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glasshouse4993I’ve had several parents ask how best to deal with arrogance — especially in pre-teens, it seems — toward religious folks, especially extended family. “How do I keep my 13-year-old from sneering at other people for their beliefs when I frankly think they’re pretty darn sneerable myself?” That sort of thing.

It’s become such a common question that I included a story of mine in Raising Freethinkers–presumptuously inserting it into Jan’s otherwise excellent chapter titled “Secular Family, Religious World.” (Editorship has its privileges.)

In addition to clarifying the two different levels of respect about which I’ve blogged before — that ideas themselves have to earn respect, but people are inherently deserving of it — the best way to approach this is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) by inviting him who is without sin to cast the first stone.

I watch the odd bit of televangelism now and then. My son Connor (then 11) caught a few minutes of one program in which some outrageous thing was being foisted on a nodding throng. My boy reacted not to the idea itself, but by sneering at the people: “I just don’t understand how those stupid people can believe stupid things that make no sense!”

“Hmm, yeah.” I thought for a minute, then said, “Hey Con, could you go get me a Coke from the basement?”


“A Coke. From the basement.”

“I…but…” he stammered. “Why?”

“I’m thirsty. Please.”

“But…I can’t go into the basement by myself.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“I…I just can’t!”

“Oh,” I said gently. “And…does that make sense?”

I quickly admitted to several irrational quirks of my own, like my completely over-the-top aversion to dead things (unless grilled), and my steadfast belief that M&Ms melt in your mouth but not in your hands, despite constant evidence to the contrary. There are surely many more quirks and irrationalities I carry around, but being me, it’s hard to see them. Just ask Becca what they are — then cancel your appointments for the day.

Connor and I then went after the idea in question as we always do, but he was able to do so from a less self-exalted and slightly more empathetic perch — one fallible human thinking hard and well about the errors to which we are all prone, not some glowing eminence smirking at the foibles of creatures in the mud beneath his feet.

We all have irrational beliefs and fears. Jumping at shadows and seeing faces in tortillas is a direct consequence of our deepest wiring — and all the new software in the world will never completely fix that mess. It’s a good and great thing to try, to pull yourself as far up out of the muck as you can, but it’s delusional to ever think you’ve completely escaped it, or to sneer too thoroughly at those silly fools you imagine you’ve left behind.

Now before I get a dozen furious emails, let me be absolutely clear. Reasoned critique is a great thing, and I encourage my kids to go after any and all ideas on their merits. But eye-rolling arrogance toward those who support a given idea is not reasoned critique — and religious discourse is filled with examples of people on all sides who allow dismissive arrogance to cloud their judgment. Start with arrogance, saying, “I can’t believe how stupid they are to believe xyz” and you have one foot on Ray Comfort’s banana peel. Start instead with a little humility, saying, “I may be wrong about this, but…” and you have a much better chance of actually getting things right.

We all live in glass houses, no matter how thoroughly we think we’ve attended to our own rationality. And that’s not entirely bad. It can keep us humble and, as a bonus, increases our chances of thinking well.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.