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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24 Responses to Teaching the Good in Godless

  1. Meir Hurwitz says:

    What about the Humanist Manifestos ?

  2. John Kelly says:

    I find it hard to grasp how someone of your obvious intellect could ask for a moral canon be established for Atheist children. No Athiest ever told anyone, “you will burn in Hell.” No Athiest ever killed anyone because they refused NOT to believe. Our morality did not come from Christianity or any other religion or philosophy. It came from within each one of us. It is inherent in our genes. Religions have only taught us how to ignore our genetic predisposition and commit evil acts.

    • Doug Wilson says:

      Agrred on all points.

    • Jim says:

      I think that’s overly simplistic. You seem to imply that “religion” is somehow separate from “us” (humans and our culture), and the point is that it is NOT different. It is realizing that we are the authors, editors and critics of our culture that allows us to positively modify it and take it in a new direction. Either we participate in our cultural coherence, or we do not (in which case the entire point of naturalism advocacy would be pointless, and those of us here do not think it is). “Religion” is not some separate thing and it is our collective cultural burden (facts sometimes suck). Organized religion is a cultural vehicle that is simply no longer relevant to the 21st century as we can explain our universe and our place(s) in it through better means, namely science and social consensus. Since we decide what is “ethical” based on its real-world implications, and since this process is a socially driven one, the idea of an areligious “canon” is not a bad one, and our initial repulsion to it is more likely related to our unchecked emotional disdain for bad personal experiences we’ve all had with organized religion. But that’s not an intellectual secure approach to the issue we face here. If we want to succeed as naturalists in championing a new era of human culture that is free of the vestiges of antiquated religions, we need to view it as a traditional kind of culture that is no longer relevant (it’s not innately “bad” anymore than it’s innately “evil” — so the problem is we feel we have better options circa 2013). Organized religion has some serious flaws that are better remedied through better strategies, not turning the temperature up on our disdain for it. We have the tools to both evolve beyond religion and to do so with dignity–i.e. “smartly” and with less vitriol.

  3. Eric Martel says:

    Besides the law which compels to basic morals (don’t rob, injure, kill, etc.), the book “Chance and Neccessity” by Dr. Jacques Monod (1965 Nobel prize of physiology and medicine) is my personal “bible” in regards of naturalistic worldview, and Dr. Monod does address the issue of morals in chapter 9, suggesting an ethics somewhat based on simple truth (but his idea is more elaborate than that and is derived from deeper thoughts). However, as stated by J. Kelly above, I really don’t feel like I need a set of written rules to be ethical: I have my own personality and set of values, which come in parts from my genes, and in parts from what my parents and society taught me. I like to be kind and generous with others; I don’t need to be afraid of going to Hell to do so.

  4. While it’s mostly not about teaching people morality, I think the book Evil. Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister is an extremely useful lesson about human nature and why people do evil deeds. It’s not quite for children, obviously. I think you were looking for something more directly spiritual? (Meaning that, of course, in a sense that has nothing to do with religion or the supernatural as such.) I’m not against that idea either, but I think philosophical science books increasing understanding of the world also have a great potential role to play here.

  5. Zeki Dugan says:

    There are 3 reasons for people to believe a god/religion.
    1. it being a tool to control (opium of masses)
    2. hope; some have no hope other than the promise of paradise/heaven
    3. actual fear of god and to avoid punishment in hell
    Religion has got absolutely nothing to do with moral values/goodness/helping-saving people.

    • Jim says:

      There’s a “fourth” reason: simply because one happens to be born to parent(s) who happen to have “x” kind of religious background. Most people are conditioned by circumstances to become what they are, and not critical ideological stances. I think it’s naive to think there’s much difference between the power wielded by priests and the power wielded by, say, the Romney clan. Let’s apply our critical thinking skills equally across even subjects that may make our blood boil. We have to be “smarter” about our strategies here so we can have a shot at actually succeeding as the more rational choice for the 21st century.

