The idea of virtue is a noble one: Identify those qualities that make for an admirable person; then work hard to attain them and encourage others to do the same. Identifying virtues and building a collective desire to achieve them can go a long way toward making a better world. And it’s a good idea for parents of any stripe to have a solid idea of the qualities they want to encourage in their children.
The trick, of course, is naming the right virtues. The early Christian church named seven (faith, hope, charity, courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom), placing them in opposition to seven deadly sins (pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth) for command of the human soul. Once Thomas Aquinas weighed in, the list of virtues was set in stone.
Freethinkers don’t take kindly to stone-carved lists. We know that the best possible rules, principles, ideas, and theories result when we continually reconsider, rethink, and challenge them.
This is not some comprehensive list of human virtues, nor a list that applies only to secularists. Nor do they represent qualities that always come easy to secularists. This helps explain the absence of things like critical thinking from the list. It’s an absolutely indispensible skill and value, but one that doesn’t require much convincing on our side of the aisle. This particular list is reserved for the things we sometimes think less about. Sometimes that’s because we take them for granted, and (in at least one case) it’s something we seldom even think of as a virtue. In that case, I’ll make my case for these seven qualities, and you can obviously disagree.
Like traditional virtues, these are qualities to which we can aspire, often with difficulty. But unlike traditional virtues, their value is something we can choose to accept or reject. This list is carved not in stone but in butter, meant to stimulate your own thinking about secular virtue rather than to dictate an immutable set of commandments.
Yes, I know. To secular ears, humility can sound awfully Christian, and not even like much of a virtue. But despite the lip service to humility, the Christian worldview makes it nearly impossible. Humans are said to be the specially created repositories of the divine spark, molded in the image of the creator, granted dominion over “mere beasts,” and promised eternal life in a heaven made just for us.
It’s hard to be humble when you think the universe was made for you.
By contrast, one of the greatest ongoing contributions of science has been its humbling reassessment of our place in the scheme of things. Instead of the main event in a young, small universe, we have come to realize that we are a blink in time and a speck in space. Instead of having dominion over the animals, we find that we are simply one of them, special only in the development of one organ (which we too often underuse). We’ve done some pretty amazing things, but genetically we’re still less than 2 percent away from our fellow chimps.
Everything about [the scientifically informed] worldview cries out for . . . humility. We are trousered apes, yet many nonbelievers arrogantly strut and crow about having figured out that we are apes. [That’s] pretty hilarious if you think about it.
Everything about this worldview cries out for genuine humility—but atheists forget that as often as theists do. We are trousered apes, yet many nonbelievers arrogantly strut and crow about having figured out that we are apes—which is pretty hilarious if you think about it. Arrogance is something for secular parents to watch for in their kids. It can be pretty awesome to feel that you’ve figured out the biggest thing in the universe when most of your peers (not to mention most adults) are still getting it wrong. But left unchecked, it can lead to an overconfidence that stops listening, learning, and empathy. That in turn builds walls between us and those around us. We’ve all known that person, and most of us have been that person at one time or another. Helping our kids and ourselves avoid it is both justified and worthwhile.
Like so many of these virtues, humility is partly about considering what others think and feel, seeing things from another point of view, and accepting the demotion that comes with such a practice. The best way for parents to teach this is to model humility ourselves. How often do I say or imply, “I may be wrong about that,” and how often do my kids hear me saying it? A skeptic knows that everything includes an element of doubt. How often do I invite someone else’s opinion and genuinely listen to it? Do I spend at least half of the conversation asking about the other person, or am I mostly yakking about myself? Do I find something to validate in the other person’s thoughts, or is it wall-to-wall corrections?
Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels and, by implication, to care. It’s the ultimate sign of maturity. Infants are, for their own adaptive good, entirely self-centered. But as we grow, our circle of concern and understanding enlarges, including first the primary caregiver, then family, then one’s community. But after developing empathy for those who are most like us, we too often stop, leaving the empathy boundary at the edge of our nation, race, or creed. That’s a recipe for disaster. Statements of concern for “the loss of American lives” in armed conflict, for example, carry an unspoken judgment that American lives are more precious than others—a serious failure of empathy.
