Humanist Society of New Zealand (Inc.), PO Box 3372, Wellington, New Zealand – Registered Charity No. CC36074

The Humanist Society of New Zealand is a Member Organisation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union

Humanist Newsletter December 2016

Kia ora: Well, Trump was elected! As we come to our summer holiday period, the Humanist Council extends our best wishes for 2017, hoping not too shaky for Kaikoura residents recovering from the recent devastating shake.

Monthly meeting: Monday 5 December 6.30 pm

The Problem of Evil

Jason Carruth spoke to us at our August meeting about his journey from Christianity to Atheism. This month he will discuss the problem of evil. Traditionally, the problem of evil refers to the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. When there is no such God, is there Evil?

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.

Venue: Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St in the Katherine Mansfield Room

  •       Subscriptions for 2017 year are now due: We appreciate your support which helps lend weight to our campaigns. Visit our website humanist.org to renew your subscription or join us for the first time. Your subscription may also be sent to us by cheque to P.O. Box 3372 Wellington. Subscriptions remain the same as 2016. An unwaged subscription is $20.00 with a waged subscription of $35.00
  •       2017 Diary: The first newsletter for 2017 will be sent out in late February before our first monthly meeting on Monday 6 March 2017. Darwin Day on Sunday 12 February is a great opportunity to celebrate our natural world. Maybe we can meet together for a picnic in the late afternoon. Watch our website and Facebook page for details of this gathering.
  •       Eileen Bone Scholarship to Victoria University: Shania Smith is the 2016 Naenae College student who has received this award. We have no information about Shania’s study plans as Shania did not speak to Sara and Mark after the Senior Prize giving when this award was made. We will publish more details next year.
  •       Freethinking Parenting: Jolene Phipps has written an account of her talk at our November meeting:

At last month’s Humanist meeting I talked about the Freethinking Parents Facebook page and discussed the importance of encouraging religious literacy and critical thinking in our children. Here are some of the ideas we talked about:

Religious Literacy:

Although many atheist parents dislike religion it’s undeniable that religion has played, and continues to play, an important role in shaping the course of human history. It’s important that our children have a good grasp on religious concepts so they can understand how religion impacts on different societies. Being religiously literate is incredibly empowering for children – having knowledge about many religions and myths helps to put the amazing claims of particular evangelicals in perspective.

How to encourage religious literacy:

  •       Look for authentic contexts that come up in everyday life that can spark discussions about religions.
  •       Possible starting points for conversations may be coming across: religious art, religious themes during Christmas or Easter, religious clothing, or passing a church or mosque.
  •       Keep discussion simple and brief – children don’t want a long lecture. Interesting snippet of information and thought provoking questions will be more effective.

Critical Thinking:

  •       Sometimes we can protect our children from harmful ideas, and when they are little this is very important. However we must be focused on fostering critical thinking skills as our children grow, so they will be able to call out silly ideas themselves. We can’t always ensure that we will be there to intercept every harmful religious idea, and this becomes more so as our children get older and become more independent.

How to encourage critical thinking:

  •       Model critical thinking by talking through some of your own thought processes.
  •       Ask questions like: “do you think that’s true?” “How could we check that?”
  •       Encourage questioning with statements like “that’s a great question!”
  •       When your child asks you a question, ask them “what do you think?” rather than simply answering it yourself. You’ll be surprised by some of the great answers you get.

Curiosity:

  •       Here are some final thoughts about curiosity. In order for there to be any critical thinking or religious literacy there needs to be a general attitude of curiosity. This is a real strength of non-religious parenting. We don’t have easy answers to many of the difficult questions in life. Easy answers shut down curiosity and the process of questioning. Rather than merely transmitting facts or our own ideas, we should leave space for our children’s creative thinking. Let your kids see your own curiosity, pose questions and explore new ideas together. Enjoy!

Some books I’ve found helpful:

  •    McAFee, D.G. & Harrison, C. (2015). The Belief Book. Dangerous Little Books.
  •    McAFee, D. G. & Harrison, C. (2016). The Book of Gods. Atheist Republic.
  •    McGowan, D., Matsumura, M., & Metskas, A. (2009). Raising freethinkers: A practical guide for parenting beyond belief. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.
  •    McGowan, D. (2011). Parenting Beyond Belief-Abridged Ebook Edition: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.