    • Francois says:

      I appreciate the simplicity of this 3 point argument: never thought of it that way as clearly. It IS a bit aggressive and simple but useful for its simplicity. Thank you.

  6. William B. Secor, Ph.D. says:

    The church, the organized religions and the bible are the last place to look for moral guidance, just look at the recent history of the church, especially the abuse and sexual molestation of children. Also, anyone who reads and knows the bible knows that the concept of a god has changed over the centuries, i.e. the god of Genesis and Job and Jonah etc., is not the same god because the concept of god changes, it evolves and of course humankind creates its gods, hundreds of them over the centuries. Finally, the Mormons, you must be kidding anti Blacks, anti woman, anti gays, come on, ridiculous.


  7. Roger Dagostin says:

    Natural Selection is responsible for our moral intuition. Moral Animal from Robert Wright is a good book on this subject. This doesn’t mean that all morality is written on the genes. A wise solution that natural selection adopt is to prepare the brain to sense the environment and than choose this or that behavioral posture, even imoral ones! That is why raising a child in a “moral health” environment is important, as childs learn how to behave from their loved ones. I just don’t believe churches are good for that role of teaching moral values, it should be learned at schools and at home.

  8. Jono says:


    if your Umwelt is indeed Utahpia I’m not too surprised you’re raising your kids in LDS, but I recommend you read British philosopher Stephen Law’s book “The war for children’s minds”:

    ===How do we raise good children? How do we make good citizens? In defiant yet acute fashion, Stephen Law urges us to re-evaluate the liberal tradition of thinking about morality. Tackling authoritarian rhetoric head-on, he argues that children should learn about right and wrong, and respect for others, but that their education should be grounded in the hard-won values of the Enlightenment. Taking on neo-conservatives and religious and media commentators, The War for Children’s Minds is a candid and controversial call for a liberal, philosophically informed approach to raising children.
    Rejecting accusations that liberal parenting is a Sixties hangover that entails an aimless ‘whatever’ attitude to morality, Stephen Law exposes the weaknesses of arguments calling for a return to authoritarian styles of moral education. He clearly shows that thinking for oneself does not mean that all moral points of view are equally good, or that we must reject faith in order to think freely. ===

  9. Rik van Hemmen says:

    I have a friend who discovered that the 10 commandments were written thousands of years ago and said: I think it is time we write a new set of commandments.

    However, commandments are silly and made for circus animals not rational humans.

    This is a set of 10 decision making steps. They were designed for rational thinkers and should result in moral solutions.

    1. Things are always changing (change is constant)
    2. First do no irreversible harm
    3. Consider the cost of action through the entire chain
    4. Look for efficiencies
    5. Moderation
    6. Communicate
    7. Fairness from both points of view
    8. Cooperate
    9. Allow individual freedoms to an extreme if they do not harm others
    10. One is personally responsible for actions on public knowledge

    Morality is simply the end product of effective decision making.

  10. Jono says:

    ps: I just read your bio. I have a graduate degree in zoology and work as a software design engineer, so we have something in else common besides an interest in secular ethics!

  11. My first book is basically about the beginning change from what I call authoritarian ethics to what I call rational ethics, and it is associated with what I call rational-ethical child rearing. It is at HomoRationalis.com. Authoritarian ethics has never worked well. And our tremendous reliance upon punishment to produce the ethical sense is one of our most awful mistakes, resulting in incredible amounts of pain, suffering, disability, and early death.

