Secular American parents in the present day have an extra challenge when they raise children. American culture, an anomaly in the Western world (see Atheist Demographics) is steeped in religion. Many parents more in tune with the culture of our country do not concern themselves with raising children to be freethinkers, with open minds and the ability to question and make intelligent decisions. Certain religions encourage both parents and children to move in lockstep, not questioning cultural prescriptives. Secular parents are committed to raising children with open minds. In addition, atheist parents must make certain practical decisions, such as what to do about Christmas and Easter. Will your family celebrate these Christian holidays or not? How does a secular parent deal with Santa Claus? What do you answer when your teenager is invited to go to an afterschool teen club that is Christian in orientation? How do atheists deal with explaining the finality of death to young children, since the concept of heaven is not embraced by their family group? Such practical issues must be dealt with correctly and it’s not always easy to find the “right” answers or the tactful words.
It is vitally important for atheist parents to provide a secure, happy and confident environment for their children. A dour atheism that reacts too negatively and emotionally to any mention of belief or religion might have an unintended effect on children, either by making them feel they must hide their thoughts concerning religious matters, or by causing them to feel rebellious and contrarian against secularism. One of the most important skills we can impart to our kids is the ability to think critically. Along with critical thinking, healthy, inquiring skepticism is a necessity for the secular child. Atheist parents can create an atmosphere that allows all topics, including belief systems, to be open to discussion. Parents can encourage curiosity, wonder about the natural world, experimentation according to the scientific method, and finding naturalistic explanations for things.
The atheist community needs centers where atheists can gather socially, take classes in evolution and other topics, hear lectures on secular topics, and take their children. Our children need a central gathering place where they can meet like-minded families and take short classes in ethics, decision making, science and so on. Secular children should be able to have parties and later on, dances and clubs in their own buildings. Atheists not only need to work with their children at home, but also provide a meeting place for them in their free time. We need to provide a community of secular support for our families.
Children’s books are another important facet of many young people’s lives. Books can help provide an open, alternative view to the fearful, obstructionist thinking of religion. Atheist Scholar has picked volumes helpful to parents trying to navigate the ambiguous cultural world of a society that sends astronauts to the moon and builds a creationist museum and Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky. There are moments when secular parents feel that they need guidance more than their children do! The Book List has provided two excellent volumes replete with advice and resource venues for parents. The rest of the list is made up of various science and critical thinking children’s volumes for different age groups. Many of the books prioritize the secular outlook. The two volumes listed for parents contain invaluable references. At the end of the Book List, there is a list of some websites that recommend books of either a secular nature for children, or recommend classic books in the field of children’s literature. Parents need to sift through the recommendations for suitable titles. All the books recommended on the Book List have been read through by the Atheist Scholar.
There is not a complete bibliography on the market for atheist or secular children’s books. An ambitious atheist who is majoring in English, Library Science or Education might consider such a bibliography as a project. Atheists who like to teach might consider giving a course in secular kids’ books to parents and/or children. For every book we publish, Christians put out at least ten, but all the same, there are many more books for our children than there were 10 or 15 years ago. Let us hope the future holds more books, films and centers for the atheist child. We can reach such goals if we try.
The following Books on the List have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers:
Recomended Books for Parents
McGowan, Dale. Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion. New York: Amacom, 2007.
Dale McGowan’s book is an excellent help for people trying to bring up children in secular homes. It deals with secular topics in an open and even manner. Atheists vary in the degree of their unbelief, so some of the suggestions in the volume may not suit every parent, but there are enough resources listed in Parenting to put it on the “must have” list.
Parenting is divided into sections. There are sections on Personal Reflections, Living with Religion (it’s not going away very soon,) Holidays and Celebrations, Being and Doing Good, Values and Virtues, Death and Consolation, Wondering and Questioning, Science, and Seeking Community. Well known freethinking and atheist writers, celebrities and experts, such as Penn Jillette, Richard Dawkins, and Julia Sweeney have written essays that reflect their views on various important issues concerning secular families. Each section contains excellent end notes; the volume is well-indexed, and there is a section providing references used by or known to the authors. Parenting is additionally important because of its excellent resource guides at the end of the chapters.
McGowan, Dale, et al. Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. New York: Amacon, 2009.
