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Secular homeschoolers: Darwinfish out of water

homeIf you think you face a challenge raising kids without religion in a majority religious culture, rest assured that you face nothing compared to what I hear from some secular homeschoolers.

Sure, there is the occasional crossing of church-state lines in U.S. public schools, usually by individual teachers insufficiently enamored (or aware) of the separation principle. And there are some more serious issues at times like the Texas science curriculum fracas. But school administrations are generally so keen to avoid church-state dustups that they often overcorrect. And if they fail to act, the courts, more often than not, do the right thing. Not a perfect system by any means, but one stacked in the long run in favor of sensible separation.

Now once you step outside of that protection — into homeschooling, for example — all bets are off. It’s a majority-rules, market-driven world out there. And since the majority of homeschooling parents by most counts are homeschooling to provide a religious framework and to avoid what they see as the “aggressively secular education” of the public schools, the providers of nearly all things homeschool frequently cater to that point of view.

This can make matters tough for secular homeschoolers. Homeschoolers of Maine (HOME) is having a convention in March in which vendors display curricula for homeschooling parents. If you are a homeschool curriculum provider, you have just two more days to reserve your space, so act now!

Oh, but first you’ll want to read this, from the Regulations for Exhibitors:

HOME does not require that exhibitors and/or advertisers subscribe to our Statement of Faith, but HOME does require that the exhibitors and/or advertisers do not promote any materials that might include stories or art work containing witches, ghosts, dragons, or other occult materials; “Values Clarification” curriculum; multicultural curriculum (the ideas of valuing all lifestyles and religions as equal to the biblical view); fantasy role-playing games or curriculum; or any materials that portray the Bible as merely mythological, or Christianity as untrue or as one among many religions…Vendors who refuse to remove items deemed inappropriate by HOME will be asked to leave without refund.

Let’s be clear: HOME is a Christian homeschool organization, and they have every right to set such guidelines. But the apparent challenge for secular homeschoolers is that homeschool support organizations, whether religiously-based themselves or not, often pitch their products and services in this same way, aiming for that fearful, narrow majority. It’s similar to the effect Texas has on the national textbook market and similarly driven more by dollars on the corporate level than by ideology.

Now that we’ve affirmed HOME’s right to set their own rules, a few observations for fun:

In banning the mention of ghosts, witches, and dragons, HOME helps protect kids not only from such rot as Hamlet, Macbeth, and the Odyssey, but from The Chronicles of Narnia — and at least one other book of note.

Aside from that, I do applaud their efforts to stem the rampant tide of values clarification among kids today. And thank goodness they’re quashing the urban legend that other religions exist.

[Hat tip to my homeschooling mole.]

A guest post on secular homeschooling by JJ Ross

ADDED: Stats from the Nat’l Center for Education Statistics regarding the most commonly-cited reasons for homeschooling in the US: “Parents’ concern about the environment of other schools (85%); “To provide religious or moral instruction” (72%); “Dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools” (68%). Hat tip to Melanie K!

ADDED: Be sure to check out the secular homeschooling Q&A by Amy Page in Raising Freethinkers (pp. 217-19), as well as the list of groups and resources (229-30). See also links in the blog sidebar.

ADDED: An AP article on difficulties for secular homeschoolers



This was written on Thursday, 18. February 2010 at 16:36 and was filed under belief and believers, church-state separation, diversity, fear. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. This is really disturbing. With the number of homeschooled children growing every year, it is frightening to think that this is the only sort of curriculum that many of them may ever know.
    I have an atheist friend who is homeschooling in the south. This story brings home to me how many challenges she faces, beyond the normal challenges of homeschooling!

    Comment: niftywriter – 18. February 2010 @ 5:26 pm

  2. It’s really not that bad. Many states (maybe most?) have a secular or at least more open minded Christian homeschooling group that is more concerned with collecting vendor fees than insuring that no child ever reads Harry Potter. We’ve never had any problem finding useful curriculum sources. The problem is more of a local support group issue. If you are living deep in Red State territory finding other homeschoolers in your town who aren’t narrow minded on the religion question can be a challenge.

    Of course, it works both ways. We were asked to leave an “eclectic” homeschool group for being too materialistic.My wife hosted the monthly potluck and I guess our clean home and large screen TV offended the hippie sensibilities of the group. Sometimes you just can’t win 🙂

    Comment: chrisod – 18. February 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  3. “My wife hosted the monthly potluck and I guess our clean home and large screen TV offended the hippie sensibilities of the group.”

    We had unspoken who-brought-the-most-wholesome-snack contests in our inclusive group. I always came in last.

