Christopher Hitchens and Freethinking Parenting At Its Best

One of our last, and by far the most touching, videos we have of Christopher Hitchens comes from the Texas Freethought Convention this past October. Watching him with the charmingly and precociously smart little girl in the video, he is downright grandfatherly:

Mason was interviewed afterward:

Why did you decide it was important to ask a question of Hitchens?

Because I had just found out that he was dying, and he’s a brilliant man. And I felt that his knowledge of the world shouldn’t be wasted, and that someone should continue what he started.

Where will he go when he dies?

Nowhere.

Did he answer you the way you expected to be answered?

Yes. He was very honest to me and very, very nice. I think all adults should be honest to kids with their answers and take them seriously. They’re living people, too. I especially hate when adults dumb it down for me.

So which are you, an atheist, an agnostic or a freethinker?

I wouldn’t say I’ve decided my religion yet. I’m going to kind of experiment around and see if there’s any religion I like in particular. But if I do decide to be a freethinker, the chances are very high. … I just want it all to make sense.

Read the entire Q&A. Mason also wrote a letter thanking Hitchens for the book recommendations:

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

Thank you for your kindness to me and all of the wonderful books you recommended to help me think for myself. Thank you also for taking my question very seriously. When I was talking to you I felt important because you treated me like a grown up.  I feel very fortunate to have met you.  I think more children should read books.   I also think that all adults should be honest to children like you to me.  For the rest of my life I will remember and cherish our meeting and will try to continue to ask questions.

Sincerely,
Mason

P.S. I would like to start with “The Myths” by Robert Graves.

And here is Hitchens’s autograph to her:

More coverage of the event, from the time, can be found at Why Evolution is True.

There is hope for the future. And Christopher Hitchens, a man who is for the first time now a man of the past and not of the most vitally pressing present, is in no small part to thank for that. And so are people like Mason’s Socratic Mama, Anne Crumpacker, who has a wonderful guest post on parenting over at Friendly Atheist:

Although “Hitch” had publicly cultivated an image of a biting social critic — privately he had three children of his own. I don’t know anything about Hitchens’ personal life or inner thoughts, but as a parent I hope he loved his children, his children loved him in return, and he had talked to them about his own belief that we go “nowhere” when we die. All responsible parents discuss mortality their children. It is our obligation when we bring them into this ephemeral mess called “life.” That way, from early childhood, we understand that the night is coming.

When Mason was born I made her three silent promises: to love her, care for her, and always tell her the truth. I suspect I am not am unique in these pledges. As a result, I have been savagely honest with her throughout the years, even when it was very difficult. I began as a Christian parent, but as Mason grew and started to question me about life, my faith crumbled. I tried the old stories I had grown up on, but I found myself admitting they no longer rang true. My questions trumped the old answers and I was unwilling to explain the mysteries of life with spiritual metaphors. But, how could I talk honestly about the certitude of death with my only child?

Read More (including Mason’s reaction to Hitchens’s death).

And for more advice and resources on being a freethinking parent, check out Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief website. Also read Richard Dawkins’s classic letter to his daughter. And PZ Myers’s “Dear Emma B” is another wonderful model of how to teach a child to reason.

A while back I also spelled out my own views on what to teach kids, in reply to Rod Dreher who had replied to some criticisms from me that he was teaching his children deliberately to rationalize rather than reason, as follows:

It seems to me that any parent who believes in a certain truth — either of religion, or even of atheism — would and should react the same way.  I understand better now why atheists in my town have established the North Texas Church of Freethought — in part for the education of their children in unbelief. I can’t imagine that a committed atheist would be happy if his son began to believe in religion.

In reply, I wrote:

I too am a big believer in freethinkers organizing counter-groups for community support and shared ethical education of children because it is clear that parents yearn for this sort of thing and these religiously neutral concerns frequently lead otherwise nominally religious or outright irreligious parents to church when they have kids.

Nonetheless, the point in either case should not be to indoctrinate or condition children’s wills in “belief” or in “unbelief.”  The point should simply be to teach children how to reason.  Children need to learn that statements require reasons to be asserted.  That claims require evidence, that public policies which affect other people need to be based on rational considerations that are publicly assessable by all those capable of rational inquiry.  They need to know that traditions and their myths and rituals have no special authority by virtue of their simply being traditions.  They need to know that it’s okay to disagree with their parents as long as they have reasons.  If I had a daughter and one day she came to me and said she had considered the arguments for deism and was a deist or the Buddha’s arguments on the self and had come to think the self was an illusion or that she had considered Christian notions of unconditional love and thought they made for a rationally defensible ethics—I wouldn’t blink an eye.  This is totally different than if she were to tell me she decided to believe on faith something her heart felt really strongly but which was patently irrational.  I would be disappointed, not because of the contents of her belief, but because of the fault in her intellectual character that she would accept beliefs so irresponsibly.

To that I would want to add that my ideal for parenting would be constant dialectic. Constantly just to ask my kids questions and let them figure out the answers. “You’re crying? It’s okay to cry. Let’s talk about why you’re crying. What happened? How did this happen? Why do you feel this way? What are our options? What will happen if we take each one of them? What will make the situation the happiest? What was our fault and what wasn’t our fault? What can we do in the future to have things go better, given what we do and don’t have control over? What should we do next?”

In reply to their questions, kids need completely honest information on a level they can understand and reasonably process. And then they need patient dialectic to help them sort through their ideas and their feelings in a way that trains them in methods for making sense of their world. They don’t need to be infantilized with lies, superstitions, or myths about how the world really works or they will be in arrested development (as so many of us are in so many ways) by the time they reach adulthood.

Life is difficult enough as it is. If kids’ parents can’t level with them, who ever will? Muzzled public school teachers? A profit-first media and advertising establishment committed to exploiting and exacerbating people’s weaknesses in order to manipulate them into spending money however possible? Religions which actively and deliberately train people in fallacious, anti-scientific, and anti-philosophical argumentative strategies?

Your Thoughts on Freethinking Parenting?

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=720170497 Michael Fisher

    Great article Daniel. Thank you!