Dale McGowan – Raising Freethinkers

May 15, 2009

Dale McGowan has edited and co-authored Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, the first comprehensive resources for nonreligious parents. He writes the secular parenting blog The Meming of Life, teaches nonreligious parenting seminars across the United States, and serves as executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a 501(c)(3) humanist charitable and educational foundation based in Atlanta. In September 2008 he was named Harvard Humanist of the Year by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Dale McGowan talks about raising freethinking children who are steeped in the values of science and humanism. He confronts some of reasons why some nonreligious parents may continue to raise their children in a religion, including moral education, identity and community. He describes trends within the scientific rationalist and humanist movements to provide secular community, which he argues are being driven by freethinking families. He talks about ways that church is increasingly becoming replaced by secular communities, and how churches are increasingly becoming more like secular community centers, as opposed to houses of worship. He argues that raising freethinkers is the opposite of indoctrinating children in atheism, secular humanism or skepticism, emphasizing that “freethinking” is an approach to knowledge as opposed to a worldview. He also argues that parenting should not be focused on the value of inquiry and scientific skepticism, but on wonder, mystery and awe. He talks about the dangers of inculcating elitism among freethinking children. He explains why teaching about religion to freethinking children is important. He addresses ways of confronting death and the meaning of life with freethinking children, including how highly unlikely it is that any of us even exist. He talks about alternatives to lying to children about heaven, including facts from physics about the atoms in our bodies having existed since the beginning of the universe, and how such scientific truths may take on mystical pantheistic meanings. He talks about new social science research on happiness, and how it relates to and informs secular parenting. And he cautions that applying the best social science to parenting shouldn’t mean that we make our children our next science project.

Also in this episode, Michael Blanford, founder of the Skeptical Society of St. Louis and coordinator for the Life Science Lab for the St. Louis Science Center, shares an audio essay about the awe of science for children and why freethinkers should be more emotionally engaged when celebrating evolution as the story of life.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 15th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast. The Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. Before we get to this week’s guest, here’s an audio essay from Michael Blanford, founder of the Skeptical Society of St. Louis, vice president of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis. There’s a lot of free thinking going on in this town. He’s also coordinator for the Life Science Lab at the St. Louis Science Center. He has an essay about the all and wonder of science for children. 

As a science educator in a museum, an active member of the skeptical community and a parent, I spend a lot of time talking with kids about science in the natural world. There’s no question that we offer children so much. When we invite them into the great human enterprise of science, they’re exposed to this massive body of knowledge with unmatched explanatory powers derive from this rich history of exploration and inquiry. They also come away with a powerful intellectual tool set. They’ll help them throughout their lives to solve problems. Look for truth and enrich their minds. These are all crucial things, and they must be top priorities for teachers and parents. But if we stop there, I’m afraid we’re falling a bit short. We must show children the universe through a scientific lens. But I think at times we owe it to them to step back, expose them to the sense of awe and wonder that nature can also provide. Many believers and some nonbelievers suffer from this misconception that religious experience has the monopoly on this powerful and often transformative emotion. In my opinion, when compared to the mystery, the beauty and the massive scale of this naturalistic universe, the story offered by religion feels small and uninspired. This sense of off seems to have the universal effect of being self diminishing. And at the same time making us feel connected to something much larger. 

This experience can give us great joy, but it also offers much more. 

Nurturing the sense of on children takes the focus away from themselves, as well as from material and socially boards, and puts it on the elegance, the mystery and their place in this vast, complicated universe. Some research even suggests that it may help them deal with other complex and confusing aspects of life, such as the uncertainty of human relationships. AWD doesn’t only come from the immensity of the cosmos or a panoramic view of a stunning landscape, exploring evolution is equally fertile ground. When we talk with children about evolution, I think we often diminish its ability to inspire. While we show them why evolution is undeniable, why it’s a unifying concept that connects every discipline of the life sciences. We should also be reminding them that this is our story. This is an amazing narrative that’s been four billion years in the making. And it connects us by common ancestry to the bewildering diversity of all life on Earth. And if that can inspire or I’m not sure what can. So let’s continue to show children what science says and what science is, but not forget to cultivate a sense of celebrating nature that will enrich their lives and serve the greater interests of free thought and the scientific outlook. 