    On the subject of Christian homeschool conventions, which may be becoming more extreme (according to who you talk to)…

    A couple years ago, a popular Christian homeschool curriculum company, Sonlight, was mysteriously banned from participating in their annual homeschool convention as a vendor. I remember reading about it at the blog of Sonlight’s co-owner, who “finally decided to tell the story. Because I don’t think stories like this should remain hushed up. We need to know how our knowledge is being circumscribed.”
    His story is here: http://bit.ly/dbXhNY

    And, is it worth noting that leading Texas curriculum fracases (science and history) is David Barton, a popular keynote speaker at Christian homeschool conventions?

    Comment: boremetotears – 18. February 2010 @ 9:15 pm

  4. @boreme: That was a FASCINATING link to follow. FASCINATING. Thanks for that.

    Comment: Dale – 18. February 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  5. Dale, this is something we deal with on a weekly basis. I have learned to weed out the religious curriculum and have been able to find a lot that it very good and secular. I have ordered a lot from Rainbow Resource, they are Christian but carry lots of secular items. When I have called them they always end the conversation with “Have a Blessed Day” and I always feel a little surly after that but then I get over it.
    Our biggest problem has been finding friends. Most people assume that we are fundamental Christians. I have been invited to hundreds of Bible Studies in the last few years. On several occasions I have finally told them that I am not religious. After I “came out” I have been stood up (play date plans), I have been told that I was “dangerous”, I have been told that I am not raising my kids right.
    Recently, when I meet other homeschoolers I have started asking them right away, what motivates them to homeschool. If religion is their main reason, I don’t waste much more of my time or theirs.
    Having said that, I do have a very good homeschooling friend who is a pilgrim or something very fundamental…. She knows my feelings about religion and I know hers. We are both respectful of each other and it has never been an issue. I am thankful for her friendship, I think we both keep each other a little more open-minded.
    There are several groups on Facebook dedicated to secular homeschoolers.
    Thanks for talking about this issue Dale, it is important!

    Comment: deb – 18. February 2010 @ 11:59 pm

  6. @deb: You’re welcome. We also included a Q&A on secular homeschooling and resource links in Raising Freethinkers (pp. 217-19). I’m very glad to hear that good resources are more widely available. That didn’t seem to be the case a few years back when I first began hearing from homeschooling parents — or was it? I only knows what I’m telled in this particular area.

    Comment: Dale – 19. February 2010 @ 9:12 am

  7. Dale, Yes, I think there are a lot more resources these days, although, my oldest is only 8, so I can’t really speak to what was available before we started.
    We are what is considered ‘eclectic’ homeschoolers, meaning that we use a mix of curriculum, basically, whatever interests us! Raising Freethinkers has become somewhat of a textbook for ME, in planning what subjects we cover. I have 50 or so, mini post-it notes in my book, marking pages with resources, activities, movies, books, etc that I hope to include. I do a lot of what you discuss on pg. 55, concerning childrens’ literature.
    We have also been very dedicated volunteers at our local food bank and I consider this one of the most important areas of our homeschool week. The boys make bags of beans/rice/sugar/pasta and use math to divide a 50 lb bag into 25 2lb bags and then they weigh the bags. They take the initiative to ask the head volunteers what more they can do to help. They follow instructions and work with adults to complete a common goal. The natural learning and socialization that goes on here is beyond compare and much more rich and meaningful than anything I could come up with on my own.

    Comment: deb – 19. February 2010 @ 12:53 pm

  8. Dale: That was a FASCINATING link to follow. FASCINATING. Thanks for that.

    Even though my daughter went traipsing off to school this year, I still follow homeschooling as a cultural movement, because I find it fascinating, too.

    JJ: Hat tip to my homeschooling mole.

    Dang. You have your own mole?? I’m jealous. I want a mole.

    So, HOME bans the mention of ghosts, witches, and dragons? I didn’t know that. Well, that would never fly in Alaska, where folks like Sarah Palin are pastored by real-life witchhunters. (In fact, as I recall, the only reason that Sarah even became governor is because she had “every form of witchcraft” cast our of her. Whew. Dodged that bullet. Can you imagine how bad she’d be if she still had witches in her? [shudder].) At least, all hs conventions of which I’m aware allow ample mention of Angel-Gone-Wild, Satan; after all, if it weren’t for the Devil, homeschooling wouldn’t even be necessary.

    Afterthought: Doesn’t the Bible mention witches (“suffer them not to live,” yada, yada, yada)? Do they allow Bibles? I’m *so* confused – as usual.


