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Michael Martin Education

Atheistic Education

Michael Martin


[This article was originally published in The American Rationalist.]

In discussing atheistic education it is necessary to draw a couple of important distinctions. The first is between getting someone to be an atheist and educating an atheist. One can accomplish the former in many different ways. For example, one might induce a child to become an atheist by giving her a horribly strict religious upbringing and having her rebel against it; one might get an adult to embrace atheism by using subtle indoctrination techniques similar to those used by the Moonies; one might bring about the conversion to atheism of a destitute and wavering Catholic by offering her large cash inducements. However, none of this has to do with atheistic education, which is not a matter of creating atheists but of making atheists well-educated as atheists.

The second relevant distinction is between educating someone about atheism and educating someone to be an atheist. Among other things the former involves educating people about the rich intellectual and cultural heritage of atheism and the long persecution of atheists. Its aim is not to create well-educated atheists but to give believers and nonbelievers alike an understanding and appreciating of atheism as a cultural and intellectual movement. In principle, there is no reason why education about atheism could not occur in US public schools and universities. In fact, however, the long-standing prejudice against and irrational fear of atheism have prevented this kind of education from being part of the public school curriculum.

Educating someone to be an atheist will, in turn, encompass education in the understanding and appreciation of atheism as a cultural and intellectual movement, but will involve more than this. Atheism is a movement and body of thought whose members are not only in the minority but under attack by powerful forces in society. In order to survive and flourish atheists need to know how to defend themselves intellectually and how to organize into groups that support and further atheism. Thus, atheists need to be educated in intellectual defense and also develop character traits that further the growth of atheistic cooperation and community. In large part this sort of education cannot occur in the public schools. Involving the criticism and rejection of theistic beliefs, it is presumably forbidden by the principle of the separation of church and state.

Surprisingly little has been written that aims directly at educating people to be atheists or even at educating them about atheism. In this article eight books intended for educational purposes and published by presses or organizations with an atheistic orientation are reviewed. In the first part of this review I will consider seven short books intended for children. My main critical focus will be on whether and how they help atheistic parents and organizations educate children to be atheists. In the second section I will discuss the eighth, a much longer book, which is meant to provide the intellectual framework for teaching about freethought in our public schools.

Educating Children To Be Atheists

According to the blurb on the back cover, Dan Barker’s Maybe Yes, Maybe No, an 80 page book with delightful cartoon like drawings by Brian Strassburg and published in 1990 by Prometheus Books, is a child’s introduction to “healthy skepticism.” The first part of the book tells of the adventures of a ten-year-old skeptic named Andrea whose young friends say that ghosts are moving the kitchen dishes. Unwilling to accept this claim, Andrea checks it out for herself and asks many probing questions in her attempt to get at the bottom of things. Eventually she discovers that her friends’ claims are mistaken.

The author then attempts to draw lessons from Andrea’s example, the most general of which is that skeptics should not believe in ghosts, flying saucers, ESP, out-of-body-experiences, dowsing, levitation, astrology, horoscopes, faith healing, miracles, angels, demons, gods, and devils since there is not enough evidence for rational belief. These unproven unscientific beliefs are contrasted with the beliefs of science which must be based on rules. The rest of the book is devoted to elaborating rules which Barker urges his young readers to follow in deciding whether something is true or false, in listening to others, and above all in thinking for themselves.

What is Barker trying to accomplish? In “A Note to Parents” Barker says that in our media-flooded world there is no way to control all the information and claims to which young people are exposed. Barker argues that “The best thing to do is arm them with the sword of critical thinking. . . Allowing them to be curious, teaching them to ask questions, and motivating them to figure things out for themselves will enable them to thrive in all areas of life.”

There is no doubt that, used wisely, this little book can be helpful in a program of atheistic education. Clearly, what parents and teachers need to do is to get children to follow Andrea’s example in their own lives. One of the books shortcomings, however, is that it never said how this is to be done. Obviously it is not enough for children to read the book. They must acquire the propensity to act in the various contexts of their lives in the way Andrea did. Maybe Yes, Maybe No would have been much improved had Barker faced this problem squarely and specified projects and exercises that would have encouraged further use of the rules and instilled Andrea’s skeptical spirit in young readers.

