Parenting books are the most useless and irresistible kind of literature. Designed to prey on parents' insecurities, they draw you in with expert claims and then disappoint with their know-it-all tone and their failure to solve even a single one of the profound struggles of family life. Same with atheism books: the authors are supersmart and their arguments engaging, but they don't ultimately resolve doubt and you are left with the feeling of having failed to get with the program. The kids are wide awake at 10 p.m. and you're still not so sure you can rule God out completely.
Here, then, is the last word in the useless and irresistible: a parenting book for atheists. "Parenting Beyond Belief," published in April by Amacom, a wing of the American Management Association, aims to help folks who are raising their kids without religion deal with the sticky questions that come up about Santa Claus and heaven, and it raises more serious concerns about how to bring up ethical, confident, nonbelieving kids in a culture saturated with talk about God. The book is enjoying a lively ride online, in spite of the fact that it's been reviewed almost nowhere and its editor is a little-known writer and teacher from Minneapolis. Parenting blogs have raved about it, and the book's Web site is alive with confessional stories. "I am left with the feeling, after reading this book, that as long as I explain my morals, and am willing to answer even the hardest questions, my girls will be OK," writes Rachel at A Gaggle of Girls.
"Parenting Beyond Belief" is a collection of essays by famous and unknown nonbelievers. The most compelling chapter is "Death and Consolation": talking to kids about death when heaven isn't an option. The Unitarian minister Kendyl Gibbons recommends such phrases as "No, honey, Grandpa won't come for Christmas. He died and is dead for always." And then she recommends rituals that bring Grandpa back in memory. The editor Dale McGowan has received some heat from hard-line atheists who say he's too accommodating to organized religion. "I've had a few atheists look me in the eye and say, 'Come on, when you're dead, you're gone. What's the big deal?" But McGowan, father of three, prefers a gentler approach. "I don't think the way to handle it is to say, 'Suck it up and go to bed'." Parents on both sides of the culture war will find this book a compelling read.