Continually pushing out the empathy boundary is a life’s work. We can help our kids begin that critical work as early as possible not by preaching it but by embodying it. Allow your children to see poverty up close. Travel to other countries if you can, staying as long as possible until our shared humanity becomes unmistakable, and get outside of whatever bubbles of social and economic privilege contain your family here at home. Engage people of other cultures and races, not just to value difference but to recognize sameness. It’s difficult to hate when you begin to see yourself in the other.
And why stop at the species? Knowing that we are just one part of the incredible interwoven network of life on earth should engender a profound empathy for those who just happen to be across the (relatively arbitrary) boundary of species.
Secular parents must be on guard against a particular failure of empathy: the failure to recognize and understand the religious impulse. Too many nonbelievers shake their heads contemptuously at the very idea of religious belief, failing to recognize religion for what it is: an understandable response to the human condition. And if not for some unearned privileges, I could easily have ended up a believer myself.
I’ve been very fortunate. I grew up in a stable home, never at serious risk of starvation, violence, or death. I had a world-class education and parents who encouraged me to develop my mind and refused to dictate my beliefs. My life expectancy is in the late 70s, and I’ll probably make it. Those circumstances, and a few dozen others, have given me the freedom—the luxury—of seeing my way out of superstition. But it would be pigheaded of me to fail to understand why others who are more directly in the shadow of death or without access to education or freedom to question ideas would find comfort in religious belief. That doesn’t mean I can’t challenge the many ill effects of that belief—I can and I do, without apology—but we must begin by understanding the realities that gave birth to religion and keep it alive. The best thing we can do is work hard to remedy those realities, to give everyone the benefits for which we should be grateful. Until then, we must give ourselves a good hard mental swat every time we feel inclined to mock, sneer, or roll our eyes at those whose beliefs differ from our own. You’ll know you’ve failed at this the first time you see your kids mocking or sneering at religious belief—something they most likely learned from watching you. Fess up and fix it on the spot, not just because it’s “not nice,” but because a lack of empathy is literal ignorance.
We must give ourselves a good hard mental swat every time we feel inclined to mock, sneer, or roll our eyes at those whose beliefs differ from our own. You’ll know you’ve failed at this the first time you see your kids mocking or sneering at religious belief.
The philosopher Paul Kurtz called courage “the first humanistic virtue.” Secularists need courage for two main reasons: to live in a religious world that marginalizes and demonizes disbelief, and to face the realities of human existence honestly.
It takes little courage to live in the mainstream. As long as you embrace the norms and beliefs of the majority, you’ll encounter little difficulty, little resistance. Go with the flow and the world will pat you on the head and coo. Protest what is “normal”—dress differently, believe differently, speak differently—and you’ll create problems for the Machine. And the Machine, in return, will create problems for you.
Kids need to know that nonconformity requires courage. There are plenty of nonconformists to draw upon as examples, secular and religious people alike, from Socrates to Martin Luther King to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Malala Yousafzai—people whose strength of conviction led them to face with dignity and courage the consequences of stepping outside of the norm in the name of heartfelt principles. It isn’t easy, but doing what’s right can be well worth it.
The second reason secularists need courage is even more daunting. As noted earlier, religion primarily evolved not to provide answers but to console fears. The idea of death is terrifying to a living being. Evolution has made sure of that; the more indifferent an animal is to death, the more quickly it will achieve it, and the less such unwise indifference will appear in the next generation. An afterlife illusion addresses the fear of death by simply denying it really happens. Not much integrity in such a plan, but if you can get yourself to believe it, the comfort would be undeniable.
Secularists, God bless us, have opted for the truth. In doing so, we face the ultimate terror of existence: our eventual nonexistence. Philosophy has its consolations, but I’m not convinced they do the whole job. If you’ve come happily to terms with oblivion, bully for you. You’re way ahead of me and 99.8 percent of the species. For the rest of us, courage, in the face of mortality and the other genuinely challenging aspects of being human, is a virtue well worth cultivating.
