Readers Weigh In: How Do I Help My Son Become a Free Thinker?

I have been nothing less than moved by the response to my essay in the previous issue of New Humanist about my search for books for my sons to counterbalance the influence of their mother’s Catholicism (“Good Books?”, July/August). The reactions were voluminous, impassioned and came from multiple directions.


More than 100 comments were posted on the New Humanist blog and hundreds more at AlterNet.org, which republished the article; many bloggers discussed it and I’ve been on several radio shows to talk about it. Clearly the piece struck a chord.

Some of the most thought-provoking responses came directly into my e-mail inbox, many from friends or acquaintances, but also several from complete strangers who’d read the article or heard me on the radio.

Some accused me of being too squishy. “I certainly wouldn’t expend any energy worrying about whether my kids were getting equal access to all spiritual options or not,” wrote David Cahill. “Christians hardly worry that their kids don’t have access to atheism or agnosticism.” He’s got a point.

Another of my favorite responses came from the poet Martín Espada (author of City of Coughing and Dead Radiators):

“Danny,” he wrote, “a bit of advice: Make ’em laugh. First of all, kids love to laugh. Secondly, when it comes to religion, there is much laughing to be done. This can be tricky, of course, as you don’t want to openly ridicule their mother’s religion. (Not if you want to stay together, anyway.) However, if the kids learn to see everything with a sceptical and sardonic eye, religion will fall under the same lens. It’s a way of tilting your head to peer at the world from a skewed angle, churches included.”

From the other direction, I was honoured (if not, ultimately, convinced) by philosopher Roger Scruton’s wonderfully engaging case for teaching children faith. Roger’s response is so characteristically elegant we have reproduced it in full (right).

Some other distinguished thinkers offered different advice. Cultural critic Marshall Berman (author of the brilliant All That Is Solid Melts into Air), thought it was unnecessary to look for alternatives to the Bible – instead we should argue with it. “Look,” he wrote to me, “the Bible is a collection of thousands of stories, many told from ambiguous and conflicting points of view, some as rich and profound as any poem or novel, and thrilling to read regardless of your theology. People have spent thousands of years engaged in dialogue about what the stories mean. Why don’t you make yourself part of this dialogue? Here’s an interesting question for the whole family to talk about: in Genesis, when God condemns and punishes people for things they’ve done, hasn’t God himself set them up for a fall? Cain and Abel being the most blatant case, but there are plenty more. But to get in on the dialogue, you gotta read the stories yourself!”

The sociologist Robert Bellah (author of the widely cited Habits of the Heart) provided a really fascinating distinction between religion and humanism: “Hispanic Catholicism is a practice and only incidentally a theory,” he told me. “Your humanism is a theory. You can’t fight a practice with a theory. Practice is embodied, verbally much more narrative than theoretical. Humanism after all came out of Biblical religion and owes a lot to it even when it criticises it. How about the common ground? And how about thinking of humanism as a practice, not just a theory? What kind of practices does a humanist teach his children? How are they embodied? What stories do they live by? I am suggesting that you fight fire with fire and don’t worry if you get a bit burnt along the way.”

I’m still chewing that one over. But how wonderful to get such pertinent, and personal, responses, which are of quite a different order to the sterile pantomime arguments that usually characterise discussions between believers and humanists (incidentally, I think Bellah professes a faith, and I know Scruton is an Anglican, but I’ve no idea of Marshall Berman’s position on God).

Some more militant humanists will undoubtedly take me to task for treating these arguments seriously rather than digging in and going on the counter-attack. To be sure, I do not agree with Scruton about teaching faith, and I’d like the chance to debate the issues Bellah raises with him. But I feel less inclined to dispute or combat those points than to churn them around a bit and see if there might be something of value in what they’re saying. Has my penchant for polemical combat dulled? I don’t think so. But I’m on different terrain here. This isn’t quite like other intellectual or political debates I’ve been engaged in. This is deeply personal — it’s about my children and our life as a family.

Bellah’s challenge hits home. Is my humanism merely a theory? If not, how does it take form in practice? How might it? To put it in Bellah’s own terms, this isn’t a theoretical question for me, but an extremely practical one.

I am grateful to all my interlocutors for giving me much to think about as I work through both the theory and the practice of being a humanist parent. A task that, as any parent knows, is never finished.

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