Posts Tagged ‘Dale McGowan’

Unequally yolked: egg on whose face?


two-wayEarlier this month I reviewed Dale McGowan’s book, In Faith and In Doubt, which talks at a very practical, human level about the benefits and drawbacks of marriage between religious and non-religious partners.

Just this week, I listened to a twenty-minute conversation between conservative Christian radio host Greg Koukl and a guest wondering about whether he was morally permitted to officiate at a wedding between a Christian and a non-believer. Koukl asserts unapologetically that it’s prohibited by the Bible.

Side note: The exchange was on the Stand to Reason apologetics podcast – this episode, from 1:18:10 to 1:38:20. I’m listening to it as part of an effort to expose myself not only to stuff I enjoy or agree with, but also stuff that irks me or that I disagree with. I really want to fight the tendency to isolate myself in a silo of like-minded thinkers. But let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Now, I think Dale is definitely right when he says that religious/non-religious mixed marriages can succeed. He has the statistics and testimonies to show that it’s true, and the rationale to explain how it happens.

I also agree with Greg that his scripture (specifically, the “unequally yoked” passage in 2nd Corinthians chapter 6, verses 14-18) speaks against such marriages. And what abuot those mixed marriages that Dale or I would call successful? I think Greg would probably count them as failed, since they often require bracketing beliefs (not abandoning them, but setting them to the side in marital discussions) and focussing on shared values. That is, these marriages involve compromise on certain principles that are central to Greg’s worldview.

But it’s interesting to me that, in the middle of that passage in the New Testament that is so crucial to Greg’s argument, the writer (almost certainly Paul himself) says “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” In the context, that is clearly a rhetorical question whose answer is understood to be nothing.

But the actual answer, as a matter of empirical fact demonstrated by the stats that Dale presents, is clearly a whole lot. We share many beliefs (such as most of our beliefs about the physical world), and many values (most of those dealing with interpersonal relationships). Among believers and nonbelievers with a similar European, Canadian, or American background, we also share the bulk of our cultural practices and traditions.

Why do I mention all this?

Well, partly it’s just a musing on two lines of thought that I’ve been exposed to lately. Same topic, completely different conclusions – one from a perspective of dogmatic intransigence, the other from a perspective of openness and bridge-building.

And partly, of course, it is me as a humanist crowing about how much better my side is than the other (my side being liberals interested in tolerance and coexistence; the other side being fundamentalists interested in drawing lines and declaring wars). Nyah nyah! Except, of course, my side is only better from its own perspective. Aside from the easily-shrugged-off empirical niggle, nothing in Dale’s book really undermines the conservative Christian position. The Pauline position is the better answer when viewed from within that silo.

Does that sound like waffling? I suppose it does. I am still comfortable in the friendly humanist camp: the most important thing in this life is human thriving, and by all available measures the couples in these mixed marriages thrive just as well as those in more religiously-homogenous marriages. But I recognize (as does Dale in his book) that if you are starting from different values, you may get different mileage. Meaning that – at least this far – I am a relativist. And why the dickens shouldn’t I be?


Kids and death: reincarnation


I talked recently about how the topic of death was co-opted by a religious meme that the kids were exposed to, which filled a gap left by their parents’ loud silence on the topic.

Well, we’ve been playing vigorous catch-up since then.

Recently, they asked me about what happens after death and I gave them the three main hypotheses that I could think of: nothing (the naturalist explanation), heaven (leaving hell aside for now), and reincarnation.

It seems that the current leader in their minds is reincarnation. Their imaginations have latched on, and they’re running with it. The day after I introduced the hypotheses, they followed up. I was asked if boys could come back as girls and vice versa. I answered affirmative – “Yes, I think that most people who believe in reincarnation believe that boys can be reincarnated as girls, and girls can be reincarnated as boys. In fact, humans can be reincarnated as other animals, and other animals can be reincarnated as humans.”

So far, when facing these different ideas, they haven’t asked “What do you believe, Dad?”

So I haven’t volunteered. I’ll keep reminding them of the other ideas out there (religious and non-religious), and trust their own self-determination.

