September 18, 2014

Atheist Mama: What are your family values?

One of the questions that I field, with the very few people that I have openly discussed my nonbelief with, is how we will raise our children.

It makes sense. The majority of people in my life were raised with belief as a central motivating force for what was right and wrong. It's how I was raised. The concept of the immoral atheist was one that was preached from every pulpit that I sat in front of. So I truly do understand where these concerns come from.

But they're unfounded. I don't believe that raising our children without religion will affect their ability to make moral decisions.

In fact, our family values don't look that different from the values that many religious families would claim.

How do you define values for a secular family?

In Parenting Beyond Belief, there's an essay by Dale McGowan titled "Seven Secular Virtues: Humility, Empathy, Courage, Honesty, Openness, Generosity, and Gratitude".

It's great guide to some basic values, but I think the most important part of defining values for a secular family is considering where you want to end up: with a well-round, functional adult.

This process was something that was radically different from how I had planned to parent. I had planned to just instill the values I was raised with, the ones dictated by my religion. While there is some overlap between our current values and those, there are some noticeable differences. We emphasize unquestioning obedience less, and we welcome a full range of emotional responses, while a cheerful heart was emphasized in my Christian upbringing.

So the process begins with a look at what we're working towards, and then we figure out to proceed towards that vision.

What values did you come up with?

Our values boiled down to this list:

  • Courage
  • Curiosity
  • Empathy
  • Generosity
  • Gratitude
  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Openness
  • Pride
  • Respect

It's short and to the point. It's also flexible--I'm sure as we blunder on through this parenting journey there will be a multitude of revisions over the years.

What do secular values look like?

I've done a lot of thinking about what our secular values look like. Here's a rundown:


Courage is the ability to do something that frightens you. It’s strength in the face of pain or grief.

This characteristic is especially important for freethinking children. We value the ability to question, to come to our own conclusions, but this can set children up for struggles when they come into contact with community members that don’t value that tendency the same. They will need courage to stand up for their values and for their selves.


Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something.

It’s the desire to move from wondering about something to understanding it, and it drives learning in a way that nothing else can.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is, if you will allow the cliché, the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Empathy is closely tied to the development of theory of mind, which is to say, it’s closely tied to our realizing that we have a mind and that means other people do too.

Empathy is a critical skill for an animal that is social—our ability to empathize with other humans means that we can find compromises and build empires and comfort each other.


Generosity is the quality of being kind and generous, of being kind, understanding, and unselfish.

This goes hand in hand with other values on the list—honesty, integrity, empathy. Even pride and respect and courage play a role in creating generosity—sometime, you have to be strong in order to be kind.


An attitude of gratitude is a phrase that many religious adherents live with, but choosing to parent secularly doesn’t mean leaving it behind.

Our gratitude may not be towards any divinity, but that only means we are able to express it more honestly—towards each other, towards the people that make things happen, towards the creatures that share this space with us.


According to some definitions, honesty is choosing not to do wrong—choosing not to lie, cheat or steal.

But defining things in the negative is…negative. So we will definite it positively instead. We’re going to define it as the quality of being honest, or, in other words, sincere. Of being authentic.


But wait, isn’t pride also a virtue? I can hear you asking it.

Yes, pride is absolutely one of our virtuous values. Humility rightfully is too. I turned to Merriam-Webster for this definition: the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people.

Thus you can feel pride—you pride yourself on your character, your accomplishments, your abilities, your thoughts—and still maintain humility. You can accept that while you are wonderful, you are no better than the next person.

I’m sure we’ve all run into the person that believes they know better than everyone else. These people are arrogant, and they are difficult to be around for any length of time. Humility is the vaccination for turning out children that are insufferably arrogant.


Integrity is a natural growth from honesty. It’s the character trait of having upstanding moral character and strong moral principles.


Dale McGowan, Ph.D., explains in “Seven Secular Virtues: Humility, Empathy, Courage, Honesty, Openness, Generosity, and Gratitude” in Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion:

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 our ideas open to challenge and potential disconfirmation.2

So openness, for our purposes, will refer to openness to new ideas, to evidence, and even to disproof.


Pride is a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction about one’s skills. This is a markedly different approach from other parenting approaches.

But pride is critical to raising happy, healthy, curious children. Consider this passage from “Double Vision: Teaching Our Twins Pride and Respect” by Shannon and Matthew Cherry in Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion:

We believe that the best foundation for respecting others is respect for oneself. Once the girls value themselves, it’s easier to teach them to respect their possessions, family, friends, and the world around them. We want our daughters to have compassion, courage, and creativity, but to do that the girls need to develop a fourth C—confidence.

The Ancient Greeks taught that pride was a virtue; indeed, Aristotle said it was the crown of all the virtues. Yet many religions treat pride as a sin—especially for women and girls—and t his attitude has seeped deep into our everyday culture. Maybe that’s why educators and parenting books use long-winded synonyms for pride, such as “self-confidence” and “self-esteem.” Pride may be the virtue that dare not speak its name, but all children’s experts agree that “self-esteem” has been grievously neglected in our society.1

Reclaiming pride is critical, and having pride is a crucial aspect of freethinking. It should also, in a chicken-and-the-egg way, be freethinking that encourages some pride.


As a noun, respect is a feeling of deep admiration for someone, derived from abilities, qualities, and accomplishments of that person. The verb is defined similarly—to admire someone because of their abilities, qualities, and accomplishments.

Initially, I hesitated to accept that as the definition of respect in this context, but with further reflection, I can’t think of a more accurate definition, one that encompasses exactly what we need it to.

When we talk about respect, there’s respect for people and there is respect for ideas. These two categories—people and ideas—illicit a different type of respect based on one essential category.

People are alive, and have certain rights simply by virtue of that quality, while ideas are not, and so respect for them can be derived from a variety of means, including their quality and how they were arrived at. This is a key point of distinction. As freethinking parents, we are instilling in our children the ability to differentiate between respecting people—which is a requirement—and respecting ideas—which is rightfully merit-based.

What about about you, dear readers?

Now it's your turn.

What are your family values? How'd you decide on them?

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