The biggest drawback of this book for atheistic parents and teachers, however, is its lack of direct relevance to atheism. Teaching skepticism about ghosts is one thing. Teaching skepticism about God is something else again. The book provides no clear idea of how its simplified rules of scientific method are to be used to cast doubt on belief in God. Given that children will encounter many grown-ups who have sophisticated arguments for God that purport to be based on science, this is a serious problem.[1]

The Magic Detectives, a 115 page book written and illustrated by Joe Nickell and published in 1989 by Prometheus Books, is intended to introduce children to a skeptical and rational approach to seemingly paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Its presents thirty cases of strange phenomena such as ghosts, mysterious disappearances, firewalking, and bending metal objects using only the powers of one’s mind. At least two of the cases are directly relevant to religion: The Shroud of Turin and The Religious Healer: The Reverend Peter Popoff. Young readers are asked to try to find solutions to the mysteries based on clues given in the presentations and to compare their answers with the ones in the book. Printed upside down on separate pages, these show how the mystery can be solved in rational terms. Nickell tells his young readers not to be discouraged if their answers differ from his for they may have valuables ideas that are worth talking over with their science teachers. They are also told that the important thing is to think critically. Nickell urges them to try their hand at solving other mysteries they have heard of by doing research and he refers them to the sources listed at the end of the book. Nickell suggests that when his readers grow up they may want to join up with other magic detectives such as those on the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

As an example of Nickell’s approach consider Case 27, The Reverend Peter Popoff, Healer. In about three hundred words Nickell describes Popoff’s seemingly supernatural ability of knowing detailed information about people who attend his religious meetings as well as his apparent ability to cure people by spiritual power. He points out that those who attended Popoff’s meetings filled out information cards before the healing services began and that whenever skeptics gave false information on the cards Popoff later claimed that God revealed this to him whatever the skeptics had written. Then Nickell poses a mystery: Popoff did not have the cards with him when he reported this information and did not seem to have memorized them. How could he have gotten these data? According to James Randi, a magician, who noticed that Popoff wears a hearing aid, this device is the crucial clue to the mystery of how Popoff acquired the information. With this clue in hand, Nickell asks his readers to explain the mystery. In the brief solution they are informed that the hearing aid was really a tiny radio receiver and that Popoff’s wife had been broadcasting the information on the cards to her husband. Nickell also offers several reasons why it seemed as though Popoff was curing people when he really was not.

Joe Nickell’s Wonder Workers!, a 94 page book published in 1991 by Prometheus Books, has the same intent as The Magic Detectives. In this book ten cases of people who did seemingly wondrous things are examined: for example, Joaqunn Argamasilla seemed to see through metal, David Home apparently floated through the air, and Evangeline Adams seemed able to predict the future. In each case, Nickell explains how the wonder worker performed his or her feats.

Although Nickell does not say so, this book appears to be intended for older children for the chapters are somewhat longer than those in The Magic Detectives and they delve into their subjects in greater depth. In “A Note to Teachers” at the end of book Nickell makes some suggestions on how the stories can be used. Two interesting assignments are:

1. Discuss with your classmates the ethical difference between the trickery of phony psychics and that of stage magicians.

2. Devise an experiment to test the accuracy of the horoscopes that appear in your daily newspaper. (For example, copy down the twelve forecasts in scrambled order and–without identifying which is Aries, Virgo, etc.–give a copy to each person in your class, asking everyone to try to judge which is his or her own.)

There is no doubt that Nickell’s two books can be valuable aids in helping atheistic parents and teachers to instruct children to think critically about religion. However, parents and teachers will have to make sure that their children do not just read the books, but actually try to apply the insights contained in them to their own experience. The Wonder Workers! is less helpful in this respect than The Magic Detectives for three reasons. None of the wonder workers perform specifically religious wonders. Moreover, since the explanations of the wonder workers’ abilities is part of the text, young readers have less incentive to try to solve the mysteries on their own. In addition, The Magic Detectives lends itself readily to the home project of discussing the mystery as part of the dinner table conversation before the book’s answer was read. This sort of project would be impossible with The Wonder Worker! but other home projects suggest themselves. For example, other wonder workers could be studied to see how they performed their feats.

Ellen Jackson’s The Tree of Life: The Wonders of Evolution published in 1993 by Prometheus Books, is a small volume (about 35 pages and about 600 words) meant to introduce very young children to evolution. The author in an introductory note says that on a recent trip to the library she noticed that although there were many books retelling biblical creation stories, there were few on evolution for young children. She also noticed that those books that did attempt to explain evolution to children “did so in a way that, though scientifically accurate, conveyed none of the wonder and excitement of this concept.” Thus, The Tree of Life attempts “to help young children understand the beauty and power of this great idea.” Admitting that a book on evolution for children must simplify, she stresses that “great care has been taken to maintain accuracy throughout.”

