Recap: Parenting Beyond Belief

by Clayton Flesher

On Sunday, June 23 the OKC Secular Parenting Group, a meetup group that has been around since 2010, held a secular parenting workshop called Parenting Beyond Belief with author Dale McGowan at the First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City.

Dale McGowan is the editor and author of several books, including two on secular parenting; Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. The workshop is based on adapting the practical methods outlined in Raising Freethinkers and providing atheist, agnostic, secular humanist and freethinking parents with tools for addressing issues unique to them.

For those wondering why a bunch of atheists were having a meeting at a church, Unitarian Universalists (UUs for short) are about celebrating diversity and supporting social justice, and not so into pushing any particular theological doctrine. Having the workshop at a church ensured that childcare facilities were readily available.

I spoke to Christi Dawson, the founder and co-organizer of the OKC group, about Dale McGowan and the workshop. Members of the Secular Parenting Group held a garage sale in the spring to raise the money to cover the costs of the workshop, to great success. Along with sponsorship by the Evan Taylor Law Office, they raised enough to ensure that they could have it at First Unitarian, cover the cost of bringing in Dale McGowan, and provide child care, all while making the workshop free for all who wanted to attend.

McGowan broke his workshop up into five broad categories: understanding religion, extended family, community, raising powerfully ethical kids, and death and life.

You might be surprised to find out that atheist and agnostic parents are being encouraged by a fellow atheist to make sure their children are well-grounded in religious literacy. McGowan strongly emphasizes what he calls ‘genuine freethinking’, an idea he talked about the day before in a speech at the FreeOK conference. McGowan argues that having a firm grasp in what different people believe about big questions, like how the world came to be and the meaning of it all, is necessary for an informed decision about one’s own worldview.

Religious literacy also helps avoid the “teen epiphany,” where a young person who is dealing with the isolation and instability of their teen years might be handed all of the answers to their problems on a silver platter. “That isn’t how you get people who are mild in their faith,” said McGowan. “It is how you get fundamentalism.”

McGowan pointed out that, while it isn’t bad for a child to see the inside of a church every now and then, attendance at church isn’t how you become religiously literate. Instead, he encourages exposure to multiple religions at every age in small bites. Parents should read books that have myths to the children, such as In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and show them age-appropriate movies that tell the stories of a religion and convey some of the beliefs, such as Little Buddha and The Prince of Egypt. Personally, I can’t wait to show my daughter, lover of all things musicals, the psychedelic Jesus Christ Superstar.

Another major theme of the day, and the one that prompted the most questions from the attendees, was how to deal with a religious extended family. The tightrope that many secular parents walk is trying to raise their children without indoctrination, but also maintaining a good relationship with family members who are excited about sharing their faith traditions with the children. McGowan encouraged parents to be proactive about engaging family members with these concerns.

“The goal is not victory but détente,” McGowan said. You want to de-escalate any hostility and try to include trusted family members in religious education as much as possible. Parents should “make a show of accepting and valuing the benign rituals” of family members. The only line that McGowan drew with his family was that they couldn’t teach the children about hell. “I don’t play fair with hell,” he said. “You have to convince [my children] without scaring them.”

An issue McGowan didn’t talk about much, but one he is thinking a lot about right now is mixed households where one parent is religious and the other is not. He is currently working on a book on that very subject. McGowan is quick to point out that these situations can work, and he is proof. He lived in a mixed home for a number of years before his wife left religion as well.

McGowan is actually recruiting couples in mixed households to fill out a survey for research that will go into the book. He wants as many religious and nonreligious people to participate as possible.

Many secular parents, especially in the Bible Belt, have heard nightmare stories of teachers and administrators trying to push particular religious viewpoints in the classroom, regardless of the legality. McGowan gave parents tools for addressing those situations, including links to organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United For Separation of Church and State, that will work on a child’s behalf to help resolve these issues when they arise.

The more complicated and heart-wrenching situation for a secular parent is when their child comes home from school and says that their friends have been telling them they are going to hell. McGowan gave parents useful responses for dealing with these situations. For example, he encouraged his children to say, “It’s OK for people to believe different things” and “I can change my mind 1000 times.” Ultimately, McGowan encouraged parents to be proactive in teaching the value of diversity of belief, but also to relax. Children tend not to take these things as seriously as adults, and they’ll usually make up.

Teaching values like diversity of belief also fell under the raising ethical children portion of the workshop. McGowan presented attendees with research showing that concerns for fairness and human welfare are independent are universal, not products of any particular religious or cultural teaching. Children also develop moral attitudes at roughly the same rate around the world. McGowan quoted Larry Nucci, Director of the Office for Studies in Moral Development at UI Chicago in saying, “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion. But if it’s simply indoctrination, it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.” That goes for whether the indoctrination is atheistic or religious.

McGowan contrasted authoritarian parenting styles, that emphasize conformity and rules that don’t require explanation, with authoritative parenting styles, that emphasize explaining rules and decisions while having consistent limits and predictable consequences. He cited multiple studies, but the most memorable one was interviews with Germans following WWII who had either helped oppressed groups escape or hadn’t. Those who had chosen to violate the law and follow what they believed to be right consistently reported having grown up in households where rules had reasons that were explained. Apparently, this helped them have the ability to evaluate the ethics of rules instituted under the Nazi regime, and choose not to follow them. Children who are encouraged to practice active moral reasoning grow up to be adults who are better at moral reasoning.

The final issue covered at the workshop was death and life. Death is a particularly complicated issue for secular parents, because they don’t have the same balms of religious people. McGowan began by arguing against three myths: that religion cures the fear of death, that children aren’t good at thinking about death, and that we should be comfortable with death. The first two seem obvious, but many atheists claim that they’ve overcome the fear of death. McGowan finds this unlikely in most cases, and points out that fear of death is just part of the human experience. He encourages parents to avoid hiding the concept of death from young children, and to talk about it openly. Pets, fish in particular, are a useful way for parents to introduce their children to death.

If a child becomes obsessed with death, McGowan says parents should talk about how far away it is for both the child and parents, to correct misconceptions about nonexistence and to emphasize that death is much like returning to the way things were before he or she was born. For secular people who don’t believe life was preordained, we are amazingly lucky to be here at all. Giving a child context for just how amazingly lucky we are to have been born in the first place, can put death in context as the price we pay for getting to live.

McGowan provided attendees with resources on all of the topics he covered, including a religious literacy film list broken up by appropriate ages for viewing, book lists for both children and adults, and online resources. You can find Dale McGowan’s blog, The Meming of Life, on his website, along with links to other writings and resources for secular parents.

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