Book Review: Parenting Beyond Belief
This book, written from an explicitly atheistic perspective, is unlike many other books about parenting that are available throughout the USA. The editor states that “There are scores of books on religious parenting. Now there’s one for the rest of us” (p. x). In spite of its clearly non-religious posture, this book is not intended to denigrate religion and its practitioners. In fact, McGowan observes at the outset that “religion has much to offer parents: an established community, a predefined set of values. . .comforting answers to big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss” (p. x). Nevertheless, McGowan and many others believe that there are compelling benefits to raising children outside of religious traditions. This book is intended to assist such parents.
The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which is comprised of an introduction by the editor and writings from various authors, many of whom identify themselves as freethinkers. These authors include philosophers, scientists, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, a former Pentecostal minister, a comedian and several others. The chapters address such issues as religious literacy, parenting in a mixed secular/religious marriage, good and bad reasons for belief, celebrating religion-free holidays, developing moral values, coping with death and consolation, developing critical thinking skills and habits, and building secular communities. McGowan and several other authors agree that this final task, building communities, is the one at which freethinkers, in stark contrast to religious adherents, have been least successful.
It is not surprising that most of the contributing authors have negative feelings about religion. To their credit, they generally focus on the positive aspects of atheism and avoid, for the most part, criticizing particular religious tenets and practices. They accomplish this in spite of their contention that the greatest challenge of secular parenting is enabling their children to cope as members of a nonreligious minority within an overtly religious society, particularly one that leans heavily toward conservative Protestantism and evangelicalism. They note that, since they and their children are frequently criticized, and even persecuted, for their lack of faith, it is important to form supportive communities with other freethinkers. This is an interesting counterpoint to the repeated contention of religious conservatives that it is their values, in fact, which are under attack from secular humanists.
The quality of deliberation and expression is consistently high throughout this volume. Some pieces, such as the excerpt from Mark Twain’s inimitable Little Bessie Would Assist Providence, and Yip Harburg’s short poems, are outrageously funny. Others, such as Margaret Downey’s account of her struggle with the Boy Scouts of America – who refused to admit her son because he would not join an “acceptable” church – are heartrending. Still others, such as Kristan Lawson’s explanation of evolution, are richly informative. None of the writings are shallow and all are thought-provoking. Ethical philosophers, in particular, will be intrigued by chapters four, “On Being and Doing Good,” and five, “Values and Virtues, Meaning and Purpose.”
The book includes a glossary, short biographical sketches of the contributing authors and an index. It can be read straight through from cover-to-cover, or readers can pick and choose chapters or individual selections at random as it suits them. Even though the book will be of interest primarily to parents who want to raise their families outside of the constraints of traditional religions, it may also be of interest to readers who want to explore atheism, agnosticism and freethinking.
– the chaplain