Selected Excerpts from
Parenting Beyond Belief

from the Foreword by Michael Shermer, PhD

I wish I would have had a book like Parenting Beyond Belief when I was starting out on this endless (and endlessly fulfilling) journey. It is choc-a-block full of advice, tips, suggestions, recommendations, anecdotes, and moving (and often funny) stories from a remarkably diverse range of authors who make you laugh and cry at the same time. This is the first book that I know of on parenting without religion. It is almost a given in our society that kids should be raised with religion, because if they aren't they will grow up to be juvenile delinquents, right? Wrong. Wronger than wrong. The assumption is so bigoted and breathtakingly inane that it doesn't deserve a debunking, but it gets one nonetheless in this volume, from nonbelievers of all stripes, who show how and why raising children without religion is not only a loving and ethical approach to parenthood, it is an honorable one.

from the Preface by Dale McGowan

This is not a comprehensive parenting book. It'll be of little help in addressing diaper rash, aggression or tattling. It is intended as a resource of opinions, insights and experiences related to a single issue — raising children without religion — and the many issues that relate directly to it.

You may also note a relative lack of prescriptive instruction. Although our contributors include MDs, PhDs, and even two Reverend Doctors, there's little attempt to dictate authoritative answers. Our writers suggest, inform, challenge and encourage without ever claiming there's only one right way. And a good thing, too – secularists are a famously freethinking bunch. It's the attribute that ended us up secularists, after all—that desire to consider all points of view and make up our own minds.

This is also not a book of arguments against religious belief, nor one intended to convince readers to raise their children secularly. This book is intended to support and encourage those who, having already decided to raise their children without religion, are in search of that support and encouragement.

from "Navigating Around the Dinner Table" by Julia Sweeney

One day we were walking home from the park with one of her friends, and the friend said, "Did you see your grandfather's spirit fly up to heaven when he died?" And my daughter looked at me and said, "Did it?" And I said, "No, we don't believe in things like that." And my daughter parroted me, "Yeah, we don't believe in that." And for a second she looked confident repeating me, and then her face crinkled up and she frowned and directed her eyes downward.

Suddenly I was seized with compassion for my little girl and how she will be navigating herself in a world where she will be a little bit different. I didn't have this burden. I was told what everyone else was told. Grandpas died and went to heaven. You would see them later when you died. Vague memories arose of my own childhood images of heaven, of a long dining table with a gold tablecloth and a feast. It was easier for me, in that way, than it will be for her.

from "Passing Down the Joy of Not Collecting Stamps" by Penn Jillette

Tell your kids the truth as you see it and let the marketplace of ideas work as they grow up. I don't know who said, "Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby," maybe it was Francis Xavier, or more likely The Amazing James Randi, but, some guy or gal said it, and it's a more important idea than any Jesuit ever came up with. You have to work hard to get kids to believe nonsense. If you're not desperately selling lies, the work is a lot easier.

My kids are really young, they're still babies, they can't even talk yet, but what the hell, we're still a little bit careful what we say. When someone sneezes we say, "That's funny," because it is. We don't have any friends who are into any kind of faith-based hooey, so our kids will just think that "damn it" follows "god" like "Hubbard" (or something) follows "mother." That's cool. That's easy.

from "Parenting in a Secular/Religious Marriage" by Pete Wernick, PhD

An atheist and a Catholic in a marriage? It's surely a head-shaker. The "soul connection" we'd had now felt to me more like a triangle. As a sociologist mindful of statistics, I knew well that marriages of religiously mismatched partners are less likely to succeed and generally "not recommended." I had a vague dread that we might have hard collisions of will, and a fear that deepening commitments would lead her toward patterns I might find intolerable. Indeed, in our marriage ceremony we acknowledged the threat of growing apart. Distressed, I started seeing a counselor and did a lot of complaining. The counselor settled on the mantra, "What are you going to do?" After weighing the agonizing alternatives, I finally knew I wanted to keep our family together, and make it work as well as possible. With that as the goal, there was a lot of hard work to do.

from "On Being Religiously Literate" by the Rev. Dr. Roberta Nelson

Unless our children are isolated and do not ask questions, they are bound to hear "stories" that are confusing, troubling, or raise additional issues. They will have questions: Who is Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed? What is the Bible; why do so many people think it's so important? Why did Jesus die? What is Passover, or Ramadan? Why doesn't Rachel celebrate Christmas, Halloween, birthdays? What is a savior? Where is heaven? Where will I go when I die? What's this about some people going to hell? Who is this God guy? Why do people say we have to believe in him?

These are some of the questions and issues that I have helped parents and young people deal with as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Included among these were many secular parents who came to the churches I served because they found it difficult going it alone. They wanted answers and ways of dealing with complex religious issues. They wanted an education for their children and soon realized they needed it for themselves as well.

Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from these questions – you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them. If you do not provide the answers, someone else will — and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.

from "Secular Schooling" by Ed Buckner, PhD

Every citizen benefits from separation of church and state or, in the case of public schools, from the separation of religious education from common public education. Despite myths to the contrary, separation is not a matter of being careful not to offend either people without religion or people who follow a minority religion. Nor is separation of church and state an anti-religious principle. "Secular" means "not based on religion"—it doesn't mean "hostile to religion." As every public school teacher and every parent should know, the purpose of separation is to protect religious liberty. As government becomes involved in religion, interpretations of the true meaning of "God" and "faith" inevitably drift toward one narrowly-defined denominational vision. Many Christian denominations in the U.S., including Baptists and Catholics, have actively supported separation to prevent their own religious identities being pushed aside by a different concept of God. The Southern Baptist Conference understood the point so well that it included separation of church and state as one of its founding principles.

from "Humanist Ceremonies" by Jane Wynne Willson

For families who hold no supernatural beliefs, a religious wedding or funeral service is quite inappropriate and can be an uncomfortable and even distressing experience. Those humanists who want to mark an important event with a ceremony, to give the occasion some formality, feel the need for a secular alternative free of religious association. The growth in the popularity of humanist and non-religious ceremonies in many countries at the present time is proof that there is a deep, though at times latent, need for such provision….

The beauty of our situation is that the way is wide open for any parents to create ceremonies that feel right for them and their children together as a family, if that is their wish. Humanists are not governed by convention or by church authorities.

from "Behaving Yourself: Moral Development in the Secular Family" by Dr. Jean Mercer

The early development of moral thinking and moral behavior choices is largely based on brief interactions. Children do childish wrong things, and parents provide ad hoc corrections. In early and middle childhood, parents are quite unlikely to instruct children on major moral issues, because the children are unlikely to do things that obviously involve major issues in a direct way. It is probably safe to say that no parent gives direct training on avoiding the most serious moral lapses—"Sally, when you go out to play, I don't want you to murder anybody. And Timmy, no raping—I don't care what the other boys do, it's not nice to rape people." Nevertheless, few adults do commit murder or rape, in part because they did receive direct instruction about related minor matters like hitting or pulling another child's pants down — instruction from which abstract moral principles may be derived as the child's reasoning ability matures. The whole process is a gradual one involving repeated experiences, rather than memorization of a list of "right things" and "wrong things," or the early mastery of universal principles.

from "Seven Secular Virtues" by Dale McGowan

Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels — and, by implication, to care. It is the ultimate sign of maturity. Infants are, for their own adaptive good, entirely self-centered. But as we grow, our circle of concern and understanding enlarges, including first family, then one's own community. But having developed empathy for those who are most like us, we too often stop cold, leaving the empathy boundary at the boundary of our own nation, race or creed – a recipe for disaster. Statements of concern for "the loss of American lives" in armed conflict, for example, carry an unspoken judgment that American lives are more precious than others, a serious failure of empathy.

Continually pushing out the empathy boundary is a life's work. We can help our kids begin that critical work as early as possible not by preaching it but by embodying it. Allow your children to see poverty up close. Travel to other countries if you can, staying as long as possible until our shared humanity becomes unmistakable. Engage other cultures and races not just to value difference but to recognize sameness. It's difficult to hate when you begin to see yourself in the other.

from "Dealing with Death in the Secular Family" by the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons

The human impulse to deny the reality of death is deep and ancient. It affects us all both as individuals and as a culture. Nevertheless, death confronts us all, including our children. One of the challenges of parenting is to introduce this subject and help them respond to it in developmentally appropriate ways. There is a great deal of helpful literature about how children deal with death, and both secular and religious children have much the same needs for reassurance and support when they begin to confront mortality. The particular challenge for secular families is the absence of comforting answers supplied by doctrines and images from various faith traditions. Yet by telling the truth, providing emotional comfort, and validating the child's own experiences, secular parents can give their children the tools to understand and accept death as a natural part of life and to find meaning in their grief.

from "Family Road Trip: Discovering the Self Behind My Eyes" by Amy Hilden, PhD

I became a philosopher in the summer of '69 in the back seat of a Chevy. Before you jump to conclusions, let me add that I was ten years old, riding along on the latest of many cross-country family road trips. In the days before electronic entertainment devices, before air conditioning was common in cars, before seat belt laws, I remember staring out the window, watching the telephone poles and meadows go by. There really was nothing else for me to do. I had been ordered by my parents to turn away from the sister whose all-too-sweaty body was leeching on to me and whose nasty barbs had injured me deeply for the very last time! So I just looked out there. And as I did, I began what would become a lifelong passion—wondering.

from "Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder" by Dale McGowan

A lot of people believe that you can't experience wonder without religious faith. The life of a person without supernatural beliefs is thought to be cold, sterile and lifeless.

If that were the case, this book would have to sound the alarm. Childhood, after all, is our first and best chance to revel in wonder. If parenting without religion meant parenting without wonder, I might just say to heck with reality.

Funny, though, how often I've experienced something that seemed an awful lot like wonder. It couldn't have been actual wonder, I'm told, since real wonder is said to come only from contemplation of God and a knowledge that he created all that is.

Call me Ishmael, but that never did much for me. I always found the biblical version of wonder rather flat and hollow, even as a kid. It never moved me even as metaphor, rendered pale by its own vague hyperbole.

Now try these on for size:

  • If you condense the history of the universe to a single year, humans would appear on December 31st at 10:30 pm. 99.98% of the history of the universe happened before humans even existed.
  • We are star material that knows it exists.
  • Through the wonder of DNA, you are literally half your mom and half your dad.
  • The faster you go, the slower time moves.
  • All life on Earth is directly related by descent. You are a cousin not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales.

Now that, my friends, is wonder.