Thursday, May 31, 2007

Parenting Beyond Belief

Every now and then, I come across a parenting book that is useful. This one, Parenting Beyond Belief, is a keeper. The editor, Dale McGowan, has compiled a great bunch of essays about "raising ethical, caring kids without religion." Rather than a "how to" guide, it's more of a "how we do/did it." If nothing else, it's great to see something in print that suggests atheist parents aren't amoral bastards bent on destroying society as we know it.

Until very recently, polite society absolutely relegated talk of atheism to the same status as things like cannibalism, hummingbird fights, prison violence, deforestation, defenestration, masturbation, animal sacrifice and Dick Cheney. We know they happen and that really bothers most people but generally better not to mention them at the dinner table let alone at playgroup. Recent offerings by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have given atheists a little more confidence in their (our) convictions, but have not (as yet) done much to further respect for atheism and atheists. That's probably going to take some time, since a lot of us get defensive at constant needling from theists and take an "us vs. them" stance when it's probably not strictly necessary. Eventually this discussion will mature, but for now both sides are carrying on in the face of what seems like increasingly open hostility. Of course, I could be wrong but that's how it looks from here.

It is a common misconception that theism and morality are synonymous. For many people (theists and budding skeptics alike) this leads to the belief that atheism and amorality are also synonymous. Erroneous assumptions all around for reasons I won't detail here, but worth pondering. Hence the title and subtitle of this book. Wow-I can raise good kids without god?! Earth shattering! Not really, but it gives me an inkling that I'm not crazy for trying.

So-on to my review of this book...

Generally, my favorite essays are the ones by the editor, Dale McGowan. He's funny, ironic, and succinct. He's a great foil for some of the more self-important contributors. The things he writes generally gel with my parenting philosophy.

A few of the essays were just so self-important I couldn't get into them. This includes Pen Jillette's smug contribution and a self-congratulatory piece by Shannon and Matthew Cherry. Otherwise, even the essays that didn't speak to my particular experience/perspective were helpful and engaging.

My very favorite piece in the whole book is by Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons and titled "Dealing with Death in the Secular Family." Compassionate, level-headed, common sense. This is the only part of the book that felt specifically instructional to me, and I loved it. I'm thinking of memorizing it for when Princess Lemon Drop (the goldfish), Beaker (the bird) and Flapjack (the cat) all eventually shuffle off their mortal coils. An indispensable resource, and not just for atheists. I've been asked by many a theist "So what are you going to tell Elise about death?" and this is my answer. Thank you, Rev. Gibbons.

I also really liked the point-counterpoint on Santa Claus. It was helpful, and as I found so many times in this book, McGowan saves the day. We had a bit of a Cult of Santa thing going on here this year, and I'd begun to think that we'd irreparably harmed our child. Not a surprising worry when our lives were beginning to be run by obscure rules about what might please Santa. I dare you to keep a straight face while watching a three year old presenting offerings of dead leaves to garden gnomes or throwing leaves and flower petals to the southeast (always the southeast-it was uncanny) in hopes of appeasing the Big Guy. Or speaking in whispers while playing maracas in the living room for fear of waking Santa and making him mad. And, what normal child wants cookies to leave around for Santa but not eat for herself? A religion was born right before our eyes. The "Santa is evil" contributor confirmed my worst fears, McGowan had me laughing and convinced we'd be just fine.

Jean Mercer's excellent essay is a nice primer on human development and morality, a further reminder that theism doesn't create morality, human experience does. Pull this one out for the smarty-pantses who contend there's no way a kid can grow up "good" without religion.

McGowan's Seven Secular Virtues are fabulous and would be helpful guides for any conscientious parent. Or non-parent. And they're presented in McGowan's excellent style, so prepare to enjoy. Also, Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder. That one reminded me to get out there and rediscover my sense of wonder. Voila, I have two new hobbies of birdwatching and astronomy because by gum I don't want to have to explain to my kid how to not be bored. And ohmygosh even a little bit of scientific exploration is enough to provide years of wonder and awe at the incredibleness of the universe in which we live.

The one chapter of this book that fell flat for me was the one on seeking community. Theists have communities, and many closet atheists stick with theists for the sake of that community. I'm skeptical that a community of people devoted to not believing in god(s) is viable. That throws "belief" right into the center of things again, and didn't we all leave theism behind to get away from that? Too much potential for dogmatism, in my opinion. There are a lot of other fun, interesting things to do and communities to be found and formed. I dunno that I personally want to devote any more of my life to setting myself up in opposition to theism than I already do. And the essays in this chapter kind of reinforced that for me so maybe that was an ulterior motive of the editor...

In conclusion, I was much more impressed by this book than I expected to be. So much of the atheist literature out there is smug and combative and designed to impress (and irritate) theists. This one is relaxed, gentle, and a real breath of fresh air. Don't expect to buy it at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble-they aren't stocking it. If you're of an atheist bent, go in and order it-maybe they'll order extras. If you're of a theistic bent and don't want to encourage the godless, surreptitiously order it online and use it as a tool for understanding what your weirdo friends are thinking about.

If anyone out there has read this book or is reading it currently, I'd love to see your thoughts! Oh, and if you'd just like to rant about theism, atheism, parenting or Dick Cheney, please do so. It would be nice to see some things written on this blog by our readers!

Another good review to read is here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Atheism IS a religion in California!