For those who are nontheistic but remain committed to cultural or ethnic Jewish identity and tradition, there are twenty-nine congregations in North America identified with Humanistic Judaism. Humanistic Jewish congregations celebrate Jewish holidays and practice Jewish traditions in a way that is free of supernatural elements. The congregations offer programs for children, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism offers youth conferences.
To learn about their youth programs, go to www.shj.org. There are also cultural and secular Jewish groups that belong to the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (www.csjo.org), and some of these groups have schools or other programs for children.
For nonreligious parents interested in a less "congregational" option for a community of shared values, the freethought group model may be appealing. Such groups to date have seldom had programs for children and families, but this is changing rapidly. The Humanist Community in Palo Alto, California, for example, offers a humanist Sunday school program that was profiled in TIME,10 committed to ethics education. Similar programs are starting up at local humanist groups in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, and Portland.
In addition to these regular, local opportunities to find a community and pass on values for your freethinking family, there are opportunities like Camp Quest (www.camp-quest.org). Camp Quest offers week-long summer camp programs that combine traditional summer camp activities like swimming, arts and crafts, and canoeing with educational activities focused on secular ethics, critical thinking, freethought heroes, and scientific inquiry. Kids have an opportunity to meet other kids from freethinking families, and the friendships that they form are often long-lasting. For many kids, the community they find at camp lets them know that their family isn't alone, and the opportunity to interact with other kids their own age about these topics helps them develop their values and beliefs.
Q: My partner and I attended a local freethought group in our town when we were first together. But we stopped going once we had kids because they don't offer any kids programs or activities, and we don't want to have to get a babysitter to go to the meeting. What can we do to make our local freethought group more family-friendly?
A: When it comes to serving families, a lot of local atheist, freethought, and humanist groups have a "chicken and egg" problem. They don't offer programs for children because no families with children are members of the group, and no families are members because they have no children's programs.
Before heading out on your own, I'd recommend trying to create a children's program at the meetings of the local group. Ask the group organizers if there are families who are members of the group or former members of the group who are still on the mailing list but no longer attend. There's your core group! Get in touch with those families. Find out if they would be interested in coming back to the group if there were a kids' program at the same time as the regular meeting. If you get some interest from these families, present that information to the group organizers and ask them to commit to the idea.
If the organizers don't know of any families on the mailing list, put out a sign-up sheet at meetings for parents. Also, see if you can get an announcement on the group's website and in the group's newsletter asking for those interested in a children's program to email you. Post notices on www.craigslist.com and www.meetup.com.
Once you've found some interested folks and secured support from the group's leadership, it's time to start planning the program. A common mistake people make in this phase is trying to do too much too fast. You and the other families interested in this group are probably very busy people without the time to write a whole Sunday School curriculum or plan elaborate events. There may also not be enough demand to justify that kind of program at the beginning.
It's generally best to start a program in small, simple steps. If the interested families have mostly younger children, start with something like a storytime, some drawing and coloring, and a simple song. The purpose of these first sessions to build some momentum, let people know that there is a children's program, and have the kids and parents get to know each other. If you have three families with kids who are interested in the program, perhaps each family can plan and lead every third session. This spreads out the work and (equally important) builds a community in which all the parents are involved.
Q: How can I get a nonreligious parenting group started in my area? There aren't many organized secular groups where we are, and the ones that do exist don't really work for us.
A: A number of nonreligious parenting groups have begun to form nationwide in recent years. Shortly after the release of Parenting Beyond Belief, a "Meetup" group by the same name formed in Raleigh, North Carolina. Within three months the group had over fifty members. In early 2008, the Center for
Inquiry (CFI) began forming nonreligious parenting groups in cities including Austin and Portland, just as a "Perplexed Parenting Circle" for secular parents began meeting in New York City. If you are planning to start a group of your own, you are in good company and have a number of existing groups to use as models.
First, determine what purpose or purposes you are hoping that the group will serve. Are you interested in finding other secular parents to share advice and ideas? Are you looking to help your kids connect with other kids from a similar background? Are there topics like ethics that you want your kids to learn about in groups larger than the family?
Deciding on the purpose of the group and stating that purpose up front is a crucial foundation for long-term success. The purpose can certainly evolve over time, but it's important to begin on the same page.