  12. Sebastian says:

    I think the difficulty in raising secular children comes from the fact that there is no strict set of rules. But this is exactly why we rejected religion in the first place. There are nuances and circumstances that tend to bend and destroy rigid rules. However, the golden rule will always stand firm. I think it’s important to think of the community and realize what kind of society we want to live in, and try to make it better. Critical thinking, and some knowledge of humanity would guide the secular further than a set of rigid rules can ever guide anyone. For the secular the path is never easy, because we’re always required to asses and analyze before a verdict. We didn’t choose this path for confort, we chose it because it makes society better, and perhaps it makes us more empathic. Many religious people don’t like to admit it, but the moral rules cherry picked from sacred texts, and the ones that are still relevant in the current society, are decoupled from divinity anyway. Also not to harm or kill, because a deity punishes you, it means not harming or killing for the wrong reasons. We don’t want to harm and kill, because it is a bad thing to do in itself, or to a fellow human, or to commit in the society we want to live in. The other rule that will always stand I think is moderation in everything. So 2 rules really that I can think of…Treat others as you want to be treated, and control and moderate before acting. Everything else might be relative…

  13. As pointed out in the (free) book that I mentioned, the ultimate ethical principle, whether authoritarian or not, is arbitrary. Whether to use as one’s ultimate ethical principle the authoritarian-ethical ultimate ethical principle (We should do whatever X wants us to do, X being whoever or whatever is most powerful) or the rational-ethical ultimate ethical principle (We should do that which will promote not only the survival of our species but also as much joy, contentment, and appreciation as possible and as little pain, suffering, disability, and early death as possible, for everyone, now and in the future) is arbitrary. Nevertheless, I believe we are moving in the direction of the REUEP, and I advocate for it.

  14. Des Vize says:

    The New Zealand Skeptic published an interesting article on a values framework based on psycholexical studies, a fancy name for reading dictionaries. The claim is that there are six values shared by all religions, philosophies, cultures, societies, etc. They are the ITEACH values of Intelligence, Temperance, Equality, Altruism, Courage and Holism. A Humanist Ethics Discussion Group (HEDG) in the Bay of Plenty translated them into simpler language with kids in mind. Re-arranged, our six ‘commitments’ are: (to) be fair, (to) be kind, (to) be curious, (to) be moderate, (to) be brave and (to)be active (as distinct from passive).
    The Humanist commitment to the open mind is found in ‘be curious’. The Delphic Oracle’s ‘nothing in excess’ or ‘everything in moderation’ comes under ‘be moderate’. Most human rights fall under ‘be fair’. The Golden Rule comes under ‘be kind’. To be brave means to endure things you cannot change. To be active means to contribute to the group you belong to – at work, at home, in your community.
    I rather like these commitments because they are positive and build character, rather than the negative old Commandments. They are also based on some sort of research and claim to encapsulate the best ideas from across the board.
    Best of all, for those of us who cannot live up to our ideals, the acronym can also be ICHEAT. That is a bit flippant, but it is best to get it in before someone else does.

  15. Proud Father says:

    All you need do is tell your children the truth about the world and love them. Tell them of the wonders of the Universe, of our relationship with all other animals, how all life on our planet came from one simple origin, of our evolution, of our close cousinship with chimpanzees and our more distant one with trees, that everything is made from atoms, that we live on a huge ball of molten rock trapped in the gravity well of another ball of energy one million times a big as ours, the speed of light, the vastness of space and the immensity of time.
    Tell them how much you love them every day. Hug and kiss them at every opportunity. Nurture their natural morality!

    • Greg says:

      Well said “Proud Father”. As a fellow “proud father” of two pre-adolescent children, I couldn’t agree more.

      Similar to Umwelt Utahpia, my wife remains a “believer” to some extent, where I am not. We needed to make the decision last year which high school to send our eldest to, and given that we weren’t spoilt for choice, we decided on our local Anglican College as they had a sound curriculum and a good name. This brought up some issues for me, as I didn’t want my child subjected to any prosyletising that the school would engage in.

      So I took a step back and thought about this, and came to the conclusion that my child is old and (more importantly) mature enough to accept that she would be introduced to a certain amount of religious ideals, and that it was up to her to listen to what was being said, but then make her own (free thinking) mind up on what “she” felt was either acceptable or unacceptable to her.

      I know my daughter, and I know that she can make her own mind up on some of life’s funny decisions.

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