One of most remarkable features of this book is the striking and elaborate illustrations by Judeanne Winter. Jackson points out in her introductory note that the illustrations “must necessarily be somewhat abstract and suggestive rather than literal.” In the first few pages Jackson’s sparse prose and Winter’s drawings of bleak and ominous landscapes help convey to the young reader the lifeless earth of billions of years ago and set the stage for the emergence of life.

After describing the mixing together of water, heat, light and gas for millions of years, Jackson explains the emergence of life with the following words: “Something new happened. There was a coming together of water and heat and gas that was special. A bit of something very tiny appeared for the first time. It wasn’t a tree, a fish, or even a worm. It was too new and too tiny to be much of anything.” She also introduces the idea of natural selection early in her narrative. Maintaining that these “almost alive” tiny things divided, thus reproducing themselves and populating the oceans, she says that sometimes they did not reproduce themselves exactly. The difference might be harmful–“too slow, too fast, too sticky, or too smooth”–and if so, these tiny entities would die or fail to reproduce. But if some difference was helpful, the new copy would be better at surviving and more and more would survive.

In the rest of the book she describes the evolution of life from the simple to the more complex and finally to primates and humans. Jackson ends by saying: “Even today the tree of life keeps growing. All living things are joined together by this wonderful tree that grew from the first almost alive thing. The Earth is full of beetles and birds, redwood tree and whales, butterflies and baboon and humans. Life dances in their bodies and forms of all these creatures. It is a magic torch that has been passed down through the ages to all the living things on the planet. We shall hold it awhile before passing it on to others.” This last quotation with its use of the phrase “magic torch” could suggest to children that life is paranormal and supernatural. Although allowances should be made for the desire of the author to convey the excitement and wonder of evolution, this lapse into misleading metaphor is in conflict with the naturalistic language used in the rest of the book and might have been avoided.

Atheistic parents will be pleased that such an attractive book conveying the essentials of evolution simply and accurately to young readers is available. However, those who wish their children to think critically about evolution will be disappointed that the author is apparently uninterested in getting young children to raise epistemic questions about evolution. Perhaps she supposes that queries such as how we know that evolution is true or why a creationist account is false are inappropriate for young children, but it is certainly not clear she is correct. In any case, atheistic educators should raise these questions as soon as it is feasible to do so.

What About Gods?, a 32 page book by Chris Brockman published by Prometheus Books in 1978 for children ages 7-11, presents an unabashedly atheistic, anti-religious point of view.[2] No gods are real, says the author who explicitly places gods in the same category as fairies and dragons. Although people have thought that the existence of gods explains many things, it does not. A belief in gods is based on faith, not proof, and having faith is “lying to one’s mind.” In order to set modern theism in proper perspective, the book points out that some religions have no gods while other religions have many gods; indeed that the vast majority of people who belong to organized religion are not theists. Moreover, the book lists many of the evils of organized religion, especially of Western religion: bloody Holy Wars, the generation of guilt, the overemphasis on ceremony, the neglect of worldly problems, the suppression of free thought, the rigidity of moral rules.

In addition to this anti-religious stance What About Gods? does provide some positive philosophy. Young readers are exhorted to think for themselves–presumably critical thinking is at issue here. Science, which is said to consist of thinking, measuring and testing, is praised. The principle of making the world a “nicer place for all of us” and “a beautiful and friendly place to live” is advocated in contrast to the other-worldly principles of religion.

How might such a book be used? It cannot be introduced into public schools in the United States for two reasons. One is that the book’s messages would no doubt offend theistic parents. Moreover, the principle of the separation of church and state entails not only that religious instruction is forbidden in state-supported schools but that anti-religious instruction is forbidden. The book can, however, be used by atheistic parents to introduce their children to what to believe. Also humanistic Sunday schools may find the book congenial.

The book does, however, have some limitations that should be noted. First, although it praises the virtues of science, it suggests a much too simple a view of it. Science is surely more than thinking, measuring, and testing. Indeed, it is no real objection to a belief in gods, as the books suggests it is, that gods cannot be seen, heard, felt or smelled, since neither can some of the entities postulated by science (e.g., subatomic particles). In general, the crucial role theory plays in science is neglected.

Second, if the author means by the term “proof” that conclusive evidence cannot be cited, the book is correct in pointing out that the existence of gods cannot be proved. But by the same token, in this sense there is no proof that there are no gods and no proof that there are electrons. Proof in the strong sense used in the book is not appropriate in either religion or science. What is appropriate– and what is neglected in What About Gods?— is the judicious weighing of evidence and arguments for believing that either theism or atheism is true. Such weighing does not yield conclusive conclusions, but it may yield good reasons for accepting either theism or atheism.

