TheHumanist.com’s series Everyday Humanist Heroes celebrates our movement’s group organizers, activists, support staff, and volunteers making a difference in their communities. Who do you want to celebrate?
Humanist Heroes exemplify kindness and compassion from a naturalistic standpoint. I don’t know anyone who embodies these characteristics more than a professor, author, and humanitarian that I am now proud to call my friend, Dale McGowan. Dale has been a “Parent Beyond Belief” for over two decades and had little to nothing to work with for raising kind and curious kids, without religion…so he wrote the script. In both Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, Dale not only taught non-religious parents how to instill morality in their young ones, but included practical exercises and activities to encourage imagination and curiosity. Dale is not by any means “anti-religious.” He was married to a born and bred southern Baptist until she eventually felt the need to explore what she believed and why. Now they share a worldview, which Dale says is sometimes difficult in a sense when trying to see things from another perspective. His book In Faith and In Doubt has saved hundreds, if not thousands, of marriages, including mine.
My single mother accidentally raised me as a freethinker. She followed Dale’s nine best practices, without even knowing what they are. I always had the opportunity to question my worldview, beliefs, and the universe and our place in it. I had ample chances to check out multiple faith groups, places of worship, and interact with members of the LGBTQIA+ community. With all of this, I became an apatheist: I didn’t believe in any gods or supernatural entities, but I couldn’t care less. It wasn’t a big part of my life, because it didn’t invade my thoughts at all. My maternal grandfather was a Freemason and encouraged me to look into it when I reached the appropriate age. When I was being sworn in at twenty-three years old, they asked if I believed in a “higher power” and I said “sure.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that tiny four-letter word would shape the rest of my life and have me cross paths with my Humanist Hero, Dale.
My now-wife, Cindy, was raised as a member of the United Church of Canada. She grew up in a small town with a giant Sunday school program, and most, if not all of her friends and family were Christian. Religion didn’t really come up, because, like I said, I was an apatheist and Cindy was not evangelical about her beliefs. She was a very quiet and private person, especially about her religion. At the time we met, I was a Freemason and it only made sense that I would attend church services with her and her family because I felt fine with her believing in a “higher power.” Something I said “sure” to myself. My lack of belief never really came up, until it did. After we were married, just before we had our first son. I needed help but didn’t know it yet.
At our wedding, which was officiated by Cindy’s family’s minister and had very religious overtones, Cindy’s parents gave a speech that finished with, “We’re so happy that Cindy met a man that shares the same beliefs that she does.” That sentence stabbed deep and I immediately felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I continued attending services with her family, but started getting phone calls from the minister and involuntarily volunteered to do things around the church as a “couple in Christ.” All of these things piled up and eventually hit a boiling point. It sent me on a dark path that led to me temporarily becoming an “Angry Atheist.” I was madder at myself for duping people into thinking I’m somebody that I’m not, than at the people who believed I was religious.
I started attacking Cindy’s beliefs in overt ways and even lashed out at her lack of conviction to understand her own epistemology. It was bad. We were moving toward a head on collision that seemed to be unavoidable. Then along came Dale. I started googling ways to understand religious people from a secular perspective and ways to have less destructive conversations about religion. Dale’s book In Faith and In Doubt was the first highlighted line on the page along with a podcast based on another one of his books, Raising Freethinkers. I was hooked on the podcast from the moment I listened to the first episode. Dale’s soothing voice and self-assured mannerisms, made me feel confident that something could be done to save my marriage from the impending doom that seemed to be coming, and gave me hope that our future children would not be stuck in a limbo of misunderstanding about the world and their place in it. I had not been an avid reader before In Faith and In Doubt, but everything changed in an instant. One of Dale’s tips was to study the list of tenets from your partner’s church and compare them to your own personal outlook. I found that I agreed with all of them, except the one about God, which Dale said is something so small, that it doesn’t even matter. Who cares if Cindy believes in an invisible deity? She is such a wonderful person that it just doesn’t matter. I’m sure I believe things that others would consider unreasonable as well, but I’m still a good person. Dale McGowan helped me see that.
So much can be said about Dale, from his long list of accomplishments. He was Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008. He’s written a number of books on secular parenting, interfaith relationships, the history of atheism, and sharing reality with religious people. He helped me see that it’s more important to see people for who they are, than what they believe. Dale was also the National Director of Ethical Education at the American Ethical Union, former director at Patheos, started a little organization called Foundation Beyond Belief (which has subsequently been renamed GO Humanity), a charitable organization that helps thousands of people per year. Now, he is the Chief Content Officer at OnlySky Media and I’m in immediate contact with him when his quips make me laugh.
Dale McGowan has helped me in ways that no one else could. He was there for me, any time of day, any day of the year, and still to this day, he is there for me. He will forever be my Humanist Hero and the father figure that I never had growing up. Dale will always be my parent beyond belief.