The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

A License to Secular Parenthood

September 1, 2007

In the 1989 Ron Howard film, Parenthood, the Keanu Reeves’ character, Tod Higgins, a wild-eyed young man trying to find his way in life after being raised by a single mom, bemoans to his future mother-in-law: “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car — hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”

The “they” here is presumably the government, which has, despite its intrusion into just about every other aspect of our lives, thankfully stayed out of the parenting business. Nevertheless, the observation is a cogent one because when you become a parent there are no required courses on how to do it. I became a parent the same way just about everyone else has: by stumbling into it without any planning whatsoever. I hadn’t given it much thought until it happened. But when it did, I learned how to parent the same way as everyone else: on the job in real time. Fifteen years later I’m still learning.

I wish I would have had a book like Parenting Beyond Belief when I was starting out on this endless (and endlessly fulfilling) journey. It is choc-a-block full of advice, tips, suggestions, recommendations, anecdotes, and moving (and often funny) stories from a remarkably diverse range of authors who make you laugh and cry at the same time. This is the first book that I know of on parenting without religion. It is almost a given in our society that kids should be raised with religion, because if they aren’t they will grow up to be juvenile delinquents, right? Wrong. Wronger than wrong. Not even wrong. The assumption is so bigoted and breathtakingly inane that it doesn’t deserve a debunking, but it gets one nonetheless in this volume, from nonbelievers of all stripes, who show how and why raising children without religion is not only a loving and ethical approach to parenthood, it is an honorable one.

My wife and I are raising our daughter, Devin, without religion. There was no conscious decision to do so, no formal plan. We don’t believe in God and so the subject just never comes up. Since I am a social scientist, I am well aware of the powerful influence parents can have on the religious, political, and social attitudes of their children, so if I took any proactive steps in the parenting of my daughter in this regard, it was not to be proactive in influencing her too strongly in any one direction. As I told her in a letter that I gave her on the occasion of her transitioning from Middle School to High School:

Our beliefs about people, society, politics, economics, religion, and everything else are shaped by our parents and family, friends and peers, teachers and mentors, books and newspapers, television and the Internet, and culture at large. It is impossible for any of us to hold beliefs of any kind that are not significantly influenced by all these different sources. Up until about the age you are now — early teens — your beliefs have been primarily shaped by your parents. And since I am in the business of researching and writing about beliefs, as well as expressing them in public forums, I fear that my own rather strongly-held beliefs may have had an undue influence on you; that is, my hope is that whatever it is you decide to believe about whatever subject, you have thought through carefully each of those beliefs and at least tried to make sure that they are your beliefs and not those of your parents. It matters less to me what your specific beliefs are than that you have carefully arrived at your beliefs through reason and evidence and thoughtful reflection.

We all do the best we can as parents, which was the central message of Parenthood, as evidenced in the scene where Steve Martin’s character, Gil Buckman, has a nightmare in which his son has grown up maladjusted and is now holed up in a college bell tower shooting students. The college Dean exclaims, “It’s Kevin Buckman. His father totally screwed him up.” Kevin yells down at his father: “You made me play second base.” Gil’s plaintive plea could be said by any parent: “Son, I’m sorry. I did the best I could.” Here I am reminded of Robin Williams’ riff on parenting, in which he recalls two dreams: in one, his son proclaims “I’d like to thank the Nobel Academy for this great honor,” and in the other his son says “ya want fries with that?”

Nobel Prize or Supersize fries — either way (or anything in between) I shall always love Devin and attempt to teach her the fundamental principles of a moral life. These principles are important whether there is a god or not, but especially if not. If this is all there is, and if there is no one out there keeping score, then parenthood is elevated to transcendency.

This article appeared as the Foreword to Parenting Beyond Belief.

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8 Comments to “A License to Secular Parenthood”

  1. Drew Daniels Says:


    The human race can not survive infected by the two deadly viruses called faith and religion which guarantee humanity will perish in a radioactive cloud. Faith and religion are mental disease afflicting the largest portion of humanity: the intellectually deficient too weak to take responsibility for their own lives. Faith and religion destroy volition and induce their victims to surrender common sense to conceited leaders corrupted by lust for personal and political power.

    Power, no matter how full of promise of good, can ultimately only play out completely by reaching perfection, and of course, the perfection of power is its dominance over all other sources of power, and so requires the destruction of all potentially opposing power.

