Mother Daughter Chatting

My son Connor has always been a fantastically curious kid. When he was four, I watched him off by himself at the edge of our neighbor wading pool, oblivious to 60 other screaming, splashing kids, studying a tiny plant growing from a crack in the cement for a good 10 minutes. Fifteen years later, it remains a near-perfect snapshot of the way his mind works.

Even though I’m an atheist, we had Connor in a Lutheran preschool. In addition to academics and socialization, I wanted him to get a basic exposure to Judeo-Christian ideas. It’s a vital part of cultural literacy.

But there came a point when I wondered if he had picked up something else. One day in the summer of 2000 I was following him up the stairs of our home and said, “Connor, look at you! Why are you growing so fast?”

“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “I guess God just wants me to grow.”


That reply would have warmed a lot of parental hearts, but for me, it was more of a sudden chill. Not because of the mention of God—my wife was Christian, and religious explorations of all kinds were welcome in our home. No, this was something more basic: My son had given his first incurious reply. His shrug said that he didn’t have to care or wonder about his own transformation from infancy to kidhood—he’d handed off the knotty question to God.

I realized all at once that I needed to figure out a few basic questions about my parenting, including my approach to religion. I was an atheist raising children—but was I raising atheist children? Not a chance. I wanted to create a space around them to make their own choices. Did that mean I could never share my own thoughts about the biggest questions of all for fear of indoctrinating them? And what was the best way to approach conversations about morality, meaning, and death without the road map that religion provides?

I started looking for resources for raising kids without religion, something I thought must surely exist. Nearly 14 percent of Americans identified as nonreligious, and 37 million households had school-aged children. A conservative estimate of the overlap would suggest seven million nonreligious parents were dealing with the same questions I was. But try as I might, I could only find the occasional essay online and nothing on the bookshelves.

Five years later, Connor’s sister Delaney, who was encountering many of the same questions in the same Lutheran preschool, announced that she had finally figured out, as she put it, “the God and Jesus thing.” She had heard about them in class and had immediately begun crafting her own detailed theology to fill in the many gaps.

She told me she had decided that Jesus made all the good things in the world and that God made all the bad and scary things.

The next five words out of the mouths of many religious parents would be No no no no no—in that order—followed by a dose of theological castor oil to set the child straight. Few would let the day end with their child still entertaining the notion that God might be the source of all evil.

Some nonreligious parents do little better for the child’s independence of thought when they take the opportunity to say No no no no no—God isn’t real. In the process, both sets of parents will have substituted their authority for the child’s autonomous thought. Better to praise the independent thought and let the child run like mad with it. And in the five years since that moment on the stairs with Connor, I had learned how to do it.

Cool, I said to Delaney. I never thought of it like that.

The next week, she promulgated a revised encyclical: God, she said, makes all the things for grownups, and Jesus makes the things for kids. My favorite example: God made the deep end of the pool, and Jesus made the shallow end, for her.

I hugged her. “So God for me and Jesus for you, eh?”

“I guess so,” she said. “I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it.”

She was parroting one of my constant parental invocations there—the need to keep thinking, to never close one’s self off to further information. That doesn’t mean rolling up in a quivering ball of agnosticism. I also make it clear to them that it’s OK to say what you think is true.

A few months later, on the way home from preschool, she told me about a chat she’d had that day with her teacher. “I told Mrs. W I think God is just pretend. But I said I’m still thinking about it. And I asked if she thinks God is pretend.”

I looked at her in the rearview mirror, munching on the tart apple I’d for once remembered to bring for her snack, so innocent of the fact that she had stood with her toes at the edge of an age-old chasm, shouting a courageous and ancient question to her teacher on the far rim. My daughter hadn’t heard that there are unaskable questions. The very idea would puzzle her.

“So what’d Mrs. W say?” I asked.

“She said no,” Laney said, matter-of-factly. “She said, ‘I think God is very real.’ ”

“Uh huh. And what did you say?”

“I said, ‘That’s okay—as long as you’re still thinking about it, too.’”

