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My Son Was Taught to Believe in Jesus by His Mother -- How Do I Help Him Become a Free Thinker?

Panicked by his son's Jesus references, an agnostic dad discovers a skeptic's reading list for kids. But is counter-indoctrination really the answer?

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Well, we've read the books, but I'm afraid there's nothing terribly interesting to report, either about the texts as such or about my children's reactions to them, which have been rather quiet, if not altogether bored -- tough to tell. And I'm strongly disinclined to go fishing for their thoughts. I've been tempted, but better, I think, to let them process it all in their own way (assuming the books made an impression at all).

The books themselves are a mixed bag: at turns poignant and clunky, clever and awkward. I might re-read them with the boys at some point. Or maybe they'll pick them up themselves and read them on their own. We'll see.

And I might look for other humanist books that engage my children more than this first batch did. Raising my children as a secular father in a society saturated with religion, and in a home that is itself mixed (up?) on the religious question, creates anxiety. But maybe I should just relax.

"Kids mostly just want to play with their friends, and religion isn't that big a deal -- though it is, unfortunately, to parents," writes Emily Rosa, one of the contributors to the book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion , in an essay evocatively titled "Growing Up Godless: How I Survived Amateur Secular Parenting."

All parents must confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don't like. Tough. The companion volume to Parenting Beyond Belief bears the title Raising Freethinkers . Sounds appealing -- I'd like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious? What if my efforts to instill skepticism in them lead them to become skeptical of my humanism? So be it.

"Teaching" your children (about) humanism can be a fool's errand, plagued by some the same pitfalls involved in raising children "in" a particular faith tradition. Richard Dawkins has provocatively argued that indoctrinating children with religion is a form of child abuse. But couldn't secularism, as Jeremy Stangroom recently wondered, constitute its own form of indoctrination? Might the attempt to impart one worldview or another to one's children -- whether religious or secular -- itself be ill-conceived?

And yet one doesn't want to be passive, especially in the American context, in which religion in one form or another constitutes a kind of default position. One can certainly understand the impulse behind the humanism-for-kids books, whatever their faults and limitations and the desire of secular parents to get their hands on them. They arise from and speak to a very real hunger, whether they satisfy it or not.

Danny Postel is communications coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice , a national network based in Chicago, and is the author of Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism . He is contributing editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture and a member of the editorial board of the Common Review .