Parenting Beyond Belief

On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

Parenting Beyond Belief is a book for loving and thoughtful parents who wish to raise their children without religion. There are scores of books available for religious parents. Now there's one for the rest of us.

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Raising Freethinkers offers solutions to the unique challenges secular parents face and provides specific answers to common questions, as well as over 100 activities for both parents and children.

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Questions? See our FAQ, below.

Interview with Dale McGowan

Recorded by filmmaker Gregory Walsh for a forthcoming documentary on religious disbelief in America

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Parenting Beyond Belief the first book for nonreligious parents?

There have been some excellent shorter books and booklets on parenting without religion, with more limited scope and by smaller presses. Parenting Beyond Belief is the first comprehensive parenting book by a major publisher on raising children without religion. And fortunately not the last! Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief is now available at

How large is the audience for such books?

Enormous—and growing. In 1990, 8 percent of Americans identified themselves as nonreligious. By 2008 that sector had grown to 15 percent. A minimum of seven million nonreligious parents are raising children in the U.S. today, and doing so with limited resources. It is estimated that over 10 million "nominally religious" parents in the U.S. attend church for social and structural benefits and would welcome a secular parenting book.

How is Raising Freethinkers different from the first book?

Parenting Beyond Belief articulates a general philosophy of nonreligious parenting. Raising Freethinkers offers more specific, practical advice, including answers to the 100 most common questions nonreligious parents ask, over 100 family activities and over 200 recommended books, DVDs, organizations and websites to continue finding ideas and answers.

Why do nonreligious parents need resources specifically for them?

Religion has much to offer parents: an established community, a pre-defined set of values, rites of passage, a means of engendering wonder, comforting answers to the big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss. Parenting Beyond Belief demonstrates the many ways in which these undeniable benefits can be had without the harmful effects of religion. It is also intended to show secular parents, who often feel isolated in their disbelief, that they are far from alone.

I don't believe in the existence of a supernatural God, but I consider myself religious in a liberal sense. Is this book for me?

"Without religion" in the subtitle refers to the more commonly understood definition of religion as "belief in a divine or superhuman power to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator and ruler of the universe" (Webster's New 20th Century). In short, it refers to theistic religion. The broader definition preferred by some denominations (including Unitarian Universalism) of religion as a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes is obviously not what we are parenting without. So if you are a parent raising children without ideas of a supernatural god, divine revelations, or holy scriptures, this book is indeed written with you in mind.

You mention "the harmful effects of religion." What harmful effects?

Honest questioning is too often disallowed in monotheistic religion, the word "values" turned on its head, and an "us-vs.-them" mentality reinforced. Many feel that fear—of God, sin, doubt, and difference—is more prevalent with religion than without, and that children often learn to obey authority rather than develop their own judgment.

Do these books intend to convert parents away from religious parenting?

Not at all. The books are resources to help parents who have already decided to raise their children without religion to do it well. Many religious readers have praised the tone of the books, which encourage co-existence, not conflict. Anything that helps parents to be better parents, regardless of their beliefs, is a good thing.

How can you not believe in God when…[fill in the blank]?

A fine question, but that's not our topic. Though the book includes one essay with the classic arguments for and against religious belief, that's not the main purpose—and if we spend time arguing about disbelief itself, we will never get to parenting! Readers wishing to engage those fascinating and worthy questions should look to the many outstanding books exploring basic questions of religious faith and doubt. This book is for those who have already investigated those questions and decided that religion is not for them.

How has Parenting Beyond Belief been received?

Many readers who were worried that it would be "anti-religious" have expressed pleasant surprise after reading it. "Remarkably even-handed" is a common response. Though some contributors are strongly critical of religious ideas, others express a continuing affection for it. The first sentence of Julia Sweeney's essay, for example, is "I loved being Catholic." Others urge secular parents to be religiously literate, to empathize with believers, and to applaud the good works of religion—at the same time urging them to stand up against the hatred, ignorance and divisiveness that can also flow from religious belief.

Most of all, the book reveals that believers and nonbelievers share most of the same values. Like people of religious faith, nonbelievers value love, honesty, kindness and generosity, are captivated by wonder and moved by the mysterious, seek consolation in times of loss, and treasure the companionship of others. We want to raise children who are ethical and caring. Nonetheless, polls indicate that nonbelievers are the most mistrusted and feared minority in the U.S. This fear is groundless—and this book can comfort people of faith by helping them realize that there is nothing to fear from nonbelievers. Our shared dreams for our children show that we are far more alike than unalike.

