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.

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.

  • Arthur Dobrin

    There are two levels of concern as a humanist.
    One is the metaphysical. I am a humanist because I believe that naturalism is a better explanation of things than is supernaturalism. So I support a naturalistic view of the universe and that which is in it.
    The other level of my humanism is the values that it promotes. These are humanistic values that can be shared by those who don’t share my naturalistic underpinnings.
    So bringing up a humanist child I hope that they will share both levels of my humanism, but if they reject the first level and accept a supernatural view, I may be disappointed and even confused but finally it is their choice. I am not understand it but I can accept it.
    If they reject the second level, then not only am I disappointed but I also reject it. Humanistic values are critical, not dispensable. So my children may wind up as good people Christians and I can still think of myself as having been a successful father. But if they wind up committed to reason but turn their backs on compassion, I must think of my fatherhood as a failure.

  • Chas Stewart

    I agree that you should be able to teach your children the principles and ideals of humanism but I don’t know what believers are supposed to do other than the same. A child (pre-pubescence) wants to be a part of the family unit and emulate their parents and if you are a believing parent then presumably that is a big part of your identity. Deed before creed is a wonderful way to lead one’s life.

  • o

    The thing is, part of raising children is teaching them right from wrong. If your child hits another child, steals something or lies to you, it’s your duty as a parent to correct them. Part of that correction is inevitably going to involve teaching your worldview. A religious parent might say, ‘stealing is wrong because it breaks a commandment’.
    So, even if you try not to idoctrinate your children, they’re going to absorb values from you, and with those values come a worldview.
    I’m a bit wary of the idea that humanism is special. I have heard people make similar claims for buddhism- that it’s a process of learning to understand the world, that there is no dogma. I think there are things about humanism that aren’t provisional. You cannot call yourself a humanist if you’re a serial killer, for example. It seems unlikely that humanists will ever conclude it’s okay to murder people.
    I think any religion can be taught to children in a way that leaves room for them to question. There are progressives in every faith. Many liberal Christians accept science and will let their children make up their own minds about god.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    The children of responsible Christian parents do have an extraordinary choice to make for themselves. To accept Jesus Christ as their Lord, Master and Saviour or to reject Him as such. Christian parents cannot compartmentalize their lives, leaving their devotion to their faith and their Biblical worldview out of their God-given responsibility of raising their children. It’s impossible. Christians are canon-minded and that necessarily guides all we do. Everyone serves some master, and live accordingly.

  • Josh Kutchinsky

    People the world over have come together to agree on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
    193 countries have ratified, accepted, or acceded to it (some with stated reservations or interpretations) including every member of the United Nations except Somalia and the United States.
    The US was involved in the drafting of the Convention and President Obama has admitted that not having ratified it is “embarrassing”. It is worth looking at why some Americans are very unhappy with the idea of the US ratifying the Convention see –
    If the upbringing of a child is in accordance with the Convention it will be in keeping with a humanist approach. The text of the Convention is well worth reading –

  • jamie

    “This difference really is critical: Humanism is not a faith.”
    - this makes it sound like humanism is compatible with faiths, as though they were mutually exclusive – eg. I can have faith and humanist beliefs run parallel… yet you would not agree.
    Humanism isn’t the only system to put deed before creed either… “Faith without works is dead.”

    • James Croft

      I think reading the rest of the piece makes it reasonably clear that a traditional definition of “faith” and my conception of Humanism cannot survive together. The very provisionality of Humanism works against the sort of firm, baseless belief which Humanists tend to think of when we use the term “faith”.

      As for your reference to churches which promote works as well as faith as a route to salvation, I find that a much more Humanistic view than teaching that salvation is based on faith alone. But don’t mistake that teaching for Adler’s view: Adler was quite clear that the only salvation to be found is in this world, and he meant that your metaphysical beliefs – whatever they are, theistic or not – were far less significant than your actions in the world. In a way his view was closer to the later verse in James:

      shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

      For him, the ethics, and the action they encouraged, was the faith.