Reading Time: 4 minutes

[continued from the open shelf]


“What does ‘humanist’ mean?” Delaney asked.

I swallowed. You’d think that, given my current work, I’d have sat myself down at some point and worked out guidelines for such inevitable moments:


Requests for Definitions

    iii. Term: “humanist”
      Subset 2: Age 5-6
          Children in this demographic cohort who make a direct request for the definition of “humanist” and/or any of its etymological class members (e.g. humanism, humanistic) are to be referred to Article 6, section D of the Humanist Manifesto, except in Arkansas and Hawaii.

        Lacking such a road map, I simply answered her question. In retrospect, to my surprise, I even answered it correctly.

        “A humanist is somebody who thinks that people should all take care of each other, and that even if there is a heaven or a god, we should spend our time making this life and this world better.”


        I should note that Laney (age 6) uses Awesome! to signify everything from “I find that rather astonishing” to “That’s something I didn’t know before, and now I know it!” The latter meaning was in play here, I think, the word Awesome! signifying a new piece of the world clattering against the bottom of the piggy bank of her receptive mind.

        Later that evening, after she’d been read to and sung to and tucked and kissed, I went back to my study to close up for the night. Scattered on and around the recliner she’d been sitting in were The Humanist Anthology, Tristram Shandy, The Kids’ Book of Questions, The World Almanac, The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, The Simpsons and Philosophy, Cosmos, and Bulfinch’s Mythology. I reloaded the shelves and went to bed.

        One week later, during our afterschool snack-chat, Laney informed me excitedly that there are nine different religions in her class.

        “Nine, wow! How do you know there are nine?”

        “We’re talking about different religions, and Mr. Monroe asked if anybody wanted to say what kind of religion their family believed.”

        I was not surprised to hear of some diversity. There are lots of South Asian kids in the class. Compared to the demographic mayonnaise I had pictured North Atlanta to be, I’ve been thrilled with the diversity here. “And there were nine different ones?!”

        “Yeah, nine…” She looked at the ceiling and began to rattle them off. “Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Baptiss, Jewish, Chains…” (“Chains” is probably “Jain,” one of the most benign and respectable religious traditions on Earth). She counted on her fingers. “Anyway, I can’t remember all of them.” She suddenly beamed. “And I was the only humanist!”

        I paused for a week or so.

        I am adamantly opposed to labeling children, or even allowing them to label themselves, with words that imply the informed selection of a complex worldview. Dawkins hits it right on the head when he refers to a long-ago caption on a photo in The Guardian. The photo was of three children in a Nativity play:

        They are referred to as “Mandeep, a Sikh child; Aakifah, a Muslim child; and Sarah, a Christian child” — and no one bats an eye. Just imagine if the caption had read “Mandeep, a Monetarist; Aakifah, a Keynesian; and Sarah, a Marxist.” Ridiculous! Yet not one bit less ridiculous than the other.

        That incisive analogy is Richard’s greatest contribution to secular parenting. I completely agree, as (I am increasingly convinced) do most nonreligious parents. Once a label is attached, thinking is necessarily colored and shaped by that label. I don’t want my kids to have to think their way out from under a presumptive claim placed on them by one worldview or another. So prior to age twelve, I won’t allow my children to be called “atheists” any more than I’d allow them to be called “Christians”–not even by themselves. (More on the ‘age twelve’ comment in a later post. Remind me when I forget.)

        So my first impulse was to give the usual cautionary speech: Now be careful not to stop thinking. There are still too many questions to ask, too much you don’t know. Someday you’ll be able to make up your own mind on this, but it’s not time yet.

        I looked at Laney, still beaming proudly through a mouthful of Nilla Wafers. At the time she had learned the meaning of humanist from me, I didn’t know she had said to herself, That’s me. She was obviously delighted to have had something to say when all the other kids were claiming their tribal identities, and clearly had no idea of the dark chain reactions set off in the fundamentalist mind by the word “humanist.”

        “So what did Mr. Monroe say?”

        “He said that was cool!” And I’m sure he did. He’s a great guy. No evidence of dark chain reactions in him, nor in her classmates.

        “And he asked what a humanist believes,” she continues.

        “What’d you say?”

        “I said a humanist believes the most important thing is to take care of each other and the world.”

        If she had called herself a secular humanist, I would have protested. But what is there about believing ‘the most important thing is to take care of each other and the world’ that requires more time and thought and study? Is she impeding her thought process by declaring this — or is this a value, like honesty and empathy, upon which she can build her search for an identity? There are, after all, both religious humanists and secular humanists. Erasmus and Paine, two great heroes of mine, were among the former.

        Humanism has no connection to atheism for her. The definition I gave her even included the option of believing in a god and being a humanist. By calling herself a humanist in the broadest terms, she hasn’t bought into complex metaphysics; she’s simply embraced a concept that even a six-year-old can sign on to. And in the process, she introduced her classmates, and her teacher, to a new idea, and associated it with her smiling, eager, proud little face.

        So Laney’s done it again — she’s taken my armchair abstractions and turned them inside out, making me realize that not all worldview labels are ridiculous or harmful for kids. Some can even serve as catalysts for the next stage in a child’s process of finding her place in the world. And the next stage, and the next.

        photo by Paula Porter

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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.