After my contribution to the ongoing discussions on Patheos Atheism about how to introduce religion and atheism to kids, Dale McGowan made an excellent contribution called Raising (Actual) Freethinkers that I each agreed with, learned from, and wanted to differ from. In my first post I primarily framed things as a rejection of the common “strict neutrality” approach Wendy Thomas Russell had typified. Dale’s position also rejects “strict neutrality” (it’s okay to be frank about what you think and your reasons for it) but encourages the kids to go ask someone who disagrees with him out of a spirit of having them check multiple sources and work out their own opinions and learn through the process how to be freethinkers.
And Dale’s argument is compelling. He has trusted his kids and in practice given them the autonomy to go reason through religious options and racist options and whatever other options Dale rejects and come out knowing exactly why, through their own investigations such options fail. So, Dale’s suggestion is (a) if you want to raise freethinkers let them free-think their way there and (b) there’s no firmer and better equipped atheist than one who worked it out for themselves, so if that happens to matter to you, trust your kids to figure it out for themselves. He claims that if you don’t let them decide even whether harebrained ideas are true then you’re just tying the truth up in neat packages for them instead of giving them the autonomy to think for themselves. The thing to do instead is just to teach them to think critically, give them a love of reality, and set them loose. The answers are obvious enough anyway that the only difference is going to be that they have answers based on reasons they know rather than on authority.
And since Dale has not only raised several children who are not only atheists or agnostics but, more importantly, generally thriving to all appearances he has an ace in the hole. That’s even before we talk about the ten years of research he’s done or mention the fact that he’s literally written the book on atheist parenting. (And he’s not above a blatant appeal to authority in pointing out that these things make him an expert where we non-parents/non-researchers aren’t.)
So, what’s to disagree with in Dale’s approach? Let me say, first off, I only differ from Dale and Libby Anne in some of the nuances and not only are they my favorite too people to read on the subject of parenting but (not coincidentally) they’re two of my favorite people in the whole atheist movement. Because I’m passionate about education. I’m passionate about opposing authoritarianism as much as rejecting anything else about religion. And I wholeheartedly believe that a world of autonomous and empowered people begins with non-authoritarian parenting above all else. That’s how you raise philosophical and responsible people. You love and respect the shit out of your kids and then whether you’re religious or not they wind up with their best odds of being not only critical thinkers, but happy.
And I haven’t the slightest doubt Dale and Libby Anne love and respect the shit out of their kids and are raising happy critical thinkers, empowered to be themselves. And I say this knowing full well that Libby Anne’s five year old presently has decided she believes in several gods. I find that adorable and chuckled when she told me that. (Personally, at that age I had tons of imaginary friends, mostly imaginary children, some of whom had grown up and retired and moved to Florida already. So, while Dale may rightly point out I have never raised actual freethinkers, I have raised more than my fair share of imaginary children. And, I’m an educator who has done some teaching of kids along the way and basically turns every chance to talk to or play with a child into some kind of a teaching moment if I can. For whatever that’s worth.)
So, all this aside, let me put a finer point on my differences and why I think it’s okay to matter-of-factly dismiss the things I think are completely implausible (heaven, hell, angels, blood sacrifice for sins, the resurrection of Jesus) and teach my kids to look at the personal gods of the major religions no differently and no less out-of-hand dismissively as they inevitably will look at mythic gods and fictional characters. How would that not be acting like an authority rather than opening up opportunity for free thinking?
First of all, there’s such a thing as good authority and part of being a critical thinker is figuring out good from bad authorities. The essence of a freethinker is not just thinking whatever so long as no one forces you. Some religious people take umbrage at the audacity of unbelievers calling ourselves freethinkers as though it was a synonym for critical thinkers. But I don’t see it that way. Religious people can be brilliant thinkers and within the bounds of their religious allegiances be spectacular critical thinkers. I cut my teeth as a philosopher as a religious thinker. Philosophically I would have easily run circles around my secular peers outside of philosophy when I was a Christian. The problem is that I would have been running in circles! Because I was making mistakes about the fundamental methodological issue of what counted as data and what the goals for thinking were, I had a long, emotionally excruciating process of extricating myself from religious errors. And the problem was that I threw many years of thought down an empty hole. I had dead ends.