    Comment: boremetotears – 19. February 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  9. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by MemingOfLife: New post @ Meming of Life: Secular homeschoolers: Darwinfish out of water http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3709

    Trackback: uberVU - social comments – 20. February 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  10. I guess it depends on where you are. I live in Northern Virginia and we have a very active secular homeschool community in addition to a religious one. And even the more religious oriented areas of the state have pockets of non-religious homeschoolers. I have never had any problem finding secular resources. But we tend to piece our curriculum together from various resources including the internet and library.

    We also have a very active inclusive statewide homeschool organization that stays neutral on matters of politics and religion which puts on a great inclusive homeschool conference as well as lobbying the state legislature (representing the diverse backgrounds of homeschoolers)…yes you will see some more religious oriented vendors, but there is also plenty for the secular folks (again inclusive means all are welcome, including those who are more religious). The sessions focus on general homeschool topics that appeal to all regardless of religious background. http://www.vahomeschoolers.org/conference/

    One benefit of homeschooling I have found is that I feel that it has given me a better appreciation and understanding of folks who homeschool for more religious reasons. VaHomeschoolers was founded by an evangelical Christian who believed that mixing politics and religion was harmful to homeschooling and wanted there to be an option of all homeschooling families in Virginia. The board (and membership) has consisted over the years of people from all sorts of faiths/non-faiths (evengelical Christian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, UU, humanist, atheist and probably more).

    I have found that there are a lot of more nuances than many of my more liberal minded non-homeschool friends tend to realize when it comes to how religious homeschoolers teach their children.

    I have also realized that my right to teach my child is dependent upon them having the right to do so. Imagine if tables were turned and only creationism was taught in public schools…would I feel that I had the right to keep my child home and teach them evolution? If so, then I need to support their right to teach creationism (I see this issue as similar to the free speech argument…I may not agree with what you have to say but I will fight for your right to say it).

    Anyways, sorry to go on. I realize that there are areas where secular homeschooling can be more isolating, but I do believe that the balance is shifting, especially as more people become less happy with the current schools. Just had to chime in and mention how supportive and wonderful I have found my homeschooling community to be. Would not trade it for the world.

    Comment: throwingmarshmallows – 20. February 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  11. @throwing: Yes, good point, and important to repeat. It is of course fine to bemoan methods and results, even as you affirm the right of parents to do it (as we have done here).

    Comment: Dale – 20. February 2010 @ 4:06 pm

  12. I’ve been all over the map in my feeling and thinking on this issue. Finally I settled on a theory that for me, explains the most the best so far — that it isn’t “religion” or lack thereof that really divides (or unites) homeschoolers.

    It’s what you believe about this world and how we should live morally here, that either brings us closer together or sets us up to fight each other at all costs. Authoritarians may be fundamentalists or not but for whatever cause, if you hold as natural truth that people are born bad, lazy, sneaky, greedy etc and must be forced, coerced, punished, trained and shamed into acceptable conformity and productive activity by larger, more powerful Authority, then you and I will not get along, I won’t work or vote for you nor consider you my kind — and stay away from my kids!

    In management theory, authoritarianism isn’t about Christianity nor any fundamentalist religion. It is simply Theory X. There are Theories Y and Z as well. How different would our parenting and homeschooling divides be, I wonder, if we used those constructs to align ourselves and just skipped the religious wars altogether?

    Comment: JJ Ross – 21. February 2010 @ 12:37 pm

  13. @JJ: Very well put. That’s precisely how Stephen Law describes it in The War for Children’s Minds — that the real divide is between liberal and authoritarian approaches to knowledge, ethics, etc. His concern with the religious framework (and mine) is that it constitutes an ultimate invocation of unquestionable authority — and THAT is what must be protested, not the fact that it’s “religious.” Sam Harris has also sought to refocus the debate in this way.

    The problem is that even when we carefully aim our critiques at outcomes, as I have done here, it will often be misread as religious wars. I wonder how we can get past that.

    Comment: Dale – 21. February 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  14. The irksome irony is, of course, that authoritarians behaving badly almost persuades me of their case, that nothing will straighten them up or even back them off, except a show of greater force . . .

    Comment: JJ Ross – 21. February 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  15. Btw Dale, your parenting beyond belief superpowers need to take note of this family in distress!

    ACcording to my daughter Superman is Better Than God

    Comment: JJ Ross – 23. February 2010 @ 11:20 am

  16. @JJ: Aack! Comment thread made my head hurty.

    Comment: Dale – 23. February 2010 @ 11:31 am

  17. Another fascinating connection: My daughter’s boyfriend has a family member currently in Paris working on his history dissertation and I just discovered today (via Facebook) it is on this topic!