Aren't these books just encouraging indoctrination in a different direction?

The defining value of freethought is the right of individuals to think for themselves. Childhood indoctrination of any kind denies that right. Parents instill values, but choosing a worldview that expresses those values must be in the hands of the individual. Children should not be labeled in any way. Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers underline the importance of keeping children open and "undeclared" so they can freely self-identify with the worldview of their choice when they are older.

Do the books' contributors always agree?

Parenting Beyond Belief practices what it preaches by offering diverse opinions. What other book would have two ministers and Penn Jillette? There's even a point-counterpoint in which two authors square off on how to handle the Santa Claus story. And this is precisely the model we want to present to our kids—not lockstep agreement, but a healthy, open, friendly exchange of ideas and an invitation for you to sort it out for yourself. The four contributors to Raising Freethinkers follow the same philosophy.

What topics are covered?

Parenting Beyond Belief begins with personal essays by such secular parents as Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillette and Richard Dawkins, followed by chapters titled Living with Religion, Holidays and Celebrations, Being and Doing Good, Meaning and Purpose, Dealing with Death, Questioning, the Wonder of Science, and Seeking Community. Raising Freethinkers follows a simiar topical framework but offers a more practical approach, centered around 100 common questions, 100 activities, and over 200 resource reviews for nonreligious parents.

How can children be moral without religion?

Both books have chapters devoted to this very topic. Behaving morally makes sense, and most people behave well for sensible reasons—even if they think they are relying on commandments. Psychologist Dr. Jean Mercer contributed an essay in PBB describing the six stages of moral development. Children are more likely to move to the higher levels of development and to retain a more nuanced and reliable moral sense if they learn the reasonable principles of ethical behavior than if they rely on parental or scriptural authority.

Dealing with death must be a challenge.

It always is, isn't it? Even those who believe in an afterlife tend to cry at funerals and try hard to delay their own passing. There's no greater challenge for a human being than knowing life will end. But an increasing number of people have come to believe that real maturity requires us to come to terms peacefully with mortality rather than pretending we don't die after all. That life ends has rightly been recognized as the single fact that lends life genuine preciousness. Several consoling insights from philosophy are included in Parenting Beyond Belief.

What could possibly replace Heaven as a consolation in the face of death?

Don't forget that along with hope of Heaven comes fear of Hell. The naturalistic view dispenses with both. Our remaining fear of death has a lot to do with our failure to really grasp nonexistence—something we already "experienced" before birth, after all. We weren't afraid then. Why fear a return to that fearless condition? The Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons has written a marvelous, practical essay for the book on how to talk to children about death without recourse to supernatural illusions.

What's a minister doing in a book about raising kids without religion?

Two, in fact. Kendyl Gibbons is a minister in the Unitarian Universalist denomination. Many people aren't aware that most UUs describe themselves as either humanists (46 percent) or atheists (19 percent) but still want the other benefits of belonging to a church fellowship. Kendyl's experience of taking secular families through grief and loss is powerfully evident in her writing. She is joined in the book by the Rev. Dr. Roberta Nelson, who writes about the need for religious literacy. And Raising Freethinkers is co-authored by Jan Devor, a Unitarian humanist religious educator.

Isn't it important for kids to feel part of something larger than themselves?

Of course it is. Fortunately as human beings we are already part of many things larger than ourselves. Our families, our communities, humanity, and the interconnected web of life on Earth are just a few examples of larger things that give us purpose and context. Setting religion aside does not suddenly make us islands unto ourselves. It should instead underline our interconnectedness and reliance on each other.

So religion isn't all bad?

Of course not. Like most human creations, it's a mixture of good and bad. We should embrace the best elements while finding our way out of those that are undesirable. The most important freedom we can give our children is the freedom to think, to discern, to determine for themselves what's good and what's bad in anything. But when we place ideas beyond critique, the bad survives along with the good—and that's not good for anyone. Only if we agree to put all of our ideas on the table can we work together to separate those ideas that are unworthy and life-destroying from those that are noble and life-affirming.