Although Brockman’s book exhorts children to think and argues that basing one’s views on faith is lying to one’s mind, the atheism presented in it is not argued for: indeed, throughout the book it is taken for granted that gods are unreal. The closest thing one finds to an argument against a belief in gods is the claim that this is not explanatory since the existence of gods itself remains unexplained. This point is similar to one standard objection to the cosmological argument for the existence of God–the argument that the Universe must have a cause and this is God–although it is not clear that the author realizes this. For example, one standard criticism of this objection to the Cosmological Argument is that theists suppose that God’s existence needs no explanation and yet argue that the existence of the Universe need an explanation in terms of God. However, why suppose this? Why not suppose that there is no God and that the Universe needs no explanation? But even if this standard objection to the cosmological argument is sound, it seems at most to show that one cannot justify belief in gods by means of the cosmological argument. This is quite different from showing that a belief in no gods is justified. Yet atheism, not agnosticism, is being advocated in this book.

Unfortunately, Brockman makes no mention of the problem of evil: a problem many children seem to grasp readily and which provides one of the strongest arguments for atheism. Indeed, for the most part, the standard arguments for the existence of gods, as well as the standard criticisms of these arguments are ignored. Yet with the possible exception of the ontological argument, many children seem able to grasp these traditional arguments and their critiques if they are presented clearly and simply.

In sum, although atheists may be pleased that such a book is now available for their children, they will be disappointed that a better one was not written. A book is still needed that teaches children to consider evidence and arguments, one that presents atheism not simply as another dogma.

Humanism For Kids, a 38 page booklet written by Devin and Damian Carroll, Lloyd and Margaret Kumley, Diane Rombach, and Peter Wernick with art work by Kate Raymond and Lloyd Kumley, and published by Family of Humanists (PO Box 4153, Salem, OR 97302), is designed to teach humanism to children from age eight to teenagers. The booklet is divided into two parts. The first, “What is Humanism?” introduces young readers to various aspects of humanism and the second , “Getting Along With People,” treats a number of topics in moral and character education including being sensitive to others, being on time, and sharing.

Humanism is not precisely defined in this booklet but the authors make it quite clear that humanists believe that humans are part of nature and that nature works by itself and not because of “a powerful, invisible, father-like being (‘God’). . . . ” Admitting that humanists do not know how the universe began or how life started, they say that humanists “think the best way to find answers to these questions is to use science.” As far as moral values are concerned, the booklet advocates the golden rule, being honest, trying to live good lives, helping each other, working towards a better world, democracy and freedom, allowing people to believe what they want as long as they do not harm others, not fighting about beliefs, being friendly with everyone even if they don’t agree with us, gender equality, and caring for the environment.

The booklet advocates the scientific method which, it says, sorts out what is true, what is not true, and what we are not sure about. The scientific method is said to consist of watching things happen, trying to think of reasons for what is seen, testing each idea with measurements and experiments, thinking about the results carefully and discussing them with others, changing the idea and testing it again if the idea doesn’t fit with other things we know.

Once again this book cannot be introduced into public schools in the United States without antagonizing religious parents, and, in any case, violating the separation of church and state. The book can, however, be used by atheistic parents to introduce their children to what to believe. In addition, humanistic Sunday schools will find the book compatible with their goals.

The book does have limitations, however, two of which resemble those found in What About Gods? First of all, humanism is simply asserted and is not argued for. Indeed, although arguments understandable to children are not hard to construct, no arguments are presented for not believing in the traditional theistic God or for the difficulties of basing moral values on religion. Nevertheless, children raised with humanist beliefs will surely be confronted in their contacts with religiously trained children with arguments for God’s existence and for the necessity of a religiously based morality. Unfortunately, this book fails to provide the knowledge and tools for dealing with such challenges. Second, although the moral precepts enumerated in the book are no doubt worthy and important, the authors give no clue as to how these precepts should be instilled in young humanists. Obviously, simply reading about these precepts is not sufficient. Some guidance for parents and teachers is needed about how to instruct humanistic children to follow the golden rule, to be honest, and so on. Third, the scientific method expounded in this booklet is too abstract and simplistic to make much sense to children. No examples are given of its application and no contrasts are provided with alternative methods. Moreover, the application of scientific method to moral questions is left unanswered although specific moral values are advocated throughout.

