Of all the books I’ve recommended to readers over the years, one that I’ve kept coming back to — because it’s so reliable, interesting, and useful — is Dale McGowan‘s Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (AMACOM, 2016). It’s a compilation of essays (written by several people) about how to tackle the various issues atheist parents have to deal with, a topic that I rarely saw addressed before this book came out.
How do you tell kids what happens after they die? Should you tell your kids about Santa if you oppose teaching mythology as fact? How should you handle holidays with your religious family? How do you teach kids to be ethical, decent individuals without the threat of God looming over them?
That’s just a sampling of what the book addresses. More importantly, the book never says a particular approach is the right one. It instead offers multiple perspectives on these matters, letting readers know it’s ultimately up to them.
The book was a surprise hit when it first came out in 2007, and I’m happy to say that Dale has released a revised and expanded edition of the book.
In the excerpt below, Dale talks about why this update was necessary. (I’ve added in links where I thought they would be helpful.)
When the first edition of this book was written in 2006, my children were 10, 8, and 5. Writing a parenting book by myself with kids that young would have been pretty nervy. So in addition to my own thoughts, I pulled together 27 other writers with a wide range of experience and expertise.
There was no question about the need for the book. Although millions were already raising their children without religion, there had to that point been virtually no resources to help them navigate the specific issues that arise from that decision. There were almost no nonreligious parent groups, online forums, or books for nonreligious parents in 2006.
It didn’t help that even the larger community of nonbelief was still finding its feet. The God Delusion, which helped bring the existence of the nonreligious into cultural awareness, was not yet released when Parenting Beyond Belief went to the publisher, and few specific nonreligious resources existed for many of the human needs religion has fulfilled for its own adherents, from processing grief and loss to organized volunteering and charitable giving to the creation of mutually supportive communities.
What a difference a decade has made. The religiously unaffiliated have grown from 15 to 23 percent of the US population, and a full third of Millennials (born 1981-96) now identify as nonreligious. Books, online resources, and organizations have risen up to meet the need of this growing population. More public figures have identified as nonreligious than ever before. And many political analysts credited the religiously unaffiliated as a deciding factor in the election of President Obama in 2012 — something unimaginable ten years ago.
The world of secular parenting has grown and matured as well. After Parenting Beyond Belief came Raising Freethinkers (2009), the practical follow-up, and a number of other books by and for secular parents, including Wendy Thomas Russell’s Relax, It’s Just God (2015) and Katherine Ozment’s Grace Without God (2016). In 2006, I could find only one small secular parent support group in the US; now there are hundreds. A tiny handful of secular parenting blogs and forums has given rise to entire networks and scores of articulate, insightful blogs by experienced secular parents. A group called Grief Beyond Belief addresses grief, loss, and talking to children about death, all in a nonreligious context. Foundation Beyond Belief gives secular families and individuals a nonreligious option for regular volunteering and giving, and Sunday Assembly has done the same for nonreligious gathering. In ten years, Camp Quest, the secular summer camp that had grown from 1 to 6 locations in the decade before the first edition, has grown from 6 to 16 in the decade since, including locations in the UK, Norway, and Switzerland. And the global Sunday Assembly movement, a brilliant and inspiring secular alternative to religious congregations, wasn’t even a glimmer in its founders’ eyes in 2006. Born with Sunday Assembly London in 2013, it has now grown to 70 Assemblies in eight countries.
The most common reader response to the first edition was, “I thought I was the only one raising my kids without religion.” Though many parents remain isolated on the local level, the last ten years have made it likely that they at least know they are far from alone.
Even though the community has grown, the issues remain the same: how can nonreligious parents find all of the undeniable benefits religious parents enjoy without the equally undeniable detriments of religion?
Approach and Focus
This is not a comprehensive parenting book. It will be of little help for dealing with diaper rash, aggression, or tattling. It is intended as a resource of opinions, insights and experiences related to a single issue — raising children without religion.
Although our contributors include experts in child development and education, there’s little attempt to dictate authoritative answers. Our writers suggest, inform, challenge and encourage without claiming there’s only one right way. This is also not a book of arguments against religious belief, nor one intended to convince readers to raise their children without religion. It is meant to support and encourage those who have already decided to do so, and to help them do it well.
Parenting is already among the toughest of jobs. Living secularly in a mostly religious world is among the most difficult social choices. Combining them can be daunting to consider. But it helps to realize that no matter where you live, even in an outwardly religious area, there are people around you doing the same thing. You might assume that every parent on your block, everyone cheering in the stands at the soccer game or walking the aisles of the supermarket, is a churchgoing believer. It’s the assumed default in our culture. But it isn’t true. Just realize that they are making the same assumption about you. You are not remotely alone — and given the recent explosion in nonreligious identity, you are even less alone than ever before.
Nearly half the content is new to this edition, including 17 new essays and dozens of new resource reviews. In addition to encores from Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Dr. Jean Mercer and more, you’ll meet such rising stars in secular parenting as Wendy Thomas Russell, Katherine Ozment, Neil Carter, Be-Asia McKerracher, and Libby Anne. We also have several new experts on board, including Dr. Marvin Berkowitz on secular moral development, Dr. Katherine Miller on evolution education, Dr. Phil Zuckerman on community without religion, Rebecca Hensler on secular grieving, and Sanderson Jones on the exciting global phenomenon of Sunday Assembly.
As before, one thread runs throughout: encourage a child to think well, then trust her to do so. Removing religion doesn’t guarantee kids will think independently. In order to really think for themselves about religion, kids must learn as much as possible about religion as a human cultural expression while being kept free of the disturbing idea that they will be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell based on what they decide — a bit of intellectual terrorism we should never inflict on our kids, nor on each other. They must also learn what has been said and thought in opposition to religious ideas. If my kids think independently and well, then end up coming to conclusions different from my own — well, I’d have to consider the possibility that I’ve gotten it all wrong, then. Either way, in order to own and be nourished by their convictions, kids must ultimately come to them independently. Part of our wonderfully complex job as parents is to facilitate that process without controlling it.
As the editor of this collection, I’ve encouraged the authors to retain their individual styles and approaches, even to articulate contrasting opinions on a given question, confident that you as a secular parent can handle the variety and would want nothing less. This is “big tent secularism,” offering many different perspectives on living without religion. The authors’ approaches are at turns soberly academic, off-the-cuff, inspiring, irreverent, angry, joyful, confident, confused, revealing and empowering. Skip around, dip and dive, and be sure to challenge your natural inclinations.
I hope you find this a worthwhile contribution to the bookshelf for those of us taking on the wonderful and humbling task of raising the next generation of people inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
Parenting Beyond Belief (the second edition) is now available on Amazon.