I doubt I’d have thought of that approach, or trusted it, if I didn’t have all Dale’s blogging and books encouraging me. Thanks Dale!

Not talking about death …


I’ve learned one thing more acutely than any other as a parent: now is the only time you have. Now is your only chance to have an impact on them.

That might sound like trite, wishy-washy silliness, but a couple of months ago it became rather abruptly real for me.

I have been reading Dale McGowan’s thoughts on humanist parenting since before either of my children were born. His blog, his books, the occasional video or personal email. I’ve learned that it’s important not to insulate kids from different ideas. That you need to be honest and open, and try not to pressure them into adopting your own favorite viewpoint.

And I’ve read that you can start as early as you like. But you know … no hurry, right? I mean, at first they don’t even understand speech. And then, well, they get the words but not all of the abstract ideas. And after that …

When Great Grandma died, it clearly lit something in them. A worry, a curiosity … I don’t know. Some existential human-ness that had so far been dormant. Anyway, at four and six years old, they started talking about it, asking about it.

I was unprepared, and I didn’t respond helpfully.

“Daddy, are you going to die?”

When are you going to die?”

“When am I going to die?”

“I don’t want to die.”

I don’t want you to die either. Or me. Please stop making me think about this.

Yes, of course. My own fears kept me from facing their worries directly, from recognizing them, from engaging them honestly and frankly. What can I say? Deep down I’m still a 4-year-old boy when it comes to facing death, or any of life’s other big questions. A 4-year-old boy with a somewhat larger vocabulary to hide behind.

No problem. I still had time to work out how to approach this better. Let me think about it for a while.

A few months later, we visited the church of some pleasant lads we’d been talking to – Mormon missionaries. This is good, right? Expose the kids to different ideas. Let them know about the great variety around them, and show them how much we trust them to make their own choices.

Deena and I sat through the service with the kids, and then visited a Bible study thing afterwards while the kids went to Sunday school. Afterwards, Kaia had this little craft she had done – a paper drawing of a person, with a transparent overlay, illustrating a person with a soul. She started talking about what happens when a person dies. Their strength goes out of them and goes … well, somewhere.

She was rather vague on the details, but clearly the idea of a life after death had been conveyed. It had been told her as simple truth, by someone who clearly believed it. And so she took it on as simple truth, as she would any other claim from a trusted adult. I really can’t fault the Sunday school teacher, or the Mormon church, for this. That’s their belief, after all.

It didn’t alarm me that she had heard this idea, or repeated it. What alarmed me was the realization that Deena and I hadn’t forearmed her with the knowledge that there are other ideas out there too – that this isn’t necessarily the way it is.

Her grandparents (who are all quite aware of our own beliefs about such things) were rather surprised to be told about souls and heaven by their (so far as they thought) thoroughly heathen granddaughter.

Lesson learned. Since then, we’ve been watching for questions and offering open answers – “That is what some people believe; others believe X or Y.” “Here are some ideas – have some fun with them.”

I’m also keeping an eye out for other hot-button topics. She’s only six, but at the current rate of time passage, by the end of the year she’ll be heading off to college without any fatherly wisdom on relationships, sex, finances, or how to strike the perfect work/Star Trek balance in life.

Anyway, stay tuned for further afterlife conversations. Our new openness in answering questions about death is already paying off.

In Faith, in Doubt, in Love All Over!



In Faith and Doubt, which comes out this month (August 2014), is a thorough look through the issues that you may need to navigate in a marriage between a religious person and a non-religious person.The author is Dale McGowan. This Dale McGowan. More importantly, this Dale McGowan. The Dale McGowan who brought us the books Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, and the more-awesome-every-year Foundation Beyond Belief. (He’s done other stuff too – fiction and non-fiction.)

The issues are discussed clearly and in detail, with support from expert opinions, survey results, and a delightful profusion of personal stories from couples with a wide variety of backgrounds. Not all of the stories end in happily-ever-after – this isn’t a rose-coloured view of only the positives. And yet, I came away from the book with a warm feeling of hope for humanity. It’s a well-rounded view of the ups and the downs that avoids all of the hyperbole and polarization that has characterized much of the religious/non-religious dialogue in popular media and books lately (and, to be fair, throughout history).

