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Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief – Book Review

May 13, 2009

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….

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2009 1:01 pm

    Thanks for this review. I’m so glad you pointed out one of my cocnerns with free-thinkers.

    Although certainly a free-thinker myself, and something I would like to cultivate in my daughter, I tend to steer away from blogs with that focus. Because of what you mentioned, that too often free-thinking seems to equate to rationality. And the way I see it, these thinkers are guilty of putting their beliefs on a pedastal and revering them like religions! Science becomes the demi-god and ‘question everything’ the dogmatic mantra.
    Also, ‘free-thinking’ often comes across as a reactionary response to Christianity and other of the big religions. I don’t find that so helpful.

    Forcing a child to question everything can leave some children with a sense of floundering or cynicism. there are some children who seem naturally drawn to the unknown, to the flexible, to the less concrete, to the mystical even.

    I would like to find a softer more natural approach. Freethinking coupled with openess to the unknown, along with an appreciation of family ways or traditions.

    With my last point, I find that many humanists disregard family traditions and beliefs. There’s a big difference between forcing family beliefs on a child and having them follow traditions for no reason other than, ‘its what we do’, and the other approach of simply sharing the beauty of a connection to the past and ancestors.

    Raising a freethinker doesn’t automatically mean churning out a better-adjusted or more compassionate person no more than does bringing up a child in a fixed religious doctrine.

  2. mommymystic permalink*
    May 13, 2009 2:16 pm

    Mon, I agree with everything you said, and have had some of the same issues when reading debates amongst freethinkers and those of various religious beliefs on a CafeMom religion forum. I liked this book because it was more respectful of religious beliefs than some I have seen, at least in the religious literacy chapter, and had chapters devoted to developing family rituals, traditions, community etc., acknowledging the importance of those. There was a question in there along the lines of ‘why can’t I just raise my child atheist, why do I have to try and wrap all my interactions with my child in tolerance?’, and the author of that particular chapter emphasized freethinking as allowing space for the child to come to their own conclusions, etc.
    I do think many children are much more open to intuitive and mystic experiences than adults, and that an overemphasis on rationality and science can shut that down, causing its own problems (which I think many of us with that proclivity have experienced.) So I don’t want that for my kids (this is probably the only blog reviewing this book that has posts on chakras!) But what was valuable to me was the guidance on how to help them navigate the social forces of conventional religion, which are very dogmatic and prevalent (at least here in the U.S.) And I think some of the exercises and resources are useful, even if the overall message is slightly different from my own.
    I hadn’t thought much about one point you mentioned – that allowing too much openness could leave some children with a sense of floundering, like there is no ground to stand on. I think this is so true. Part of our job is to provide our children with an initial sense of the world, a framework for processing experience. So too much openness could leave them with no sense of how to do that. I have already seen that a bit when I have answered certain questions from my 4-year old (like what is heaven, when a friend said her grandfather had gone there.) So pacing and sensing what a child needs in the moment seem very important.

  3. May 13, 2009 4:14 pm

    I’ve added it to my Amazon (way too long) wishlist thanks to your review. I had seen it before but because of concerns we’ve raised here hadn’t bothered too much with it. I think its good merits seem worth a look.

  4. May 13, 2009 4:48 pm

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and articulate review! I’m so glad to see that you found it useful.

    -Dale McGowan

  5. mommymystic permalink*
    May 13, 2009 7:45 pm

    Dale – you’re welcome, I appreciate all the work that went into this book, with all the exercises and resource lists. – Lisa

  6. May 13, 2009 9:01 pm

    With my own daughter, this has been one of the BIG questions that we (her mother and I) have dealt with since she was born. We both turned to Paganism out of our frustrations with Christianity, but we didn’t want to shove our new religion down her throat any more than we wanted Christianity shoved down ours. So, we made a conscious effort to expose her to as many different religious traditions as we could find, and we studied them all together. We encouraged her to ask questions, not just of us, but also of our parents, friends, and neighbors. We also encouraged her to make friends from children from many different cultural backgrounds, and to ask them about what they believed, and why.

    The net result has been that she has been exposed to a great number of beliefs, but she tends to treat them all equally. Since that’s pretty much what I believe, I’ve been mostly happy with the results!

    However, our approach was somewhat haphazard, and there are a lot of “gaps” in her religious education, and a lot of conflicting messages that she doesn’t quite know what to do with (and neither do I).

    I wish I had known about this book ten years ago! Based on your review, I’m sure it could have helped us fill in those gaps! I might still pick it up, just to see if it can help…

    Thanks for the great review!

  7. mommymystic permalink*
    May 13, 2009 11:41 pm

    Jay – thanks for sharing your experience, it is very helpful. You didn’t mention your daughter facing any religious pressures from peers, so hopefully that hasn’t been an issue – that kind of pressure is one thing some parents in this book express frustration about (whether from well-meaning relatives or their children’s peers), and there is helpful advice for dealing with that. From these stories, it seems that that often increases in the teen years, as some organizations start putting pressure on the members of their teen youth groups to share their beliefs in a proselytizing way. But I’m glad to hear that an eclectic approach has not left your own daughter too confused, as that is where I am headed with my own. At the same time, I want to make sure they know what I have come to believe, and how I’ve gotten to this point, and then I hope to let them make their own decisions….

  8. May 14, 2009 1:33 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    Kyrie (my daughter) has faced *some* religious pressure, but not too much. Unfortunately, it didn’t come from her peers, but more from the more conservative members of my family. It was hard for her, especially when she was younger. I had to have a real, um, heart-to-heart discussion with my step-sister about appropriate and inappropriate things to say, and in truth, that was one of the major contributing factors of sending Kyrie to live with her mom after our divorce. There was a while there where we (both of us) felt persecuted for our beliefs (perils of living in the Bible Belt), and I felt like it’d be better for her to grow up in a less judgmental atmosphere.

    So, it hasn’t been all easy, but we managed…at least so far, so good 🙂

  9. May 14, 2009 2:54 pm

    The idea of raising free-thinkers who have courage to learn to think for themselves is an empowering gesture. In modern society, one observes certain people have never learned to think for themselves and have never nurtured the inclination. For society to raise collective awareness and expand consciousness toward a quantum leap in wider understanding, free-thinking is valuable. It is helpful to remember that regardless of perceived age or life experience, every person has untapped insight that can be unleashed. The ability to think freely is there. One must simply overcome the fear and obstacles that prevent change.

  10. May 14, 2009 3:13 pm

    I think this sort of focus on raising children to become thoughtful, caring people can only be uncomfortable for those who subscribe to the Onefold Path of Right Belief, so to speak…

  11. May 14, 2009 4:02 pm

    Another great review. You always give us so much to think about. I raised free thinkers with no guidance from anyone other than the maxim to invite them to “Be Kind” to others in all manners of communication and connection. Sounds like this book is a great resource for parents and grandparents alike! And thanks for the website lead…

  12. mommymystic permalink*
    May 14, 2009 4:26 pm

    Jay – yes, family is my concern also to some extent, so thanks for sharing your experience. I hope over time these kinds of divisions will dissolve…

    Liara – beautifully said.

    Paul – Also beautifully said! Self-righteousness in any form just blocks the truth…

    Jan – That is wonderful to hear, and gives me confidence in my own approach. Of course you had a wide background in religion, so you were able to provide your children with a rich ‘religiously literate’ worldview, and I hope to do the same, then let them make their own decisions.

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