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.