Raising Children Without God

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 21, 2010 in General Atheism

The latest episode of Reasonable Doubts concerns raising children without God. There’s lots of great content, including interviews with several non-believing children and parents. But the highlight for me was part of the interview with Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief:

There are several increased difficulties that come along with [raising children without God]. I think they’re all worth it, 100 times over.

An example is: My kids know they have the right to know the reason for the rule… So if I say, “Bedtime at 8 o’clock,” and Delaney says “Why?” she gets an answer. Not “Because I said so.”

This is not just to be nice. It’s actually something that moral development research has [found to] create a more powerful moral reasoner. Kids are able to understand that there are reasons behind rules, that they’re not arbitrary…

One of the most powerful studies is [by] Samuel and Pearl Oliner, the study of survivors of Nazi Germany. They talked to 700 people who survived that era. Half of them were “rescuers”… people who… put their own lives at risk to save others from Nazi atrocities, and the “non-rescuers” were those who were either passive or complicit in the crimes.

[The researchers] talked to them about how they were raised, and the way their parents instructed them morally. There was a much greater likelihood for those who did the wrong thing – the non-rescuers – to have been raised in authoritarian moral households where they were told “Do this because the Bible said so” or “Do it because I said so” or “because the Fuhrer said so” – you can see how that equates.

But the other group was more likely to hear explanations. They said their parents would explain why something was right or wrong.

That’s what I want my kids to develop. And it’s harder! It’s harder, it takes time, because I want to be able to say, “Get in bed, for crying out loud!”

But it is worth that little bit of extra effort… It is worth… the powerful moral understanding in the kid and also a better-developed discipline. Instead of talking about the man upstairs, you talk about the boy or girl inside.

[And in fact], there have been many cases where our kids talked us out of our understanding because they were right. [A great book on this] is The War for Children’s Minds, by Stephen Law.

I’ll add that a great fictional illustration of raising children under authoritarianism is Michael Haneke’s latest movie, The White Ribbon.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

SuperUltraMegaJamminSage January 21, 2010 at 7:53 am

This is a very interesting article, but I can’t help but feel that it is too subjective to be taken as factual. After reading the “My Story” section on this site it seemed to me that according to this article lukeprog should have never questioned his faith, even in his impressionable 20′s. I have a friend that is a carbon copy of ol lukeprog, but without the actual church work. His parents made him do or worship whatever they believed and now he is a Bill Maher/Richard Dawkins drone. In my experience he is right on schedule with the way most (not all) 20-something people start to question everything.
He is completely welcome and encouraged to do so, in my opinion, but most other Christians would disagree. He is going through things and has gone through things that would have eventually lead him this way. I am a pastor’s kid (PK as we like to be called) myself and do not believe in God and all Christian doctrine the way my father does, but I do believe in the Christian God.
He and my mother did not raise me the way people like Dawkins would like, but they had a healthy respect for questioning. My father has told me that he does not blame atheists for not believing in God. That God has never revealed himself to him. He didn’t mean that non-believers shouldn’t believe unless God reveals himself to them, but I think that because my father has never witnessed a supernatural experience (good or bad) that he is really starting to have his doubts. I have never had a supernatural experience myself and when someone tells me of an experience they had with ghost and such, I usually have logical explanation for it. Which really irritates people when they already have in their head why it happened. I still believe though.

Either way, the article makes sense, but I’m sure there were other factors which made those who did not act not act. Propaganda is still propaganda in any belief system. We must remain vigilant of any and all written documentations (even the Bible) for wherever man is involved, inconsistency and generalization is sure to be right behind and after all, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”


Hermes January 21, 2010 at 8:01 am

That episode specifically was excellent. It’s one of the few episodes from any podcast that I have kept around after listening to it.


Hermes January 21, 2010 at 8:06 am

SuperUltraMegaJamminSage, a question;

* Regardless of how you act, do you think it is better to accept an authority unquestioningly, or to understand what it is the authority asks and why before you act?


Hermes January 21, 2010 at 8:18 am

Back to the topic of the episode on Raising Children Without God, Richard Wade does a good job of thoughtfully talking about these issues and many others.

Richard posts regularly on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog;


FWIW, he has a Masters in Educational Psychology. (Click the “About the Contributors” link on the upper left hand corner of the page for more of his bio.)


lukeprog January 21, 2010 at 8:25 am


Yeah, isn’t Reasonable Doubts great? Their new episode with Ibn Warraq is a good, brief introduction to a little-studied field.


SuperUltraMegaJamminSage January 21, 2010 at 8:44 am

Hermes: SuperUltraMegaJamminSage, a question;* Regardless of how you act, do you think it is better to accept an authority unquestioningly, or to understand what it is the authority asks and why before you act?  

That is what I like about Christianity is that you can accept it unquestioningly or questioningly. Most Christians do not question. They are too busy to worry about these things or they are content with what they have been taught. The same might be said for other religions, but I can’t say for sure.

As for a questioning Christian is concerned, which is what I claim to be, I have discovered that questioning can take you closer to God than an unquestioning mentality. I like to look at it like Google. When I am looking for information such as on Battlestar Galactica toys (Yes, I collect toys, big whoop, wanna fight about it?) and I type it into the search bar, nothing will come up, but if I type in Battlestar Galactica “action figures” than I get a whole lot of info that I wanted.

