Sunday morning at a community center in a suburb of Portland, OR. A group of children, ages 4 to 12, sit in a half circle, eyes wide, mouths ajar, staring at the man in front of them. He performs a magic trick as part of today’s Rational Sunday School activity, “Magic and Illusions”. Mike Mitchell, founder of Rational Sunday School, parent of two young-ons, and magician for a day has just captured a ghost inside a napkin. He invites the children to touch the napkin and feel for themselves. Unfortunately the ghost “collapses”, the children break into uncontrollable laughter, and Mike wipes his forehead.
Today’s meeting is much more work than usual. The twice a month meetings are generally split into two groups, “The Little Ones” and “Tween Talk”. Mike has spent hours researching, watching magic videos, and practicing his tricks at home. After each trick Mike explains to the kids, how it worked and why. The “Oooohs” and “Aaaahs” confirm the class is a success, and the children thank their magician cheerfully before running off for free play time.
Rational Sunday School, as the Sunday morning childrens’ activity for children of atheists/humanists is called in Portland, is not a particularly new movement among humanists in the US. As a matter of fact, The Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island has had a Children’s Ethics Program in place since the 1960’s. The group meets each week as part of the Ethical Society’s Sunday Platform, with children between the ages of 5 and 13. Sharon Stanley, the Children’s Ethics Program Director says, “Our themes encompass Ethical Culture history and themes, Comparative Religion, Current Events, Social Action projects, and the 6 Pillars of Character.”
In addition to Sunday morning activities the Society offers field trips to [… other places of worship], including a Mosque and a church, making sandwiches at a local soup kitchen, bowling, game nights, and other fun trips. “I think the children who attend an ethical children’s Sunday program discuss ideas and participate in activities they will never have in school, and might never participate in in their regular lives,” says Sharon Stanley, and adds, “[The teenagers are] smart, self-assured, honest and totally involved with the issues and politics of the day.”
Portland and Long Island are not the only places in the country with such groups in place. Albuquerque, NM, Palo Alto, CA, and Chicago, IL offer similar programs, and their success shows. The Palo Alto Humanist Society has offered Sunday School off and on since the early 80’s and has been quite popular for several years. While the younger group has no over-riding curriculum and activities are led by a different person each week, Peter Bishop, one of the founders of the Palo Alto Sunday School, has written a textbook for the older “Humanist Philosophy Class”. “[…] Humanism is a living, breathing, way of life, not just some dry, irrelevant set of ideas,” says Mr. Bishop.
The Palo Alto Humanist Community has been featured in Time Magazine in November of 2007, and in March of 2008 the ABC News “Nightline” did a segment of Faith Matters on their Sunday School and their entire community.
The Humanist Society of New Mexico has a very new program in place, currently for children, ages 4 to 9. Jeff Cornelius, leader of the family co-op states, “We have decided to focus on five key areas that we see as critical humanist education. These areas are based in part on the philosophy expressed in the book Parenting Beyond Belief. They are Religious Literacy, Ethics, Personal Responsibility, Critical Thinking, and Experimental Science.”
In this group, involved parents are responsible for the planning of the activities. “Normally we start with a story and then sing some songs. The children are spontaneous in their reactions to the characters and story topics. Then we have a snack time and let the kids run around a little […]. We conclude with a science experiment, which always lights up their faces with surprise and questions,” says Jeff proudly.
Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief agrees with this approach to teaching children. “I would try to blow their minds […] – to simply get them to say WOW and mean it. Why go looking for mythic sources of amazement, when the real world is so accommodating,” says Mr. McGowan, who has one entire chapter in his book dedicated to “Seeking Community”. When asked what a rational children’s program ideally should look like, Mr. McGowan stated, “It should, first and foremost, be human and humane – fun and emotionally satisfying. Critical inquiry would be part of it, although I wouldn’t call it that, or anything like it. I’d call it “Asking Great Questions”. It should be wonder-based, not framed like some noble Arthurian Quest for Truth. There would be no weird black-and-white head shots of famous freethinkers around the room. I would want critical thinking activities to never exceed a one-to-one ratio with activities exploring empathy and ethics. And both should be further complemented with pointless fun.”