When walking through the exhibit space in the science museum where I work, I have and take special notice of how families interact with our evolution display. I occasionally stop and chat when I have time. More often than not, those families who are most emotionally engaged in the contest are creationists. See, they’re the ones who talk about evolution around the dinner table and in the car on the way to school. Perhaps that explains why the Creation Museum has attendance numbers that rival the most popular science museums in the country. The problem is that most of us who accept the scientific view of evolution do just that. We accept it. We do very little to celebrate this incredible biography of life or to hold it up as the great showcase of the scientific endeavor. So let’s do our kids a favor. Let’s become engaged. But not just intellectually, but emotionally. Let’s make science beautiful, powerful and personal. So let’s make a point of talking about evolution at the dinner table. Let’s take time to stop to look up at the night sky. But not just to describe it, but to also wonder at it into feels small beneath it. 

I’m happy to have Dale McGowan as my guest this week on Point of Inquiry. He is a writer and editor and a parenting educator who’s edited and coauthored a couple of books. 

Parenting Beyond Belief and his new book, Raising Freethinkers. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Dale McGowan, good to be here. 

Thanks, T.J.. 

Dale, we were talking off air. My partner and I are beginning the whole fostering to adopt process. We want to have kids. Congratulations. Well, thank you. And although somehow it seems less meaningful to congratulate us for that than a woman who’s labored for nine months, you know, housing one in a womb. If only there were wombs for rent, we’d be a little happier. What I’m getting at, Dale, is, you know, we’re beginning the process. So I have been reading all of these books on parenting and how to encourage critical thinking in youngsters. And your book, Parenting Beyond Belief. It’s really the book when it comes to raising secular humanist and skeptical kids. 

Well, that seems to be the case, and that never ceases to amaze me. I, I hear that once in a while. And it is just as shocking as it was three or four years ago when I started on the project and realized that there was nothing else out there. So, yeah, it does seem to be the central resource right now, and that’s gratifying. 

And you wrote it because there was nothing else out there. 

I wrote it because I needed it and there was nothing else. That’s exactly right. I was looking for answers myself and was really shocked that nothing comprehensive without their dealing with the topics one at a time. 

This new book is Raising Free Thinkers. It’s a practical guide for parenting beyond belief. Is it like the sequel or. It’s it’s more of a handbook. 

It’s a companion. I think it is a sequel, but it’s the practical sequel. So parenting beyond belief really lays out a sort of general philosophy of parenting, of non-religious parenting, and gives a lot of perspectives and anecdotal evidence. If you put it that way and then raising freethinkers is the other shoe dropping, this is the answer to practical questions that people have activities that families can do together, resource reviews, all that sort of practical stuff. 

Mm hmm. Dale, I have some friends in Pittsburgh who get this. They’re secular Orthodox Jews means, you know, they don’t believe in God, but they’re kind of very strict about their Judaism. You know, they keep kosher and all that stuff. They’re raising their children as Orthodox Jews, even though they don’t believe in God. And the rationale kind of is that you need to raise your children in a religion if they’re going to grow up and be moral. And there are all these other benefits, community identity, all that stuff. What do you have to say to that argument? 

Well, I actually have had some contact with Humanistic Judaism. I just spoke to a congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Connecticut, in Westport. And it’s a fascinating movement. It’s about 40 years old now. And this idea that Judaism is useful and desirable for Jews as an identity and it’s something that frames and give meaning to life. And that Sherwin Wine and the other originators of this movement said, hey, we don’t want to toss out all the good aspects of having a Jewish identity simply because we’ve stopped believing in God. And a lot of people thought that was insane. And then there were others to whom it really appealed. I mean, I’ve seen people who, for example, leave Catholicism and say, you know what, this is a hard thing because I feel like I’ve lost a huge part of my identity. Yes. I don’t believe in the theology anymore, but I really wish I could still somehow be Catholic. 

And so we now have the concept and the practice of cultural Catholics. 

And what you’re describing is also someone who is a cultural Jew as someone who is taking part in all of the ritual and all of the aspects of community right down to things that formerly had an entirely theistic bent. But they’re saying we do these things with the explicit idea that this is not aimed at God is aimed at humanity. So it’s a fascinating movement and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. Some people it will appeal to and others it doesn’t appeal to at all. 