How Do You Know It’s True?, a 112 page book written by Hy Rucklis and published by Prometheus Books in 1991, introduces young people to the scientific method and the differences between science and superstition. The age of the intended audience is the “tween years” (roughly 11 to 14). Thus, the book is written for more mature children than are the ones by Joe Nickell and Dan Barker.

Using case studies, in Part One of How Do You Know Its True?, Rucklis considers the nature of superstition, which he defines as a belief that is held despite evidence that it is not true. Rucklis says, “superstitions are based on the beliefs that some people, plants, animals, stars, words, numbers or special things have magical powers. They are supposed to be able to do astonishing things that no one truly observes happening anywhere, although many people imagine they are happening. These superstitions contradict what we know about the real world (p. 17).” He calls one fallacy associated with superstitious thinking “card stacking”. This is the mistake of concentrating on the evidence that supports a claim without considering the evidence against a claim. As case studies of superstition he critically considers the use of witchcraft in treating disease, the popular belief that 13 is an unlucky number, and the widespread acceptance of astrology. Rucklis argues that controlled experiments are needed to determine whether some remedy is effective but he is careful not to dismiss witch doctors entirely since, he says, some of their medicines have proven effective. With respect to “13 as an unlucky number”, he considers the difficulties in setting up an experiment to determine whether bad luck is associated with living on the 13th floor of a building. However, he concludes that statistical data of fires, crimes, disease, deaths and accidents in the home and in airplane crashes indicate that such misfortunes are no more associated with the 13th day of the month than any other day of the month. As for astrology, he rejects it not because it makes false predictions but because the theory is absurd, is based on vague analogical reasoning, and makes arbitrary assumptions.

In Part Two of How Do You Know Its True?, Rucklis considers the nature of science, using as a case study the famous incident of rocks falling out of the sky on the village of Laigle in France in 1803. He describes the scientific investigation of this incident and explains how the knowledge of meteorites grew over the years. In the final chapter he explains how science can help solve some of our problems. Using the example of air pollution Rucklis shows how from science we know how to reduce and even practically eliminate air pollution by conserving energy and replacing the burning of polluting fuels for energy with non-polluting sources of energy.

Atheistic parents and teachers will appreciate Rucklis’ attempt to distinguish superstition and science and his illuminating use of actual examples. Although his account of science will seem overly simple to mature readers, it is probably sophisticated enough for the average tween. The basic problem with this book with respect to atheistic education is that it shrinks from directly applying its lessons to religion. Does the author suppose that religion is a superstition? One suspects that he may, given his definition of superstition, yet religion and belief in God are never mentioned in this book. Is the author worried about offending the parents of his intended audience by classifying belief in God as superstition? Or does he believe that the problem of how to classify religion is too difficult and complex for a children’s book? In any case, Rucklis could have shown how the scientific method can be used to evaluate some religious claims, for example, claims about healing and the efficacy of prayer. Not only do no such applications appear in the book, there are no hints or suggestions as to how the application might proceed.

Educating Children About Atheism

I turn now to Gerald A. Larue’s Freethought Across the Centuries. My main critical focus will be whether and how this 516 page book, published in 1996 by Humanist Press, provides an intellectual framework for teaching about atheism in the public schools.

Freethought Across the Centuries was inspired and sponsored by Objectivity, Accuracy and Balance in Teaching About Religion, Inc., (OABITAR), an organization promoting the recognition that skepticism, rationalism, critical thinking, independent reasoning and open inquiry “have been present throughout human history; have been inevitably generated by religions themselves, and have been the basis for intellectual growth and progress, and the development of values and ethical systems, of humankind.” OABITAR has been seeking — so far unsuccessfully– to introduce the teaching about freethought into the California public school system. Intended to supply the intellectual foundations of this program, Freethought Across the Centuries is a history of religion from the dawn of civilzation to contemporary times that pays special attention to those thinkers who have challenged the religious status quo.

The book’s twenty-two chapters range from the magico-religious rites of cave dwellers to the words of a song by John Lennon that Larue describes as a freethought prayer. Thus, in an early chapter on the Gods of Babylon and Egypt the poem of an ancient harpist who questions the validity of the belief of life after death is quoted. In a chapter on Islam there is a section on freethinkers and skeptics in this tradition. In a chapter on India one section is devoted to freethinkers from ancient schools of atheism to the contemporary Indian Science and Rationalist Association and the Indian Humanist Union.

