Ethical Education Starts with Curiosity: An Interview with Dale McGowan

Photo Courtesy of Dale McGowan

CAN CHILDREN grow up to be good without a god?

That’s a question author, speaker, and educator Dale McGowan is frequently asked. The former college professor; author of four books on secular parenting, atheism, and humanism; and newly appointed director of ethical education for the American Ethical Union, responds with a resounding “absolutely!”

“What we really have to do as parents is not create this fortress around [our kids], but create space where they can think for themselves and engage in ideas, including ideas that are different from our own,” says McGowan, also stressing that morality is grounded in empathy. The reason you don’t harm another person is because you can understand from that person’s perspective that they don’t want to be harmed, that it’s just as wrong to harm another person as it is for you to be harmed. “So encouraging kids to articulate empathy for other people, and for other living things, is the foundation.”

McGowan says he wrote his first book on the topic, Parenting Beyond Belief (2007), after a frustrated attempt to find such literature. “I was searching for books on nonreligious parenting and couldn’t find anything appropriate. The little that was out there tended to be kind of defensive—describing this narrow path forward to avoid religious indoctrination and to protect children from being proselytized—to somehow get them to the other side of childhood without having their brains sucked out.” So he set out to write the book he couldn’t find.

Despite being turned down by several publishers, McGowan eventually found a market for his ideas on raising children in a secular environment. According to Pew Research data on the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion, that market is growing rapidly. Fully one in five people, and a third of adults under age thirty, are religiously unaffiliated—the highest percentage ever, according to the Pew Research Center.

McGowan notes that societal attitudes about secularism and atheism have changed dramatically since he first got involved in the freethought movement twelve or thirteen years ago. Most people are much more relaxed about the issue now. When he and his family—his wife, Becca, and three children—moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis seven years ago, he was concerned about landing in what he described as a “monolithic, white, Republican, Baptist area, which is really what it was maybe a generation ago.”

He was pleasantly surprised to find out it wasn’t like that at all—even in his suburban community. “We’re in a very diverse area, surrounded by multiple nationalities, multiple languages, multiple religions.” He says many of the community’s younger residents don’t identify with any religion whatsoever.

So without religion in the mix, how can parents provide for their children’s moral and ethical development? McGowan explains that developmental psychology lays out several different approaches to parenting. The two prominent methods he points to are authoritarian parenting, which tends to be a conservative parenting style of “you do this because I said so, because it’s the law, or because it’s the rule.” Religious parenting often, although not always, skews in this direction, he says.

McGowan is a proponent of authoritative parenting, which, he explains, is what researchers point to as having the best outcomes. This approach is not permissive, nor is it about letting kids do whatever they want. He says it’s about letting them know the reasons for the rules, and that there is a rationale for what you’re saying. “It means they’re part of the process of connecting, reasoning through moral actions, and seeing that reasoning underlies the things that are right and wrong.”

Just saying something is wrong because the rule says it’s wrong is a weak form of moral judgment that only teaches children to be rule-followers, according to McGowan. Rather, research points to a very compelling connection when parents enable a child to articulate the reasons behind things, and to show there are reasons behind the judgments mom and dad make. “Then they are able to exercise active moral judgment on their own, in situations where they don’t have the rulebook.”

“That’s what you really want them to do—develop that moral ability,” McGowan emphasizes, at the same time stressing that this isn’t something nonreligious parents invented, but rather a parenting style that developmental psychology has shown to really be the most effective way of disciplining and raising children with good moral judgment.

Parents can make very simple connections about the golden rule, he explains. “This is at the heart of every ethical system in the world, religious or not, this idea of reciprocity, that I should treat others in the way that I would like to be treated. That, and this horribly long word, universalizability—these two ideas underlie just about all human ethics.”

Universalizability is the idea that any action could be made universal—for example saying to a child, you shouldn’t throw your trash on the ground, because what would happen if everybody threw their trash on the ground? It’s asking the question: If something became universal law, what kind of world would we live in? McGowan believes even the very youngest children can start integrating this concept into their worldview.

The former Catholic university music-professor-turned-writer and secular parenting advocate has thought long and hard about how to prepare children for the inevitable questions about God and religion. “One of the things I recommend that parents do early on is help [kids] define what’s interesting about these issues. The questions are fascinating,” he says. “They’re the most interesting questions you could possibly ask—is there a god, is there life after death?”

