Date: Wed Aug 17 1994 21:28:00 Subj: Secular Humanist Kids 1 Magazine: Free Inquiry Issue:

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Date: Wed Aug 17 1994 21:28:00 From: Jeff Welch Subj: Secular Humanist Kids 1 Magazine: Free Inquiry Issue: Summer 1994 (vol. 14 no. 3) Title: So What Do You Teach Your Kids? Author: Tom Malone The first question Christians inevitably ask secular humanist parents is, "So, what do you teach your kids?" Many of us are so defen- sive about the suspicion we might be forcing our heretical viewpoints on our children that we launch reflexively into a lengthy explanation of the ideals of independent thinking and religious freedom of choice- even for our children. Probably too few of us stop to realize the arrogance that underlies the question, and certainly still fewer actually bother to point this out to the inquiring religionist. Let's turn the question around to see its absurdity. What if, upon learning of a colleague's Presbyterian affiliation, one were to ask, "So what do you teach your kids?" Certainly, our colleague would stare quizzically and say something like, "I raise them to be good Presbyterians, of course. Why do you ask?" And that is precisely the response that Christians deserve when they ask us the same ques- tion. Is it for some reason appropriate for Christians to quiz secular humanist parents about their children's religious education? Do they ask this question of every Christian, Jew, and Muslim they meet? Is it correct to assume that since we reject supernaturalism, we believe in nothing at all? Since our opinions are generally regarded with scorn, are we then expected to raise our children as faithful followers of some mainstream religion we reject? The answer to all of the above questions is an emphatic "No." No one asks believers in one of the five major "true religions of the world" (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) about their children's religious education. We assume the obvious: (1) adults regard their religious opinions as true ones (or else why would they hold them?) and (2) parents teach the principles of this particular system to their children (Is it possible to do anything else?). To the average religionist, secular humanists are simply those who "don't believe in anything." After all, they assume, if you don't believe in God, what else is there? (Actually, we can consider oursel- ves lucky if all they assume is that we believe in nothing, since in the South disbelief in God is usually-and absurdly-regarded as an affirmation of faith in Satan!) So as believers in nothing, what is there to teach our children? Although it would be appropriate for us to respond to inquiries with a simple, "Why do you ask?" we know that we cannot afford such a luxury. As a misunderstood and often maligned minority, we must explain. And however insulting the question itself may be, we should realize that these situations offer just the opport- unities we often need to explain not only our child-rearing techniques, but our own personal philosophy as well. I'm afraid that educating the public will remain a burden of ours for some time to come. As a secular humanist and parent of two young children myself, I can assure my faithful counterparts that there is much to teach our children. Finding no good reason to believe in any approving or dis- approving deities, we cannot resort to the easy answers, "Do it because God says so," or "Do it because God will punish you if you don't." We must explain, on a child's level, that good and bad are defined, not by what some ancient lawgiver said, but rather by the effect our actions have on others. "Being nice" without the presence of a god may seem like a complex matter to the average Christian, but most children can readily grasp the concept, "If you're not nice to Ashley, she won't be nice to you." And although they may not be able to explain it in so many words, most children can act on the understan- ding that "being nice" feels good and "being bad" feels bad. These are not matters of complex theology. They are simply matters of social necessity, the kinds of constructive and destructive actions societies have always rewarded and punished. Human populations have been coping with these issues since time immemorial, and their behavioral roots can even be traced back to other primates and mammals. Eventually we are socialized into "being good" because of the positive effect we know it has on others, but the evolutionary mechanism that achieves this is complex. Altruism may be sustained by its effects on others, but its roots are based upon the very selfish motivation for survival. The ethical lessons that we derive from life experiences are not best taught in the confines of a religious institution attended once a week. Ethics and ethical behavior are learned, sustained, and later understood through day-to-day demonstration and practice. Rel- igious instruction may help reinforce daily habits learned at home, but if the habits are not practiced in the home, no amount of theological instruction will create a "good, socially responsible" child. Children learn right and wrong by interacting with the world and receiving the appropriate sanctions and rewards. Christians may learn that "we should be nice because God wants us to," but secular humanist children can learn even more effectively that "we should be nice because it allows everyone to get along, it influences others to be nice in re- turn, and it makes us feel good about ourselves." Secular humanist parents are additionally challenged by the necessity to educate their children about the supernatural beliefs prevalent in our society. After all, most of their friends, neighbors, and classmates will probably adhere to traditional beliefs, so our children must be prepared for growing up in a society that is ignorant about and often hostile to their views. Teaching children to regard claims of the supernatural with skepticism need not be a difficult or complicated task. Children's literature is filled with make-believe characters and stories. These can be used as springboards for parent-child talks about how we know what's real and what's pretend. Adult believers may have a problem with this concept, but most children grasp it readily. What confuses children is being taught a healthy skepticism toward most types of make-believe but then being urged to accept as fact one parti- cular type of blind and unyielding faith. The essential childhood secular humanist library, therefore, should include the tales of various world mythologies, including a children's version of the Bible. When the make-believe stories of the Bible are presented in the same light as those of other traditions, children can both grasp the prevalence of make-believe stories throughout history and see the absurdity of taking such outrageous tales seriously. They will also come to under- stand that stories once regarded as factually true are later dismissed as products of someone's imagination. Bible stories such as the Garden of Eden and Noah's Ark also offer ideal opportunities for teaching chil- dren about a "kinder and gentler" secular humanist philosophy that rejects the justice of such concepts as eternal punishment and the punishment of all for the "sins" of a few. In this manner, our children not only learn how to discriminate myth and legend from fact and history, but they additionally learn about many of the faiths that their parents have rejected in humanism. Christians often ask us, "But do you teach your children about other religious opinions besides your own?" Their unspoken assumption is that we, for some reason, have an obligation to take our children to church just in case they want to become little Christians. But Christian parents do not feel the need to offer their children the option of becoming secular humanists or Buddhists. In fact, the children of secular humanist parents often wind up better educated on alternative beliefs and are offered more choice in religious matters than are the children raised in mainstream religious homes. Equally important as encouraging a healthy degree of skepticism in our children is promoting tolerance and understanding. They belong to families and communities whose members are generally believers in traditional faiths. For the sake of their survival and for the general benefit of tolerance, our children should be taught to respect the right of others to believe as they choose. They will have to understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate times to ask certain questions or express certain opinions. We may have to explain that "We can talk about that around Aunt Marion and cousin Jack, but it will hurt Granddaddy's feelings too much if we talk to him about why we disagree with his beliefs. Besides, he's set in his ways and won't understand how we feel so let's 'just avoid the to topic." Not all of these judgment calls will be easy ones, but coping with these situations will allow our children to become both self-confident skep- tics and sensitive human beings. It would be a mistake for secular humanist parents to exercise a laissez-faire approach to religious instruction. We cannot leave our children to flounder theologically and expect them to arrive at the same conclusions we did. The inducements of pie-in-the-sky thinking are too strong and the unethical evangelists too persistent for us to leave our children's religious opinions to chance. There is much we can do to guide their development without becoming dogmatic absolutists ourselves. There is also much emotional stress and harm we can spare them by shielding them from some of traditional religion's assaults on self esteem, sexuality, and intellectual inquisitiveness. To raise a secular humanist child does not require threat or censorship, just a broad and full education. And that, after all, is what we're supposed to be good at anyway. Tom Malone lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia, with his wife Stone, and their two children, Daniel and Ana. He teaches history and coaches boys' varsity soccer in a public high school He devotes his "spare time" to secular humanist activism.


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