- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2008

When is a Sunday school not your typical Sunday school? When it is a secular Sunday school.

In May, the American Humanist Association began a campaign to educate children of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers by creating specialized curricula. Apparently, parents who want to teach their kids to question God must be intentional about it.

“Do not let theists tell you that faith in God is necessary or natural. Separating myth from reality is more fundamental,” says Peter Bishop, who teaches middle grades at the Humanist Community of Silicon Valley Sunday school in Palo Alto, Calif. “Educate yourself about humanism so you are proud of what you are teaching your kids.”

Mr. Bishop teaches philosophy to sixth-graders and older, explaining concepts of pragmatism and utilitarianism. Laissez-faire parents who teach their children nothing on the premise their offspring can choose a religion when they get older do kids a disservice, he says.

“We don’t teach multiplication, gravity or quantum mechanics that way,” he adds. “Late elementary and junior high school is when kids are starting to form philosophical ideas - why are things good, what is meaning?”

Children can be taught the scientific method, critical thinking and values such as diversity and humane ideals without resorting to a deity, said Bob Bhaerman, education coordinator for the Kochhar Humanist Education Center in Ohio.

In fact, they might find unbelief more natural.

Raised as a non-practicing Jew, “I was a vacuum,” he said. When he attended his first Ethical Society meeting in New York, “I finally found a place where I could breathe.”

There is not much out there in terms of a humanist Sunday school curriculum.

Sharon Appelquist, the office administrator for the Golden Rule for the Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago, has penned a children’s version of the widely known “Eight Commitments of Ethical Humanism,” the first being “I can help make the world more ethical.”

Her Sunday school is working on number two this fall, which says “I accept responsibility for my choices and actions.”

“We focus on discussion-based moral education for kids that is not based on a belief and a god,” she says. “We do teach about various world religions in a way that will let kids come to their own conclusions.”

In this system, the individual, not God, is the authority.

“We work to draw the answers out of them instead of saying, ‘Here is a Bible story and here’s a lesson on why you do or do not do this,’ ” she says. “We teach them to do the right thing based on how you feel yourself.”

But what if that moral compass is off? Don’t children’s minds need to be informed by absolutes?

Not really, she said. “Children have a strong sense of right and wrong and they want to discuss it.” She pointed to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” taken from the Sermon on the Mount.

Ms. Appelquist prefers Ethical Society founder Felix Adler’s maxim, “Act so as to elicit the best from others and thereby yourself.”

She adds, “Kids pick up lots of stuff quickly and go along with the program, whether it’s respecting the Earth or recycling. We tell kids they are free to question and they have the capacity to find the answers.”

• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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