Honesty is the essence of secularism. It is a willingness to set aside any and every comfort in order to know the truth that allowed us to see our way out of religious belief. Somewhat more difficult is ensuring that we practice the same level of honesty in all other aspects of our lives. I say “somewhat more difficult” because in truth most of the humanists and atheists I know are relentlessly, exhaustively honest, sometimes to a comical extent. We are often paralyzed by our obsession with honesty—yet in one of the greatest ironies I know, nonbelievers consistently rate as the least trustworthy minority in America.
Yet in one aspect of honesty, we too often fall flat. How many of us have stuttered or stammered when a pollster asked our religious preference, or when a new neighbor asked what church we attend? It may not be surprising that we blanch at revealing our disbelief to someone who may have heard once a week for 800 consecutive weeks that disbelief is the ultimate, unforgivably hell-bound sin. But what better way to overturn culturally ingrained misconceptions about nonbelievers than by revealing that, hey, this person you’ve known and liked for years, your friend, neighbor, sister, or brother, is a nonbeliever? What is accomplished by continuing to “pass”?
Teach your children to choose their beliefs honestly, whatever they are, and then to honestly and proudly own them.
Openness has several facets, but all are rooted in the same two principles: embracing your own fallibility and embracing diversity.
Secularists, being human, are as prone as anyone to cling stubbornly to our opinions once they’re established. Openness includes recognizing our own fallibility: No matter how thoroughly we have examined a question, we could still be wrong. The best way to avoid being wrong is to keep our opinions and ideas open to challenge and potential disconfirmation.
The other principle—which often goes by the awful name of “tolerance”—is the very fundament of liberal philosophy. A student in an honors seminar once asked me to define the difference between liberalism and conservatism in a few words—one of the best questions I’d heard in my years as a professor. I stared at the floor for what seemed like an hour, then was struck by what I still think is the right answer: The key distinction is the attitude toward difference.
Conservative social philosophy tends to believe that there is one “best way” to be, and that our job as individuals and as a society is to find that one way and to unify around it—united we stand, you’re with us or you’re against us, join the saved and to hell with the damned. Liberal philosophy holds that there are many “good ways” to be, and that our job as individuals and as a society is to embrace that diversity of approaches to life. Different strokes for different folks.
One student raised the usual concern that the liberal view looks like an anything-goes position. But it isn’t, of course—it embraces many ways, but not all ways. Someone whose choices harm others would not be permitted by the society to make that choice. So liberals have tended to oppose war, which invariably inflicts harm on innocents, and were prominent in the fight for same-sex marriage rights, which harms no one and makes many people happy.
My concern with the conservative position is that we humans tend to each define our way as the “one true way” and quickly end up facing each other in armed camps, coalesced around our various “best ways,” determined to eradicate the others, with God on our side.
A conservative secularist might declare nonreligious beliefs the “one true way,” dreaming of a day without religion. That would be as boring and undesirable a world to me as a Planet Evangelical. We shouldn’t even wish for everyone to be like us—and fortunately, few secularists do. Our worldview is inherently liberal philosophically. We should therefore look toward a world in which our view is one legitimate voice among many and teach our kids openness of spirit and embrace of diversity as a fundamental virtue.
If you hear enough deconversion stories, you’ll begin to see a pattern. Many people feel sadness and confusion as their faith begins to flag, only to describe peaceful relief once it is finally gone, followed by a sense of personal freedom. But then (despite the dire warnings of the evangelists) instead of rampaging through the streets with guns blazing, we are hit with what I’ll call the humanist epiphany: In the absence of a god, we are all we’ve got. Freedom is joined by an awesome sense of responsibility.
If they wanted to, Christians could justify an entirely hands-off approach to charity. God is all just, after all. He will provide for the needy, if not in this world, then in the next. Yet plenty of Christians are out there doing good works for others as a direct and visible expression of their values. Good for them.
