Archive for February, 2010

Leader’s Message – “Identification, not Indoctrination” – December 2009

February 28, 2010

When our children were very young, my husband wanted to know whether their attendance at the Brooklyn Society’s Children’s Sunday Assembly was having any impact on the way they identified themselves, so naturally he asked them what they thought they were. Andrew answered “Jewish” and Emily said, “Barbie.” We retell this story not only to embarrass our children – which is always fun – but to remind us of how fluid identity can be. Throughout our lives we think of ourselves in different ways, relate to different people and groups, play different roles. When the American Ethical Union Religious Education Committee asked me to give the Sunday address on “Raising Ethical Culturists and Ethical Humanists” at its annual weekend conference in November, I again thought about the issue of identification. Is it enough for us to raise moral children or do we also want them to identify themselves as members of an Ethical community?

I have visited several societies in the Ethical Movement and listened to members whose children have left the fold to become fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews. These parents feel bereft, angry and utterly confused. How could this have happened? Where did they go wrong? First of all, if the primary goal of parenting is to raise good, independent people, they haven’t necessarily gone “wrong.” Their children have exercised their independence and probably lead good lives. They may still share some values but hold different beliefs and claim a different identity. Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, wrote “I was raised a Catholic, which is a good way to raise an atheist.” I share her experience and wonder if Ethical Culture isn’t inadvertently pushing children toward more theistic traditions.

One participant at the conference was a young man raised in the Brooklyn Society. I knew his parents; he had taught my children in Sunday School. Now he was a father of two and a member of the Westchester Society – certainly cause for a celebratory reunion. I asked Emil why he still identified as an Ethical Culturist. “I guess something must have stuck,” he said. But he was concerned that the “core values” he learned growing up were less about ethics and more about doubt and ambiguity. Freethinking was emphasized over ethical behavior, encouraging a sense of “anything goes.” I shared his concern and continued to think about identity.

Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief, a best-selling book in nontheist communities, offered a day-long seminar at the conference. In his discussion of “Engaging in a Theistic World,” he recommended teaching our children “religious literacy” to avoid the “teen epiphany” of being “emotionally hijacked” by a faith community that offers comforting answers. What a concept! Ethical Culture curriculum has always included comparative religions study for children because we wanted them to understand creedal diversity. McGowan expanded upon our practice to give it an emotional, as well as an intellectual, component. We support our children’s development of their independent worldviews, nurture their sense of self-worth, and engage them in the practice of goodness.

Anything does not go. Every thought can be entertained, every worldview explored; but ethics is our supreme concern. Our moral authority is conscience, well taught and practiced. Why raise our children as Ethical Culturists? Because Felix Adler created this religion of ethics for them: “We should teach our children nothing which they shall ever need to unlearn; we should strive to transmit to them the best possessions, the truest thoughts, the noblest sentiments of the age in which we live.” Our history of social justice provides them with a worthy narrative; our values and ideals provide ethical aspiration; and our communities can hold them tenderly and strongly throughout their lives.

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Note: The NY Society was well represented at the AEU Religious Education Conference and Family Weekend. In addition to Leader Anne Klaeysen, the following people attended: RE Director Rita Chawla, teachers Jamie Cid and Emily Newman, and three families – Stacey Cheriff with daughter Drew, Steven and Theresa Schultz with son Brian, and Margarite Platkos with sons Ben and Adam.

Leader’s Message – “Life and Death: An Ethical Choice?” – March 2010

February 28, 2010

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

On the evening before the great blizzard of February, I listened to a phone message from a friend: “Call me as soon as you come home.” I knew it was bad news. When I returned her call, I learned that the 24-year old daughter of a woman in our book group had killed herself. She gave me the times of the wake and the funeral.

The next day, when there was a lull in the snowfall, I picked up a shovel and went outside to clear a path down our stoop and on the sidewalk. Before I reached the last step I was weeping. My pastoral counseling training included suicide, and I have read several books and many articles on the subject. I have officiated at the memorials of two middle-aged men who committed suicide. I sat with their families and referred them to survivors groups. I can deal with this, I thought, and yet soon I was wailing, “Why Gillian?” I dug into the snow and hurled it into the street, screaming “It’s just not right!”

At the funeral we friends, who love to read and talk about books, whose children played and grew up together, sat in a row and wept for our friend. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “Every 16 minutes someone in the U.S. dies by suicide. Every 17 minutes someone is left to make sense of it.”