Twelve years later, I still look at that sentence with awe. That’s okay, she said—because it would never occur to her that people must all believe the same—and then the call to continuous freethought, the caveat against the closed process. How many people of religious faith ever hear that their faith is okay only if it remains open to disconfirmation?

Kids typically receive indoctrination as a one-two punch. They hear ideas in Sunday School (“Baby Jesus cries when Billy lies”), from friends on the playground (“I prayed for a bike and God sent me one!”), or from the pulpit (“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). That’s the first punch. And you know what? I’m fine with the first punch. I like the first punch. I want my children to receive the first punch. The first punch is informational. It says, “Here is a thing that some people consider true.” Aside from the two abusive non-negotiables—hell and the demonization of doubt—kids have to hear that information before they can think about it.

It’s the second punch that is the cheap shot. And that punch, as often as not, is delivered by Mom and Dad over supper, when Billy presents the first-punch information and is informed of what he should think about it.

The moment of the question is, for want of a better word, a sacred moment, and one that parents fumble too much of the time Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in just over six thousand days. Think of that. A certain degree of gullibility necessarily follows. Kids are believing machines, and for good reason: When we are children, the tendency to believe it when we are told that fire is dangerous, that two and two are four, that cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on, helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults. The immensity of the task requires children to be “suckers” for whatever it is adults tell them. It is our job as parents to be certain not to abuse this period of relative intellectual dependency and trust.

The pivotal moment, of course, is the question. How we respond to the estimated four hundred thousand questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthdays will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow. Do we always respond with an answer – or sometimes with another question?

Do we say, “What a great question!” – or do we just fill in the blank? How often do we utter that fabulous phrase, “You know what…I don’t know!” followed by “Let’s look it up together” or “I’ll bet Aunt Bessie would know that, let’s call her”? When it comes to wondering and questioning, these are the things that make all the difference. We have 400,000 chances to get it right, or 400,000 chances to say “because I said so,” “because God says so,” “Don’t concern yourself with that stuff,” or something similarly fatal to the child’s will to find out.

I try my best to encourage reckless inquiry in my kids. To facilitate that, I want to keep them ignorant, for as long as possible, of the fearfulness that keeps so many people from asking certain questions. I want the idea that questions might be feared because of the answers they might produce to flummox my kids, to baffle them. I want them to find hilariously silly the idea that certain lines of thought must not be pursued.

That requires a certain amount of self-discipline. It requires the ability, for example, not to paint the far wall with soup when the five-year-old asks if monkeys have vaginas, or why black people have big lips, or who will put her blankie on her grave when she dies—all questions that have come out of preschoolers at our dining table.

Five years after the encounter on the stairs, I decided to write the book I had needed. But I knew I couldn’t do it alone: Writing a parenting book alone when all of your kids are nine and under would have been pretty cheeky. So in addition to my own thoughts, I pulled together 27 other writers with a wide range of experience and expertise, including the biologist Richard Dawkins, comedian Julia Sweeney, and educators, psychologists, philosophers, and everyday parents. In 2007, Parenting Beyond Belief was born.

Religion has much to offer parents: an established community, a defined set of values, a common lexicon and powerful symbols, rites of passage, a means of engendering wonder, comforting answers to the big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss. But for most secularists, these benefits come at too high a price. Many feel that intellectual integrity is compromised, the word “values” too often turned on its head, an us-vs.-them mentality too often reinforced. Religious answers are found unconvincing yet are held unquestionable. And so, in seeking the best for our children, we try to chart a path around the church. That’s what Parenting Beyond Belief is all about.

In the decade since the first edition, 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. A dozen other books have been written. There are hundreds of secular parent support groups nationwide. 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.

Now a new edition of PBB adds many of these new voices to the mix, 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 phenomenon of Sunday Assembly.

One thread runs throughout the book: 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. Raising them without the constraints of traditional religion can help, but that by itself is not enough. We also need to keep learning from each other how to do it well.

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