Yes, We Can Teach Values without God

By Kathy Ivey, March 7, 2010

Children, our most valuable resource, absorb ethical, moral and spiritual values from the adults around them. One wonders, then, how children of atheists and agnostics fare in this realm, given the prevalent (and, I think, incorrect) view that an ethical life is not possible without a belief in god.

Having taught both high school and college at public schools in Wisconsin and Arizona, I draw on my own experiences for this discussion.

Consider some characteristics one observes in children with differing socio-economic statuses, religiosity of family life and cultural inheritance. Most youths, to varying degrees, exhibit a sense of fairness, an ability to share and the idea that generosity benefits all of society.

From a very young age, children understand the concept of fairness. They also understand a good deal about math. Try to give two 3-year-olds a different number of cookies if you are dubious on this point. While the sharing concept develops around ages 5 or 6, very early on our children know if they are being treated unfairly. We can teach the concept of sharing; indeed it is one of many important tasks of parents and teachers to do so. Through the use of stories, role-playing and real life experience, our children learn that sharing is pleasant, rewarding and self-serving. If one is known for sharing, others are more likely to reciprocate in kind.

Beyond fairness within one’s family and community, children will readily see the benefit of sharing with those less fortunate. They observe and participate in food drives, whether through their schools, churches, sports activities or some other venue. Many food drives are secular in nature, dependent upon one’s sense of need and fairness. Certainly many people give to the needy based on a religious belief. However. that belief is not a necessary condition for generosity, and many find that generosity is fulfilling in and of itself. One of the most generous people I have known was my own late father, an atheist skeptical of the benefit to the world of any organized religion. He taught me to share, to be generous, to be concerned about the welfare of others, and to do good deeds in this world even without the promise of a heavenly reward. Both in word and deed, he helped me see the inherent goodness in all of us.

In the religious education classes at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse that I now serve, our youth learn to lead ethical lives through discussion, role-playing, research, and attention to the ideals of the experienced and the scholarly. They are taught the main ideas of many world religions but are not asked to adopt as their own any specific creed or dogma. Nor do we ask them to believe in god. We give them the tools to make their own decision about the specifics of religion. We nurture their spiritual lives, from the very youngest right through to the eldest among us. We help them understand the history of the Unitarians and Universalists who were major thinkers and writers of the great period of enlightenment upon which our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are based.

From this heritage, from the examples of the adults in their lives, and from their own experiences, our children develop belief systems that may or may not include the existence of a supreme, omniscient being.

Even before those first magnificent photos of Earth taken from space, people of good will were certain of the interconnectedness of humanity with the natural world. The good of the community has been seen as both generous and self-serving, from early times. Surely we can teach our youth that living in a fair, just, peaceful world is far superior to living in a world of strife that benefits the few over the many. We can do so within the structure of Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any religious belief, but we can also do so in the context that the belief in the existence of a god is not a necessary condition for being a moral, ethical person.

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