Dale McGowan on Raising Freethinking Kids

I don’t have children and never will, but I think Dale McGowan’s talk at FreeOK on how to raise freethinking kids is spot on. And it’s remarkably similar to my own upbringing, from the mixed religious marriage (atheist father, Christian mother, just like he and his wife were).


I think he’s absolutely right that the most important thing is to teach them how to think, not what to think. Instead of teaching them to be atheist, teach them to question everything — including you and your ideas — and to come up with and express their own views. My father did exactly that with me and I am very grateful for it. I was raised by him, an atheist, and my Pentecostal stepmother (I lived with my dad rather than my mom after they divorced when I was very young). In my early teen years, I became a Christian. I was part of the leadership of the local Youth for Christ and I was quite serious about it. And not once did my father ever dispute me over it. He never suggested that I was wrong. Around 17, I began to question my faith and, over the course of the next couple years, I did a great deal of research and ultimately decided that the evidence did not support it and I left Christianity behind.

Many years later, I asked him why he never challenged me. He knew I was wrong but he never told me that. He never tried to undermine my beliefs at all. His answer: “I just figured that I had raised you to think for yourself and you’d eventually figure it out for yourself. And you did.” And he’s right, I did. He raised me to think for myself by always talking to me like an adult, always, even when I was a small child. And by surrounding me with books on every imaginable subject. And by giving me a love of words. And by teaching me to question not only ideas and other people but myself as well.

He had a phrase I remember hearing many times growing up: “Do your own therapy.” By that, he meant to question your own motivations and thoughts. Why do I feel that way? Is it a justified way to feel or am I just being defensive, or simplistic, or selfish? Why do I believe in this? Is it supported by the evidence or is it just wishful thinking? That formed the basis of my entire intellectual development (and emotional development, for that matter). It’s why I was able to find my way out of a false set of beliefs, because he had laid the groundwork for that by teaching me to think for myself.

I think this talk demonstrates very well why I am so happy and proud to work for and with Dale. He’s a lot like my father. My dad has always spoken about wanting to start his own church called the Church of We Do Good Things. No doctrines, no dogma, no supernatural nonsense, just the belief that we have to help one another whenever we can. And that’s exactly what Dale did with the Foundation Beyond Belief. As far as I’m concerned, Dale should be the public face of atheism. He represents this movement with enormous intellect, eloquence and a basic humanity that is not nearly as common as it ought to be.

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  • Ed:

    For the ReiKKKtardliKKKlan fundies, “Freethinking” = “Freebasing”, it’s just freebasing on the religion of atheism instead of cocaine.

  • sisu

    I think he’s absolutely right that the most important thing is to teach them how to think, not what to think. Instead of teaching them to be atheist, teach them to question everything — including you and your ideas — and to come up with and express their own views.

    This is something I go back and forth on in my own parenting. (I have 2 daughters, ages 6 & 4.) While my goal is to raise them to be thoughtful and critical thinkers, there are some issues that I do see as black and white, right and wrong. And for those, I do not hesitate to tell them my opinion. I always tell them why I hold it, but I definitely let them know what I think is right.

    For instance, I live in Minnesota; as you know, we had an anti-marriage amendment on our ballot in November, and then passed marriage equality in May. I feel very strongly that marriage equality is just the right thing to do, so we had bumper stickers and lawn signs and hosted and attended fundraisers. When the Senate was ready to pass marriage equality, we all took the day off from school/work and went to the capitol to celebrate. When I talked to my girls about marriage equality, I presented it as “Some people think that only a man and a woman should be able to get married. But your daddy and I think that is not fair. We think that two men or two women should be able to get married to each other if they want to, like (our neighbors). So we want to change the law so that (our neighbors) can get married if they want to.” I have no problem with teaching my kids that marriage equality is right, you know?

    The other concern I have with “teaching them to question everything” is that it does somewhat feed into the idea that as atheists, we have no way to teach our kids morality because there is no Ultimate Moral Law laid down by God. I definitely don’t think that any of the atheist families I know are teaching our kids to be little sociopaths who are only concerned about themselves, and disregard anyone else’s wellbeing. Just noting that this idea can be misinterpreted to feed into that misconception.

  • I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of him. I like him. He reminds me of a combination of Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    I recently (last week) discovered Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” series – whose protagonist is a young troublemaker named Dane McGowan.

    Thanks for helping me understand why that monicker was almost triggering a recollection. (As personalities, they don’t seem to match very well at all…)

  • My husband and I, both atheists since forever, have a 20 year old daughter, also atheist, but by her own choice. We did not indoctrinate her to atheism; we provided an environment where inquiry, discussion, and ideas are valued; we provided her with access to all sorts of literature and information; and we encouraged her to think for herself. She chose to read the Bible when she was about 14, just because she was curious. At the end, she said, “What a load of shit!” and her atheism, which had been essentially guaranteed because we had not introduced her to any religious information, was confirmed [haha, no pun intended, but I like it!].


    Three things, I think, were important in raising her to think for herself. In no particular order:


    First – Commercial television – We chose not to have access to cable or broadcast TV until she was about 9 or 10. Then, we would watch with her, especially to watch and discuss the advertisements. This was a fascinating exercise, to dissect the advertiser’s intent, and to pick apart the methods used to persuade, convice, and sell. This was helpful in teaching her to question the media, to question what is presented as truth, to resist mass marketing not only of stuff but of ideas, and to decide for herself what is useful and relevant to her life. In other words, not to go along with things just because they’re popular or perceived to be important, or because an advertisment is persuasive or interesting or cool.


    Second – Handling questions – We encouraged her to ask, explore, wonder. When she sought hard info or facts, we gave her straight answers (e.g., when she had questions about sex), and/or showed her where and how to find information online, in the library, etc. When she asked questions about ethics, philosophy, etc., we turned the question back: “What do YOU think? Let’s talk about it.” This affirmed and validated her existince as a thinking person, even when she was just a tiny girl of three or four. And in the conversations that ensued, we as parents had an opportunity to share our values (such as in the excellent example sisu gave above) and explain why we, her parents, had made certain choices or supported certain leaders, ideas, etc. To this day, I love it when she prefaces a conversation with the phrase she’s used since she was about five: “Can I ask you a question?” 🙂


    Third – Books, and by extension, online resources – We did not censor or limit her reading material. Kids generally read only what they can understand, anyway, so she adjusted her own reading choices to her developing intellect and maturity. We have read many, many books together (aloud or otherwise), and we have had some of our best discussions about the books we’ve read together. Difficult books. I remember when she was about nine, some town or other banned Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” from the library and/or schoolroom because it includes (naturally) many instances of the word “nigger.” She heard about this and was curious. So we read the book together, aloud, and figured out Twain’s actual message of reconciliation and love. We thought for ourselves! We followed that with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and had more excellent discussion of race, family relationships, drug addiction, rape, the law, etc. I cannot emphasize enough the role of books in the raising of our child. Might not work for everyone (not everyone loves to read), but it was wonderful for us. Now, we share articles and favorite blogs, continuing our conversation and our explorations. And I am very proud that she has been a leader in this regard, opening our minds to ideas, people, and perspectives that are new to us.