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Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

My daughter Delaney came to me at the age of four and announced that she had finally figured out, as she put it, “the thing about God and Jesus.” She’d heard vague mention of these guys in her Lutheran preschool class (shut up, I’ll explain in a minute) and immediately began crafting her own detailed theology to fill in the many gaps.

She had decided that Jesus made all the good things in the world and that God made all the bad and scary things. So puppies and PBS are from Jesus, then, while tornadoes and Fox News are God’s doing.

The next five words out of the mouths of many religious parents would be No no no no no, in that order, followed by a dose of theological castor oil to set the child straight. Very few would let their child sleep on the hypothesis that God is the source of all evil.

Some secular parents do little better for the child’s independence of thought when they say No no no no no… God isn’t real. In the process, both sets of parents will have substituted their authority for the child’s autonomous thought.

I’ve always preferred to praise the independent thought and let the child run like mad with it. It’s good practice. “Cool,” I said to Delaney. “I never thought of it like that.”

The next week, she promulgated a revised encyclical: God, she said, makes all the things for grownups, and Jesus makes the things for kids. My favorite example: God made the deep end of the pool, and Jesus made the shallow end, for her.

I hugged her. “So God for me and Jesus for you, eh?”

“I guess so,” she said. “I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it.”

She’s parroting one of my constant parental invocations there: the need to keep thinking, to never close one’s self off to further information.

That doesn’t mean rolling up in a quivering ball of agnosticism, by the way. I also make it clear to them that it’s okay to say what you think is true.

Earlier this year on the way home from school, she told me about a chat she’d had that day with Mrs. W, her teacher at the above mentioned Lutheran preschool. “I told Mrs. W I think God is just pretend. But I said I’m still thinking about it. And I asked if she thinks God is pretend.”

I looked at her in the rearview mirror, munching on the apple I’d for once remembered to bring for her snack, so beautifully innocent of the fact that she had stood with her little toes at the edge of an age-old chasm, shouting a courageous and ancient question to her teacher on the far rim. My daughter, you see, hasn’t heard that there are unaskable questions.

“So what’d Mrs. W say?”

“She said no,” Laney said, matter-of-factly. “She said, ‘I think God is very real.'”

“Uh huh. Then what did you say, Laney?”

“I said, ‘That’s okay–as long as you’re still thinking about it, too.'”

Two years later, I’m still awestruck by that answer. That’s okay, she said–because it would never occur to her that people must all believe the same–and then the call to continuous freethought, the caveat against the closed process.

How many people of religious faith ever hear that their faith is okay only if it remains open to disconfirmation? Whatever that number is, if I can keep my kids blissfully ignorant of the “rules,” it will increase.

Dancing with Deities

All three of my kids have gone to the same preschool. It’s a great program, the best pre-K in our area, but I wondered at the beginning if I was going to regret enrolling them in a church-affiliated school.

By the end of my son Connor’s first year, I was convinced it was one of the best decisions we could have made. My kids have received a basic, low-key, brimstone-free exposure to Judeo-Christian mythology–an essential element of cultural literacy–and early practice at engaging that world with the brutal honesty of fearless innocence. All I ask of my kids’ early exposures to religion is that they are never abused with the concept of hell, and that they never hear that doubt is bad. And so far, so good.

They also get a rich stew of religious exposure at home–and variety is the key. I adored Greek and Roman myths as a child, and they helped me toward my earliest wonderings about what was so very different about the more current versions.

There’s a way to make this comparison pop out vividly. Get a good volume of classical myths for kids and a volume of bible stories for kids. Read the story of Danae and Perseus, in which a god impregnates a woman, who gives birth to a great hero–then read the divine insemination of Mary and birth-of-Christ story. No denigration of the Christian myth is necessary; kids will simply see that myth is myth.

Next read the opening portion of the Golden Fleece epic, in which a father–who believes, incorrectly, that the gods have ordered him to do so–prepares to slay his son Phryxis (sometimes with his sister Helle), only to be stopped by the appearance of a ram. Then read Abraham and Isaac, in which a father–who believes, correctly, that a god has ordered him to do so–prepares to slay his son Isaac, only to be stopped by the god, who then causes a ram to appear as an alternative. Kids do not fail to catch these parallels, believe you me.

Then on to Baucis and Philemon, eating with a disguised Jupiter and Mercury who cause the inadequate food and drink to multiply miraculously–followed by Jesus and the loaves and fishes. Next up is Odysseus and the Cyclops, which compares nicely to David and Goliath.

The coup de grace is the story of the infant boy who is abandoned in the wilderness to spare him from death, only to be found by a servant of the king who brings him to the palace to be raised as the child of the king and queen. It’s the story of Moses–and the story of Oedipus.

Top resource for comparative religion: Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, which celebrates creation stories of all kinds as tales that are fascinating, imaginative, and mythic.