Christel J Manning has an interesting article on this important issue in Free Inquiry April/May 2016

Christel J Manning

Raising Our Children to Choose for Themselves

These are good times to be secular. As a sociologist of religion teaching at a Catholic university, I had kept my nonreligiousness to myself for much of the last twenty years, so the publication of my new book on secular parents was a bit of a coming-out experience. To my surprise, the response has been almost entirely positive. Despite all the religious craziness around the world, more people are leaving organized religion than ever before. Recent national surveys report that nearly a quarter of Americans now identify as religious Nones, and the proportion among young people is about one-third. Significantly, a growing number of those who leave are saying they do not believe in God or pray or think the Bible is true, suggesting these Nones are truly secular, rather than just unchurched believers. In the last two decades, that growing pool of secular Nones has fed the growth of organized secularism, leading more people to seek out the secular/humanist movement and identify with secular organizations. There’s hope in the air that the moment has arrived for an “atheist awakening,” as a recent book has described it.

Can this growth be sustained? One way to approach the question is to compare the contemporary secular movement to the religious movements with which it must compete. Historically, religious movements have relied on two sources of growth: recruitment, meaning bringing in new converts from outside the movement, and socialization, meaning raising up a new generation within the movement. That’s why the big religions all send out missionaries and why they encourage members to have large families and raise their children within their tradition. Considering examples of the largest and/or fastest growing religions—Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, Islam —it’s clear that to be really successful, a movement must excel at both recruitment and socialization.

Today’s secular movement has been quite successful at recruitment. The “New Atheist” writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have given seculars a voice that is confident, articulate, and widely recognized outside the movement. It has also generated tremendous publicity— and, importantly, popularity. New Atheist themes have been picked up by social commentators who, are funny and irreverent—and increasingly popular among millennials, even those who do not themselves identify as atheist. At the same time, the Internet has offered new outlets for disseminating the message, facilitating the creation of a more nuanced and positive image of secularism, including attention to atheism as a lifestyle identity (rather than just a foil for Christianity) and acknowledgment of diversity within the movement. Secular websites, journals, and blogs allow the movement to define itself to the public, rather than being defined by the religious majority. The Internet also provides a way for nonbelievers who would otherwise be isolated to find like-minded communities of freethinkers.

Ironically, American culture’s relative hostility toward atheism has actually helped the movement recruit followers beyond the Internet, providing a safe space in which people who feel like outsiders in their families or communities can “come out” and embrace their secular identity. A recent study shows there are more nonbeliever organizations located in regions where evangelicals predominate than in regions where Nones are more numerous. My own research on secular parents found those living in evangelical-rich regions often feel embattled, which in turn motivates them to affiliate with an organized community that welcomes doubters, such as a local chapter of the Council for Secular Humanism or the American Humanist Association (AHA) or a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church.  

What is less clear is whether the secular movement can succeed at socialization. There are some hopeful signs. The Nones are predominantly young adults of childbearing age, suggesting the possibility of raising another generation in the secular movement. Although Nones by definition don’t want to affiliate with any organization, this can change over life’s course. Many young Nones are passively secular, in the sense that they have little interest in religion but do not actively affirm an atheist identity. But when young people marry and start families, they often start thinking about what they want to pass on to their children and how to support them in that worldview, so being part of a community of shared values becomes more important. There is some evidence that these Nones may join an on-the-ground organized secular community and/or tap into an Internet community to help them raise secular families.

I interviewed many secular parents who had affiliated with a Unitarian or humanist group because they wanted to raise their children there. Secular Sunday-school programs can affirm a clear set of positive values such as justice, tolerance, and freethinking, rather than defining secularism only in terms of what it opposes. They allow secular families to celebrate changing seasons or important rites of passage in individuals’ lives and provide opportunities to make friends and volunteer to help others—just as churches do. Other secular parents, especially those who live in small, more rural areas where there are no secular organizations, may try to provide these things themselves, sometimes with the help of a virtual community.

They will buy self-help secular parenting books or go on Internet blogs to get ideas for teaching their kids about various religions or about secular morality. They use various modes of transmission, including reading to children, conversations, engaging children in creating their own unique family rituals (such as inventing a secular blessing to say before meals), or teaching them about rituals that pertain to their family heritage but imparting new meaning to them (for example, Christmas as solstice, signifying the return of natural, rather than divine, light to the world). Studies on religious affiliation show a childhood upbringing to be the single largest predictor of adult worldview and affiliation, and the most effective type of socialization is the kind where what happens in the home is supported by a community of like-minded believers. Assuming this would apply to secular worldviews as well, the nascent secular-parenting movement does offer some hope for the future growth of organized secularism.