Yeah, and just point of clarification, these friends of mine aren’t necessarily part of the formal humanistic Judaism movement. It’s they’re just Orthodox Jews. But that argument. So you’re you’re basically your responses to each his own works for some people, doesn’t work for others. But, you know, there’s an implicit criticism there in that decision that raising your children as freethinkers is not enough. 

Yeah. And I think for some people, while raising your children at outside of an identified community is what I think they’re saying is not enough. I think a lot of them would still say that they are raising their kids free thinkers. There’s just saying this is our family culture. You’re growing up in and then an awful lot of them will say when you get old enough to make your own choices, you are free to identify as you wish. But this is the way that we’re defining our family and our family culture. 

And I think that can be done in a freethinking context. And it just takes a real intentionality about it. You’ve got to be sure that the kids have an explicit invitation to differ and to eventually find their own path. 

You mentioned the community aspect. Doesn’t one’s family really benefit from being involved in, you know, the church community or the temple? These atheist clubs, these skeptics in the pubs, groups out there, they don’t really celebrate the passages of life like a church does. There’s not that intergenerational caregiving going on. You know, you don’t know everyone’s children’s names. And, you know, there there’s not potlucks and all that stuff. It’s basically something for when the skeptics want to get together and argue about another reason why God or ghosts don’t exist. It’s not community building. 

Oh, yeah. And I think that the fact is that serves a lot of people. 

You know, that is all they need. That’s all they want. A certain fragment of free thought. But I think there’s another enormous, much larger portion of the Freethought world that’s looking for something else. It is looking for all those things you just described, those aspects of community and connectedness and humanity that have nothing to do with intellectual inquiry that are much more about somebody walking in the door and smiling at you and shaking your hand and asking how you are and how that back problem has gone and how your kids are doing. These are things that some of these groups have really not focused on at all. 

I’ve not had any interest in. But some, I think are now I know are now really getting serious about it. And some are really trying to focus on and build that community aspect. And it’s it’s happening in different ways at different rates around the country. But some groups are finding a lot of success with it. 

You’re seeing real trends, though, develop? 

Oh, absolutely. There’s no question. And it’s being driven by families. It’s actually if you can get families interested enough in the group to try to fix that, they have a tendency to stick around and make it what they need. 

And what they need is community, first and foremost, an intellectual inquiry. Second, it’s part of the mix, but they just take it out of the center. You know, they’re mostly getting together to get together and to be a community and support each other. And then the rest of it comes along instead of being the centerpiece. 

You’re kind of preaching my sermon. I get that point. But on the other hand, isn’t there a danger that we’re just creating what secular churches were creating replacement for church for people who don’t like the mumbo-jumbo at church? 

Yeah. I actually think that’s not a bad description. The question is whether we describe it as a danger or not. I think if we are replacing church in terms of indoctrination and dogma and division and confines of thinking, that’s a bad thing. But if we’re replacing what I think are the primary reasons people go to church and what an awful lot of polls have begun to show are the primary reasons people go to church, which is to be surrounded by people who support them and to have that feeling of community and connectedness to meaning and so on. If we’re doing that well, then, heck, there is nothing in the world wrong with achieving what churches do. All we have to do is find a way to do that without bringing along the negative aspect. It’s a challenge. It’s a difficult challenge, but I think we are completely up to it if we really focus on what’s important. 

Right. That’s the dirty little secret of the megachurches. They’re not just all praise and worship. They’re community centers where. 

Oh, my goodness. Yes, absolutely. We’ll look at Joel Osteen if you if you’ve ever watched a sermon by Joel Osteen. 

Should I say one of my favorite things to do on a Sunday morning, is that right? 

Yeah. And it’s 95 percent empowerment of 95 percent about personal growth and connectedness and all this sort of thing being the best person you can be. And then there’s a sprinkling of reference to scripture. You know, it really is secondary. And I think when people realize, well, one of the examples they have in raising freethinkers, I point out that a Gallup poll in 2007, I think it was asked people the primary reason that they go to church and gave them some options. And 27 percent of the respondents even mentioned God or worship as their primary reason. Only 27 percent, the rest, nearly three quarters are going primarily for these reasons of community, your inspiration or personal growth. And the churches are very smart about that. That’s why these nondenominational megachurches are growing. You’re exactly right. They are going after the same thing. They recognize the same needs that some of these humanist and Freethought groups have recognized. 