Atheists have no excuse to sit passively. Charity without church is not a stretch but a mandate, a logical outgrowth of a nontheistic worldview. We know there’s no divine safety net, no universal justice, no Great Caretaker, no afterlife reward. We have the full responsibility to create a just world and care for the less fortunate because there’s no one else to do so.
Atheists have no excuse to sit passively. Charity without church is not a stretch but . . . a logical outgrowth of a nontheistic worldview.
Studies continue to show that churchgoers give two to three times as much discretionary income to charity as nonchurchgoers. Conservative commentator Arthur Brooks called this a “gap in virtue,” implying churchgoers are just better people. That’s nonsense, of course. The fact that such studies are framed in terms of churchgoing instead of belief points to the real reason behind the gap: When a shiny plate passes in front of you 52 times a year, full of the generous donations of your friends and neighbors, it serves as a pretty effective prompt for generosity.
The humanist charity Foundation Beyond Belief was founded in part to provide that regular, systematic means of giving for the nonreligious through automatic monthly donations to a changing slate of featured charities. After the first full year, many of the members reported that their discretionary donations had risen two to three times since joining.
How about that.
Clearly it’s not that they suddenly became virtuous. They just needed the regular nudge that benefits everyone to increase charitable engagement.
Generosity goes far beyond organized charity, of course. We should also model the kind of generosity of spirit that improves everyone’s experience of daily life. Giving a compliment is an act of generosity. Allowing a car to merge in front of you; spending time with an isolated person; expressing love, interest, concern, or support; allowing someone else to take credit for something done together—these acts of generosity are all better modeled than “taught” to our children, and they represent a virtue that fits hand in glove with the nonreligious worldview.
The most terrible moment for an atheist, someone once said, is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank. That’s pretty silly. Nonbelievers of all stripes should and do indeed feel enormously grateful for many things, and I’m not aware of any terrible moments. Whereas religious folks teach their children to funnel their gratitude skyward, humanists and atheists can thank the actual sources of the good things we experience, those who actually deserve praise but too often see it deflected past them and on to an imaginary being.
We have no difficulty reminding the four-year-old to “say thank you” when Grandma hands her an ice cream cone, but in other situations—especially when a religious turn of phrase is generally used—we often pass up the chance to teach our kids to express gratitude in naturalistic terms. Instead of thanking God for the food on your table, thank those who really put it there: the farmers, the truckers, the produce workers, and Mom or Dad or Aunt Diane. They deserve it. Maybe you’d like to honor the animals for the sacrifice of their lives—a nice way to underline our connection to them. You can give thanks to those around the table for being present, and for their health, and for family, and friendship itself. There is no limit. Even when abstract, like gratitude for health, the simple expression of gratitude is all that is needed. No divine ear is necessary when we are surrounded by real ears and real hearers.
I read once about a woman who had lost her husband unexpectedly. She was devastated and bereft of hope—until her neighbors and friends began to arrive. Over the course of several days, they brought food, kept her company, laughed and cried, hugged her, and reassured her that the pain would ease with time and that they would be there every step of the way. “I was so grateful for their love and kindness during those dark days,” she said. “Through them, I could feel the loving embrace of God.”
She was most comfortable expressing her gratitude to God, but the love and kindness came entirely from those generous and caring human beings. Humanists and atheists are not impoverished by the lack of that god idea; they are simply better able to notice who truly deserves thanks.
If [a child] is brought up in the orthodox way, he will accept what he is told happily enough to begin with. But if he is normally intelligent, he is almost bound to get the impression that there is something odd about religious statements. If he is taken to church, for example, he hears that death is the gateway to eternal life, and should be welcomed rather than shunned; yet outside he sees death regarded as the greatest of all evils, and everything possible done to postpone it. In church he hears precepts like “resist not evil,” and “Take no thought for the morrow”; but he soon realizes that these are not really meant to be practiced outside. If he asks questions, he gets embarrassed, evasive answers: “Well, dear, you’re not quite old enough to understand yet, but some of these things are true in a deeper sense”; and so on. The child soon gets the idea that there are two kinds of truth—the ordinary kind, and another, rather confusing and embarrassing kind, into which it is best not to inquire too closely.