If you are looking for a playgroup for your kids with likeminded families, and some fellow secular parents to get to know and swap ideas with, you might be best served by creating something informal. Planning and organizing a more formal group can be burdensome and unnecessary if your goals are that simple.
The online secular parenting communities in the resources section often allow people to list their city or state and provide a way to send targeted or private messages. Find some secular parents who live in your area and have kids of similar ages and suggest going to a local museum, zoo, swimming pool, park, or other nearby attraction for families. Meet the parents and kids, and if things go well, suggest a regular every-other Saturday outing, or a weekly rotating playdate/parent get-together. No need to complicate your life by creating a website, doing promotions, and creating an organization with officers and budget in this case.
If, on the other hand, your goals are to create a group that has more formal educational outcomes—like teaching ethics, critical thinking, comparative religions, freethought history, scientific inquiry, etc.—then you may indeed want and need the group to be more formalized. You'll probably be crafting some lesson plans and buying supplies for lessons, so you want to know how many kids are coming ahead of time. You may need to work with a more specific age group, and if you're going through this effort, you may want to promote your group to the broader community.
This is a great goal, but it's best to start small and build your program and activities over time. Start with meeting other interested parents and kids through outings or playdates, and get to know the other parents. Find out if they are interested in working on a "freethought Sunday school" project and how they would envision such a thing. Get a sense of how much time your fellow parents can commit to the project, and what their areas of expertise are. It's important to spread out the work of running the program to avoid burning yourselves out and so that other families are invested in the program and don't take your hard work for granted.
As your group grows, remember to keep in mind why you started the group in the first place. Don't let organizing and planning the group get in the way of the real purpose—creating a community for your family. The educational activities should be fun, not something the kids dread and have to be coerced and cajoled into attending. The group should provide parents with support and ideas rather than being a burden to plan that overshadows the benefits.
Check out the Activities section for some activities that are good for larger groups of kids. Look in the Resources sections for freethought curriculum ideas.
Q: We don't have any local groups in our area (or the local groups in our area don't fit in our schedule or work for our family), and I just don't have the time to start a new group. What are our options?
A: Even if you don't have a local group in your area there are still several ways for you to find a freethinking community for your family.
There are online resources for freethinking families—Parenting Beyond Belief has a website (www.ParentingBeyondBelief.com) with a forum in which parents can talk about secular parenting issues, swap stories, get ideas, and find support.
The Ethical Society Without Walls (www.eswow.org) and the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship (http://clf.uua.org) have religious education materials that you can use with your family. (Remember that for Ethical Culture and UU groups "religious education" is worlds away from "bible study.") The Institute for Humanist Studies has a website section on parenting (www .humaniststudies.org/parenting/) with resources of interest to humanist and freethinking parents.
There may also be groups in your local community that aren't explicitly nontheist but share your tolerant values and are welcoming to freethinking families. Look around for groups that lead kids' science activities or have programs for kids who are intellectually curious and/or gifted, or volunteer opportunities for families. A welcoming group focused on compassion, creativity, and critical thinking is a great place for your family no matter the religious or nonreligious preferences of most members. In fact, this kind of environment may be the best place for kids to explore a variety of worldviews in a non-indoctrinating setting.
Annual conferences, retreats, and summer camps can also expose your kids to a community of freethinkers. Although these options don't give you a local community to meet with regularly throughout the year, they can supplement what's available in your area. Camp Quest offers week-long summer camp programs in several locations around North America.
A few organizations offer conferences specifically aimed at youth: The American Ethical Union offers youth conferences for middle school, high school, and college-aged kids. The Secular Student Alliance (www.secularstudents .org) offers conferences aimed primarily at college students, although some high school students participate as well.
Some informal family camping opportunities and other retreats are also springing up in some areas. Check out the Lake Hypatia event hosted by the Alabama Freethought Association and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org/lakehypatia/) every year over the July 4th weekend for a fun freethought event that is combination conference and campout. It includes some whimsical events like the annual Atheists vs. Agnostics Softball Game.
Q: Is it really that important for children to know other freethinking families, or will the influence of our family be enough exposure to freethought ideas?
A: While I'm sure your kids will turn out just fine either way, a community of freethinking families can help in some very important ways.