Freethought Across The Centuries is an impressive piece of scholarship that will be invaluable if and when, OABITAR’s recommendations are taken seriously by the California public school system. It will also be useful in adult education classes run by humanist or atheist groups. In fact, Steve Best has led a discussion of this book for the Rationalist Society of St. Louis. However, there are problems that make Freethought Across The Centuries less than ideal as a textbook on rational nonbelief in general and atheism in particular.

First, the definition of “freethinker” Larue adopts is excessively broad. By “freethinker” he means an independent thinker–someone who challenges the religious tradition in which she was raised. Although this definition includes atheists, agnostics, skeptics and humanists it also encompasses deists and a wide variety of unorthodox religious believers. Larue is aware that his definition will not “please everyone (p. 6).” According to it, Buddha, Mohammed and Martin Luther were freethinkers since they questioned their religious traditions. Although Larue does not explicitly draw the implication, it would seem that Joseph Smith and Reverend Moon as well as practically every cult leader who challenges the religious tradition in which he or she was raised would also be considered freethinkers on his definition.

Second, although at times Larue seems to associate freethought with critical thinking, free inquiry, and the nonreligious, his broad definition is not necessarily connected with any of these ideas. As it is usually understood, critical thinking involves the use of science and logic to expose fallacies, unsupported claims and unquestioned premises. But “independent thinkers” like Luther and Mohammed based their challenges to the religious status quo on irrational factors and new religious dogmas. Nor do independent thinkers on Larue’s account necessarily advocate free inquiry. Indeed, they often substitute one religious authority for another, and one set of unquestioned dogmas for another. Independent thought has no necessary connection with the nonreligious either. The great and not so great religious founders were independent thinkers in Larue’s terms but were usually opposed to atheists, agnostics, rationalists and skeptics and were quite willing to suppress them. One of the major premises of Freethought Across The Centuries is that freethinkers– that is, independent thinkers– have been the basis for intellectual growth and progress, and for the development of values and the ethical systems of mankind. But, given the author’s broad definition of “freethinkers”, one could also argue that freethinkers have often been responsible for the suppression of intellectual growth and progress and for the development of negative values and repressive, horrid ethical systems.

Third Freethought Across the Centuries is especially disappointing in regard to its treatment of atheism; in fact, Larue does not seem to understand what atheism is. Although he is correct that its original Greek meaning simply was being without a God, the contemporary meaning involves the denial of the existence of God.[3] Moreover, Larue ingnores the fact that atheists actually seek to prove that God does not exist. Yet, many atheistic arguments– for example, the argument from evil and arguments that attempt to show that the concept of God is inconsistent– do precisely this.[4] In addition, Larue only considers one modern philosophical atheist in his book: Bertrand Russell. He does not mention contemporary philosophical atheists such as Kai Nielsen, Antony Flew, and Michael Martin, let alone 19th Century philosophical atheists such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Feuerbach. So, if this book is used in a course to teach people about atheism, it will have to be supplemented.


Although the children’s books reviewed here have problems, they can be useful in an overall program of educating people to be atheists. After all, books are only one part of an educational program. Much depends on what teachers and parents do with the relevant reading material, and even excellent books may have little educational impact if they are not used wisely. Atheistic education takes place in a variety of contexts–in homes, nonreligious Sunday schools, atheistic organizations–and its impact will be a function of this total context. Indeed, atheists can make good educational use of religious books for children. For example, Jane Werner Watson’s My Little Golden Book about God published by the Western Publishing Company in 1975, can be a perfect tool for getting children to think about the problem of evil. This book, illustrated with drawings of angelic children and the beauties of nature, portrays God as Love without mentioning all of the problems with this view.

Much the same thing can be said about Freethought Across the Centuries. Despite its limitations it can still be useful in an overall program of education about atheism. It provides a framework that can help a good teacher to distinguish a freethinker who is an atheist from a freethinker who is not and to show how atheists are freethinkers of a special kind. It can also provide a framework for expanding Larue’s limited account of atheism. Context again is crucial and it is important to remember that even in educating people about about atheism reading materials are less important than what is done with them.

Nevertheless, having said that context is crucial, the fact remains that the lack of excellent atheistic educational literature–whatever value this literature may have when judged on other grounds–makes it hard to provide excellent atheistic education.


[1] See for example, Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). See my review of this book in Free Inquiry, 17, 1997, pp. 58-61

[2] A version of a review this book was first published in Teaching Philosophy, 2, 1979-80, pp. 126-27.

[3] See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 463-64.

[4] See Ibid., Part II.

“Atheistic Education” is copyright © by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.

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