I was a little surprised to be invited to read an advance digital copy for preparing this review. After all, as a secular humanist married to a secular humanist I’m not exactly in the target demographic. But it turns out that Dale has a lot to say that I ought to keep in mind, both in my own marriage, and in my relationships with other people.


Dale McGowan – image from

Why in my own marriage? Well, no matter how closely two people identify with the same worldview, there will be some points they disagree on. For example, I consider myself a regrettably-lapsed vegetarian, while Deena is far more comfortable with the omnivorous lifestyle. Also, Dale talks specifically about how some people seem to have more appetite for community than others. In the book, this is offered as an explanation why some people are more drawn to religion than others. But even if you hold the same beliefs and identity, such differences of personality could cause tension if left unrecognized.

What other relationships could benefit from the advice in this book? Most of them, I expect. There’s a chapter titled “Communication and Respect”, where Dale walks through some of the ways we can keep communication open and honest, maintaining respect for the person even in the face of deep disagreements over beliefs. I have religious relatives whose company I greatly value, but who I have felt uncomfortable opening up to for fear of inadvertently kicking up a hornet’s nest. With the tools Dale offers, I now feel safer connecting with those people, discussing important things.

This book also has a lot to say to concerned friends and family of mixed-belief couples. These are people who can have a strong influence – for good or for bad – on a couple’s happiness. When they know what is really likely to be in store, these loved ones can make their influence as positive as possible.

I don’t know how many people enter relationships, only to discover a difference in beliefs and back out – fearful that the difference is just too big to overcome. Those stats don’t come out in any of the surveys Dale talks about – I don’t know how you could even get those stats. Anyway, if you’re in a new relationship with someone who identifies differently from you, reading this book may give you a more hopeful perspective on what may lie ahead.

So, to sum up, if you are or may ever be in a relationship with someone (romantic, familial, collegial, or otherwise) where differences of belief may be involved, I think this book will serve you well in navigating those differences. You will get descriptions of religious and non-religious people (based on real data, not caricatures), and overviews of different approaches to weddings between religious and non-religious people, how to deal with church attendance and other religious practices, issues of communication and identity, managing in-laws with strong opinions on religion, having children, and even navigating divorce (which happens – though at no greater rate than in other marriages).

Check it out. I bet you’ll learn something!

On death (recycled)


This is a repost of a comment I made back in September 2012 over at Dale McGowan’s excellent blog, The Meming of Life. It was in response to his request for thoughts about how atheists deal with death. I repost it here because I’m very proud of it and want to share it with you, but also because it’s a good lead-in to another thought, which I’ll post in a few days. I start this post with the question Dale posed. It was part of his research for the book that is now out, Atheism for Dummies. I encourage you to go to his blog and read the other responses – there were several thought-provoking contributions.

Q: What ideas or ways of thinking about death have been interesting, thought-provoking, intriguing, helpful, and/or comforting to you?

My answer:

For me, there are just a few very important things:

1. Not thinking about it. Is that shallow? Not really: my live is lived entirely when I am alive, so I should be working on living well rather than worrying about death.

2. Avoid death. Is that cowardly? Not really: I try to cultivate healthy habits, and avoid unhealthy ones, so that I can live as long and as fully as possible. (I agree with you, Dale – in general I’m against death.)

3. Think cosmically. Is that cerebral? I don’t care. Does the idea of *only* a hundred years getting you down? Quarks and other tiny particles bubble in and out of existence in the tiniest fraction of a millisecond. Wonder what will be left of you in a million years? All the hydrogen in your body has been hydrogen for the entire 13+ billion year history of the universe, and will be until it is fused into more complex and interesting elements in the hearts of some ages-distant future star. The little points of light you see in the sky have been travelling to your eyes for hundreds or millions of years, only to be absorbed by the rods in your eyes, ending as ephemeral impressions in your visual cortex.

