Book Review: Parenting Beyond Belief

October 31, 2007 at 10:54 am 8 comments

Parenting Beyond BeliefThis 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

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A Hobbit’s Tale of the Soul Why do unbelievers care so much about belief?

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike  |  October 31, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    the chaplain-

    I really like this article and the attention it brings to the book in what seems to be a fair light. I am curious why you think a book like this would be necessary since almost every child developmentalist of note is a humanist. Is it that the more academic research being done isnt making it into the public consciousness? Do you think that Christians have in some sense “hijacked” this research and made it their own? I guess my question is, “Why do you think such a response is needed?”

  • 2. the chaplain  |  October 31, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    You asked: Is it that the more academic research being done isn’t making it into the public consciousness?

    Speaking generally, academics are in the habit of writing for themselves, not for the public. In research universities, tenure is acquired by publishing in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals rather than pedestrian publications like Ladies Home Journal or GQ. Book publication is okay, but it lacks the status of peer-reviewed, ground-breaking primary research. And editing or writing a textbook for public school use is laughable – not considered a serious endeavor at all. Writing or editing college texts is somewhat more dignified and respectable. Consequently, non-sectarian academic material typically takes a long time to be distilled and translated from academic-speak into common-sense language that can be embraced by the public. By the time that happens, the original ideas have been transformed and enhanced.

    In contrast, the faculty at Christian institutions often write books, as well as articles for Christian journals like Christianity Today or Leadership. By doing this, they flood the popular market with their materials. Christians have an advantage in product placement, too, as their goods are sold in both secular venues, such as Barnes & Noble or Safeway, as well as Christian bookstores. You won’t find Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, or any other critics of Christianity, in the latter locales.

    You also asked Do you think that Christians have in some sense “hijacked” this research and made it their own? That’s exactly what they’ve done. Again, they have an advantage regarding source material. They can use either their own home-grown stuff, or they can adapt what they like from the secular world, run it through their filters and package it as Christian product.

    McGowan’s book is a straight-forward attempt to bring balance to the discussion by unapologetically putting his atheistic background right out front and challenging the Religious Right’s self-anointed status as arbiter of Family Values. The USA, in particular, needs more authors like McGowan to stand up and speak out boldly from an atheistic position.

  • 3. Matt Blazer  |  October 31, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    I think it is only fair to say that Christians have two corners of the market in some venues. Even the supposition that the culture is dominated by conservative-Protestant Evangelicals is only true in some cities… Maybe it is the majority in America, but it seems that the marketing people drive this (where a book is sold and why) more than the atheists, humanists, or Christians.

    For my money, I love a reasoned thought out approach and know great books by Christians that you wouldn’t know are Christians by their book, great books by non-Christians… never mind… labels don’t help. It sounds like a great book, and as I have a daughter I will definitely pick it up. Being a Theist just changes the way my wife and I would use it – but always critically. Thanks for a great post the chaplain!

  • 4. Steelman  |  October 31, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    I first heard about this book from Noell Hyman’s blog, Agnostic Mom (she’s one of the contributors). I bought a copy as soon as it was available, and have enjoyed it. If you like Dale McGowan’s writing (he writes several of the chapters in PBB), you might want to check out his blog. There’s a link to it at the site for the book:

  • 5. momof2ballerinas  |  November 3, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    I have been reading this book & am really enjoying it. I checked it out from the library & it is one I plan on buying!

  • 6. Samanthamj  |  November 4, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    I have read Parenting Beyond Belief – and love Dale McGowan’s blog too ( He writes with humor and makes good points.

    In a world where most people don’t seem to think you can raise moral kids without religion being a key factor, (or at least that’s how it seems in MY little corner of the world) the PBB book was really a wonderful and welcome parenting tool.

    I know many of my friends and family think I’m doing a great in-justice bringing my kids up without church every Sunday. Being that I WAS brought up going to church 2-4 times a week, it is sometimes a bit difficult to head into uncharted territories of bringing up my kids without so much religion – and I wonder sometimes if I am handling things the “right” way. Of course, I want what is best for my children. This seems hard for any of my Christian friends/family to conceive that I don’t think raising them religiously is best – but, I don’t.

    When I searched for advice or help, I usually came across parenting/family value type books or feedback from Christians – including the usual advice to “pray” or “believe” or “hand it over to God”.

    Parenting Beyond Belief was the first book I saw that seemed like it was specifically for people like me. I appreciated the advice on how to handle certain situations as a non-believer. I also liked the many different perspectives and ideas on ways to raise good, moral, intelligent, free-thinking children that this book offered. Last but not least, it was also nice to hear some personal stories, realize I’m not alone… and that my kids aren’t the only ones not being dragged off to church most Sundays.


  • 7. The stages of grief over my loss of faith « de-conversion  |  November 9, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    […] summer, I was asked to write a book review of Parenting Beyond Belief, which endorses explicitly atheistic points of view with regard to child-rearing. When I initially […]

  • 8. Aron  |  January 30, 2008 at 12:19 am

    You have a nice blogs here. I want to read this book, thanks to let me know about this. Keep the good work.

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Attention Christian Readers

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



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