    I am writing my dissertation on the image of the atheist in eighteenth-century France and Britain. I am basically examining the viewpoint of the atheist from the point-of-view of different groups of people–moderate and radical Enlightenment figures, Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, revolutionaries, conservative politicians, and atheists …

    The distaste for fundamentalism might be why you didn’t know about it. I tell people my topic and they tend to either assume I am an atheist (which I am not), or they assume it is atheist-bashing (which it is not). So I don’t tend to talk about it all that much unless someone asks… which you just did. 😉

    I am ending with the Revolution. I am spending tomorrow, actually, looking at hymns and songs that were written for the Cult of Reason and Cult of the Supreme Being, two competing “replacements” for the Catholic Church. Allegedly the Cult of Reason was atheistic. I am looking to find out if that is really true.

    Comment: JJ Ross – 23. February 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  18. *FASCINATING* topic and era!! Methinks yon daughter hangs with a very solid crowd.

    Comment: Dale – 23. February 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  19. […] a minority in the movement, and have to contend with a lot of hostility from the majority: Secular homeschoolers: Darwinfish out of water "If you think you face a challenge raising kids without religion in a majority religious […]

    Pingback: Yay! A creationist thread! - Page 2 - Fencing Discussion – 08. March 2010 @ 10:23 pm

  20. We’ve homeschooled our almost 13yo, since he taught himself to read at 4. For us, though we were both x-tian when we started (though I’m now atheist and my wife is still x-tian) we never did it for religious reasons. For us it was always about the education. My wife was finishing up her degree in early-childhood education as my son was teaching himself to read and it only took me sitting in on one philosophy101 class with her education degree completing classmates to question the quality of the teachers in the area. It was certainly perpetuated by him reading at a 5th grade level when he was 6 and the prospect of putting him in a classroom with classmates just learning to read was just unreasonable. My wife has, for many years, served as a homeschooling teacher for friends’ kids as well.

    The first time my wife talked me into coming to one of the local homeschooling conferences (I’m an anti-social IT guy, and hanging with the fundies didn’t appeal to me even then when I WAS an x-tian) she had me go sit through one of the sales pitches from a vendor first thing. As soon as I sat down Jedidiah with his Amish beard and ankle length denim dress wearing wife sat down in front of me… I still don’t let my wife live THAT one down. I have always given my wife kudos for the circle of homeschooling friends she formed early on (before kids #2 & 3 came along). For the longest time it was one x-tian married to a chinese mysticism, one muslim, and one semi-agnostic family we met with most often. Since then the X-tian + chinese mysticism has become more X-tian, the muslim family has divorced and the mom has become more agnostic, and I’ve de-converted though THAT has not been explicitly discussed with the kids yet (finally de-converted about a year and a half ago, after a couple years of gradually more liberal theology).

    With my de-conversion we’re facing the challenges of trying to agree on curriculum for all of our kids. I do a “dad class” with the big kid which is usually fostering his love of science (discussing articles in Scientific American or watching Teaching Company lectures and such) and pushing him to look at how others view the world by reading This I Believe essays. This summer I plan on doing a compare/contrast history read with him using A People’s History of the United States and A Patriot’s History of the United States. With the younger son I’ve read Daniel Loxton’s Evolution, Gomberich’s A Short History of the World, and recently started reading In The Beginning on the recommendation found in Parenting Beyond Belief.

    My main “hill to die on” for the oldest son is certainly his science classes. A couple years ago, as I was studying science more myself (always loved the subjects myself, but was in SDA schools all through high-school and was never given GOOD information, so I got to “discover” all the wonders of actual science all over again as I was getting into my 30s) he sent me an e-mail with a cut and paste from his science lesson of the day (from Switched On Schoolhouse) just to be goofy. I read it, realized the flaws in logic they were feeding him, and promptly replied with a discussion of what fallacies they were committing. After that I was prompted to push my wife (who I’ve generally let drive the curriculum purchasing as it IS her area of expertise) to find a more rigorous science class for him.

    We’re still working out the issue of Lab work, but when he qualified for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program we forked over the money for him to start taking his Physical Science class through their online system. After that class we found the same software to use for Biology (good content) available for substantially less money ($100ish vs $1200ish) because it wasn’t being run by JHU and he wouldn’t have a graduate student giving him extra work and help, which is what he’s using now.

    In general it is tough to be a secular homeschooling parent, and it’s probably even more wonky when trying to be the secular half of a homeschooling parenting team. There are a few of yahoo groups on secular and Atheist homeschooling… and Secular Homeschooling Magazine ( at secular-homeschooling dot com) as resources for those interested.

    Comment: CharlesP – 19. March 2010 @ 8:38 am

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