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humanist community

You may have seen the article in TIME Magazine about the weekly children’s program at the Humanist Community in Palo Alto, California:

On Sunday mornings, most parents who don’t believe in the Christian God, or any god at all, are probably making brunch or cheering at their kids’ soccer game, or running errands or, with luck, sleeping in. Without religion, there’s no need for church, right?

Maybe. But some nonbelievers are beginning to think they might need something for their children. “When you have kids,” says Julie Willey, a design engineer, “you start to notice that your co-workers or friends have church groups to help teach their kids values and to be able to lean on.” So every week, Willey, who was raised Buddhist and says she has never believed in God, and her husband pack their four kids into their blue minivan and head to the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif., for atheist Sunday school.

All in all a positive piece about what seems to be a lovely program by a very strong and positive group of folks. Very few wincers in the article.

It’s unfortunate but predictable that the response in many fundamentalist religious blogs has been jeering and mockery. Albert Mohler (president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) called it an “awkward irony.” Others have claimed that the fact that atheists spend so much time denying God is “proof that God exists,” or found the idea otherwise worthy of contempt.

I’ve looked in vain (so far,anyway — please help me out) for a Christian blog that says what I think is obvious, and what is essentially stated in the article itself: that this represents an enormous compliment from secular humanism to Christianity. Systematic values education for children is something they’ve developed much more successfully than we have. And for good reason: they’ve had a lot more time, centuries of development and refinement. We humanists have always attended to the values education of our kids, of course, but until quite recently it has mostly taken place at the family level. When it comes to values education in the context of our worldview community, Christians have had more practice. In the past generation, such efforts as UU Religious Education, Ethical Culture, and the Humanist Community program have begun closing that gap in the humanist infrastructure.

One of the most marvelous and successful programs in the world is the Humanist Confirmation program in Norway. According to the website of the Norwegian Humanist Association, ten thousand fifteen-year-old Norwegians each spring “go through a course where they discuss life stances and world religions, ethics and human sexuality, human rights and civic duties. At the end of the course the participants receive a diploma at a ceremony including music, poetry and speeches.” They are thereby confirmed not into atheism, but into the humanist values that underlie all aspects of civil society, including religion.

norwegian humanist confirmation

All of these secular efforts at values education can be seen as an evolution of religious practices, opening conversations about values and ethics while working hard to avoid forcing children into a preselected worldview before they are old enough to make their own choice. And though the practices themselves often have religious roots, the values themselves are human and transcend any single expression.

Instead of mocking and jeering, I’d like to see Christians recognize and accept these adaptations as genuine compliments. Perhaps the first step is for humanists to say, clearly, that they are meant as compliments. I can’t speak for the Humanist Community, nor for the Norwegian Humanists, but I can speak for Parenting Beyond Belief. The Preface notes that

Religion has much to offer parents: an established community, a pre-defined set of values, a common lexicon and symbology, rites of passage, a means of engendering wonder, comforting answers to the big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss.

Just as early Christians recognized the power and effectiveness of the Persian savior myths and borrowed them to energize the story of Jesus, there are currently things that Christians do much better than we do. I’m preparing a post on that very topic. We should not be shy about considering their experiments part of the Grand Human Experiment, setting aside the things that don’t work, with a firm NO THANKS, then borrowing those things that work well, and saying THANK YOU — much louder and more sincerely than we have done.

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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.