Sure, I really knew why my former religious beliefs were wrong. Let me tell you! But because I was religiously tricked into thinking the most important goals to put my intellectual talents to were (a) saving souls and (b) defending the faith in order to save souls, my philosophical and general learning endeavors were circumscribed in a way that I really resent now. It meant (in my case) that I did philosophy with a bad agenda and only learned it in a way that was myopically focused on a certain rationalization project and not nearly the inherent interest in the questions that I needed to treat them properly). It meant that I showed up in graduate school to do philosophy as a complete and total mess. I had worked my way out of faith, alright. But I had to start from scratch building a philosophical point of view. And I was so burned by failed authority that I didn’t trust anyone to teach me.
I was so disillusioned on the prospects of truth or rationally grounded morality that I was a genuine nihilist. I was an optimistic, personally happy and affirmative one. But it was simply a non-starter as a philosopher to be a genuine nihilist and without contradiction do philosophy. Nihilism is profoundly self-defeating and intellectually taking that seriously meant getting stalled. And needlessly so. There was a wealth of constructive theism-indifferent philosophy out there
For centuries, millennia even, secular philosophy has worked out a wealth of arguments and observations and lessons from history’s experiments. There’s a ton to constructively work with. But because I came out of a fundamentalist religious context, I had been brainwashed to think them hopeless in advance of really reading them and really listening to what they had to say. It took me years to undo that and get out of a hopeless postmodernist/nihilistic morass on my own. It took breaking down and giving philosophers I was unduly allergic to a shot. And what I found was a wealth of progress in my thinking and my living.
And here’s the thing, while most people don’t go exactly through that process, many atheists are bereft of good philosophical training. The mindset is that a love of science does the trick. It’s not enough. Critical thinking is not enough either. We live in a culture where the nihilism vs. genuine value divide is drawn by religious people so wildly successfully that many atheists internalize nihilism and default to it. They take a scientistic approach to questions of meaning and values and community and it’s catastrophic for atheism. Because the real rational objective meaning and ethics and value is not found directly through scientific analyses.
But if you have a screwed up ontology that true moral objectivity means God and everything else is a species of subjectivity “but we’re just okay with that” (as too many atheists do) then you’re going to shoot humanism in the head. I think it’s as stark as that, honestly. I think if you take the scientistic view that the only “real” things for knowledge are the objects of scientific empirical description, you’re going to have what we often have, a community of philosophical illiterates who double as philosophical know-it-alls and embarrass us to educated people who know about more of learning than just science. Like, you know, those “more subjective” social sciences, literary studies, and philosophers.
You’re going to have the millions of socially irresponsible atheists we currently have who are at greater pains to prove a semantic point that “atheism means nothing more than a lack of belief in gods and has no necessary value entailments” than they are to think deeply about humanist values or act consistently vigorously to instantiate them in the culture outside of legal issues. I am fucking sick and tired of apatheists and “humanists” who think “humanist values” mean “you know, whatever irreligious people just clearly see by common sense, no assembly required”.
My problem is that I think it’s only the first “achievement unlocked” that kids find their way out of religion. I’m looking at a massive secularizing culture that needs to go much further in creating new things to replace it. I don’t really want humanist kids to have to waste the energy on figuring out the bogus problems when they could actually be gaining roots in the humanist tradition. Why are atheists so disorganized and pathetic in numbers? We don’t teach our tradition. We let our kids think for themselves alright but that’s not the same thing as educating them in the wealth of resources of the freethought tradition itself. And letting kids freethink their way out of that tradition and its superb arguments because they don’t have adequate guidance in methodology or adequate exposure to constructive alternative frameworks and because dead ends are treated as such serious options that we should never have strong opinions dismissing all makes that much harder to achieve.
True “freethinking” in science and academia means first learning a tradition of discoveries and best methods before just going off and thinking for yourself. It’s not unguided, “hey whatever comes to you, we’re not authoritarians here”. It’s a disciplining that enables and empowers genuine freethinking by being learned first. And it’s no different in philosophical questions humanism should be addressing with its children. There’s a tradition you do better to learn with a little humility before you go figuring out what looks obvious to you.
