Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Dale McGowan author of Raising Freethinkers. Dale has been one of the most prominent authors talking about humanistic approaches to parenting, and his activism has encompassed a wide range of humanitarian work.
How did you become a prominent writer about secular parenting?
I was at the end of my rope after 15 years teaching at a Catholic college and decided to try my hand at writing full time. The book that snagged me an agent, a humorous philosophical death-obsessed travel narrative, failed to snag me a publisher. I was an atheist raising young kids and finding no resources to help, so I asked my agent if he would represent a book on nonreligious parenting.
I hadn’t the chutzpah to write it entirely myself—my kids were too young—so I made it a compilation by 27 contributors including Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, psychologists, educators, and everyday parents, including me. We were turned down by about 20 publishers, not for ideological reasons but because they were unconvinced of the market for such a thing.
We finally convinced a good publisher, and Parenting Beyond Belief became one of their top sellers. I spent about ten years on the speaking circuit.
How do you approach people about starting a project like that?
Most of the contributors were direct contacts by email, and because it was the first of its kind, responses were quick and positive. Julia Sweeney said yes in 90 minutes.
Do you find people regularly approaching you for advice, and if so, how do you handle it?
That was common for a while, and if the subject was in my lane, I would offer what I could. But I’ve spent a great deal of time deflecting questions on aspects of parenting unrelated to religion and irreligion.
What aspect of being an author do you find most challenging, or if you’d prefer most surprising?
I was not prepared for how doggedly publishers would want me to remain in my established topic area. I have other interests and bore easily, so this was challenging.
How do you know if an idea or a topic you have can make a book? Do you have any topics that didn’t work out or that your publishers discouraged you from pursuing?
I have proposed more books that went nowhere than I have published. Some were complete 50-page proposals that took months to produce. It’s my agent who typically stops an idea if he doesn’t think it has legs—probably six of those. But three others (one on the problematic gap between the evolution of culture and our brains, another on the emotional communication of music, and that humorous travel narrative) were actually shown around and had no takers.
Being a leader in terms of popularising or creating ideas is very different to institutional leadership. How might your approach have been different if you were say setting up an organisation to promote your ideas about secular parenting rather than doing it as an author?
That’s a very interesting question. Once you incorporate, I think it’s harder to be flexible in your ideas or to change course. Things calcify quickly, and more people are involved in decision making and brand protection. I would have tried to counter that tendency.
Do you think that secular parenting should be something established atheist groups focus more on supporting?
If they want to have any reasonable hope of growing beyond a fraction of the culture, yes. It starts as simple as offering childcare during their meetings.
Atheist and related communities have had some problematic prominent leaders. How you think it is best to encourage children to find positive role models and avoid similar authority figures?
It’s an opportunity to help them see that authority and prominence are themselves problematic. Prominent thinkers are conduits for ideas, and it’s the ideas that should be judged worthy of admiration (or not).
What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist or secularist space?
One of the most important at the moment is to recognize the incredible breadth of experience and perspective in the exploding secular demographic. Some are recently departed from painful religious trauma, but a greater (and rapidly increasing) number are just indifferent to religion, especially younger Millennials and Gen Z. Others are still yearning for the community and narrative aspects of religion, even though they haven’t a shred of remaining theistic belief. That’s why about 30% of the unaffiliated in the US flop right back to religious affiliation in a given year. Religion satisfies human needs beyond answering big questions. If we ever want to consolidate the cultural and political voice and power of the nonreligious, those of us who don’t especially feel those needs had better start acknowledging those who do. They greatly outnumber science-minded atheist introverts like me.
We need leaders who can think and talk beyond the atheist bubble of religious criticism and science, people who exemplify and celebrate a more broadly-engaged human life. And we also need people who experience that life from a perspective different to the straight white men (like me) who still dominate the leadership.
What do you think atheist, humanist or secularist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and role models?
If the vision of a group is broader, more compassionate, more engaged with humanity, then the right people will be more likely drawn to the group and to leadership.
What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?
Talk to diverse nonreligious people under 30. Learn what’s important to them and what isn’t, then bring that knowledge to your work. It’s radically different from earlier generations.
Photo information: Raising Freethinkers podcast graphic, via Spotify
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