Before Parenting Beyond Belief, and Raising Freethinkers, there were no practical resource volumes for helping secular parents raise confident and well adjusted freethinkers. Dale McGowan relates that he had trouble getting the first book, Parenting Beyond Belief, accepted until Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2005) hit No. 4 on the New York Times Best Seller List. Secular parents now have a well-researched, greatly expanded guide with the publication of Freethinkers. The sections in the volume include: The Inquiring Mind, Living and Teaching Ethics in Your Family, Secular Family-Religious World, The Physical Self, Ingredients of a Life Worth Living, Celebrating Life, Death and Life, and Finding and Creating Community.
Raising Freethinkers is a resource treasure of suggested ideas, books, films, websites and freethinking groups around the country. Atheist parents may not agree with all the suggestions expressed in McGowan’s book, but the secular community has never had excellent guides for raising children prior to these volumes’ publication. Freethinking parents who brought up children before Parenting and Freethinkers usually say how much they could have used such guides to help them with difficult questions and with finding important resource material. Freethinkers contains dozens of suggestions concerning how to respond on specific occasions, such as secular children receiving religious gifts, preparing kids for questions they will be asked about their unbelief, dealing with death, sex education, and much more. The volume is well-indexed; there is an appendix with suggested film titles, and the resource guides at the end of each section are invaluable.
Katherine Stewart. The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.
Barker, Dan. Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics. Illus. Brian Strassburg. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.
Dan Barker’s book, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, is an excellent short volume for teaching children critical thinking, skeptical thinking, and how to employ the scientific method in their lives. The book begins with a young girl who is a skeptic. “Skeptic” is well defined for the young reader. The heroine questions two friends who believe they saw and heard ghosts in their house. She asks a series of questions that demonstrate their perceptions were incorrect. Barker breaks into the text at this point with how to deal with the claims that religion makes about miracles, angels and so on. He states that we now know that things like floods, earthquakes and lightning have other, natural, explanations rather than supernatural reasons.
Barker, one of the directors of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, then segues into a detailed discussion of the scientific method and the particular practices that it entails. He uses accessible language and his descriptions are very easy to understand. Barker concludes that if you are really certain of something, following the rules of science, then it’s OK to say Yes or No. But if you aren’t sure, it’s OK to say I don’t know, and Maybe Yes, Maybe No.
Brockman, Christopher. What About Gods? Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1978.
Chris Brockman does not mince words. He tells the young reader that gods are made up by people. He has no respect for religion and states clearly that religion is a remnant of our early history. At that time, people explained things they could not understand by means of religion. Religion was also a concept that helped control people. The language and ideas expressed are very clear and understandable. This is an excellent book to give children and talk about after they have read it. The volume expands on Dan Barker’s book, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, and its efforts to encourage clear and skeptical thinking in children. Brockman reinforces the idea that not everyone believes in god. The book makes it plain that there is nothing wrong with rejecting other people’s ideas, especially about god. One mother mentioned that her leaning toward agnosticism child was disappointed that the author did not discuss why really smart people believe in god. Good point. We need more atheist books like Brockman’s that will expand answers to some of the questions kids will have when they begin to discuss what they have read.
Dawkins, Richard. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. Illus. Dave McKean. New York: Free Press, 2011.
Age Level : 6th Grade and Up.
Richard Dawkins, the well-known atheist and evolutionary biologist, has performed a much-needed and welcome service for the secular community. The author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, Dawkins has written a volume for young people and the not so young that explains reality and science in a fascinating 270 pages. The book is written with verve, charm, amusement and avuncular gentleness. The author separates magic into three categories: supernatural,stage magic (differentiating between legitimate entertainers and charlatans,) and poetic magic (the wonder and beauty we feel with the encounter and understanding of reality.) The book carefully explains that while much reality is visibly observable, some things can’t be seen, except by experiment and inference.
Magic is divided into 12 Chapters: What is reality? What is magic? Who was the first person? Why are there so many different kinds of animals? What are things made of? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? What is the sun? What is a rainbow? When and how did everything begin? Are we alone? What is an earthquake? Why do bad things happen? What is a miracle? Most of the chapters begin with one of the above questions and a relation of the myths and folk tales with which people used to explain natural phenomena. Then Dawkins provides the scientific explanation. Christian mythology is not spared; Dawkins discusses Christian creation myths as well as pagan ones.