So those are human needs, not spiritual needs. That’s a human need. Look. We’re social primates. We want to get together, take care of each other, love on one another. And you’re seeing the humanist community, the skeptics community is being nudged in that direction. Scores of families within the community who want that. 

Yeah. Families that will if we don’t provide it, they will go straight into those churches. I know so many people who do that because they don’t they don’t find what they need in the Freethought community. It’s ironic, of course, that what that means is that a lot of the church are doing humanism. Right. You know, humanity better than the humanistic groups are doing it. I mean, it’s it’s an irony, but it’s something that I think we need to take to heart and recognize. 

Dale, your explicit in both of these books about raising freethinkers. You know, not just raising open minded, inquiring young types, but, you know, it’s it’s getting them to adopt a worldview that you’re pushing on them. So here’s the question. When does raising a secular humanist or a skeptic child become the indoctrination that we actually rail against religious folks doing to their kids? 

Oh, actually, it would become that the moment you try to do what you just described. I actually my intention is to raise freethinkers in the broad term that you you just said open minded, inquiring kids. I think it’s a huge mistake to raise kids, pointing them toward the world view that we have to raise them in order to become free thinkers in the more narrow sense. In other words, to become secular humanist. That is something I do not endorse. It’s the much broader sense in which I think we have to do this. And the reason, one of the many reasons we have to do it is that we have to trust reason. Right. If I trust the idea that a reasonable cause, a child who’s given the option to explore many different ideas will choose the one that’s most reasonable. You know, if you take fear out of the equation and you take indoctrination out, that they will choose the most reasonable. Then I’ve got to allow that to happen. 

That seems to be an awful lot of faith in reason. But you’re admitting that a definition of raising a freethinker, you know, this this definition of freethinker that you’re encouraging is that they might grow up to believe things that are completely opposite what you hoped they would. For instance, Madalyn Murray, O’Hare’s son, grew up and became an evangelical Christian minister. Right. But your you have this faith in reason that that if you if you do the parenting right, they’ll end up kind of skeptic of religion or skeptic of the paranormal because you gave them this freethinking foundation. 

Well, I think they may. My faith, I would say, isn’t so much that they would necessarily do that, but I don’t actually think if you do it right. I don’t think they’re likely to become the opposite of my world view. You know, I’d have to say that the opposite. You know, if you take the belief somatic queers or something like that, the thing that ends up on the opposite of the scale for me is evangelical Protestant Christianity. And so if my child is going to become a fundamentalist, they’re going to have to abandon the very fundamental values that we’ve that we’ve raised them in. I’m not talking about a world view, but I’m talking about the values of an open inquiry and thinking for yourself and so on. There’s a huge spectrum in between those two things. I don’t think those are the only two choices. There is a huge amount of religious expression that I find perfectly reasonable and perfectly acceptable. It’s not the same as mine. But if my child came to me and said, you know what, I have decided that I’m a liberal Quaker or I am a liberal Episcopalian or something like that or a Unitarian, there are all these various expressions that are out there doing good in the world. And they might frame it in theistic terms, but they are not a concern to me. And if my child ends up taking one of those paths, I would be perfectly fine with that. I don’t need to turn out carbon copies of myself. 

Possibly the most important thing in that whole discussion is that the one thing that I thank my parents for is that they didn’t impose their views on me. They didn’t put me in a box of any kind. They let me think for myself. Now, why? When that’s the thing I’m most grateful for. Would I deny my kids that same right. Do I really think that they’re less capable than I am of thinking their way through this thing? I don’t think that’s true. And, you know, the fact is they might land on a religious square. They might then move to another one. They might move into secularism and so on. It can become a lifelong process of self discovery. But I have to feel that if I give them the tools and the basic values of finding their way through that, that I then have to show them the respect of trusting them to find their way through it. 

So you’re basically using the term freethinking as a method, not as content? 

That’s exactly correct. It’s a posture toward knowledge. Right. I’m saying I want kids who think for themselves. 

