coming on. Vox populi!

PBB on the road

thumbertimeIt’s been a busy start to the year, with workshops in New York, Miami, Atlanta, and Grand Rapids. This past weekend I was in Charleston for a workshop and talk hosted by the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Terrific group and a great little city.

In three weeks I’m off to Cincinnati, Ohio where I’ll give a talk on humanist philanthropy for Free Inquiry Group and Cincinnati Atheists Meetup (Slatt’s Pub, April 8, 7 pm), then a Parenting Beyond Belief workshop April 9 at Northern Hills UU Fellowship, 9am-1pm, sponsored by UU Council of Greater Cincinnati. Click here to register for the workshop.

May 21 will find me in Tampa, Florida giving a presentation at the inaugural event for Paul Kurtz’s new Institute for Science and Human Values. Details to come.

I take most of the summer off from parenting workshops to do some actual, uh, parenting, but on July 16 I’ll give a PBB workshop in Pensacola, Florida, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola, 10am – 2pm. (Info and registration here.)

There’s also loose talk about possible PBB workshops in Baltimore, San Antonio, Seattle, and Los Angeles this fall. Wanna start talking loosely about bringing the workshop your way? Read this page for a description, then click the contact button and we’ll chat.


ethical_culture_logo_nyreblog_com_I am delighted to report that I’ll be in New York City to give a Platform Address and PBB seminar at the New York Society for Ethical Culture this very weekend – Sunday January 9.

Long-time readers may remember me swooning at length over the Brooklyn Society after my visit there in April ’09. After visiting four others (Chicago, St. Louis, Bergen County NJ, and Northern Virginia), I’m even more concert-hall2convinced that Ethical Culture is the best articulation yet of a community built around shared values and principles rather than beliefs.

Housed in a gorgeous building on Central Park, the NYSEC is the mother ship of the Ethical Culture movement, founded in 1876 by social reformer Felix Adler as the first such Society.

So if by chance you’re in the New York area this weekend, pop over to NYSEC (2 W 64th St at Central Park West) for the morning address, the afternoon seminar, or both. I’ll try to be handsome and/or fascinating.

New blog to support secular parenting groups

pbbblogWhile writing and researching Parenting Beyond Belief in 2006, I went searching for secular parenting groups in the U.S. and found precisely one.

I certainly might have missed some, but the fact that a diligent search didn’t turn up more than one is a pretty clear indication of how few and far between they were.

Zip forward four years, and though we’re still a tad short of Starbucks-level saturation, the landscape has changed pretty dramatically. I’m currently aware of more than forty groups in North America ranging in age from three weeks to three years and in size from half a dozen to nearly 150 members.

As I’ve tracked the activities and growth of these groups, I’ve come to realize how isolated most of them are from each other. Most start from scratch, finding members and planning activities by trial and error. Wheels are reinvented — and they’re occasionally square. While some groups thrive, others disappear within a few months.

One of the original purposes of Foundation Beyond Belief was to provide a central source of information and support for these groups. We did some good work along those lines early in the year, conducting a large-scale secular parent survey and helping to birth about a half dozen new groups. But we kept running into a problem.


The IRS had expressed reasonable concern that a firewall be maintained between the non-profit Foundation and the for-a-wee-smidge-of-profit world of Parenting Beyond Belief. To demonstrate their seriousness, they brought the tax exemption process for FBB to a screaming halt when a staff blog entry on the Foundation website linked to a site that in turn included a sidebar link to buy my book.

That delayed our approval by six weeks.

So we were understandably skittish about ever so much as mentioning Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, the PBB Channel on YouTube, the PBB Forum, this blog, etc. in Foundation communications. In other words, we could support secular parents as long as we avoided mentioning 75 percent of the resources for secular parents.

It eventually became crystal clear that this just wasn’t going to work. I am now in the process of building deeper support resources for secular parenting groups on this very website. And the first effort in that direction is a new blog called Parents Beyond Belief.

The blog is a space for secular parenting groups to help each other create effective communities for nontheistic parents by exchanging ideas and stories. If all goes well, you’ll hear precious little from me and tons from people who know what they’re talking about — the actual leaders and members of secular parenting groups. The first post is already up, and six others are on the way.

Don’t wait for an invitation! If you are currently in a secular parenting group and would like to submit a post about anything related to your group — finding members, naming the group, childcare issues, what to do at meetings, field trips, book clubs, play groups, food, dues, online presence, community service, resolving disagreements, you name it — just write up a brief description of your intended piece and send it to me for consideration. If it looks like a good fit, I’ll invite you to write the piece.

Guidelines for posts: Submissions must be relevant to the blog’s purpose, under 700 words, well-written and engaging.

A small group of reviewers will help me select entries in the early going. Contributors who have a few pieces accepted will be considered for a position as blog administrator. And once we have a few of those, I intend to step quietly aside and let y’all run with it.

Visit the Parents Beyond Belief blog