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mkay329881I had an unusual interview two weeks ago.

I sleep through most media interviews now, since the questions tend to be the same, and in about the same order: Tell me a little about your book, Why do nonreligious parents need their own separate resource, How do you deal with moral development, How can you help kids deal with death without an afterlife, Isn’t it important to believe in something greater than ourselves. Before I know it, I’m being thanked for a fascinating hour I can’t quite remember.

It’s a bit like teaching. In my last few years as a college professor, I’d hear my brain stem doing the teaching while my neocortex was planning dinner. I’d come back just in time to dismiss. That’s when I knew it was time to do something else.

But the interview two weeks back snapped me out of my usual snooze. I was a little wary anyway, as the station runs syndicated neocon culture-warrior nonsense of the Medved/Prager variety most of the day. Even so, I was not prepared for the very first question to come out of the host’s mouth:

“Without a higher power,” he asked, “how are you going to keep your kids off crystal meth?”


Now I can see this kind of thing coming up at some point…but right out of the starting gate? This, of all questions, was knocking on the back of his teeth? When he heard he would be interviewing a nonreligious parent, the first thing that bubbled up was, “B-b-but how’s he gonna keep them off meth?”

I answered that instead of a higher power, I encourage my kids to engage these questions with the power of their own reason, the power of their own minds. There are many compelling reasons to stay away from self-destructive things, after all — including the fact that they are, uh…self-destructive.

He threw it to the other guest, a minister at a private junior high school, who answered confidently that the higher power was the one and only option. Without Jesus, he’d have no way whatsoever to keep his kids from whirling out of control and into the black abyss. Only by staying tightly focused on biblical principles, he said, can kids avoid utter annihilation.


Ready for the follow-up? Trust me, you’re not:

“Now Dr. McGowan,” said the host with a chuckle, “I gotta tell you, when you talk about the Power of the Mind, it sounds an awful lot like Scientology to me. Can you tell me what if anything distinguishes your worldview from Scientology?”

What, if anything.

This is what we’ve come to as a culture. When you advocate teaching kids to reason things out, it sounds to some like the process of auditing past lives to become an Operating Thetan, casting off the evil influence of Xenu (dictator of the Galactic Confederacy) and battling the alien implants from Helatrobus that seek to control our thoughts and actions.

I apologized for being so very unclear, assured him I had intended to evoke nothing alien, supernatural, or magical by encouraging my children to think. I’ve also never “informed” them, a la Mr. Mackey in South Park, that “drugs are bad, so you shouldn’t do drugs, m’kay?” That’s commandment-style morality, and it’s weak as hell. Instead, we’ve talked about what they stand to lose, what others have lost, how addiction works, and what a fragile and fantastic thing the mind is.

I remember drawing that last connection vividly as a teenager. I knew that my mind was the key to any eventual success I might have, an asset to protect. I didn’t want to risk screwing it up for any kind of pleasure or thrill, and drugs were just too unpredictable in their effects. It was a simple risk analysis, clinched by the death of my dad as an indirect consequence of smoking. I got the message: When you put poisonous stuff in your body, you risk too much for too little. And I never touched so much as a cigarette. My kids have received that same message: Grandpa David never got to meet them because he became addicted to poisonous stuff, couldn’t stop, and paid with his life.

I came out of my study after the interview and Connor (13) asked how it had gone. “A little weird,” I said, “but fine.”

“What was weird?”

I looked him in the eye. “Well, his first question was how I’m going to keep you guys off crystal meth without religion.”

“Pfft,” Connor said. “As if it’s an issue.”

It was nice to hear his quick, dismissive snort. I know my kids really well, and though anything’s possible, I don’t see drugs as a serious threat. In addition to reasoning through it, we’ve talked about craving and addiction — that your body can be chemically tricked into thinking it needs the drugs, and that this can be hard to reason your way out of once you’re in the middle of it. That, plus a number of personal, family, and community assets, kept me from using. And all without a Savior in sight. I figure it has a good chance of working with my kids as well.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that both the host and the minister had gone through the requisite “lost years” of sex and drugs, only to be gloriously saved by coming to Christ. It can and surely does work for some. I’d just love to hear someone on that side acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways as well — ways that involve no magic, no demigods, no thetans, no fervent, focused distractions — just the ability to draw on our own natural resources.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...