Dale McGowan: Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers

McGowan, Dale. Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (New York: AMACOM, 2007)

McGowan, Dale. Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief (New York: AMACOM, 2009)

I've been reading McGowan's secular parenting blog "The Meming of Life" avidly ever since I read a pre-publication announcement about Parenting Beyond Belief, his first book on secular parenting. As he remarked in the preface to PBB, "There are scores of books on religious parenting. Now there's one for the rest of us." (p. x) With the release of Raising Freethinkers, there are now two for the rest of us.

Together, the essays in these two books cover both the theoretical (Parenting Beyond Belief) and the practical (Raising Freethinkers) aspects of secular parenting. There are plenty of reading suggestions, links, advice, and activities--perhaps too many to utilize in toto. Despite all the contributions to PBB that I enjoyed, McGowan's own essay "Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder" (pp. 220-5) is the book's highlight for me. These two passages show why:

Religious wonder--the wonder we're said to be missing out on--is counterfeit wonder. As each complex and awe-inspiring explanation of reality takes the place of "God did it," the flush of real awe quickly overwhelms the memory of whatever it was we considered so wondrous in religious mythology. (PBB, p. 222)

We must teach our kids to doubt and doubt and doubt not to "tear everything down" but to pull cheap facades away so they can see and delight in those things that are legitimately wonderful. How will they recognize them? It's easy--they're the ones left standing after the hail of critical thinking has flattened everything else. (PBB, p. 223)

McGowan's paean to Carl Sagan is especially appreciated, and I suspect that he and I could swap plenty of me-too stories about Sagan's wonderful Cosmos series. This later passage also caught my eye:

"There is another form of temptation even more fraught with danger," warned Saint Augustine. "This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us on to try to discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which men should not wish to learn." (pp. 225-6, Amanda Chesworth, "Natural Wonders," quoting from Confessions, section 10.35.54)

The quote seemed rather familiar, so I pulled my Philip Burton/Robin Lane Fox translation of Confessions off the shelf. It casts that passage this way:

"It is for this reason [morbid desire] that men seek to examine the secrets of nature, which are beyond us; it does no good to know them, yet men desire nothing but to know." (PBB, p. 249)

It's a damning passage no matter how it is worded, and the religion-based "fearthought" approach (RF, p. 2) is in the starkest contrast to freethought's encouragement of critical thinking--which is amply demonstrated in each book by McGowan and his contributors. Nearly every essay had some resonance with me, even those with which I had some quibbles. For example, Jan Devor's "Secular Family, Religious World" had a phrase that didn't ring quite right:

If her friends are persisting [in inviting her to pray around the school flagpole] because they mean well and genuinely seek her companionship, they might simply need to be thanked for their good intentions and informed that her decision not to join them is final. (RF, p. 83)

The finality--for lack of a better word--of this suggestion flies somewhat in the face of McGowan's repeated statements to his children that "it's OK to change your mind" in the process of learning and maturing. I suspect that if this were McGowan's essay, he would have suggested something along the lines of "Thank them for their good intentions and inform them that she will come to them if her decision changes."

The suggestions on pp. 12-13 about provoking children's thoughts rather than simply answering their questions remind me of a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip:


(There are several other C&H strips here and here that make similar points.)

As in PBB, McGowan's work in RF once again stands out among a strong field. Except for the heavy end-of-the-year bias, I like the following idea very much:

Why not let Sagan's Cosmic Calendar also generate some cool new humanist holidays? In the compressed cosmic year, the Milky Way came into being on May 1--so celebrate May 1 as Milky Way Day! September 9 is Sun Day, for obvious reasons. November 1 is Sex Day (evolution of sexual reproduction, 2.5 billion years ago). Kudos again to Friendly Humanist Timothy Mills for this one. (RF, pp. 166-7)

After reading several references to BeliefNet's Belief-o-Matic quiz, I finally took it. The top ten groups aligned with my views are:

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (93%)
3. Liberal Quakers (81%)
4. Theravada Buddhism (72%)
5. Neo-Pagan (70%)
6. Nontheist (70%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (68%)
8. New Age (60%)
9. Taoism (58%)
10. Reform Judaism (54%)

Throughout both books, McGowan and his contributors are very positive toward a variety of traditions, especially the freethought-friendly Unitarian Universalist Church--not the Moonies' Unification Church--which (as a former member) I appreciated. This open attitude will no doubt go a long way toward making these books palatable to religious moderate in search of god-free educational resources. If there are better collections of resources than McGowan's books, I haven't seen them yet--although my to-be-read list has grown substantially by adding many of the books he and his contributors have suggested.


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