Raising (Actual) Freethinkers

Raising (Actual) Freethinkers October 29, 2014

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After 20 years as a parent, I’ve learned that the phrase “I’m not a parent myself, but…” is a clear signal that I should not just take the next few words with a grain of salt, but bludgeon them with Lot’s wife.

Many atheist non-parents over the years have said to me, with great confidence, “I’m not a parent myself, but atheists should definitely raise their children as atheists. Just tell them that God is pretend and be done with it!” The alternative, I’m told, is to privilege religion “as true,” or to be “neutral” on the question. (Sometimes atheist parents say the same, but much less often in my experience.)

I don’t call religion “true,” and I don’t pretend to be neutral on the question — and I haven’t raised my kids as atheists. Fortunately, there’s yet another way, and it’s awesome: Teach your kids to think critically and to love reality, then turn them loose on every hypothesis about the world they live in. Every one.

When a fellow Patheos blogger asked rhetorically, “should I ‘let my children decide’ whether JFK was not actually killed by Oswald or whether the moon landing was faked or whether 9/11 was an inside job?”, I thought, Why wouldn’t you? The alternative to “letting them decide” is not letting them decide. The alternative is handing them packages of truth that we have tied up for them, saying, “No need to do all that thinking. I’ve done it for you.”

No, I’m not saying, “Gee, who am I to say what’s really true?” These aren’t hard to figure out. In fact, my confidence in the answers is so formidable that I can trust anyone who has both the critical tools and a love of reality to find those conclusions themselves — and in the process, to know WHY they are true, which sends their confidence in those conclusions through the roof. If someone else figured out the “why” for them, their confidence would be based only on their relationship to that person as a source.

Of course for all their historical importance, Kennedy’s death and the moon landing and what made the Twin Towers fall are less crucial to know than a lot of other things. That vaccinations are good, for example. That human action created global warming. That race and gender are irrelevant in judging a person’s character, intelligence, or ability. These are things that really, really matter…so I have to hand these to the kids as tied-up packages, right?

Sure. If I want their confidence in those vital conclusions to rest on my authority, then sure.

If instead you’re serious about putting a firm foundation under their conclusions about important things, then give them the tools and set them free — because these things are important.

This doesn’t mean I have to pretend to be without an opinion on these things. I’m just one source among many. I share my opinions openly, and I give my reasons for them. But then I specifically urge them to decide for themselves, not because I’m under-confident, and not because I think it’s unimportant, but because I’m hugely confident and it’s hugely important.

My kids don’t think racism is bullshit because I said it is — they think it’s bullshit because they actively sought out the (weak) pro-racism arguments through the years and discovered that oh hey, it’s bullshit. They don’t just know it is, they know why. And they know why vaccinations are good and why global warming is human-made because they cared enough to do the heavy lifting themselves. The result is opinions with staying power.

Which brings us to religion.

I had the lucky circumstance of parents who encouraged me to think for myself and to find the world wonderful enough to know on its own terms. So I dug into the big questions, including God and religion. No one handled me settled answers either way, so I had to dig in and find out for myself. Lo and behold, I found out it’s all nonsense, because that’s what you find out when you actually try.

Because I did it all myself, I’m standing on a foundation of incredible strength. I know every brick in that foundation because I put it there myself. When someone challenges my opinions, I can be relaxed and confident because I know exactly why I hold them. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to have done that myself. Why would I deny my kids that feeling?

If someone had merely informed me that God and religion were nonsense, handed me a tied-up package, I could have mumbled, “Okay, thanks” — and my foundation would be Swiss cheese. Why would I put my kids in that position?

I’m an atheist, but atheism is not at the heart of my parenting — freethought is. My kids know my religious views, and I know my opinion will carry more weight than others. So I’ve always gone to great lengths to counter that undue influence, not because I think I’m wrong, but to preserve their autonomy so they can make up their minds independently in the long run and own that process.

When Erin (then 9, now 16) came to me and asked, “Did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?”, I said, “I don’t think so, no. I think that’s just a story that was made up so we feel better about death.” And I told her why I thought that. “But talk to Grandma Barbara. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can ask why she thinks that, then make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth a thousand times if you want.” Even more helpful was the fact that my wife was religious for most of their childhood, and smart, and devoted to the same free process. We had the defense and prosecution for every religious idea under the same roof so the kids could be the judges.

