PARENTING in the Words of Freethinker Dale McGowan

If you ever wonder what’s the future of freethinking and who’s leading the charge; if you are curious to know what Freethinkers of today are doing to ensure that tomorrow’s secular world is on the right path; if you want to know what’s good to (free) think about these days; or, if you simply want to read a mind-bending interview, tune in to Religion Nerd for my series, Freethinking Tomorrow: In the Words of Today’s Freethinkers.

By Michel-Camille Bordeau

Parenting works in mysterious ways. It’s a complex affair for experienced, willing parents and an intimidating undertaking for those who, like myself, never prepared themselves for it, never imagined they would be fit for the task, or be given the opportunity.

Two years ago, I became a born again parent, a step-dad to an 8 year old with an incredible (free)thinking mind and a mean high kick.  Overnight, I grew a second heart—the first one being for his mother—and with twice the volume of blood stimulating my (free)thinking brain, I discovered a whole new family of anxieties that can be summed up with: ‘Seriously, don’t fark up (this kid’s life).’

Any life is precious, but that of a kid, who is half your responsibility, is a gem with so many sharp facets, that you’re always concerned you might get cut—and that regardless of the positive encouragements you receive from loved ones, your step-kid included. Still, as a (free)thinker, I had to find additional inspiration in written words.  That’s when a freethinking friend of mine with much parenting expertise recommended Dale McGowan’s Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, what she called the ‘bible on parenting the (free)thinking way.’

Combining the words ‘bible’ and ‘parenting’ in one sale’s pitch to yours truly is a risky approach but it paid off. After all, I had to hope that there would be a book that deserved to be considered the bible of parenting, since the Bible itself, had little to offer in matters of non-authoritarian, non- patriarchal, post-Bronze Age parenting.  Indeed, I was looking for a book that would agree with my embryonic style of parenting, one that may include the occasional reprimand, but would not (re)enact the authoritarian-abusive parenting I grew up with.

And my hopes were rewarded. Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief gave me confidence that I was approaching parenting the right way, it gave me hope that I could succeed, and, my friend was absolutely right, it is the ‘Bible’ on parenting the (free)thinking way.  I had to interview Dale McGowan on behalf of my ReligionNerd friends.  I had to share his gospel.  And here it is:  

MCB: You are advocating for a child-centered, collaborative, and responsive approach to parenting–what psychologists call authoritative parenting.  Why do you think this is the best parenting model for a family of freethinkers?  Is it as rewarding for parents as it is for their children?

 DM: Authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian) parenting is centered on explanation. There are rules, and they are enforced, but they are also explained. A child is given the explicit right to question the fairness or reasonableness of a parental decision (but not to disregard it without consequence). There is also an open invitation to question authority, including the authority of the parent.

This approach helps the child develop active moral judgment rather than merely the ability to follow orders, which results in a much more powerful and effective moral sense. Best of all, it results in an independent thinker, not someone who simply parrots what authority figures (including the parent) have said.

It’s one of the most challenging parental styles, but also incredibly rewarding for the parent to watch the development of a deep, rich, complex and nuanced moral sense.

MCB: Raising Freethinkers is so user friendly that I’m tempted to claim that parenting finally comes with a manual! You conclude each chapter with an abundance of practical suggestions—reading recommendations, family activities, exercises, etc.—and it’s a gold mine for non-theist families trying to feel confident about their parenting approach.  Is it also a gold mine for theist families or do you think it is impossible to reconcile humanistic ethics and religious moral? 

DM:  Oh absolutely.  We too often put a bright line between religious and nonreligious, failing to realize that progressive religious people/parents share 90 percent of their values with us— far more than they share with the fundamentalists.  I’ve received many emails from progressive religious parents who have read Raising Freethinkers and found it entirely applicable to their parenting.

 MCB: You make it clear that ‘beyond beliefs’ does not mean ‘without a basic knowledge of belief systems.’  You even recommend that parents educate their freethinkers about religion.  What will future freethinkers gain from learning about religious practice?  And what might parents be most concerned about?

DM:  Ninety percent of those around us see the world to some degree in religious terms. If our children are to be anything but baffled by the human world around them, they must have some grasp of religion and religious ideas, period, end of sentence. They also need this exposure if they are genuinely to make their own worldview decisions.  Nothing about my own worldview means more to me than the fact that I came to it myself, fully informed but free to think and choose.  I wouldn’t deny my kids that same freedom.