Gloves Up

Kids typically receive indoctrination as a one-two punch. They hear ideas in Sunday School (“Baby Jesus cries when Billy lies”), from friends on the playground (“I prayed for a bike and God sent me one!”), or from Veggie Tales (“God doesn’t want us to be mean to other people. Unless they’re gay.” Oh wait, that’s Leviticus, not Larry-Boy). The idea itself is the first punch. And you know what? I’m fine with the first punch. I like the first punch. I want my children to receive the first punch. The first punch is informational. It says, “Here is a thing that some people consider true.” Aside from the two abusive nonnegotiables–hell and the demonization of doubt–kids have to hear information before they can think about it.

It’s the second punch that is the cheap shot. And that punch, as often as not, is delivered by Mom and Dad over supper, when Billy presents the first-punch information and is informed of what he should think about it.

The moment of the question is, for want of a better word, a sacred moment, and one that parents fumble too often. Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in just over six thousand days. Think of that. A certain degree of gullibility necessarily follows. Kids are believing machines, and for good reason: When we are children, the tendency to believe it when we are told that fire is dangerous, that two and two are four, that cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on, helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults. The immensity of the task requires children to be “suckers” for whatever it is adults tell them. It is our job as parents to be certain not to abuse this period of relative intellectual dependency and trust.

The unconditional love of reality

How we respond to the estimated four hundred thousand questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthday will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow. Do we always respond with an answer–or sometimes with another question? Do we say, “What a great question!”–or do we just fill in the blank? How often do we utter that fabulous phrase, “You know what… I don’t know!” followed by “Let’s look it up together” or “I’ll bet Aunt Bessie would know that, let’s call her”? When it comes to wondering and questioning, these are the things that make all the difference. We have 400,000 chances to get it right, or 400,000 chances to say, “Because I said so”; “Because God says so”; “Don’t concern yourself with that stuff”; or something similarly fatal to the child’s will to find out.

I try my best to encourage reckless inquiry in my kids. To facilitate that, I want to keep them oblivious, for as long as possible, of the fear that keeps so many people from asking certain questions. I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to flummox my kids, to baffle them. I want them to find hilariously silly the idea that certain lines of thought cannot even be pursued, lest they be caught.

That requires a certain amount of parental self-discipline. It requires the ability, for example, to not paint the far wall with soup when the five-year-old asks if monkeys have vaginas, or why black people have big lips, or who will put her blankie on her grave when she dies. It requires a firm conviction that there is no rock that can’t be upended if you think there might be something under it.

This conviction rests on one idea: that the universe is an astonishing, thrilling place to be, and that there’s no adequate way to express the good fortune of being conscious, for a moment, in the midst of it. Unlike my Christian friends who say that life without Christ would be empty, unbearable, and devoid of hope, my amazement at the universe and gratitude for being awake in it is unconditional. I’m thrilled if there is a god, and I’m thrilled if there isn’t. I’m grateful to be here, whether it’s for a little while or for good.
Such an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to see that reality clearly, whatever form it may take. Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that unbeatable combo will embrace them. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with the love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.

How Amazingly Unlikely was Your Birth

My son needed boxer shorts the other day, stat. I’ll spare you the reason, a familiar hash of peer pressure and arbitrary norms and middle school locker rooms. I ran him to the mall and we bought a few pairs. On the way home, I suddenly flashed on something from long ago. I turned and mentioned to Connor that he owed his existence to (among many other things) boxer shorts.

What follows is, I submit, a definitively secular exchange of wonder.

Boxer shorts? This was news to the boy. Not the general idea of owing his existence to countless small happenstances, mind you. He has long enjoyed the knowledge that several hundred things could have prevented his parents from meeting, from finding each other attractive, from dating, from marrying, and from staying married long enough to spring off. He understands that one particular sperm and one particular egg had to meet for him to ever exist. And he vibrates with dawning excitement as he extends these “had-tos” back through the generations, back to his Confederate great-great-great grandfather who was felled by a Yankee bullet through the neck at nineteen and bled profusely–almost, but not quite, enough to erase the great-great-great grandson he would one day have. Connor has worked his way back through a couple million generations of humans and prehumans to imagine two ratlike creatures rocking the casbah at the precise moment the asteroid slammed into Chicxulub 65 million years ago, further clinching the existence of their great-great-great etc. grandson. (“Oooh, baby,” one rat says to the other. “Did you feel that too?”)

But boxer shorts–that was a new one. He demanded to know what I was talking about. I told him that sperm can get sluggish if they are too warm, that briefs hold the testicles against a man’s warm body, and that four months after his mom and I started trying to create him, without luck, I saw this article that suggested switching to boxer shorts, and boom…

His eyes were wide. “You got pregnant.”

“Well Mom did, technically, but I… “

He clutched his head. “What the freakin’ heck!” (His current favorite pseudo-swear.) He seemed to get it. He turned toward me with an electric look, the look of a person who just missed getting hit by a train. “What if you saw that article a month EARLIER?”