    The juggernaut of intellectual corruption from faith and religion is perverting power and leading to the creation of absolute power.  Power therefore must present its own perfection by the destruction of humanity—the creative source of the human concept: power.

    -Drew Daniels, September 2000

  2. Ian WIlson Says:

    There’s a “deep sigh” of relief when the child is off on its own and functioning, morally, without the morality that religions teach, without the aid of a divinity, without the burden of guil, or sin, or karma. There are good things to be seen in religions without the faith. There are stories of kindness and generosity and a sense of beauty. It is a very discerning child that can keep only the wheat and leave the chaff. Finding the wheat among all the world’s chaff is what observation and reason are all about.

    There is also a need for a great deal of humility. Humility in the exploration of that great sea of chaff we as a individuals face. There is also a huge confidence to be had from knowing that one is trying to use tools that work, that produce useful results, that are subject to observation.

    It is odd that Wren’s monument is said to be a church. His glancing connection to the Newtonian revolution will likely last longer than the churches in London. We can share that kind of connection, that seeking, that wonder, that openness to correction, that humility that makes the world of science. Knowledge based on observation has made the world we see around us. What better gift to give our children than that heritage?

    If there is any meaning to spirituality to me, it is that feeling of gratitude for all the knowledge we inherit and the steps that have been taken along the way. Individuals sharpened sticks, crafted stone, created words and letters, noticed the wandering stars, invented stories, music.

    The world has changed, sometimes for the better, and hopefully we individuals can learn to master ourselves before chaff overwhelms our planet and this heritage of truth can be shared with generations living perhaps among the stars.

  3. W L Anderson Says:

    Although my daughter, Julie A Ross, is “religious”, her quite popular books on parenting principles (as well as the classes she teaches, primarily in New York City) are strictly secular in nature.

    Why should religion enter into any discussions of parenting? This subject has to do with human relationships, and with preparing children to deal with humans regardless of religious beliefs or non-beliefs.

  4. Bill H. Says:

    This topic strikes a very personal chord with me, both as a parent and a son. I was raised in a house where my mom was the organist for our local Lutheran church and my dad was an agnostic geochemist. Luckily they raised my sisters and me to think for ourselves, but also taught that there is a certain beauty in some spiritual aspects of life.
    As a parent, I find my two sons in much the same situation in which I was raised. I, like my father, am a high school science teacher with a growing appreciation for spirituality (note I did NOT say RELIGION). My wife was raised in a Baptist family, and has strong convictions as an Evangelical Christian. Our sons, aged 11 and 14 have a lot of natural curiosity and consume science information at every opportunity. They also are both active in the Youth Group at our family church.
    So, yeah, that’s great, but what’s the point? The point is that kids can and should be given the widest available selection of life experiences without too much parental editorializing. I admit that I am sometimes quick to voice my opinions on politics and blatantly commercialized religion seen on TV. Though I do try to explain my position to them, I, like most parents, have caught myself saying “It’s just wrong”, or worse, “because I said so!”
    One of my worst nightmares is to end up like one father I heard speaking to his small son (8 yrs old +/-) at Wendy’s. The cashier accidentally give them 1 dollar too much change. The son noticed this and whispered quickly to ask his dad if they could keep it. His face a fearsome, contorted shade of red, the father hissed to the son “One dollar? You would risk your salvation and burn in the firey pits of HELL for a measly DOLLAR?”
    That poor boy burst into hysterics, screaming that he was sorry and didn’t want to burn in hell! God forbid I ever say anything like this. What emotional torture to put a little kid through! Of course honesty is one of the most important traits for a child to develop. Ironically this is why many little Lutheran kids lose sleep after praying..
    “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!”
    Sort of makes you wonder if George W.’s two daughters were sleep deprived growing up!
    Great Article, Michael.

  5. njp Says:

    Just thought I’d share an excerpt from Jiddu Krishnamurti’s talks:

    If parents love their children:
    …they will not be nationalistic, they will not identify themselves with any country; for the worship of the State brings on war, which kills and maims their children.