As Bobbie Kirkhart explains in Parenting Beyond Belief, while a lot of free-thinking adults may tend not to be "joiners," kids are often looking for ways to belong. Most of your kids' friends will be members of a church or other religious group with their families, and your child may feel like he or she is missing out. There is also the possibility that kids without the context of a community of shared values will find ways to belong, one way or another, and may end up in "communities" built around risky behaviors.
Kids learn a lot from each other, and it is important that they have people their own age who they can talk to about their worldview and their ideas. These don't necessarily all have to be kids from freethinking families—in fact, it's best if they can share ideas with kids from a variety of perspectives. I remember having great conversations with my friends about all sorts of questions re lated to religion. Even though most of my friends had Christian parents, they were trying to figure out what they thought about the world, just like I was. (Of course, sometimes their parents were not thrilled when they found out about such discussions.)
Most freethinking families seek a community with similar values not to cut their children off from other points of view but to reinforce the ethical lessons they are trying to impart at home. While there is a lot you can do to teach values like compassion and critical thinking in the home, kids inevitably compare their families to other families they know. It lends your teaching credibility if your kids know other families who share a similar worldview and discuss the same issues.
One more reason to find a freethought community beyond the family: Depending on where you live, your family's beliefs may be controversial among the parents of your children's schoolmates and peers. Some children from free-thinking families are singled out for harassment at school, told they are untrustworthy, evil, or damned to hell. Coaches, teachers, or activity leaders have been known to punish children who don't participate in a team prayer or religious activity that "everyone else" is doing. For kids facing prejudices or bullying because of their beliefs, it is especially important to have a network of other freethinkers in their lives. Knowing that there are others like them and their families can help kids understand that they aren't alone and serve as a source of support as they seek to stand up for their beliefs and educate their classmates about who they are and what they think.
Q: Boy Scouting was a great community for me growing up, but they seem to have taken an intolerant turn in recent years. Can you tell me exactly what the BSA's policy is regarding religion? Are atheists actively prohibited, or is it a "don't ask, don't tell" policy?
A: The most accurate way to phrase the policy is that religious belief is required. If atheists were prohibited, an "unlabeled" child would be permitted. But the Boy Scouts organization requires the declaration of religious belief. From the BSA's Declaration of Religious Principle:
The BSA maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.
The Scout Oath also begins with "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country."
So no, it is not passive. A Boy Scout is required to actively and repeatedly affirm belief in God.
Q: But all of my son's friends are joining Scouts, and he wants to sign up. Should I let him join?
A: This is essentially an ethical question, one you can and should discuss with your son. But since the issue often arises at the age of 8, it will ultimately be up to you as parents to decide.
The Boy Scouts of America has a national policy that bans atheists (and gays) from membership. Certain troops may not enforce the policy, but (as noted above) members must repeatedly affirm religious belief in the Scout Oath. Scouts who do not believe—and note that this includes "unlabeled" children, who have not yet decided the question of belief—must lie when speaking the Oath, unless their troop leader is willing to let them modify the Oath. We'll call that Ethical Issue number one.
The second ethical issue: Such a policy, if enforced, demands that children take a religious stand—something directly opposed to the "best practice" of leaving children free of labels.
Third issue: Membership in an organization implies a certain level of endorsement of the group's policies. Some feel that being a Boy Scout (or allowing your son to join) lends some support and credence to discrimination based on religious belief and sexual orientation.
This doesn't add up to a slam dunk decision. Different parents can reasonably come to different conclusions about whether to join. If you are unsure of your decision, talk with the local troop leader who would be working with your son. Explain your concerns and see how he or she reacts. Look over the materials that your son would be using and see if the troop leader is willing to let your son say modified versions of oaths that mention God and do modified activities for merit badges that have a religious component if they make you uncomfortable. Let the troop leader know that you are committed to letting your son make his own decisions about religious ideas as he grows up, but you don't want him to be in an environment where he is taught (implicitly or explicitly) that nonreligious people are lacking in moral values or are somehow morally inferior to religious people.
Talk with your son as well. Let him know about the policy and see what he thinks. The attractions of joining will generally outweigh an ethical argument at this age. If he still wants to join after your discussion, and you agree, let him know that he should keep thinking about it while a member. Make sure that he knows he is not required to participate in oaths or activities that he disagrees with and that he can always talk to you about any problems that arise. And if you are not comfortable letting your son join, explain why and help him seek out other activities.
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