Most parental concerns in this area are alleviated by a breadth of exposure to ideas and influences. There’s no greater threat to the development of a supple and capable intelligence than exclusive exposure to a single point of view—including our own.  It seems from my conversations with hundreds of parents over the years that children raised in secular homes, who are shielded from exposure to religious ideas and practices, are the most likely to end up glomming on to toxic religious expressions as the answer to a personal crisis in their teens or beyond.  The forbidden or unknown thing behind that church door suddenly becomes attractive and powerful.  Kids with knowledge of religion are far less susceptible to that emotional hijacking.  So the danger is in ignorance, not knowledge.

MCB: Parenting has gone through many positive changes in the past fifty years.  The biggest step forward has been to admit—at least in academic circles—that nothing positive comes out of authoritarian parenting.  Yet, it still prevails and, consequently, too many children continue to suffer mental and physical abuses.  What do you think will have to happen in the next fifty years, if we hope to see a cultural shift toward a more authoritative parenting model?

DM:  Authoritarianism at all levels—individual, familial, national, societal—is a response to fear.  When we are afraid, we retreat into that limbic brain.  We respond with violence, intolerance, and a whole range of other pathologies.  It’s never our finest moment.  The best thing we can do to move parents toward a more positive parenting model is to diminish fear about outcomes. It helps if parents recognize that (for example) corporal punishment produces ten different negative outcomes and that reason-based parenting tends to produce reasonable, ethical kids. The same applies above the parenting level.  We need to show that nonviolence, diplomacy, negotiation, reason, and other alternatives to aggressive problem-solving have a long history of effectiveness.

MCB: Based on the response from fans and/or critics, what changes, if any, would you consider making to Raising Freethinkers?  Also, tell us about your current projects, initiatives, etc?

DM:  Honestly, there’s not much that I would change.  We applied several lessons learned from Parenting Beyond Belief that helped Raising Freethinkers land right in the sweet spot for so many parents.  I’ve been thrilled with the reception.

My current projects include running Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charitable foundation with 800 members.  We feature ten charities per quarter and have raised over $145,000 since January 2010, including $20,700 for Japan tsunami relief.

I’m also working on several books, including a college-level anthology of freethought historical documents, a children’s book about natural selection, a personal exploration of religious practice from an atheist’s perspective, and a collection of Judeo-Christian myths told at last as the exciting stories they can be once you drop the sacred kid-gloves. Who knows what will see the light of day!

DALE MCGOWAN left a 15-year career as a college professor in 2006 to pursue writing full-time. He edited and co-authored Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, the first comprehensive resources for nonreligious parents. Dale writes the very inspired and very helpful secular parenting blog The Meming of Life. He teaches nonreligious parenting seminars across the United States, and serves as executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charitable and educational foundation based in Atlanta—we are neighbors. In September 2008 he was named Harvard Humanist of the Year by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. Last, but not least, he is such an approachable person, that we are on a first name basis. Dale, continue the hard work!


Michel-Camille Bordeau is the founder and author of The School of Seshata  (, a blog about Liberal Spirituality, a concept of spirituality based on compassion and reason, core principles of Humanistic Ethics. Michel is also a regular contributor to  He’s recently started “Freethinking Tomorrow: In the Words of Today’s Freethinkers,” an interview series about the past, present, and future [OF] secular scholarship.

Michel earned an M.A. in French Studies from The Ohio State University (1998) and is A.B.D., also in French Studies, from the University of Michigan (2001). Mid-life crisis oblige, he is returning to college in August 2011, to pursue an M.S.W. with a specialization in Mental Health & Drugs of Abuse. Before relocating to Atlanta, Michel was an Academic Advisor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus, for nearly ten years. He has advised many students (and parents) on academic and life matters. He taught English, Public Speaking, Humanities, and French at various colleges and universities. In 2002, Michel published Poire Sucrée, Salée, Epicée, a short novel about a dance teacher forced to face the demons of her past. He is currently seeking representation for Seeing Purple, a dystopian novel set in Anaïs Abelard’s hometown, the New Orleans of tomorrow, also home to the power-hungry mega church known as the Calvinistry. Michel considers himself an amateur ‘atheologist,’ and writes and speaks primarily about religious determinism, atheist spirituality, and freethinking therapy.  


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