Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief – Book Review
First a couple of notes for regular readers: 1) I will post the guided chakra-work mp3s that I mentioned in the 21 Ways to Care for Your Sacral Chakra post early next week. I am going to add a few more than originally planned, and have the perfect opportunity this weekend to get in the right ‘space’ for this. 2) This week I am doing a couple more parenting-themed posts, but then I’ll swing back around to some of my other topics, so if parenting is not your thing, just hold on. However, I think some of these themes are interesting for any of us to look at, because it’s always enlightening to examine how you were parented, and how it shaped your worldview.
Which brings me to today’s book review: Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. This book is primarily geared for parents that consider themselves atheist, agnostic, and/or secular humanist, none of which I personally embrace. When I have to label myself (which I assiduously try and avoid), I usually go with ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Of course, ‘spiritual’ is pretty broad, but for me it does mean I believe in something beyond what my physical senses or science can currently validate. Belief is not a bad word for me, not something I need to get beyond, nor is it incompatible in my mind with freethinking. So this book wouldn’t seem a good fit for me.
And yet I really liked it, and feel it is a book I will turn to again and again as my children get older. I liked it because what I have come to believe spiritually has been the result of personal questioning and seeking, and the main thrust of this book is how to raise children that approach life in an open, questioning, educated, and ethical way. From that perspective I think it is a book any parent could benefit from (and I am not big on parenting books.) That being said, this book is certainly not for fans of most organized religion, theistic beliefs, or the hierarchical theology typical of the world’s religions (and that’s fine by me.)
First the basics: This book is a collection of essays and parent-child exercises written by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor, all of whom are secular humanists, or, in the case of Ms. Devor, Unitarian Universalist, with parent education experience. You can read more about each of them at the Parenting Beyond Belief website. Each chapter introduces its topic and then presents a series of questions and answers based on the concerns of real parents that the authors have interacted with. The chapters each end with suggested parent-child exercises for exploring the theme further, and a list of related resources, including books, websites, movies, and more. Some of the chapter themes are how to:
– Encourage critical thinking while maintaining respect for other’s beliefs.
– Help children navigate the social pressures oriented around authority and conformity (both religious forces and other social ones.)
– Develop an ethical foundation not based on a traditionally religious POV, i.e. divine reward and punishment.
– Achieve “religious literacy without indoctrination”, which is especially important if you have family members with religious views other than your own, or if you live in an area where ‘going to church’ (or the equivalent) is the norm.
– Sort through the mixed messages regarding sexuality, our physical bodies, and pleasure that have seeped into our culture from religious viewpoints, and how to offer a healthy alternative.
– Celebrate traditionally religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter in a secular fashion, or develop alternatives.
– Develop rituals and/or a conceptual framework for dealing with life passages and death.
– Find and/or create the sense of community that is often provided by religious organizations.
The chapter on religious literacy was particularly interesting to me, because my husband’s and my own family embrace a wide range of religious beliefs, and my children will need to sort through that as they grow up. In addition, I have been trying to determine what of my own beliefs I want to introduce my children to (which is part of what inspired my own spiritual and religious book lists for young children.) Raising Freethinkers only increased my sense that religious literacy is essential for functioning well in society, or at least American society, due to the ongoing religiously-based ‘culture wars’ here, and the corresponding conversion pressures some teens face from peers (the questions and scenarios posed by parents in this book are very eye-opening in that regard.)
The book offers many interesting statistics regarding American’s religious beliefs as well, including that 86% believe in God (although that drops to 78% when the option of ‘universal spirit’ is also offered, which is probably what I would select myself if pushed), 81% heaven, 69% hell, and 61% that the biblical creation story is literally true. The statistics on the same issues in Europe and other ‘developed’ nations are drastically different. In addition, unlike in the U.S. most Europeans receive religious education in schools, and are therefore much more aware of religious history and religions other than their own. As Jan Devor puts it, “The United States is both the most religiously enthusiastic and the least religiously literate country in the developed world.” And as our most recent presidential election highlighted, this is a trend that is only increasing in our country, and that our children will be dealing with for some time to come.
Although I am interested in all world religions, and have found mystics within most whose writings and experiences I resonate with, the way that religion is usually passed on from parent to child has always seemed absurd to me. Jan Devor quotes a recent speech by Richard Dawkins that captures this sentiment exactly, in which he responds to a newspaper photo of three young children with the caption ‘A Sikh child, a Muslim child, and a Christian child’ by noting:
“No one bats an eye…But just imagine if the caption had read ‘a Monetarist child, a Keynesian child, and a Marxist child.” Ridiculous! Yet not one bit less ridiculous than the other.”
Since for me spirituality is not about inheriting beliefs but about personally seeking, Dale McGowan’s first chapter ‘The Inquiring Mind’ was also a favorite of mine. He unpacks the underlying assumption of many religious parenting books that “our primary job as parents is to stave off a bubbling depravity that lurks just below the surface of our children.” As he puts it:
“I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to baffle my kids. I want them to find hilarariously silly the idea that certain lines of thought cannot even be pursued, lest they be caught.”
Amen to that (hehe). And the examples he provides for how to encourage questioning in kids, and how to avoid falling into the trap of authoritarian or answer-providing parenting were very insightful. However, here some of my own beliefs regarding the limits of reason and science clashed a bit with some of the exercises, such as having kids create staged UFO photos to help them see how easily the eye can be tricked, or attempting to disprove the existence of unicorns to show how proving the negative (i.e. there is no God) is impossible, and therefore “the burden of proof must rest on those making spectacular claims.” Both exercises seemed to me to be awfully close to teaching freethinking=’rationality’ or ‘current scientific knowledge’, which is not exactly what I want to pass on (after all, science is a product of its time too – the theory of microscopic germs was once considered idiotic.)
All of the other chapters – on ethics, secular rituals, life passages, sex ed and more – were all excellent, and I feel they did offer material I will turn to as my children get older. Many fascinating studies are referenced, including those on what type of parenting is more likely to engender empathy (not moralistic), and how sex education really impacts the sexual behavior of teens (abstinence-only programs, steadily increasing in U.S. schools, do not delay the average age for first-time sex, which is currently 14.9 years.) I also especially appreciated the parent questions, which raised so many issues I had never thought of, from how to respond to a young child who wants a first communion after attending her cousin’s, to how to talk about good and evil without a religious framework.
This is called a ‘practical guide’ and it definitely is that, rich in exercises, book suggestions, and resource lists. A particular favorite of mine is the ‘Recommended Films’ list in the appendix, which includes the categories “Religious Literacy”, “Coming of Age Issues” and “Exploring Death and Loss.”
So if you are looking for guidance in secular child-raising, hold unconventional spiritual beliefs yourself, and/or want to prepare your child well for navigating a sometimes religiously rigid world, Raising Freethinkers is worth considering. Check out the website for more info.
Feel free to post any questions you have about the book in the comments, and I will answer them there. I’m also interested to hear about your own experiences or insights for handling atheist or unconventional spiritual beliefs with children, or advice for handling some of the issues that often arise when children are confronted with other religious beliefs through friends or family….