And I, I actually don’t want free thought to be framed as a capital F word. You know that I’m in a world view that Freethought represents that that capital F represents. I want it to be a lower case. I want this to be an approach to. Knowledge and I want to say, if I put a child in an open, unrestrained situation, Freethought is actually the best way to go through that. 

So let’s get into this approach to knowledge. This critical thinking that that’s the method. It’s not the content. You’re not opening up your children’s noggins and saying believe thus. And so instead, you’re teaching them ways to kind of examine claims and to inquire. Well, I’m curious if that ends up being enough. So CFI does the summer camp for Young Skeptics Camp Inquiry. But, you know, not every freethinking family gets to send their kids to that. It’s a small camp in lieu of something like that, is raising young skeptics and freethinkers. Is it just about celebrating science to your kids? Is it? Look, of course, we all celebrate science. We’re boosters for science. But what I’m getting at is where other families get to go to Six Flags or Disney Land or kind of have holidays and celebrations and fun. Is it the freethinking family that just goes off to the science center or the museum instead? 

Well, I think it’s possible to go in that direction. 

But I think it’s not my idea of the good life. I think it’s one of the things that we can do when we take the inquiry out of the center. I mean, when it’s still a huge value and it’s still one of our primary values, but say not everything is driven by inquiry. When we do that, we can start to say, you know, part of life is about wonder, you know, and part of it is about joy and human emotion and all these sorts of things, and that those are not incompatible in any way. 

Jim Underdown right. The best science center’s really touch on those human emotions of all. 

Well, the very best ones put that at the center. I mean, they make it about wonder first and foremost. And then you say, wow, that’s fabulous. How did how does that work? And how does it how does the sun actually become a black hole or something like that? And then they are interested in finding out what’s behind the wonder. 

But I think I do think it’s possible to go too far in the direction of, like, you know, it makes sense. I understand why some people are fearful or skeptical of emotion, you know, sort of that idea of being hijacked by mystery and so on it because it’s done a lot of damage in history. You know, this is something that doesn’t always lead to good things. But I think to compensate for that, we sometimes go too far in the opposite direction. And I understand it. But I think as we start to become more comfortable in our own skins and develop these humanistic communities in a more humanistic approach to life, we’re going to be less in this tight defensive posture that leads us to narrow the field of our children’s experience. I don’t think that’s actually what most people do. But it is something to be, I think, cautious of, not of avoiding. 

Dale, I want to talk about the us versus them mentality that might accidentally get fostered in some freethinking families. I’ve seen it in the field. You know, I travel a lot. Meet with great folks all over. And there’s a kind of, I wouldn’t say a bunker mentality, but instead almost an elite ism. What do you think that it does to a child to be told, you know, honey, we’re the smart ones and everybody else out there who believes in nonsense, God or ghosts or the paranormal or, you know, whatever it is? Well, we’re kind of better than they are. We’re the smart ones. It seems kind of parallel to me, to the fundamentalist telling her children that they are chosen of God and everyone else’s damned. 

Right. I do think it is a parallel and I think it’s one of the main reasons I want to avoid it is that it’s false. You know, it is actually if we’re going to be rationalists, we want to avoid things that are false. And it’s simply factually incorrect to say that all religious people are dumb, that they have somehow missed something that we have. 

We have it together in a more profound way than they do. So the thing that I try to start my kids with from the beginning is empathy. If you ever feel yourself being in a position of sort of sneering at someone else, whether it’s a religious position or political position or whatever it is, you’ve got to back off for a second and say, what am I missing about this person’s perspective? How can I put myself in that person’s shoes and understand, even if I disagree with them, at least understand why they’ve come to the conclusions they have, how they could have done that. And so I spend a lot of time making sure that my kids you can challenge ideas all you want, go after ideas, you know, very strongly. But when it comes to people and this tendency to sort of sneer at someone who’s got a different perspective, that’s not called for, it’s not actually accurate. 

One of the stories that I’ve told is there was one time when I was watching a televangelist, you know, like you do. 

