© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

When Someone Asks How You Raise Moral Kids Without the Bible, Here’s the A+ Answer

A few years ago I was interviewed briefly on NPR’s On Point about moral development without religion. I managed to get my major point made — that moral development research shows that the process is aided more by a questioning approach than by passive acceptance of rules. But I gave a B- response to his next question, which was basically, “Without the Bible, what books do you use to guide moral development?”

I’m still kicking myself for my answer. Like a second-rate interviewee, I accepted the premise of his question: that moral development has something to do with books or other static sources of insight. I jibbered something about a wide range of sources being available, from Aesop’s Fables to even religious texts read humanistically — The Jefferson Bible and all that.

The A+ answer is that it isn’t a book thing at all. Moral development research — Grusec, Nucci, Baumrind, the works — has shown that moral understanding comes first and foremost from peer interaction. That’s why kids start framing everything in terms of fairness around age five, right when most of them are starting to have regular, daily peer interactions — including the experience of being treated fairly and unfairly, and making choices about how they will treat others, and feeling the consequences of those choices.

There’s also a slice of humble pie for parents in that research. As much as we would like to think we’re inculcating morality into our kids, that’s mostly rubbish. Sorry. We have a role, we’re just not as central as we’d like to think. We can and should help kids process their experiences and articulate their thoughts about them, but it’s the experience itself that provides the main text from which they draw moral understanding — not us, and not a book.

So there’s my rewrite. Extra credit, at least?



This was written on Saturday, 01. September 2018 at 03:00 and was filed under morality, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Hey Dale,
    Haven’t checked in with your blog for a while, so not sure if you’ve seen this or even written about it, but these two online cnn articles not only coincide with your topic in this post, but with your work more generally.
    You may even know this mom. I wish I did. I’d love to shake her hand and offer my thanks and admiration, or if it were appropriate, to give her a great big hug!



    Buy the way, I thought your first answer was just fine, but of course, as you and “godless mom” would agree, your second answer was even better. In any event, I’m sure you spoke more eloquently and persuasively than I would have.

    Comment: Brad – 20. January 2013 @ 9:31 am

  2. Just listened to the interview – thoroughly enjoyable because it featured not only you, but the ever wonderful Susan Jacoby and her comments on Ingersoll. Unsurprisingly, you represented non-religious parents exceptionally well, Dale.

    I think if you fell down at all during the interview, it wasn’t exactly over the “book question.” The host kept fretting that without immersion or at least regular contact with a community specifically oriented around a set of moral teachings/principles, children might not grow to be sufficiently ethically prepared for life. The “handbook” issue was just a sub-set of that concern.

    And you answered with part of the necessary response to his concern, which was to acknowledge that as far as “good morals” go, traditionally religious communities have served that purpose, and in some cases have served it well.

    But the rest of the best possible answer would include, in my view (and I’m not remotely saying I would have had the presence of mind to articulate it all on the spot), the following:

    1) A “teaching” community larger than a family is not and never has been a prerequisite for the creation of a loving and ethical and compassionate adult.
    To believe otherwise is to think that nobody who ever grew up outside of a religious community has ever been a decent person. And of course, some people have managed to develop their care and compassion to exceptional degrees without even the advantage of a family setting – or despite or because of a profoundly negative family setting.

    2) The best and most lasting teaching opportunities, as you suggested, come not in the context of any institutional structure, but just as life unfolds in EVERY context. This is where parents can really make a difference, though as you said in your blog post, parents are only part of the overall picture.
    Speaking of the overall picture, I just finished a book that was painful for me because it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories from my own life as a youngster, “Friday Night Lights.” This book illustrates much about how “religious communities” (church, town, or region) are insufficient by themselves to create happy, healthy, and moral adults. I recommend this book for any parent living in, say, Georgia, though the story is from my home state, Texas. (Haven’t seen Billy Bob’s movie based on the book.)

    3) Religion has a several thousand year head start on the sorts of communities that provide supportive frameworks, for among many other things, helping children form and foster good ethics. It’s only been really in the previous fifty years or so that secular people have been sufficient in number (and accordingly sufficiently brave) to even think about forming such communities. This will change – I hope rapidly, and I hope also that I play a part in making it so.

    4) Last, it should always be mentioned that not all the “morals” religious communities have taught and still teach are really moral at all. In many cases, as much or more harm than good is done through religion to a person’s sense of decency and compassion.
    Examples, of course, are in the news almost every day.

    Happy Sunday!

    Comment: Brad – 20. January 2013 @ 4:29 pm

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