A kid who understands how history works, how psychology works, how science works, how logic works, how philosophy works will know really good answers and be able to spot how religious claims fail in their respective domains. If they’re taught to spot and trust real authorities and assess real reasons, and how in principle those who only give a personal vision or the visions of ancient peoples as their arguments are failing in their responsibilities as thinkers, then they’ll do just fine spotting the bad religious arguments. If they’re trained in spotting cognitive biases, they won’t be duped by them unprepared. If they internalize the questions of different domains then they won’t take superficial answers religions give them. In other words, teaching kids about real, constructive intellectual projects and letting them play with those gives them a practice of thinking about the questions and plenty of information and habit in thinking about them that they can then, when introduced to religious answers spot why they’re so bad.
Being a freethinker means not just being a critical thinker that loves reality (countless religious people are that–it’s not enough) it means specifically eschewing the sorts of authorities that would rule out most supernaturalistic posits simply from the start (since outside of superstitious stories people pick up, they’re mostly from religion). When telling my kids that I don’t think heaven exists of course I’ll give them reasons from neuroscience and philosophy rather than just tell them “because I said so” like an authoritarian. It will be a launching point to teach them an actual subject of interesting inquiry. If my kids want to argue with me in favor of a supernaturalist belief, that’s great, but I’m not going to feign neutrality about constitutes a valid or an invalid argument. We can disagree on the propositions but not logic itself. And entertaining that specious authority claims are logical goes against teaching them logic.
Maybe this is what Dale meant by “teaching them critical thinking”. But if he’s really teaching them what a good source of information is and what a good criteria of analyzing a belief is, then he’s already determining the outcome as much as I am. And, truth be told, since he’s a brilliant, PhD educated guy who literally wrote the book on atheist parenting and because he clearly loves and respects the shit out of his kids, the odds were stacked in favor of his kids coming out atheists. There’s spotty empirical research on this but the best known indication of whether a person will adopt their parents’ religion is apparently rather simple and intuitive: do they identify with their parents because they got along with them. Dale already had authority by being Dad when his kids loved Dad. The deck was already stacked.
What I worry about is parents who think their kids just not being atheists is enough (not that that’s Dale’s argument, but his emphasis was on showing his kids were freethinkers by how they freethought their own way through the question of religious truth, whereas I’m more curious about whether they’ve freethought their way into a deep knowledge of the secular philosophical and values tradition. They may indeed have. If Dale’s kids don’t, what hope is there for the average humanist!)
So my concern is that completely bankrupt ideas don’t get the privilege of looking like serious ones and being treated like serious ones. Along with Kaveh, I don’t want to buy into that religious power structure that makes it necessary to treat them as serious (since others around the kids will be doing so) and be overly worried about “appearing” dogmatic. I think if my kids were to go through a religious phase having “freely thought” their way into it, I would surely hope they don’t become enemies of the freethought tradition. Not because there are no brilliant faith-based believers, nor because my kids couldn’t be happy as believers, and nor because I would hinge love on such a thing (I sure don’t love my many religious family members any less as things are, let alone my own flesh and blood). But because I think humanism is a set of values and beliefs that are far more philosophically sound and better for the world beyond my kids and that my kids odds of being happy are better if they’re philosophically grounded humanists who think for themselves with the best methods hard won by humanity than if they are left adrift to a situation where a search among bogus authorities seems justifiable because they have no philosophical/spiritual/ethical nourishment left to fend for themselves intellectually as such free thinkers that they wind up dissatisfied nihilists.
Nietzsche once mused in an unpublished note (so take it with a grain of salt that it was his considered opinion) that a religious upbringing with a planned apostasy might be a good idea. Presumably it would inculcate in kids a certain kind of discipline and sincere commitments and high ideals that would serve them well post-apostasy. (Could you imagine the awkward surprise party/interventions teens would get on their 18th birthdays?)
I used to like to dabble with the concept considering how valuable my deconversion experience was and how much I love and identify with other people who were devoutly religious and excruciatingly worked their way out for themselves. If I wanted to make mini-me’s, honestly, I’d love the idea of people forged through the same fires I was. They’re generally my favorite people on the planet because I identify emotionally so strongly with all the traits that went into their fervent religiosity and their courageous and principled apostasy. I surround myself with such people.
But I prefer that we not pass on that experience to our kids. I prefer we create a robust humanist tradition in which kids engage in freethought and perpetuate the tradition of freethought a whole hell of a lot better than their forebears have.
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