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Times columnist Charles Blow

The column by Charles Blow in which I’m quoted is in today’s NYT. Among the many points is one of my favorites: “The nonreligious could learn a few things from religion.”

He’s right, you know.

He starts the column by quoting nonreligious friends who say “Most people are religious because they’re raised to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.” Blow seems to reject this idea in favor of the spiritual need argument, and supports that with the poor “retention rate” of the nonreligious.

But I think that’s only half the picture. It also makes sense that the worldview that does the least indoctrinating would end up with children who choose many different paths. I think that’s what’s up with kids raised outside of religion. And on the other side of the coin, the high “retention rate” for religious denominations could just as reasonably be interpreted as evidence of a high level of indoctrination.


One of the concerns I hear most often from nonreligious parents is “How can I keep from indoctrinating them to MY opinions?” I love hearing that. Give them a foundation of basic values — like humility, empathy, courage, honesty, openness, generosity, and gratitude — then let them decide what it adds up to. That’s freethought parenting.

Some of our kids will remain nonreligious, and others will choose religion, including some perfectly benign expressions. Still others may drift into religion and out again. As a parent, I’ll respond to my kids’ chosen identities on the same grounds as everything else: Are you happy, and are you making the world a better place?

At any rate, since Charles has thrown the ball in the air, it’s time as promised to post the talk I gave at Edmonds UU near Seattle last month, since the topic is the same. It’ll be in four parts. You’ll hear echoes from several other posts, since I use the blog as a farm team for my ideas. As always, thanks for listening.


Humanism 2009

by Dale McGowan
First delivered at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church, April 19, 2009

Despite the rather grand title of my talk, I don’t expect to offer any epic overviews today. I’d like instead to focus on one aspect of humanism today—the wonderful fault line currently running down the middle of the humanist community.

I call it wonderful because I think this fault line is a symptom of our growth and success as a worldview. Last year’s American Religious Identification Survey didn’t have a category for humanists, but fully one in five respondents claimed no religious identity. Most of them can be safely assumed to share the humanist or even secular humanist worldview. And when, within 20 minutes of assuming office, the President of the United States chose to include “nonbelievers” in a list of those to whom this country belongs—well, despite those who quibble with his word choice, it’s a pretty significant indication that nontheistic Americans, by whatever label, are gaining a greater place at the table.

But with that success come some challenges. Unity was less difficult before. When a group is small, huddled on the margins and threatened with extinction, there’s a tendency to worry less about what divides you than what unites you.

I remember a high school social studies teacher of mine describing the usual course of revolutions in these terms. While the revolutionaries are storming the castle, they tend to set their differences aside and unite against the common enemy. But if they are successful at gaining power, they immediately fragment into at least two factions, with the more radical accusing the other of “selling out” the ideals of the revolution.

It’s hard to find a revolution anywhere that hasn’t followed this pattern.

Though humanism is far from breaching the castle wall of our culture, I do think the fault line can be seen as a sign that we’re not quite so huddled on the margins anymore — that we’re beginning to reach a level of viability and maturity unthinkable just a generation ago.

Before I support that claim or elaborate on the fault line, we’ll need to define humanism.

I had to do this on the spot last year when my daughter Delaney, who was then six, read the word “humanist” on the spine of a book on my shelf and asked what it meant. You’d think that, given my current work, I’d have been ready for this, but parenting is all about being overprepared for things that never happen and surprised by things that do. The big surprise to me in that moment is that I not only answered her, but gave her what I continue to think was a really good answer.

“A humanist,” I said, “is somebody who thinks that people should all take care of each other, and whether there is a god or there isn’t, we should spend our time making this life and this world better.”

She immediately embraced the term herself and announced to her kindergarten class the next day that she is a humanist. When her teacher asked her what that meant, she gave the definition that I had given her—and several of her classmates in that Georgia school enthusiastically declared that they too are humanists.

Oh what I wouldn’t have given for a God’s-eye view of some family dinnertables that night.

Now I’m a humanist of a particular kind. I am a secular humanist. I believe that there is no supernatural being watching over us, and that’s all the more reason for us to care for each other and this world. No one else seems to be available for the job.

Many others call themselves religious humanists, including many UUs. Some of these use the word “religion” in the traditional way, which Webster’s defines as “belief in a divine or superhuman power to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator and ruler of the universe.” Others claim and redefine the word “religion” in ways that transcend theistic belief, building instead on shared values, community, and the desire to be and do good.

When I first discovered the label for what I had essentially always been – secular humanist – I considered the first word to be the more important. I had renounced not just theism but all of the institutional accretions that have built up around theism these many centuries, doing untold harm to the very world and people I care so much about.

As I’ve grown in my secular humanism, I’ve begun to value the second word more strongly than the first. And nothing illustrates the reason more vividly than the picture of all those hands racing skyward as Georgia kindergarteners enthusiastically embraced the idea of humanism—if only until dinnertime.

[Continue to Part 2.]

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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.