I was watching a televangelist one day and my son was watching this and he just said, is about 11 years old man or something. And he said, how can these stupid people believe these stupid things that there’s no reason for? And it was just sort of this very was this set in kind of an arrogant way? And I said, yeah, that’s kind of kind of weird, isn’t it? Hey, come can you do me a favor? Can you go down in the basement and give me a Coke? And there was this pause and he said, what? By myself? I said, Yeah, just going give me a Coke. 

I don’t like to go down by myself. And he had this irrational fear of going into the basement. I have the irrational fear going into the basement. 

So I was able to say, you know, we’ve all got these things. You know, there’s nobody to be sneering at anybody else about something being irrational. I think we can point it out. We can try to help each other work around these things. But when we start to feel too damn superior, I think it’s something that really isn’t grounded in our own reality. We’ve got to recognize as the best of, you know, the Christians would say we are all sinners. Right. In one way or another, we’re all sinners. I’m no better than you. I think the fundamentalists forget that they they say the words, but they start to feel a little superior because they are saved. Right. We don’t want to feel saved by our rationality in the same way. 

We’ve got to say I’m a critical thinking center, too. I make mistakes, too. 

And I’m going to try to, you know, come to the best agreement I can about the world and be in conversation with other people without looking down at them. Hmm. 

So it’s empathy. Empathy is how you encourage your freethinking kids to in the in this wonderful biblical phrase, to be in the world, but not of the world. Right. To be skeptics, but not to be knee-jerk rejecting of everybody else who isn’t a skeptic. 

Yeah, exactly. 

And to use that empathy to recognize when you’re doing it, you know, the moment you start to feel your lip curl or your eyes roll, you say, what am I missing about this? 

Mm hmm. Dale, the contrast of freethinking families with the believers, with the credulous. It’s especially pronounced when we’re confronted with these big meaning of life questions. You mentioned your son. Isn’t it a kind of hard sell to tell him when he was younger? Honey, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s no ultimate meaning to life. You know, when our loved one died, well, you’re never gonna see him or her again. Oh, and by the way, there’s no Santa Claus. There’s no Easter Bunny. 

Yeah, it’s. Yes. 

That would be a hard sell when it’s put in those terms. But I think what you end up with is a different approach to meaning and purpose. It’s not a better or worse one. It’s just a different one. And one of the ideas that underlies the discussions I’ve had with my kids about death, for example, one way to completely convert the consideration of death is to start with what I call a personal improbability. The fact that none of us by you know, considering the odds, none of us should even be here. The odds are so phenomenal against each one of us ever having come to be that we we actually work our way backwards. We talk about the things that could have happened to keep mice. I’d say to my son, to keep your mom and dad from meeting, from finding each other attractive, from getting married, from having kids, from having kids in a particular month. 

You know, there all these things that had to happening extend that back through the generations. And then you say most of the potential people, this is a Richard Dawkins idea. 

And it’s a beautiful it’s really a profound thought. 

It is. It’s one of the most profound things I’ve ever considered. This idea that most of the potential people, people who could have been here never made it. And if you put it in those terms and you say, but here we are, as he put it, here we are in our ordinariness. Right. It’s just us. But here we made it. We made the biggest lottery in the universe. And we get to be here for seven or eight decades before we have to go back to being inanimate again. Are we really going to complain because it doesn’t last forever? 

Or should we spend our time celebrating the fact that it happens at all? I think that’s the kind of thing that’s the kind of perspective that can transform our understanding of these things. And then it’s not quite the same simplistic. Gosh, wouldn’t heaven be a better thing? We can start to see the phenomenal wonder in that which I think frankly is far transcends religious wonder. I think it’s something much more profound. 

Yeah, I agree completely. I’ve been very moved when, you know, Dawkins talks about that his on Weaving the Rainbow other books. He gets into these kind of more meaning of life questions. But I wonder how that translates in the throes of grief when grandmother dies. Do you tell your young child that, oh, don’t worry, she’s just going back and becoming the star stuff she always was. That seems it really does seem less satisfying than you’ll see her some day again in heaven. In other words, the lies of religion make more sense to tell a child right than than for an adult believing them. You know, I don’t give a lot of room for an adult believing them, but, you know, we tell our kids Santa exists or, you know, grandma is in heaven. And it seems it seems somehow more justifiable as a lie. 