A caveat: Magic is a complex and long book. Advanced 6th Graders will do well with it. Younger children should read it or have it read to them by their parents, who can help navigate the way through some of the difficult topics. There is no bibliography and the index is not as thorough as one could wish. Dave McKean, the famous illustrator, has produced eye-popping and realistic illustrations. The volume is beautifully printed and well made. This is the book that parents have been waiting for and that older readers wished they had available when they were young. Red shift was finally explained to this reader, and a book that can do that is a secular miracle. Highly Recommended.
Glossop, Jennifer. The Kids’ Book of World Religions. Illus. John Mantha. Toronto, Ontario: Kids Can Press, Ltd. 2003.
World Religions is an informative volume with 12 important religions explained, along with some minor belief systems, such as Macumba from Brazil, and North American Indian beliefs. The illustrations are realistic and blend nicely with the text. What is particularly heartening for atheists is that the book provides a brief section which states there are millions of people in the world who do not believe in god. The text defines atheist and agnostic stances. It mentions that Confucianism is more a philosophy of this world conduct rather than a belief religion and that many Buddhists and Jains do not believe in a god.
Religions discuss each faith’s beliefs, practices, gods and holidays. Side boxes are supplied which review important features and thinking in each religion, as well as pronunciation guides to unfamiliar words and names. The book contains an excellent index, and a nice glossary. Unfortunately, there is no list of references for further reading.
Hitchcock, S.J. and Tom Flynn. Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism. Illus. Leslie White.Tucson, Arizona: See Sharp Press, 2009.
S.J. Hitchcock’s (a pseudonym) book takes no prisoners. He begins his volume by asking the reader to have a pretend dialogue with someone, but instead of using the word “god” in sentences, to substitute “The Invisible Flying Clown.”The effect is very amusing. Hitchcock’s dialogue is sharp and funny and White’s illustrations are wry and comic. Hitchcock deftly destroys the standard arguments for god. (See Arguments for and against the Existence of god) He effectively argues against creationism and intelligent design, and maintains that religion and science are incompatible. He holds that science is superior because it is based on facts and evidence. He is very critical of all religion, but especially of Christianity and Islam.
Disbelief 101 helps do away with one of religion’s standard fallback arguments: that it is necessary for morality and meaning. The book makes an excellent case for the creation of morality through reason rather than divine command. The author lets young people know that if they are being forced to go to church, they are being abused.
Hitchcock’s book has had poor reviews from a few conventional sources, but atheist writers have praised it highly for its wit and thoroughness. Young people who are beginning to have doubts about god and religion need this volume, as well as teens brought up in secular homes. There is a brief but respectable bibliography for young people interested in further reading and a good index.
Morgan, Jennifer. Born with a Bang. Book One: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story. Illus. Dana Synne Andersen. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications, 2002.
Ages 9-12. Bright children from about six years old might find this book interesting.
This is an odd and mildly controversial book. The volume has passed expert scientific critiques and is considered sound concerning the facts it presents. The illustrations are magnificent, with striking, vivid colors and surrealistic art. The trouble, for some readers, is the text. The universe tells its own story, and some parents have complained that such a narrative device confused their children. Others have said the kids loved it and understood it perfectly. Readers have noted that young children are not confused with talking dinosaurs or other such “pretend” strategies in books and films and on television, and there should not be a problem with Born with a Bang. Other readers have found it somewhat New Age or pantheistic. The science is correct, however and the book provides an arresting story of the wonderful and awe-inspiring beginning of the universe.
Morgan’s book has a nice glossary, excellent time line sections and a large page of resources at the end- books for kids, books for adults, videos and websites in the field of cosmology. The author is connected to Genesis Farm, which blends science and spirituality. Secular parents might want to read the book to make sure they are comfortable with it before reading it to kids or giving it to them to read.
Peters, Lisa Westberg. Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story. Illus. Lauren Stringer. New York: Harcourt, 2003.