He said many atheist parents push those questions away because they’re religious in nature. “I encouraged my kids right from the beginning to not put them in that category because they’re human questions, and religion is one attempt to answer them. But the questions themselves are wonderful!”

McGowan has instilled an unconditional love of reality in his children. “If you get a child chasing answers right from the beginning, they’re not going to feel threatened by religious answers, or feel as if it’s something they shouldn’t engage in.”

A common argument he hears from religious parents is that children cannot learn to be good people without theistic doctrine. “But they can and do,” he counters. “It doesn’t mean there’s no foundation there, and it’s something atheist and humanist parents take very seriously, that moral foundation.” While many people learn moral lessons through religion or scripture, there are other ways to think about morality, and to learn moral lessons.

McGowan’s latest role as the AEU’s education director will help local ethical societies teach these lessons to their youngest members. “This was the perfect time for me to connect with the American Ethical Union and make a contribution and get involved in something that relates to all of the stuff I’ve done so far but is also different,” he explains.

He first crossed paths with the organization about a decade ago. “I love the whole ‘Deed before Creed’ [motto] and the idea of this community growing out of something other than a religious denomination, growing out of a human social determination to form meaningful communities and do good in the world without putting it into a theistic framework.”

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be lessons about other religions. “This is already part of the existing AEU Sunday school framework and there is no plan to change that, because part of ethical education is learning about various ethical systems,” McGowan explains.

Much of his new job as director of ethical education will center on growing the existing program, rather than making sweeping changes. “There is this great thing that a lot of people don’t know about; I want to leverage the best aspects of it, make it better known, and clarify what we can—just open the windows a bit and make it more appealing to people outside of the existing societies.”

He hopes to foster a culture of experimentation and develop more effective ways to share ideas among the local education directors. “One of the most productive things in ethical education is to develop a really good, accessible means of sharing ideas and to plant experiments in various societies, in a way that gives people the opportunity to experiment and efficiently share the results and materials. This approach will help to lift the entire program and increase the success that everyone has, rather than just declaring that there is only one way to do it,” explains McGowan. “That wouldn’t work anyway.”

He also wants to take lessons beyond the confines of available print materials, to develop action-oriented activities—such as volunteering in the community, which is in line with current thinking on moral development. “It happens through experience, it’s not something that’s as effectively taught as experienced.”

That can be as basic as watching a video and discussing it, or getting out and planting a garden, or role-playing, where children are put into certain ethical dilemmas and then work their way out. “That’s where moral education actually happens, and where ethical judgment is developed,” he says. “If we can find the best practices and put them in a format that allows societies that want to tap those resources to do so, I think there will be a lot of excitement around developing the education program in that direction.”

McGowan’s latest book, In Faith and in Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families, focuses on marriages in which one person is religious and the other isn’t. Due out in August, it addresses many common issues and concerns he hears when speaking to parenting groups around the country. Invariably, he fields questions from nonreligious parents about how their kids can connect with others, to give them a sense of identity and belonging. He points to research from Harvard and the University of Wisconsin on why people go to church, which finds that the happiest people are those who go and have close friends in the congregation; the next happiest are those who don’t go to church at all but have close relationships otherwise, and the least happy are those who go to church but don’t have friends in the congregation.

“So the thing that’s most worthwhile, engaging, and meaningful for people has to do with human social connections—coming together and thinking about self-improvement—and at the very top of the pyramid, the thing that everybody has to do, is figure out how to achieve that social connectedness for themselves and their kids. It’s not a need that goes away when you stop believing. There’s still a need to be connected to others and to understand how you fit in.” In the same way that morality comes from multiple sources, that network, that context, can come from religion but doesn’t by any means have to, he adds.

What bugs him most about organized religion? “That sense of incuriosity—the fact that people are satisfied with a set of answers without digging any deeper, without really wondering if they’re true.” McGowan firmly believes that the very best thing a parent can do is to instill a sense of ravenous curiosity and wonder in their children. “If you’ve got that, you will have absolutely no patience with anything that gets in the way, you just immediately bat it aside.”

McGowan is excited that his new role with the AEU means more outreach to the public with many of these concepts. “We have an opportunity to really get people to understand that we’re talking about serving people, we’re talking about growing an institution that will serve general human needs, and frequently in the way that churches have done really well. So we can’t define ourselves too narrowly or we’ll miss that opportunity.”