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Dale McGowan on Rational Thinking and Emotional Wellbeing

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.

Interview with Dale McGowan


EM: One of your interests is in the area of raising children without religious beliefs. Can you tell us what you see as the relationship between rational thinking or non-religious thinking and emotional and mental wellbeing?

DM: If I have a set of preferred conclusions about the world, religious or otherwise, I can find myself in an emotional struggle whenever reality seems to contradict those preferences.

The attempt to square my preferences with the evidence of my senses can produce real ongoing anxiety. A willingness to instead align my thinking and beliefs with whatever reality has to offer contributes to a greater equanimity and sense of wellbeing. I’m no longer at odds with the world.

Of course the nonreligious can be just as prone to beloved preconceptions. It’s a human thing, not solely a religious thing. Parents should help their children recognize their own tendency toward confirmation bias and other types of rigid thinking so they can cultivate the best possible relationship with the real world.

EM: Another area of interest for you is regarding how religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong families and marriages together. What sorts of emotional and mental discord or difficulties can arise when religious believers and nonbelievers marry?

DM: A religious believer who is of the opinion that nonbelievers are inherently immoral, or that they are deserving of an eternity of torment for not believing in God, is not likely to make a successful match with a nonreligious partner. The personal respect necessary for a lasting partnership is simply not there.

Likewise, an atheist who believes all religious people are unintelligent and infantile would bring the same shortcoming to a relationship with a religious partner. Fortunately there are many religious and nonreligious people who do not hold these attitudes, and they can and do form loving, lasting marriages.

EM: What are some of your top tips for raising children without religious beliefs?

DM: Start by engendering a sense of wonder about the world. Say “wow” a lot, and follow it up with wondering aloud: “Wow, look how that deer blends in with the background! I wonder how it got that way?” This underlines the fact that there are explanations for the things we see and experience, and that they are worth knowing. Don’t feel the need to fill your child’s head with the right answers — if they learn to love reality, they will develop the determination to find those answers themselves, and it’s good practice.

It’s also important to help them connect with others, to build the kind of supportive relationships that will see them through difficult times. This human community aspect of nonreligious parenting is often overlooked as we focus on knowledge, and children of nonreligious parents who have not developed that part of themselves can sometimes jump to religion, even fundamentalism, when they meet a personal crisis.

EM: What are some of your top tips for religious believers and nonbelievers to help them create strong families and marriages?

DM: Never try to convert or de-convert your partner. Talk about your differences of belief as early as possible in the relationship. Define your negotiables and non-negotiables. Focus on shared values more than different beliefs. Make personal respect non-negotiable, even if you question and challenge each other’s ideas. Engage in and learn about each other’s worldviews. Support and protect each other from mistreatment or disrespect, especially by those who share your worldview, including extended family. And help dispel stereotypes about your partner’s worldview. The religious partner can be a moderating voice when the church ladies start suggesting that all atheists are immoral, and the nonreligious partner can do the same when those in the local atheist group suggest that all religious people are unintelligent.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

DM: It’s ideal to draw on one’s own inner resources, but even the most centered and emotionally healthy people sometimes have difficulty going it alone in trying times. The answer for me almost always involves connection to others with whom you have existing healthy relationships, so that’s what I encourage. It doesn’t have to be “I’m troubled, please help”—just communicating with someone in a mutually supportive relationship is often enough.

The other strategy that I’ve seen work well is doing something meaningful — volunteering, helping someone else in distress, being a part of a collective effort such as a music ensemble, sports team, dance group, or a Meetup built around a shared interest — all of these can provide that connection and sense of significance.


Dale McGowan is the author and editor of books including Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He was Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008 and served as founding Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charitable organization. Dale is currently on the editorial staff at Patheos, the world’s largest website exploring religious and nonreligious perspectives. He lives with his family near Atlanta.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

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