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My kids took this freedom and ran with it — especially Delaney, who was constantly trying on the glasses of various worldviews as she grew up. She was a fairly conventional New Testament Christian for a while, then became something of a Manichaean dualist, believing the world was divided into good and evil, darkness and light. She eventually went through a sort of Einsteinian-pantheist phase before adopting a benevolent, utilitarian humanism.

And then she turned six.

I always encouraged my kids to try on as many beliefs as they wanted and to switch back and forth whenever they felt drawn toward a different hat, confident that in the long run they would be better informed not only of the identity they choose but of those they declined. 

As of now, all three are secular. Two have decided they are atheists, and the other prefers agnostic. And because they built their worldviews themselves, their opinions are relaxed and confident, with great nuance and empathy — all things they might have lacked if I simply told them what to believe.

Other Patheos Atheists on this topic:
Why I Will Teach My Children that Religion is Nonsense at On the Margin of Error
Why I Won’t Teach My Children that Religion is Nonsense at Love, Joy, Feminism
Is It Possible to be Neutral When Talking About Religion? at Natural Wonderers
Should Atheist Parents Set Out to Raise Atheists? at Camels With Hammers


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kaveh Mousavi

    Hi Dale. I don’t know if this is worth writing a new blogpost, so I just write it here:

    Although I’m not a parent, I’ve been a teacher my entire life, and I have changed my students on various issues.

    I don’t think what you write disagrees with what I argue for at all. I think you are simply arguing for an education method, which is an indirect method that creates the opportunity of discovery for the students. This is actually leading people to take certain steps. Like I don’t teach grammar directly to my students, I try to show them examples and then they reach the conclusion themselves. Then, I correct their mistakes.

    What would you do if your children decided that no, racism is OK and 9/11 was an inside job? Because I’m not so confident in human nature. I think irrational and intolerant are the default position, and rational and tolerant is something very elusive we have to work for to gain and THEN to preserve. They’re difficult.

    So I’m not against “letting children loose”, but then again, I’m also for telling children “No, you went wrong that way”, or “Yes, you went right that way.”

  • I can see your point and agree. I suppose what comes to mind for me that perhaps some things are better suited for people to make their own decisions about, but other things (such as racism) aren’t. But where do we draw the line, and if we do draw a line, what may be the contributing factors of our own moral, ethical prejudices about our own viewpoints. When you think about all the different topics and situations someone will be introduced to over their lifetime, it doesn’t seem so easy to say what may be right or wrong, but I think that using critical thinking skills, evaluating an idea and being guided by a moral compass based on equality might be the way to educate people.

  • Patrick Ramsey

    Thank you, Dale, for this post! It seems like common sense in retrospect, but I guess most good ideas do. I’m in a mixed-belief marriage and the parenting issues are starting to come up – our oldest is 5, and informed us that ‘God causes the weather’ just yesterday. Don’t know where she got that one!

    I share Kaveh’s fear of seeing someone I care about fall into wrong, even dangerously wrong or immoral ways of thinking. But ultimately I have to agree with you, Dale, that _mere_ authority is not a way to promote rationality or ethical sensibility — it’s a means that is inherently contrary to the desired end. Reasons have to do the work of persuasion; a person has authority only derivatively, as a person who often can help make the weight of reasons clearer.

    In the particular case of religion, I have to tread a little lightly; my wife is very deeply invested (her family, etc.) and doesn’t enjoy argument; a lot of unhappiness could result from the sort of spirited disputation approach you described above. For now, I’ve resolved to simply be matter of fact and open about my opposition to religion, when it comes up, and also to be the most fair, honest, and giving person they’ve ever met, every day. It is the only way, I think, to demonstrate the irrelevance of religious belief to human goodness, to people who may be inclined to credit claims of its importance. And importantly, without making myself the jerk!

  • Dale McGowan

    There’s a lot of overlap between our approaches — we’re just framing it differently. But it’s an important frame, which is why I’m glad for the conversation. My difference with the last sentence, for example, is that I will say “I think you went wrong that way, and here’s why” to counteract the undue weight my opinion carries. I think the best way to undercut my kids’ tendency to seek and follow unquestionable authority is to resist their tendency to turn me into one.

    As for outcomes, we often think that dictating our positions to kids — on racism, for example — somehow assures the outcome we want. It’s commonly phrased as “You can’t leave X to chance,” as if handing the child that finished package removes chance from the equation. My post argues that the outcome is actually less secure that way, not more. And if my kids arrive at positions I find abhorrent, there is nothing stopping me from engaging and arguing my point because I have never claimed to be neutral. I’ve just foregone the idea that my opinion should carry more weight than other evidence they are considering, unless they choose to grant that weight themselves.