Now all this is bad intellectual training. It tends to produce a certain intellectual timidity—a distrust of reason—a feeling that it is perhaps rather bad taste to pursue an argument to its logical conclusion, or to refuse to accept a belief on inadequate evidence.
Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books, 2006. A hugely influential book that deserves its accolades, this is an essential counterpoint to conservative notions of authority, punishment, and “because I said so” rules. More than anything, this book can help parents relax around moral and behavioral questions, casting aside the idea, rooted in traditional religion, that our children are boiling pots of depravity in need of a lid.
Medhus, Elisa, MD. Raising Children Who Think for Themselves. Beyond Words, 2001. Recipient of numerous awards, this book encourages the eponymous value of freethought: thinking for one’s self. Medhus offers suggestions for raising children who are inner directed by self-defined values rather than externally driven by peer pressure, pop culture influences, and authority.
——. Raising Everyday Heroes: Parenting Children to Be Self-Reliant. Beyond Words, 2003.
Humphrey, Sandra McLeod. If You Had to Choose, What Would You Do? Prometheus, 1995. A well-conceived attempt to present the youngest children with situations requiring moral decision-making. Twenty-five short scenarios are presented in which a child grapples with questions of right and wrong in a commonplace setting. Each parable is followed by the basic question “What would you do?” along with a few corollary questions. Parents should scan the stories to find those best matched to their child’s level. Some are eye-rollingly simple, others more complex and interesting—including some that can even get a parent head-scratching. Do you turn in a good friend for petty shoplifting? At the age of six, my son had a quick answer—“yup”—until I suggested the shoplifter was Sean, his dearest friend in the world. He offered to rat out half a dozen less-precious acquaintances, but not Sean. The ensuing discussion was rich and rewarding, finally resulting in a nuanced solution of his own making (Sean gets one last warning before my boy drops a dime)—followed by an insistence that we read another of the stories, then another, then another.
In another story, two sisters gather pledges to participate in a walk for the World Hunger Drive. Niki sprains her ankle halfway through and pleads with Leslie to go with her to the doctor. Leslie must decide whether to refund the money she collected from her friends and neighbors or to send it on to the World Hunger Drive, even though she hadn’t finished.
Now that’s a brow knitter worth pondering, a wonderfully complex, multidimensional, real-world situation that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of a commandments approach to morality. Ages 6–12.
Barker, Dan. Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers. Prometheus, 1992. A good, well-presented introduction to principles-based morality for kids. Ages 8–12.
Borba, Michele, Ph.D. Building Moral Intelligence. Jossey-Bass, 2002.
Grayling, A. C. Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age. Oxford, 2003. A beautifully written and thought-provoking set of reflections on values and ethics without religion.
Mather, Anne, and Louise Weldon. Character Building Day by Day: 180 Quick Read-Alouds for Elementary School and Home. Free Spirit, 2006.
Wykoff, Jerry. 20 Teachable Virtues. Perigee Trade, 1995. Twenty chapters, each offering parents tips for teaching a single virtue—and more importantly, a warning that what you don’t model yourself will not be learned. The spotlighted virtues—including empathy, fairness, tolerance, caring, courage, humor, respect, and self-reliance—should warm the secular heart. The title says it all. “Faith” and “reverence” are blissfully absent from the list of virtues.
Espeland, Pamela, with Elizabeth Verdick. Knowing and Doing What’s Right: The Positive Values Assets. The Free Spirit Adding Assets Series for Kids, 2006. One of a large series of excellent books by Espeland for parents and children, this focuses on six positive values assets: caring, equality and social justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, and healthy lifestyle.
Allen, Norm R. African-American Humanism: An Anthology, Prometheus Books, 1991.
Gaylor, Annie Laurie, ed. Women Without Superstition: “No Gods—No Masters”: The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997.
Haught, James A. 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt. Prometheus Books, 1996.