A Book Review! Growing Up Godless by Deborah Mitchell

by Laura


So I just finished reading “Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide To Raising Kids Without Religion,” and I thought I should tell you about it, because some of you have kids and are probably doing just that. In truth, it’s not about the experience of growing up godless so much as the mother’s experience of raising children godlessly, but the title’s catchy, so I get why they chose it.

The book is a series of essays about the author’s experience of leaving her beliefs behind and trying to raise good kids without the rigid rules and regulations of organized religion, the comfort of a benevolent deity and the promise of an afterlife. She offers suggestions on how to pass along good morals, how to break the news that you’re an agnostic, how to handle tricky school situations, ways to deal with death and some good advice on nurturing your child’s critical thinking skills, along with stories from other parents about their experiences living a secular life in a fairly religious country.

It’s a fast read, and the short chapters make it easy for a busy parent to take in some satisfying snippets before rushing off to handle the next chore or crisis. I would recommend the book for the first generation atheist, someone who is still looking to fill the vacancy left by religion. I myself am raising third generation atheists, so my experiences are a bit different. The title itself rubs me funny, similar to the way my friends without kids must feel when I call them childless and they immediately correct me with the preferred term “child free.” I never felt godless as a child. God wasn’t even a consideration. That wasn’t a part of my life and I never felt like I was lacking.

For a book about agnostic child-rearing, there is A LOT of God in this book. To me, it reads like a vegetarian cookbook for former carnivores, with recipes geared toward those who still crave meat to a certain extent. As such, it offers some “meat substitutes,” meditation instead of prayer, a Unitarian Church instead of a traditional one to satisfy one’s spiritual urges, that sort of thing. Sports and musical instruments are encouraged. There isn’t any bad advice here. It’s all good-natured, positive, love thy neighbor kind of stuff. Don’t expect edgy. This is about as Atheist Lite as you can get, so I can’t imagine it ruffling many feathers. But then again, I never expect feathers to ruffle, and that kind of obliviousness may get me shot one day.

I have some minor quibbles, but the book isn’t meant for ME, specifically, so that’s to be expected. In the chapter entitled “Sex, Sluts, and Madonnas” (oxford comma, grr), sex is described as healthy and not sinful, but includes the sentence “Every time you have sex, you give away part of yourself. If you give away too much, eventually you will have no self-respect left.” Okay. I’m sure many mothers agree with that statement. It just so happens that I am not one of them. Who says? What are you giving away, exactly? Maybe if you’re PAYING for it, but that’s a whole other matter. If it’s healthy and enjoyable, then why are you losing your self-respect? And how much is too much? And who decides? This may be a skanky thing to say, but sex doesn’t ALWAYS have to take place in a loving relationship, does it? Aren’t you more vulnerable to emotional devastation if you assume all intimate relations are loving? Isn’t that why so many young women feel broken and ashamed, because they thought it was about love and it really wasn’t and then they’re left feeling like they gave something away? People make mistakes and consequences can be a bitch, but I dislike the notion that you lose something every time you have sex. I’d like to think the act itself has value, even if it isn’t in a perfect, loving relationship.

We just happen to see that, and a few other things, differently. The author also seems to think commercial television is not great for young kids. “…But kids do grow up, and somewhere around fourth or fifth grade my kids started asking me to watch the dreaded mainstream television- the “junk” stuff with commercials at which so many of us turn up our noses.” Well, I suppose that’s how I felt before I had kids, but now that I’m a parent I actually consider it my secret weapon and one of the main reasons my kids are articulate storytellers. A story is a story, and this IS the Golden Age of Television, after all. I happen to like TV. I consider it a pleasure, and not even a guilty one. But, you know, different strokes and all that. I let my kids have high fructose corn syrup, too. Am I going to Hell for that? Of course not, ’cause I’m an atheist!

“Growing Up Godless” is a good resource for the parent who is looking for some guidance in raising good quality humans in a secular fashion. It made me want to call up my mom and ask her if she put this much thought into how she raised us. I don’t think she did. She just shared her beliefs and said we were free to look into others if we wanted. And we didn’t. And that was that. But if you need some advice or want to know you’re not alone, pick up a copy and see for yourself.