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

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.

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