Religion and Education: Raising Humanist Kids

The American Humanist Association’s recent Kids Without God campaign (my thoughts here) has provoked a response from no less a sage than William Lane Craig, who charges that the site, while promoting critical thinking and questioning, “never encourages kids to think critically about the tough questions concerning the justification of humanism itself.” Humanists, he argues, “blithely extol the virtues of critical thinking, curiosity, and science, apparently unaware of the incoherence at the heart of their own worldview.”

At some point in the future I intend to take up the gauntlet Craig has thrown down, and seek to demonstrate that a thoroughgoing naturalism is reasonable and compatible with moral truths. But, needless to say, that would be a great endeavor, far too large to fit within the scope of one blog post. For now, then, I want to ask what our responsibilities are, as Humanists, towards our own children when it comes to their religious education.

We all know, for instance, that Richard Dawkins is of the view that referring to a child as a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child” is an absurdity and, in fact, may do damage to children’s minds. And, as such, he opposes the indoctrination of children into a single religious belief system and instead promotes the teaching of comparative religion according to a national curriculum (a position I broadly support).

In a decision so important as what religion to follow, it seems reasonable, as Dawkins suggests, that we ensure as far as possible that children have a free and informed choice, and are not expected simply to parrot the beliefs of their elders. Indeed, were I a religious person I think I would want the same, both because presumably I believe the case for my religion strong enough to defeat the case for competing religions and none (otherwise why would I hold to my faith?), and because I would recognize that to hold to a religious faith simply because I had never been exposed to an alternative makes a mockery of the idea of faith as a commitment: if I never had a choice, my commitment counts for little.

But – and here’s the rub – what if my children chose not to be Humanists? What if, after receiving their comparative religious education, they decide that Humanism isn’t for them? And, more pointedly, is it really my responsibility as a parent (hypothetically – no children have been inflicted with me yet!) to withhold my deepest beliefs and values from my children so as to honor their freedom of mind?

Those questions in turn. What if my kids became religious, and rejected naturalism for some other metaphysical scheme? I think the metaphysical commitments they took up would matter a lot less to me than their ethical values. If they decided to become progressive Christians and join a UU church, using the language of God to express their belief in social justice and the dignity of all people, I think I’d be quizzical but supportive. Sure, the God thing would be a sticking-point – perhaps the source of some heated discussions – but it wouldn’t represent an existential threat to our relationship.

On the other hand were my kid to start to exhibit wicked social values – sexism, racism, or (God-forbid – hah!) homophobia, for instance – I’d have a huge problem with that. If my kids grew up to become conservative Catholics, for example, that might lead me to seriously question the efficacy of my parenting and the values of my kids. It might break the relationship.

But, intriguingly, it would probably bother me just as much were the same regressive social views espoused by a child of mine who maintained their naturalism. It really is very little defense, against a charge of racism, to say “but dad, at least I’m a naturalist racist!” To me, the values trump the metaphysics (Felix Adler would have approved – a maxim of his was “Deed Before Creed”).

This leads to a possible response to the second question: can I really be expected to keep my Humanism from my children, and would it be a form of “indoctrination” to encourage my children to become Humanists? I want to answer “no”. Humanism, it seems to me, is fundamentally different to many other worldviews in a critical respect: it build the possibility that it is wrong right into its foundations. Looking at all three Humanist Manifetos, for instance, it’s striking that they all begin with a preamble which says ,essentially “this is not a dogma: it’s the best these human beings can do in this time or place. We’re probably wrong. Keep thinking.”

This difference really is critical: Humanism is not a faith. Humanism is unabashedly and proudly provisional, more characterized by a way of thinking about the world than by the specific outcomes of that way of thinking. Humanism is a process, not a doctrine. And I think teaching my kids this process – this humble, open-minded, critical, thoughtful way of coming to their beliefs is the very best thing I can do for them. If they later use these tools to conclude that, in fact, theism is more reasonable then as long as they have performed their investigations competently and in good faith, they would still be acting in accordance with the Humanist spirit.

William Lane Craig misses this because he is desperate to paint Humanism as “just another worldview like any other”, so that he can marshal his tired apologetics against it. But Humanism isn’t just like some religion: there are qualitative differences in the values it promotes and in the method it advocates to generate those values. And these differences, I believe, make it reasonable for me to raise my kids Humanist – even if others shouldn’t raise their kids religious.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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