    …they will not belong to any organised religion; for dogma and belief divide people into conflicting groups, creating antagonism.
    – J. Krishnamurti

  6. pixie Says:

    great postings, reminds me of many years ago a teen girl wrote to Seventeen magazine saying she was an atheist and a virgin because that was a good choice for her at that age. It is all about choices. I like the new Skeptics approach they are happy and not cynical tired atheists that fight with
    christians and pagans and vice versa. Very modern. Oddly as humans we do not
    KNOW much, most of it on both sides, THE sides is NOT proven, and as humans do we even know where we came from, Smithsonian curator told me the story they tell of evolution and leaving out cro-mag info is not correct and they do not have money to change it yet. We could all argue christianity all day, let’s not today. Are we from Mars, were Watson and Crick right about pan-spermia? Have you done all the reading….? Let’s KNOW….when I try to learn genetics on line I get picked on as some sort of racist, I am not. There seems to be a wall against alot of KNOWING. does anyone else experience this wall, this block or prejudice when really looking for answers. The strangest science MAY be right. Keep going.

  7. Amanda Says:

    I am a 27 year old mother of two and my husband and I are both atheists. My Dad is atheist my mom is evangelical christian, both of my husband’s parents are evangelical christian. I believe the best approach to religous discussion with my 6 year old daughter is to have her sit with me and research her questions online or in the various books I have on the topic.
    I let her come to her own conclusions and I refuse to ask her if she believes in god or not and I’ve made my wish known to friends and family she is close to. My husbands’ and my lack of christian belief is very unpopular in the small Alabama town we live in all I can do is stress to my children the importance of hard evidence and they should always have confidence in their intelligence.
    Science will save us.

  8. Nick Says:

    I have a major disagreement with the early paragraphs in this particular essay. The government has INDEED meddled, and meddled in truly awful ways, into the personal lives of people, families, parents, and especially fathers.

    There is extreme sexual prejudice in the family court system which generally exists for a single purpose–to further the asinine “need” for child support. The system does not support families, children, and it especially does not support fathers. It is largely designed to “aid” single mothers. Take birth, where the one-sidedness of government begins. If a child is born out of wedlock, rights are simply assumed for the mother, the father, on the other hand, is ignored. It is a system set up to actually encourage single motherhood. Logically, if two people who created a child together are together for the child’s birth (together in physical presence, not necessarily a relationship), and both sign the birth certificate, and the father helps with the birth in most any way he can, then it would be fair–perhaps even logical–to grant both parents joint custodies in all respects.

    The government meddles, and it meddles in a bad way. It’s a form of sexism that encourages dead-beat fatherhood, single mother-hood, and altogether ignores the needs of the child. The meddling is also baffling inconsistent. When child support payments are entered, not only do they take the money directly from a non-custodial parent’s income (almost always the father), they also send bills to his home, as if he’s supposed to pay twice. There is nary a single effort made in ensuring that a father can support himself after the payment schedule is made, and should he miss a couple payments (say, from unemployment), his driver’s license is revoked making employment and paying child support needlessly difficult.

    For instance, when my child support orders were put in place, they tacked on countless extra notes to the standard payment bringing it from the “standard” 25% of my income to an incredible 45-50%. At the time, I only made $1200 a month–that’s it. After “paying” $585 per month, I was left with barely $600 to pay my mortgage (at the time, $425), let alone my monthly association dues for my condo ($177) or other bills such as food, gas, electricity, etc. At the time, I only had cable TV because it was a standard in my condominium complex.

    Worse yet, the government simply “stopped” after putting the order in. They made no effort to check-up and make sure the money was actually going to the needs of my son, they made no effort to help me deal with the incredibly high payments, and while they told me I could appeal the process, they followed up with informing me that it would actually just be a waste of my time anyway.

    True, the government doesn’t meddle ahead of time, by telling us who can and cannot have children. But after a child is born, whether said child is the unfortunate heir to a divorce or if it’s (a cold word, I know) born out of wedlock, the government does nothing but meddle. And it’s all centered around archaic sexism and prejudices. It does not encourage family strength, and does little to inspire confidence. It strains relations between unwed parents of a child, and worst of all, it offers no positive benefits at all where the child is actually concerned.

    This rant aside, I am a big fan of Mr. Shermer and find his presence in almost any documentary show (avid History Channel viewer) or story to be uplifting. Currently, I’m mulling over actually subscribing to Skeptic magazine, but would have to have my wife (my son’s step-mother) send it to me since I’m in Iraq at the moment. I would also like to see more articles looking into the global warming and recycling hysterias. I would like more facts than just what I can get from Penn & Teller, and I’m tired of government-pushed propaganda!

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