Well, you know, I have to say that I always wondered that. And before my kids got to the age when we were really talking about these things, I wondered if it was going to be a necessary lie. And frankly, my feeling is if my child would have been plunged into despair, if I really felt that it it was something that they were going to be able to work their way through, I would lie like a rug. 

I mean, that’s kind of. Do that to my child. 

Yeah. Kind of a pragmatic decision. The comfort would have trumped truth. 

Exactly. Exactly. But I believed I had a strong conviction that that wasn’t necessary. 

I have a strong conviction that the world is wonderful enough that we don’t have to create these fictions. We have to find a way to recognize that wanted at a different approach. And so what do you do? I think with grandma, for example, if you don’t wait until she dies to talk about mortality and my kid from the very, very earliest conversations we had, we were talking about recognizing. The fact that everything that lives dies and there is, frankly, something astonishing and poetic about the idea that everything that made up grandma was here at the beginning of time and everything that makes her up is going to be here until the end of time, until the end of the universe. It’s just that it came together for this short time and made her. Now it goes back into the world and it’s going to make other things, plants and animals and other people and so on. And eventually she will return to the star. I mean, there is such profound poetry in this. And I’ve seen the looks on my kid’s faces as we talk about these things. And they’re true. 

Yeah. Physics tells us it’s absolutely true. But when you’re telling it to a young child and you see this look of wonder and all kind of inspiration on your child’s face, it’s not just true. It also is taking on this kind of mystical meaning, almost, you know, like this. It’s more than just physics, right? 

Equal, exactly. I think it’s actually it’s related to a sort of pantheistic idea of being connected to the universe. And I am perfectly fine with that because it’s true. You know, it’s something that is both transcendently wonderful and actual, you know, why do we have to come up with affection for it when already the truth is more wonderful than anything I can dream up. So I think that and there is a tremendous amount of comfort in it as well when you think of it in those astonishing terms. I will always be here, but I’m just going to go back into the universe and back into these other things. And wasn’t I lucky to have been here at all? 

You know, the skeptic of pantheism or pantheism says your atoms will always be here, but you won’t always be here because the thing that you call you is this temporary collection of them organized in the way that makes it you. So it’s a kind of emotional fudging to tell, you know, your son or, you know, for for me to believe is a pin NPE. I’m not a pantheistic pantheist, for the record, but when we believe oh, we’ve always been and we always will be, we’re literally connected to everything else. We are literally the universe made aware of itself. You know, these kind of mystical constructions taking the truths of physics and adding some more meaning to it, you know? So it seems like an emotional fudging. It’s not just physics. It’s something more than physics. 

Oh, it is something more than physics. I think what it’s doing is giving meaning, giving appropriate meaning to our situation. And like you said, it is it’s not enough. It’s not a complete fix to say that my atoms will continue to be here. But it’s a start. It’s something that begins to get us to understand in a mature way. I think in a really deep and profound way what our reality is. Hmm. 

I want to finish up, Dale, by getting your take on all of this new science of happiness stuff and how it relates to parenting. There’s tons of research going on about how to raise optimistic and healthy and happy children, kind of in a secular way, not appealing to ancient dogmas, not appealing to the supernatural. It’s all coming from the social sciences. Does that inform your project of raising freethinkers? 

It actually does. The person in the second book, the coauthor who did the most work on that was actually Marlene Matsumura, who is one of our one of the four people who wrote that book. She did a great deal of work on this recent science. She introduced, for example, the idea of flow right. 

Six and MIHA years. Notion of of optimal experience. 


And the fact is, this is an idea that when you hear it fleshed out, comes very close to the idea of spirituality. Mm hmm. You know, when people talk about transcendence, when they talk about meditation or anything else, any spiritual practice that takes you out of the everyday, that takes you out of your sort of mundane, commonplace awareness, that is what a lot of people call spirituality. But this idea of flow. And we’ve all experienced that when you’re doing something that that you’re just doing exactly what you want to be doing, you’re in the groove. You’re in the moment, and you completely lose track of time. You suddenly look up at the wall in three hours, a past that is flow as described in a lot of this research. And it is really an ecstatic experience. It’s really a wonderful sense of being in the moment. And I think that’s something that gives a lot of that sense of satisfaction and pleasure, that spirituality is for a lot of other people. 

