Teaching the Good in Godless

Alles in Ordnung:  so who’s different?
Photo by Ptarmi Kilgore

“Not possessing a religious basis for morality, atheists are fundamentally incapable of having a coherent system of morality.”

 –Conservapedia,  Atheism & Morality

“The biggest damage religion does is indoctrinating and brainwashing children.”

 –Richard Dawkins, in a The Times of India interview with Vineet Gill, 25 Jan 2012

As a precociously atheist child, I was often asked by friends why I didn’t just rob banks if I don’t believe in God, Heaven and Hell.  After all, morality comes from God and is taught to us through religion, right?

Today, as a father of two pre-teen children, I often think about my role in raising my kids to become intelligent, responsible, productive and socially well-adjusted adults.  My wife Ptarmi is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and, notwithstanding Dawkins’s stance about the damage caused by parents brainwashing their children with religion, we agreed our children would benefit from church membership.

I embraced raising our children to be LDS because the church, like many religions, has a strong moral education program.  The ideals of service to others, charity to the needy and less fortunate, loving one’s neighbors and welcoming strangers, honesty, self-reliance, healthy living, obeying the laws of the land, being respectful to others, not stealing and plagiarizing, working hard and honoring the family are among the many lessons children are taught each week through organized church instruction plans and activities.  These are lessons that should be taught to any child who is expected to become a productive member of modern society.

Yet while many religions have programs for the development of one’s moral and ethical character, I believe such a coherent set of moral principles suitable for teaching children is absent for parents with an atheistic and naturalistic worldview.  In general, people who are a-religious and do not believe in the supernatural often share a worldview that is naturalistic and a conception of reality that is evidence-based.  Critical thinking and an appreciation of scientific methodology are other qualities shared by the a-religious (though religiously affiliated people may possess such qualities in abundance as well).

But perhaps because many of us arrived at our naturalistic worldviews through individual effort and experience rather than via the centuries-tested, mass recruitment  schemes of modern religions, there is no unified canon of principles and texts that the a-religious can employ in a consistent, programmatic plan of instruction for developing the moral characters of our children.  Certainly, there are vast amounts of subject materials available—such as humanist literature, discussions and treatises on atheism, self-help guides for critical, logical and skeptical thinking, etc.—but parents must pick and choose for each family, and in a way, they have no choice but to home-school their children in this regard.  The disciplines of science, skepticism and critical thinking provide little guidance in the moral development of one’s mind and character.

Could a canon of instruction be assembled for the moral development of a-religious children, rivaling the generally successful programs of the great religions or with the impact of the ethical teachings of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Buddhist moral paths?   Issue #114 of The Brights’ Bulletin informed me of the death of the prominent secular humanist Paul Kurtz, adding that he had selected his book Affirmations:  Joyful and Creative Exuberance as his choice for “Books by Brights”.  Affirmations is a collection of thoughts and beliefs that Kurtz offers as a way to living the good life, full of joy, wisdom, and ethical behavior (and free of faith-based, supernatural thinking).

I suggest that Kurtz’s Affirmations is a good start in creating a common canon of texts and materials for moral instruction by parents who want to raise their children to be bright and good.  Similar to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Confucius’s Analects that have had tremendous impact on the mores and ethical thinking of their respective civilizations, Affirmations contains lucid insights into human nature that serve as lessons for appropriate behavior or optimal actions in the context of a modern secular society, without resorting to magical deities or assumptions of faith.  What the book lacks perhaps in organization or conciseness, it makes up for in its grander purpose.

Do you know of other texts that should belong in the canon?  Future generations of bright parents and children could benefit greatly from the seeds sown by dialogue on this topic today.

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