  • Kaveh Mousavi

    Very thought-provoking reply. Thanks!

  • Lisa Robinson Clampitt

    …”and then she turned, six.” I love it! I try to raise my children to think for themselves. I had a wonderful introduction to religion as a child as my family consisted of Quakers, Presbyterians and Atheists. I was raised to value education and form my own opinions. As a child I attended church when I wanted to, I read what I wanted to. I developed an interest in religion and astrology at eight years old, read a lot about both and dismissed them as nonsense. I tell my children my opinions naturally, but they are encouraged to find out for themselves.They giggle at the absurdity of biblical stories already, so it’s not really an issue in my family. Whether they believe in a supreme being or not, I want them to understand the insidious history of organized religion.

  • Beth Clarkson

    I think this post deserves the “Best of Class” award.

  • Beth Clarkson

    some things are better suited for people to make their own decisions about, but other things (such as racism) aren’t

    How can you possibly prevent anyone from making their own decisions?

  • well that’s not really my point, my point is about educating people in a way to use and test critical thinking skills for them to make decisions based on a rational thought process rather than from a reactionist or emotional response to things. I think if you have read my entire response rather than just cherry picking a sentence from what I have said you would have understood the point I was making, not concluding my sentiment based on one part of my explanation for what I was saying.

  • Mike

    I don’t see anything wrong with your approach and I am truly glad it worked out for you. However, I am firmly in the “Just tell them that God is pretend and be done with it!” camp.

    Personally I am irritated that religion is just one more thing in this world that I have to protect my kids from.

  • Jacqueline Lee

    Hi Dale, I read “Parenting Beyond Belief” years ago and enjoyed it. I wonder if you’re more comfortable with the “let them decide” approach because you weren’t raised in the “believe or you’re going to hell” tradition. I was raised in the latter tradition, and I’m terrified of one of my kiddos being sucked in by that view. I’ve always been pretty firm about telling them that there is no god and about trying to explain how the world came to be from a scientific perspective.

    I definitely think that once they hit the teen years and start becoming more independent, I’ll ease up on the indoctrination and remind them to check things out for themselves. For now, I’m with Mike–when the kid at the bus stop tells them that Halloween unleashes The Devil, I come down pretty firmly on telling them that’s absolutely ludicrous.

  • Clicky Ta

    I was raised a Catholic where I was told to believe and follow the Church, like it or not. We raised our daughter to be a critical thinker even though we believed in a generic God (Deists) and she end up dismissing all beliefs and was atheist. I later became atheist.

    Telling your child he or she must believe in a Church because it’s ancient and has supreme authority is NOT the same is to tell your child not to believe in things that have no proof.

    Now my daughter was invited a lot as a child to attend church. We would discuss whether she would go or not. We agreed that she would be respectful and listen, but feel find to assert her own boundaries. She was a pretty strong atheist all on her own – we were God-believers, who nontheless weren’t church-goers. We warned her to not get lured by the candies, gifts, love-bombing, etc. churches employ. And afterword we’d do a long “post-mortem” on her visit. I have no problem with a child visiting a church and learning what religious people do – a good idea to understand a largely religious population. This is way, way different than “trying a religion on” – basically allowing a child to actually practice religion without your guiding parental presence.

    Here’s the problem of letting your child “try” religions on. Some religions, Scientology, Mormonism, and a variety of “New Age” practices (to name a few) are particularly cult-like and can actually turn your child against you.. They can take over your child’s life. Even the garden-variety Christian religions can do this – all Sunday worship services, witnessing, Wednesday night group-hugs, you name it. Some children have the insight and maturity to rebuff lures to trap children into religion. My daughter is like that – she found their attempts to lure her funny. Some kids cannot resist the attention church members shower on a noob, especially if they’re atheist or Jewish. Even as a parent, you don’t know which your child is, so it’s best to discourage the practice of religion until they are fully grown and can make stupid decisions without you.

    A child’s time under your care and attention span is short, it’s better to have your child engaged in actually beneficial activities – learning about actual real subjects, exploring the real world, engaging with real people.

    Religious practice consumes time and brain energy on things that are not real. Time and brain energy should not be wasted.