Arts & Culture

Author McGowan is honored as ‘2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year’

5 min read

Can parents raise moral children without religion?

Greg Epstein M.T.S. ’07 thinks so. He’s the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, and has just finished writing a book due out next fall. Its title: “Good Without God.”

Dale McGowan thinks so too. He edited the recent anthology “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion” (AMACOM, 2007). Last Saturday (Dec. 6), the Atlanta-based author was honored as 2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year, an award sponsored by Epstein’s office. He delivered the 16th annual Alexander Lincoln Lecture.

Previous honorees include the late television personality Steve Allen; biologist E.O. Wilson, Harvard’s Pellegrino University Professor emeritus; and Rep. Fortney H. “Pete” Stark (D-Calif.), who last year used his Lincoln lecture to formally out himself as the first openly Humanist member of Congress.

Cheerful, tall, and sporting a trim beard and wide smile, McGowan is the antithesis of the image of strident, hair-trigger Humanists — those with what he calls “UTT syndrome” (as in, “Unholier Than Thou”).

McGowan delivered the late-morning lecture at Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium, ate a lunch of burritos with his audience, then moderated an afternoon seminar on nonreligious parenting.

At a booth outside the auditorium was the lecture’s co-sponsor, Kate Miller, founder of the Providence, R.I.-based Charlie’s Playhouse, a maker of games and toys inspired by Darwin. Among them: a long narrow mat that condenses 600 million years of Earth timeline into 18 picture-packed feet of skipping surface; cards on ancient creatures; and what Miller said is her best-selling T-shirt, which bears the legend, “Product of Natural Selection.”

McGowan exudes a similar lightness. In both the lecture and seminar, he said, the operative word is “Relax.”

For one, relax about that morality question. Research shows that children arrive at moral values “reliably, and on time,” he said, as long as they grow up in a supportive environment.

Citing another study, McGowan related that at age 3 or 4 children are “universally selfish,” but by 7 or 8 they develop “a strong sense of fairness,” the foundation of a moral life.

In fact, research shows that indoctrination, often the focus of religious upbringing, is, more than anything else, what impedes moral development, claimed McGowan. “At the heart of indoctrination is the distrust of reason.”

Better off are children who get from their parents “an explicit invitation to disagree,” he said — that is, children “actively engaged in the refinement of their own moral development.”

“Parenting Beyond Belief,” an anthology of essays from 27 Humanist voices, covers eight big topics, including morality, death, values, and community. (Actress Julia Sweeney contributed. So did British skeptic and biologist Richard Dawkins, whose 2006 book “The God Delusion” threw a bare-knuckle punch at the supernatural.)

But even 27 freethinkers ruminating on the subject of nonreligious parenting still managed to arrive at “an amazing degree of consensus,” said McGowan.

They agreed that children should be “religiously literate,” he said, and that labeling a child is inappropriate. “It’s a very different process to reach adulthood and chose your first labels yourself,” said McGowan, “than to look down and see the word ‘Catholic’ or ‘atheist’ hanging around your neck.”

Among Humanist parents, confidence sometimes runs dry in the face of religious traditions that already offer “a box of settled questions” on death, sexuality, and other big issues. “It’s into that breach of confidence that the church steps,” said McGowan.

There seems to be a growing sense of community among nonreligious parents, he said — but it’s pretty new.

A few years ago, McGowan himself was looking for guidance as a new parent who embraced humanism. He found nothing in print, so he floated his first book proposal to publishers in 2003.

There were no takers, despite shelves of parenting books for Jews (2.5 percent of Americans, said McGowan), for Muslims (1 percent), and even for witches and wiccans (“0.004 percent of the American pie,” he said).

Left out, to McGowan’s amazement, were parenting guides for the 14.1 percent of Americans who then self-identified as nonreligious.

The publishing markets opened up following the publication of Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith” in 2004, which shot close to the top of best-seller lists.

Since then, if “Parenting Beyond Belief” has achieved anything, said McGowan, it is the creation of a sense of community — “the simple revelation there are other non-religious parents out there.”

To finish his lecture, Harvard’s Humanist of the Year recalled another nonreligious parent: Ann Dunham, mother of President-elect Barack Obama. She gave her son a sense of tolerance and empathy from within a secular world view, McGowan said.

Using words that first appeared in his blog, “The Meming of Life,” he praised Obama’s mother for showing her son “joy, knowledge, and wonder, of which religion is a single expression.”

“We now have a resounding answer for those who would question whether we can raise ethical, caring kids without religion,” said McGowan. “Yes, we can.”