This is of course useless information to say the least, but the same concept applies to asking the right questions to bring you closer to your God. Just as you and many other atheists asked the right questions to bring you further from Him.


Bill Maher January 21, 2010 at 9:11 am

McGowan is a great guy. I use Raising Freethinkers all the time with my 4 year old.


Lorkas January 21, 2010 at 9:17 am

SuperUltraMegaJamminSage: That is what I like about Christianity is that you can accept it unquestioningly or questioningly.

Just like every other worldview?


SuperUltraMegaJamminSage January 21, 2010 at 9:35 am

Just like every other worldview?  

Yes, but atheists like to assume that to be a Christian or any other religion you “have” to accept it unquestioningly.

I can’t say all atheists feel this way, but for sure the fanatical ones. Like my friend (an atheist) feels if you are going to be a Christian, you have to be a Christian all the way. Live life like a monk or live life like him, as a drunk. No happy median. I don’t know a whole lot of atheists, but I’m sure he gives the rest a bad name. I know plenty of fanatical Christians and they definitely give us a bad name.


ayer January 21, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Two problems with the McGowan account above:

1) he assumes that Christians cannot give reasons to their children when describing right and wrong conduct; that’s just not the case. If the child is patient enough, a Christian philosopher could provide a long disquisition based on deontological or virtue ethics (whose objectivity is founded ontologically in God) for every rule in the house. (Of course, how effective that would be with a 5 year old is another question).

2) Some of the most authoritarian societies in history have been officially atheist societies (North Korea, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, etc.), and produce mind-numbed robots who eschew moral reasoning of any kind


Justfinethanks January 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Since I have a four year old daughter, parenting a critical and moral thinker is certainly of interest to me. What with the fact that Christianity is hemorrhaging believers in America, I often sometimes wonder what the religious landscape will look like when she heads off to college. If we reach a tipping point with the rise of people who identify with “no religion” in the next decade or so, Christianity might begin its career as a small, qauint cult, like Scientologists or the Amish.

But maybe that’s wishful thinking. Every parent wishes for a better world for their kids than the one they were born into, and one in which creationists don’t pervert the education system, bigots don’t deny civil rights to homosexuals, and politicians don’t feel it necessary to patronizingly espouse their devotion to one particular middle eastern God in order to get elected certainly qualifies as a “better world” in my book.


Hermes January 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm

SuperUltraMegaJamminSage, thanks for giving such a postmodern relativistic answer. It confirms the reliability of Christian morals to me once again. There are just so many to choose from!


Hermes January 21, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Ayer, consider that McGowan isn’t talking about Christians or addressing how Christians act, but giving his audience some ideas to work with.

See for yourself. Go back and read what Luke quoted from Dale and see if you can find any part of it that excludes Christians explicitly. See if it excludes theists at all, including North Korea ( yes, North Korea is largely *theistic*; http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html ).

Now, you can decide that what he wrote can not apply to you but that does not mean that other people who may or may not be in your specific sect or denomination won’t see his comments as generally valuable.

In sum: It’s not about you. Get over yourself.


Erika January 21, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for the book links! They are on my (altogether too long) Amazon wish list. =)


Mark February 22, 2010 at 11:16 pm

I have a 3 year old daughter and have read Parenting Beyond Belief and really enjoyed it. Since my child was born I have changed my views on parenting from attempting to mold my child into what I think is best, to attempting to give her the tools to mold herself into what she reasons is best. I largely thank my growing out of my religious views for this new perspective. I want to expose her to the critical thinking skills I missed out on for so long and look forward to her challenging mine.

I would like to make one point that might be taken as nitpicking. To say that the “rescuers” were “more likely to hear explanations” from their parents and imply that it is this type of parenting that caused them to act in the way they did is a little misleading. It does not take into account that there is some genetic causation involved. Assume there are genes that influence the parents disciplinary style. These same genes, to some extent, are passed on to their children and will influence their behavior.

Imagine that each rescuer had an identical twin that they were separated from at birth. One twin is raised by the biological parents and one is raised by a pair of “authoritarian” parents along with a step sibling of equal age(a pseudo-twin) . They all end up in the same camp. My understanding of of this type of research implies that even if the separated twin was raised by “authoritarian” parents, they would be far more likely to be a rescuer than their “pseudo-twin”.

In his book, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”, Steven Pinker dedicates a chapter to parenting. He argues that almost all parenting research overlooks genetic effects on behavior. This makes statements like “parents who read to their kids have kids who like to read”, meaningless until you account for the genetic influence on that behavior. Fortunately there is a growing body of research that does just that. This is mostly done by comparing twins raised together with separated twins, and also “pseudo-twins” where a pair of children not related to each other is adopted and raised together.

I would highly recommend picking up McGowan’s book to any parents reading this blog. I would also recommend taking a look at Pinker’s Blank Slate book. I had to read the parenting chapter in Pinker’s book more than once to understand what he was saying. After my first read and only a superficial understanding of the material I felt depressed as if Pinker was saying the way I treated my child didn’t matter. After rereading the chapter a few times I came away feeling like my reasons for parenting my daughter the way I am (largely in line with McGowan’s book) were on a much deeper foundation.


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