Other signs point in a different direction. Many Nones, especially secular Nones, are suspicious of the idea that children should be raised to hold a particular set of beliefs (what they call “indoctrination”) or that family life will benefit from affiliation with a community of like-minded believers (what they call “groupthink”). Studies show that while most religious Nones will reaffiliate with organized religion when they have children, most secular Nones do not. Affiliation is even less likely for secular parents who do not feel embattled. My own research showed a marked contrast between parents living in the so-called Bible Belt and those living in New England. In the latter location. Nones are not only more numerous, but one’s religious affiliation or nonaffiliation is considered a deeply private matter. In this type of culture, nobody will question your secularism, but you are also less motivated to join an organized secular group.

Perhaps more important than their reluctance to affiliate is that freethinking secular people do not want to indoctrinate their children. Most Catholic parents want their children to grow up to be Catholic, Jewish parents raise their children to be Jewish, and so on. By contrast, secular parents want their children to make their own choices. When I asked None parents what worldview they sought to pass on to their kids, they would say things such as, ‘”l want my son to be tolerant, fair, and kind”; “I don’t want to impose my own worldview on my children”; “I want my daughter to be able think for herself”; “I want to expose my children to all different kinds of spiritual and nonspiritual options so that they find what works best for them.” Not once did I meet a parent who said, “I am raising my kids to be atheist.” The most fundamental value among None parents is personal choice, and it is that choice, rather than a particular secular ideology, that they want to pass on to their children.

The emphasis on choice helps explain seemingly inconsistent behavior among nonreligious parents. Some secular parents, especially those married to a religious spouse, will consent to raising their children within a particular religious tradition. For example, an atheist dad may attend church with his wife and agree to have the children baptized and attend religious Sunday school while also being upfront about his own lack of faith, especially as the children grow older. Once the kids are old enough, he reasons, they can choose for themselves. Other parents, especially those in traditions where religion is tied to a family’s ethnic heritage (for example, Jews or Irish Catholics) may outsource religious education. For instance, I met several Jewish parents who enrolled their children in weekly Hebrew-school classes to prepare for a bat mizvah but did not themselves attend services even on high holidays. These parents felt it was their duty to educate their children about their family heritage and reasoned that they were free to leave it behind as they themselves had done. Still other secular families will follow the lead of a child. Thus, I encountered parents who reported sending one child to Sunday school because she expressed an interest in spiritual matters and not doing this with another child because he had no such interest.

Even parents who choose to affiliate with a secular organization affirm the centrality of choice. The type of education kids get at UU Sunday school or a humanist “family program” is not the mirror-image of religious Sunday school, where one is traditionally taught to believe in a particular creed, encouraged to regularly partake in certain rituals, and sometimes warned that if one doesn’t believe or participate dire consequences await. By contrast, secular Sunday school is designed to help children choose for themselves. UU’s education program, established decades ago, is quite comprehensive and is available in most UU churches. It covers a variety of subjects at progressive, age-appropriate levels, including ethics, eco-justice, and the teachings of various religions as well as secular humanism. The AHA established a national pilot program more recently, but it has been implemented in only a few locations (perhaps the best known is Palo Alto, California). Local AHA family programs are more overtly secular than the UU offering, but they too are more oriented toward encouraging intellectual curiosity, free thinking, and personal expression than toward indoctrinating children into the tenets of a particular atheist or humanist worldview. And the failure of AHA’s pilot program to take hold nationally may be a testament to many members’ discomfort with imposing any kind of belief system.

All this emphasis on choice is a noble ideal, but it may be a problem for organized secularism at least in terms of ensuring growth. As a secular parent raising my daughter without religion, I too am committed to letting her choose for herself. It is possible that some day she will choose religion, especially since we are not affiliated with a secular organization that could provide a wider community to help socialize her. During my research, I did meet several secular parents whose teenage children succumbed to Campus Crusade for Christ and became born-again. I must admit that I find this a scary thought.

And yet, I hope that, like these parents, I will be able to accept and respect my child’s worldview, whatever it may turn out to be. The secular movement to me is really about enhancing our freedom, and if our children are more free to choose than we were, then that movement is succeeding, regardless of its size.FI

Further Reading

Manning, Christel. 2015. Losing Our Religion: How Unaffi/iated Parents Are Raising Their Children. New York: New York University Press.

Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Christel J, Manning has spent the last decade researching the rise of the Nones in America. Her new book, Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children (NYU Press), has been rated one of the top ten religion books of 2015. Manning is professor of Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This article was originally published in Free Inquiry April/May 2016      secularhumanism.org