Secular Parenting in a Religious World: An Interview with Margaret Downey

How does one describe Margaret Downey and do her justice?

The new president of Atheist Alliance International as well as the founder of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Anti-Discrimination Support Network and the Thomas Paine Foundation, Downey is best known for her U.S. Supreme Court case James Dale v. Boy Scouts of America. Protesting the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) requirement of an avowal of a belief in God in order to participate in its programs, Downey filed a lawsuit against the organization in 1991.

While she ultimately lost after nine years of struggle, Downey brought unprecedented attention to the discriminatory practices of the BSA and provided the impetus for others to continue the struggle.

Having withstood such a test of her beliefs (or lack thereof), Downey is uniquely situated to provide fellow freethinking parents with the advice and inspiration necessary to overcome the pressure and prejudice they often face. She (along with Institute for Humanist Studies' Executive Director Matt Cherry) has contributed a chapter to the soon-to-be-released anthology Secular Parenting. In anticipation of the book, she provided Humanist Network News readers with her advice on raising children without religion in an interview I was privileged to conduct with her.

One of the most important aspects Downey stressed was the need for parents to be open to all inquiries from their children. Parents who often consider themselves to be freethinkers on all the "hot" topics –- sex, politics, etc. –- often clam up when asked about a specific aspect of a religious issue or practice. It is understandable that parents may be afraid of making a religion attractive by discussing it and therefore try to avoid doing so; what they must realize is that such silence creates the same phenomenon as that of religion itself –- the forbidden fruit!

Keeping this phenomenon in mind, when the topic of religion is broached, Downey stresses "Never be critical [of the child's interest], and always be supportive of further learning." It is also important for parents to admit when they do not know the answer to a child's question; just because parents do not believe in an omniscient being does not mean they should feel the need to be omniscient themselves! Parents should simply admit that they do not know the answer and either tell the child they will get back to him/her or refer the child to an appropriate learning resource.

Indeed, learning and education are always at the forefront of Downey's mind. She urges parents to provide a library of specially-chosen books that children can peruse when they are ready to explore new ideas. "Children want to learn about new things, not hear them from their parents," she stresses. "Parents should never push an issue or idea upon their children but provide them with the means to do so on their own at their own pace when they feel ready."

When I asked her about the common misperception that religious indoctrination is necessary to inculcate morals in children, Downey countered "Morality is taught by example.... [augmented] by rational discussion of moral and ethical issues." She particularly stressed the need to teach children problem-solving techniques that will allow them to make wise decisions without having to fall back on untested "authorities," religious or otherwise. Parents need to provide the tools that will allow their children to navigate an often ethically-unstable world with the beliefs and values they developed from study and reflection, not from a "revealed" source.

"The claim that religion is necessary for moral development is so alien to me: it reveals an infantile view of morality as just following rules in order to receive rewards and avoid punishments, which is neither moral nor developed in my view!" said Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

"I think the Golden Rule is actually very strong in children from a young age: that is why kids so often have the complaint 'it's not fair' when they feel they are not receiving the same treatment as someone else," Cherry said. "Connected to this, I think it also easy to arouse empathy in kids by putting them in the shoes of another person: how would you like it if Hannah pulled your hair like that?"

Like Downey, Cherry and his wife plan to inculcate moral values into their seven-month-old twin daughters by modeling their values as well as by teaching them. "We will give our twins clear rules and show our approval when they follow the rules and correct them when they don't. Wherever possible we will give reasons for the rules, so that the girls will understand the principles underlying the rules. We will use art, storytelling and day-to-day experiences to develop empathy and moral understanding. We also plan to give the girls plenty of opportunities to develop self-confidence and internalize moral principles, rather than just following our rules when they know we are looking."

To teach values, problem-solving techniques and hold rational discussions –- as well as take advantage of Sundays unencumbered by church services –- Downey has a novel approach: instead of worshipping a god at a church, the family can worship each other right at home. While her children lived at home, Downey's Sundays were punctuated by good food, planning for the upcoming week, and of course, a rational and open discussion of whatever was on her children's minds.

What was the result of such a godless upbringing? Appreciative children who have made their own decisions while equipped with the decision-making tools provided by their parents. Downey's daughter, through her own unencumbered research and experiences, decided to embrace religion, while her son remains a freethinker. One of Downey's proudest moments as a mother was when her son, despite being "outed" by the Boy Scouts as the "atheist scout" two weeks before his high school graduation, told her how proud he was of her for her integrity and perseverance, qualities he is sure to carry on into the next generation. As Downey so touchingly stated, "The atheist afterlife isn't 'heaven' but the legacy you leave in the hearts and minds of those you've touched."

Elaine Friedman is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.


CORRECTION: The court case is incorrectly cited above. The case was Margaret Downey v. Boy Scouts of America, and it only reached a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission hearing, not the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court case, James Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, ruled that the Boy Scouts of America was a private organization and thus had a right to refuse membership. This prevented Downey from taking her case any further. We are sorry for the error.