Oh yeah, he gets it. “Or later.” We’d added another casual causal coincidence to the march of time–his father stumbling over some random magazine article… at Great Clips, I think it was, while I waited for a haircut…


Boy does he get it.

I have several religious friends who think that God fixes these things for us. He put the mag there, you see, and kept the other guy’s haircut going until I could read it. We each have one ideal mate, and God works things out so we meet, fall in love, have the children we’re supposed to have when we’re supposed to have them. Setting aside the revolting idea that God wanted an abused woman to marry her abuser, and so on, we still end up with a world that makes me yawn, a world with a good measure of the wonder stripped out. In that world, we are Jehovah’s chesspieces, moving in preordained patterns, how exceptionally tedious. I mean, you know–tedious in a holy way.

Meditating instead on how amazingly unlikely was your birth–well, if you haven’t done it, please be my guest. It’s hard to take existence quite so much for granted once you realize how very, very, very close you came to missing the dance entirely. And it’s a perspective that can lend secular parenting a deliciously different flavor from religious parenting.

Parenting the Immortally Challenged

My feeling about death is pretty straightforward: I am opposed to it. Yet there it is. And once my kids have fallen in love with reality, part of my job as a parent is to help them grasp and accept the less lovable parts along with the easier bits.

Fortunately, death is no big deal.

Let me be clear. From this side of the turnstile, death appears to be an enormous deal. But I’ve nursed at the teats of Epicurus and Montaigne long enough to know that the dead themselves surely aren’t all that impressed with it. While I exist, Death does not. When Death exists, I will not. Why should I fear something I will never experience? That doesn’t entirely feed the bulldog, but it’s a Milk Bone. My life is bounded by two eternities of nonexistence. Why should I fear the nonexistence after my life if I didn’t fear the one before it? Another Milk Bone. And since our reckless family conversations often intersect with death, I’ve had several occasions to serve up some version of each of those to all three of my kids. There’s real consolation there.

Which speaks to another advantage our kids will have in dealing with death: they’ll never have to lose their immortality. Adults who fear that children cannot endure the concept of death as the no-kidding end (1) were most likely born into the myth themselves and therefore can’t imagine their way out, and (2) don’t know kids. “We accept the reality with which we are presented,” said the deity-like director Christof in The Truman Show. He’s right. Tell kids the truth from the beginning and they’ll accept it as part of the deal and ask what’s for lunch.

Douglas Adams spoke to this when he said, “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

If children start, from the get-go, with the knowledge that we genuinely die, they will think this to be normal. Not exciting, not even easy, perhaps, but they are much more likely to accept the reality and actually get on with the lifelong work of understanding what it really means. They might even see how it makes every moment of life itself so much more fantastically precious. So don’t treat death as an untouchable subject with your kids. Touch it all over. The more familiar, the less frightening. It’s a lifelong challenge, but our kids will be all the further along since they don’t have to waste time erasing heaven (and hell) from their conceptual maps.

A grudging nod to morality… only because I have to

I bring morality in the back door here to deny it the fanfare it seems to want. Every time I do an interview about the secular parenting book that gave this essay its name, the interviewer asks how one can raise ethical kids without religion. I’m always tempted to say, “The same way you raise ethical kids without wearing a purple shirt.” But I never have, not yet, anyway. The look in their eyes is always so searching, so expectant of some backbending secular raindance that I feel a little like a killjoy when I tell them the simple truth: You do almost exactly what every other parent does.

I have never met a religious parent who was unable to give his or her child reasons to be good–generally some variation on reciprocity (how would you feel if someone did that to you?) or universalizability (what if everybody did that?). The invocation of authority comes as a coda (…and God wants us to be nice), rarely as the central message. And it’s difficult to imagine even the most religion-drunk parents saying, “Don’t steal, Timmy. I have no idea why it’s bad, but God says not to, so there you have it.” And, at the risk of waxing platitudinous, they learn more from what we do than from what we say anyway.

If anything, secular parents have a huge advantage in the ethics game. By recognizing that morality is in fact reasonable, they can encourage their kids to think about morality, which in turn improves their moral judgment–a thing quite distinct from rule-following.

Dance, monkeys, dance!

To keep from spooking the quail, I often find myself humbly suggesting that it is possible to raise children every bit as ethical, caring, loving, humane, inspired and well-adjusted without religion as with it. In reality (my favorite place to be, after all) I don’t believe parenting without religion is merely “as good” as parenting with it. I think it is immeasurably better. I think it blows the doors off religious parenting in every respect–powerful inquiry, reasoned ethics, ecstatic inspiration, cosmic humility and profound humanity–and I am floored by my good fortune to live in one of the few human generations to date when raising children without religious indoctrination is a practical possibility. No need to waste time raining reason on the deaf ears of the faithful. Let the baby have his bottle. Our time is better spent clearing a space for the rest of us to dance with our children.

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