Posted by: Ticktock | September 20, 2008

Parenting Beyond Belief – LIVE!

A few weeks ago, I recommended the book Parenting Beyond Belief, a compilation of essays on secular/atheist parenting edited by Dale McGowan.  Well, I just came back from a Cincinnati seminar by Mr. McGowan himself, and I’m so glad I went.  Dale offered up a really practical and accessible workshop on how to respectfully raise good children in a religious world.

I want to focus on Dale’s recommendation for secular parents on how to relate to evangelical family members, the kind who are judgmental or fearful of the influence of atheism.  I’m personally lucky to be raised by semi-secular parents who are both accepting and open to my lack of belief.  But there are some out there who feel as if they are rowing upstream against the current of their christian families.  Some of you even have a religious spouse or religious children.

Dale gave a great suggestion… don’t fight the current.  Traditional wisdom says that when being pulled into an undercurrent, you should just swim with it.  Religious tolerance works the same way.  Atheist parents should be open to allowing their religious relatives to respectfully share their spiritual beliefs in the appropriate context.  Quoted below is one of the examples from the seminar on how to approach an eager in-law who is having trouble accepting secular parenting:

I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are so important to us.  I can see that you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that more than you know.

I know your religious faith is a big part of your life.  If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do – worried that this important part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.

I want you to know that it will be shared with them.  Even though we’re not going to church, it’s really important to us that the kids learn about religion.  Otherwise how can they really make a choice for themselves?

We need you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe.  There’s no better way to learn about religious belief than from people who know and love it as well as you do.  Let’s set up a time for you and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate and talk about your faith.

Dale is quick to point out that you should make clear to your fundamentalist next-of-kin what is non-negotiable.  For instance, tell them that you are strongly against the use of fear tactics (hell), guilt, or aggressive persuasion.  Just let them know that they are welcome to share their beliefs at an appropriate time agreed upon by both parties… not every time they visit or at every interaction.

On dealing with your religious spouse (a much trickier subject), Dale recommends having a respectful dialogue to talk about ways to negotiate spiritual parenting.  Atheist parents tend to have competitive personalities when it comes to spiritual issues; they have a desire to be right, to win the contest against God and his “true believers”.  An atheist parent should just relax in a spiritually tense family and make qualifying statements such as, “Well, you know your mother thinks differently, but this is what I believe.”   Try to be respectful of your religious family.  Don’t judge your spouse or children for their choice to believe.  Try not to correct them or harass them.  Just be honest about your own convictions and why you don’t believe, and let everyone else make informed decisions.  Attempting to convert your family away from religion will only create more problems, but that should be obvious.

Well, that’s about all I want to say on the subject.  My next post will be about meeting the reigning king and queen of atheism, the founders of Answers in Atheism and Camp Quest.  My lunch with Dale McGowan and the local Free Inquiry Group was quite interesting and worth it’s own post.

Thanks to Dale McGowan for an excellent seminar.  I regret that circumstances made me late.  I hope Dale can “forgive me” (to borrow a phrase).


  1. There’s the rub though, “tell them that you are strongly against the use of fear tactics (hell), guilt, or aggressive persuasion.” Speaking for my family, I’d have an easier time telling them to be accepting of homosexuals. It just isn’t possible for many, especially evangelicals, not to use fear tactics, guilt, and aggressive persuasion against our kids. Those things are sadly part and parcel of who they are, and often it is the only tactic that they know how to employ.

  2. I understand. The advice is dependent on your circumstances, but I think that the honor-empathize-reassure-include tactic can be helpful in less extreme situations.

    Honestly, if your extended family is constantly damning you and your kids to hell for practicing yoga (or whatever innocent thing they hate) then you are probably better off keeping a distance. My cousin went so far as to disown her parents, and she has yet to regret it. But that is an extreme option, for sure.

  3. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic scenario for everyone. The passive approach is certainly ideal, but with the aggression that tends to come from the believer, a rational atheist doesn’t stand a chance for a peace talk. With atheists as one of the last groups remaining that it’s still socially acceptable to hate, there is no holds barred from the preacher in the pulpit saying it’s ok to damn the unfaithful, giving just cause for these relatives to do their fear mongering to the children, and the hate inspired lecturing to us atheists. I would agree that a distance is the best resolution

  4. Hi there! I met you at the seminar, and thought I’d pop by and check out your blog-very nice! I loved the seminar as well, and wished I could have stayed for the lunch and FIG meeting. I look forward to your post on the subject.

  5. Will:

    I disagree in a small sense. I don’t think evangelists see fear as a tactic as much as they think it’s part reality. It’s simply one driving force out of many for why they maintain the beliefs that they do. Asking them to simply not talk about that bad stuff is denying one’s child exposure to the real force behind religious belief.

    For me and my family, while my immediate family is fine with my decision to not raise our soon-to-be-here daughter around any religious influence until she’s older and can critically think, my extended family is Catholic–hardcore Catholic. If I don’t baptize her, she’s going to Hell. That’s it. And if they not only believe this but see it as reality, then they’re going to do everything they can to make sure this girl is baptized. Otherwise, if they don’t, they don’t take their beliefs seriously.

    So again, I don’t think fear is a tactic; I think they think it’s a part of reality, and not doing certain things has damning consequences on our souls.

    I vehemently disagree with asking family members to sit down and discuss faith-based beliefs with any child. That can too easily lead to indoctrination, and it lends supernatural beliefs way too much credence and validity that just ain’t there.

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