4. Suffer. Is that cold? Well, perhaps. But it doesn’t hurt much to hurt a little at the thought of death. I don’t know if it’s good for you to feel that pain, but at least it doesn’t kill you. Think of it this way: being afraid of death is, at least in part, simply the flip side of being in love with life. And that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day (until I can find a better deal).

Foundation Beyond Belief


I am delighted to announce the launch of a new humanist-driven charity initiative, the Foundation Beyond Belief. Go to the site itself for full details, and to sign up.

I’m just going to point out some of the things about the Foundation that I find particularly awesome:

  • Though it is explicitly modelled on humanist values, religious individuals are explicitly invited to participate.
  • Social networking will be a key part of the Foundation’s interaction with members – this is not just a conduit for money, but a place to build community around shared values and actions.
  • Members can choose where their donations are spent, among ten categories (education, peace, health care, environment, and others).
  • Charities will be selected not just on the values they profess, but on efficiency and effectiveness as well.
  • Religious charities are not explicitly ruled out, but charities that use their funds for proselytizing are (regardless of the worldview they promote).
  • Though based in the US, the Foundation explicitly looks to support charities with an international reach.
  • Two of the key people involved in the Foundation – Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta – were instrumental in my decision to become a blogger (though I have yet to meet either of them in person).

I look forward to seeing the Foundation help people around the world, and I’m excited to participate in it. I’ll close with words from the Foundation itself: a mission statement, a launch blurb, and a video:

Mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

Launch blurb:

Beginning on January 1, 2010, Foundation Beyond Belief will highlight ten charitable organizations per quarter — one in each of ten categories. Among other considerations, beneficiaries will be chosen for efficiency, effectiveness, moderate size (annual budget <$10M), compatibility with humanist focus on mutual care of this world and this life, no direct promotion or proselytizing of a particular worldview, and geographical diversity.


Ook ook!


Sometimes, I decide to share something which contains no intellectual contribution, no illustration of the value or comfort or truth of the humanist life.

Sometimes, in short, I just want to hoot and holler and make sure my fellow apes notice me.

The latest addition to our home humanist library arrived yesterday. It’s Dale’s new book, Raising Freethinkers.

I haven’t read any of it yet – I’ll make sure to get some sort of review up when I do.

In the meantime, let me give you the two items that are sure to be highlights.

One is where he mentions the HSS Thought for the World campaign (which I’ve discussed a couple of times on this blog). And who do you think got into the list of “British humanist thinkers” that have been featured in “this brilliant podcast”, alongside people like Stephen Law, Nigel Warburton, and (he says with a slight gasp of awe) A. C. Grayling? Me, myself, and I! (see page 244, last paragraph).

The other is in a list of “Twelve Blogs for Us” (start of chapter 9, pages 233-235). On it – on this printed list of blogs that are personally recommended by Dale McGowan, the indisputable leader of online secular parenting inspiration (just read some of his blog entries and you’ll agree) – on this list is this very (occasionally) humble site. And, because I’m letting my inner ape shine through, I’m going to share Dale’s description of this blog:

The blog of a smart and (yes) friendly Canadian humanist in Scotland. One of my favorites for quiet intelligence. 

Sigh. Thankyou Dale, for feeding my inner ape.

Now, back to some more quietly intelligent content…

My newest humanist hero


Deena and I are big readers, and so part of our preparation for parenthood has been to get hold of some key parenting books.

One which we have already read cover-to-cover, but whose practical relevance may not kick in for a couple of years, is Dale McGowan‘s collection of essays by various humanists, atheists, and others: Parenting Beyond Belief. Awesome book, by the way. Even before our kids are old enough to start trying some of the things mentioned in the book, it provides great reassurance for us as secular parents.

For some reason, I didn’t really notice that he also has a blog sparked by the book. It was just before I started this blog that I found it, through his interview with my Friendly Role-Model, Hemant Mehta.

And it’s great. The whole blog. I’ve read a good dozen or so of his blog posts now, and they’re brilliant. Funny, moving, informative. He does what I aspire to do – describe what it’s like to live as a humanist, compellingly and with mind-ticklingly lyrical wordcraft. It’s brilliant.

Read it.