Atheists, humanists, agnostics, nonbelievers, whatever you’d like to refer to yourself, you’ve learned that you are not alone. As a matter of fact, according to different studies the number of non-theists in the US ranges anywhere between 10 and 18% of the adult population with the highest occurrence of nonbelievers in the youngest age brackets. Nonbelievers have always “been around”, but it has become easier in recent years to admit to one’s own atheism, when asked the infamous “Which church do you go to” question. What remains a problem is to find the kind of community religious people in this country have available to them, simply by belonging to a church, mosque, synagogue etc. Nonbelievers, like their religious peers, generally like to surround themselves with like-minded people, to be loved and understood, to discuss issues of everyday life, politics, faith, and of course to provide the same sense of community to their children.
If you are lucky enough to live anywhere near the above mentioned groups, congratulations. A simple phone call or e-mail will get you in touch with the responsible person, and you are good to go. Of course the majority of readers cannot count on the existence of such a group. Fortunately the resources are plentiful, and with just a little bit of ambition and passion, you can get your own group started. The following are 10 steps to a successful Sunday School/community in your neck of the woods.
1.Use a search engine to locate possible Humanist chapters in your area. A good place to start is the AHA (American Humanist Association). If you find a chapter, great. If no Sunday School exists yet, suggest to get one started and find out how many families with children might be interested.
Or try your luck on www.meetup.com and www.yahoogroups.com for groups of atheists/non-theists/humanists. Or start your own. It takes only a few minutes.
2.Advertise on www.craigslist.org, in local newspapers, in supermarkets. Post flyers in stores, community centers, libraries and other public places. Creating an e-mail address for that purpose is a good idea. No need to announce your true identity to the world quite yet.
3.With as little as three or four families you are good to go. Have your first brainstorming meeting, or, if you already have a whole set of great ideas, present them to your group. You can meet at a coffee shop, a restaurant or the library, or if you’re comfortable enough, meet at your house. Don’t leave the meeting without a few answers. a) When is the first Sunday School going to happen? b) Where? c) Ideas for subjects to be covered.
4.Have your first Sunday School activity at your house, a park, a coffee shop. This can be as simple as story time and a few songs. (See sidebar for more ideas and resources.) Plan the next activity and ask for volunteers to lead it.
5.Ask your “members” for mouth-to-mouth promotion of your group.
6.After several weeks or even a couple of months have another meeting with parents. Brainstorm new ideas. Ask for feedback, and don’t be afraid to ask for volunteers to step up to the plate and lead activities. Come up with a creed or adopt one from the chapters mentioned in this article. Decide whether you’d like to follow a set curriculum or take the “wing it” approach.
7.Try to meet a couple of times a month (later more often) to get the children acquainted and comfortable with each other. Field trips, play dates, and museum visits are always great ideas for socializing.
8.Parents Night Out!
9.Find a place for our activities. Some libraries and community centers will let you rent their rooms for free (although some will require you to be a registered club) or for a small fee. Agree on a “membership fee” to pay for room rentals, material fees etc.
10.Once your group grows, decide whether you’d like to stay a private group or join an organization like the AHA, which will help when you try to add more structure to your program.
Whatever your goal or vision, it doesn’t take too much of an effort to find like-minded people for your cause. As Mr. McGowan pointed out, “It’s easy to perpetuate the false notion that we are a shrinking minority at risk of being snuffed out by an aggressive religious majority.”
It is important to know that “Rational Sunday School” has not been created to teach anti-religion. Religion bashing is not taught in any of these groups. The picture of bitter atheist/agnostic is not one that should be conveyed to the next generation. The real task is to raise this generation with a true understanding of who they are, why others may be different, and that it is okay that way. And to say it with Dale McGowan’s wise words, “I want to know about the world, because it is so cool, and because I’m so incredibly lucky to have ended up a conscious thing in the midst of it.”