The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton called suicide “the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence,” arguing that a person who kills himself destroys the entire world. Sitting in a pew at St. Francis Church, I was relieved that the church no longer holds that position. My friend needed the solace of her religious faith, especially since she was the only one left in her family who believed.

Immanuel Kant, whose philosophy Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler so admired, wrote “He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself.” Applying the principle of universality – What if everyone chose to commit suicide? – he deemed it unethical.

On the other hand, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote, “When life is so burdensome, death has become for man a sought-after refuge.” Contemporary philosopher and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz goes further, arguing that suicide is the most basic right of all. If freedom is self-ownership, then the right to end that life is the most basic of all.

Throughout the ages and across the world, there are a myriad of attitudes toward suicide – confusion and anger, glorification and condemnation, as well as multidisciplinary studies in sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Significant advances have been made in understanding the neurological basis of suicidal behavior, and medications have been helpful in treating depression. Still over 33,000 people in the United States commit suicide every year, and it is the third leading cause of death among those Gillian’s age.

At the end of the day, I pulled a book by William Styron, Darkness Visible, off the shelf and read “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”

What can we do? Learn about suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at Refer those in pain to professional therapists. Be present to listen and try to understand. And if all this does not succeed, weep with the survivors and comfort them.

Leader’s Message – “Hell on Earth” – February 2010

February 28, 2010

What can one write about Haiti that has not already been written in the days since an earthquake with the magnitude of 7.0 devastated that land and its people? Nothing, really. So let’s take some time to reflect upon the ways that people still suffer from the non-discriminatory power of nature and the discriminatory nature of people in power.

There were as many fatalities in the small country of Haiti (approximately a quarter of a million) as there were across southeast Asia in the tsunami of 2004. After the tsunami, aid groups and governments established a system by which the deceased were photographed before being buried so loved ones could search for them. In Haiti, almost all the dead are uncounted and anonymous, dumped unceremoniously into mass graves. According to anthropologist Ira Lowenthal, who has lived in Haiti for 38 years, this does not reflect callousness, but rather an unprecedented catastrophe that has overwhelmed every humanitarian effort.

What can account for this deadly comparison? Some say that Haiti is “godforsaken.” Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, true to his terrible theology, said that Haitians are suffering the consequences of a pact they made with the devil in the 18th century. On the “700 Club” he said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. . . The Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

My limited understanding of “pacts with the devil” implies that clients actually benefit in some way – for example, wealth, success, love – before they die. Surely the people of Haiti enjoyed no such benefits. Yes, some individuals lorded ill-gotten gains over their countrymen, lining their pockets and furnishing their mansions, torturing and killing their opposition. But for centuries most Haitians have known only crushing poverty and sickness or heartbreaking diaspora.

The average life expectancy for a slave under control of the French West India Company was 21 years. Today it is 44 years. Haiti declared its independence in 1804, but it was not free: In exchange for diplomatic recognition from France, Haiti paid reparations from 1825 to 1947 to its former colonizer. By 1900 eighty percent of Haiti’s national budget was spent on loan repayments, completely destroying its economy. Due to the process of soil erosion, started by the French, and continued today by people cutting down trees to burn for heating and cooking, Haiti is 98% deforested, and with each new storm more soil disappears. There are those desperate enough to mix vegetable oil with mud to make something that looks like an edible biscuit.

How must it feel to love such a cruel home? After the earthquake, Rev. Joseph Lejeune called out to his congregation, “Think of our new village here as the home of Jesus Christ, not the scene of a disaster. Life is not a disaster. Life is joy! You don’t have food? Nourish yourself with the Lord. You don’t have water? Drink in the spirit.” An unemployed parishioner told a NY Times reporter, “It may seem like a strange moment to have faith, but you can’t blame God. I blame man. God gave us nature, and we Haitians, and our governments, abused the land. You cannot get away without consequences.”

Not the devil, not god, not nature: Human beings forsook their brothers and sisters in Haiti. We must all take responsibility and release them from the hell of their existence. The National Service Conference, part of the American Ethical Union and a non-governmental organization of the United Nations, established the Rose L. Walker Fund in order to quickly respond, as an ethical movement, to global crises such as this one in Haiti. Donations will go to Haiti in two waves – one to address the immediate health crisis through Doctors without Borders (, the other to support development through Fonkoze ( Visit their websites to learn more about their work.