AP: What motivated you to write such a book?
DM: I needed resources as a new secular parent, looked for them, and found nothing. It was the greatest unmet need I'd ever seen.
I was also driven by the sight of many atheist friends of mine going back to church when they had kids. They didn't believe, and in fact often hated the idea of going, but they or their partners felt that going to church would give their kids certain benefits they couldn't get anywhere else -- an established community, opportunities for service, rituals to mark life events, even a sense of meaning and purpose. When I pointed out the many (many) negatives that came along in the bargain, they'd shrug and ask what the alternatives were to get those same benefits. Parenting Beyond Belief was an attempt to help nonreligious parents achieve those benefits without the detriments of religious belief and practice.
AP: What was it like for you when you took your personal feelings and beliefs public?
DM: I was prepared for some serious blowback and was stunned by how little there was.
AP: Are your children any different to the children of those who believe?
DM: The difference seems to have more to do with the ingrained habit of wondering and questioning they've grown up with than their worldview of the moment. I think one of the worst characteristics of many types of religious thinking is utter incuriosity. It would never occur to many of my kids' peers to lift a rock (literal or metaphorical) to see what's underneath. It would never occur to my kids not to.
AP: What advice would you give to other parents of atheist children?
DM: I'd advise them not to think of it as raising atheist children, actually, but raising freethinkers -- kids who think for themselves and in the long run will choose their own worldview label.
One of the things I love most about my worldview is that I came to it entirely on my own. That's immensely satisfying. I know each and every brick in the foundation under my feet because I selected and placed each one myself. That also makes it inestimably stronger. I want my kids to experience that same satisfaction, so I teach them to think well, to distrust authoritative pronouncements (including my own), and to love reality and want to see it clearly. Then I trust them to find their way forward until they too are standing on a foundation of their own construction, knowing every brick.
My kids went through many different beliefs (see this post for an example), and at every step I encouraged them to keep thinking and discouraged them from labeling themselves. To hear my then six-year-old say "I think God is real" was fine, but if she called herself a Christian, I would have protested. When at seven she said "I think God is pretend," that was fine too -- but if she called herself an atheist, I would have suggested she wait and keep thinking. Labels can set our feet in cement, color our inquiry, limit our choices. That's fine for an adult who has deeply engaged the questions and assumptions of a worldview, but for a young child, it's just too early, and more often than not reflects the undue influence of the parent more than independent choice.
When your kids are ready to assert a considered, self-driven choice -- it varies by child, but often around age 13 -- let them claim a label if they wish. But no matter what the label is, remind them that they are still in control and can change their minds 1,000 times as their thinking continues to develop. My 16-year-old son considers himself a "teapot agnostic," and my 14-year-old daughter tells friends she's an atheist and humanist. And they got there entirely under their own power. That's a foundation worth standing on.
AP: Thank you.