So these are psychological states that you try to encourage your children to to experience? 

Oh, absolutely. And when I see my kids struggling against something that they’re doing, like if they’re in a sport, that really isn’t their thing. You know, eventually at some point, you have to say, you know what, you’ve got to find your thing. You know, this is this is something that isn’t really clicking for you. My son is into paintball, for example. And I’m telling you, he’s playing paintball. He’s in flow. He’s completely lost track of time. He’s lost track of his own physical awareness other than the way it relates to the game and the strategy of the moment. It’s really a it’s a very pleasing thing for a parent to see because you say, boy, there’s a happy kid right now. Mm hmm. 

You don’t want to take your children out of any challenging sport or something just because they find it hard. You need the right match of their skill meeting the difficulty if it’s too difficult. It’s stressful. If it’s not difficult enough, they’re bored. You kind of need that sweet spot where it’s difficult and they’re you know, their skills are matching the difficulty. 

Yeah, that’s exactly right. Because the fact is, if it is too easy, you don’t get that flow situation either. That’s not something that you lose yourself in. So there is a sweet spot. 

Dale, we’re talking about applying kind of the the best social science research on on how to raise kids and and talk and talking about inculcating in them the virtues of free inquiry and free thinking. And we’re look, we’re all science boosters. We love the scientific worldview. It’s our thing. Are you afraid that if we’re not careful as parents and I’m speaking as one, even though I’m not one just yet, that all of our kids are just going to become like the most recent science project for us who are ourselves big science boosters like it like. Are they just going to become the next thing we try to apply human reason to fix? 

Yeah, I think there’s a tremendous danger in that. And the fact is, science is about control. It’s about controlling variables, controlling the situation so that you can figure out what you can measure changes and you can quantify what’s going on. That’s a fantastic process for discovery and for technological progress and so on. They’re all for the ways in which that served us. But if we over control our kids, you know what happens there? I mean, we were talking about, you know, the idea of Freethought kids who become fundamentalists. I think that happens when they are overcontrolled frequently. I’ve heard so many parents say my child has become a fundamentalist. I don’t even know how it happened. We never exposed them to any religion at all. They had no idea that religion existed. Well, put them in a bubble such that they they can’t help but react against that bubble when they become teenagers. I think it’s very, very common. So if you say I’m gonna give you the best foundation I can, I’m going to tell you what my values are, and then I’m going to let you find yourself kind of let your let yourself evolve through your own childhood and into adulthood and gradually let go and trust them to become the the people that they’re gonna become. I think that’s when we get the ideal result and we get individuals and we get kids that are unique, that aren’t cookie cutters of ourselves. 

So we shouldn’t be too scientific about being parents. And there is also the kind of implication in what you just said, that one of the best ways to raise a freethinking child is to introduce them to world religion. 

Oh, absolutely. I mean, there are several reasons. One of the main ones is that I really mean it when I say I want them to choose for themselves. I really do want them to do that. And I really do trust them to do that. But the other one of the other strong reasons is that they will simply be baffled by the world if they don’t know about religion. You know, so much of what goes on in the world is inflected by religion of one kind or another. And so they have to be knowledgeable about it, even if they’re not raised in it. 

And not to mention learning about world religions is the best way to inoculate yourself from the most extreme varieties of religion. 

Oh, there’s no question. Absolutely. It’s less potent and it’s less able to sort of isolate your child’s mind and convince the child that it’s the one and only truth if it has been presented in this range of human exploration. All right. 

Dale, I really appreciate the discussion. Thank you for joining me on Point of inquiry. 

Absolutely glad to do it. 

Where can you turn to find others like yourself who appreciate critical thinking, turned to Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine that separates fact from media myth. It’s published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Find out what genuine science has to say about the extraordinary and the unexplained. You’d be surprised. Subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer today. One year, six challenging issues for nineteen ninety nine to subscribe a request, a sample issue. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero or visit the point of inquiry. Website point of inquiry dot org. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Points of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join us at point of inquiry dot org. And be sure to find me on Facebook or Twitter for updates throughout the week. Views expressed on this show aren’t necessarily CFI views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. And questions and comments about today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by going to the Web site point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for Spight Emmy Award winning Michael. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.