Our Family Tree was well researched by Peters before she wrote it. Stringer’s illustrations are beautiful, combining naturalistic images with some impressionistic pages. The result of her technique is striking. The book begins with the story of the human species when life was “tiny round cells, but with the same kind of spiraling genetic code for life we have today.” It ends with the observation that we humans have large brains that wonder who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going next. The final line states that our human family goes a long way back. The path of evolution has been traversed pretty thoroughly for young children by the end of this engrossing volume. There is a time line appendix which expands ideas discussed in the text for the older child. Both author’s and illustrator’s notes provide excellent resources and names of websites and book titles for further study.
Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials Trilogy: The Golden Compass (1995,) The Subtle Knife (1997,) The Amber Spyglass (2000.) New York: Knopf, 2007.
Ages Early Teens on up…
This review contains some spoilers.
Philip Pullman is an outspoken atheist and his trilogy is a welcome alternative to theistic-oriented stories, such as C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It has won many literary prizes, including the coveted Whitbread for the Amber Spy Glass. However, Pullman crams his three volume trilogy with magic, angels, demons, daemons and such creatures as talking bears. The Atheist Scholar has read all three volumes and it was an enjoyable experience, despite the magic. Pullman has created a strong-minded young girl, Lyra, for his heroine. Her daemon, Pan, an animal familiar who is always with her, is a charming addition. Her male sidekick and love interest, Will, joins her in the second volume, and a great deal of that book is given to Will’s adventures. Lyra must find her destiny and the mystery of the Dust must be solved.
The first volume is the most interesting for atheists. It takes place in an alternative world that looks like ours, but is a religious theocracy. It is an interesting “take” on what it might be like to live in a theocracy. Needless to say, the Church is full of villainous schemers and hypocrites, who threaten Lyra, Will, and the “souls” of little children on whom they experiment. The entire fantasy adventure narrative takes place in a multiverse of parallel worlds.
Pullman is an excellent writer and deftly mingles philosophic and scientific discussions with breathtaking adventure. Ideas abound in all three volumes. However, there are many people, including Christians, who have read His Dark Materials mainly for its wonderful and thrilling plot. Young people in their teens will enjoy the trilogy, as well as much older people. Many atheists have been fascinated by Pullman’s concept of theocracy.
His Dark Materials is a fantasy based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Grail legends, the poetry of William Blake, and the Adam and Eve story revisited and revised. When Lyra and Will eat some little red fruits, knowledge, or the Dust, which had been mysteriously disappearing throughout the plot, flows back into the world. As knowledge and self awareness reappear, the Church sinks into chaos and decline. Lyra and Will are the new Adam and Eve, who come together to create a new dispensation, free from superstition, for the entire multiverse.
A Quick Overview of Children’s Book Sources
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the most distinguished American picture book for children. An informative list is to be found in the Caldecott Medal & Honor Books, 1938 to the present.
Many of the plots for children are secular and a delight for both the parent and child. It is always a good idea to read the books yourself first to see if the plot is what you want for your child. Ahead of time reading by the adult prepares you for the questions that can be generated.
The Newberry Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. The AlA is a reference point for children’s books. There are many lists by age level available from the ALA.
The Baldwin Project seeks to make available ON LINE a comprehensive collection of resources for parents and teachers of children. They have a wealth of material in all categories.
Amazon. The list author realizes it is difficult to raise non-religious children in America. But he has a “ton” of great books to help. Secular-Books-for Children. (91 results)
Amazon. The list author says that his list is good for secular home schooling & Secular-Children’s-Books-Universe-Evolution. (31 results)
Jenny’s Wonderland of Books.
Sunday, January 12, 2010 could be the last updated issue. Please email us if you find a listing more current Wonderland of books is a blog. A range of material is presented. Proceed with the idea of shopping for your needs and passing over sectarian areas that do not fit.
Children’s Books for Secular Parents
On Think Atheist. Well worth a visit.
Evolve Fish Book List. Look for lots of kids books.
Kids without God
“You’re not the only one.”
”Welcome to Kids Without God, a site for the millions of young people around the world who have embraced science, rejected superstition, and are dedicated to being good without a god!
Neil De Grasse Tyson View this video and share it with your children or friends. You will find many excerpts from his public appearances on You Tube.
Does the Universe Have a Purpose? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pL5vzIMAhs